The fascination of power

A personal exploration by Mark Cole

In a recent conversation, the person with whom I was speaking was able to make clear connections between their experiences across the course of their life and the work that fascinated in their professional life. I went away wondering: “What might there be in my past that has led me to be so interested in power – and, in particular, power in the workplace?” I took a little time to reflect on this, recognising that a number of things felt as though they informed my particular practice and research focus.

Bullies and victims

I moved primary school three times but interestingly those experiences were positive for me. The move I made at aged seven was positive. The previous school was dour and I remember feeling friendless; the inner city I went to was welcoming and positive, and I made friends. They were friends who sobbed as I did when, just two years later, my family had to move home again. (Living in flats above shoe shops that were owned by the company for whom my father worked meant regular moves for my family.)

All began well on the final leg of my primary career. There was fascination with the latecomer and a desire to know where I’d been before then. I even gained the affectionate nickname of Sunny, in light that I had arrived at Raglan Road from Sunny Hill School in Streatham. Once again, I made friends, including one close friend who lived in the next street to mine.

We all moved up to secondary together (although the eleven plus bifurcated us a little, of course). But many of us who had become friends ended up at the same “big school” and looked after one another in the course of that transition.

At some point this rhythm was profoundly interrupted, though. I can’t locate it exactly – but I sense it was when the small groups of friends began to network across the whole six-form entry. Connections stretched out across a population of 180 boys and new allegiances appeared. With the emergence of new connections came a painful fraying of the old ones. Before I even realised what had happened, my friends of yore were my tormentors, as the bullying began in earnest by precisely the people who I had grown to trust over time.

A dynamic had subtly shifted and I suddenly found myself on the edge; indeed, it can be argued that, for this group, I served to define the edge. Cole became their other, pushed to the boundary of the group – defining that very boundary, perhaps – but held there in that liminal space rather than simply ejected, so that I could at the same time be mistreated and hurt.

I look back occasionally and wonder why, as victims so often do: Why me? The families of my friends were slightly better off than mine, so those boys wore the marginally more chic gabardine blazers from the expensive school shop as opposed to the budget furry one with the stitched on badge that I had. While they wandered around with Tales from Topographic Oceans under their arms, I was avidly awaiting the next Gary Glitter single. And I had a younger brother (a seven year difference) with whom I chose to spend a good deal of time, often in play, which marked me out as a weird tween- and teenager.

Unwittingly, I had learnt about the power of the crowd. Much later in my life, it was almost reassuring to read Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. This, of course, was not a single person holding power and compelling others to do their bidding, although we can often see that in human society. No, this was an early introduction to a picture of power that sees it not as a resource to be possessed; instead, it is an intrinsic feature of human beings coming together, oftentimes productive and, at the same time, destructive.

The sense of betrayal was profound. Those who I had counted as friends, with whom I had made common cause as we apparently progressed supportively through life together, changed allegiance at an extraordinary pace. The volte-face was instant and total – and there was no indication of residual affection or even fellow-feeling.

My value to them now was to generate that group boundary: to be part of the collective, you had to be a “not-Cole” – and you had to demonstrate a willingness to double-down on that Othering by tormenting the person on the boundary psychologically and physically, so as to prove your “not-ness”.

Life at home

As with all families, power was inherent in our domestic life. My father was a significant presence, certainly not averse to physicality in terms of disciplining his sons. Interestingly, my brother and I would happily test the boundaries – and breach them – in terms of antagonising my father. The sanction was always desperately unpleasant – but, after the immediate shock and discomfort, it passed.

Of greater interest to me over time has been reflecting on my father’s power in terms of his capacity for emotional withdrawal and how his mood shaped the dynamics of the lives of the three other people around him. We would await his arrival home from work. As the car pulled up, my brother and I would call to my mother that he was home. Then, we would study his face, for the tell-tale signs of tension in the muscles in his jaw…and to see whether he turned to greet us or merely got out of the car and walked into the house.

Before he stepped indoors, we would have made our report, so as to prepare our mother: either “He’s not happy” or “He’s fine”! If the former, my brother and I would often absent ourselves; if the latter, we’d wait to greet him.

