Are New and Old Political And Social Power Combining ?

Image source: RSA

In recent years we have been dealing with a new paradigm in the world. Things have been changing. There have been questions raised by some about the role of the welfare state, the role of volunteering and what austerity means for different groups. A society that has been keen in making interesting and thoughtprovoking questions about these shifts in Society is London based RSA.

The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) is an enlightenment organization based in the UK. Committed to find innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges, the society promotes research, talks, and beautiful animated videos that can be accessed online. Through its ideas, that aim to challenge the way we think, and through its 27,000-strong fellowship, the RSA seeks to understand and enhance human capability, aiming to close the gap between today’s reality and people’s hopes for a better world.

Writing for the RSA about the aforementioned shifts in power,  Anthony Painter (2015) is compelled to argue that:

“We are in an era of a profound shift in the nature of social and political power. The power structures of the 20th century, reliant on hierarchical, technocratic methods are weakening.”


A new type of power?

We have seen new types of power being put to use. One such form is collectives. Painter argues that before the welfare state existed people relied on collectives for support in times of hardship. This sort of support operated through churches in many cases, and were where political parties such as Labour and Liberal largely originated. However, unlike any time in the past it is argued that the old forms of power will not be completely eradicated. Rather it is hoped that these old powers and new ones will work together. At the current time we are seeing a situation where a good welfare state is in place, but some aspects of it have been failing. This has led to cooperatives like food banks being set up through civic action, and credit unions providing support also.

Painter believes that power is starting to be devolved somewhat to people over big institutions, as it was before the country’s democratic system was put in place. However, unlike in the past it is suggested that national institutions that were set up as part of the state still have a significant role to play, and will still do so. It is argued that while the state provides the basics such as making sure that everyone can have an education to the age of 18, and providing a health service and some level of social security, there are also areas where people can step in and work to help each other and themselves.

People are able now to come up with innovative solutions to problems and are not necessarily relying on the state to just deliver these, as they might have 50 years ago. This is explained to be person-to-person social change. It is additionally suggested that this requires different kinds of action both politically and socially than have been used before. The state in this situation is suggested to be a “smart state” which does not just simply leave people to it, but rather places resources where they are needed to help people to overcome hardship.

What are the new challenges?

However, there are still challenges with this. It is explained how the Big Society concept did not operate effectively as it was assumed that when faced with a removal of support people would simply develop a new-found level of civic energy that would drive them to fill the hole. However, support is needed from the state as well. This indicates the need for both types of power – that civic energy that the Big Society sought, but also ongoing help to some degree from the state to encourage this energy to come about, and not just by withdrawing support altogether.

Examples of where this has worked can clearly be seen in society. One example offered is that of Brixton Market in the UK.

The way this worked was that some people wanted to redevelop the market and others came up with different plans. The council stepped in and brought the developers together with a social enterprise (Space Makers Agency) and the so-called “friends of Brixton Market” and the success can be seen in the vibrant community market that has been created, which demonstrates clear community regeneration. The following video tells the interesting story of Brixton Market.

The example given, illustrates very well how old and new power working together. Other examples have also been seen in East London in Broadway Market and in Toxteth, Liverpool. In the latter case locals have worked hard to make sure that their section of the city is beautiful and enticing. Another has been seen in Manchester, and yet another in East Belfast. All of this shows what is possible when people work together with one another to create change, with the support of state institutions and local government. This is an interesting concept and we are only at the beginning of seeing what else these interesting models can do.