Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Dod Forrest (2000) 'Theorising Empowerment Thought: Illuminating the Relationship between Ideology and Politics in the Contemporary Era'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 4, <>

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Received: 31/8/1999      Accepted: 14/12/1999      Published: 29/2/2000


One response to the on-going crisis of profitability, East and West, has been to alter the form and content of supervisory relationships at work and in the community. The 1990s have been described as the empowerment era. A paradox exists however in that the idea of empowerment appeals to the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless. It is both liberatory and regulative. In this article the ideological polarity of empowerment is investigated in the context of the management of change in the workplaces of large private sector organisations and public sector welfare in Britain. It is argued that the growth of the idea of empowerment is central to politics in the contemporary era.

Contradiction; Decentralisation; Empowerment; Ideology; Paradox; Politics


This article explores the growth of the idea of empowerment. The following questions are addressed:

  1. Why has the concept of empowerment become the single most driving philosophy in many councils, agencies and educational institutions in Britain?
  2. How do we explain the paradox that the idea of empowerment appeals to both the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless?

The Paradox of Empowerment

At all levels of society and in the operation of local and national politics the concept of empowerment has dominated the cultural ethos of many organisations in the 1990s. It is an idea which reflects the changing nature of social relationships in the workplace (Gandz, 1994; Barnard, 1996; Dew, 1997;) and the community (Diamond, 1991; Barr, 1995, 1997; Wilson, 1996; Bowes, 1996; Forrest, 1999). However, as Baistow (1994) reveals in her analysis of the introduction of empowerment policies to the 'helping professions' - it can be both regulatory and liberatory.

On the one hand this has heralded a new managerialism which has been dubbed by one commentator, 'the sunshine model of management.' The 'Don't ask me. It's up to you now sunshine!' style of management (Hartley, 1992: p119). Conversely, empowerment has become a potent symbol of resistance to poverty, racism, alienation and oppression. This concept of empowerment has been popularised by all kinds of new social movements (Scott, 1990) throughout Africa, Latin America and increasingly in the environmental anti-racist and womens' movements (TGNP, 1993; Baylies and Bujra, 1995; Mclaren and Lankshear, 1994; Narayan, 1996; White, 1994; Stromquist, 1988) in the West. Why does this paradox exist?

Craig and Mayo, 1995 raise the question of whether empowerment is the human face of structural adjustment in the West or a tool for democratic transformation. It is the contention of this paper that it is both, and that empowerment philosophies underpin 'relative surplus value' (Capital, 1976: Vol 1 pp 429-491) i.e. increased productivity in the private sector and a shift towards partnership agreements (Mayo, 1997; Geddes, 1998) in the public sector.

In this article it is argued that the continued growth of an ideology of empowerment has material roots in the restructuring of the management of large-scale organisations and public sector welfare. This restructuring has been underway since the mid-1970s when the first of the three post-war recessions precipitated a crisis of profitability in the West. This tendency has recently fed into the economies of the East. There is evidence of a growing contradiction, however, in that the more control given to workforces and communities, the less alienation and the greater the productivity. Thus at one and the same time, increased worker and community control acts as a challenge to the private ownership of business and a new form of governance. In a recent analysis of empowerment and democracy in the workplace Dew (1997) notes:

Many business schools have now embraced the issue of participatory leadership and are integrating democratic concepts into management courses. Executive development courses taught by major universities now routinely teach democratic concepts to enable companies to achieve world class competitive positions. (Dew, 1997: p160).

This begs the question as to why a current of thought like empowerment is emerging within managerial philosophies at work and in the community in the 1990s. An understanding of why the concept of empowerment is becoming ideological can also serve to clarify a particular view of ideology. This view suggests that it is a set of ideas which strengthens managerial power by concealing contradiction and conflict. The perspective adopted by Larrain (1979) illuminates this view:

Ideology is not an immanent attribute of certain forms of consciousness. It only emerges when ideas are related to changing contradictions in specific ways. So non-ideological ideas may become ideological and vice versa (p 26).

