Last week we looked together at personal power, what we mean by it and how it can be nurtured and developed. In this post, I want to introduce some key ideas around cultural power, the way our lives – and indeed our very identities – are shaped and structured by unseen forces of ideology and persuasion.
Media, profit and spin
TV plays a critical role in our communities, providing a key way for messages about our cultural norms and standards to be set and disseminated. If you analyse your local newspaper or a national website, it’s easy to see how most articles relate in one way or another to the market environment which dominates our culture today. Celebrity or sporting brands make headlines. Wars over access to carbon-rich fuels soak up the column inches and political debate is set against a background of commercial competition and market orientation. Our media environment is saturated with the commodification of key human factors such as health, education, land and labour. Much of the media output support – directly or indirectly – the view that human nature is essentially consumerist, where our fundamental qualities are those of use to the market as sellers or buyers of goods and services. (The work of David Edwards and David Cromwell and Media Lens provides a valuable commentary on this aspect of our cultural environment.)
The history of this development reaches far back into the last century and beyond. Sigmond Freud’s theories in teh early twentieth century identified the unconcious impulses of the individual as powerful, innate and universal. The governments of the US and Greeat Britain saw these findings as a threat to their plans for order and direction and the business world an opportunity to link their products to our deepest drives. Out of this combination sprang the world of public relations. (Adam Curtis has created in his documentary series The Century of the Self a fine outline of this story and its ramifications for our society today.) Today the spin doctors are constantly at work devising still more subtle and powerful ways to convince us to buy their product, be that a policy about benefit fraudstersd or a new washing powder.
Ideology and hegemony
The reality is that cultural power is often expressed through the assumptions we use in debate and conversation. It is often the shorthands of everyday speech that reveal our reliance on cultural stereotypes and norms of behaviour. In the community, recognising how some parts of the community are viewed as perhaps sinister or uncontrolled can offer insights into the ways such powerful cultural norms are playing out locally. Gramsci‘s idea of cultural hegemony is useful here. Hegemony is the domination of our culturally diverse community by one worldview – one set of beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values and assumptions. Such domination serves the agenda of the elite in our society and allows their ideology to justify the status quo as natural and inevitable. We can see this at play in many ways such as talk about scroungers vs hard working families and in focus on regime change in Iraq or Syria rather than the realities of human devastation and catastrophe.
Many organisers recognise the way our assumptions and values are manipulated but few take the time to consider how their work can help to counteract such distortions. The key to changing your perception and the powerful influence of the dominant ideology is to recognise when it as at play and stand firm for an alternative perspective. For many community leaders, the idea of taking direct action to challenge the powerful is crazy, just beyond belief. The organiser has to be clearheaded enough to help leaders see how their framwork of thinking has been created by one side and can be responded to by developing other ways of thinking and acting. Counter-hegemony might not be a term much heard in community organising but organisers are constantly opening the eyes of community members to other ways of understanding their situation, an alternaitve that take seriously the power of persuasion.
Discourse and knowledge
Every conversation we have is both embedded in and creates cultural power.We use certain frameworks of language, meaning and behaviour that contain within them certain ‘power rules’.For example, conversations about professions such as doctors or lawyers often give implicit authority to the words and intentions of the professional and as a consequence, create for them a privileged position. ‘Doctor’s orders’ is a useful example of the way one person’s ideas – in this case the doctor’s – are given power through the nature of language itself, through ‘discourse’. Such privileged status is given men in patriarchal cultures and to white people in racism societies. As we know, brought up in such settings, we all embue the assumptions of our surroundings and reproduce those power dynamics in our lives. In this way, Foucault argues discourse actually constructs reality, generates power and status for some and discrimination and marginalisation for others. Our communities are shaped by those issues and concerns that are normal, natural and acceptable and by those which are – most importantly – abnormal, unnatural and unacceptable.
They say that ‘knowledge is power’ and this is undoubtedly true. But of course knowledge is developed in ‘discourse’ – not just esoteric academic debates but everyday discussion – and such conversations are sites of power themselves. It may feel very different from our side but a knowledge of community organising gives us a certain power, perhaps not to command or direct but certainly to guide and suggest. We use words and phrases that have meaning for us (perhaps not for community members!) and are part of a wider network who share those ways of speaking. We ask questions and raise issues because of our privileged knowledge that others in the community might not. And we give emphasis to certain themes or topics over others because of our role. So even in community organising, our power creates knowledge for others and gives us knowledge that others can’t share. Cultural power offers a distinctly different view of how ‘knowledge / power’ works and can help us to be much more aware of our words and actions.
For many these issues of cultural power are answered by the oversimplification of ‘political correctness’. Understanding how power, hegemony and language relate and the impact they have on ordinary people’s opportunties, prospects and circumstances can give a fundamentally different perspective to our practice as organisers. Simple deleting certain terms from our vocabulary does nothing to undo the powerful influence of the elite’s ideology on all aspects of our lives. Reflecting on your experience of cultural power, here are a few quesitons to stimulate your thinking:
- How does the commercial power of TV, media and advertising influence your work? When are you most influenced to believe in a new ‘product’?
- Can you think of examples of hegemony at work in your community? Who is regarded as ‘out’ and who is ‘in’?
- When do you see your knowledge as an organiser most impacting your power in your community? How can you use that power well?
- Who are the most powerful cultural models for you? Who provides you with your dominant ideas of beauty, courage, dedication or pride?
Next time: Power is often most easily recognised when concentrated in a few privileged hands. Our society works because a few have structural power to command the agreement and cooperation of millions. But structural power is also most easily identified with the ‘dark side’ of power, the power to coerce, to wage war, to persecute. How do we understand structural power and its role in our communities?
Mark Haugaard (ed) (2002) Power – a Reader Manchester University Press
Margaret Ledwith (2011) Community Development: A critical approach (Second Edition) Policy Press
Adam Curtis (2002) The Century of the Self BBC Award-winning documentary series ‘about how those in power used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.’ Available to stream and download at http://achieve.org/details/AdamCurtis-TheCenturyOfTheSelf – highly recommended
David Cromwell (2012) Why are we the Good Guys?: Reclaiming Your Mind from the Delusions of Propaganda Zero Books
Roger Hopkins (2013) Empowering Education – Educating for Community Development: A Critical Study of Methods, Theories and Values John Hunt Publishing
Antonio Gramsci (2000) A Gramsci Reader Lawrence and Wishart Ltd
Gary Gutting (2005) Foucault: A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press