Coming Down the Pyramid or How to Give up Power
Reflections on power in social services and how to give it up or make it anew.
Today I was part of the We Chose to Climb event, created by the Social Care Ideas Factory. It was a stimulating affair, and I really enjoyed being there - seeing familiar faces, catching up and meeting new people. I was also greatly encouraged by the presentations and the thinking I heard expressed. There is still a long way to go to make self-directed support a reality in Scotland - but there is a maturity and reality to the approach in Scotland which I found very encouraging.
The day was too full to do justice to everything I heard, but the image I was left with was that of Alison Petch: It may difficult to climb the pyramid; but it is even more difficult to climb down.
Added to this was Charlie Barker-Gavigan’s observation that more people died coming down the Matterhorn than going up it. Descending from a position of power is a dangerous business.
All of this tallies with a well-known historical fact: the risk of a revolution tends to increase, not decrease, when regimes start to show weakness and try to reform themselves. Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French political theorist put it this way:
“Revolutions are not always brought about by a gradual decline from bad to worse. Nations that have endured patiently and almost unconsciously the most overwhelming oppression, often burst into rebellion against the yoke the moment it begins to grow lighter. The regime which is destroyed by a revolution is almost always an improvement on its immediate predecessor, and experience teaches that the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform.”
So - indeed - nothing seems more dangerous than to give up power.
Yet, self-directed support does seem to depend on some kind of giving up of power. It is only real if there is some shift in authority - if people can make more decisions and exercise more freedom in their own life.
However, I think we must careful here. We must be careful in our thinking about power: power is not like a cake, which we can buy from the baker, and divide at our own choosing. Making power is not a zero-sum game - it is not a matter of winners and losers or the distribution a finite object.
Hannah Arendt, in her wonderful essay, On Violence, distinguishes true power from the violence that we often confuse with power:
"Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.”
For Arendt, power is made when we come together as free people and commit ourselves to create a world of collaborative action - in other words, true power is the expression of citizenship and community. We make power together and the sign of a decent society is that it is overflowing with power.
We become confused because sometimes the powerful can deploy violence, and this can lead ultimately to the corruption of power into terror or tyranny. But in a sense, such a world is a world without power - power has been replaced by violence.
What we can learn from this is that, we can make our descent down the pyramid safer if we start to release our capacity for the creation of new kinds of power - the powers that are released when we come together to create new and better ways of being together as equals.
Connected to this was an observation by Susan Eriksson, who was commenting on the slippery nature of the power shift in self-directed support in Finland. Susan noted that, while there were new and positive changes for people, it was also clear that professionals also used self-directed support as a way to reassert their role and to develop new accounts of their professional purpose.
Now this may sound rather suspect; but I actually think it is essential, if we are to achieve the shift to self-directed support. If we want people to descend the pyramid then we must try and make it safe for them to do so. This means working together to help that group to find new roles and develop more productive forms of power relationship.
Commissioners - for example - need to be welcomed into a new a more collaborative definition of their role.
At its worst this process can be corrupted and no real change takes place - but at its best - as my friend Suzie Fothergill sings: we will find that there is room for all of us in this world.