Where an empowerment philosophy has been introduced to workplaces there is evidence to show that productivity increases and conflict is reduced (Judge, 1996; Barnard, 1996; Millar, 1998). Conversely there is a contest with regard to meaning and language in the world of the workplace. This is especially the case with regard to workplaces within the public sector, which reflects an ideological struggle, exacerbated by the contradiction that empowerment policies at work and in the community do increase control to a limited extent and lessen alienation. This is a process which challenges existing power relations between men and women (TGNP, 1993;), black and white (White, 1994; Christian, 1988), rich and poor (Craig and Mayo, 1995; Jacobs, 1992), researchers and researched (Bowes, 1996; Humphries, 1997), professional and client (Adams, 1990; Baistow, 1994).

In the dialectical interrelationship between polarities Rappaport (1981) states we are being pulled in two ways at once. This view of the world assumes everything has its polar opposite, that nothing exists in isolation. In this sense it is possible to define ideology by hypothesising the nature of this duality and defining an opposing polarity. It is within an examination of this dynamic interrelationship that we can discern contradiction. This is the paradox of empowerment, in that it is the interrelationship between empowerment which is ideological (Marx and Engels, 1965; Callinicos, 1983) and empowerment which is 'conscientised' (Freire, 1976). A full examination of the idea of conscientisation lies beyond the scope of this article. The concept gives meaning to a process of political education first developed in Brazil through the literacy campaigns in the 1960s (Freire, 1973, 1976, 1985, 1996)[1]. I have argued elsewhere (Forrest, 1999) that the process of conscientisation is central to an empowerment approach which combines solidarity and autonomy in a liberatory dialectical relationship - this is a multi-level construct of empowerment which links the individual to group; group to organisation; organisation to community and community to class. At each level a quantitative accumulation of injustice and exploitation is transformed into a qualitative expression of consciousness revealed by problematising the world e.g. Why am I castigated for being a single parent? Why are people afraid of my sexuality? Why am I poor? This process of political education is formed through a dialogical praxis beginning with action, then reflection, which leads to further action. The contribution of formal academic research to this process has been underway and under scrutiny for some time. (Humphries, 1997, 1994: Bowes, 1996).

It is clear from Bowes's (ibid) study of action research in Glasgow during the 1980s that problematising empowerment in a community context reveals the complexity, at a micro level, of the social relationships of power and empowerment between black and white; male and female, researchers and researched. This study offers a rare insight into the workings of an empowering approach. The case study shows the development of political confidence, voice and assertiveness amongst South Asian women as they tackled the issues of housing and domestic violence. The struggle to achieve this took many forms - anti-racism, research, solidarity, and autonomy.

The empowering role of the researcher in this setting, where the aim is emancipatory, is discussed in a most searching manner by Humphries (1996, 1994). It is her view that emancipation cannot be conferred on one group by another. If this is the case then '...our efforts to liberate perpetuate the very relations of dominance (p 6)'. In my view this is an accurate assertion and it exposes a growing trend - the manipulation of empowerment philosophy by the powerful. Humphries (1994) describes this process as one of 'containment and 'collusion'. In response to her main line of enquiry, however, I suggest it is possible to recognise the particularities of struggle without abandoning metanarratives of emancipation and justice. This is achieved by advocating empowerment which links solidarity and autonomy through action (Forrest, ibid). The following three examples of liberatory empowerment at local, national and international levels acts to ground this discussion.

The first example is taken from an action research community development project which the author conducted alongside members of the Chinese community in a West Midlands city in the mid 1980s (Lee and Forrest, 1988). This project sought to empower Hong Kong social work students in their work with the Chinese community in Middle City and through this process empower the Chinese community. The aims of the project were:

Through the formation of the 'research working group' a participatory and culturally intact organisation was created. Alongside this group the student researchers assisted the work of the Chinese Association by organising Chinese tutorial classes, developing advisory and interpreting services, initiating a demand for a Chinese collection in the Central Library and participating in the Chinese New Year celebrations.

This was the perspective on empowerment as described by Lee and Forrest (ibid):

In order to empower the Association, it needed to consolidate its power by increasing its representation and enhancing solidarity amongst Chinese people, on the one hand, and seek allies/resources outside the Chinese community to help its development, on the other hand (p 160).

This was done by tackling the following issues:

Lee and Forrest (ibid) conclude their analysis of the project by commenting:

Through the case study material it has been briefly demonstrated that anti-racist community work is feasible and effective in empowering the Chinese community to resist racism...(p162).

