• Open Access

Power and the Twenty-first Century Activist: From the Neighbourhood to the Square


  • Jenny Pearce

  • This article is based on work undertaken for a series of ‘Power Talks’, part of a UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded study of Power in Community; see Pearce (2012) for details. I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers of this article. I would also like to thank the community activists who participated in the ‘Power Talks’ and Lisa Cumming, Mandy Wilson and Liz Firth who helped organize these.


This article is about the alternative forms of power emerging in contemporary activism. It conceptualizes this new form of power as ‘non-dominating’, and puts forward six propositions which characterize this form of power. It builds on work about power with eight diverse communities in the North of England, to argue that this form of power does exist in practice at the neighbourhood level, even though it is not articulated as such. While neighbourhood activists have difficulty in making this form of power effective, at the level of the ‘square’ and global activism, new understandings and practices of power are under conscious experimentation. This contribution therefore suggests that better connections need to be built between these levels of activism. At the same time, non-dominating power should be recognized as enhancing the debate about effective and transformative change and how it can avoid reproducing dominating power.


This article explores the relationship between local (neighbourhood) and global (public square)1 activism, and in particular the extent to which new understandings of power and its exercise have emerged in and between these spaces. In particular, it sets out a series of propositions aimed at defining the idea of ‘non-dominating power’, against which to assess what a new understanding of power might look like and to identify the tensions which arise as activists at both levels attempt to use such power effectively.

The editors of this Debate have highlighted what they call a ‘globalization of disaffection’. Global social justice movements and large-scale challenges to authoritarianism, corruption, inequality and austerity in the global South and global North have caught the headlines, albeit with ebbs and flows. This Debate section offers a range of case studies of these different movements and explores their commonalities, responding to the critical questions posed by the editors — in particular, are they new and if so how? This article offers a slightly different angle on those questions. It asks how would we recognize a transformatory agenda? And how deep does that agenda reach into society, particularly to its poorest and most disadvantaged communities?

At their heart the editors’ questions ask whether anything distinctive has emerged amongst those acting today for change in the world. They speak of ‘non-centralized’ movements, and ask whether they have transformatory capacities signalling a ‘tipping point’ or whether prevailing power structures will simply contain them. This contribution to the Debate explores the nature of power within and between activist movements as part of an investigation into what constitutes transformatory momentum, focusing on new meanings and practices of power as one indicator of this. It explores whether we are witnessing a move beyond what I call the ‘empowerment trap’. The emphasis on ‘empowerment’ of oppressed groups which emerged in the late twentieth century failed, I argue, to pave the way for transforming power as meaning and practice. This, in turn, limited the transformatory potential of activist movements or their capacity to bring about sustained and effective change in the structure of human interactions and the societies which emerge from them. There are signs that Activisms 2010+ are creating new forms of power as well as enhanced agency. However, does this global ‘activism of the square’ resonate with the daily struggles in the ‘neighbourhoods’ of the poor, many of whom might not see themselves as participants in change beyond their localities?

The manner in which activists exercise and contest power impacts, I suggest, on the potential outcome of their contestation and whether movements can widen and deepen their appeal. Global social justice movements2 have begun to experiment, for instance, with new forms of inclusive consensus decision making, suggesting that at that level, experimentation with how power is exercised is underway. However, while such movements make global headlines, how far they resonate with grassroots, community and place-based activism also matters. There is evidence that Occupy Wall Street drew on histories of local activism in the US, and unemployed youth and the homeless have rallied to the ‘squares’ occupied by the Indignant of Spain, for example. The flow of ideas between the neighbourhood and the square, the local and the global has moved in both directions in numerous activist uprisings over the last decade and more. The Argentinian neighbourhood struggles of 2001, for instance, generated ideas of ‘horizontalism’ which have widely impacted on the global activist arena (Sitrin, 2006). Questions still need to be posed, however, as to where, when and how these linkages emerge.

This article suggests that new ideas and practices around power can be a source of connection between the two levels. Based on field research on power with community level activists in de-industrialized and mostly deprived neighbourhoods of the global North, I find evidence of counter mainstream understandings of power which might revitalize and sustain agency for change and ultimately democracy from the ‘bottom up’. However, amongst these activists, at least, there is little conscious connection with Activisms 2010+. Such disconnects might be more typical of Activisms 2010+ than is often acknowledged. Yet the theme of ‘power’ suggests considerable latent affinity between those who congregate in the public squares of cities and those who more tentatively and less noticeably organize for change at the neighbourhood level.

Both are searching for (community activists) or experimenting with (global justice activists) a form of power which nurtures cooperation and capacity to act but which also impacts and generates change. I call this ‘non-dominating power’. The transforming importance of contemporary activisms lies, I argue, with the ‘growing’ of such a form of power (Follett, 1924). The gradual merging of local place-based activism from below with globally resonating activism of the public square, can strengthen and sustain change action and give it transformatory momentum. It might also assuage doubts amongst the local activists as to whether ‘non-dominating power’ can ever be effective in relation to dominating power — something which global activists are beginning to address.

The first section of the article will develop these arguments, starting with the tension identified by Mansbridge (1996) that activists in democratic societies have historically had to use coercive power in order to challenge it. Activisms 2010+ has, I suggest, begun to overturn that logic.3 Secondly, it will explore the conceptual origins of the idea of what I call ‘non-dominating power’ and suggest six propositions which might form the basis for (re-) conceptualizing power. This sets out criteria for recognizing the ‘newness’ of the power experiments taking place at the neighbourhood level and through Activisms 2010+. Thirdly, the article will examine the empirical evidence that might take ‘non-dominating power’ out of the realm of normative theorizing and explore new practices and understanding of power at the grassroots. It will do so by analysing conversations around power amongst community activists in the North of England. Finally, it will discuss points of convergence between these less visible community activists who understand power as ‘non-dominating’, and global social justice movements who have burst onto the scene in recent years with their highly visible contentious politics of the square.

The article suggests that non-dominating power, as transformed meaning and practice of power, opens up possibilities for building new kinds of cooperative and conflict-sensitive (but not conflict-suppressive) human interactions across social divisions of class, gender, race, ethnicity and generation. In turn, it could contribute to more inclusive and sustainable capacity for change, strengthening the democratizing potential of activist movements at multiple levels and amongst varied communities in the global South and North as well as across an imagined ‘global community’.


