Vigilantes against abuse of power
by Azly Rahman
Power, to put it in simple modern management terms, is the ability to make things happen or to make other people do things for those who want to make things happen. Power must be made to be visible through legitimation and through the display of the signs and symbols of power.
Power, as exercised in democratic settings can be liberating and transformative, but when exercised in totalitarian settings can be shackling and oppressive.
I believe that we must learn to deconstruct the meaning of power, to analyse how it operates, and to deconstruct its meanings and manifestations so that we may understand what are negative and positive uses of power.
Power can come from legitimation and from the instilling and institutionalisation of fear. Power can be exercised through Virtue and Terror, like the French revolutionaire Robespierre who put the concept to devastating use.
Those who owns the means to control others can also exercise power in the most sophisticated and gentle way so that the means of oppressing others can be the least visible.
Power, as Machiavelli advised, must first be acquired/wrestled for, consolidated/maintained, and expanded and used to control and dominate via ways that will make it effective and long-lasting.
In a post-modern state, those in power desire to arrive at, borrowing Antonio Gramsci, a state of “hegemony” or moral and intellectual leadership whereby total power is derived from coercion and consent.
To understand how power relations evolve and how those in power may cleverly use the ideological state apparatuses, one must understand how hegemony develops and how leaders or totalitarian regimes that produce regimes of truth survive.
Manifestations of power
It is no wonder that especially in the economic boom years of the 1980s and 1990s in at least one Malaysian university and other corporate educational settings there was an obsession to read two major classic work of raw power namely, Niccolo Machiavelli's ‘The Prince’, and Sun Tze's ‘The Art of War’.
There was an obsession to study the history of warriors and warmongers such as Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and Bismarck and craft business strategies via ‘guerilla marketing techniques’ and use them to govern human beings.
I believe the greatest danger is when these principles of war are used in higher educational settings to control the growth of democratic voices. I believe the exercise of power through the application of such war principles, is one way to chart future ruins to the monuments and testament of democratic thinking Malaysia is constructing.
Power must be understood in all its dimensions and complexities. It is manifested in the use of language, in signs and symbols of things around us, in the choice of knowledge ‘being made official’, in the control of the print, broadcast, and digital media.
It is also manifested in the control of law-making and executing, in the way educational ideologies take shape, in the way the state educates its citizenry for a particular purpose, in the way human relations are conducted at any point in time, and in a multitude of other ways.
Power can be concentrated and dispersed, seen in the way rites and rituals are publicly displayed, made evident through the most mundane and minute of all forms of official communications, in the forms of addresses, in materials culture, and in the way one uses it as signs and symbols of history.
Power is ascribed through one's very existence as an economic or cultural being; in one's professional life as well as one's cultural self. There is power in the image one produces through the fashion statement one makes and through the visual communication in which one engages.
Michel Foucault often used the term power/knowledge as one. How is this a possible amalgamation in our analysis of the world as a ‘book of signs’?
Knowledge becomes power in the hands of those who produce or reproduce it. There is knowledge to transform the human self and there is knowledge to imprison it.
When is power ‘negative’? In the hands of those who own the means of transforming others, or entrusted to make decision for others, negative use of power can be seen in many dimensions.
When given power, the leader uses it to summon the resources to his/her own political, economic, and cultural agenda by building a network of peoples who can support the leaders' rise to higher levels of power.
One can observe the rise of leaders and how power is gained, maintained, and used for particular gains. One can see how the ideological state apparatuses are used - the political, economic, military, social machinery - to further gain the legitimation to have power over others. When given the power, the leader imprisons those who opposes him/her.
There is another example from my own profession as an academician.
When an educational leader is given power in a public educational institution, the leader will use his/her power to curb academic freedom, silence the voices of dissent, define what questions can be asked and what is forbidden, what bodies of knowledge to filter into the minds of the students, and how to manage the organisation like an efficient production house of good workers obedient to the dictates of the prevailing ideology.
The leader will ensure that the teaching faculty will not be allowed to teach the students how to think and to curb dissent among the faculty members. A leader who abuses power in academia is one who will discourage dissenting points of view.
Leaders with power, in both instances, are exemplified as good users of negative power, They are, in short good abusers of positive power. Malaysia's transformation as a ‘knowledge society’ cannot afford to have such abusers of power.
When is power ‘positive’? When given the power, a good leader of the people will make sure that he/she is first and foremost a representative of the people and elected into public office to make things better for the greatest number of people.
A good user of positive power will free people from the shackles of domination and to ensure that being a political leader does not mean being an inheritor of colonialist thinking. He/she must understand, as the Algerian thinker Albert Memmi would put it, who is the “coloniser and who is the colonised” and “how the colonised can gradually transform into a coloniser”.
A good political leader is not elected to further divide and sub-divide people so that it will be easy for his/her regime to rule and to profit from turning people into utilities and consumers.
A good political leader learns from the moral and ethical philosophies of the people governed and transform his/her understanding to create a humanistic and socially just nation of diverse peoples, guiding them through a careful path of social and technological progress; one that values social needs more than profits for the national and international few.
A good political leader will allow the growth of a strong system of check and balance, be they in the form of clear and efficient separation of power (of the executive, judiciary and legislative) or through the setting up of a strong opposition coalition in Parliament or Congress.
A good political leader will allow himself/herself not serve indefinitely. A good government might even agree to share and rotate power amongst coalition parties in the spirit of ‘collaborative’ politics.
And, what is a good educational leader, then? How can we recognise whether he/she has used power wisely?
A good university leader will assume the role of a philosopher and an intellectual leader, and not one playing the role of a politician or a commander of a regime of an ideology.
A good university leader is one who understands philosophy. Philosophy is about helping people make choices, helping develop strong principles in support of the choices made, and helping use the people's diverse opinions to create a learning environment in which diversity and dissent will in turn create a strong foundation of intellectualism.
The university should be a logical place to nurture the spirit of free inquiry wherein professors are not afraid to speak their truth and ask questions, and students are responsible enough to decide what political direction they are to choose.
A good university leader must be a social-democratic thinker in order to entertain and to encourage multiple voices to flourish. He/she must be a strong moral and intellectual leader who ensures that multi-dimensional thinking reigns and not one who will create, in the words of the American sociologist Herbert Marcuse, “one-dimensional beings”.
The public university is therefore not a place for authoritarian leaders who has not understood what a ‘university’ means, let alone what a ‘public university’ built for the common good signifies.
A good university leader helps the place grow more intelligent and open. He/she will ensure that the institution will not turn to be a place for students to be suspended for asking questions in a university forum, or faculty members to be expelled, among other reasons, for asking for further clarifications on the fundamental issue of academic freedom. This has unfortunately happened in a Malaysian public university.
Power, in the instances I have sketched above, can therefore be conveniently abused or properly used.
As democratic Malaysian citizens, we must learn to become vigilantes against those who have promised to serve us but choose to be intoxicated by the sweet arrogance of power.