Movements for autonomy have emerged around the world throughout the twentieth century and none more so than in Africa. The work of the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme (1993) illustrates a perspective on the empowerment of women that seeks to link the African village to a national and international perspective on empowerment. This perspective is also put into practice by the building of networks and is supported by research. This practice of empowerment began with a gender analysis of the Tanzanian economy in the context of international capitalism. This is a transformative view of empowerment known as 'animation' and termed the Triple A Cycle i.e. Assessment-Analysis-Action, the components of which are:

Some of the results of this action include gaining 50/50, gender representation on water, environmental and village committee; publishing booklets on women's rights and men now undertaking water collection and escorting children to clinics (Francis et al, 1997).

In the final example of empowerment the central issue is economic power in the workplace and the democratic control of production for need as opposed to profit. It is in these circumstances that Freire (1996) describes initiatives that go beyond 'limit situations' and move towards 'untested feasibility'. In the previous examples of empowerment the struggle for power is located within a long-term developmental process for individuals, groups and communities. There are, however, periods in history where the pace of change is dramatic, where, to paraphrase Giddens (1993) the wheel of events turns full circle in the classic sense of revolution. The history of workers' movements of solidarity illustrate attempts to change the very basis of social relations at work and in the community.

The evidence of the impact of these social movements is found in the accounts of the growth of Solidarnosc in Poland 1980/81, the Cordons in Chile during 1973, the workers councils or soviets formed in Russia in 1905 and 1917. (Birchall et al, 1987). On a smaller scale these forms of organisation appeared in the British general strike of 1926 and the French general strike of 1968. Within all these movements there was a revolutionary network of people seeking to empower the working class. Embedded in these movements were the unique combination of autonomous organisation based on oppression and solidarity in the form of strike and inter-factory occupation committees.

I will show later in this article that the idea of empowerment is linked to limited worker and community control and is one contradictory influence on the generation of a conscientised meaning of empowerment. The unintended consequences of the introduction of empowerment in many workplaces and communities may be to heighten the demand for full control of these resources.

In this article I focus only upon one side of the dialectical interrelationship of the polarities of empowerment - the ideological polarity. Rappaport (ibid.) quotes Eller (1973) who likens the dialectic to a department store demonstration of a vacuum cleaner with its hose pointed upward and the machine turned to 'blow' - in the jet of air there is a ping-pong ball caught between the two opposing forces of gravity and the jet of air. Each time the ball is pushed upward by the jet of air it is at one and the same time pulled down by the force of gravity; each time the ball moves downward in accordance with the force of gravity it is at one and the same time forced upward by the jet of air. This metaphor provides an insight into the dynamic tension which exists within the interrelationship of the polarities of empowerment i.e. ideology and conscientisation. In attempting to explore the meaning of empowerment and the evident paradox of the appeal of the concept to both the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, we must give attention to one truth in such a way that attention must immediately be given to its counterpart. This is the dialectical method of enquiry. This kind of enquiry reveals contradiction - it allows the mask which hides reality to slip a little.

According to Gramsci (Prison Notebooks, 1971) ideas can develop a material force. Empowerment is a force for both change and control. On the one hand, it is a social force which can generate social movement. It is a concept which gives meaning to a challenge to the status quo. Equally, it is a concept which obfuscates reality - it hides professional, managerial and political control.

A non-linear, dialectical view of empowerment can be imagined by the use of the Eller (ibid.) analogy:

This descriptive theory of empowerment, illustrates a contest, a struggle for meaning generated by the conflicting social forces created by the pursuit of profitability. This is the source of both paradox and contest.

The New Managers

The recessions since the 1970s have necessitated the growth of more decentralised organisations at work and in the community. This has been introduced by a new generation of radical managers (Peters, 1992) and described as a 'new managerialism'. Throughout the history of capitalism, organisation and management structures change to maximise the pursuit of profitability. Marx (1971) predicted in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,

No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve... (p 21).

As a counter measure to economic instability and declining profitability in many sectors there is a trend towards managerial decentralisation. This is one element of what has been described as a new, possibly global, organisational paradigm emerging from the present period of economic restructuring which has followed from the decline of the era of centralised mass production (Hoggett, 1987).

