On the History of the Powerless

, , Comments Off on On the History of the Powerless

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. This bon mot was one of the first lessons learned during my studies of political science. But there is a way to escape such a depressing point of view suggesting any person you meet seems only to be the next one to betray you. If we come to understand that powerful people throughout history have played a rather disappointing role, we might consider turning our attention towards those without power: the powerless. In the following, I want to show that there is an attractive story to tell about the powerless.

By Daniel Palm Cisne

The powerless are those excluded from formal ways and procedures, not having any legitimate right to raise claims in the eyes of ruling institutions. We would be mistaken, though, if we think that the powerless do not play their role in shaping laws and institutions. The powerless are not without a bright and long history of influencing institutions and formalized politics. There is a wonderful thought in Saskia Sassen’s book Territory, Authority, Rights discussing those dynamics shaping rights of citizens throughout history: the powerless have always played a significant role in shaping those legal rights and institutions ruling until today. To do so, informal practices have been used quite successfully throughout history, and prevail until today as media for self-empowerment, holding crucial influence in shaping institutions and rights in favor of the underprivileged. I argue that what is needed today is a language of global citizenship, so those institutions and rules that still rely on national citizenships can be transformed in order to cope with that process knocking on each and everyone’s door: Globalization.

But let us start with the origins of citizenship as such. And at the start of the story about citizenship stands a rather confused exercise of authority at the end of the Middle Ages in Europe. Since King and Pope struggled over territories and legitimacy for rule, a historically rare schism of authority was at work in Europe during these times. And it was decisive because there was only fuzzy authority to find, that people living in cities saw their chance to claim rights for self-governance. In the very beginning of the history of citizenship stands the construction of urban law. And urban law, in turn, was a product of the formerly powerless in the eyes of questionable authority. Through the language of secularized rights, claims for freedom and justice could be raised, forming a sphere out of reach for the crown and the pope. In order to establish this language, pieces of vulgar republican Roman law as well as folk- and common law were assembled. Newly established local courts then served as institutions to rule over this new form of justice. The outcome of these legal practices was a new historical subject, claiming the right for transparent and evident procedures when exercising authority: The Burgher.

Those migrating from farms and smaller communities into the city came to experience a status of legal freedom not yet seen before. The city became a symbol of this freedom. What happened from there is very well known to history. Burghers claimed a right for private property. By enforcing the private rights of the Burgher, trade was no longer under the control of church and noblemen, but instead came to be ruled by the privatized rule of the market. Thus the first cornerstone for capitalist society was an emancipating act, cutting former rights of middle ages authorities from having a share of production.

So far, this share had been always perceived as a holy privilege.

With this shift in legality the formerly ruled could use urban law against the rulers. Privatized economics then triggered an explosive dynamic towards legal self-empowerment of the subject, driving European history from there on. In the cities, the Burgher came to support the bureaucratic project of the crown, giving rise to institutions exercising power based on rational logic, thereby enabling transparency and possible objections by the private, tax paying subject. Especially those living in the marginalized spheres of the city pushed the process of secularization forward, and challenged those holy orders, which so far had been ruling Europe. The former powerless informal subject of the servant became a formalized subject, secured by the law of personal rights. Logic of legal rule replaced the logic of a holy rule throughout the European Middle Age. Finally, the state as legal exercise of power emerged, and the subject’s ‘citizenship’ came to be bound to not yet consolidated, but evolving state territories.

From there, the other side of the story has to be told. The project of secularization dismissed religion as some sort of not yet enlightened sense of the world, to be practiced in private. Therefore much of what made sense to the majority of people around the world was longer to be part of political conside-rations. As imperial capitalism spread over the world, the logic of private, legal trade and ‘strong’ nation-states penetrated not only any territory of slight interest because of resources all around the world, but also proved to be incapable of handling rising conflicts in Europe, leading to two World Wars. Even though the logic of nation-states led to catastrophe, states nevertheless prevailed as the ruling institutions for the post World Wars period. Through the hegemonic rule of Western society, the ‘International System’ spread across the world, implementing the concept of state authority, regardless of particular territorial disputes between several parties, and simply ignoring the fact that a geographical rendering of states does not constitute state power as such. In the end, if installed states struggled to maintain pro Western order, military interventions came to ‘handle’ the situation.

Neither markets nor states are in a clear possession of authority. Undoubtedly, disciplinary paradigms of markets, like efficiency and flexibility, have ruled over the private sphere of the citizen throughout the last decades, but their rule over states remains incomplete.

