Tag Archives: power

Controlling the movement of people

For the mediaeval serf, movement wasn’t an option unless your Lord moved you. If you didn’t like how your feudal master behaved, you could not vote with your feet. You had to stay where you were put, and live and work there your whole life. You could be moved of course if you were marched into a war, but you wouldn’t get any say in that, either.

These days we don’t need permission from Barons and Counts to move around – at least not within the countries of our birth. We generally need permission to move country, and countries want to control who can move where. Young, qualified, able bodied people are more welcome than others. The rich are always welcome to move and the poor are discouraged. Unless we need them for something. Plenty of industrial projects have been built on the backs of very poor workers. From the Irish navvies digging the canals to the modern Eastern European fruit picker, those with power like to move those with less power about to work for them.

It’s not so very different to the mediaeval model. Companies replace baronies, and the scales are bigger, but the effects are much the same. Now if you want to change country it’s not a baron who needs to write a letter of consent, but a company that will employ you.

We’re told it’s for our own good, and our own safety – to make sure we don’t have too many, and that we have the ones who are needed, and to keep the dangerous ones out. Our mediaeval peasant friends were told that it was about eliminating vagrancy and crime, and it meant there wouldn’t be rough, unruly people from other places coming into their place and making it all worse. Nothing much changes.

Much of the terror we experience in the west is home grown. We’re encouraged to think it sneaks in across borders to attack us from outside – something other, that we could keep out if we tried hard enough. Americans are more likely to be killed by other Americans than by anyone from ‘away’. We’re more likely to die to air pollution, traffic accidents, heart attacks and our own lifestyle choices than we are to a terrorist.

Freedom of movement can really undermine exploitation. If workers can move, then screwing someone poorer becomes that bit harder. It can help people remove themselves from wars – which are generally harder to sustain when no one is there to fight. It can help people get out of toxic systems, and escape persecution. Freedom of movement has the potential to be a source of good for the vast majority of us. It’s never been popular with feudal overlords because it undermines their power.


Parenting without (much) authority

I’ve never liked arbitrary authority, and so I came to parenting determined that ‘because I said so’ wasn’t going to be part of my repertoire. Also, I had a theory that the more arbitrary authority there is in childhood, the less able parent and child are to adapt to the teenage years, or to relate to each other well beyond that point. I wanted to raise an autonomous human capable of thinking for themselves, and that doesn’t go with being their authority figure either.

I remember the point at which I finally realised that my parents didn’t know everything. It came as a shock, rocking my little world to its core. My trust in their authority had been founded in no small part on a belief in their infinite knowledge and insight. So as a parent I made sure my child was aware of my limits from early on. As a small chap interested in dinosaurs, he knew that he could pass me in dinosaur knowledge if he put in the time, and that it was fine to do so. As I’m not interested in power-over I’ve never felt any need to try and keep him smaller than me.

We’ve always negotiated. I’ve always explained my position and reasoning so that he could see why I thought a course of action was preferable. I’ve aimed to persuade rather than force. We have an understanding that if I do issue an order, it is to be followed without question or hesitation because I’ll only do that in an emergency. We can talk about it afterwards. Driving me round the bend does count as an emergency!

Alongside this, he’s always had the option that if he could make a case for something, I’d take him seriously. We talk about the implications, the responsibilities, the possible consequences. Now he’s a teen, we carry that on to talk about relationship dynamics, consent culture, the implications of drugs and porn and all the other things out there he might run into and need to deal with. I think we have a pattern that means he’s always going to feel able to ask for my advice, but never obliged to act on it.

This all makes my life easier. I have room to say ‘yeah, I cocked that up,’ and to be honest about getting things wrong, making bad calls – because I have no authority to undermine. As yet, there’s been no sign of teenage rebellion – occasional non-cooperation, but that’s fine. He doesn’t have to fight off my authority in order to establish himself as a person in his own right because he’s always been respected as a person in his own right.

For me, authoritarian models within the family are an aspect of patriarchal society that we can do without. Children who are taught to obey are taught that power is what gets things done. You can’t have consent culture and obedience. You can’t have equality if you raise people inside models based on hierarchy, power-over and authority. There is a power balance necessary and inherent in raising a child, but so long as the child has the right to express opinions, and be taken seriously, that power balance can gently fall away over the years, allowing them to stand in their own power in the context of the family.

(And yes, I did ask him if it was ok to write about this.)