A central tenet of my thesis argued in this article is that the deeper the economic crisis, and consequent political and social crises, the more the role of ideas which 'manufacture consent' (Wintonick and Achbar, 1994) are formed. The force of ideas is heightened by economic crisis. Empowerment is a concept now given a new meaning. This idea is tailing the current crisis and provide a rationale for the restructuring of welfare and workplace organisation within local government and large-scale business organisation.


There is an extensive literature which seeks to give meaning to a definition of ideology. Alongside Mannheim's (1960) 'social groups' and Durkheim's (1952) 'social facts' there is a substantial debate within neo Marxism (Althusser 1971, 1976; Hall 1978a, 1996a; Larrain 1983, 1996; Poulantzas 1973; Callinicos 1983). In this article I have adopted a view of ideology that is heavily influenced by the writings of Callinicos (1983) and Althusser (1971). As Callinicos (ibid) says:

The enormous attention paid to ideology by Marxist theoreticians over the past 50 years must be set alongside the fact that there is no satisfactory account of ideology in Marx (p 128).

Callinicos (ibid) goes on to suggest that there are two distinct but conflicting elements in Marx's account of ideology. Firstly, there is an epistemological conception of ideology that suggests ideology is a 'a set of false beliefs'. This view asserts that these ideas reflect an inverted reality and a negation of true scientific knowledge. Secondly, however, there is a 'pragmatic' dimension to the conception of ideology which can be described as:

...the illusions generated by the 'historical life process' serve the interests of the ruling class by smoothing over and concealing the contradictions of class society (p 129).

Therborn (1980) and Callinicos (ibid) suggest the abandonment of Marx's 'false consciousness' epistemological dimension in favour of the pragmatic dimension of ideology i.e. the material determination of ideologies.

In this context an ideological idea is formed from the material circumstances of the conflict that is generated between the forces and relations of production. There is a growing current of empowerment thought which seeks to conceal conflict, exploitation, oppression and contradiction.

If we view society as a metaphorical edifice which consists of an economic infrastructure or base acting as a foundation upon which is built an ideological superstructure of law, religion, politics, education and the media, this informs the political imagination. As Althusser (1971) remarks:

like every metaphor, this metaphor suggests something, makes something visible...that the upper floors could not 'stay up' (in the air) alone, if they did not rest precisely on their base (p 129)

It is thus argued that the economic base is the determinant in the last instance of what happens in the upper floors of the state and civil society. Readers of this journal will be familiar with the long and intense debate which surrounds the relative influence of the base and superstructure and vice versa. In a nutshell, one school of thought argues the relative autonomy of the superstructure with respect to base (Althusser, 1976). Another view argues for a reciprocal action of the superstructure and base (Callinicos, 1983; Harman, 1986). Finally, there is the much criticised 'mechanical materialism' or 'economism' of a superstructure moulded by the economic base (Kautsky, 1971). In this study it is maintained that the descriptive metaphor of the edifice has stood the test of time and there is a continual interrelationship of base and superstructure. It is useful to view the upper floor with two inter-connected rooms, however, the state and civil society. The metaphor continues to imply that both rooms in this edifice still require to be supported by an economic foundation, which in the contemporary world remains a capitalist economy in crisis.

We are born into a world which assumes that the existing employer-employee relationship is the natural order of things.[2] It is the production of these ideas which is here defined as ideology. These are ideas which grow out of contradiction and distort the real world. They are ideas which generate the illusion of freedom, fairness and democracy on the one hand and also serve to fragment and divide people on the other. Ideas which become ideological serve to reproduce the existing relations of production and conceal exploitation. These are ideas which organise and motivate sections of middle and senior management (Hill, 1990; Abercrombie et al, 1990). Empowerment is becoming one of these ideas.

Abercrombie, Hill and Turner (ibid) argue that the impact of dominant ideas is different for the contending classes. These writers, as Hill (ibid) shows, started their investigation of the influence of Thatcherite 'new right' ideas in the early 1980s and challenged the then conventional Marxist argument that the stability of capitalism could be explained by reference to the existence of a dominant ideology which had the consequences of incorporating the working class into the capitalist system. What they found in fact was, as Hill (1990) states:

...that ideology does have significant effects but these are primarily on the dominant rather than the subordinate class (p2).