Jane Mansbridge has made an important insight about the role of coercive power in democratic societies:

[…that] in their decision-making functions democracies need coercion, that the coercion needed is usually far from fully legitimate, and that in using power, we must also fight it at the same time. To fight power means affirmatively encouraging oppositional discourses and oppositional cultures. Those discourses and cultures have evolved in part for the purpose of reminding their participants and through them, the other members of the society, of the illegitimate coercion and substantive injustice that pervades any existing democracy. These discourses and cultures make it easier to investigate different ends from those the larger polity is pursuing, and different means to similar ends. The different ways the cultures work and the different avenues they explore may later replace or supplement the ways that reign at present. (Mansbridge, 1996: 59–60)

Coercive power by democratic governments is neither fully legitimate nor illegitimate, argues Mansbridge, but activists have to make use of such power at the same time as they challenge it. Is this still the case? Over time, feminist activists as well as many scholars of power have drawn attention to other forms of power. The post-1960s ‘new social movements’ were much less centralized in their leadership than previous people's organizations as they involved historically marginalized sectors which trade unions and Left political parties, for instance, had failed to engage. The notion of empowerment of the powerless grew out of the awakening of these new social actors. Feminists, in particular, made an appeal to take account of the corrosive, ‘disempowering’ impact on subjectivities of long-term marginalization which required a ‘(re-)empowerment’ to liberate suppressed agency. Activist and scholarly discussion deepened over the following decades on the multiple forms of power, as described by the Debate editors in their Introduction.

However, ‘empowerment’ does not imply that some form of dominating power will not be used by the ‘empowered’. Empowerment does not transform power. The concept travelled too easily into diverse fields, from business to development, where it lost some of its edge and became associated with individual capacities and strengths to achieve personal goals, often leaving aside the context of oppression that feminist thinkers had in mind. Mansbridge's suggestion, that out of oppositional discourses and cultures emerges the potential for replacing existing cultures and instruments, potentially offers a framework of inquiry beyond empowerment. Activists can produce their own knowledge as well as practice.

There is considerable evidence that Activisms 2010+ is very sensitive to issues of hierarchy and process in decision making. As a 2012 study of what the researchers called ‘subterranean politics’ in Europe concluded: ‘The idea of horizontality is an important ideal for these actors, as they strive to achieve a culture of inclusion that places limits on the ability of individuals to use implicit authority to dominate others or determine the group's priorities’ (Kaldor et al., 2012: 18). This is not so new. The history of the Left has been marked by tensions between anarchists and libertarians on the one hand and those in favour of hierarchical and centralized forms of political organization. These competing positions on organizational structure arguably also reflect different predispositions towards power. Francesca Polleta, in her study of democracy in American social movements, traces the conscious rise of alternative intra-movement democracy back to the civil rights movement: ‘From pacifists’ here-and-now revolution, to the beloved community of the Southern civil rights movement and the new left's participatory democracy, up to today's radically democratic antiglobalization groups, activists have sought to live the better community as they built it, to enact in their own operation the values of equality, community and democracy that they wanted on a large scale’ (Polletta, 2004: 1). Yet she is one of the few to explore this aspect of movement politics, suggesting that the way movements reconcile strategy and values is a relatively recent preoccupation of scholars.

The internal practices and relationships amongst activists have become a topic of study (cf. Della Porta and Rucht, 2013; Maeckelbergh, 2009; Sitrin, 2006), I would suggest, because never before have there been such conscious and reflective efforts to practice politics and protest differently. Could this be evidence of an emerging ‘discursive consciousness knowledge’ about power amongst Activisms 2010+ (Haugaard, 2003: 100)? Haugaard argues that social order ‘creates power through predictability’ (ibid.: 96) in which actors reconfirm the structures which emerge, and concede the tacit consensus of the dominated (Haugaard, 2002). A ‘discursive consciousness’ of power would mean that actors have gained the capacity to redescribe their relationship to power and the social rules which underpin it and potentially change those rules. This might shift the way power is understood and practised in a more profound way than ever before.

This article argues that such a possibility might indeed be in the air, but needs more rigorous analysis and systematization. To what extent do global movements reach the neighbourhood level, particularly the most deprived areas of the global North and global South? Are global movements only horizontal in their own domain of horizontality? Clearly they aspire to connect at all levels, and in some cases they do: this article focuses on a context in which they do not. It builds on a series of ‘Power Talks’ which involved conversations about power with eight different community activist groups in four socially varied and mostly deprived neighbourhoods in the north of England, in August and September 2011.4 The conversations were organized to supplement a theoretical study of power with evidence from the everyday comprehension of power by those seeking to generate change in their communities.

These ‘Power Talks’ uncovered an alternative practice and consciousness of power amongst activists in deprived and power-poor localities of the de-industrialized global North. The conversations suggested that there are untapped non-conventional discourses of power in places where there is no apparent ‘political’ drive and where change actions are mostly focused on making everyday life better, with little awareness of discourses of ‘global justice’. These social actors are often involved in difficult encounters with power holders, which they are not always able to negotiate as effectively as they might. Indeed, they overtly reject the kind of power such power holders use, and prefer the values of solidarity and companionship they build amongst themselves.

As a British researcher who has spent most of her academic life working in the global South, mostly Latin America, this field research in my own ‘backyard’ sought to generate a perspective on activism that transgresses the boundaries of intellectual enquiry which separate ‘developed’ global North from the ‘underdeveloped’ global South. What stimulates activism amongst poor communities, North or South? Social movement studies once assumed a distinction between ‘post materialist’ movements in the global North (Inglehart, 2003) and the ongoing struggles for material survival in the global South. This is now challenged by, for instance, the environmental activism amongst indigenous movements in Latin America which links the material and non-material: land, survival, culture and ecology. Globalization has impacted differentially on communities across the globe and opened up a new way of looking at the world through the eyes of the disadvantaged and excluded wherever they live. It has also shown that wealthy people from Mexico City to Mumbai, and from Moscow to Manchester have far more in common with each other than with the poor of their own societies. While local place-based activism is not the headline-grabbing activism which impacts on a ‘global’ stage, it is nevertheless an important source of democratizing potential which ensures that ideas for change circulate in all corners of impoverishment and dispossession.

