Power, Organisations and Politics

As an observer looking at the proceedings of the SG50 celebrations, I’m curious that there has not yet been any discussion about the future. There are understandable reasons for the absence of both the youth voice and discussions about the future, and I’ll definitely be interested in how those conversations will play out.

The  reason I think, is straightforward. The atmosphere around SG50 is in a reflective phase – one that looks back at the past and celebrates the efforts of the pioneers in building this country. Certainly there is much to celebrate about, and yes, the efforts of the pioneers need to be honoured. More than that, this past – of hard work and ruggedness, gives us – the present, their future – the symbolic resources we can draw on in times of difficulty. This history that we have gives us the confidence, that no matter how difficult the future can be, we have the ability to pull through and better yet flourish.

One of the ways there can be a serious discussion on the country’s future is to be educated about organisations, power and politics. Before we understand all the other issues, we have to understand the nature of politics in Singapore, who are the organisations involved, and how they wield their power. Knowing how power is used in Singapore gives us a starting point in thinking about how to wield it responsibly, and to use it to tackle all the other issues that will affect us in the second half of the twenty-first century. And there are many. Climate change will be one – it’s effects will be global, and it will affect other countries, which in turn, will affect us. Technological change will continue, bringing about large changes in our lives, and especially in the world of work and jobs. For Singapore to continue flourishing, what matters is how we will take on these changes – and for that understanding how power, organisations, and politics will matter.

We often don’t make an explicit connection among power, organisations and politics together. We do make connections between politics and power – the common-sense understanding is that politics is the exercise of power. We often make the connection between organizations and politics – in the sense of the common ‘office politics’ that happens. Sometimes we think of organizations as exercising power – how different organizations fight for influence. Maybe this is intuitive when we think of political parties as organizations, or when we think of companies fighting for market share – the companies with a dominant market share could be said to have a lot of power in the industry. It’s how we think of Wal-Mart, or the oligopolism that happens in many industries. 

Power is relational – it  does not make sense ‘on its own’ It requires at least two people – one acting on power, and the other being acted upon. It is neither good nor bad; it just is, and it can definitely be used in either way. With this we can discuss power relations in a family, in institutional settings, in community groups, in politics, and across different countries.

Organisations can be defined as groups of people acting together for a common purpose. They might be doing a whole bunch of different things, but those different things are largely in the pursuit of goals. These goals could be, as with the military – to be able to end a war quickly; to get individuals or families out of crises. Organisations are also concentrations of power – an organisation is more influential if it can achieve its goals and exert itself on other actors. As a result, most organisations are also involved in some kind of politics – be it within organisations or with other social actors. Of course, internally, people are participating in politics – going around trying to influence other people within the organisation to get their own goals accomplished, within the larger framework of the organisation’s goals. 

All that is clear – that politics and power is all around us. It’s better that we see it for what it is and learn to be responsible about it, so that we understand ourselves and our actions better. Understanding power, for example helps in understand the relationship dynamics within a couple, or a family, or within the office, and so on. This framework helps us understand the behaviour of some groups of people relative to others. The use of power is focused in organisations, and it is through organisations that people’s collective energies can be harnessed.

Power has a visible component – the influence and the behaviour. When geopolitical analysts measure military power, they usually take a look at the military hardware – the ships, the tanks, the planes, and so on. When political pundits look at how political leaders use their power, they look at how they influence lawmakers through speeches and negotiation – persuasion. Economic power can be visible when people start talking about funding, aid, market access, and so on.

Power also works through other means. One of the most difficult ways to identity power’s operations when it becomes part of our lives – when it becomes the default setting for how we live. When that happens, it becomes difficult to tell of power’s influence, yet it is there. Notions such as “way of life” allude to such influences. That the “way of life” is often taken for granted, and not thoroughly examined would be an example of how a collection of actors have shaped our lives. That is not to say that we are all puppets being manipulated – we remain free to choose how we want to live our lives, but that our options are constrained. Another example is the ‘choice’ of consumer products that we experience in supermarkets. The reality is that consumer companies are trying to manipulate our buying choices through visions of attractive people and what they wear/eat/use. Again, the logic here is that it’s not that people are being manipulated like puppets; its just that the bulk of our attention would fall on particular products and particular brands, and might be attracted to purchase specific products. 

If nothing else, the points above just aims to illustrate that there are obvious and non-obvious ways of how power operates, and we have to pay attention to both, or even pay close attention to the latter, since they are harder to call out. We want to pay attention to power because of the way it influences our lives, especially if we want to be aware of the choice and power that we have too, as citizens and consumers trying to do the right thing for ourselves and for others. 

All of us are choosing something, even if we appear to be doing nothing. In a way, living the default is to support existing power structures. This is why asking for a change in the power structures is tiring and difficult. When people are habitualised into supporting an existing power structure and ways of life, asking others to change it is almost the equivalent of changing a habit – and habits of course, are very difficult to change. Asking others to change the assumptions they don’t usually question is tiring – for both the person advocating for it, and for the person being asked to change it. 

Social change, as a result, is very difficult, and often doesn’t last. When people don’t have the patience or don’t see the point of doing something different, very often they fall back to what they knew before – and hence reversions do happen. When politicians advocate for change, and do so inspiringly, be cynical. I guess this is why Obama was so exciting and now, so disappointing. Promising change and acting on them are obviously two very different things, especially when the resistance to change can be so high. 

So dramatic changes don’t work, and can be dangerous. What works are, no surprise – small incremental steps, pursued consistently over time, or moderately sized changes pursued during crises and gradually maintained and added on. The difficulty with this is with sustaining the effort over time. That’s why crises are significant – they provide legitimacy for change-advocates to say that current directions don’t work, and people rally around the need for change, and willing to change their habits. What happens after the moment of crisis, is something else. 

I’ve introduced how organisations, power and politics are linked together, and I’ve shown how power is both obvious and non-obvious. I’ve also described a little about how power and politics relate to organisational change. Very broadly speaking, these notions of power are important in discussing how social and political changes might happen, how people might participate in power structure, and what to watch out for to tell if things are changing in any particular direction. All of these will help us to think more clearly about the dynamics that will shape Singapore’s future.

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