Writer and activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied ponders the dynamics of power vs empowerment and how change is truly made in this essay taken from her latest work, Talking About a Revolution.
My father was always a believer.
‘Empower the people,’ he would say, between mouthfuls of rice and mula7*, the red mincemeat stew we had for dinner anytime my mother chanced upon the secret ingredient in a local store (dry okra powder was a rare treasure in the 2000s Brisbane burbs). ‘Empower the people and they will do the rest,’ he preached from his dinner-table pulpit. Whether the issue was youth unemployment, mental health or poverty, empowerment was my father’s magic salve to heal all wounds.
I would nod, listening attentively to his nightly sermons, sitting between my unimpressed mother (‘He’s been saying the same thing for the last twenty years’) and a younger brother itching to escape (‘Mama, can I go now?’). I, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough of The Midhat Show. Whether it was the United States’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 (‘Mark my words, this will come back to bite them in ten years, fifteen max!’), Sudan’s complex political landscape (‘Never trust al-Akhwaan’**) or how much one should save of their pocket money every fortnight, my father’s analysis served as my true north, his words all but unimpeachable.
It wasn’t quite ‘pull yourselves up by your bootstraps’ rhetoric, but the concepts were close cousins. For a man born in Dresden, spending his formative years under the bite of East German communism while his own father completed an engineering doctorate, the individualistic emphasis is perhaps of little surprise. That said, my father understood that resources were required: community support, government funding, a mentoring system, something. Teach a woman to fish, then empower her to feed herself by gifting the fishing rod (what use is the knowledge without the tools?). But if she knows how to fish, and she’s still hungry – in my father’s reading – then that was her responsibility.
This concept became the keystone to my understanding of social change, so embedded in my approach that it emerged in my organisation’s mission statement for the next decade. When I founded Youth Without Borders at sixteen, our mission was to ‘empower young people to work together for the implementation of positive change in their communities’. Empower took pride of place, front and centre. I had not yet learnt to question it.
We empowered young people in Indonesia and Sudan by giving them access to books through mobile and school libraries, supporting their access to literature and educational resources. Through the Shinpads and Hijabs program, we worked with Football United to connect young girls at the local Brisbane Muslim school with Australian national champion soccer and futsal players, empowering them to pursue a sport regardless of stereotypes internalised or imposed. We set up a fully funded week-long experience known as the Spark Engineering Camp, where young people from historically marginalised backgrounds around the country were flown in for a fun week of learning and horizon-broadening.
It is likely of little surprise that for a bunch of teenagers, changing the world began with changing our local communities. The concept of ‘structural’ change hadn’t entered our lexicon, and though I didn’t quite believe that the world was fair, I did believe that we could trick it into working in our collective favour. It would be sometime before I learnt that we could not, in fact, empower ourselves out of every disadvantage. You can be the world’s finest fisherwoman, with a state-of-the-art rod and the freshest bait in town, live worms like mie goreng in your tackle box, but if the river is poisoned, or turned into a dam, or made into private property, all your ‘empowerment’ is for nought.
Can you be blamed for your hunger? No.
But if people don’t believe (or don’t want to believe) the river has been contaminated, if they get electricity from the dam’s hydropower, or they are made wealthy by the profits from selling the land, suddenly it becomes politically expedient to blame your fishing skills, your fishing rod – ultimately, you – for your hunger.
The existential challenge of climate change is a classic example of this dilemma: even if every single person in the United States became vegan overnight, left their trucks in the garage to go à pied, and only bought second-hand clothing, corporations would still be left producing the vast majority of global emissions. We cannot empower our way out of the climate crisis. We cannot empower our way out of white supremacy, heterosexism, patriarchy. We cannot empower our way out of systems of oppression, because by its very definition, oppression is ‘the unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power’.
As I wrote the first draft of this essay, news came in of the Taliban entering the presidential palace in Kabul. An old friend messaged me about her partner, stuck in the capital’s airport, among fear, chaos, pandemonium, with thousands unable to leave, abandoned. History will judge, but it is moments like these, moments where personal empowerment is as significant as a flea in a firestorm, that remind me why focusing on the individual alone can never be enough.
My friend’s partner was safe, in the end, Alhamdulilah. But many others were not. I found myself weeping for those I did not know, hot tears blurring my vision, dampening my face mask as I wandered through European streets in comparative safety. My privilege was jarring. How was I meant to make sense of the luck of the draw?