This article seeks to demonstrate, therefore, that disadvantaged and poor communities of the de-industrialized global North are also actively engaged in small-scale efforts to make changes against unresponsive local states, corporate interests and institutions. Some of these community activists work with a non-coercive ‘non-dominating’ understanding of power. They are, in other words, generating new concepts in their practice. What became apparent in the ‘Power Talks’ is that their approach lacks the effectiveness of its more mainstream counterpart: dominating power. In other words, Mansbridge's dilemma, that the use of coercive (dominating) power appears to be the only way of contesting such power, seems to retain some traction in this context. New forms of power at the local level are not yet conceptualized in ways that frame activism and give it potency.

The local community activists involved in the Power Talks expressed their active rejection of using the same form of power that the powerful use. While they could name the content of the kind of power they preferred as including ‘cooperation, listening, sharing and enabling others’ (Pearce, 2012), they did not conceptualize it as an effective alternative. This article asks, therefore, how non-dominating forms of power can be effective without reproducing dominating power. Such a potentiality would further develop Mansbridge's idea that opposition movements contain the seeds of ‘different ends from those the larger polity is pursuing, and different means to similar ends’ (Mansbridge, 1996: 60). It suggests that one route which might enhance the effectiveness of all, would be to forge stronger linkages between the activists of the ‘squares’ and those of ‘neighbourhoods’. The latter are often less able to ‘draft a definition of just treatment and just distribution that challenges the definitions of the dominant group’ (Mansbridge, 2001: 240), a capacity which generates ‘oppositional consciousness’ (ibid.). In contrast, networking amongst the global activists gives them access to intellectual ideas which nourish and strengthen such consciousness. Indeed, Manuel Castells (2012: 7) argues that communication networks are ‘decisive sources of power-making’, influencing the human mind through multimedia networks of mass communication.5 Participants in the Power Talks, however, are not only lacking such networks, they have also been long subjected to the de-politicizing impacts of neoliberal participatory governance projects (Pearce, 2010). Nevertheless, they understand the power they prefer to exercise. At stake in both levels of activism is whether new forms of power can be effective in both challenging power and in systemically transforming power itself.


‘What is the central problem of social relations? It is the question of power; this is the problem of industry, of politics, of international affairs. But our task is not to learn where to place power; it is how to develop power… Genuine power can only be grown, it will slip from every arbitrary hand that grasps it; for genuine power is not coercive control, but coactive control. Coercive power is the curse of the universe; coactive power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul’. (Follet, 1924: 3)

The late twentieth century and beyond has seen a flowering of scholarly interest in power and recognition of its salience at the heart of our social and political relationships. The idea that there could be varied understandings of power, however, began in the early twentieth century, with the work of Mary Parker Follett (1868–1933), a pioneering woman in the very male-dominated field of management theory. There she challenged F.W. Taylor's attempt to rethink the relationship of man to machine in order to extract maximum efficiency from the docile worker. By contrast, she was interested in workers’ co-participation in the collective endeavour of the workplace and in all aspects of its business.

Follett was also a political philosopher whose insights on power long pre-date the feminist contributions later in the century. Her essay on power written in 1925 explicitly contrasted power with to power over and was stimulated by her interest in the problem of human cooperation and democracy. Thus her understanding of power with is of a ‘jointly developed’ power, or coactive rather than coercive power (Follett, 1925/1940: 101). She put the neighbourhood at the heart of her thinking. Communities and neighbourhood associations are where people encounter difference and diversity, argued Follett, and learn to interact with each other in ways that are a participatory foundation for democracy. Commentators on Follett from the field of organizational theory expressed her thoughts thus: ‘community is the seedbed of democracy, where ordinary people are able to discover that they have extraordinary abilities to get things done in concert with other people. In communities they learn about democratic empowerment and coactive power’ (Clegg et al., 2006: 75). The idea of ‘community’ has changed a great deal since the beginning of the twentieth century. For the upwardly mobile, ‘community’ is often forged through shared interest rather than shared place. However, the search for ‘community’ and ‘belonging’ remains a powerful human imperative. Vicinity is still its source for the many who remain neither geographically nor socially mobile. In this section, my aim is to extract from Follett, and other twentieth century power theorists, six propositions which could enable us to identify the qualities of ‘coactive’ or what I call ‘non-dominating’ power.

1 Proposition

Power that is non-dominating grows out of cooperative human interaction which over time reduces and ultimately challenges the normalization of dominating power.

In building the foundations for a concept of non-dominating power, the first proposition derives from Follett's idea that power with grows out of human cooperation and through encounters with the desires and experiences of others. These interactions or ‘interweavings’ create a new ‘whole’ out of the parts and new forms of agency: ‘Society flourishes through the satisfaction of individual human desire, yet not through as many as possible, but through interweaving human desires’ (Follett, 1924: 49).

This so-called ‘positive’ view of power remerged after World War II. Talcott Parsons, in an effort to defend the pluralist view of American democracy from power-elite critic, Wright Mills, wrote a piece on power which did not reduce it to coercion but conceived it as a ‘generalized medium of mobilizing commitments or obligation for effective collective action’ (Parsons, 1963/2002: 97). Power, he argued, ‘symbolises effectiveness’ and requires some sort of consensus amongst members of the collectivity of reference, with respect to the norms of the wider system, which serve to legitimize power and authority. Indeed, Parsons argues that the ‘language of power’ becomes meaningful only within an ‘institutionalised code’ which is authority, such that the ‘threat of coercive measures, or of compulsion, without legitimation or justification, should not properly be called the use of power at all’ (ibid.).

Parsons' contribution represents a recognition from a conservative bias that something more takes place than domination in the exercise of power and that domination alone cannot be described as power. He has since been put in the camp of the ‘consensus’ theorists of power. The conflictive theories (agents have interests at variance and power is about the advantage of the strongest in such contexts) versus the consensual theories (where working together leads people to achieve more than they could on their own) is one of the major fracture lines identified amongst theorists of power (Dowding, 2011: xxiv).

