Sunday, February 14, 2010

Day 42: Reflections on Power

My thinking is focused on the idea of the state and the role it plays in our life and thinking. I am now onto an interesting book - the Social Construction of Reality - which I have just started reading. The essential thesis of the book is that the 'reality' as we know it is socially constructed, and there is no universal 'reality' as the underlying construct of reality imply.

It is actually a no-brainer in a way, and we have already heard the slogan - perception is reality. But, even that slogan, assumes a fixed reality, something that exists as given, and only claim that an alternative proposition can be found through perception. Besides, the proposition also assumes the existence of ONE reality, so that perception can replace the same. The social construction of reality, however, examines the existence of multiple realities, constructed from various vantage points of horizontal and vertical social positions, which then overlap and pass-off as one universal construct.

I am not training to be a sociologist or a philosopher, but such discourse is still of interest to me. My key interest is in learning, particular Adult Learning, which started with my professional engagement and business interests, but is progressing to become the key focus of own learning endeavours. The two major exposes in my life, the first related to the creation of a channel for vocational education in IT in India and Bangladesh, and the second through the advancement of English Language training and job recruitment in India, Philippines and some other territories, gave me certain insights which I am trying to reconcile with the existing literature. In short, I am trying to understand why people learn, and how learning may actually produce 'value' - my training in economics and my commitment to social progress as a responsible individual is to blame for such obsession - and this has led me to examine a wide body of literature in sociology, psychology, business and economics.

Increasingly, I am coming to discern, that learning as we know it is about the power equations in the society. We have created an web of power relationships, and created an elaborate structure to sustain such relationships. Job, in its current form, is one of them. So are careers and learning. The construct of success, wellness and governance is also based on, and are designed to sustain, the power relationship that exists in the society today. I know who I am referring to - Foucault - and I am sure my thinking is leading me to make the not-so-trivial attempt to read some of his work. But I am not there yet, in terms of the ability to commit time and intellectual consideration that will surely be required for such an enterprise.

But, it is discernible, even with my rather crude and untrained eyes, that the preservation of existing power relationships in the society remains at the heart of all learning endeavours. At its crude form, learning is connected to outcome - jobs or certificates - and hence designed to create a clear inclusion/ exclusion peripheries of the society. At the other extreme, learning as a process of enquiry, still dwells within the boundaries of existing social knowledge and accepted norms. One may argue that this is less so in the enquiries in the field of natural sciences, because such efforts must be directed to the discovery of universal truths, but it is possible to see the inherent limitations of scientific enquiry, at least at times, in the form of its social context. There are some outliers, and these tend to push the human knowledge forward. However, such outliers become rarer as the society matures and the power relationships within the society becomes more profitable, and more important, therefore, to preserve; thus limiting the ability to a matured society to discover new sources of progress and rejuvenation.

It is possible to view civilisational decline from this perspective, rather than the whims and fancies of individual despots or the geographical over-extension of the great powers in history. The current social and political thinking is obsessed with the creation of a sustainable form of society, but it seems that the whole worry about sustainability is the key reason why such sustenance becomes harder to come by. And, in the context of learning, as long as it is seen as a tool of sustainability, it remains limited in its scope and as a collective, the human civilization must go through the cycle of dark ages from time to time. It is possible to view learning as a tool of progress, but this learning must happen outside the boundaries of institutions of the age and as a freewheeling process of human enquiry. Again, as we endeavour to define all the parameters of our existence and achievement, such freewheeling enquiry is difficult to come by, and even if comes, it is castigated to the realms of disorderly behaviour and banished from public view.

My previous point about the notion of state can also be viewed from this perspective. The state, as it is perceived today, is an instrument of preservation of social power as known and observed in our day. The primacy of the state is a protocol that all acceptable strands of thinking must accept, and this should be the essential construct behind all other political and social constructs that we may have. In this set up, treason must be seen as a crime and should be met with exemplary punishment. Our schools and universities must endeavour to maintain the concept and the inviolability of the statehood. All this, while the statelessness is taking a grip on human consciousness, both through the social technologies and through stateless social movements. While there are various hues of statelessness, the terror regimes of pan-islamism is primarily a conflict between the state and statelessness and are therefore so incomprehensible. While we may draw comfort in establishing parallels between the current Islamic extremism and the previous threats to our power equations from the Soviet Union and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the fact remains that the previous movements operated within the paradigm of statehood and were therefore much less a potent force than the current threat. [One can argue that Stalin's Socialism in One Country was the ultimate betrayal of the Communist universalism, which directly led to the colonization of East Europe and the ultimate decay of the Soviet Union]

As I said, I am not training to be sociologist, and only have amateur interests in subjects of power. And, I would like to keep it this way - though it may develop into a theme that I have been looking for all my life. How about spending a lifetime understanding the mechanization of global power and observing the many individual rebellions that spring up, and crushed, every day all over the world? It sure seems a worthwhile goal, especially when it feels that the day is not far when some of those micro-revolutions will be conjoined with the power of the technology and alter the equations and percepts of the power itself. As an optimist, and as an observer of social progress, there is no more a worthy goal than to remain in audience when such change makes an appearance.


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