How to take over

Earlier this year I was accused of worming my way into positions of power and influence. ‘Accused’ in the sense that the observation was not meant as a compliment. As there’s a lot of truth in it, I thought it might be productive to expose my methods and philosophy, and the outcomes. Much of what I do could be done by anyone with a mind to do it, and there is certainly both the need and the space, although I’m by no means the only person working in this kind of way.


I look for groups, events, organisations and individuals who I think are doing something valuable but show signs of needing more help. I choose based on where I can most usefully give help, what most interests me, and what I think will do most good. I move on when the job is done, or I’m bored, or think something else is more important, and suchlike. My primary aim is that there be more good stuff.


I rock up and offer to help. I take on jobs that aren’t fun, glamorous or self promoting – I steward, tidy up, pick stones out of allotments, litter pick, paint fences. I also offer my particular skills – public speaking, blogging, writing, marketing, networking, media, creative thinking, performing, organising… and other things. One of the consequences of doing this over many years is that I know a lot of awesome people who are willing to pile in and do things, and who are working in gift economy and favour exchange, and who can be asked, and awesome people who can be booked.


Often what I do is put awesome people in touch with each other, resulting in more awesome, and more scope to do this sort of thing. I spend a lot of time working for free, on things I believe in. I get the pleasure of seeing things work. Sometimes there are direct personal benefits – opportunities are created, sometimes paying work comes off the back of volunteering, or other scope for self advancement. I am not ashamed of this, and actively encourage anyone doing good stuff to accept the gifts and favours that come with working in a gift economy. It’s easiest to grow good things when people are generous but not self-sacrificing. Work that is entirely about giving is hard to sustain and more likely to burn people out.


This is not a career strategy by any conventional standards, but I have to say that work-wise, Tom and I benefit greatly from this way of doing things. Favours become opportunities. Helping out creates enduring networks of friends. We make valuable contacts. More good stuff happening means more good stuff for us to be part of. We greatly enjoy what we get to do.

If you are interested in exploring this way of working, then you need to be clear about your goals – not in the sense of personal achievement, more what you want to invest in to see more of. You need to know what your skills and strengths are and not be afraid to offer them as things of worth. There is always more that needs doing than there are people willing to do it, so once you get started, you have to be mindful of what’s sustainable because people will ask you to do more (I’ve messed up repeatedly on that score).

There are of course people who will look at this work, and these groups, events etc and see the scope for a power base, and who will want the power base, not the ‘more good stuff’ or the effort of doing the work. They can be an obstacle to productively getting things done. Where there’s a lot of ego, the scope for good stuff is greatly reduced, while the likely effort required increases. People who want to be important can be jealous of people who are effective at getting things done, and the results are seldom pretty. The best places to volunteer are where the people running things are intent on ‘more good stuff’ and not self aggrandisement, and the best volunteers to take on are those who are far more excited about the work, than about the scope for personal advancement.

Fully taking over, I should note, tends to mean carrying the legal, financial and practical responsibility for a thing, and that’s not as much fun as it sounds.

Poem – I am earth

I am earth

You seek power

I grant it

You ruin me.

Wielding, withholding

You diminish

What made you mighty.

Power to strip worth

Fell forests

Make barren.

So much power.

Let me teach

Other ways

To love, respect

Nurture growth,

Accounting for soul,

Power to do

Power to dream

Power to be.

I am earth.

Entitlement and need

To be ‘needy’ is to be a problem to the people around you. We all of course have needs, many of them very similar. We need food, shelter, warmth, water.  We need to feel reasonably secure and acceptable to those we spend time with. Most of us admit to needing affection and goodwill from others. Somewhere, a line is drawn, and certain people are ‘too much’. Too needy. If a person is designated as ‘needy’ then dealing with what they need ceases to be anyone’s problem.

It’s interesting to ask who is allowed to need what. Who is likely to have their needs met, and who is not? To what degree is there exchange or barter in the mix? We may be more likely to accept the needs of people we easily empathise with, and people whose needs are convenient and do not require much effort to sort out.

Need has the scope to create a sense of social duty. This can turn into feelings of martyrdom and being put-upon. The more obliged we feel to answer someone’s inconvenient need, the more we may resent them if they cannot obviously recompense us. Much may also depend on the presence of an audience who can be impressed by how good we are. It’s always easier to be kind and generous when you can see how you will benefit directly from that.

It is worth paying attention to who we cheerfully help on request, and who we write off as ‘needy’ and try to ignore. Think about who you take seriously and who you don’t and whether you in turn expect to be taken seriously, or tend to be one of the people whose needs are not reliably honoured.

