I recently finished John Gaventa’s Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley.
The book is an in depth case study of one coal mining community. Gaventa documents how people had their land taken out from under them over 100 years ago by a huge, multinational company. He details the development of power structures separating the working poor, the local elite, and the absentee Company.
He illustrates how the very institutions intended to protect and support “the people” were turned against them: how Company power over workers’ jobs, home, and welfare led to power over their private ballots. How the union became so corrupted its leaders turned to murder rather than suffer a challenger who was slightly more populist. How those in power took both significant and subtle actions to maintain power, while those without power learned better than to even think of questioning authority.
Gaventa, who for years led the Highlander Center, sums up his study eloquently in his conclusion:
Continual defeat gives rise not only to the conscious deferral of action but also to a sense of defeat, or a sense of powerlessness, that may affect the consciousness of potential challengers about grievances, strategies or possibilities for change. Participation denied over time may lead to acceptance of the role of non-participation, as well as to a failure to develop the political resources – skills, organization, consciousness – of political action. Power relationships may develop routines of non-challenge which require no particular action on the part of powerholders to be maintained…
From this perspective, the total impact of a power relationship is more than the sum of its parts. Power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce powerlessness. Power relationships, once established, are self-sustaining. Quiescence [inaction] in the face of inequalities may be understood only in terms of the inertia of the situation. For this reason, power in a given community can never be understood simply by observation at a given point in time. Historical investigation must occur to discover whether routines of non-conflict have been shaped, and, if so, how they are maintained.
This last point is particularly critical – too often we forget that the “impact of a power relationship is more than the sum of its parts.” We forget that these relationships are self-sustaining, with power creating power and powerlessness creating powerlessness.
The result is that we all find ourselves caught in a power structure not of our own making. We may consciously or unconsciously act in ways which reinforce or resist that structure. We may or may not even recognize a power structure is there.
Paulo Freire recognized this, too, arguing in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.
It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors. The latter, as an oppressive class, can free neither others nor themselves.
That is to say, we are all caught in this power structure, but it is only the oppressed who can save us.