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invited talk given at the University of Brighton, Education Research Centre
This was a draft working papersome of the ideas of which informed some of the chapters for the book:
Schostak, J. F., and Schostak, J. R. (Eds) (2009) Researching Violence, Democracy and the Rights of People, Routledge: London, UK
A first version of this paper was presented at CARN 2008 with the title: Violence, Social Justice, Action Research and the Powers of Individuals.
Back in the 1550s a young law student wrote an essay to answer a simple question. Essentially it was: why are people so obedient to dictators when the only power a dictator has is the power freely given by people? His name was La Boetie and he proposed a simple solution: stop giving them the power! After describing the terrors, the woes, the injustices and the indignities wrought by a tyrant he writes:
From all these indignities, such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces?
But what happens if the Colossus should fall? In Hobbes’s view of the nature of human beings as essentially violent, the overwhelming power of the State as ‘Leviathan’ was absolutely necessary to bring order otherwise there would be a descent into a war of all against all. Since then, of course, there have been revolutions, and various kinds of people’s republics and democracies have been constituted. Even though in many countries power is constituted differently to the time of Boetie, State violence in all its most crude as well as most subtle forms remains all pervasive as Leviathan takes on the guise of an Orwellian 1984 or the ‘Shock and Awe’ of Bush or the violent totalitarianism of a Mugabe. State violence – or in its more nuanced forms of state coercion - effectively sets the overarching problematic context to any discussion of making research into a critical practice that creates spaces for social justice and for the action necessary to accomplish it. Alongside and within this are sustained multiple other forms of social, cultural, political, economic coercion that impact upon people’s capacity to act, think and express themselves freely in a condition of equality with others.
Action and the will to freedom are at the heart of this problematic. For Kant the issue of freedom was essential to the Enlightenment project: “Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.” Again, it seems such a simple solution. The trouble is, no individual alone is sufficient to counter organized power. How then does this in itself affect the actions and reactions of individuals, families, groups and communities who seek to change the circumstances of their lives? If all that is required is to refuse to give support to those who strive to exploit and if all that is required to bring about ‘enlightenment’ is the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters’ then what are the conditions under which the space where hierarchical powers can be suspended and for the public use of reason can be created? The creation of this space, I want to argue, is the central political, democratic role of research allied to education as a practice of freedom and social justice.
For Nancy Fraser (2007)
justice requires social arrangements that permit all members to participate in social interaction on a par with one another. So that means they must be able to participate as peers in all the major forms of social interaction: whether it's politics, whether it's the labour market, whether it's family life and so on.
Schools are a major site for social interaction. However, when and where at school or in other places of everyday life in communities are young people – or adults for that matter –able to participate equally and freely with each to create the conditions for public debate and decision making concerning the social ‘good’? Or indeed, where are they able to participate equally and freely in creating public spaces for self expression, cultural and political action? How, in short can space be made for social justice and the action necessary to make changes? What is the role of education in relation to critical research and the creation or repression of space for social justice? And how may research as a critical practice eat away at repressive structures, processes, ways of thinking and acting?
Fundamental to the creation of space for social justice and action is politics. And there is a close relationship between politics and the uses of social research. Indeed, research as a practice of freedom in the Enlightenment sense is itself a political act. With the advent of a politics of the people undertaken in the name of equality and freedom, however embryonic, then ways in which to manage the individual desires, interests, and demands of people had to be constructed. In this, education and subsequently educational, psychological and social research has played a crucial role to form and fashion the new subjectivities required for the new politics. Although the thought of schools for the masses was frightening for many of the privileged classes during the early stages of the industrial revolution, schools were at least a way of getting the unruly off the streets and disciplining them in the skills and work habits required for the factories. More significantly, perhaps, as the vote was extended by the 1867 Reform Act to a million working class men there was a need to ensure they used their power the right way. Or as Robert Lowe argued, there was a need to “educate our masters”.
The masses as the real ‘masters’ is implicit in Boetie’s analysis of the illusory yet consequential nature of the power of the tyrant. Zizek (1993) described the evaporation of the image of the Leviathan or in Zizek’s terms the Big Other through the illustration of Ceausescu’s sudden loss of power in Romania. In Boetie’s terms, when the people, or at least sufficient numbers of people, withdraw their assent to the power of the Big Other, the Colossus collapses. This may be called the political moment. That is, the moment when individuals are able collectively to show and enact their will. It can be seen in the great events such as the English Civil War, the French Revolution or the American War of independence, or indeed the non-violent politics of Ghandi that led to India’s independence from the British Empire. In each such case there is a whole scale remaking of the political constitution. However, the political can also be found in the multiplicities of events where people protest, create movements and exert pressure on the prevailing structure of power as a way of creating awareness amongst the public in order to generate the conditions for change.