Of course there’s a political angle to this, too. A politician in the UK can expect to claim thousands of pounds of ‘expenses’ on things most of us would have to fund for ourselves. A person too ill to work is expected to live on far less. What we’re happy to accept that the Queen ‘needs’ is not the same as what we think old people in care homes need.

Often it seems to me that the scope for getting your needs met is directly proportional to your wealth and power. Of course it’s the people with least wealth or power who tend to have the most need.

Conflict and power

There have been a number of occasions in my life when I’ve found myself in conflict with someone who had considerably more power than me. That power has come from a variety of sources – it could be the power of an employer. People in leadership roles tend to have more power and influence than those who follow them. There’s a power that comes from being charismatic and socially capable. Financial power, access to resources, an able body versus a limited body – all of these things and more can create massive power imbalances between people.

Fall out with a person who has power, and the odds are it will ripple more widely than your immediate quarrel. People are reluctant to take sides for all kinds of reasons, but throw in a person of significant power, and going up against them to support someone they’ve wronged puts the supporter in a vulnerable place. It often means if you want to support someone who has been mistreated, the only vote you have is to vote with your feet, and leave. People get isolated this way, because all they can do is leave.

We are often reluctant to believe anything bad of people whose power revolves around charisma. If we’re under the spell – and I’ve seen this happen repeatedly – it’s easier to blame the victim than contemplate the enchantment. Repeat offenders using their popularity to hide their acts of cruelty and exploitation get away with it so often because we don’t want to believe that of them. ‘Pillars of the community’ who are also wife beaters, child molesters, fraudsters, thieves, can go unchallenged amongst us because we have too much invested in believing they are good.

How do we change this?

I’ve three suggestions. One is that we need to look at power carefully. When other people hold it, keep an eye on whether that’s the power to do, or it’s a power to attract. When power draws resources, energy, people, money and status towards itself, and is the primary beneficiary, be wary. Clever people in this position will make a lot of noise about community benefit, but it’s always worth asking if this is really what’s happening. Anyone spinning the line that what benefits them benefits the community is doubly suspect.

The second suggestion is to watch how we handle our own power. Can we be told if we’ve made a mistake? Can we take responsibility and sort things out if we cause hurt? Do we default to victim blaming rather than listening if someone else has a problem with us? It’s often not a simple victim/user dynamic, especially not at the outset. When things go wrong between people it tends to be complicated, and a willingness on both sides to listen and address problems is most usually what’s called for. If one person uses what power they have to silence and push away another person, that’s where the bigger problems start. If we can encourage a culture of responsibility, we make it harder for those with more power than us to hide behind their status when there’s a problem.

Thirdly, we need to look at the benefits we think we get by supporting someone with more power, such that we’ll ignore other people’s problems. It’s more comfortable not to know what’s going on when there’s an issue between people. It’s safer to side with the person who has most power. It validates our choice to have been there in the first place. We have to be able to admit pour own capacity for error. All of us, in innocence, have the scope to support a charismatic psychopath who looked like something good. If we don’t have the courage to admit that, we’ll facilitate what they do.

Politics, spirituality and personal power

I’m tapping into to a wider conversation here about politics and spirituality – with reference to a recent Gods and Radicals post about spiritual approaches that enable fascism http://godsandradicals.org/others/confronting-the-new-right/. One of the key points is that we are mistaken if we think spirituality is apolitical, and in being oblivious to the political angle, we make more room for ideas that many of us find objectionable. At the same time, wanting to keep the sacred out of the nasty, sordid business of politics is a perfectly reasonable reaction! So, how to do this well…

Personal spirituality is not political. What that means is that in your intimate moments of interacting with the divine, there is nothing political going on. It’s just you, and what you hold sacred, and whatever numinous, inspirational, challenging, demanding, peculiar things come in that space. Or, to put it another way, what you do privately is your business, there are no thought police.

However, as soon as you are dealing with things of this world, politics are involved and other people are entitled to judge you. How you choose to manifest your spirituality in the world will always have a political dimension. The person who pretends it doesn’t is reducing their own power and scope for conscious self-determination.

The environment is a political issue. If you want trees to hug, animals to bring you omens, or any other interaction with any aspect of the natural world, you have to look at the political implications of your life and practice and the politics impacting on those.