The New Managerial Ethos of Empowerment

Two trends can be identified with regard to the above which I will examine in turn. Within both the private and public sector there is evidence of a new managerial ethos which places empowerment centre stage in the management of change. The backcloth to this change, I suggest, is explained by the recurrent crises of profitability world-wide. The second trend is also a response to change, in this instance the related cost of welfare as a drain on the profitability of the private sector. The most recent restructuring of local government, particularly in Britain, has generated policies of decentralisation linked to the idea of empowerment. These policies have gained support from all sections of the political spectrum.

A Long -Term Assault on Welfare

In order to locate present educational and social welfare policy changes, in particular the emphasis on enterprise and partnership as outlined by Nisbet and Watt (1994), it is vital to place this policy shift in a historical context. To this end it is necessary to sketch briefly some details of the changes to local government since the post-war period in Britain.

Cochrane (1993) suggests that a new system of welfare was created from the settlement made between the dominant classes in the immediate post war period:

...a new system was being constructed post 1945 that was to fit the universalist prescription of labour and the reorganised nationalised industries (p 11).

He suggests that the growth of the new functions of education, housing and personal social services contributed to the development of a local branch of the national welfare state. This 'social wage' (CSE, 1979) conceded by capital on the one hand and needed by capital on the other to reproduce the new post war generation of workers remained intact until the first signs of economic slow-down in the 1960s and early 1970s. As Cochrane (ibid.) points out, this period heralded the first major post war reorganisation of the local state and it came into existence after an intense governmental debate crystallised in the form of numerous reports:

A clutch of official reports and royal commissions at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s concentrated on suggesting ways of improving managerial efficiency and stream-lining decision-making within large (more business like) authorities...Maud (1967), Redcliffe-Maud (1969), Wheatley (1969), Bains (1972) and Paterson (1973) (p 15).

The Wilson and Heath governments' modernisation programmes sought to streamline decision making at a local level and introduce corporate business management techniques. Local government was recommended to become managers of social and economic change in the community (Bains, 1972). This debate led to the reorganisation of local government in the mid 1970s. It is in this sense that Cochrane argues that there has been a shift from the post war expansionist local welfare state to the enterprise state of the 1980s and 1990s.

Bennett, Wicks and McCoshan (1994) analyse this trend:

The attempt to rebuild the economy through local initiative has two different loci: one concerns individuals, the other concerns institutions. The focus on individuals has been part of a general shift in Western society away from welfare and social rights approaches that emphasise 'compensation' and 'subsidy' toward incentives for individual responsibility. the focus on local institutions has also been reflected in a wide range of initiatives in Western society to decentralise. Other thrusts emphasise empowerment - of people, of localities - as part of a shift of responsibility away from the state at national and particularly local level (p 26).

It is central to my argument that empowerment as ideologically interpreted is a shift of responsibility from councils to communities in the public sector and a shift of responsibility down the organisational hierarchy of the private sector.

Empowerment and Decentralisation

It is now increasingly argued that one of the most significant global trends in the past twenty years of economic crises East and West has been to shift production methods from the old Fordist[3] centralised mass production techniques to a more decentralised, participative, team-led form of the management of production (Hoggett, 1987). The initiatives to restructure local government, and in the process also schools and colleges on this model, mirror the world-wide process of managerial restructuring which has been under way for over two decades (Toffler, 1985). Bailey (1995) traces a shift to what she describes as post-Fordist education in the implementation of the 1988 Education Reform Act in Britain.

This is not the place to argue the strengths and weaknesses of the Fordist and post-Fordist theses. It is significant however that the reforms identified by Bailey (ibid.) will not be halted or amended by New Labour[4]. There are strong indications that local government reform will continue in exactly the same direction as that identified by the previous Conservative administration. The devolution of education management to local establishment units will continue at a pace. The funding of these units will, of course, still be determined centrally and increasingly in partnership with the business sector.

The notion of an 'enabling council', a plurality of service providers in the market place is a recurring and dominant theme of the 1990s. A future generation of community organisations and school establishments, down to pupil level and local community group are to be empowered. In this sense education under new Labour will be profoundly more ideological than under the Tories. Barr (1997) quotes Blair in this respect, querying whether this is simply 'old wine in new bottles':

'People don't want an overbearing state, but they do not want to live in a social vacuum either. It is in the search for this different reconstructed relationship between individual and society that ideas about "community" are found. "Community" implies a recognition of inter-dependence but not overweening government power. It accepts that we are better equipped to meet the forces of change and insecurity through working together' Tony Blair, cited in Barr, 1997: p 47).

