Challenging Power Structures

Our discussions in the political education working group have me thinking a lot about power structures and how we challenge them, while remaining uninfluenced by their appeal. Oftentimes individuals get caught up in the consolidation of power and become a self-perpetuation of the old order. Say you get promoted for example. Not because of your innate talent, because the old order doesn’t like young upstarts. But perhaps you fulfill a need in that organization. From that moment, you are expected to perform and validate yourself as a commodity, simultaneously competing against any young upstarts who represent a new order. From that moment, you are laying the concrete and entrenching yourself in a power structure designed for its own perpetuation.

What is really appealing about the political education working group is that we can hear different perspectives and interpretations of concepts from historically validated authors that help us challenge such entrenched power structures. We’ve read thus far Friedrich Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Mao Zedong, and Subcomandante Marcos. Each author has their own perspective on challenging power structures, and moreover, experienced notable success in doing so.

There are a few competing theories in what psychologists believe drive human motives. Sigmund Freud states that “what decides the purpose of life is simply the pleasure principle” (Freud, 1929). Viktor Frankl described human motivation originating from a search for meaning (Frankl, 2006). Maslow’s hierarchy identifies basic physiological and safety needs (Maslow, 1943). And finally, Nietzsche says, “life simply is will to power” (Nietzsche, 1909-1913).

Leadership skills are people skills. Charisma, charm, and manipulation have replaced the purpose of leaders to make informed decisions for a community. These values also target narcissistic behavior and result in entrenched politicians who do not represent their communities. The challenge facing the restructuring of societies are those entrenched in power.

In our political education working group’s discussion of Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet, Reform or Revolution, the limits of our electoral influence on existing power structures is most notable. We are pleading for Medicare for All during a pandemic and fail to stop oil imperialism led by the U.S. in Syria or Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Even the fight for $15 dollar an hour federal minimum wage does nothing for those distant working-class conditions. Rosa warns us that with legislative reformism and revisionism:

“…our programme becomes not the realisation of socialism, but the reform of capitalism; not the suppression of the wage labour system, but the diminution of exploitation, that is, the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of suppression of capitalism itself.

She concludes, “In short, the fundamental relations of the domination of the capitalist class cannot be transformed by means of legislative reforms.”

Engels criticized the utopian socialists and the monogamous family structure in our working group’s readings of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific and Origins of the Family as a way to show the need to challenge existing power structures. He criticizes the old order of utopian socialist thinkers:

“We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realization in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man”

He lays the blame not on them, but makes them out as victims of their own material conditions, “The great thinkers of the 18th century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch.”

Thirdly, in this month’s working group we will be discussing Mao Zedong’s essay On Practice. The idea I found most impactful was that:

Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin could work out their theories was mainly that they personally took part in the practice of the class struggle and the scientific experimentation of their time; lacking this condition, no genius could have succeeded. The saying, ‘without stepping outside his gate the scholar knows all the wide world’s affairs’, was mere empty talk in past times when technology was undeveloped

In today’s highly developed and globally interconnected society, Mao goes on to indirectly criticize the removed scholars of today and contrast them with revolutionary experience:

The people with real personal knowledge are those engaged in practice the wide world over. And it is only when these people have come to ‘know’ through their practice and when their knowledge has reached him through writing and technical media that the ‘scholar’ can indirectly ‘know all the wide world’s affairs’. If you want to know a certain thing or a certain class of things directly, you must personally participate in the practical struggle to change reality, to change that thing or class of things.

His conclusion is that, “Only through personal participation in the practical struggle to change reality can you uncover the essence of that thing or class of things and comprehend them.”

Subcomandante Marcos echoes Mao Zedong’s sentiments on inexperienced intellectualism. “Producing theory from within a social or political movement is not the same as producing it from within academia,” Marcos reminds us. He goes on:

Lack of memory and dishonesty are generally pervasive, (not always, it’s true) among these armchair analysts. One day they say one thing, and they predict something, on the other the opposite happens, but the analyst has lost his memory and goes back to theorizing while ignoring what he said previously.”

Marcos has a final assertion in this regard that has alarming implications, “If academia is wrong, it ‘forgets.’ If the movement is wrong, it fails.” As they did, Marcos believed that the Zapatistas must develop their own philosophy based on experience before adopting theories from academia.

These authors challenge power structures by criticizing reformists, idealists, or academics who lack direct involvement with a movement. This dissent from the norm is a reminder for us that challenging power structures must heed the warning of intellectuals while relying on the experiences of those within their own material conditions. Change is possible. We just have to challenge everything.