The way we all navigate life is not random. The jobs we have, educational tracks we end up on, places we live in are all shaped by myriad forces around us. Some people are more able than others to mould and have a hold over these forces, while others may need to struggle against them to gain control. These forces can be described as those resulting from the power that is unequally distributed across a group of people.
Usually we think of power as something that is explicit, visible, verifiable. Think of police officers patrolling the streets with big guns, a politician closing the border to people from outside, a teacher telling a student they’re in detention. These examples are obvious and would stop people doing things they may otherwise do.
The definition of power that this post will focus on is that which comes as a result of consent rather than coercion. This is what various thinkers have described as a more important and long-lasting form of power than that which holds a gun to your head.
Instead of simply trying to stop people doing things, this form of power exists without explicit threats and instead seeks to construct a view of what a “normal” world is. It insists on a false rationality where the “normal” is sold as the result of common sense, rather than the outcome of a system where the voice of some, quite simply, counts for more than someone else’s. There is only one normal, and not any number of them depending on time and place. Think, for example, of beauty standards where those racialised as white are upheld as more beautiful than those racialised as non-white. It’s not rational in any sense at all, but is a largely agreed upon fact. From that flows a whole series of actions by people, those with power and those without, to change according to this norm or be disciplined for not adhering to it.
This kind of power creates an ideal subject and seeks to encourage a “correct” population. In the case of racism we can see that in the form of whiteness, but it can also be looked at in patriarchy, structural barriers for people with disabilities, or violent against trans folk, alongside many other impediments for those marginalised communities who do not possess power.
One way in which this normalising, mundane power is different from the repressive, in-your-face kind is that we can’t definitively say where it comes from. There is no authority that can be emailed and appealed to to change to subsequently better the lot of those at the bottom. This power is multi-pronged, cannot be seen, and the blame cannot be pinned on any one person, authority, organisation, group of people. Foucault talks instructively about how power is encoded in and perpetuated by any number of everyday acts we all carry out:
The activity which ensures apprenticeship and the acquisition of aptitudes or types of behavior is developed there by means of a whole ensemble of regulated communications (lessons, questions and answers, orders exhortations, coded signs of obedience, differentiation marks of the value" of each person and of the levels of knowledge, and by the means of a whole series of power processes (enclosure, surveillance, reward and punishment, the pyramidal hierarchy).'
We can see here a raft of actions that we all take as normal and putatively neutral, things that we’ve all done a million times before without thinking twice. However, Foucault makes the point that they haven’t always existed and are part and parcel of the capitalist economic system that we all live in which depends on some measure of inequality across a society. When those in power do not have to rely on the police or army to assert their will, but rather see power perpetuated in the unseeable motions of daily life then we can appreciate how durable it is and trustworthy it can become. This way of things is not the outcome of a single policy or decision, but rather the layers of decisions many different groups have taken and the outcome of the movements of history. Of course, this is not to stay that there always remains a background hum of the threat of violence. Deaths of marginalised persons at the hands of police and far-right violence can be seen as one example of this.
This idea of power is hugely complex and, as such, this glossary post does not examine it in all its necessary detail and just touches upon its intersection with race and other identities. However it is a start in informing an anti-racist practice which considers the many different, subtle, everyday ways that power works, to then use that in dismantling its structures.