Community empowerment is a concept which has underpinned this shift, an idea which provides the rationale for a partial view of the world. Empowerment is an idea which is becoming ideological, in this pejorative sense. It is an idea which obscures the reality of exploitation but which in a contradictory fashion also taps into the alienation experienced at work and in the community. In this sense empowerment is a 'contested concept' (Gallie, 1955). This contest is inextricably linked to language and meaning principally because of the growth of this ideology of empowerment. In order to illuminate this perspective the following two sections look at empowerment in the private sector and empowerment in the community and public sector.

Empowerment in the Private Sector

There is growing evidence to suggest that even the most limited forms of empowerment which give some control of decision making and resources lead to less conflict and greater productivity (Johnson 1994; Gandz, 1990; Barnard, 1996). According to Gandz, the 1990s will be known as the empowerment era. Toffler (ibid) predicted, as a result of his 1970s analytic study of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, that organisations on this scale, i.e. some of the largest hierarchical bodies in the world, would have to adapt to survive. Efficiency and turn-over are still the hallmarks of profitability, they are the ingredients of maximised exploitation. Gandz warned that '...old and vertical lines of communication [are now] obsolete' (p 74). Empowerment brings speed through direct control over decision making and it also reduces costs, as Gandz explains:

...the overhead cost of excessive bureaucratic controls, people checking up on people, layers of supervision and so on can be avoided by those organizations that work in an empowered mode (p 75).

Johnson (1994) sees employee empowerment as a 'self-directed leadership strategy' which creates a number of benefits for management. She reveals that workers become:

...less risk aversive and more willing to suggest bolder solutions...more innovative and creative...more part of an adult -to- adult relationship...(that) managers will have more time to handle other tasks for which they are responsible (p 19).

A number of key features of empowerment are identified which she list as:

...spending time with people, relinquishing control, encouraging decision making, stressing innovation, allowing risk-taking, providing support, increasing motivation, giving feedback (ibid: p19).

The employee in this setting will gain a positive rather than a negative attitude to work and feel a sense of responsibility and ownership of the company's problems. The worker in this context is loyal to the company and attains in the words of Johnson, 'psychological ownership' of this new attitude. This new mentality is described as, '...finding meaning in daily tasks, feeling a sense of security, possessing an attitude that work can be fun (ibid p19).

In a revealing insight Ripley and Ripley (1993) address the problem of what to do with 'troubling employees'. They go on to assert that,

... by troubling employees the manager means employees whom they are afraid to empower. However some of these employees have empowered themseves in negative ways (p3). These are the employees who have an "I'm entitled" mental set...they got their jobs, and are continuing to acquire their positions through these special privileges and there are a few of them who also feel that they are entitled to automatic pay rises and promotion (p3).

Ripley and Ripley (ibid) offer the 'self managing team' as the solution to the problem of troubling employees. This perspective has been reinforced by research which identified a strong correlation between '...the level of empowerment and the productivity of teams' (Barnard, 1996). The author of this study made this point: is necessary in today's workplace that workers function as part of an entrpreneurial team. Nowhere is this more important than in the smaller ventures where ability to identify performance gaps and fill them quickly means survival in a competitive market place. (p1).

In a revealing insight into some of this thinking the director of business and organisation at the National and Provincial Building Society described their company's empowerment approach as a 'a label - used to remove barriers which stop people using the competencies that they already possess'. However there was a line to be drawn, as he stated: is important to distinguish between liberty and license - National and Provincial determines what teams do, while teams are empowered to choose how they do it (Judge, 1996: p 18).

This comment reveals an important insight for it shows that those with power determine the remit of the empowered. Not only are responsibilities prescribed and limited, they are described in a language which fosters a problem-solving mentality, a mentality which is belonging to us, the partners, managers and workers together in this corporate venture.