Another thinker generally included on the ‘consensual’ side is Hannah Arendt. However, Arendt arrives at her understanding of power from a very different intellectual framework to Parsons' structural functionalism and from a distinct set of concerns, derived in particular from her experiences of twentieth century totalitarianism. This led her to contrast ‘power’ with ‘violence’ and to reaffirm Follett's concern with power as growing out of the group rather than a property of an individual (Arendt, 1969: 44). She maintained that ‘Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert’ (ibid., italics in original). She also shares with Follett the view that power is not a means to an end, but ‘actually the very condition enabling a group of people to think and act in terms of the means–end category’. There is an ontological component then to the consensus around which a group coalesces and which is in itself an ‘end’ making political action possible. Herein lies the possibility of a power grown through processes of collective deliberation and agreement formation, which then lay the grounds for pursuing goals in non-dominating and inclusive ways. This forms part of Arendt's wider interest in the non-coercive force of inter-subjective communication.

However, Arendt has been accused of lacking a theory of conflict and, in Habermas's critique, of relegating anything non-consensual to the world of violence rather than politics, thus depoliticizing many patterns of prevailing injustices: ‘She pays the price of screening all strategic elements out of politics as “violence”, severing politics from its ties to the economic and social environment in which it is embedded via the administrative system, and being incapable of coming to grips with appearances of structural violence’ (Habermas, 1983: 174, quoted in Hanssen, 1997: 249, italics in original). Lukes, in his influential exposition of a three-dimensional view of dominating power, argues that Parsons and Arendt offer ‘revisionary persuasive redefinitions of power which are out of line with the central meanings of “power” as traditionally understood… They focus on the locution of “power to” ignoring “power over”… Accordingly, the conflictual aspects of power — the fact that it is exercised over people — disappears from view’ (Lukes, 2005: 37).

These critiques are not totally unfair, particularly from the perspective of those who see the main task of social action as unmasking the power that dominates in all its forms. It is important that any theory of non-dominating power enables us to recognize and engage with theories and practices of dominating power. Otherwise, the normative is conflated with the empirical and we have no means of distinguishing between the two forms of power. Haugaard (2010: 433) argues, in fact, that the normative dimensions of power or what he calls the emancipatory family members (power to, power with and legitimate power over), or what I would call non-dominating power, enable us to do just that — make distinctions between, for instance, legitimate and illegitimate power over. It is, however, arguable that Luke's argument works in reverse. If power is only seen as power over, a whole other alternative way of exercising power is obscured, and not even the empirical question is asked (which the next section will do), i.e. is there evidence of another form of power and if so, how does it impact on agency and activism for change? Follett, whose roots in the pragmatist tradition made her less prescriptive in her understanding of power than Arendt, argued rather that we should distinguish between different kinds of power (1925/1940: 100) and aim modestly only to ‘reduce power-over’ (ibid.: 104, my italics).

A less ambitious approach, therefore, offers the possibility that non-dominating power is ‘grown’ over time rather than derived from an ontological consensus. It gains its qualities and builds legitimacy through the cooperative intent and openness to experience and difference. At the same time, it gradually reduces incentives to use dominating power and ‘de-normalizes’ its use and harmful effects on progressive human agency. Nevertheless, this form of power has to be able to embrace conflict if it is to avoid the accusation of depoliticizing and masking patterns of injustice. The following proposition argues that this other form of power emerges precisely from the way in which it engages with difference and disagreement.

2 Proposition

Non-dominating power is grown through the way conflict, disagreement and difference are addressed, turning these into productive and non-violent instruments for change.

Although there are problems with Arendt's unwillingness to recognize ‘dominating power’ as a form of power, this does not mean that her view of power is incapable of embracing conflict (Pearce, 2007). Here we turn again to Follett. Follett was very clear that power with involved dealing with conflict, ‘instead of condemning it, we should set it to work for us’, she argued (Follett, 1926/1940: 30) and made the important observation (ibid.: 31):

What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of the utmost importance that these should not be considered the same. We may wish to abolish conflict, but we cannot get rid of diversity. We must face life as it is and understand that diversity is its most essential feature…fear of difference is dread of life itself. It is possible to conceive conflict as not necessarily a wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities, but a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned.

Follett's pragmatic understanding of power with led her to propose how legitimate power could be produced through ‘circular behaviour’, her expression for integrating world views through the possibilities for mutual influence between conflicting parties. She explicitly sought an alternative to compromise and concession, using the word interpenetration to imply that power with offered possibilities for group members to thrash out something beyond the sum of the parts (Mansbridge, 1998: xxiii), thus also growing further that form of power. In the course of this intra-group process, which builds capacity to deal with conflicting world views, the non-dominating form of power has to demonstrate that it can generate tools and capacities to challenge oppressive practices wherever they occur, in robust and effective ways which mitigate against the use of violence. Non-dominating power has to show, therefore, that it is an effective means for acting on dominating power.

Violence is sometimes justified by social change activists as precisely that — the only ‘effective’ means to challenge oppression. If Follett's view of power has conflict-transforming implications, Arendt's has a violence-reducing implication. Her consensual understanding of power leads her to argue that power is the ‘opposite of violence’. This very counterintuitive notion nevertheless suggests that non-dominating power could potentially be correlated with a process of diminishing violence (Pearce, 2007). Thus if, as evidence suggests, a great deal of violence in society erupts through the pursuit of power over others or compensates for a lack of such power (resonating particularly with conceptions of masculinity tied to power over; see Pearce, 2005), then a form of power which enables others, which fosters cooperation and greater capacity to act together for change in our lives, might arguably also impact on the recourse to violence.

3 Proposition

Power that is non-dominating strengthens the capacity of oneself and others to act and impact on the world.

In 1974, Nancy Hartsock wrote an important article on ‘Two Perspectives on Power’ (Hartsock, 1974/1998) in which she brought the significance of the power debate directly into processes of political change as enacted by the women's movement of the time. Power as seen by mainstream social scientists, she argued, stressed the ability to compel obedience, control and domination. Discussions of political change tended to assume, based on these premises, that the units of society are competitive, hostile and isolated individuals; this resulted in limited attention to the process of change itself as well as an over-emphasis on the individual pursuit of power for the individual's own interest and an under-emphasis on change in societal structures (ibid.: 18). Hartsock contrasted this to the women's movement's approach to political change and concern with the relationships of the personal to the political. This included confronting its own internal conflicts and confusions around such issues as leadership and strength, where women could not easily see alternatives to traditional patterns of domination and often fractured over issues of leadership.

