Take the Power Forward (Series: How To Respond to A World on Fire)

The Activist Platform
How To Respond To A World On Fire: Take The Power Forward
Author: A. Hannah Spadafora

Power is defined variously as the “ability to exercise one’s will over others[i] (disturbing) or the ability to transform a given situation (more inspiringly). The Activist Platform advocates for the equalizing and inspiring latter definition highlighting necessary social, economic, political, and personal transformation as essential catalysts to enact reform and revolutionary based community change. This contrast between a domination model of power with a transformative model of power is demonstrated in the ways power is acted out. Social, economic, and political empowerment can maintain unfair status quo--or recreate human organization based on values of equality and equity. Good activism chooses people over profits, politicians, and popularity; wisdom over excessive wealth, empty rhetoric, and inequality; and empathy over unfair policy, depleted kindness, and bigoted practice. It doesn’t require taking the power back, as much as I love Rage Against the Machine, as if those who have been oppressed ever had it in all three dimensions at once before. Instead, it requires taking the power forward. Moving forward means rebuilding our world, and checking ourselves when it comes to our definitions, judgments, policies, social organizations, and our practices. It requires we know what power is made of, how it operates, and how it affects people caught in the webs spun. It also requires an increased consideration by individuals with privilege on what being powerless is like.

To this end, social empowerment bestows status—expertise, prestige, fame, admiration, love, or other role of significance instilled with community respect and informal/unenforceable but effective sway on public discussions. Economic empowerment grants access to resources and opportunities that allow people to pursue fulfilment, achieve goals, own property, contribute to community support, invest in opportunities, help personal networks, support civic causes, enjoy material comforts, and enact change in the world. Political empowerment is direct or representational influence over decisions in formal, collectively recognized social networks. This threefold sculpture of power looks differently whether dirt is piled together into a pyramid (hierarchy) or distributed evenly across an even playing field (horizontalism).

Social power thus depends on community respect. Community respect for individualism often relates to tolerance, acceptance, and rejection of bigotry. We have yet to see a dictatorship--or wannabe dictatorship--that didn’t gain power by successfully scapegoating and marginalizing a group of human beings they perceived as weak or easy targets due to previous prejudice. This denies group respect and dignity, and makes it more likely they will suffer harassment, violence, both political and personal targeting, and discrimination that leads to less selection of housing and employment, higher poverty, and more psychosocial stressors as obstacles to living a meaningful, fulfilling, and equally decent life to others with social power. Pyramids support bullying; properly cleared fields support campfires.

Economic power, in contrast, depends on resource access. Resource distribution relates to who and what we value—do we value people with money over people without money? In relation to the social dimensions of that question, do we value people who have health care, education, better jobs, higher quality stuff, and more influential social networks over those who don’t—even in subtle ways as we value the abled over the disabled; productive workers, active social participants, and those with ever-clean houses over those who struggle to balance life; as we trust those with credentials in organizational positions or social networks more than those who find themselves stuck at the ground level; keep inviting those who have more freedom of schedule, health strength, and work flexibility over those who miss events because work and health and deadline goals take so much out of survivors; and are wooed by those who can throw money around to enjoy life, to throw parties/events for others, and to bestow gifts?

In our relationship to material dimensions of the question of what we value—do we value a small percent of rich individuals hoarding money and possessions while others have difficulties affording food, health, education, housing, and opportunity? Do we only give humans value if they can be productive under the terms a boss sets? Do we set limits on our empathy—only people who earn respect get it, only people who earn money have the right to eat, to be housed, to be educated, to be healthy? Only people with the most severe and visible mental or physical health disabilities—only people literally at the stage of being mentally incapable of making decisions or physically needing wheelchairs at all times to move about—being deserving of empathy to difficult plights, while we tell others their pain doesn’t matter, only their net worth and if they can work like a machine? Or do we say that there should be limits on wealth, that the social status of billionaire is disgusting in a world where people starve, that no one needs 5 houses and two yachts while anyone is homeless, scrubbing floors for minimum wage, or underpaid for civil service, noble, and/or hardworking professions? Do we call upon our empathy to fund compassion over war, or do we cling to destructiveness over social support for our communities?