I shared my worries with another friend, a lawyer made pragmatic by family circumstances unimaginable to me. Her perspective took the long view, inspired by science fiction’s hypotheses of humanity’s state in the coming millennia. ‘In the grand scheme of things, aren’t we all insignificant?’ she mused. ‘We should just focus on being good to those around us, living good lives. Isn’t that enough?’
She was not wrong, per se. In some ways, this position is even supported by my understanding of Islam. Our actions will be judged on intention, through what we can control, by how ethically we have lived our lives.2
But why, then, does focusing on my intentions, on my immediate surroundings, not feel enough?
There is a part of me that cannot sit with the inequality of the world, cannot abide simply accepting how the cards fall, without at least trying to do something about it. Even if my footprints in the sand are smoothed away by the tides of time, at least I will know I tried. So, the calculation becomes thus: if we accept our individual insignificance, how do we create any change? As the saying goes, ‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.’ The question is not if change can be made, but how.
Let us start, then, with the mechanism for change-making, with my father’s favourite word. Empower clips the old French prefix ‘em’ (meaning in, into) to the front of the heftier, meatier power, a slippery word that defies glib, simple definition. Two letters, and whole worlds, separate the two.
In her recent book The Purpose of Power, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement Alicia Garza frames power as ‘the ability to impact and affect the conditions of your own life and the lives of others’. She clarifies that it is an entirely different beast to the more individual form of the term. Empowerment, she says, ‘is feeling good about yourself, akin to having high self-esteem . . . unless empowerment is transformed into power, not much will change about our environments’.
In a keynote address to the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Virginia’s Eastern Mennonite University, Garza framed power as the ‘ability to make the rules, and the ability to shape the rules’. The idea stayed with me, marinating.
Power: the ability to affect the conditions of your own life, and the lives of others. Real life, tangible change, that is not situated only inside our psyches, but rather focused on material conditions, physical safety, deciding how we want to live our lives, on not being controlled by others. For someone for whom independence is part of their personality, for whom options in life have been narrowed and redirected by the bowling-alley gutter rails of historic structures and systemic oppressions, the idea of building power is . . . intoxicating.
But there is a part of me that fears being too powerful. I am not naive enough to believe that I am somehow immune to its corrupting influence. I come from Sudan, a country that has suffered from abuses of power by people who share my skin tone, mother tongue, and call themselves followers of my faith. Oppression has no preferred host, finding comfort in any warm fold of organic matter, its dark tendrils beguiling and strong. It bends itself into forms the host will allow, whispering sophistries, cogent and compelling: If you don’t do this, someone else will . . . It will be worth it in the end . . . Only the impotent are pure . . .
My reticence towards building power also cloaks a trickier, uglier truth. It allows me to remain ‘virtuous’, wearing my self-righteousness like a warm blanket, wrapped and comfortable in my moral superiority. But like many ugly things in this world, my pharisaic leanings are born from fear: fear that I will try and fail, fear of turning into the very being I vow to oppose, fear that nothing will ever change.
My fear is natural. It would be arrogant to believe I am inherently predisposed to make better decisions than any other human. My fear arises from an understanding of the cruelties of the world; the depths of the challenges; the corruption, malice and greed hidden in almost every dark crevice, if you just go looking. Of course I am afraid. And yet, the blanket of self-righteousness grows heavy and ill-fitting; it itches on my skin, reeks of damp fur. What use is moral superiority in a flood? Isn’t one of the marvels of humanity feeling afraid, and acting anyway?
Despite my stated fear, I am often told that I have accumulated significant swathes of power, and I wonder how the perception of others jars so sharply with my own. I see my precarity, whereas others see my stability. They focus on the beautiful cladding, while I obsess on the bamboo scaffolding propping up the façade. Both things can be true; in some ways power is both fragile and infrangible. It can seem permanent, then be extinguished in an instant. But, like dull embers, mere kindling can coax it back to roaring life. If we cannot empower our way out of structures of oppression, if we need power, how do I build it without being immobilised by my very own trepidation?