Human interaction is a political issue. Who has power and who doesn’t. Who is included, and who is silenced. Who is permitted and who is denied. How safe people feel. Who is allowed to say ‘no’. There are many of these, but you get the idea. If you have the power to exclude, silence, ignore or force someone else in some way, that’s a power you need to be alert to, and take responsibility for. If you are on the other end of this, then your right to be heard, seen, have space, be safe etc matters, and the odds are your spiritual life is being affected by politics.

It amazes me that anyone could be interested in magic and power, and not want to understand what power they have. It amazes me that anyone could set out to be a will worker and be keen not to know how their actions influence other people. ‘Know thyself’ is an ancient Pagan instruction. If you don’t know what effect you have, then you don’t know yourself. But apparently there are people who are happy not to look at the implications of what they do, even to make sure they aren’t accidentally facilitating a fascist agenda.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I want my actions in this world to be deliberate, and of my crafting. I want to be a deliberate co-creator of my reality. If I do something and it has consequences I didn’t mean or intend or want, I want to know about that so that I can take control and change it. Burying my head in the sand and assuming everything I do gets the results I intend, does not give me that power.

If I choose not to face the uncomfortable possibilities that I could be getting things wrong, I give away my power. In refusing to look at the implications of my actions, I make it easier to manipulate me. I make myself a target for people who would use me to further their own power. I become a tool for someone else to use. Potentially a tool someone else can use for oppression.

I don’t want to be that. I don’t think many people would find that appealing as a way to be.

Pillars of the community

When people in positions of power abuse others, what tends to happen is they are helped to cover it up. We’ve seen it with the Catholic Church protecting paedophile priests, we’ve seen evidence lost in a current case about child abuse amongst the high and mighty. The likes of Jimmy Saville and Bill Cosby should be on everyone’s minds. Of course it’s not just at the really top ends of things, and it’s not just those in power protecting each other.

Yesterday I had a conversation about a man who has broken data protection law, broken the rules of the organisation he’s involved with, lied, manipulated and bullied people. “But he’s done so much good,” his defender said. “And I don’t think he realises what he’s doing is a problem.” A pillar of the community, this man who has done so many things that are not ok, is defended because of his work.

We see it in the creative community – how do we judge a creative person when their lives are riddled with issues? Consider H.P. Lovecraft’s ghastly racism, consider the acting out of modern celebrities. Is it justice to weight the work someone does again the harm they cause, and to consider the balance?

I think not. I think this because it allows powerful people to get away with raping, and then silencing their victims. It allows powerful people to bully, use and abuse those around them. How much of the work that we celebrate has been achieved by using others? A self-proclaimed pillar of the community can look like a splendid achiever, but if someone is in the habit of lying and taking, there’s no guarantees they are honest about who really did the work.

Sometimes it’s because we convince ourselves that we need them – the unchallengeable pillar runs an event, or an organisation, and so we feel obliged to turn a blind eye and pretend we didn’t see the signs of trouble. We tell the people who want to complain that we just don’t want to hear it – I’ve had that happen to me, and it’s an awful position to be put in.

Perhaps we believe that people at a certain level deserve to be cut some slack. A sense that those above us are entitled to use and mistreat, so long as we can pretend we don’t know it’s happening. Feudalism is alive and well.

Of course for every rotten apple who makes it to the top, there are a lot of good folk, working with honour and integrity, and doing the right things for the right reasons, and not abusing their power or position in any way. It’s not an inevitable consequence of power. Certainly, power can corrupt, but it doesn’t have to. Every time we accept corruption and moral bankruptcy from those in authority, we’re also delivering a quiet smack in the face to the people who are better than that, and who deserve our support. Most communities have multiple pillars, after all, and if the abusive ones are supported by the community, the harm done to the non-abusive ones is considerable.

When corrupt, unethical, immoral and abusive people find their way into places of influence, we should not go along with them. We should not excuse their epic failings on the basis of ‘good work’. If something is wrong, it needs taking seriously and we all need to keep a careful eye on who we support, and what they’re actually doing.

What is it worth?

If you work a normal job, then the worth of your time and skills is decided by someone else and you don’t get much say. If you buy from normal shops, and utilities providers then the cost is equally beyond your control. In both those situations you could well be dealing with someone who needs to make a profit – so you are undervalued to create a profit margin while the things you buy will be overvalued, also to create a profit margin. Profit is the difference between production cost and sales price. On one side of that equation workers’ wages have to be kept down and on the other, prices have to be kept up or there is no profit.