This I argue is a partial and class interest view of the world masquerading as a set of universal and common interests. It is a view which masks the reality of the social relations of production. The existence of control and power is hidden by the appeal to join the team. This set of ideas assumes consensus and attempts to conceal any notion of separate interest in the productive process. Those who profit from this enterprise do so in a seemingly fair and natural manner. In this sense empowerment is ideological and underpins the renewed search for a compliant workforce.

This empowerment of the lowest levels of hierarchies is part of a speculative understanding that a major part of the solution to the problems of an ailing economy lies at the local level. Globalisation may be a world-wide trend in one respect but the significance of the national and local economies for productivity and profitability may actually be on the increase in the 1990s (Harman, 1996).

The Politics of Empowerment in the Public Sector

I will now examine a second trend with regard to empowerment and decentralisation - the significance of local government and the politics of empowerment in the public sector. A philosophy of deregulation underpins this perspective on empowerment. This is, arguably, an attempt to remove some of the post-war controls on capital generated by state intervention in the market.

Conservative policies for local government in the early 1990s emphasised two main elements: initiatives to lessen bureaucratic waste so as to create value for money; and an increase in the direct accountability of professionals to consumers, through the local management of resources. Baistow (1994) shows that empowerment is an idea which straddles the discourses of the left and right in that '...they both see solutions as being ground level, bottom up, localised strategies to increase user choice, participation and, the key theme, personal control (p 38).

Butcher, Law, Leach and Mullard (1990) describe three predominant strategies of Conservative controlled councils in the early 1990s. These they outlined as:

It is now evident that New Labour has adopted only a different emphasis but the same underlying framework:

In contrast, the more left of Labour councils have responded by emphasising the following key policies:

Both Left and Right emphasise the greater power of people to influence policy as the hallmark of their new appeal. Blunkett and Jackson (1987) spell out the Old Labour position as:

...the need to build democracy; since democracy is more than the mere right to cast votes at elections. Active politics of this kind has commonly only been available to privileged elites and powerful interests. Local politics is about its extension so that people can run their own affairs, adopting an increasingly broad perspective as confidence in democracy grows' ( cited in Cochrane, 1993: 43).

The shift to a more populist form of government has decentralisation as a main feature, and as Hambleton and Hoggett (1987) identify, there are two possibilities for the 1990s - 'market pluralism' on the one hand and 'pluralist collectivism' on the other. The former will be born from the fragmentary competitive models of the New Right and New Labour and the latter will exemplify the participative models of 'Old Labour'. This goes some way to providing an understanding of the convergence of left and right policies in practice and the growth of the idea of empowerment. An unbroken thread links the previous New Right Conservatism with that of New Labour. It is now clear that cuts to Welfare State expenditure are smoothed over by appeals to empower the people through 'active citizenship' and 'user involvement' in social services. Baistow (ibid) concludes that empowerment is '...becoming a social project that is intimately connected with the exercise of government' (p 35).

In the context of Scottish local authorities Barr (1995) points out that:

Empowerment of disadvantaged communities has become a rallying call...In Scotland...councils have adopted social strategies employing this term and it is common currency in objectives presented by third sector (voluntary) organisations (p121).

In this analysis of community empowerment initiatives in Scottish councils Barr (ibid) tries to gauge the reality of empowerment often hidden by the rhetoric of personal and community control. He detects gains for councils in their relations with communities if empowerment is defined as not a 'zero-sum' concept of gains and losses, but one which adheres to synergy - a mutuality of benefit for both parties. It is in this sense that he suggests that partnership in power for communities is preferable to a transfer of power to these communities. Partnership has come to dominate the discourse on empowerment and Barr's analysis exposes the reality of councils not prepared to relinquish power. As he acknowledges:

For the poor to be powerful is a contradiction - they lack market power, they lack organised or social status because they are the victims of predominant power distribution. Why should they trust the overtures of the state as an agency of empowerment? (p 128).

Within the arena of contemporary political discourse there is a real competition between the left and right to be identified as the true empowerers of the people as this excerpt from Michael Forsyth's speech to the 1995 Tory Party Conference illustrated:

We can so organise our society that power and decision-making devolve downwards to neighbourhoods and precincts, so that people will form genuine communities as they make decisions together concerning the future of their own area....We should not hesitate to be radical about this. If the creation of such communities implies that ownership of the estates or even the streets be transferred out of state hands and into those of the community, so be it.(Farquharson, 1995: p10).