The dinner table sermons come flashing back. For all my parents’ community work, for all their organising, debating and cajoling, the community meetings, the fallouts and the reconciliations, the disagreements, and the excitement, for every minute of every hour of every day I sat in an uncomfortable chair in a nondescript community hall, swinging my legs with a child’s boredom and impatience, I do not remember my parents ever being interested in power for personal gain. Individual awards and recognitions were of little interest – even the ones I received – unless they came from peers, within the community, recognising a tangible impact in our people’s lives. My reflections remind me of British psychotherapist and scholar Gail Lewis’s remarks in a recent collection, Revolutionary Feminisms. She noted that ‘even when [the young generation] do organise collectively, it’s to gain a capacity to be more self-actualising in a neoliberal individual sense rather than actualising in a collective sense’.
Her diagnosis is damning, as she ascribes this shift to ‘a marker of the success of the Thatcherite project, and of the success of “integration” at one level, ideological integration, even though they’re still minoritised, still othered . . . in terms of the indices of tribute, applaud, success, failure, they’re just transformed’.
I think back to Youth Without Borders, and the joy of communal progress. We may have named it ‘empowerment’, but the culture within the organisation was resolutely collective, accumulating power between us in a flat hierarchy, profoundly uninterested in sophomania. We may not have had the sophistication required to campaign for long-lasting structural change, but we understood the symptoms of systemic injustice with the intimacy of those who lived it. On some level, we knew we had to be in it together.
When did that change for me? When did I start fearing power the way I fear it today, reluctant to be in its vicinity, lest I am contaminated by its festering tentacles? I wonder whether it began when I moved cities for the first time at the age of twenty-two, losing connection to a place that had grounded me for so long. I consider if it was linked to the rise of individualised technologies: social media platforms asking us to present versions of who we are to the world, incentivising self-centred versions of power through the attention economy. Conceived in 2007, Youth Without Borders never quite got the hang of social media, and although today, many collectives have found success through these ultra-modern digital technologies, they are not the intended users. These platforms are not designed around the needs of those who want to share power. But blaming digital platforms is easy.
They are amplifiers of pre-existing symptoms, magnifying an infection that has already taken root.
You want to know the real truth about Youth Without Borders? Running a volunteer youth organisation was chaotic. I have spoken of what we pulled off, but there was so much more that didn’t quite pan out, or that blew up in our faces in fantastic, disastrous fashion. I would often be embarrassed that the collective we built was not one of perfect order, of enviable efficiency. But who among us has built power collectively with ‘enviable efficiency’? In life, as in complexity theory, ‘nonequilibrium is a source of order’. As physicist Fritjof Capra theorised, ‘in living systems the order arising from nonequilibrium is far more evident . . . Throughout the living world chaos is transformed into order.’
And it is here, in complexity theory, that I find the beginnings of the answers I seek. Contemporary political scientists like Michael F. McCullough, building on the work of 1977 Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine, draw the physical and social sciences together to help us better understand the world we inhabit. A complexity theory of power offers an alternative way to understand the concept, for the simple binary has often felt deeply insufficient. How do I feel incredibly empowered in some ways, but profoundly powerless in others? On one hand, I am socially mobile, educated and assured. I work for myself and have my own voice. On the other, I am beholden to precarious visa conditions, legislated Islamophobia, entrenched misogynoir. I have hundreds of thousands of online followers, and yet still sometimes struggle to pay the rent. My Australian passport opens borders, while my Sudanese one does the opposite. How do I make sense of, as a comrade put it, being ‘a complex intersection of privileges and oppressions’?
When thinking about power, I have often found myself trapped in the traditional, linear approach. Party A has power over party B, and for anything to change, party B needs to acquire power, likely directly from party A. In this Newtonian approach, order is based on an equilibrium. Order exists, but it is a mechanical, inhuman form, founded on an assumption of the absolute power of party A, and the absolute obedience of party B. Is this sustainable?
McCullough argues when there is no choice from party B’s perspective, party A’s exertion of power is in fact a disorganising process, akin to increasing entropy in a closed thermodynamic system. The implication is damning, suggesting that any order arriving from one party having total control over another is inherently unsustainable. The lack of choice itself disorganises. A linear expression of power will always have a shelf life.
If ‘power-over’, the lack of choice, controlled equilibrium, is unsustainable, what happens if you flip it; if you allow for choice, for the system to be open? Here is where complexity theory shines, encouraging us to think beyond nineteenth-century mathematical approaches and embrace the non-linear, the interconnected, the interdependent.