If the power of a state ultimately rests upon the collective powers of individuals, then those powers, as Lowe and others had argued, have to be regulated by laws, policed, and ‘educated’ to have the right views and values, behave in an orderly fashion and make the right decisions if the privileges of the few are to be retained. Of course, this education can be accomplished formally through the education system itself but it can also be undertaken more subtly through the kinds of disciplines required of workers in public and private organizations as well as more pervasively through the construction of reality represented by communications media. Lippman in his book Public Opinion famously called it the ‘manufacture of consent’ (1921):
That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough.
The creation of consent is not a new art. It is a very old one which was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy. But it has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in technic, because it is now based on analysis rather than on rule of thumb. And so, as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power.
The manufacture of consent was a phrase later taken up by Chomsky (1988) in his explorations of contemporary power. However, it is not so much consent that is formulated after rigorous reflection on evidence, the systematic presentation of the full range of alternative views and the free use of reason in all matters but rather the engineering of habits of compliance and conformity along with the illusion of choice. There was at this time considerable interest in the behaviour of crowds, the analysis of herd like behaviour (Ward 1924) and the application of sociological and psychological understandings to the manipulation of people, particularly in the context of mass markets. Bernays (1928) often thought of as the ‘father’ of Public Relations drew upon Lippman (1922) as well as the theories of his uncle, Freud. In his view:
Ours must be a leadership democracy administered by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses.
(Bernays 1928: 127)
Bernays was extremely influential in his time working with major businesses as well as the government. Indeed, in the BBC documentary, Century of the Self , his influence is traced from the New Deal following the Great Depression through to the election campaigns of Regan, Bush and Blair.
The emergent development of public relations methodology could be thought of as a kind of action research. There is, for example, a marketing requirement: the need to extend the cigarette market to women . At the time, smoking was largely the province of men. Thus a particular problem has been identified. How might it be resolved? What sort of hypotheses might guide the solution? At the time, for Lippman (1927) and Bernays (1928) the broad hypothesis was that the public mind is manipulated through ‘invisible governments’ and that the ‘conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.’ (p. 37). How then to improve the practice of marketing? What action steps should be undertaken? In the case of smoking, the ‘action step’ formulated by Bernays was influenced by psychoanalytic theory. As a consequence he organized a spectacle in which influential women lit up cigarettes as ‘torches of freedom’. The focus on freedom, youth, beauty was deliberately allied to the women’s movement and the newly won right to vote – and of course, the ‘right to smoke’ in public spaces just like men. As a further innovation Bernays developed the use of the focus group. The focus group has been employed by ‘spin masters’ since to create a close fit between the opinions of voters or consumers and the messages of political leaders and the interests of business leaders. Hence, the action research framework worked at both ends of the spectrum.
Where Boetie saw power diffused from the tyrant via a hierarchy of subordinates – a group of say 6 officials each controlling a group of 50 who each in turn control a group of 100, who in turn control a group of 1000 and so eventually controlling a nation – Bernays sought to influence the influencers. For example, when a film star is adored by millions, this can be used influence the behaviour of fans. A similar strategy may be employed with other groups – influencing doctors may influence the health conscious; influencing teachers may influence parents. And so on. Key leaders – for example in education, health, entertainment, sports, business - are identified through whom particular messages can be channeled. This might be called the top down strategy.
The bottom up strategy, then involves researching the target groups themselves through surveys, interviews and focus groups so that a sense of the motivations, values, hopes and fears of people can be identified. This in turn can be packaged in such a way that leaders can feed it back to people so that they associated their desires with the stories being told by the leaders. In this way democracy is shaped and managed through elite groups.
All this fits well with the neo-liberal of the market as the paradigm of freedom which in turn paves the way for the control of democracy by corporates, in particular the private globalised corporates of big business. This then provides the context for the construction of action at individual, group and organizational levels. If research is to be a serious strategy of change, development or indeed improvement in terms of social justice then it must map and engage with the conditions that frame the possibilities for action.
What would an updated version of La Boetie’s essay on obedience include? There are still tyrants and people whose desires for freedom, equality, social justice are suppressed by violence or threats of violence but there are also various kinds of democracies that claim to be based not on tyranny but on the powers of the people as individuals. But what is most striking globally are the contrasts of wealth between nations and within nations and, even if they desire it, the lack of concerted action by the mass of individuals locally and globally to effect a change to redress the inequalities of wealth and privilege.