She puts these problems down to a lack of clarity in the movement about the two different concepts of power: power as domination (which women had most often experienced) and power as ‘activity and achievement’ which does not require domination. She thus emphasized the need for the movement to use new methods of organization as strategies for the redefinition of political power. These would be structured so as not to permit the use of power as a tool for domination of others in the group. ‘At bottom’, she argued, in a way which dovetails with the argument of this article, ‘political change is a process of changing power relationships so that the meaning of power itself is transformed’ (ibid.: 28). In her final summing up, Hartsock confronts Mansbridge's dilemma around coercive power and movements for change: ‘Our strategies for change must grow out of the tension between using our organizations as instruments for taking and transforming power in a society structured by power understood only as domination, and using our organizations to build models for a new society based on power understood as energy and initiative’ (ibid.).

Hartsock contributes to this third proposition the ideas of ‘energy and initiative’, ‘activity and achievement’ which structure organizations even while they must deal with the society in which they live on its own terms, i.e. power as control. This emergent idea of power to greatly strengthened the possibility of an alternative form of exercising power. Indeed, in the second edition of his 1987 book on power, Peter Morriss argues that power to has finally displaced power over, although some might argue this is premature: ‘It is now also the dominant view that power is best thought of as a capacity or disposition of some sort, and that “power to” is more basic than “power-over”’ (Morriss, 2002: xiii).

Morriss makes a useful distinction between affecting (to act on something) and effecting (to bring about), arguing that to affect something or somebody but not effect anything is not an exercise of power, and it is the latter which matters most. Another way of expressing this is the difference between the two French words for power: puissance is more of a permanent attribute which enables one to act on the world, while pouvoir conveys action which effects change. Morriss argues that the only way that the English language allows ‘power’ to be followed by a word for a person is by talking of power over that person (ibid.: 30). He turns for conceptual clarity to the language of abilities, capacities and in particular ‘ablenesses’ which he likens to Amartya Sen's influential idea of capabilities in the field of development economics. He thus distinguishes the ‘can’ of ableness from the ‘can’ of ability because ‘the former refers to actual conditions, whilst the latter refers to imaginary conditions’ (ibid.: 83). So the third proposition, to be complete, argues that ableness, activity and achievement are key elements of non-dominating power combining capacity to act and also to impact on the world.

In our Power Talks, community activists enhanced this proposition by defining power as ‘enabling others’, connecting ‘ablenesses’ to the first proposition, derived from Follett, which argues that non-dominating power grows through human cooperation. However, as will be discussed, the capacity of the activists to effect wider change beyond the participants who share their values and the particular issues they have chosen to focus on, remained weak. Cooperation and capacity to act and enable others to act are not enough. Capacity to impact is also necessary if action is to influence the wider society and in particular the way power constitutes that society. This requires us to consider another component of non-dominating power, which is whether and how it might liberate effective agency for change amongst people whose subjectivities have been constituted by dominating power, while not reproducing that form of power.

4 Proposition

Non-dominating power, generated in spaces of coactive encounter, enables the individual to overcome forms of subjectivity constituted by dominating power, thus liberating agency constituted by an alternative form of power.

There are difficulties in imagining how people are able to find the power to act for change at all given the inhibiting effect on the capacity to act of dominating forms of power. How does power work on individual subjectivities and impact on the kind of agency which might foster the growth of the other kind of power? Foucault encourages us to reflect on how power works to structure our actions and relationships, and makes us into the acting subjects we are:

The form of power that applies itself to immediate everyday life categorises the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him that he must recognise and others have to recognise in him. It is a form of power that makes individuals subjects. There are two meanings of the word ‘subject’: subject to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power that subjugates and makes subject to. (Foucault, 1982/2002: 331)

Foucault does not associate power with the ‘powerful’ and argues in Discipline and Punish that it is exercised rather than possessed. Power is the ‘overall effect of strategic positions — an effect that is manifested and sometimes extended by the position of those who are dominated’ (Foucault, 1979: 26–27). In a later essay, ‘The Subject and Power’, he describes power as ‘rooted in the whole network of the social’ (Foucault, 1982/2002: 345) and ‘a society without power relations can only be an abstraction’ (ibid.: 342). Although power is everywhere, Foucault argues that analysing the interplay between power and freedom is a political task, which might light up pathways for people to follow which are more attuned with their well-being, as they would define it for themselves. A step towards this is ‘not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are’, he argues (ibid.: 336).

However, Foucault does not make distinctions between forms of power, making it difficult to see how such liberated and liberating subjectivities might emerge when the individual self is an outcome of the workings of power. In an insightful comparison between Foucault and Follett, Pratt also finds lacking in Foucault:

a standard for transformation that represents a position beyond the present state of affairs and can provide direction for change. The oppressed and those who oppress them may be in a position to resist or accept the demands of power, but it is not clear that they are ever in a position to leverage change beyond adjusting the resources and powers already present in the situation. (Pratt, 2011: 81)

Follett used ‘power over’ as an analytical tool for understanding how present structures and practices constrain the free expression of desire and capacity of individuals to seek their own pathways. It is power over, she argues, which generates boundaries. However, at the same time, there is ‘activity between’ in the coactive settings she imagines which have the potential to evolve new agency through the intersection of desires, which in turn generate new desires. As Pratt describes it: ‘Power-over is a sign that two agents are at odds. What happens next depends upon the ability of the agents to recognize the nature of conflict and the potential for converting the activity between them into power-with’ (ibid.: 87).

Thus power can be transformed despite the prevalence of systemic dominating power, through processes of differentiating and uniting individuals as they react to each other's reactions to each other's desires. Agents can emerge in this way, as beings who actualize their desires and in so doing exercise power. But they do so in coactions, not self-actions, discovering a wider environment of desires and a new ‘whole’ (ibid.: 89). Such a view of agency creates power with, builds movements and collective capacity to act for change. Those who are able to encounter wider circles of difference are also exposed to liberating subjectivities, and Activisms 2010+ seems to suggest that global networking around social justice widens these circles and grows new kinds of social interactions and new ways of exercising power and agency. The next proposition explores further whether this form of agency is only about challenging the powerful or whether it can act on power itself.

5 Proposition

Non-dominating power effects change primarily on the boundaries which limit social capacity to act rather than on power-wielding agents per se.