Prigogine’s concept of the ‘dissipative structure’ demonstrates the possibilities. A ‘dissipative structure’ is simply one that is far, far from equilibrium, with both open and closing potential. Think: a hurricane. When travelling across land, a hurricane operates as an open system, constantly exchanging energy, matter and information with the external world. Prigogine would argue that this system has the ability to ‘self-organise’, by virtue of its openness, choice and state of non-equilibrium. You can see this when, eventually, hurricanes sort themselves out. They ‘self-organise’, turning a chaotic weather system into one of order.
So how would this work with people? Take, for example, a group of teenagers trying to tackle climate change. They start as individuals, spread across the world, loosely connected through similar actions. It’s an open system: far from equilibrium, with plenty of choice. The openness and lack of order, rather than being a hindrance, is in fact what may allow them to succeed. This group of teenagers is constantly changing, learning, leaving, joining; the group boundaries in constant flux. Through this process, they learn to self-organise, adapting through feedback to each other and the world, regulating themselves, undergoing phases of stability, ever evolving.
In some social justice organisations, such as British transformation educators Fearless Futures, effective versions of self-organising are known as ‘power-with’: a shared process of collaboration, solidarity, influence and collective action. But power-with is not for the faint-hearted. It requires skill, self-awareness and a commitment to maintaining a delicate dynamic, instead of slipping into the linear, choice-less, power-over framework. The temptation to control is strong, but power-over is, and will always be, disorganising.
In this process of self-organising – or in a thermodynamic sense, as entropy (disorder) decreases – some systems can reach ‘bifurcation points’, forks in the road in the journey towards organised complexity. If the group maintains power-with, they can evolve into ‘more complex, more self-organised structures’, i.e., they
level up. If, however, they yield to the power-over temptation, things don’t go as well. Scientifically, it is known as breaking down through ‘thermodynamic closure’. The system stops interacting with the outside world in an enhancing way, becoming less self-organised and less complex. Put plainly, things fall apart.
But even in an open system that contains choice, self-organising is not automatically guaranteed.
We see bifurcation points like this all the time in systems, Tuckman’s ‘stages of group development’ at scale. First proposed by American psychologist Bruce Tuckman in 1965, the model theorises the four phases a team inevitably goes through if it is to function effectively: forming, storming, norming and performing. After the team forms, it ‘storms’, a process through which power and status are assigned. Here, disagreements and conflicts may arise, and we find the moments of bifurcation, potential forks. If all goes well, the group moves on to ‘norming’ and ‘performing’. The dust settles, and the group turns to focus on achieving their common goals. If it doesn’t, the team will disorganise and will likely eventually fail.
One such bifurcation point occurred in Youth Without Borders, after our second successful year of running the Spark Engineering Camp. There was a moment of potential mutiny, where a particular volunteer’s actions threatened to break the organisation down, split it into pieces, diminish its complexity and therefore its potential. By working through it, by ensuring we remained open and adaptive, and resisting the temptation to punitively shift to power-over, we were able to keep the project together. The process itself strengthened our ability to self-organise, and ultimately, grow.
The process was both an exercise of power-with, and also empowering. We worked together to shape the rules of the organisation, to achieve the results we wanted for our community: a certain (in both meanings of the word) exercise of power. In doing so, I felt good, confident, grounded: undeniably empowered. Indeed, reflecting on it now, it made me wonder if my binary approach and perspective had been missing something all along.
Rather than unilaterally decide on the destination, decry the idea of ‘empowerment’, or dismiss individualisation as inherently incompatible with social progress, I wonder if it is more useful to zoom out every so often, and reflect on the dynamics of each particular system. Rather than asking, Are they doing it the way I think is right? – a desire borne of power-over – I should ask, Is this still an open system? Are we still learning and evolving? Is there still choice, collaboration, a functional feedback loop that is enriching?
Thinking of power as the energy which pulses through a system in flux, self-organising through complexity, I find myself unexpectedly reassured. This is not a power to be feared, not the pressure cooker of a closed thermodynamic system reliant on control and obedience. This is more a reflection of the natural world, the shifting of the tides and the cycles of the seasons. There is no ‘destination’; instead, there is the constant exercising of choice, the understanding of our role in the system, and a responsibility to stay open. That, I can certainly do.
* When Arabic words are written with the Roman alphabet, numerals are used to translate sounds that don’t exist in English.
** Arabic for ‘the Muslim Brotherhood’, a political movement founded in Egypt.
Talking About a Revolution by Yassmin Abdel-Magied ($34.99, Penguin Random House Australia) is available now.
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