One might tend to think that citizens today are quite powerless towards those elites ruling the state, running administrations and state authority in a rather exclusionary and self-serving way. Somehow, it seems, the project of emancipation via secular rights and political organization has turned against its founders. But one should not be fooled about the fact that within the state, politics of the powerless proceed to influence state institutions. In more recent history, these fights of the powerless mainly were about diminishing discriminations through gender, race, class, colonial power lines, or sexual preferences. There is a long list of the powerless who have shaped law and institutions to their favor using informal practices, like manifesting on the streets – even though it was forbidden – squatting places and buildings, or giving speeches, addressing not yet pictured imaginary worlds. So the state as such is not per se solely the tool of those already in power. It can be challenged and transformed in order to empower those who are suffering under a regime of exclusion. Lately, the state got involved in the process of Globalization. Also this process is actively shaped by some who have not been in charge before, but who managed to transform state and legal procedures in their favor.

Unfortunately, though social forces driving the project of Globalization so far have never actually been the powerless people. Rather, they are a quite wealthy and powerful class ruling corporations and transnational investment funds. Together they have sought to overcome the welfare state ruling in Europe and U.S.A. after World War II, which was oriented towards the success of national capital, and towards wealth distribution throughout ‘their’ citizens. Citizens in these times were defined by a supposedly clear national belonging, patriotic and bound to their country of origin. This nationalistic welfare system proved to be unsustainable for many reasons, which certainly would require a much longer discussion than I can allow myself to elaborate on here. What is nevertheless important to see is that administrations of the welfare state had ruled the ways in which transnational trade was organized in a quite strict manner. High taxes and restricting laws for foreign investments set clear borders for any transaction crossing national territory. With the crisis of the welfare state, informal strategies like lobbying, privatization of key institutions and agencies and others, globally orientated capitalists set free what we recently have come to perceive as global capital. Though not powerless, the class of globally oriented capitalists empowered themselves in the face of state, and now dominate recent politics. Today global market flows accelerated by new technologies of communication and transport, penetrate every single part of the world. But while products and investments flow freely, people in this world keep being bound to national borders. And here is the point: the state plays a quite ambiguous role in this. It enhanced a global market which now seemingly overrules the state, and meanwhile, any project of global citizenship seems to be doomed remaining forever unfinished.

One can reasonably say that the powerless today are confronted with a schism of authority very much like people were in Europe back in the Middle Ages. Neither markets nor states are in a clear possession of authority. Undoubtedly, disciplinary paradigms of markets, like efficiency and flexibility, have ruled over the private sphere of the citizen throughout the last decades, but their rule over states remains incomplete. The state is not the sole agent of global capital; it is still accessible for political claims – from the entitled voters as well as from the struggling powerless. This is, because as such, the neoliberal project of Globalization not only proved to be highly fragile, it is also lacking a sufficiently inclusionary political culture. Protests on the streets are now stronger than they have been in the so often quoted 60’s of last century. Alain Bertho, in his inquiry published in the book Les temps des émeutes concludes that there is a global unrest of the powerless, challenging the rule of markets and questionable political representation. Protest and dissent by those who were ‘forgotten’ or rather systemically excluded from power, have the capacity to transform institutions into yet unknown forms. History bears witness to that.

As globally oriented capitalists have transformed the nation-state in order to realize their interests, it is now upto the world’s citizens to do so too. A codex is to be found, not necessarily written in law, which empowers a right to global citizenship. What is needed is a language, yet informal, through which the needs of the powerless can be addressed and secured. Maybe a look into the history of the former powerless can help to create such a language. The list of inspiring personalities who have fought their fight for empowerment is long: Rosa Luxemburg, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and so many more. They all confronted institutions and procedures which rendered them powerless, but they nevertheless gained crucial victories for their cause. Where would we be today if these people would not have fought their fights despite being powerless? The powerless have a vivid history to tell and hopefully still many stories about to come. Once again, the city might prove to be the political arena to establish such a new legal frame for global citizenship, as urban space becomes the central stage of social transformation in times of Globalization. And those who already are in the city have a crucial ‘presence’ in this strategically important space. They cannot be reduced to some illegal, marginal subject, vegetating at the borders of public (un)awareness and ignorance. Presence is the first step to overcome powerlessness. From there, the possibilities to exercise informal strategies are only limited by already settled institutions, and by the creativity from the yet powerless in order to transform them.


Alain Bertho: Le temps des émeutes, Paris: Bayard (2009)
David Harvey: A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2005)
Saskia Sassen: Territory, Authority, Rights. From Medieval to Global Assemblages, Princeton: Princeton University Press (2006)