What is power and who should have it?

I was recently invited to give a presentation on what power is, and who should have it. This a write up of my notes.

What is power?

Traditionally power would be seen as rather hierarchical, exclusive or elitist. The word has a binary dimension; to be powerful is not to be powerless.

But this is just one example of what power is. Today politicians, employers and academics talk about the benefits of empowerment.

Who do they think should be empowered? Frontline workers such as social workers or nurses should be more empowered, because when they are, production tends to be increased, they have a sense of ownership over their role, they tend to stay in the role for longer, ensuring consistency, while it promotes mental wellbeing.

On this, there are many crossovers between the political left and right today. The link between sense of purpose through ownership and empowerment can be seen as important from the right, in say the think-tank Respublica, to the centre and liberal left, from The Work Foundation to Compass.

On the question of whether empowerment is beneficial is almost a subject of political consensus.

Who else should feel empowered? Citizens need to feel empowered; at a local level citizens need to feel their voice is being heard on issues that directly relate to them. They need to feel consulted with on relatively minor things like on an installation of a new park bench, to something larger such as the planning permission of a block of flats.

The same goes for citizens at a national level; voices need to be heard via referendum, be that for membership to the European Union through to the voting system. This is a radical cultural change; no decision should be too small at a local level, nor too big at a national one.

Though on the question of power, is it something to be bestowed upon the people from the top, or is it something that can be created by the people themselves? Is empowerment top down or bottom up? The freedom of information act is a good example of where government has acted and allowed citizens to gain access to information we once had no right to. Is that empowerment? In a way this knowledge is empowering, but it’s nothing if we just leave it there. Empowerment comes from what we do with that information, and how we use it to instigate change.

What is citizen empowerment?

So if this is what empowerment is in general, what is citizen empowerment specifically? It’s about having input into decision making. In 2006, when David Miliband was Minister for Local Government, he talked about the “double devolution of power” from Whitehall to the town hall, from the town hall to the neighbourhood. Today more than ever, we have the ability to take that a stage further – the triple devolution of power – from Whitehall, to the town hall, then to the neighbourhood to our online communities. Already the internet has created a space for citizens to be more powerful.

The reason for this is that the internet can harness unique forms of social contact; it’s now the task of people, politicians and organisations to promote this social contact as a way to influence change at both local and national levels.

In a Demos report published in 2006 entitled “Talk us into it: putting conversation at the heart of public realm,” Samuel Jones discusses two interesting statistics; the first being the English average for how many people an individual knows in their street which is 14, whereas for Scotland that figure is 31. The second is the English average for how many people can name a local councillor which is 42, whereas for Scotland that figure is 59. The conclusion Jones has come to is there seems to be parity between knowing people in the local area and knowing who to influence in order to bring about change to that area.

The other conclusion is that the national average is quite low and could be higher, and if it were communities could be more empowered.

For this purpose, is the information highway empowering? Henry Jenkins in his book Convergence Culture, notes that the technological age could produce the “monitorial citizen” by which is meant one who becomes, not enlightened through mass information, but bombarded by conflicted versions of the truth. I take a different view; mass information seems to be far more deliberative in that it encourages people to discuss and work out solutions with a whole range of information. Jenkins’ citizen sounds rather robotic believing everything she or he reads; the reality is information promotes nuanced opinion.

Can social media be empowering? I think it already is – in a way which cannot be ignored. An example of this happened to me last Thursday. I was walking from work to go to Holborn, in Central London. I just happened to look at my twitter feed only to find a few messages explaining how there had been a bomb scare and that the police were evacuating the area. I wanted to know more so I looked at the BBC website where I found nothing. I checked the Guardian website where I found nothing. Typed “Holborn” into google news to find absolutely nothing. I switched back to twitter where now many people had started to retweet more information on Holborn, this time with pictures taken from mobile phones, being tweeted and re-tweeted to their followers and their followers’ followers.

Already citizen empowerment is undercutting the traditional ways in which we receive information.

Who should have power?

In short, the answer is anybody who is affected by the decisions, services and provisions in their local area. Advocates of citizen empowerment, such as Simon Burall and Jonathan Carr-West in a 2009 report for Involve and the Local Government Information Unit, cite evidence for it’s benefits as local knowledge improving local services. It also builds links between the community and the provider, thus increasing accountability – a particular political hot potato, rendered so not least by the recent expenses scandal.