In the political sphere, access to resources presently generally offers greater access to public office positions. Not only does it make it more likely someone running will have a shot at nomination or winning, but individuals with political power also have their economic power protected by an arguably sometimes excessive compensation, especially when such a high income is granted even after having left office in a world where company loyalty in the form of continual residuals for most workers who commit significant time to a company, especially on the ground level, doesn’t exist for most working class people. Even outside direct political appointment, political campaigns and lobbyist influence requires economic access to a lot of capital. Each of these dimensions of power supports the other, and usually ends up in inequality for all three dimensions when resources, respect, and power are hoarded at the top.

Political power is one type of social power but with both influence and access to the ability to enact (or seriously propose) control measures. To have political power is to participate in government or hold other influence on the rules, laws, and decisions made on community practice—or that one’s vote counts/impacts leadership elections. Political figures influence their followers, or find their fanbase. They're either talking to something that motivates their listeners, opening their eyes, or driving them to action (voting or otherwise)-- or they are talking to something their listeners already believe in, becoming the representation people wish for--or something close enough, that people can live with, at least. The social power of politicians pales in comparison to the effective decision wielding access, however, both have impact that can significantly shape reality. It’s terrifying seeing what people can live with, and what happens when irresponsible and/or hateful leaders influence (or find an audience with) violently enthusiastic terrorists who hold them in esteem.

As a scholar and activist with a long history of varied life and work experiences, the latter being in and out of professional and working class positions, I am grateful to have a wide range of contacts across social and economic lines, and sometimes with very different political leanings than myself. That being said, I find anthropology’s investigation into power to be comprehensive, holistic, and itself an influence on my firm position that equity and equality across economic, social, and political lines needs to be equitably arranged—and, notably, something that benefits the interests of many who may not recognize it's value.

In Modern Crisis and Scientific Confrontation: A Framework to Save The World, borders are set out for discussing contemporary problems through the lens of a scientific and analytic model utilized by biological anthropologists to examine human adaptations (as a result of both evolutionary and social-cultural processes.) With this problem-solve model, readers can become familiarized with identifying stressors that threaten human existence, fulfillment, and safety/security needs (‘selective pressures’), and the specific adaptations sparked in animal response to environmental cues. This first feature was very textbook (used here as an adjective), being a crossover feature with The Shared Classroom, a column specifically for teachers to share class activities, lessons, and specialist information tied to classroom activities to a wider public audience. This is part of a greater goal at The Conscious World to prioritize the connection of researchers to the public, from the political to the personal, and from knowledge and empathy to informed and compassionate policy and practice.

This follow up series of articles presented in The Activist Platform and relevant crossover sections—How to Respond to A World on Fire—offer a closer look at specific collective and behavioral adaptations people across the world are putting into play to deal with the selective pressures threatening human existence today. It is through taking the power forward in these three dimensions of social, economic, and political input that we can respond, however—as an act of successful collective adaptation—to the stressors harming us as a united working and caring class. We will explore ideas and examples on how to collectively shift power in upcoming articles in the How to Respond to A World on Fire series hosted on The Activist Platform column.

The Activist Platform: How To Respond To A World On Fire (series)

Hannah Spadafora is the founder and editor of The Conscious World, and a researcher currently focused on economic anthropology, public policy, and social change (see: The Meaningful Work Project.) Trained as an applied/social-cultural anthropologist (M.A.) with a heavy background in social political philosophy (B.A.), comparative religion (B.A.), English (minor), psychology (minor), and journalism/mass media (HS), secondary scholarship and teaching interests include history, bioanthropology, critical theory, cyborg anthropology, cognitive philosophy, and identity studies. Additional work experience includes research, teaching, tutoring, writing, non-profit, office, sales, service industry (retail, restaurant), graduate, and editorial assistant roles. Writing projects in the works involve manuscripts for visual anthropology and public performance, an editorial overview of the benefits of applying Buddhist and Anthropological ethics to public policy and social practice, a fantasy/sci-fi influenced dystopian novel series, and a more informal funny/self-help centered book, How to Fail at Buddhism.  These are written around remote jobs that pay the most basic of bills, but not the soul. An Idealist to the end, clearly. 

[i] Anthropology, Appreciating Human Diversity. Kottak 2016.

Article: Take The Power Forward

Series: How To Respond To A World On Fire Column: The Activist Platform

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