Old paradigms give way to new ones when some combination of actual events and new ways of understanding those events appear on the scene. Then the ice begins to crack.
More and more people question the status quo and come to embrace new ways of thinking and new directions for policy.
Right now, cracks in the ice are appearing for three reasons: 1) the disruptive effects of trade and technology on individual lives and communities, 2) virtually unprecedented levels of inequality and the possibility that ever-rising inequality is baked into a market economy, and 3) the failure of supply-side economics to deliver on its promises along with some deeper questioning of its goals.
The last four years have fortified the metaphorical wall of ice between those who stand firmly on the side of capitalist profit concerns and those who stand on the side of human relations, dignity, and well-being. Our conventionally abstract economic, government, political, academic, and media paradigms have provided no way around, under, or through that lethal wall so we might connect with each other.
We cannot find common ground, even when urgently heated questions — about the rapid decline of actual conditions for millions of us and our fellow citizens — continue to create cracks in the ice. In these conditions there is simply no possibility for movement forward together in the U.S.: we are locked in an American finger trap of abstraction vs. actuality.
Privileging abstraction over human relations in our thinking and planning is a massive barrier to humane progress. Conventional framing begins in hollowed-out abstractions divorced from actual conditions, rendering hard abstract solutions that, then, are planted in the soft soil of actual human relations on the ground.
This divide — between the abstract and the actual in our worldbuilding — is as deep as our politics, but invisible to most.
We need to start building from a healthier place. Our conventional paradigms have failed us, and no conventional paradigm in any sphere begins with how actual humans relate with one another in order to build out and implement processes and systems from that perspective.
It’s time for a relational paradigm shift that creates healthy common ground on which we can rebuild humane and sustainable processes and systems of economies, governments, education, politics, knowledge production, and media.
Human Power Relations
My field research in Rural American Cultures (RAC) focused on human relations. Even though I chose to leave academia in 2014 to pursue independent research, my academic training based in process philosophy — which understands the universe as radically relational — is baked into who I am, both professionally and personally. (I wasn’t about to leave all those expensive, incredibly useful — sometimes beautiful — academic sense-making tools behind!)
That there is no human who is disconnected from or irrelevant to other humans is a fundamental process assumption that guides my life and my work. After synthesizing and analyzing 3.5 years of ethnographic and auto-ethnographic power relation data collected while immersed as an outsider at the bottom of mostly white RAC, I can share these 10 fundamental principles about power:
- Power is a relation (a living connection) between humans, or between entities, like organizations, governments, countries, departments, and disciplines.
- Power is central in our practices with one another: everything we think, feel, act on, imagine, implement, buy, and love is embedded in a power relation.
- For individual humans, power is functionally the ability to generate and maintain forward momentum. Forward momentum is hardwired into all living entities on the planet. We own our forward momentum. (In what direction progress occurs as a result of that momentum is a question about choice and options — about agency.)
- As humans, our momentum (our power) is always already in relation with others’ momentum (their power), which means that we adapt to one another’s power in our relations (those living connections between us). Each relational adaptation to power is embodied in an observable practice (or set of them) that can be documented, examined, understood, and changed.
- Power relations between humans function on a spectrum, from perfectly balanced to severely imbalanced. Relations that tend toward a perfect balance function as democratic and are healthiest for humans. Relations that are intended to be severely imbalanced, to varying degrees, function as authoritarian and are least healthy, even lethal, for humans.
- Severely imbalanced (or authoritarian) power relations include racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and speciesism (among others). Each imbalanced power relation is embodied in observable practices that can be documented, examined, understood, and changed.
- Power moves in our practices between one another. Sharing power means engaging in practices that help others generate and maintain their forward momentum. Stealing power means engaging in practices that functionally create barriers to slow, stagger, and/or stop others’ forward momentum. Hoarding power means amassing concentrations of what fuels forward momentum: capital, bandwidth, credit, status, authority, weapons, position, and other resources.
- Practices move the balance of power in our relations. When there are more power-sharing practices in a culture, the power balance moves toward perfection on the democratic end of the spectrum. When practices that steal and hoard power outnumber those that share power, the power balance moves to the authoritarian side of the spectrum.
- Both democratic and authoritarian processes, systems, and regimes are constituted by our human relations and embodied in human practices that can be observed, documented, examined, understood, and changed.
- Power relations are the human basis on which processes and systems either succeed or fail. Democracies succeed when human power relations are relatively balanced. Authoritarian regimes succeed when human power relations are severely imbalanced.
A Relational Path Forward
Everything we do starts and ends with power. How we “do” power begins with how we’ve been raised in our families to embody and respond to it. As adults, how we go on to employ our forward momentum (our power) and adapt to others’ power depends in large part on how those skills — that we learned responding and adapting to power in our families — are valued (or not) in contexts beyond our family.
Because some humans are raised in family cultures where sharing power is the norm and each is able to move forward and progress together, they tend to share power beyond their family cultures. Others of us raised in family cultures where stealing and hoarding power is the norm and where they’ve learned to adapt to unnecessary barriers that slow, stagger, or stop forward momentum, tend to carry those adaptations into their practices as adults.
Ultimately, each way of “doing” power has serious implications for how we “do” our lives: how we orient in our practices to each other, how we orient in our practices to worlds beyond our family cultures, and how we orient toward human health.
There is no better time than now to focus on cleaning up our relations with one another. The power principles outlined above begin with how humans relate with one another and build out from there. The shift to a relational paradigm provides the most useful and humane philosophical framework within which to understand how we might move toward more balance — and more health — in our power relations with one another.
“Capitalism forgets that life is social.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Just business” is just not possible anymore. The last four years have shown us in glaringly stark terms how many human beings are suffering and dying in a country where capitalist practices are annihilating vulnerable humans’ lives and eating the heart of our democracy: the healthy relations between us.
King recognized that capitalist power relations are far from relationally democratic because they are driven by a profit motive and the need to gain a competitive advantage. Power relations in capitalist cultures force human relational practices in the direction of power-stealing and hoarding, the authoritarian side of the power spectrum, and away from power-sharing practices, the democratic side of the spectrum.
With an understanding of that fundamental relational conflict — between democracy and capitalism — we can begin a discussion about cultural adaptations that capitalism must make if it is provide an accessible and functional way to share power in its practices with human beings who choose to live in democratic (power-sharing) cultures.
Next: “15 Ways that Capitalism Conflicts with Democracy”
Cathy B. Glenn, Ph.D. is an independent critical researcher, creative, and cultural worker whose areas of expertise are power, culture, and change. Formerly Private Principal Investigator for The Center for U.S. Rural Cultures Studies, she is now Educational Content Director and Developer for The Relational Democracy Project. She spent 5 years functionally outside capitalist demands, and it changed her fundamentally as a human being. She is available to consult.
Portions of this article appear in The Human Basis of Democracy, a nonfiction manuscript in process for The Relational Democracy Project. A version of this article will also be available at Original Source, a new electronic publication in development devoted to field research focused on power relations from citizens and accessible academics in a variety of American cultures.
Feel free to use this content, with attribution.