On power and truth

I came across this meme just recently and felt drawn to the sentiment it expressed. However, insofar as it appears as an axiom that explicitly references the notion of truth, I scouted out its provenance.

Three things seemed to come to light: first, despite citations in various texts, oftentimes suggesting that it originally appears in Orwell’s 1984, the quotation does not appear in that book.

Second, it is actually difficult to find evidence that this is something even said by Orwell himself. So, while the juxtaposition of text and author’s name seems to create a truth about its origin, this is, in fact, an illusion. If speaking truth is a revolutionary act, this leads me to wonder whether the articulation of untruths is an implicitly reactionary act.

Lastly, this meme was being used in a range of settings: leftists were drawn to it…yet it was also the case that the broad outline could be found out on the web bearing the hashtag to free Tommy Robinson, a rabble-rousing Fascist in the UK. So, its veracity changes orientation depending on the ideological context of its deployment.

Which leads to a consideration of the very idea of “truth”, particularly in respect to the important notion in political and organisational of “speaking truth to power”. The superb book on this topic, written by Megan Reitz and John Higgins, helpfully encapsulates this as a practice where people “speak up”, thereby helpfully sidestepping the tricky notion of truth.

This is not to head down a post-structuralist rabbit hole of epistemological relativism, which often seems the destination when this contention is raised: the debates can end up reductio ad absurdam, which is when ideas such as critical realism can be seen to offer a useful anchorage point. But it is to nod towards the idea of truth being either socially constructed (vide Kurosawa’s film Rashomon [1950]) – or, more significantly to my mind, discursively formed through the action of power/knowledge.

All of which leads to an opening assertion that the idea of speaking truth to power is an unhelpful precept. Power ends up in this formulation as a possessed resource: those who have it deny others the chance to contest their view unless they brace themselves to undertake the heroic act of giving voice to their notional idea of “truth”.

This is problematic on two counts: first, it assumes a separation between power and the idea of truth, whereas power should be seen as both an assertion and a reinforcement of a discursively constituted truth.

Second, it supposes that power can be contested – using something akin to a battle analogy – by calling upon a truth that is seen within the terms of this discussion as universal. This essentialism is unhelpful, as it allows for people from the widest range of perspectives to take a fundamentalist position in regard to their perceived relation to an absolute truth.

With the ideas of both power and truth problematised within this seemingly commonsensical assertion, we need to go back to first principles to determine how subaltern epistemologies might assert themselves in the broad field of social relations. For that, it seems to me, is what we need to lock onto when considering how to work in and through power.

Hence, we cannot speak of truth as a terrain to be seized by one or other side in a binary antagonism. Instead, we need to understand that the dominant discourse can only be contested by the open articulation of those other discourses that, through its dominance, it renders as “Other” and hence not acceptable.

Hence, it may not help to think about speaking up, which has a clear directional dimension that suggests an overlord and an underling. Instead, it is essential that voice is given to these subaltern discourses, that they find space and time in which to be discussed. And, in the same vein, it would seem important not to indulge the liberal democratic notion that it is a lone sovereign individual who embraces the act of giving voice.

Instead, we need to resuscitate the fundamental notion of collective action that capitalism has partially erased through the ideology of the individual and the development of the ideas and practices of neo-liberalism. And organisation development, as a radical practice, needs to assume responsibility for making the connections and opening up the space and time for this to take place.

2 thoughts on “On power and truth

  1. Hi Mark – I am part of the Roffey MSC group so will meet you next week. I really like this article. Having just written a paper on the map of the field of P&OD and other papers, I know that power and politics plays a huge role in orgs but that OD text books don’t really cover it other than say it exists and OD practitioners need to navigate it. If you can recommend some more reading on this topic that would be great! Looking forward to the session next week. Lorraine


    1. Really pleased that you found the piece engaging, Lorraine. You’re right to note that OD tends to swerve around this topic, despite the fact that we are all very acutely aware of the way in which power resides in the warp and weft of organisational life.

      The foundational stuff – ripe for critique to my mind – is the work of Goldhamer & Shils (from back in 1939 but still haunting the field, I think) and of French & Raven, both of whom take a fairly familiar functional look at the bases of power in organisations. Thereafter, the rich material tends to reside in the somewhat artificial space called “Critical Management Studies”, where one finds scholars such as Andre Spicer and Peter Fleming tackling the topic head on.

      Similarly, a rather more three-dimensional exploration of power in a social context is offered by Steven Lukes, which is a helpful reorientation around the topic, particularly when viewed through the frame of organisations. Lastly, as you’d expect, perhaps, I find Foucault’s work on disciplinary power (and, in particular, the concatenation of power/knowledge) really helpful in terms of understanding organisational practice – and it is the foundation for the thinking that I offer in my book Radical OD, which sees power at the heart of organisational life and hence woven into our practice (whether we like it or not).

      I’m very excited about next week’s session and sense that I am going to come away with lots of fresh thinking and new questions to address through my work. See you then, Lorraine!


Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close