In his paper entitled Democracy Pays: How democratic engagement can cut the cost of government, Anthony Zacharzewski makes the financial case that democratic engagement of citizens can improve transparency and the accountability of where tax money goes. This would inevitably counter waste and reduce the cost local councils spend on consultancy, instead opening up decision making to the neighbourhood.

Another popular reason given is that citizen empowerment would re-enfranchise the disillusioned (such as NEET – not in education, employment or training – young people). If those on the cusp of society felt their voice heard, and they participated to the betterment of their society in a considered and meaningful way, this would hopefully return otherwise alienated people back to the communities in which they belong.

The one overarching reason that people should have power in their local communities is because it is a widely accepted, and fundamentally necessary, principle of democracy. People should not only be able to participate in making decisions related to the things around them; they should be able to frame the very terms of those debates.

To this end, and in the spirit of the times, there should be a single online access point, where people, with their local councillors and MPs, can enjoy such power.

Thank you.



Iain Dale quote of the decade (the archive)

Iain Dale ( @iaindale )likes a quote, he often has them up as blogposts where people comment in agreement.

I found a recollection of something he said at an event discussing the YouTube generation, noted in a report by the think-tank Involve. It recalled Dale urging: “politicians to “take risks” and reach out to the public through new media, citing the blog by Nadine Dorres MP as a good example” (p. 137).

The element of risk is surely a tactic of Nasty Nadine.

My attempt to protest Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky

Recently I wrote:

An anti-Semite by the name of Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky will be addressing an otherwise very respectable Mosque tonight in my local area of Kilburn.

He is the head of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), the website of which has an article clearly demonstrating the extent to which he views Jews as plotters. An article on that website details a recent seminar given by a deeply dubious character Sheikh Yusuf Ali who talks about the Zionist plot against Muslims; then clearly details Zakzaky noting “the Jewish plot against Islam is manifested in Iraq as they sent Bush to capture Iraq for them”. There is of course the obligatory reference to the “protocols”.

According to his biography on the official website of the IMN:

The goal of the Islamic movement is to enlighten the Muslims as to their duties as individuals and as a community. The movement owns more than three hundred primary/secondary schools located in different places mainly in the northern part of the country. They are known by the name of Fudiyyah Schools. This is in addition to many Islamic centers and other institutions. The movement also owns the Nigeria’s most widely circulated newspaper, Al Mizan, in the Hausa language.

It also details Zakzaky’s arrests, which the site claims were “for his ideas”.

The Jerusalem Post – one of the few publications with details of Zakzaky’s visit – mentions details of the host of the conference, the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC). They say:

The IHRC is a Hezbollah and Islamic Republic supporting organization. At an anti-Israel rally in Hyde Park during the Second Lebanon War, its chair Massoud Shadjareh wore a Hezbollah flag as did research director Reza Kazim, who was seen chanting phrases like “We are all Hezbollah” and “Bomb, bomb Tel Aviv.” At a pro- Israel rally in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2008, Kazim was ejected by the police for filming within the roped off area.

According to an article written by the Middle East Strategic Information written in 2009:

  • Zakzaky’s IMN is growing popular among impoverished Nigerian Muslims
  • He believes Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden do not exist, acts of terrorism in the west are organised by western intelligence services, and that Tony Blair was behind the 7/7 bombings
  • He claims Nigeria’s secularist leaders perform ritual sacrifices removing unborn babies from their Mother’s wombs by ripping them out
  • He believes Jews are “”dastardly infidels” and draws inspiration from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and the deceased Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin

He has been and gone now, but came almost unnoticed.

I hate to come across all Eustonite or “decent” but if Geert Wilders or Le Pen or someone dreadful like that came to our town, we’d be all over them like a rash, but with figures such as Zakzaky – who is not small beer by the way, he is the head of Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) – we give it a miss.

Some may say that Zakzaky has never committed terror himself, which is why it is not important, but this does not disprove his threat. Some may say, in his words, he does not cause terror. This is questionable, but I’m careful not to make claims I cannot substantiate. During the conference season, the Quilliam Foundation held an event on how non-violent extremism can be just as dangerous as violent extremism. Whether directly or indirectly, Zakzaky has sounded off to the tune of racial discrimination and religious violence, and this should not be sniffed at.

