History of the Struggle Against Power Inequalities

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* Book: Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle. Henry Tam.

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"‘Against Power Inequalities’ provides a historical guide to the contest for power redistribution through the centuries, and draws out the underlying obstacles to the development of more inclusive communities."


What’s the book about:

"From the time of ancient tyrannies to the prevailing global plutocracy, the widening gap between the powerful and the rest has fuelled the spread of dogmas, imposed oppressive practices, and denied people a chance to shape the decisions that affect their lives.

Against Power Inequalities aims to raise understanding of the impact of unequal power relations and the struggle for more inclusive communities. It provides a historical guide to the contest for power redistribution across the centuries, and draws out the underlying causes of disempowerment which are still with us today.

It will be of interest to anyone wanting to learn more about how progressive thinkers and activists have joined forces in reversing the concentration of power in those with wealth, arbitrary authority, or status conferred by outmoded customs; and what obstacles had to be overcome to bring about a fairer and more cooperative society."

Table of Contents

  1. The Problem of Power Inequalities: an Overview
  2. The Origins of Power Concentration: pre-history to 10th century AD
  3. Learning to Challenge the Powerful: 1054 – 1689
  4. Enlightenment Ethos & its Enemies: 1689 – 1799
  5. Resisting the Abuse of Power: the 1800s
  6. Liberal versus Tribal Nationalism: late 19th to early 20th century
  7. Progressive Triumphs and Setbacks: 1940s – 1970s
  8. Power & Globalisation: 1979 – 2000
  9. Plutocracy in the 21st Century


A selection of short reviews"

“Henry Tam has written a book that is breath-taking in its panoramic overview of the genealogy of power inequalities and the struggles against them. But this book is much more than a compelling history of power inequalities and their contestation. In its forensic, but always optimistic, analysis of how citizens have worked in the past, and continue to work, towards a fairer, more just society, we have an inspirational example of a text that speaks truth to power.”

– D Reay, Professor of Education, University of Cambridge, UK

“In t his thought-provoking book Henry Tam demonstrates that in times in which populist movements try to pit the people against the bearers of democratic institutions, we need to reconsider the relation between democratic decision-making and community life. Beyond the formal constitutional and legal requirements, decision-makers should engage civil society in determining collective action without the distortions of inequalities in economic, social and public life. Alongside social democrats and liberal reformers, Christian democrats who are interested both in the history and in the future of their ideals, will derive inspiration from this work of a truly independent scholar.”

- E M H Hirsch Ballin, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Tilburg, The Netherlands

“Tam’s book is an intellectual tour de force, an erudite romp through the history of civilization that highlights the origins of power and the never-ending effort to democratize hierarchical systems through mobilized participatory communities. It bears reading and re-reading, because the issues of power and community are so fundamental, and the history so rich and evocative. One might call it, if Howard Zinn would permit, A People’s History of the World.”

– C Derber, author of Greed to Green, and Corporation Nation; Professor of Sociology, Boston College, USA


Chapter 1

"The claim that power inequalities are best ignored have of course throughout history been consistently put forward by many who have accumulated an excessive share of power. But through cultural indoctrination, those with little power have often been conditioned into overlooking such gross disparity as well. In reality, when the powerful can get away with claiming to have superior, at times unchallengeable, access to knowledge, they effectively cut off the only reliable means of testing if any knowledge claim should indeed be believed – namely, the experience of others via their testimony, observation, deliberations. When claims and counter-claims are not settled through the respective weight of empirical evidence and cogency of arguments, but by the power of a particular disputant, mistakes stand little chance of being corrected. The judgement of the powerful becomes more questionable precisely to the extent that it is shielded from being questioned. For others, if the deprivation of critical discourse should become habitual through fear or just lack of exercise, assessment of what is to be believed would everywhere degenerate into an ill-informed and arbitrary affair. The many would either blindly accept the pronouncements of the few, or secretly harbour doubt about everything they are told to believe. Irrationality would take the place of cooperative enquiry. Opportunities to improve life would be routinely missed, and errors causing avoidable suffering would persist.

