Power is understood as arising out of relationships (Principles of nonviolence 5)

This is a part of series on principles of nonviolence. The ten principles are listed here.

Nonviolence activists understand power as arising out of relationships rather than being an inherent characteristic in the individual. This view of power, advocated particularly by feminist nonviolence activists, is linked to a consent view of political power. Sharp (1973b, p. 8) contrasts the consent view of power, which underpins nonviolent action, with the traditional monolith view of power (see Figure 1).

Monolith view of power

Consent view of power

People are dependent upon the good will, the decisions and the support of the government or any other hierarchical system to which they belong.

The government or hierarchical system is dependent upon the people’s good will, decisions and support.

The power of the government is emitted from the few who stand at the pinnacle of command.

Power continually rises from many parts of society and systems.

Power is self-perpetuating, durable, not easily or quickly controlled or destroyed.

Political power is fragile, always dependent for its strength and existence upon a replenishment of its sources by the cooperation of a multitude of institutions and people – cooperation that may or may not continue.

(Source: Sharp, 1973b, p. 8)

Figure 1: Monolith and consent views of power

Nonviolent action is based on a consent view of power because people are seen as having the ability to withhold their consent to structures and practices which are violent or unjust. Without support, these structures and practices could not exist. Although there is a danger that the consent view minimises the role of structural factors in determining the way in which power is constituted, it provides a sound rationale for nonviolent action (Beck, 1991; Hedemann, 1981; Martin, 1997; Tasmanian Wilderness Society, 1982). Feminist nonviolence literature, however, has taken the exploration of power further (Bruyn, 1979, p. 20). Meyerding (1982) argues, “power is not a characteristic owned by any individual, but rather a dynamic which is present in every relationship” (p. 10). Starhawk (1990) suggests:

Power is never static, for power is not a thing that we can hold or store, it is a movement, a relationship, a balance, fluid and changing. The power one person can wield over another is dependent on a myriad of external factors and subtle agreements (p. 268).

Starhawk (1990) identifies three forms of power: power-over, power-with and power-from-within (see also Burgess & Burgess, 1994; Clark, 1998; Feminism and Nonviolence Study Group, 1983; Ochre & Burrowes, 1995). Power-over is linked to “domination and control” (Starhawk, 1990, p. 9) and motivates through fear.

Its systems instill fear and then offer the hope of relief in return for compliance and obedience. We fear the force and violence of the system should we disobey, and we fear the loss of value, sustenance, comforts and tokens of esteem (p. 14).

Force, which enables one individual or group to make decisions affecting others and to take control, ultimately backs power-over.

It may rule with weapons that are physical or by controlling the resources we need to live: money, food, medical care or by controlling more subtle resources: information, approval, love. We are so accustomed to power-over, so steeped in its language and its implicit threats, that we often become aware of its functioning only when we see its extreme manifestations (p. 9).

Power-with is linked with “social power, the influence we wield among equals” (Starhawk, 1990, p. 9).

Power-with sees the world as a pattern of relationships, but its interest is in how the pattern can be shaped, modelled, shifted. It values beings, forces, and people according to how they affect others and according to a history based on experience (p. 15).

It is based on respect, influence and empowerment. It is:

The power of a strong individual in a group of equals, the power not to command, but to suggest and be listened to, to begin something and see it happen. The source of power-with is the willingness of others to listen to our ideas. We could call that willingness respect, not for a role, but for each unique person (p. 10).

Power-from-within, is linked to “the mysteries that awaken our deepest abilities and potential” (Starhawk, 1990, p. 9). It sees a world where there are “no simple causes and effects” and where “all things have inherent value” (p. 15). It arises “from our sense of connection, our bonding with other human beings, and the environment” (p. 10).

We can feel that power in acts of creation and connection, in planting, building, writing, cleaning, healing, soothing, playing, singing, making love. We can feel it in acting together with others to oppose control (p. 10).

Bruyn (1979) argues:

The exercise of power in nonviolent action is not measured by an increase in the authority over people but rather by an increase in the level of independent authority of everyone. The aim is not to maximize the power and authority of oneself over others but rather to create the conditions whereby power can be shared. The purpose is to create the conditions in which each individual’s opportunity to exercise power is maximized in the context of the larger community (p. 21).