Another fracture line in the power debate is between those who view power as emanating from power-wielding agents and those who see power as embedded in structures. Both recognize that power as domination and power as ‘ablenesses’ are unequally distributed. However, there are strong disagreements about the value of the dichotomy ‘powerful’ and ‘powerless’, which Barnes (2002: 128) calls an ‘emanationist conception’ where ‘dominant figures are “powerful” as if jugs of power have been poured down their throats’. He goes on to argue that: ‘capacity for action is actually right down there amongst the supposedly powerless, and that it is only discretion in use which is strongly concentrated at the higher levels of society’ (ibid.). A sub-field in this debate is how exactly freedom to act is constrained by power. To what extent, for instance, is the structural maldistribution of power an outcome of human design and action? Do ‘theorists of power-with-a-face’ as Clarissa Hayward calls those who emphasize powerful agents (Hayward, 2000: 27) end up assuming that there is an authentic field of freedom to act which the powerful merely constrain by their power over the powerless? Hayward prefers to talk of freedom in relationship to power as the:

social capacity to act, alone and with others, upon the boundaries that define one's field of action. Power relations enable and constrain participants’ freedom, to varying degrees and in varying ways. Therefore, developing critical accounts of power relations, accounts that might inform strategies for changing them in freedom-promoting ways, requires attending to the ways in which power's mechanisms enable and disable this capacity for ‘action on’ power. (ibid.: 8)

The idea that it is possible to ‘act on power’ itself is something which this article also argues. In her debate with Steven Lukes on this very issue (Hayward and Lukes, 2008), Hayward acknowledges that those who do function as agents of interpersonal domination must be recognized and held to account for the way in which, through action and inaction, they create avoidable constraints on the field of action of others. However, she maintains that the student of power should mostly focus on the ‘patterned asymmetries in the capacity to act, including those that result from structural constraints to freedom’ (ibid.: 16). ‘Power with a face’ is an easier mobilizing tool for activist movements and for claim making of all kinds. However, ‘power without a face’ is arguably an ultimately more potent way of enhancing action on all boundaries to effective action, including those embedded in the repeated tacit confirmation of power by the dominated.

Understanding power in terms of boundaries to social capacities to act, I suggest, is a fifth proposition towards building a concept of non-dominating power. By moving away from an exclusive focus on the power-wielding actor and stressing the problem of dominating power itself, it allows for the possibility of acting to reduce such power without demanding a direct challenge to this actor. This doesn't imply that such challenges should never happen. On the contrary, these are often required if change is to follow. Power often appears to be accumulated unequally by individuals, who are often structurally positioned to use it as a personal resource, as some power theorists would in fact define power. But as Dowding (1996: 3) argues, power is based upon resources but it is not the same as resources; some are privileged in society but not necessarily powerful. By focusing on the way power does or does not advance capacity to act, it is the character of power which is under scrutiny rather than the person who exercises it. This offers more potential for transforming power and the growth of a non-dominating alternative. It also leaves open the possibility that an individual can develop personal capacity to exercise non-dominating power and thus is ‘powerful’, but in a way which provides leadership for others rather than domination over them. Leadership brings us to the question of the relationship between authority and power. Dominating power is often in symbiotic relationship with recognized and accepted authority structures. Does the growth of non-dominating power imply that authoritative reference points to guide action are no longer required?

6 Proposition

Authority remains conceptually and practically important to the growth of non-dominating power. However, authority which is co-constructed in coactive spaces is not a force of conservation sanctified by tradition, but an immanent and dynamic source of trust amidst turbulence and uncertainty.

The sixth proposition is thus about the relationship between power and authority. Arendt's understanding of authority is close to a concept of legitimate power over. Authority is the ‘unquestioning recognition by those who are asked to obey; neither coercion nor persuasion is needed’ (Arendt, 1969: 4). Authority has become very problematic in recent years, as traditional forms, sanctioned by time-honoured hierarchies, have been questioned and the easy descent of authority into authoritarianism has generated much disenchantment with the very idea of ‘authority’ whether exercised by parents or governments. Indeed, activism is often characterized as ‘anti-authority’. Equally, however, there is an ongoing yearning for the authentic and trustworthy, something to hang on to in turbulent times.

Claire Blencowe (2013) has suggested that authoritative relationships derive from inequalities of knowledge and some collective acceptance of shared criteria of knowing. Her suggestion that ‘objectivity’ is a key condition of authority suggests a way of defining its qualities for an age of participation and new forms of power. For instance, coactive participatory process and the growing of non-dominating power might generate mutually agreed reference points for what is valuable and trustworthy without the need for foundational truths/myths or knowing and knowledges sanctioned and privileged by dominating power. Authority which emerges through non-dominating power preserves the human desire for stability and trust without conserving and reifying them in ways which serve the persistence of dominating power.


The six propositions outlined above might remain in the realm of normative theorizing if it were not possible to demonstrate some connection with new understandings and practices of power ‘on the ground’. Other contributions to this Debate discuss in depth activism at the global level and its values and practices. Glasius and Pleyers, for instance, record their field interviews with activists from the Occupy camps, and the ‘deliberately leaderless’ character and the open, horizontal features of the movements’ Assemblies. This article does not discuss activism at this level. Rather, it focuses on the less available evidence that a different understanding of power is present amongst neighbourhood activists. To do so, it returns to the ‘Power Talks’ described above. The groups involved, their social background and their goals are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. Neighbourhood Groups Involved in the ‘Power Talks’ (August–September 2011)
NeighbourhoodActivist GroupsActivist Goals


  1. 1. Conversation with representatives of various groups (some volunteers, some doing paid work in the community).

  2. 2. The stabbing of a young Somali had taken place just before conversation.

