How Even The Powerless Can Make History

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Earlier this year in the journal Public Culture Saskia Sassen had an essay titled “Does the City Have Speech?” If nothing else it’s an interesting thought exercise, using ‘speech’ in a more abstract legal sense (with a humorous nod to Citizen’s United). She posits that “there are events and conditions that tell us something about the capacity of cities to respond systemically — to talk back,” or something along the lines of inferred intent within actions that occur in a conceptual space between the structural and social urban world. Her full argument, which she describes as just “the building blocks,” is more detailed than I’m interested in getting into here. Rather, there is a part of her essay I’d like to highlight for the purpose of further exploring power and powerlessness.

One of the factors that can, in the framework she presents, lead to “speech acts” is characterized as the ‘complexity and incompleteness’ of the city. The reasoning goes something like this: major cities, or more accurately, global cities, are complex and incomplete sites for broader systemic cultural and institutional change. Through a more compressed scope they play a key role in establishing norms and identities, and these are often diffused into smaller cities and urban areas. It is within the interplay between this complexity and incompleteness that the city can present “the possibility of making,” or the opportunity from certain circumstances to create urban capabilities for change.

In exploring that aspect Sassen makes the following point about powerlessness

(emphasis mine):

The city, and especially the street, is a space where the powerless can make history, in ways they cannot in rural areas. That is not to say that is the only space, but it is certainly a crucial one. Becoming present, visible, to each other can alter the character of powerlessness. This allows me to make a distinction between different types of powerlessness (Sassen 2008, chaps. 6 and 8). Powerlessness is not simply an absolute status that can be flattened into the absence of power. Under certain conditions, powerlessness can become complex, by which I mean that it contains the possibility of making the political, the civic, a history. This brings to the fore the fact of a difference between powerlessness and invisibility/impotence. Many of the protest movement we have seen in the Middle East and North Africa, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere are a case in point: these protesters may not have gained power; they are still powerless, but they are making a history and a politics.

This leads me to a second distinction, which contains a critique of the common notion that if something good happens to the powerless, it signals empowerment. Recognizing that powerlessness can become complex makes conceptual room for the proposition that the powerless can make history, even if they do not become empowered, and that thereby their work is consequential even if it does not become visible promptly and can indeed take generations. Elsewhere (Sassen 2008, chaps. 2. 3, and 6) I have interpreted several historiographies as indicating that the temporal frame of the histories made by the powerless tends to be much longer than the histories made by those with power.

That last claim, that the history made by powerless movements last longer, is to some extent complementary of a resting assumption in social movement theory; having grievances heard and addressed are always a result of movement at the bottom, not the top.

The primary difference between the two is precisely this distinction between powerlessness and invisibility. We tend to assess popular movements in America by incredibly narrow metrics; money, ads, laws and elections. These are also applied to a limited window of relevance, revealing the inherent deference towards the ontology of major institutions and its attending elites. Which is to say that it only matters insomuch as it affects the next cycle of business or politics. By that measurement the Tea Party has been an overwhelming success on influencing the political economy, while Occupy Wall Street and its various offshoots have been dismal failures.

Yet this is a flawed perspective exactly because it flattens power into a false dichotomy. In this regard some erstwhile critics of social elites implicitly accept that group agency is only a success if it perturbs the people they nominally disdain! This is the limit of prevailing ideology, expressed as a bias towards a narrow epistemology that is not their own. This is a docile imagination, one that would be unable to draw a line from the “failures” of OWS to Kshama Sawant.

It is, as Sassen describes, more accurate to see that these exercises are consequential beyond the scope of immediate empowerment. That is to say, we shouldn’t limit the framing of such agency to an explicit causality. What allows “the powerless to make history,” in that in-between place between the physical and the social, is visibility. Specifically this means having a visible presence in the public sphere, not the least of which includes public spaces. This is a key component to producing the conditions that allow global cities to reconcile larger systemic tensions — which then has a ripple effect down the hierarchy of dense society.

Which isn’t to devalue the basic force of activism in effecting change or raising awareness. That absolutely does matter. Rather, it is important to recognize that such organization often has some (pragmatic) prerequisites derived from certain ‘urban capabilities.’ The disenfranchised need to be visible in the public realm, and thus seen in contexts where social distance is most apparent, and, currently, most stark. Visibility and it’s inherent recognition can humanize the distance between diverse segments of society. The alternative of a sanitized commons, however, legitimizes civic indifference and intolerance towards invisible groups, where increasing inequality, mass surveillance, and the expulsion and exclusion of the marginalized from public spaces and public consciousness ultimately enables broader inequities in an hourglass economy.

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One response to “How Even The Powerless Can Make History

  1. Pingback: The effort to “hide certain kinds of people” in public spaces | Punditocracy·

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