Interestingly, in my professional life, senior leaders with whom I have worked who seemed withdrawn or difficult to read have always generated intense anxiety in me. In such instances, I have been aware of an amplification of power, wherein behaviours intersect with position to supercharge the circumstances.

Overall, all of this is a reinforcement for me, then, that power isn’t necessarily something that is wielded, as if it were an instrument: it is instead something that inhabits and arises from the connections that we construct as human agents in every type of social setting that we create and occupy.

Authority in the workplace

Briefly, in my twenties, I went to work with my father. I spent a year with him, which was actually huge fun and created a stronger connection for us both. He had become a display artist, having returned from National Service to a job as a shoe shop sales assistant. A customer-focused role was never going to suit a man who was quick to tell anyone who’d listen that “I hate people” and he soon ran into trouble. Instead of being sacked, his manager called the head office and asked whether they had any jobs going; they needed a window dresser, so off went my dad.

Years later, he opted to quit his job and go freelance. It was at this time that I was able to work with him, as he had plenty of clients and needed the help (even from an inexperienced son, who would take two days to dress a window that my dad could have done – and left looking beautiful – in around half a day).

I realise now that I had a picture in my head of my dad as a self-employed businessman, someone who – had he been less shy and hence more sociable – might have been a member of the Rotary Club. (He was approached around this time to join the Freemasons, which, of course, he declined, partly because he was not a clubbable man and partly because – as he later declared – “They’re a bit weird”.)

So, there was a shock waiting for me when I went with him to a shop, one of three owned by an ex-buyer for one of the big chains. My father had always been respectful of this man; they had known each other for some time and their careers had run alongside one another’s. Hence, he was always spoken of in the house as Mr X, rather than by his first name.

I was hugely surprised, then, on arrival, Mr X greeted my dad as “Cole”, as if he were addressing an underling (which, I suspect, in his mind, he was). This was compounded by the fact that Mr X’s useless son, who had similarly been absorbed into a family business without necessarily having the wherewithal to contribute to any significant degree, also addressed my father by his surname.

Here was power at play without explicit hierarchy, other than one entirely of the making and complicity of the human agents involved in this social interaction. As my school bullies had been “not-Coles” and needed to show hostility towards “Cole”, so Mr X forced my father into a subaltern position by defining him as “Cole”, a subject unworthy of the honorific that would have equalised their relationship, at least superficially.

This underscored two things for me: first, notwithstanding how overpowering the simple presence of power can be, we all of us have a tendency to be complicit in our own disempowerment; and, second, simple discourse and the terms and titles deployed therein are a vital part of a wider apparatus that subjectifies us, often with reference to normalcy and its corollary, Otherness.

Resistance in the workplace

At the end of a year or so of us working together, my father’s thriving business was impacted by the burgeoning recession of 1981. His clientele of small businesses began to disappear from the High Streets – and he could no longer justify having me working with him. He was mortified by this, I vividly recall, but the accounts book that my mother kept so diligently told an unavoidable story.

Five years after finding my first job there at the age of 16, I was once again browsing the cards at the labour exchange, or whatever it was then called. They were advertising for an Operating Department Orderly at my local district general hospital. I’d been a member of the British Red Cross for some years, offering first aid at all manner of events, so it piqued my interest. I applied, was interviewed, and was offered the job.

A year earlier, I had joined – and become active in – the Labour Party. Over the next few years, I stood (without hope) in a couple of council elections in a borough where a cabbage with a blue rosette was guaranteed a majority. And – in the workplace – I became a NUPE shop steward. As is so often the case in these circumstances, there wasn’t a massive competition for this role; the old steward was standing down and somebody was needed to step up. My politics dictated that it should be me – and perhaps there was something else, a desire for someone at the bottom of the pile to have a more elevated position.

A Theatre Porter, after all, existed in a regimented hierarchy, where surgeons sat at the top of the pile with their juniors below them; nurses occupied the next layer, their heads bowed to those above whilst they kicked at those below; and those below were my colleagues and me, the brute labour that moved things (including patients, of course) in the Theatre Suite.