Source: Pearce (2012)
Broomhall, SheffieldPopulation: 6,500; mixed religious and socio-cultural population; Somalis formed largest group; ranked 33 of 100 most deprived neighbourhoods in Sheffield• Group of Groups1• Improve neighbourhood relations and environment; address youth violence2
Manningham, BradfordPopulation: 16,863; nearly half are under 24 years old; over 60% Pakistani origin; amongst 5% most deprived electoral wards in the UK• The Mosque group• Manningham Sports Centre Coaching Group• Manningham Baths Action Committee• Democratize the Mosque• Train local kids, keep them out of trouble, give them hope for future• Save Victorian swimming pool from closure by local authority
Braithwaite and Guardhouse, Estate, BradfordPopulation: 2,500 residences; 96% ‘white British’; 34% over 65 years old (2001 census); 40% of 16–74 year olds without qualifications• Estate Community Group• Improve housing and other services; deal with anti-social behaviour
Queensbury, BradfordPopulation: 8,718; 96.5% ‘white British’; ‘lower middle class’ area; middle-aged population• Queensbury Community Programme• Queensbury Choir• Swalesmoor Action Group• Provide social and educational opportunities• Social space to bring together a declining community• Protest campaign against lorries dropping animal waste

Two common threads or recurring themes emerging from the Power Talks with these diverse groups of activists are of relevance to this article. The first is a dislike of taking on positions ‘of power’ or being seen as ‘powerful’ and a reluctance to ‘represent’ others. As one of the young sports coaches put it, ‘A person should know how much power he can handle’. A young Somali woman from the Group of Groups who had gained education and been recognized as a ‘spokesperson‘ for the community was very uncomfortable with her position:

It's about feeling oppression, then you do not want to become an oppressor… I am completely powerless a lot of the time, I have to rely on others. Where I feel powerful, is when people see me as a community leader. Am I a community leader? Where does that come from? … Around Broomhall, people call me, officers, to gather community leaders to deal with crises. I have the power in terms of education, it gives me power to analyse things and puts me in a position to work with people who feel powerless. Again, you feel how much of that power are you using to survive for yourself and be accepted? But I have to be careful, because no member of my family could go to meetings, only me.

One of the Mosque Group echoed this concern of becoming one of the ‘powerful’: ‘As a community member, if I ever came into power, I would be the first one to resign from the committee. I believe that if you are given the opportunity, you can do all the work you want, it is not about position’. Another member of the group was clear that power was not an ‘end’ and just about ‘winning the race’: ‘If I speak up for injustice, I've done my part. In a race, do all ten think they are going to become no. 1?’.

Digging deeper, there is a desire to recognize the power the activist has but not to be seen as aspiring to ‘have power’ or ‘climb the ladder’, as a young woman from the Group of Groups, working with troubled young people, expressed it:

I had to look at myself. Where do I feel powerful and powerless? I see power when it holds people back, stops people doing things. I started to think, I have quite a lot of power in my day to day jobs, but I don't like to think I have power, I don't like it to be abused… When we look at young people, who think they could be dead tomorrow. A lot of what they do to each other can be stopped, but they don't let me into their world. The power is so embedded and it is taken away, I have no power around this issue… I need to go where the power is to have an influence on their lives. I didn't want to work with young people and them to think I am climbing the ladder.

On the mostly ‘white’ estate, feelings of internalized powerlessness were strongest amongst the unemployed men who no longer had the dignity of work and the muscle of trade unions behind them. One expressed his rejection of conventional forms of power: ‘I want to be listened to. I don't want to be dominating. On an estate, someone who is dominating, you back off. That's what estates are like’. Another participant spoke of the general reluctance of people to recognize the power they had: ‘some people might have power, but it's deep down, they are frightened to let it come out’. A young man from the Sports Centre expressed the deep cynicism towards the powerful that the group shared. His community was divided, he said, by ‘the strains of life, the promises (unkept) of politicians and the powers that be’. Even among the better-off activists of Queensbury, who were challenging a wealthy business whose lorries dropped animal waste and created dangerous traffic hazards in their village, with support from local politicians, the conclusion was: ‘The whole political system is corrupt, as soon as someone gains power their attitudes change’. What emerges from these Power Talks is a deep ambivalence towards power — or rather, towards the kind of power that the ‘powerful’ conventionally exercise. There are paradoxes in how people talk about power, paradoxes which reflect, I would suggest, a mostly instinctive rather than discursively conscious critique of dominating power. While they are aware of the power that grows from cooperation, participants in the Power Talks recognize that this is not equivalent to the power society upholds and values, which is a form of power individuals and institutions possess (they sometimes refer to power as ‘possessed’).

The second theme is that the goals of the kind of power that these neighbourhood activists value and use are very particular and different from those of the power they reject. They centre on cooperation and enabling their communities to solve the problems they face; in terms of the earlier propositions, their alternative understanding of power ‘liberates agency’. In varied ways, the activists make use of whatever ‘power’ they have to support and help their communities and enable others to act. They attach great importance to remaining connected to and respected by their communities, unlike powerful institutions. The latter have lost respect because of their failure to use their power to bring about change. So on the ‘white’ estate, when asked to define power, one response was: ‘Power that you can change stuff with. [The] Council has power to change stuff. You think, no point going to see them’. ‘Power is being able to help others’, said another, and ‘power is people listening to you’. In Broomhall, one activist defined power as ‘the ability to do things, to bring about change and to influence’. Here, they are working across many cultural divides, so that power is about navigating the differences of culture, religion, age and gender, and using a form of power ‘to get people together’.

As far as the young football coaches were concerned, power is also built through working together and earning respect, especially amongst the young kids on the streets: ‘you've got to earn that authority… you have to be true, honourable, humble and righteous’. Their mentor and leader has gained such authority, they said, because he understood power as empowering those around him, handing it over. These young men were scathing of the traditional, unearned forms of authority in their community. Obligations to extended clan and caste structures had made it difficult for the Manningham Baths Action Committee to build a community movement able to defend the swimming pool from closure. Power, one of the organizers concluded, was about capabilities, or as he put it: ‘the ability of the people to achieve what they want irrespective of political or social hurdles’.

These stories of power and powerlessness at the grassroots are mostly stories of frustration. Impacting on the structures of power is very difficult. In the process, however, much learning has clearly taken place. It would be too simplistic to juxtapose ‘powerful local state’ against ‘powerless community’; these activists are extending the boundaries of social action even if they are not directly challenging the powerful. The young men from the sports centre, for instance, have created a welcoming space and provide a sense of achievement for kids from very troubled families. These activists do not want to accumulate power, but to build and maintain the trust of others for mutual benefit — so much so that most had accepted that they could only make small changes. Indeed, the young men who had spent years trying to gain a voice in the Mosque and had briefly been successful until the elders rallied again, had concluded: ‘The changes we make are ripples…chipping away…not a splash…we can only make the changes that are close by’.

