Demolition of Empowerment and a Major Omission
William Epstein’s, Empowerment as Ceremony, is an extensively researched, documented, and well-deserved demolition of empowerment practices. A major omission (noted below) is its only significant flaw.
Initially, empowerment—a la Freire and Fanon—was a “radical assault on structural oppression”. The structure (or “the system”, as often named in those hoped-for-revolution days) was the focus and had to be changed because the structure/system was the cause of oppression, economic inequality, and other injustices. That’s what empowerment meant then: change the system! A correct diagnosis, says Epstein (and I agree) but, as he points out, because of ineffective means—e.g., the call, by some, for violence—that didn’t happen; the causative structure/system wasn’t fundamentally changed. Poverty, racism, government brutalities, and the like continued.
Now, empowerment—a central tenet of neoliberalism—means: change yourself! “[T]he needy [are] to take responsibility for themselves” and, following Nike: Just Do It! This “romantic” rendition of empowerment doesn’t work either; it doesn’t really “assist . . . those in need” or “confer . . . greater power”. Neoliberal empowerment is ceremony; in particular, a ritual celebrating “an exaggerated form of individualism and individual responsibility”; thereby conferring legitimacy on practices that foster “accommodation” to the status quo and perpetuation of the very conditions that “fuel” empowerment practices. (Marcuse would agree, and so do I.)
Structural/systemic change, Epstein points out, is “not a process of heroic overcoming”; rather it “occurs . . . from mass movements . . . generated . . . by changing economic imperatives . . . . [such as] the industrial revolution . . . [and] more recent transformations in production”. Epstein is on the right track when he connects structural/systemic change to economic and productive imperatives. However, he doesn’t even mention the Internet!!—so there’s no discussion of the Internet’s imperatives; such as electronic networks that are already causing structural/systemic changes for betterment, as shown, for instance, by McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto; Eric Raymond, The Cathedral & the Bazaar; Michael Nielsen, Reinventing Discovery: The New Era Of Networked Science; Beth Simon Noveck, Wiki Government; Gavin Newsom, Citizenville—and let’s not forget Wikipedia! Or Mozilla Firefox!
Today’s structural/systemic change is generated by the Internet and by individuals, groups, and organizations building electronic networks that—as described in the works above—bring together resources (interested personnel, expertise, etc.) required for optimal problem solving. “You gotta move”—to the Internet!!