One time, I was called into the Theatre to move the light above the operating table. From behind him as he operated, I asked Mr Dawson what he would like me to do. He looked up at the scrub nurse. “Tell him to move the light,” he said. The scrub nurse looked over to me: “Please move the light.” I stepped forward and moved the light back and forth, making very little difference as far as I could see, as I hadn’t been instructed as to what was needed. “Is that OK?” I asked breezily. “Is that alright, sir?” queried the scrub nurse. “Tell him it’s fine,” came the response – which she dutifully and redundantly relayed.

In this example, it’s not merely that my voice is nullified in this power context; instead, it was my very presence that was being effaced. I was not a human being with whom another could relate, but a mere instrument for them that was not even worthy of acknowledgement. To be objectified in such a fashion is to be rendered as less than human, lacking in agency – a mere thing at the whim of others. This is one of the reasons that I see connection, conversation, and dialogue as so crucial in terms of human beings organising together; it opens up a space – which we choose either to step into or to skirt around – where we can speak about power – how it acts on us, how it acts through us, and how it appears in our lives.

This hard lesson was one that has lived with me but which had very little impact on my presence or practice at that time. I allowed a particular crude political standpoint to denigrate the power owned by others – those further up the tree to me – but to deny that I too was a point in the wider fabric of power. There were many wildcat strikes, lasting for not much more than an hour or two, just to disrupt the flow and rhythm of the workplace. Power was corrupting my practice, as it so often does, and I was imposing a schema on the world that had limited congruence with reality.

The NUPE members followed me, clocking out and losing a couple of hours of pay that most could ill-afford to do without. Thinking myself some suburban Lenin (or, more topically, Citizen Cole of the Bromley Liberation Front), I would address the “masses” as we stood outside the hospital, having withdrawn our labour over some management outrage that I considered to be insufferable. I even recall raising my fist in salute as I bellowed on one of these occasions that “We are the power!”

At face value, this declaration is true…but I’m not sure how empowered those standing in the cold on a Tuesday lunchtime listening to me pronouncing about socialism and workers’ power actually felt. This is why, when corporations roll out the boilerplate about “involvement, engagement and empowerment”, I recognise it as hollow promises, a vacuous ideological sleight that leaves power and its connections untouched and unquestioned.

And, in all honesty, this was not about the collective power that I had notionally been chosen to represent. No, it was something altogether grubbier and less noble. It was, I suspect, a compensatory thing for me, an immersion in power to satisfy me as an individual who felt unreasonably powerless. The issue here seems as though, for me to achieve this effect, I neglected how my personal presence and practice played in power – and impacted on all those around me. Which, of course, is precisely the sort of thing you see amongst some corporate leaders who refuse to embrace reflexivity – and which has, perhaps, been particularly pronounced over the past 16 months or so.

Two things, then: sometimes, when circumstances dictate a more directive style of leadership, people enjoy that sensation so much that they see those same circumstances even when they are in fact entirely different. And, secondly, it is not so much absolute power that corrupts absolutely; sometimes it’s an absolute lack of power that corrupts, notwithstanding how well-intentioned people might be in that regard.

Power revealed

My brother would often amuse himself by instructing me to “shrug off the straightjacket of your own Marxist dogmatism”, which – on reflection – was the best advice that anyone could have given me. It was going off to be a teacher that gave me permission to start to question things, especially where my previous perspective didn’t seem able to make sense of some of the challenges that I was experiencing in terms of occupying the role of a teacher. Suddenly, power seemed writ large for me, not as something that cascaded down the stack from a “ruling class” but as something that could exist in the classroom relationship between teacher and student.

I recall a tutorial conversation amongst my fellow student teachers and our tutor just prior to our first period of teaching practice about how we’d maintain discipline if the classroom became unruly. The tutor’s initial response was impactful for me: “If the classroom isn’t paying attention, you haven’t made the lesson interesting enough”.

