Empowerment, applied to the individual or the community, means being confident, being assured; having the authority to think things through and to act accordingly. In contrast, disempowerment speaks of apathy, futility, lack of hope and lack of influence over one’s own destiny. The disempowered person, population or class is one that no one listens to—the electorate that is patronised and reduced to an abstraction of consumers, not to be entrusted with doing anything for themselves unless they see a private advantage. It is about accepting passively what comes along, because there is no alternative. Empowerment, in contrast, dances to a different logic: it is about investing imagination and energy in the place we live in, and in the people we live amongst. In fact, Lean Logic prefers the label presence: it suggests permanence and natural competence, without the rather breathless sense of self-assertiveness and ‘recovery as work-in-progress’ that we get with empowerment. Indeed, as the management writer Daniel Pink points out, empowerment is an awkward word—almost an oxymoron—since it suggests that some kind authority is giving you lots of empowering flexibility—like a dog on a long lead—which is far from the autonomy of being able to choose your own route and apply your own mind:

[Empowerment] presumes that the organization has the power and benevolently ladles some of it into the waiting bowls of grateful employees. But that’s not autonomy. That’s just a slightly more civilized form of control.E98

But “empowerment” may communicate more clearly than “autonomy”—and the process of recovering, or wresting, or even being donated with, powers and freedoms that we didn’t have before is in fact what is typically and urgently needed—so, with Pink’s caveat in mind, we shall stay with it, for now.

The civilisation which we have inherited is a product of empowerment, widely-shared. In the medieval period it built institutions of great competence. The monasteries, for example, acted as schools, hospitals, centres of the arts, history, science and horticulture; they provided assistance for the poor, old peoples’ homes, safehouses and prisons; and they were effective instruments for the control of population. The manorial system of land tenure and cultivation—though contained within a strong and at times harsh framework—was kept functioning by the people who belonged to it, sustaining cooperative commons as a central enabling institution for some four centuries. The law, to an increasing degree, arose out of deliberation by the “republic”—the community of citizens with responsibility for the place they lived in, and it was sustained, not least, by local people as juries and magistrates.E99

Through that period and beyond, local competence sustained carnival, music, architecture, and the reciprocities of social capital; it supported households, delivering the routine miracle of making people, teaching language, building emotional development, humour, handiness, and the accomplishment of listening and friendship. And its achievements continued into the modern period through the Industrial Revolution. It built the institutions—the schools, hospitals, local government and (later) friendly societies which, though voluntarily taken up, provided widely-shared protection against loss of income through sickness and unemployment. It developed to keep pace as the social order broke beyond the limits that could be sustained by local self-reliance and needed to be invented and rebuilt on the scale of the city-everywhere.

In a sense, the roots of disempowerment that followed can be traced a long way back, to the invention of money by the Greeks—the turning point at which the integration between skills and community began to fracture. Informal reciprocal exchange began its long descent towards being a residual—merely the parts that monetary economics hadn’t yet reached. In our nearer history, early signs of what was to come began with the dissolution of the monasteries, the Enclosures—the loss of common land—and by the progressive retreat of domestic competence and local reciprocity, as money exchange—detached, impersonal, efficient, neat—tore through the informal economy, which had no immunity. And now, economism has brought the presumption that all values are economic values, and a demolition of confidence that there is any such thing as society, a thing which we can love (Public Sphere and Private Sphere).

The power of economism has been formidable. The progressive removal of hands-on responsibility for the community has been carried through almost without challenge. And here are the losses: our sense of place and the idea that it is in our power to care for it and to take responsibility for it; our regard for and accomplishment in manual skills; our confidence that we have anything to teach, and can cope without massive institutions behind us; that combination of originality and persistence known as character; a culture committed to the making and sustaining of emotional development; our land as a rich, living ecology, protected (unconditionally) from genetic modification and nuclear contamination and (substantially) from concrete; our manners and our sense of the wild (which, in deep ways, are the same things); our spirit; our consciences and, perhaps, our future.

The balance sheet we have inherited is a wasteland. And yet, buried under economism and its anticulture, a seed growing secretly, is a human ecology. That is what—in the early stages of working out what empowerment means—we may with persistence, recover.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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