Some will perhaps accuse me, and have done before, of making straw man of whom to knock down. The point here is that I’m not accusing anyone of supporting Zakzaky – though there obviously are some who do – and I’m certainly not saying that in the absence of an anti-fascist picket of him, that I should therefore deduce the anti-fascists in fact support Islamic fascists. It is not true. But I have difficulty understanding why people like Zakzaky don’t wind them up to the point of protest, whereas smaller targets like David Irving, do.

Now let me quickly qualifiy this before I get myself into trouble. Of course Irving is bad news, and has dangerous ideas, but at least he is an army of one; him and maybe some idiots in the National Front or Combat 18. His words are largely ignored by the vast amount of thinking human beings, and are taken on board by a small group of twits that if they express their counterfactual opinions, land themselves in court. Zakzaky, on the other hand, is the head of a church, has many followers and is fiercely anti-Semitic – context, here, is all.

In my quest to get more airplay on Zakzaky, I wrote to three individuals/organisations that I thought could maybe help; Peter Tatchell, Hope not Hate and Unite Against Fascism.

I requested their help in numbers to picket the arrival of Zakzaky and ask questions of the mosque why they felt it responsible to invite someone with a evident history of anti-Semitism and crime.

I saw something on him at the Jerusalem Post and some bits on Harry’s Place blog here and here, as well as a cross-post on the Spittoon website, but when I read next to nothing about him in the mainstream press I wrote to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jewish Chronicle – as well as tweeting Martin Bright and Stephen Pollard – Hampstead and Highgate Express and the Kilburn Times.

The only response I got from any of these places was Peter Tatchell to tell me he was ill and had no campaign funds. Tatchell in his email recommended I contact the Board of Deputies of British Jews and contact local news sources – which I had done. It is a great credit to the man for at least writing back to me and taking my email seriously; there indeed is someone who will not allow sentimentalities affect his principles, and I can’t talk highly of him for doing so.

Tatchell’s first line said it all: “I share your anger about Mosques hosting extremist clerics and preachers. It is no better than having a right wing white racist speaking.”

There is no such thing as a “decent” left. There are leftwingers and rightwingers, with some mixing in the middle, and there are hypocrites and those who allow confused politics affect principles. I do not level this charge at anyone in particular, but in the fight against fascism in all its forms, we can’t just sit on our hands, we should be pulling our fingers out.

In the end I went down to the mosque by myself, and I was ineffective and nervous about getting on the wrong side of anyone. But were I backed up with the same level of energy certain organisations reserve for other far rightwingers, we could have told a number of people what we think about foul ideas infiltrating vulnerable communities.

Who is Marr calling bald?

Ok Mr Marr, you’ve rubbed us bloggers up the wrong way by calling us single, and living with our Mums. Fair’s fair. But bald?

Here’s what he said:

A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed, young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting. They are very angry people.

I’m a qualified blogger now, running this site, and having contributed to others such as Though Cowards Flinch, Liberal Conspiracy, The Third Estate, Open Democracy, The Disraeli Room – and I want to demonstrate how un-bald I am:

This, Mr Marr, is not bald – this is hair. Rather, this is bald:

And of course:

Ah, hang on; point taken.

The tea party movement and black conservatism

Recently Paul (Mr Cotterill to you), in the comments thread to a post of mine on conservatism and epistemic closure, said that I’d probably at some stage detail some of my thoughts on the tea party movement. That’s what I am going to do now, albeit exploring another narrative simultaneously; that of black conservatism.

Unsurprisingly, some of the sentiments and placards that stand out from the tea party movement concern Obama’s race, nationality, religious background and myths about socialistic politics – all very low politics.

Some of the intellectual backbone of the movement is provided by such media personalities as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh – who the charge “epistemic closure” had originally been levelled at by Julian Sanchez. It remains almost impossible to separate the politics of conservative epistemic closure from the tea party movement therefore.

Another thing that springs to mind is Pastor Jones and the Koran burning, and the protests over Ground Zero Mosque, which drew support from that most disturbing blogger and tea partier Pamela Geller of Atlas Shrugs.

There are 61 posts on the above blog which are categorised as Obama’s Birth Certificate Forgery – which should tell you something about the content which appears there. Indeed, the tea party has become inseparable from ad hominem attack of Obama’s nationality, evoking criticisms that at the heart of the movement is racism. Further still, reports have emerged that the English Defence League are forging links with the tea party movement, which will add much fuel to the fire of such criticisms.