Few of these activists were connected to the global spaces of contemporary activism. Most did not use the Internet widely on an everyday basis, although a number used Facebook. No-one made reference to global justice movements. Yet, they are another expression of activist struggles, and probably reflect the character of many such everyday efforts in poor communities in the global South and global North to improve lives and livelihoods. They prefer to remain close to their communities and to practise a form of power that enables others rather than enter the world of the ‘powerful’. They grow non-dominating power, but not in ways that are effective far beyond ‘ripples’.


In contrast to the activism of the ‘neighbourhood’, what is emerging at the level of the ‘square’ is a more conscious effort to turn ‘non-dominating power’ into an effective ‘counter power’. Maeckelbergh (2009: 115) calls this power ‘prefigurative’:

a decentralised, non-hierarchical, collective power [author's italics] of a group of people to take control of their lives, work, neighbourhood, community… This type of power is prefigurative because it is about creating something new, it is a practice of constructing new power relations (in the means of movement organising) so that the old ones may become obsolete and the new power relationships might replace them (becoming an end).

Maeckelbergh suggests that, from the perspective of ‘horizontal movement actors’, this form of power is gradually expanded to replace other kinds of power, in a formula reminiscent of Follett's modest aim of ‘reducing’ dominating power. For such actors, when power is centralized into a separate ‘authority’ distinct from the group as a whole, the collective aspect of prefigurative power is undermined and the power (exercised or potential) is deemed illegitimate: ‘Consequently, within the horizontal framework of the alterglobalisation movement, an abuse of power occurs the moment the ability to identify who rules exists’ (author's italics, ibid.: 116). Horizontality is combined with autogestion, a ‘process of repossession of the power to collectively determine every aspect of our lives’ (ibid.: 121); it generates a form of decentralized power through which diversity can live and breathe. Consensus ‘is the means through which power-as-domination (when exercised by movement actors) is transformed into prefigurative power’ (ibid.: 122). Division is not feared, but simply allows for further decentralization, while conflict, again echoing Follett, is ‘welcomed because it represents diversity… This transformation of conflict through adversarial to constructive takes place through horizontality’ (ibid.: 100).

However, these activists are not only aware of the ongoing preponderance of dominating power but also of the need to confront it. According to Maeckelbergh (ibid.: 114) they distinguish between decentralized non-hierarchical power as outlined above, centralized hierarchical power and decentralized hierarchical power. Centralized hierarchical power is ‘any group of people exercising power-as-domination through a centralised structure’. Decentralized hierarchical power encompasses the diffused relational idea of power of Foucault, in which discrimination can be intentional or unintentional. What clearly distinguishes these global activists from those at the neighbourhood level, is that the former are very clear about confronting dominating and intentionally discriminatory power through conflict and ‘disobedience’ such as protest, abstention and destruction (ibid.: 114). In Maeckelbergh's account, there is still clearly a coercive dimension to activism. What is different from past movements is that this is built, it seems, on a prior legitimation of those wielding the coercion, a legitimation that rests on the growing in some way of non-dominating power. The question that remains, however, is whether this legitimation is enough to make non-dominating power effective without reproducing dominating power?

At least some activists of the ‘square’, which here becomes a euphemism for wherever self-conscious understanding of new forms of power is emerging through movements that resonate on the global stage, have embarked on a journey to demonstrate the effectiveness of building power in this way. The journey will undoubtedly be complex and difficult and the destination never clear. At the very least, one can argue that non-dominating power, almost a century after Follett recognized its potency, is gaining traction amongst some twenty-first century activists. Finding common ground and deeper connections with those neighbourhood activists who remain outside these global loops but are also thinking about power in new ways might further realize this potency.


This article has offered six propositions which could enable us to recognize a form of power which is distinct from conventional dominating power over. Coactive or non-dominating power, it argues, is a form of power which builds capabilities to act with others in cooperative ways, which embraces conflict, co-constructs trustworthy authority, and enables participation of diverse actors in the search for non-violent solutions to problems. Activists at the global level are beginning to generate such forms of power through new practices of democracy and the weight given to inclusive, decentralized participation. In the process, they are challenging the idea that coercive power can only be opposed by the same form of power. Coercive power continues to play a role for some, in some contexts, but must be legitimated by the prior growth of non-dominating power.

At the neighbourhood level, in poor communities of the deindustrialized global North so far little touched by global activism, a new understanding of power is also germinating, although it is struggling to become effective and make wider impacts. While in some parts of the world, global activism has emerged from histories of neighbourhood activism and remains rooted in such activism, in other parts of the world the distances between those who act in the highly visible ‘squares’ and those who focus on the everyday problems and needs of their locality remain wide. Recognition of the importance of coactive or non-dominating power as a transformative mechanism for building movements and widening and deepening action for change, would help overcome those distances but also enhance the debate on how change can be effective without reproducing dominating power.

  1. 1

    Recently embodied, for instance, in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

  2. 2

    I define global social justice movements as movements which may emerge in national contexts but which raise claims that resonate transnationally and increasingly network across the globe. The activists themselves come from localities and may act in them as well as beyond them. However, they take up issues of global reach, whereas the community activists interviewed in this article are focused entirely on improving and changing their own neighbourhoods.

  3. 3

    ‘Begun’ is the right word here, as there are still many debates and nuances. Adam Roberts, for instance, argues that non-violent civil resistance is a form of coercive power, but one derived from authority, legitimacy, persuasion and consent, and a power ‘to attract’ (Roberts, 2011: 6).

  4. 4

    This is a very short summary of the ‘Power Talks’. The full document is available for download; see Pearce (2012).

  5. 5

    Although Castells seems to imagine ‘power’ mostly in terms of coercion and/or the construction of meaning in peoples’ minds, and sees the configuration of the state and other institutions as the ‘constant interaction between power and counterpower’ (2012: 6).


  • Jenny Pearce is Professor of Latin American Politics and Director of the International Centre for Participation Studies, in Peace Studies, University of Bradford, Bradford, West Yorkshire BD7 1DP, UK. She is a specialist in issues of violence, power, conflict, social change and social agency in Latin America and since 2001 has also worked on the challenges of poverty, power and participation in the multi-ethnic environment of Bradford.