A shadow on the wall

“Power resides where people believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall.” – Varys in “Game of Thrones”, paraphrased.

In the fantasy kingdom of Westeros, monarchs wield absolute power. If Queen Cercei orders her guards to seize Lord Baelish and cut off his head, they will obey without question.

Why do the guards obey? None of them has any grudge with Lord Baelish. They don’t necessarily enjoy seizing people and chopping off their heads – they would probably rather be in a tavern somewhere quaffing ale. But each guard knows that if he were to disobey the queen, she would order him thrown in the dungeons and killed – and the other guards would carry out this command. It isn’t possible for just one guard to disobey the queen, but if they all stopped obeying her at the same time, her power and authority would disappear.

In our world the mechanisms are much more complicated, but the same fundamental principle applies: the powerful in our society have power because ordinary people believe they do – and this belief is backed up by an ever-present threat of arrest and imprisonment. It is dangerous for one person or for a handful of people to disobey, but it seems like we should be able to get together en masse and decide to believe in and create a better world for everyone.

But how? Many left-wing campaigners are influenced by Marxism. In Marxism society is divided into two groups: the rich / capitalists / the owning class, and the working class / everyone else. The goal in Marxism is for a group of leaders / a party / a vanguard to lead the working class in a revolution, where they take all the wealth away from the rich, and share it out equally, creating a society where everyone is a worker, and no-one is rich or poor. Under these conditions, all forms of inequality, bigotry and oppression are expected to melt away.

There are a lot of problems with this approach. For a start, society is not divided into just two groups. There are many different experiences and identities out there. We don’t all want the same things, we don’t all have the same problems, and it’s impossible for one group to represent everyone’s interests. However Marxism calls for just one party / vanguard to lead the way, and this can lead to various left-wing organisations spending more energy on competing with each-other to be that one party, than on anything else. Even worse, left-wing groups sometimes end up supporting existing oppressive power structures, by telling those who challenge racism, sexism, and other oppressions to be silent in the name of “unity”.

So power exists because people believe in it, and it follows that we should be able to come together to imagine / create a different, better society. However, the “We’ll form a small group with an ideology and a set of demands to take the lead, and everyone else should just do what we say” strategy won’t work. We need to find a way to co-operate without demanding that we all march to the same drum. This requires an ongoing process or listening and learning, negotiation and compromise. It requires working in coalition even if we don’t have exactly the same goals, and even if we don’t fully understand each-other. It means giving up on the idea of finding the one, true answer, and instead focusing on creating more democracy and participation.