But it is of little surprise to me that certain black commentators have come out to deny the movement as ultimately a racist one. The Telegraph had an article on Saturday profiling Tom Scott – who will be the first black Republican congressman from the deep south in more than a century. In it, they quote him as saying, of the tea party movement, “this whole race issue is a diversion away from the real basic platform of the Tea Party”.

The Guardian has started to host a blog by a man called Lloyd Marcus, who is referred to on his homepage as a “Tea Party singer/songwriter, entertainer and speaker” as well as being a “black conservative”.

In a blog entry published last Friday entitled “Why I am a black tea party patriot opposed to Barack Obama” – a really terrible piece – he ends by saying:

…when I hear politicians, such as Barack Obama, pandering to the so-called poor of America, it turns my stomach. I’ve witnessed the deterioration of the human spirit, wasted lives and suffering that happens when government becomes “daddy”.

What is common to both commentators, and common to what Tom Scott called “the real basic platform of the Tea Party” is a dissatisfaction of high taxes and big state. Some of the patent crap about Obamacare having a death panel, uttered in lieu of research by Sarah Palin, was piss in the wind, but the movements’ opposition to universal healthcare was predicated on the idea that universal care is somehow un-American and at odds with the principle of low spending and less government.

In fact listening to some of the members of the movement who are dubious even of the Republican’s spending, views of whom Ed Pilkinton of the Guardian recently had the privilege of interacting with (see video here), one gets the sense that at heart of the movement is a kind of socially conservative, economically fiscal conservative/libertarianism exploiting a low politics platform to reach the hearts and minds of Obama-sceptics.

Therefore I should just clarify, that simply because the movement has black members, this in itself does not prove critics wrong about race – I’m not that stupid – but that there is a little more to the tea party than that – and in fact it hasn’t phased me at all that the movement appeals to black people.

In fact, it rather reminds me of an analysis of black conservatism by the US philosopher and academic Cornel West – whose voice rose once again in light of Obama’s presidency, after saying he wanted him to be a “progressive Lincoln” so that West can be the “Frederick Douglass to put pressure on him.”

It was the opinion of West, in his 1994 book Race Matters, that black conservatism gained much traction, among other things, as a response to a crisis in black liberalism. Black conservatives, for West, seemed inclined to support freedom movements abroad – Europe, Latin America, East Asia – but were disinclined to support the freedom movement in America.

Black conservatives according to West were rather scornful of affirmative action measures, but it is his contention that the well-heeled, middle class black American conservatives were actually biting the hand which fed them. 40 years ago, he stated, 50% of black teenagers in the US had agricultural jobs, 70% of those lived in the South, many jobs disappeared due to measures curbing industrialisation, and in 1980 15% of all black men reported no yearly earnings at all to the Census Bureau while the US army at the time was almost a third black.

In the same breath as questioning why black conservatives couldn’t see the obvious racial disparity in equality of opportunity, West also pours scorn on black liberalism limiting itself to in-fighting and petite squabbling, taking its eye off of the real crisis.

West contends that many viewed black liberalism as inadequate and black conservativism unacceptable, that is until black conservatism began to appeal to a classical liberalism in what West defines as a “post-liberal society and post-modern culture”.

Such a move is not alien to us in the UK; indeed listen to any Tory cabinet minister admit at the moment how the Conservatives are more radically liberal and supportive of the poor than Labour were.

The parallels in what West is saying and the sentiments of contemporary black conservatives and members of the tea party are that not only does Obama purposefully play down his white heritage, but that he is setting back the plight of blacks in society because of it; he represents a failure in black liberal leadership (or, in the words of Timothy Johnson, co-founder of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a group that helps promote black Republican candidates, “His mother was white, his father was a person of colour but every time there’s a racial issue he plays the race card just the same as everyone else.”)

I don’t share this sentiment, but all it takes is the perception that Obama is setting black politics back, and thus arises the crisis of black leadership similar to one diagnosed by Cornel West.

