Towards the End of Power: Achievement, representation, and the contemporary Self

Fist male hand, proletarian protest symbol. Power sign.
Photo: iStock

By Alok Ranjan

The Individual followed the neo-liberal command and set out on a journey to make a destiny; to reach the top. He grew high and the peak had disappeared. Promised feelings of joy, thrill, and excitement were absent. He realized that his journey was an organized story for the sustenance of the myth of destiny and future that were not anywhere else but dying out beneath his boots on the walk to life.     

We know from Foucault (1978) that power rests within social relationships and practices and flows continuously. Yet, the appearance of power in forms of decision making, teaching, legislating, and so on have a definitive function, not only to deter resistance to centers of decision making but more importantly to establish power as a goal to be desired for – a goal that is crucial to propagating the ideology of unlimited individual development through successive achievements. Power survives largely in the desire for power. And this desire is constructed through instincts of consequential exclusive social status and the appearance of the utility of power.

Many individuals today are suspicious of their achievements and the utility of the surplus power associated. A student like me who was utterly dissatisfied with irregular classes and rarely held useless lectures in a small-town university migrates to feel the satisfaction of reading and growing better in a metropolitan university and still finds the space and practices out of place as they do not help make sense of the world, nor give any hope of feeling better. A Police SI complains of violating himself in a violent system and cluelessness about what to do with appropriated money lying on his bed (Personal Communication 2021). News reporters are leaving attractively salaried jobs and corporate professionals are suffocating with usurpation of time. In all these instances, disillusionment with achievement and power is at the level of non-negotiability. These are all outcomes of unresolvable internal antagonism between at-least two selves – one believing in power, and another in its death.

The division between a trained-skilled part of the productive self that contributes to the economy and technology alienated from the demanding, meaning, and joy-seeking self is real and is becoming engulfing. With greater abstraction and hierarchization of regimes of socio-economic governance, every unit of systems is subordinated to the function of the greater whole and is struggling to influence lives and derive satisfaction through personal initiatives. A professor, for instance, can hardly help pupils grow but by imparting authoritative information, assigning writings, and grading on a scale decided by the university administration.

This disillusionment with power is not merely because of the narrowing scope for personal influence but also because of the sociological descendence of individual achievements as public spectacle and a source of relational prestige. As cultural politics marginalizes materiality into irrelevance, material successes do not retain the same satisfying element within society or for the individual. Many individuals and communities in the face of the hyper-technological age of narrative politics are looking more for relational social-historical-psychological locations, while some others labor hard in isolation to get to universities, bureaucracy, and media fields. Moreover, as grown-up public and corporate organizations recruit a large number of people from remote locations and unrepresented economic classes, the successful and powerful can no longer celebrate the exclusiveness of their achievements.    

Politics beyond Representation                                                                                                        

Associated with this crisis of power is the problem of the limit of representation. Tribals in Jharkhand’s Khunti attacked a local Member of Parliament Kariya Munda’s house and kidnapped his guards, essentially because Munda along with his security arrangement did not represent his tribe but state power. This is not a new problem. The nation never represented communities’ imaginations, the nation-state never represented national interest nor legislators represented citizens. Yet, regimes managed to overwhelm the discrepancies of representation with a claim of the embodiment of common good and bureaucratic intellect. A claim that is under question in a quite serious manner. The state is seen not only as not serving the common good but as inhibiting those defining and pursuing their specific goods. Moreover, like the state, oppositional politics too is unable to represent different people as it speaks the same borrowed language, imagines the future of the same constituents in different proportions and employs strategies, and assumes problems from a higher pedestal.

Students, women, and the poor do exist in awareness of themselves, and the growing thinness of political organizations does not prove their ignorance but simply the immense problem that they cannot be represented or that they do not want to be represented. It may suggest that the already routinized lives do not wish to multiply themselves in different sites. Rather, when the routine is not bearable anymore, it shatters on streets like it’s been happening for a decade in different parts of the world wherein faceless youth, students, and women appear in rage and joy to bathe in a new experience, to confront power but not necessarily to grab it themselves.