One way in which a commitment to power-with has been put into practice is through the use of inclusive forms of decision making, particularly consensus (Ochre & Burrowes, 1995; Ryan, 1996; Starhawk, 1990, 2001; Tasmanian Wilderness Society, 1982; Terry, 1979). According to the handbook for the Franklin River Blockade (Tasmanian Wilderness Society, 1982):

Through the blockade in general, and through some actions in particular, each one of us will be putting ourselves at significant risk. For example, we will be enduring physical hardship in cold wet weather, we may risk arrest and jail or fines, and there is always the possibility of physical injuries. These cannot be taken lightly. Because we all face these risks together it is essential that we all feel we have a say in decisions which determine our actions. There is no point in “majority rules” decisions when something less than half the people may, when the crunch comes, find they can’t go along with the majority, and unity of the blockading group is lost (p. 29, emphasis in the original).

Consensus is the preferred decision making  process in many nonviolence campaigns (Ryan, 1996, p. 18.1) and, for some, consensus is linked to the spiritual basis of their commitment to nonviolence.

Those of us who love consensus process see it as a spiritual practice rooted in the idea of each person’s immanent value. The North American peace movement adopted consensus from Quakers, whose religion recognises the Inner Light of the spirit as immanent in each human being (Starhawk, 1990, p. 184).

Consensus is improved when a number of conditions are present:

  • The group has a unity of purpose and there is common philosophy
  • There is equal access to power for all members
  • The group is not bound by hierarchical structures
  • There is enough time available to devote to the process
  • There is willingness in the group to attend to process and attitudes
  • There is an understanding of the process, agreement to use the process and a willingness to learn and practice skills for meeting participation
  • There is a commitment to the ongoing life of the group
  • There is a belief that everybody has something of value to contribute (Avery, et al., 1981; Terry, 1979).

As Ryan (1996, ch. 18) and Starhawk (1990, pp. 183-8) demonstrate, however, the conditions necessary for the successful use of consensus do not always exist in campaigns, the process is not always the most appropriate and there are other forms of inclusive decision making available. Starhawk (1990, pp. 186-7) suggests that consensus may be inappropriate when:

  • The group is not cohesive or when major divisions exist within the group
  • There are no good choices
  • There is an emergency and a decision has to be made urgently
  • The issue is trivial
  • There is insufficient information to make a wise decision.

Consensus is not the only decision making process consistent with a philosophy of nonviolence and successful campaigns have been run using other processes. Generally, however, decision making processes which recognise the contribution a range of people can make, value the dignity of individuals and do not rely on coercion are more likely to be consistent with a philosophy of nonviolence (Ryan, 1996; Starhawk, 1990, 2001; Walz, 1986).

Starhawk (1990) argues it is important that the nature of power arising out of relationships is made clear because “the most destructive power is secret, capricious, and random” (p. 156). She suggests that responsive leadership can help create power-with, even in hierarchies. A responsive leader:

Responds to the needs of the group and the opportunities in the environment, responds by feeling as well as by thinking and acting. A basic principle of responsive leadership is that power and responsibility work together. If you have power, you are responsible for using it in an empowering way. If you have responsibility, you need the power to meet it (p. 270).

She identifies a number of guidelines for responsive leaderships. Responsive leaders:

  • Nurture the capacities of others, provide training and preparation, and encourage others to gain skills and take on new responsibilities.
  • Keep commitments they make, especially when they wield power over others.
  • Respond to others by listening, consulting, responding to criticism and being willing to change.
  • Take responsibility for the decisions they make, and account for them to the group.
  • Keep lines of authority, power, and decision making clear and visible. They also ensure that there are clear limitations to their authority, clear checks and balances, and clear appeal processes.
  • Think first about the interests and needs of the group, and give them priority, while also looking after their own needs. They are conscious of what demands they make of others and recognise that they have commitments outside the group or organisation.
  • Do not expect special benefits, attention, release from a fair share of less desirable tasks, adulation, or an inequitable share of resources. They show respect to people with lower status within the group or organisation. They do, however, deserve and expect support and nurturing from the group.
  • Do not abuse or humiliate others.
  • Disclose their feelings and vulnerabilities where it is safe to do so, and create environments in which feelings and emotions can be expressed.
  • Do not monopolise caring or care giving.
  • Make mistakes and take responsibility for fixing their mistakes. They accept the mistakes of others, and encourage responsibility and problem solving rather than guilt and blame (Starhawk, 1990, pp. 271-275).

Adapted from
Stuart, G. (2003). Nonviolence and youth work practice in Australia. Unpublished PhD, University of Newcastle, Newcastle.

The reference list will be available after principle 10.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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