We have two fundamental problems when it comes to making meaningful change to our specie’s current disastrous collective trajectory: our psychology and our relationship to power. They’re very entangled, but let’s start with power and our messy and largely unconscious relationship with it.
Even the word power can be slippery: we use it to describe a very wide range of experiences. For general purposes, ‘power’ simply refers to the ability to do things. But this ability manifests (or not) at very different levels, some which are freely available to almost all of us, like the power to breathe or to move ourselves around. Other manifestations are closely guarded by social groups who have been delegated, or who have kept to themselves, exclusive rights to that kind of power: the power to decide how much to spend on national healthcare or the power to take a country to war. It can be difficult to keep all those very different expressions of power in mind when we’re using the word, which can lead to people thinking that ‘power is bad’, when they’re really talking about the misuse or unequal distribution of power.
There are three basic ways to relate with any level of power: to dominate, to be submissive or to be equal. Domination or (power-over) and submission (or power-under) need one another to work: if you want to have power over someone you need them to give in to you. This can, and often does, play out very badly, as is attested to by most European countries’ foreign policies over the past few centuries. While human relationships are always nuanced, with ever-changing negotiations around power as part of that, neither domination nor submission can be part of fully equal (power-with) relationships for long.
The wider context within which all these dynamics are happening is one where (in most places in the world) there has been a long project to keep a small group in a dominant relationship to the rest of the population – which implies the corresponding need to make sure that the rest of the population is in the submissive role. This is so entrenched in the way we think about power that it can be easy to miss.
In Britain, most people believe that we live in a democracy, as evidenced by free and fair election practices and that many of us have the right to vote for whichever candidate we want to etc. But we’re also aware that there are quite a few conditions on the right to vote. We know that beyond voting for what we may consider to be the lesser of two evils, or for a candidate who has next to no chance of winning, we have almost no say on even the most important decisions made in government – and further: we don’t have an equal relationship to power with those who are in government (or big business, or the media). Many of us believe that’s a good thing. We have been taught that those in power have special aptitudes, and that without them, society would disintegrate into chaos.
But when we look at our collective situation, it’s clear that disintegration is happening anyway. In fact the disintegration we’re seeing is the inevitable consequence of a dominating power system which values wealth and prestige over life and connection.
There are very different ways of organising ourselves and making decisions together, that don’t accept domination and submission as useful ways of relating to one another. But we don’t seem to be collectively very interested in exploring them. Why? We have little experience of the alternatives, so perhaps we have doubts about whether they could really work ‘in the real world’? And there is often also a belief that something in our human nature drives us to exploit one another and the planet – and that a system of domination is needed to keep our baser instincts in check?
This fear of our own nature is certainly one element in our unwillingness to question existing power structures. It persuades us to go along with systems of domination, and has been curated for us by the system which benefits from it in hundreds of seemingly separate cultural assumptions: from disciplinarian parenting, to conventional educational models, to the way most of our organisations are structured: we are made to feel that we need someone to tell and show us how to be – or else there would be chaos.
To counter this there is a huge amount of lived experience and scientific evidence to say that humans are fundamentally social, that we need one another and that we will work hard to develop and maintain good relationships with one another. It’s simplistic to say that either position is the ‘correct’ one and that humans are fundamentally either good or bad – clearly we are capable of both highly social and highly anti-social ways of behaving and living. But growing up with the implicit cultural story of the need for domination that is so deeply embedded in many of our social processes and structures, we may tend to believe that it’s true and end up feeling ‘there’s nothing we can do – this is just what we’re like’, even when it’s clear that there are other options that we haven’t really explored.
For centuries this toxic story of our fundamental destructiveness has played its part in keeping many of us from calling the bluff on systems of domination, enabling us to tolerate war, genocide, social stratification of all kinds as well as the destruction of our relationship with the land (it can be hard to believe this was once the sacred centre of everyone’s life), partly because we’re (fairly reasonably) afraid of what happens when we stand up to power-over and partly because we believe that’s just how things have to be.
As the rampage of dominating forces has continued, effectively unchecked, the stakes have become ever higher, to the point where our collective lack of effective resistance to it is threatening our survival at a species level (not to mention all the other species we’re in the process of taking with us).
Beliefs about our fundamental badness, along with most of our other behaviour and attitudes, have deeper roots than we generally acknowledge. Which brings us to the second of our fundamental problems: our psychology. Our conscious experience of living our everyday lives is only the tip of an iceberg of impressions, emotions, reactions, memories, fantasies, dreams, constrictions and holding patterns that live within our unconscious. This unconscious material is highly active and potent, but although corners of it will pop momentarily into consciousness, most of it goes largely unobserved by our conscious mind.
There are many different expressions of this inner material, but one of the most interesting – and potentially useful, when it comes to our collective need for change – is our traumatic patterning. Our experience of the effects of our trauma is crucial to making the myth of our fundamental destructiveness so compelling: unprocessed trauma is responsible for most of the destructive behaviours we engage in. And because we don’t automatically perceive the depth of what’s going on underneath this reactivity (because it’s unconscious), it’s easy to think-feel: I hated / shouted at / hit that person: the story is true – I am fundamentally bad.