For those of us who are self employed, the game has at least the potential to be very different. I don’t need to make a profit on my time and skills, I need those to be valued at a reasonable worth. I can often set my cost, and when I’m dealing with other independent people, the cost of products is also negotiable. I might make a sale or return arrangement with another trader. I might work for a profit share if I believe in the product but its creator has no money up front. Equally if I value something I might pay over the odds to support the creator if I know they could do with it.

I don’t charge for celebrant services. If I’m asked to do a handfasting or some other rite of passage, I’ll ask either that my transport costs be covered (if there are any) or that transport is arranged for me. Beyond that, I leave the issue of payment in the hands of the person/people booking me. Pay what I am worth to you. Pay what you can afford. I’ve had no cause for complaint over how this has worked out so far. No one has taken unfair advantage of me.

What happens when the economic value of an object or service becomes tied to ability to pay, and the needs of the one who will be paid? Money ceases to be an expression of power and control, where those who direct the flow are able to determine the options the less powerful person has. Low wages and high living costs create a terrible power imbalance. If ability to pay becomes a moral obligation to pay, things change. If factors such as liking the work enter the equation it is very different from a money exchange based on desperation and power to exploit.

The basis of capitalism is scarcity, and control of resources. So if there isn’t much water and you can control access to it, people will pay anything you like. Those who can’t, die. This is an ideal capitalist scenario. Greater earning from water means money for the means to protect your control of the asset. If another well opens, the good capitalist will buy it and close it again to make sure people stay desperate, thirsty and willing to pay. Money in a capitalist system is not about exchange, but power.

What happens when you deploy money in a way that is not about the power relationship between you and someone else, but some other factor? How we feel about money starts to shift – it just becomes a way to get things done, not an item of fetishistic reverence. Our identities become less tied to how much money we can earn and deploy. Our sense of human worth ceases to be about what we can be made to pay them.

It might sound farfetched, but it is happening already, on places like Patreon.com and bandcamp, where supporters can give, and pay and offer more than is asked for, more than is ‘normal’ for the products in question. It happens at events where there is no door charge but a hat is passed. It happens around crowdfunding.

We don’t have to have an economic culture based on scarcity, exploitation and money as a tool of power. We can use money to get things done, to support each other, to make real change. This is not just an option for the arty and self employed either, opportunities exist for all of us to change the money game.

The king of birds

So the birds decide to choose a king, which you might think looks a good bit like democracy. They gather together to talk about the qualities a king should possess. This seems like a good idea, because those who will be led should have a say in who leads, and choosing the qualities of leadership is very important. Wisdom, perhaps. Knowledge, compassion, generosity, problem solving skills…

Rather than thinking about the qualities they want in a leader, each bird thinks about what he or she does best, and tries to make a case for why that should be the defining factor of a king. None of them are thinking about the implications of being ruled by someone else – only their own scope for getting the title. The biggest birds who are able to shout the loudest soon dominate the debate, drowning out the smaller, quieter and softer voices. Between them, they agree that being the biggest and strongest bird is the quality for kingship. This is in no way unusual. Being biggest and strongest was often what kingship was all about for people, too.

Having decided that power and strength make a king, the biggest and most powerful birds decide that seeing who can fly the highest will be an acceptable way of deciding which if them is most powerful. Thus it has always been, where the richest decide the means by which the richest will be chosen king. Those who rule by force arrange the trials that establish their rulership by force. It is the job of those who are to be led, to watch and cheer for their tyrant of preference and generally go along with the process and never, ever to question the basis on which kingship is decided. The birds know the routine, they all enthusiastically get involved with the flying contest. Especially those who know they can’t win. Joining in makes them feel part of something, and they like that.

All except for the wren, who hides on the back of an eagle, judges the timing perfectly and when the eagle thinks it’s won, the wren takes off, flying up a few feet to win the crown. Subverting the whole kingmaking program so that wit, tenacity and imagination win the day for a change, instead of brute force.

I don’t know about you, but if I must be led by others, (and sometimes it is a useful way of getting things done) I prefer to be ruled by one who has wit, vision and ingenuity. I prefer to be led by one who cannot rely on force to back up their points, but must instead reason and co-operate. I prefer to be led by one who knows what it is to be small and vulnerable, and who does not assume that the loudest voice is the most important. I also prefer to be led by someone with a sense of humour, and the wren also wins by being funnier than anyone else, turning its tiny form into a tactical advantage to beat the eagle from within its very feathers.

Here’s a song for the Occupy movement, featuring wrens… http://youtu.be/21IbgTewrMs do saunter over.