The scale of the challenge is immense. “Social injustice is killing people on a grand scale” ends the 2008 WHO report from the committee on the Social Determinants of Health . Commenting on the report:
A girl in Lesotho is likely to live 42 years less than another in Japan. In Sweden, the risk of a woman dying during pregnancy and childbirth is 1 in 17 400; in Afghanistan, the odds are 1 in 8. Biology does not explain any of this. Instead, the differences between - and within - countries result from the social environment where people are born, live, grow, work and age.
(News Medical.Net: thurs 28 Aug 2008 )
From the Table 1 below it can be seen that even within countries people have very different life expectancies. Depending upon where one lives in Glasgow for example there is either a life expectancy for a man of 82, or of 54. Such inequalities are no longer surprising (see for example). Indeed,
The survey data on which most of our estimates are based under represent the rich and do not reflect the holdings of the super-rich. Although the SCF survey in the USA does an excellent job in the upper tail, its sampling frame explicitly omits the ‘Forbes 400’ families. Surveys in other countries do not formally exclude the very rich, but it is rare for them to be captured. This means that our estimated shares of the top 1 per cent and 10 per cent are likely to err on the low side. A rough idea of the possible size of the error can be gained by noting that the total wealth of the world’s billionaires reported by Forbes for the year 2000, $2.16 trillion, was 1.7 per cent of our estimate of $125.3 trillion for total world household wealth.
Nor is it much of a surprise any more to learn that “The richest 10 per cent of adults accounted for 85 per cent of assets. The bottom 50 per cent of the world’s adults owned barely 1 per cent of global wealth.” (Times, Dec 6, 2006) Nor that:
the combined wealth of the richest 200 billionaires hit US$1135 billion in 1999, up from $1042 billion in 1998. The combined incomes of the 582 million people living in the world's 43 least developed countries (LDCs) is scarcely a 10th of this figure, $146 billion a year.
(Green left on line, July 2000)
(Source WHO 2008)
Meanwhile the global ‘credit crunch’ architects of 2008 pay themselves billions (see and also see).
According to Grant Thornton, the UK billionaires paid income tax totalling just £14.7m on their £126 billion combined fortunes, and only a handful paid any capital gains tax.
At least 32 of the individual billionaires or family groupings are calculated not to have paid any personal taxes on their fortunes, although they are liable for Vat and council tax.
(The Sunday Times, 3rd Dec, 2006)
These figures, of course, while revealing injustice on a global scale also by their very abstraction conceal the lived experience, the violence and all the subtle and not so subtle processes and structures through which they are produced and maintained. In support of these, research and education as practiced by business, political, public relations and the school system are the pedagogies of austerity, of counting blessings in the face of adversity and the powers of discipline.
La Boetie’s question is, why don’t things change? His answer is because people obey rather than refuse obedience to unreasonable, inequitable and demeaning social, cultural and political arrangements. Arendt’s (1963) question concerning Eichmann was implicitly, how could ordinary people let it happen? There is a banality to violence, to the systematic industrial, bureaucratic organization of violence. People just do their jobs. The conditions under which it occurs are almost invisible. At their most sophisticated the conditions that produce social injustices of all kinds and obedience can be sustained not by threat but by the rational research based manipulation of needs, interests, desires, hopes as in the kinds of strategies adopted by Bernays. Indeed, Goebbels was much influenced by the techniques of Lippman and Bernays.
Schooling can be made to play its part. Harber (2004) describes in great detail how schooling around the world can be used to create and maintain the conditions for violence and of course, for the obedience that is necessary for discipline and the ‘regimenting of minds’ so desired by Bernays as the father of contemporary political spin doctors (Tye 2001). One of the most extreme educational experiments is that of Schreber who as an influential educationist in the German Gymnasium movement of the nineteenth century employed his principles on his own children. Essentially it involved a system of rigorous control and surveillance that led to the mental breakdowns of one of his sons and probably the suicide of another. Daniel Paul Schreber wrote an account of his mental illness that became the basis for Freud’s initial views on paranoia (Schatzmann 1973). Disciplining the mind and the body through constant measurement, recording, timetabling, testing, the application of reward and punishment were the essence of the system – Values that are still not out of place in contemporary schooling. His ‘writing down’ system is still not out of place in contemporary advice on how to achieve control and ‘good’ behaviour (Rogers 1990)
In the late 1960s a young teacher decided to illustrate the strategies employed in Nazi Germany as part of a history lesson (also see).