I recalled this a few week’s later as I sat in a tower block in Openshaw with a group of YTS plumbers, notionally teaching them a curriculum called Communication Studies. It was a tough couple of hours, where I struggled to give direction to the dynamic of the room and they looked at me with justifiable disdain. In the halls of residence later, my colleagues and I discussed the experience. One asked whether I had heard anything during the time I had with these students that indicated something in which they were interested. “Football,” I said, “They’re Man City fans.” My friend joined the dots: “There you are then,” they said, “Draw up a lesson plan that lets them explore the issue of ID cards in terms of attendance at football matches”.

I laboured with joy and excitement all week, crafting a lesson that would cut through the tensions between teacher and student. Or so I thought. In reality, of course, they were plumbers, interested in plumbing. Being dragooned into a classroom for two hours each week to talk about talking really didn’t seem to them to be a good use of time.

I launched the lesson – and it crashed onto the rocks of utter disinterest in mere seconds. My elaborately produced and thoughtfully conceived handouts were glanced at and then cast aside. Nobody made any sort of move to get into a group to discuss the topic at all. I was consumed with disappointment and a burgeoning despair as to how one could tackle this disconnect authentically – and not merely get sucked into a scripted position, the teacher vs students. I sat on the desk and looked out of the bank of windows to my right, peering deep into the cityscape for some sort of inspiration.

I heard two of the students, lolling back on their chairs at the rear of the classroom, talking. “What’s wrong with him?”, one asked, gesturing in my direction. “Oh,” said his mate, “It’s because we’re not giving him any feedback”. This latter word was delivered in a vaguely derisory sing-song tone, underscoring that this concept was solely mine and not at all theirs.

Ultimately, this dismal experience lead me productively to a more thoughtful analysis of the power at play in settings such as this, where the very idea of power is seemingly unacknowledged in the context. The pretence that the teacher guides the lesson and the students engage with positivity was very clearly just a fiction, one that purposefully wrote power out of the plot. Without power assuming its essential role in the classroom narrative, the impact of the presence of the teacher is hidden – and the myriad resistances of the students are unacknowledged.

This is echoed in the work of Learmonth and Morrell, who observe the way in which the antagonistic relation between manager and employee – a binary that expresses the tension between two discrete and oftentimes opposing perspectives – is replaced by the glossy notion of leader and followers. This construct effaces the differences that might exist in terms of purpose, approach and expectations by ideologically interpolating a notion that followership produces (and hence legitimises) leadership, which – in light of this – is founded on a shared view of the world and vision for how things should be done.

At this point, in terms of scholarship, I turned away from Marx and found other writers who had wriggled free from the sterility of the base-superstructure argument. This ongoing discussion often, especially after les evenements of 1968, ended up asserting how only the enlightened activists could clearly see the nature of the world and what needed to be done about it…and the working class at large was merely befuddled by ideology and repressed by the State. (This being, of course, the very State that Marxists wanted to seize and wield for their political purpose – which is why anarchism contests the naturalness and neutrality of this excrescence.) Here, then, I saw power unhelpfully written through those ideas and practices that seemed to arise out of an ambition of liberation…and realised that power wasn’t the exclusive preserve of the “bad guys” or a simple resource. It was far more nuanced than that…and the resistances to power, wherever they might occur and whomsoever might be involved, were of particular rich interest to me.

This is why all of the work of Michel Foucault is of particular interest to me and informs the work I do in terms of workplace power. His nuanced take on power – recognising that we are all of us acted upon by power but also offer a vehicle for it, as well as acknowledging the intimate relationship between power and our subjectivity – does not represent a final destination, in terms of thinking about the topic. But it offers a window through the brick wall of power that allows us to look through and engage with it creatively.

Power out loud

One of the interesting ways in which Foucault’s thinking on the issue of a shift from sovereign to disciplinary power is played out is, in fact, through observations about the classroom. The arrival of compulsory education is not merely and solely the product of altruism, whatever the individual motivations might have been for promoting it, but of the need for a literate and docile workforce…who are, of course, at the same time also the electorate in a liberal democracy.

Within the classroom, we have gone from serried ranks of hard desks and chairs and the teacher as the source of untrammelled authority to the group focused activity that sees pupils huddled with their peers around tables and the teacher as a guide. Notwithstanding these shifts in modality – the appearance of some sort of progress and betterment, something that seems to validate the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Whiggish theory of history – the argument is simple: power continues to pulse through the relationships that exist in this educational space.

