People Power Politics – how change happens

Panellists at the opening session

As the world celebrated Nelson Mandela’s life and mourned his passing, I found myself sitting in the opening session of the Challenges of Government conference, reflecting upon the interaction between people, power and governments. Mandela symbolises the anti-apartheid movement. The movement in turn symbolises people-powered change. This is because it has all the elements of the classic cultural story about how change happens.

The story goes something like this. There is a deeply felt injustice, perpetrated by a minority. The voiceless join together. United, they are strong. Their power builds over time. Conflict ensues. Eventually, a government determined to preserve the status quo gives in to the demands of the people. The oppression is lifted. The arc of history has been bent towards justice.

The four speakers in the opening session of the BSG’s Challenges of Government Conference demonstrated how the process of mobilising people power is more complicated than this simple linear story implies.

Luiz Felipe d’Avila stressed that behind every issue there is a value. Movements will come and go unless they can change the underlying values of a society. Although issues represent the conflicts around which clashes of values play out, no new position on an issue will be sustainable unless it is supported by a cultural shift which creates values to guarantee the longevity of the new position. In Brazil, a key values clash is emerging about people’s expectations of the government. The rising middle class are paying high taxes but seeing low quality government services. D’Avila argued that the clash of expectations – the demand for better public service versus the historic acceptance of low quality services – is creating an opportunity to make the government more accountable to the people. But seizing this opportunity requires leadership which changes some values and transforms the momentum against corruption into a broader cultural shift in the expectations of government in Brazil.

Of course, as those who followed the Occupy movement know well, defining the values that unite people is not always easy. Karuna Nundy highlighted how this tension played out in India. Following the rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi, outrage was mounting about sexual violence. Initially, many Indians called for the death penalty. Nundy stressed that leadership required people to appeal to the underlying “moral clarity” of the movement. The call for the death penalty was a kneejerk reaction to express a deeper moral sentiment. The values embodied in this, and the organising power across the movement, could only be activated by leadership which probed more deeply into the common threads that drew people together on the issue.

Returning to Mandela, he is often seen as someone who was able to give moral clarity to an entire movement, perhaps the entire world. However, Jeremy Heimans stressed that the great man theory of leadership needs rethinking in the 21st century. The task is rather to build the social infrastructure of communities to create long-lasting change. This requires a more decentralised model of leadership. Focusing on one leader makes the movement vulnerable should that one leader fall from grace. Instead, leadership can be reconceptualised as a process of building power by creating consensus across diverse sub-groups of the population – creating the “moral clarity” that Nundy referred to. Various “leaders” within the decentralised network will emerge, but the structure is a flatter one. In Mandela’s case, some would argue that this moral clarity was embodied in one person, but Heimans would probably respond that the 21st century will witness more decentralised leadership. In fact, one could well challenge the idea that Mandela was leading alone. Looking at the huge network of leaders involved in the anti-apartheid movement, it may be that it is only in hindsight that the world seizes upon one face as the face of a movement.

To summarise, strong people power requires decentralised leadership. It requires cross-cutting dialogues to maintain moral clarity. It is only sustainable if the values of a nation are shifted.

This alone is not enough to create change. Prof Ngaire Woods highlighted how people power does not manifest itself in a vacuum. Even in a networked, globalised world, governments are still the central focus of people’s organising efforts. This was clear across all the speakers – be it the campaign to prevent Uganda from making homosexuality punishable by the death penalty or Nundy’s work on anti-violence laws in India.

If governments are to enforce laws upon the populace as a whole, then hard questions emerge about whether it is acceptable to impose the demands of people-powered movements on the populace at large. Prof Monica Toft emphasised the growing religious sentiment in many parts of the world and the challenges this poses for democracy. Religion can be a source of social service and religious actors can be democratic leaders. However, religious movements can also propel individuals to prominence and create oppression of those who do not share the identity of the rising religious movement. This raises broader questions about the work of any people-powered group: is the NRA any different from the groups Jeremy Heimans works with through purpose? Is the simple fact that many people support an idea or a movement enough to give that movement legitimacy? Heimans says that Purpose works on projects that “most people” would support, but this still leaves open the question of whether popular opinion should be the sole criteria for measuring a movement’s legitimacy.

If the work is legitimate, then the final stage in a movement’s growth is for a government to implement its demands. D’Avila reminded the audience that votes are a politician’s currency, meaning that groups would be wise to package policy asks in terms of their impact upon electoral support for politicians. Nundy showed how people-power can fast track this process by leading with solutions. In India, they did this by writing a sexual violence manifesto. Its six points were a “minimum programme” that any political party ought to sign on to.

To conclude, the story from the beginning could be reframed as follows. Deeply felt injustices may or may not go unnoticed by society. Activating them requires leadership, but not the leadership of one person: only the leadership of many will do. Successful leadership brings the “moral clarity” of a movement to the fore. Sometimes, a government will yield to the movement’s pressure. They are far more likely to do so if doing so will win them the next election. It is far easier to do so if the movement has created ready-to-implement solutions. One day, the movement may be successful. Its participants will claim that oppression has been defeated. However, it is not clear whether any of this is legitimate. The arc of history may bend towards public opinion, but public opinion may or may not coincide with justice.

The BSG’s Challenges of Government Conference on “People Power Politics” was held in Oxford on 9-10 December 2013.

Pictured is Luiz Felipe d’Avila (centre) with Ngaire Woods (far right) and other panellists in the opening session of the Challenges of Government Conference.

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