Power inequalities also corrode social responsiveness. The wider the power gap, the less likely are people to learn to accommodate and respect others, or believe that none has an inherently greater or lesser claim to help from others in times of need. The increasingly powerful find that they can stand apart and all too easily get used to being able to do as they please. At best, their sense of superiority leads them to look upon the weak as an opportunity for them to cultivate their charitable disposition and donate a minute proportion of their wealth to give some succour to those at the bottom of the pile. But their conscience would rarely extend to challenging the structural injustice that leaves others in permanent disadvantage. At worst, they switch off from the plight of the have-nots, insisting that the latter have only themselves to blame for their predicament. Some might even view abusing the vulnerable as an integral part of their power and control.

As for those with declining power, they would be caught up with the pathology of marginalisation. Feeling that they are insignificant in the eyes of those far above, some would try to cope by pushing others down to give themselves a twisted sense of worthiness. By scapegoating those who could be rendered even more vulnerable, by demanding total obedience from the weakest, by threatening those who could not protect themselves, they boost their false pride through surrendering their moral decency. Others would escape instead to alternative projections of the world where mystical contemplation, indulgence in mind-altering substance, or mindless consumerism is expected to fill the void left by the faded enterprise of mutual support.

Where power inequalities persist, any prospect for genuine solidarity will crumble to dust. As the powerful find that they can increasingly get away with making decisions affecting others without the latter having a meaningful say about them, the more those decisions would neglect the needs of the wider community. Even if they could resist the temptation to go for options which benefit themselves and their allies at the expense of the voiceless – which many of them would not be able to, the longer they can take their power for granted – the absence of effective means to hold them to account would lead them to make choices disconnected with the real concerns of those who have to bear the consequences.

Instead of a bond of solidarity underpinned by the everyday relationship of equal citizens who know the value of looking out for each other, people turn inward to themselves. People compete against each other to win the favour of those with ruling power, while those in control pursue, in the absence of a genuinely shared interest, a strategy of divide and conquer. Institutional arrogance of the powerful coupled with systemic resentment amongst the powerless would thus relentlessly breed destructive tension, leaving everyone with the worthless choice between an oppressive order and anarchic chaos.

Chapter 5

By the middle of the nineteenth century, people who valued the ethos of inclusive communities were becoming acutely aware of two aspects of social development. The first was that not only old forms of power inequalities were persisting, but new ones were fast emerging with the rapid economic and technological changes taking place. While De Tocqueville (1805-1859) had observed in earlier decades that the democratic vitality he found in America was closely related to the broad equality of economic conditions and social status of its inhabitants, the capitalist mode of intense wealth accumulation and consequent vast wealth-based power differentials meant that increasingly people were no longer able to relate to each other with equal respect as fellow citizens.

At the same time, liberal champions of reforms were conscious of the solidarity they themselves were helping to spread across traditional class, gender, national and religious divisions. … Despite their own differences, they recognised they needed to join forces to overcome the considerable opposition they faced from those who wanted to preserve oppressive inequalities to safeguard their personal advantages.

At the same time as their collective influence was expanding – leading to the period being often referred to by historians as the age of reforms – other outlooks less sympathetic to tackling power inequalities were also emerging. ... Comte abandoned the Baconian injunction that the quest for knowledge was an on-going cooperative enterprise for all to participate in, and turned towards the rule by experts. He even went so far as to propose institutionalizing religious forms of worship to reinforce the deference of the people towards the new priestly class who would control their lives. Mill rightly warned against the Comtean approach as a betrayal of the scientific spirit and a slide towards illiberal subjection of the public by an unaccountable authority. Once the people affected by the decisions made by those placed in charge were cut off from effectively questioning those decisions, the reliability of the decision-makers would deteriorate.

Unfortunately, technocracy – without necessarily taking the quasi-religious form favoured by Comte – was to become an attractive proposition for alpha males who could thereby carve out their own domains where their supposedly exclusive expertise entitled them to make judgements and take action without having to account for them to the people affected.

Where Comte wanted to entrust power to the quasi-priestly class of technocrats, and Nietzsche celebrated those who cared for no one besides their own strength and achievement, Herbert Spencer represented another major anti-progressive current of thought in the nineteenth century. Crudely interpreting Darwin’s theory of natural selection as suggesting that all living things evolve to a better state when those most capable of improvement strive against and survive at the expense of others, Spencer leapt to the conclusion that human beings would most effectively attain progress if they were left to compete with each other. The main model Spencer had in mind was that of the business world wherein everyone had the chance to become successful entrepreneurs. Those who lost out should accept that they were simply not fit enough to prosper, and those who were able to build their own business empires should not be held back, least of all by government.