In conclusion to this blog entry, which admittedly took many deviations, I will say that the tea party is marred by a pretty low level of epistemically closed politics, but that stripped down it is a PR-savvy version of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. In the process of its becoming in US politics, it will be a haven for many black people who feel, as Timothy Johnson does, that Obama is doing a disservice to black politics; this may well see a resurgence of black conservatism similar to that assessed by Cornel West – and through the same conditions too. It is incumbent upon Obama to take heed of this possibility, and counter the tactics of the tea party, not because it is racist, but precisely because it is opening itself to Obamasceptics of all stripes.

Book review: Anais Nin – A spy in the house of love

As far as the psychology of female sexuality is concerned, Jacques Lacan is often looked upon as someone who is deeply pessimistic about women being emancipated from male authority, and able to explore sex without the shadow of masculine hegemony disturbing the way.

The highest form of enjoyment for women, in Lacan’s terms, is feminine jouissance – which translates as enjoyment, but in French legalese is synonymous with ownership, such as the enjoyment or ownership of property – which designates a sexual act separate from the domain of male dominance.

But it is a tremendous task indeed to reach such enjoyment, since the burden of masculine hegemony is so deeply ingrained. As is demonstrated in Freud, the gendered subject is defined in terms of the penis; the presence or absence of it. Since the ontological becoming of a woman is engendered by a lack – usually discovered with reference to a Father, from whom “penis envy” may begin – so the paternal order remains the dominant one.

This is neither Freud nor Lacan’s wish – a charge levelled at them by such “feminist” critics as Germaine Greer – but a reality that is later proven in real life, where patriarchy is often the dominant mode of society.

This filters into sexuality for women, for whom their sexual being is defined by the patriarchal order. Nowhere is this more aptly exemplified in Anais Nin’s book “A spy in the house of love”, the fourth in her “continuous novel” Cities of the interior.

Sabina, the artistic protagonist of the story, despite her best efforts to rebel against the norms and values of her patriarchal society, by having sex with as many attractive men as she can, while her husband Alan – who she admits is more like a Father figure – thinks she is on tour acting in a production of Cinderella for weeks on end, has a constant urge to admit her guilt to a “lie detector” – a character often referred to throughout the novel as a kind of psychologist who Sabina is able to admit all her deviancies to.

The novel itself subordinates the stereotype that men are the ones able to talk freely of their sexual ventures, while for a woman to do so is something quite unwomanly (it is also rather telling that the character of Sabina, though originally set out to be based on Nin’s friend, turned out to be a self-exploration of the author herself, who confessed to indulging in many affairs at the time).

Although the reader is able to sympathise with the main character throughout the novel – no sympathy is given to Alan, who appears wearisome and dry – on her many exploits, the tragedy is revealed at the end when, on meeting the “lie detector” expecting to be arrested – much to the confusion of others, for whom it is obvious Sabina has done nothing wrong to be arrested for (no doubt a reference to her guilt, and values held by the rebellious artistic crowd she congregates with) – confesses to ignorance that her sexual exploits, rather than being love, are instead a naivety based upon seeking love.

Sabina weeps upon realising that love is not found in sexual promiscuity, but safety. And that safety, sadly, is with Alan – the paternal law. The unceasing guilt that Sabina experiences through the explanation of the “lie detector” only serves to prove that Alan as the Father figure is what Lacan refers to as in the “name of the Father” – or more succinctly, the paternal law being present even in the Father’s absence (Alan is seldom present in the text).

Furthermore, that feeling of someone watching Sabina, which she experiences throughout, realising that it is the “lie detector”, is a device showing that masculine hegemony is a constant presence; judging her on the basis of standard male prejudices of female sexuality.

Given the context, the conclusion of the novel by Nin, who is considered a renegade writer of female sexuality, undercutting those standard practices of masculine hegemony, shows that she is defeated by a false dichotomy between love and enjoyment. In fact, what ultimately defeats her is the guilt – a by-product of masculine hegemony.

It is not love she succumbs to at the end of the text, it is paternal law.

The end of the novel, which sees Sabina weeping to one of Beethoven’s quartets, is far more conservative than the conclusion of Lacan – aforementioned, seen by many as an anti-feminist. Though he admitted it was a difficult task, feminine jouissance, or sexuality which subordinates paternal law, was not impossible, and when achieved, put women at a dignified position often not enjoyed in everyday life, where gender inequality is still a reality.

Lacan, even in his pessimism, is far more feminist than Nin, considered to be a radical with her female-led erotic fiction.

Inspired by Kate Belgrave’s piece My average life as an average whore