Knowledge and power


“Every country has debt, the US has debt. The difference is power,” I heard a young American man saying to the waiters as he sat outside the restaurant. Monday was the first day the banks were closed, and a number of waiters had weighed in on the discussion about what would happen, what should happen, who was to blame for the situation.

I walked to this restaurant close to the ruins of Hadrian’s Library through Plaka, listening in to journalists talking to tourists about how the bank closures was affecting them, looking at the faces of the shopkeepers, restaurant staff and Greek diners to gauge how people were reacting to the latest twist of events that has propelled them, once more, into the unknown.

A Guardian article by Paul Harris about the new politics at Glastonbury was also on my mind. Harris writes that in the festival’s Left Field tent, “the thought sprang to mind again and again: here was an identifiable political tribe cohering right in front of us.” The people who attended the debates were interested in the speakers from Syriza and Podemos, the Pussy Riot feminists, as well as Scottish activists Cat Boyd – of the Radical Independence Campaign – and Pat Kane.

To somewhat selectively quote from Paul Mason’s Why It’s All Kicking Off Everywhere, a lot of the people who came to the Left Field echoed his description of the 21st century’s new breed of young activists as “a new sociological type … They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies … The common theme is dissolution of centralised power and the demand for ‘autonomy’ and personal freedom.

The phrase “We are the 99 per cent” is now as much focused on representation as redistribution Harris argues, adding that recent events, particularly the rise of Podemos in Spain, suggest the latter will not occur without the former.

The play Socrates Now that I saw on Saturday raised questions about what individuals can achieve in the face of powerful interests, some suggesting that, rather than expect to change the world, we should focus on making a difference in our work or community, while others seemed to say we should focus more on being a good person, treating people well in our one to one encounters.

I wrote in another post that there was some merit in shifting the perspective from being world changers to one of being among people, being changed by those encounters. But walking around Athens I was thinking about how it all stacked up when Greece, and Europe as a whole, faces an economic and democratic crisis of this magnitude. Is the only impact we can expect to have on the micro level, as some seemed to suggest, on social projects, for instance. Or is this approach anyway predicated on the dissolution of centralised power that Harris mentions?

It was Harris’ observation that a characteristic of the Left Field crowd was an “assertive kind of identity politics chiefly manifested in feminism” that prompted me to think of Lois McNay’s book Foucault and Feminism. In it, McNay draws on the work of Jessica Benjamin’s Bonds of Love to explore agency and the operation of power, suggesting that what is missing from politics is the personal dimension.

…for both Benjamin and Foucault, the transformation to a more radical form of political practice is not possible without a risking of the self. In other words, a radical personal politics is still absolutely central to the success of any kind of political change at the more general level.

Feminist activists in Spain, for instance were focusing on the way they did politics as well as what they wanted to achieve, highlighting the importance of negotiation and collaboration. Could feminism’s adage that the personal is the political be a missing link?

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