In the fall of 1967, a history teacher at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California, named Ron Jones conducted an experiment in his class. During a lesson on the subject of National Socialism, one of his students asked a question the teacher couldn't answer: "How could the German populace claim ignorance of the slaughter of the Jewish people? How could the townspeople, railroad conductors, teachers, doctors, claim they knew nothing about the concentration camps and human carnage? How can people who were neighbors and maybe even friends of the Jewish citizen say they weren't there when it happened?"
On the spur of the moment, he decided to conduct a classroom experiment. He instituted a regimen of strict discipline in his class, restricting their freedom and forming them into a unit. The name of the movement was The Third Wave. Much to the teacher's astonishment, the students reacted enthusiastically to the obedience he demanded of them. The experiment, which was originally intended to last only a day, soon spread to the whole school. Dissenters were ostracized, members began spying on each other, and students who refused to join were beaten up on. By day five, Ron Jones was forced to call off the experiment.
It seems far fetched that this could happen. But it did. It also seems farfetched that the kinds of experiments conducted by Stanley Migram (1974) could happen. Here people were led to believe they were involved in a learning experiment. If the student (an actor) was not able to provide the correct answer then an electric shock would be administered by the volunteer member of the public. The volunteer was informed that the shocks would gradually increase until they became very severe each time the student got the answer wrong. The experiment was of course how about how far the volunteer would go. Most went to the very limit. A repeat experiment was carried out in 2007. The results were much the same :
I went to great lengths to recreate Milgram’s procedures (Experiment Five), including such details as the words used in the memory test and the experimenter’s lab coat. But I also made several substantial changes. First, we stopped the procedures at the 150-volt mark. This is the first time participants heard the learner’s protests through the wall and his demands to be released. When we look at Milgram’s data, we find that this point in the procedure is something of a “point of no return.” Of the participants who continued past 150 volts, 79 percent went all the way to the highest level of the shock generator (450 volts). Knowing how people respond up to this point allowed us to make a reasonable estimate of what they would do if allowed to continue to the end.
He found that:
More than a year after collecting the data, I have no indication that any participant was harmed by his or her participation in the study. On the contrary, I was constantly surprised by participants’ enthusiasm for the research both during the debriefing and in subsequent communications. We also produced some interesting findings. Among other things, we found that today people obey the experimenter in this situation at about the same rate they did 45 years ago.
Such experiments provide a worrying glimpse into the ordinariness of, even pleasure (?) of the violence that underlies such forms of obedience. They all rely upon the ordinary mechanisms of authority and of day to day values concerning respect for authority that underpin notions of leadership, team work, being a good worker, a good citizen and the principle organizations and institutions of society. That is to say, authority and obedience are intimately involved in hierarchical and exploitative social relations of every kind. What is at stake can be seen in the comments made by Callinicos on a statement made by David Goodhart that ‘Bill Gates has not amassed a fortune of $150 billion by exploiting the poor of Seattle’ :
If Gates has accumulated his billions thanks to a nation – and indeed worldwide process of economic restructuring, in which the introduction of information technology has contributed to the large-scale destruction of jobs and constant pressure on wages and conditions, then he is implicated in a process of exploitation. …. Moreover, the places that exploiters and exploited have in the structure of exploitation give them interests in, respectively, maintaining or reducing inequality: to that extent, exploitation is directly relevant to the political processes through which injustice can be corrected.
(Callinicos: 2000: 69)
For the most part, it is this very scale that stops any thought of action in its tracks, generates a sense of hopelessness and draws down ridicule on any attempt at protest.
What kind of research is required to address and redress such issues?
Research is always in danger of being co-opted by policy makers in the interests
of corporate forms of power and the development of what Charles Murray has promoted
as ‘custodial democracy’, or Bernays’ regimenting of minds.
Nevertheless, democracy has often been considered the politics of hope, the hope that through the voices of individuals counted as votes injustices can be overcome and freedoms can be sustained and expanded. But if this is to be realised, then democracy cannot be simply a spectator sport, indulged in every few years. In the view of Chantal Mouffe (1993), democracy has to be driven down to the finest details of everyday life. But how can this be done?
Research that is conscious of its political implications answers the question of what is to be done. Setting this into context with the discussion of the forms of ‘obedience’ and its relation to violence and inequality, then Boetie’s proposition becomes all the more contemporary. It is the power to refuse to give unquestioning obedience to another, together with the Kantian Enlightenment principle of the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters that provides a framework for action. In this framework debate and dialogue are necessary but they are not sufficient. The grounds for change precede their existence and these grounds arise in any demand for equality, justice, fair play and the right to be heard and taken into account that are set into play when refusing to obey or engaging in the free use of reason publicly. This involves the emergence of public space, that is, the space in which to be seen, heard and taken into account in all actions.