Spencer had no understanding of the subtleties of natural selection, how intra and inter species cooperation could assist survival, and it never occurred to him that the evolution of the reflective capacity of human beings meant that instead of letting outcomes be dependent on the unthinking activities of uncoordinated individuals, people could apply their shared intelligence to examine alternatives and plan together for their mutual benefit. For him, the growth of power inequalities resulting from economic competition should not be criticised as a form of wage slavery, but welcome as a sign of success.

In reality, the industrial revolution had been accelerating the process whereby those with one particular set of skills – organising others to produce goods and services exchangeable for a monetary value, with the greater part of which going to the organiser – were able to become rapidly richer than those who might have made all kinds of contributions via their labour, skills, loyalty, etc. Consequently, the business and professional classes set themselves up as custodians of society’s prosperity, while others lacking the abilities to join their ranks were marked as lower classes deserving of their deprivations.

Chapter 9

The evidence accumulated over decades from across the world has proven time and time again that where people are treated as fellow participants in a shared enterprise, where their views and talents are valued, they work more effectively, and they think not just about what they can get out of the organisation themselves but how they can help the organisation maximise its positive impact. This is crucially not because of some hidden altruism breaking through, but simply down to the fact that with cooperative working, people can see that the benefits they generate together will be shared out in accordance with their own informed assessment of how that should be done. Instead of a small elite taking a disproportionately large share for themselves, people who work on making things happen deliberate on how to distribute the fruits of their labour. On that basis, constructive cooperation with others is simply the most reliable strategy to secure the best outcome one can hope for.

A new generation of progressive advocates are beginning to build on the successful experience of cooperative working to set out an agenda for the politics of the commons. Instead of getting mired in the distorted debate about whether top-down corporations can only function if governments keep backing off to allow them to act as they alone see fit, the new agenda focuses on the more important task of rebuilding power relations in society.

Power inequalities have escalated whenever common resources are captured by some who then impose exclusive control rights over them. From land, forest, water and other natural resources, to virtual though vitally important resources created in cyberspace covering computer networks and intellectual property, exclusionary structures open the door to exploitative underpayment of workers and overcharging of users. The development of enterprises that abide by the founding principles of democratic decision-making and reciprocal sharing will help to advance the ethos of inclusive community life.

This trend can be seen with the continued emergence of credit unions and the revival of mutual finance institutions. It is being applied to the development of mutually owned renewable energy supplies when these opportunities are seen as threats by corporations dependent on either profits from the depletion of fossil fuels or public subsidies for the disposal of nuclear waste. It is exemplified by the growth of open source knowledge technology so that the benefits of new designs and inventions can be maximised without access to their use being artificially restricted by conventional proprietary measures.

Activists for co-operative housing and community land trusts are joining forces to secure common resources to be democratically run by the people who are seeking affordable homes. Examples of effective user-controlled health and social care are drawn together and extensively promoted by the cooperative movement to support their wider adoption. Meanwhile, community groups in town and cities are setting up local and sustainable food systems. Some have even used local growing and healthy eating as a platform to reclaim unproductive land for communal use and build larger networks of cooperation to address social and environmental concerns.

For these diverse initiatives to reach the level where they are no longer the minority practices, but become the norm for how community and business interactions are conducted, education in the broadest sense – from schools to adult learning – must help to raise awareness of why and how cooperative problem-solving offers practically feasible means to achieve consistently better ends for everyone. People of all ages need to cultivate pro-reciprocal dispositions towards others in any social context. By inculcating what may be termed the Cooperative Gestalt, they will have the confidence and inclination to work with others to find collaborative and inclusive ways forward, rather than assume that they will have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, if they enter into any form of cooperative venture. Alongside the input of progressive reformists in local and national government, advocates for cooperative enterprise and the commons agenda, and enlightened educators, we should recognise that a major challenge remains that can only be tackled by institutional changes at the global level."