Let’s reel back a bit and ask: what is the unconscious? Popularised by Freud over a hundred years ago, the idea has developed a great deal since then, but it fundamentally means that there are areas of our experience that we’ve forgotten or are not aware of, but which still affect the way we think, feel and act in the world.
Rather than imagining this as a pile of sealed boxes of experience, held in backrooms of our brain, recent understandings in neuro-biology show that trauma is stored in our nervous system, embodied in subtle (and not so subtle) patterns of constriction throughout our bodies. This means that ‘the unconscious’ is held in our bodies. Our mind and intelligence isn’t only in our brain, but pervades our whole physical existence in ways that can be hard to access, but are highly potent.
Given how powerfully it affects us, you might think we’d continually be exploring and talking about our unconscious as we try to make sense of our lives and harmonise our relationships (and indeed in some circles this is the case, but it’s still very rare in the mainstream). But maybe it’s not so surprising that something that is hidden to our own immediate awareness also goes largely unnoticed and unmentioned between us and in our social structures.
In fact it is not only unmentioned, but it’s actively taboo. There are levels of embarrassment, even shame, when thinking about our unconscious – certainly when thinking about (let alone actually) talking to others about it or bringing it into our wider social and working or political life. What might our worlds look like if we were to find ways to shift this embarrassment and shame and actually publicly own up to having an inner world?
As with all other aspects of our lives, how we relate to power draws on a mass of unconscious conditioning that gets in the way of our ability to respond in the reasonable, adult way we’d like to (and sometimes kid ourselves we’re still managing when we’re triggered and acting out).
This happens at many levels and takes many guises. Those who are practised (and often unconscious) in wielding power-over in certain situations, invite those practised (and unconscious) in power-under, to a dance they’ve been practising since childhood, mostly without ever knowing it. The structures of our society were created and have been developed with this same assumption of power-over, so when any of us play the power-over / -under game, the systems we live within lend energy to the dynamic.
Most of us have little experience of and absolutely no training in how to conduct power-with relationships and processes, so when we try to change the way we’re doing things, we often reach for the first tools we have at hand – those of power-over – and then feel defeated when things don’t work in the way we’d hoped.
When power-over meets power-with it can be explosive: people and structures who use power-over are used to getting their own way. A refusal to play power-under can look and feel inconvenient to those who’re less aware of the need to change our dynamics. And if our request for / insistence on power-with comes from a reactive, unconscious part of us, a power-with response to power-over can quickly shift into a triggered, angry confrontation that ends with escalation or with a switch, where the one seeking equality becomes the one wielding power-over. This is why understanding and working with the unconscious elements in our power dynamics is so important: we’re out of time for our efforts for change to be unsuccessful – or to morph into the very thing we’re opposing.
Just as developing a better understanding of our personal unconscious can help us change unhealthy patterns and live more fulfilling personal lives, a collective understanding of and willingness to work with our unconscious offers us a largely untapped possibility for really meaningful social change.
Inside the black box of our unconscious lies the potential for a different story about our true nature, one where we know that we behave badly when we feel small and alone – and know that when we take the risk of trusting one another, share our pain and heal together, we can become more whole, understand our own and others’ motivations and gain the agency to decide to work together in ways that bring out the best rather than the worst of our human nature. It may be easy to miss, hard to access and socially unmentionable but it’s a reality that we live with – and if we want the meaningful change we so desperately need, this is a crucial missing piece to developing and changing how we do things individually and collectively.
It is central to our collective problem that the very thing that could help us understand and change our situation, is the one thing we really, really don’t want to look at. Within our unconscious is our fear, our shame, our fury, our grief – everything we couldn’t couldn’t cope with, that was so unbearable, we thought it might be the end of us. Of course we don’t want to go there. Of course contorting and bracing ourselves in the present feels preferable to facing all that. But when we look at the world, at where all of us hiding from ourselves has got us to, it’s clear that’s where we need to go.
And folks, it’s not so bad – in fact, the beautiful, tragic thing is that facing what’s inside transforms us. It shows us how loving, compassionate and wise each one of us truly is. And with free access to that love, compassion and wisdom we can transform our world.
My personal experience of exploring ways to share my own unconscious material with others is that it’s initially scary, but quickly incredibly connecting, rewarding, relaxing and joyful. That this avenue for change is still largely unexplored within movements for social change is one of the few things that gives me hope.
To effectively address the catastrophes we are facing we need to address this fundamental paradox of our human condition: we are driven by powerful, inner forces that we are not consciously aware of and rarely discuss – even though they hold the key to understanding why we act as we do and how we can change. We need to face and heal our trauma patterning at both the personal and the collective level. In short, our desperate collective situation is giving us one last beautiful opportunity to become healthy humans. There is no doubt that we are capable of creating fundamental changes for the better. The question is, will we?
So: will we? Well… if you’re interested in thinking through how to work with ideas and practice that take the unconscious and issues around sharing power into account in the field of collective decision making (also known as ‘politics’), you may be interested in coming along to the 11 week Assemblies training ‘Reclaim Democracy’ that Grassroots to Global is running, starting in February 2024. It’s 100% online, free, and will share our experience of working with communities in Scotland and East Africa to create assembly processes that attempt to embody a power-with approach. It will take you step by step through the theory and practice of how to set up and run your own community-led Assembly – and how we can connect these to build a different kind of politics.