The movements in this century have taken up a range of issues from socio-economic inequity, regime change, and repeal of particular laws to larger agendas of police brutality and loss of freedom, and yet what characterized these movements is how they appeared and continued rather than their gains or failures. They did not look up to representational political power for guidance over strategy and ideology but assembled a site for the expression of feelings and relation of bodies. They found that differences did not obstruct potential for commonness, that there is no social community powerful enough not to be unconstrained by a higher power assemblage, and hence no inherited power but only inherent sociability could be employed to better control lives.

Implications for sociality: Contemporariness of future

Both increasing individuals’ realization of the inadequacy of power in different workspaces, during preparation and after the achievement of success, and shift in social movements away from representational politics undermine the status of power as a means as well as an end in society. As a political discourse of populism gains ground and the people’s contempt for the elite grows, the previous rural admiration for urban and non-achievers’ awe for achievement is giving way to suspicion and ordinariness of success. In such context, and as conversations have reduced to green ticks on online messaging platforms, privilege and associated power work as an inhibitor. Communication between a reporter and a villager, an urban post-graduate and his childhood friends, has become difficult. The language and content of the speech of the former are anticipatable and disconnected from the ontological realities facing the latter. This problem of the impossibility of communication with social locations that one belongs to leaves an individual to find himself in pretentious friendships and sentimental isolation.

The trend that I have cited above as suggesting disenchantment of power does not negate the fact that some social groups and identities still mobilize for an increase in relative political or social power. Caste associations, women’s rights organizations, etc. are for instance still actively working for recognition and representation but they are faced with the problem where the state apparatus that used to be a site for political bargaining has increasingly distanced itself from social conflicts and tries to counter their influence through propaganda machinery. Nevertheless, almost all societies have had a legacy of movements that singularly focused on protecting culture, land, and customs from external power rather than appropriating it. Thus in the current age of narrowing space for citizenry or bargain politics, a lot more social movements may be anticipated that assert their territory against external imposition rather than demanding a share in public power. Tribals in Jharkhand weaponized the sacred tradition of ‘Pathhalgadi’ as well as special provisions of the Constitution of India in 2018 to declare absolute sovereignty of gram Sabhas (village assemblies) in the scheduled areas and banned the entry of Police and civil administration. The uprising had happened in response to a government policy of creation of land banks that meant a loss of undocumented tribal land. It was armored with the memory of community governance practiced since earlier times in the region. Though the movement was alleged to be pressurizing those who did not agree with leaders, it is difficult to verify it. However, it takes us back to revisioning power as an element in social relationships and practices. It is important to enquire whether power as an idea is itself discouraged within a movement or society that confronts another power to mark its territory or does a struggle work to curtain internal hierarchies and power relationships. It is not uncommon to find such dualism acting beneath surface during articulations made for self-determination.

Nonetheless despite a general belief in immortality and eternity of power, one must hope in its decay as a utility and desire as more people realize the difficulty in understanding and feeling, articulating, and dealing with hope and despair alone. As overgrown communities of social media fill individuals with a vacuum, they should return to build new friends groups, and cultural networks and put off his superiority to come to terms with dynamic communities of shifting compositions and singularities to come to terms with himself; to rescue their alienated self.

Power expects differential aspirations and breathes on one hand in satisficing and functional value of hierarchy and on other hand in political mobilization for its fair distribution. In the latter case, power immortalizes itself precisely in frustrations over the shortage of it, i.e. in powerlessness. Thus for a decline in power, it requires to be eliminated both in the field of powerfulness and powerlessness. The powerful as dislocated by the neo-liberal economy and zombifying technology have to overcome their own power to embrace and be embraced by the community, to develop their creativity and its audience. Or rather, power dissolves in the process itself. The powerless on the other hand are inspired by memories or imaginations of organizing community living and resolving common problems in their own ways and a sense of stifling effects of overarching politics.

Further, there is a large number of people that though still under a political organization called the nation-state do not experience it regularly nor look up to it through hope or entitlement. They can better be approached through networks and practices of mutual support and sharing rather than a political organization whose leaders, purpose, and ideas are alien to the masses.

Alok Ranjan is Doctoral Research Fellow at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He obtained a post-graduate degree in Political Science from the University of Delhi. His research interests include the State, politics of law, and social movements.


Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.

Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Fantasy”, edited by Atreyee Majumder, National Law School of India University, Bangalore. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s