How might research contribute to the production of such spaces? There are increasing numbers of examples in terms of participatory action research and more generally research that is allied to radical approaches such as critical feminism and critical race theory. In each case, it seems to me, the critical step is the embedding of democratic practices in every public scene. How far can such practices go? One such example, at a small albeit whole school scale was the ‘early years talking and listening project’ (Schostak 1988-9) . Here the power structures between teacher and pupil were leveled in terms of each being participants in solving problems: each had an equal voice, each was to listen to the other. However, it is often difficult to engage at a whole school level. The action research intervention may become simply an island of experimentation cut off from the rest of the ‘real’ work of the school (e.g., CIEL project ) or on a much larger scale, there is the experience of the CARA project undertaken by CAPE UK which showed how exciting and successful projects can be created with the input of creative practitioners alongside teachers. However, without the transformation of the space in which people interact in order to ensure each individual’s engagement real change cannot take place (c.f., Schostak et al 2006 , Schostak 2006 ).
On a much larger scale was the initiative of Barclays Bank in its Spaces for Sport Programme. The difference is that of scale itself. The programme involved £30 million from Barclays and with money from other partners the sum was brought up to around £50 million. The programme was a part of its Corporate Social Responsibility strategy. Research led by Schostak and Ramwell (MMU 2008) on the impact of the programme described the considerable lengths to achieve real representation from the community in ensuring that the sports facilities provided were those that local communities actually wanted . Furthermore, each local project focused around one or more sports such as skateboarding, BMX cycling, cricket, netball, football and so on and had to have a realistic plan for development and sustainability. The projects targeted deprived areas and in most cases acted as catalysts for community objectives other than sport, such as developing skills, confidence for employment and the understanding of health. In that sense, the programme achieved its goals. However, there are still key issues to address that go beyond big business and big charitable or public corporations engaging in corporate social responsibility. Big business in itself already contradicts any notion of equal participation. A market driven by profit and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of relatively few generates inequality. An ethic of philanthropic giving back to the community can also easily be interpreted as a cynical tactic of de-fusing discontent in order to maintain the status quo. Even genuine philanthropy by major corporations or wealthy individuals by maintaining the wealth and power differentials does not meet Fraser’s (2007) criterion of participation of all members ‘on a par with one another’.
Transforming space demands an attention to all the conditions necessary for producing real effective change in the distributions of wealth and social value. One example that might prove to be interesting is what may be called the ‘renaissance of co-operative values’ that has been given substance in the UK by the announcement by Ed Balls intention to facilitate 100 co-operative trust schools following the successful establishment of the first at Reddish, a foundation school supported by a Co-operative Trust. The ambition is to go well beyond 100 schools nationally. Indeed, there are 600 such schools already in Spain with others in Scandinavia, Germany, Africa, America and other countries. This is where we get into the realm of ‘what if …..’.
What if there were several hundred schools established in the UK based upon democratic co-operative principles based on the notion of the participation of all ‘on a par with one another’? What if this participation extended out into the local communities so that the school was a catalyst for a change in perception concerning how decision making is made in public for local needs, interests, and demands? It may be objected that this has been done before and various initiatives like Summerhill as a radical experiment or the free school ‘movement’ of the 1970s – all to little effect. However, the difference is ‘scale’, the scale of the co-operative movement itself globally and its activities in virtually all sectors of social, economic and political life. The focus upon individual participation, democracy and the values of co-operation contribute to the formation of an alternative economic, social and political space that provides a critical alternative to neo-liberal market democracies where the public mind is engineered and regimented by elites who govern on behalf of ‘majorities’.Disobedient Research for Democracy and Social Justice
Rather than the deep surveillance and the deep regimentation of minds so typical of contemporary everyday life, the vital programme for critical and radical research has to be the creation of the conditions for the emergence of public space as the precondition for deep democracy. This means that research needs to engage directly with the conditions under which public space is continually created and sustained in every social interaction involved in the formation of judgement, decision and the will to action. If radical research is always directed towards freedom and thus towards equality it is thus always disobedient to all forms of hierarchical control and unequal social, economic, political, cultural arrangements. Its features include:
Finally, then, it may be asked: when children leave school, what has been the sum of their experiences about the range of democratic practices in their lives? How has and how may research contribute(d) to those experiences? In order to address the deep seated social justice issues, the pervasive forms of violence and violence through which everyday life is structured, the beginnings can only be made directly in the particular circumstances and scenes of action where individuals use their powers to use reason freely in public. Research into appropriate forms of education – whether in schools, in communities, in homes, in the workplace, on the internet - have a major role to play in the education of democratic sensibilities and practices and the formation of spaces for social justice.
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