However, the latter approach seems to disguise the reality of that power far better than was the original case. Indeed, no one has the agency of generating the idea of that disguise; there is no big, bad ruling class pulling the strings. Instead, the progress that is tolerable in this setting is one that leaves the foundational issues untouched, in terms of scrutiny and investigation. We focus on the superficiality of the experience of power being somehow improved rather than looking at how power occupies the warp and weft of every social collective and connection that we each of us inhabit. We absorb the idea of things getting better – groupwork in the classroom is more positive than rote learning in tightly packed lines – without allowing our innate criticality to blossom and engage.

For me, the same can be seen in the workplace: we seem to have developed from the Taylorist stopwatch-wielding overseer to the manager-as-coach or (even worse) the team-as-manager. Under the guise of corporate manifestations of involvement, engagement or empowerment, we assume the change to be a positive one – even though much of this is largely illusory – and, as a result, leave wholly unexplored the fact that power remains present, regardless of the mise-en-scène that defines contemporary corporate life.

I look around and see power playing out in every nook and cranny of organisational life. Leaders look as though they listen…but really the voices go unheard. Health and wellbeing has become an HR mantra – but if we think of humans as resources then they are being objectified by the power that subtly inhabits the language that we use. And, while leaders coo about concern for their staff, they persist in sustaining organisational climates that privilege volume and pace of work.

Overall, the workplace remains a place where the unwillingness to speak up and speak out generates dangerous pluralistic ignorance, where people cannot speak their mind but end up parroting what they imagine everyone around them is silently thinking. And linked to this are the spirals of silence that sees people socially isolated or excluded due to their opinions. (In contemporary life, the power at play in and out of the channels of what is called in shorthand “cancel culture” should not be underestimated, despite the uncomfortable places that such an observation might feel as though it is taking us.)

Not at all a conclusion but finally for now…

I loved my parents dearly. My father died in 2017, having had his 90th birthday just a few months before. Eleven years before that, my mother was snatched away just six weeks after a cruel diagnosis. I loved them then and love them still, because they were people trying to make their way through the world, occasionally skipping, often stumbling, but always heading somewhere. They were a long way from perfection, but who – in all honesty – is not? I recognise and acknowledge my shortcomings on an almost daily basis – yet do not allow that to diminish the fact that I am striving to be good and do good.

I still occasionally experience something in the course of the day and find myself thinking, “I must call mum and dad to tell them”. An ineffable sadness springs up at that point but fortunately that dissipates quickly. And there are now elements of family life – nicknames, comic songs, curious sayings, misty lineage – that come to mind but there is now no one with whom to speak about them.

My mother’s paternal grandmother was middle European and heavily accented. I recall my mother speaking about how, when she would visit her, there was an offer of three possible gifts, rendered in the story, as “Do you vant a chain, a mice, or a veesell?” The other day I was wondering about this and trying to remember the details – and I realised that, with the passing of my mother, who was an only child, that story had come to a stop. This in turn reminded me of the observation that you die – and finally truly die when there is no one left in the world to remember you.

That downbeat and somewhat nihilistic assessment usefully reveals perhaps how power pulses through the discourse in which we find ourselves and which we in turn reproduce and reshape. One is a human subject when one is in the mind of others – and they call to us through language. Hence, through the prism of a one-dimensional Marxian notion of power, Althusser talks about one becoming a subject when a police officer calls across street, saying, “Hey! You!” But this view downplays the productive and positive character of power, as opposed to it being merely oppressive. Otherwise, it is about being a mere object – which echoes Buber’s discussions of the I-Thou/I-It distinction. 

Finally, then, I am interested in power because it resides in everything I say and the way I say it; in every gesture that I enact; and it pulses to and fro in the relational exchanges that exist between me and those around me, as individuals and groups. And the same applies to every human subject. We are all enmeshed in power – but we also cast the net of power over others. For that reason – and all those above – I am endlessly fascinated by power and am constantly trying to engage with it in theory and in practice, in all of its manifestations.

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