Friday, 6 June 2008

Power: What Is It? Or No Answers Today, Folks.

Poor and working-class women did not become the role models for bourgeois white women because they were not seen by them as exercising forms of power valued in this society. In other words, their exercise of strength was not synonymous with economic power. Their power is in no way linked to domination or control over others, and this is the form of power that many bourgeois women are intrigued by and fascinated with.

(bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, (South End Press, 1984),

(I realise that this post may sound like I am challenging the utility of removing patriarchy/ capitalism. That is not its intent. Rather I am trying to conceptualise how theories of power actually relate to the complex operation of life, in order to move forward past an unequal society. Suggestions welcome.)

Women can and do exercise power. In Scotland, working-class women were often in control of the household income, giving their husband’s pocket money. They often lived in communities where being independent, strong and exercising power over their families was expected and normal. Yet, for much of history, they couldn’t vote, their ‘choice’ (to work or not, in what occupation, where to live, what to buy, etc) was incredibly limited, the power they exercised was not socially legitimate or recognised, they were understood by society to be less than their husbands and had all the constraints that the law and society put on women because of their gender.

What is power? Is it power to have control over others, even if they are lower down the social ladder? Is it power to be able to exercise choice, even if that choice is constrained? Is it power if its exercise is limited to a particular sphere, such as the household? I think we would answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions, even if we recognised that power was constrained in many cases.

But what if we rank power? Do you have more power if you exercise power in the household, like a working-class women, or if you have the vote, like a working-class man (at certain points in history)? Is it more power to have more earning power due to your sex, like a working class man, or to be given your husband’s entire wage at the end of the week, like a working-class women? Is it more power to be recognised by society as a superior form of life (like working-class men vis-à-vis working-class women), or to have access to economic resources that give you a wider range of choice (like say a working-class women in charge of the household budget)? Are symbolic forms of power, such as maleness, more or less real than more physical forms of power, such as economic power? How do we conceptualise, and dismantle, patriarchy if we don't understand how it operates- or perhaps, how do we justify that men hold power over women in a systematic way, if women sometimes hold power oven men? When does power become patriarchal and not just the interactions of individuals competing for power?

The intention of this discussion is not to start a fight about who is more oppressed, or what criteria of identity is more important as a marker of subjugation (gender, race, sexuality, etc, etc.). But to ask, what is power? What do we mean by that term and when is it useful? Perhaps, drawing on Marx, we often see money as a marker of power. The more money a person has, the more power they can exercise. But if that person spends 100+ hours a week earning that money, so that s/he has wealth but not time, is that more empowering than being poor, but with leisure time? Is it a balance- the middle-class person who earns enough to be comfortable and have choice, but also the time to use that choice? Or, is about the potential- the potential to buy, to bribe, to pay one’s way out of the system, that makes it power? Are you powerful if you are massively wealthy, but never do anything at all but sit in your house and watch TV?

Is power measured by how many people are influenced or affected by your actions? Are MPs powerful because they make decisions that affect the lives of whole nations of people? Are they more or less powerful than the man who can bribe MPs to, say, give him a Visa (a decision without broader repercussions on society than having an extra person in the country)? Let’s contrast this with power within the family. Does the man who exercises complete control over his household have less power than an MP, whose decisions affect many, or, more power, because the exercise of power is more direct, perhaps takes up more time, and gives him more immediate benefits? If power is judged by what you get out of exercising it- the benefits of holding authority- is it more powerful to be the Prime Minister or to be the abusive husband?

bell hooks suggests that working-class women, through their independence, capability and strength, hold power (or as I would term this form of power-agency). She argues that we need to get out of a mindset that sees power as about controlling other people, or equates power with economic resources. And, I think this is something that most feminists would agree on. Yet, what is less clear, is what it means to be an agent or to hold power outside of these traditional structures, especially because it is unclear how those traditional structures give you power in the first place. What does it mean to hold the vote in a world where your most immediate concern is feeding your household? Does a Prime Minister feel more power when his policy successfully passes into law, or when he beats his wife? Are you more powerful if everyone in the world is equal (same resources; same social conception and value), or less- and if we no longer have capitalism-how do we measure this? Do we need to?

If we equate agency with having choice then no one can ever hold true power, because our choice is always constrained by the rights of others- is that the key? How do we work out the line between constraining your rights for the greater good, and oppression?


Lara said...

I just saw your blog here from MaryTracy's (Beyond Feminism) and I have to say I am so impressed with the way you ask questions and formulate ideas. And I love bell hooks :) I also was curious because I really liked your comment over at Mary's, it was very well-thought out and you ask a lot of relevant questions. Anyway, keep it up!

Feminist Avatar said...

Thank you. :)