In almost identical terms the Strathclyde Labour Council's Social Strategy Plan highlighted empowerment as a central aim:

Community empowerment lies at the very heart of the Social Strategy...The Council supports all forms of community involvement...but it particularly wants to encourage and enable communities to have a much more direct role in, and wherever possible, to have much more control over their lives and areas. It will therefore actively promote participation in communities in taking decisions which affect them, in identifying and responding to local needs and opportunities, in the delivery of services and the control and ownership of local assets. This is what the Council means by empowerment. (quoted in Barr, 1995).

One of the first councils in England to attempt wholesale decentralisation was Walsall which returned a majority Labour group to power in May 1995. A national debate followed the proposals in August 1995 to create 54 neighbourhood committees, sell off the Civic Centre HQ and create a new democracy of over 500 elected representatives. The Deputy leader summed up the situation faced by the radicals

We have been attacked by the Conservatives for being on the left and by trade unions for being Thatcherite. They both can't be right and neither of them are...we want to reduce the bureaucracy of the local authority and bring it closer to the people. (The Daily Telegraph: August 9th, 1995).

The situation of Walsall sheds some light on the contradictory nature of the political philosophy of empowerment for the initiative was halted by the Labour leadership, resisted through strike action by the trade union, Unison and castigated by the Conservatives. I suggest that the Walsall initiative is an example of empowerment which began to challenge the rhetoric of control and offer limited options for greater participatory democracy at a local level. The initiative became a challenge to numerous powerful interests, threatening both managerial and political power and at the same time was unable to link the initiative to the job security of the workforce through a new form of governance.

The texts quoted above illustrate how the language of empowerment has paradoxically entered the discourses of Conservatism and 'New Labourism'. It has for some time informed the practice of the Parents Charter, Devolved Management of Schools, School Boards and in general terms the rights of the consumer as a customer to challenge the 'provider of services' within the new internal market of the local economy. Pirie (1991) outlines the thinking associated with this strategy when he explains: internal markets take hold, the state services can be expected to orient more of their output to the satisfaction of consumer needs, mimicking what private markets routinely do...[and] have access to redress and compensation if that service is not delivered...when such rights are more widely acknowledged and known about, the effect will be to make council authorities more alert to their responsibilities in such matters, and more attentive to their obligations (1991: 5).

Mather (1991:10) argues this represents '...a new consensus of objectives in British politics. Writing in the early 90s his prediction that '...there is going to be a race between Right and Left to see which set of politicians can reach effective practical solutions to the problem of under-performing public services' has been borne out. This is summed up by Mather when he asserts that,

we should not be afraid to hand back government power to individuals by contracting with them, in a new social contract which is built up of millions of enforceable micro contracts for better standards of public service... this may properly be provided through private contractors where they can do it best (ibid: 13).

It is this perspective which underpins New Labour's adherence to a raft of new policies which link the public sector to private finance. Partnership structures are now a central component of this policy and as Geddes (1998) points out '...partnerships provide a local institutionalised framework which can involve and empower key actors ( p142). As Geddes (ibid) concludes from this European study of local partnerships which feature as strategies for social cohesion:

...they (local partnerships) can contribute to the emergence of a more active and inclusive society and to what may be termed a 'negotiated economy' in which consensus-creating institutions form one of the keys to economic prosperity (p 156).

It is evident that partnership agreements will be central to new arrangements for the administration of schools, housing, health, and welfare as we enter the new millennium. In a study of Deptford City Challenge, a partnership for urban regeneration, in south east London, Mayo, 1997 describes partnerships between councils, communities and private finance as '...a mutual struggle to influence each others' objectives, priorities and cultures (p5)'. As Mayo (ibid) points out:

From the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, through to voluntary and local community sector associations, partnerships are firmly on the agenda in the second half of the 1990s (p5).

She identifies the appeal of partnership as the following:

In a significant political sense, some of the findings of Mayo's evaluation of the impact of the Partnership programme for local people reveal another process at work:

City Challenge (Partnership) took away the debate, the struggle, and forced people to focus on funding and imposed outputs, they can't, don't fight back anymore. (Deptford City Challenge, 1995a: p32 - cited, 1997, p 20).


In this article evidence has been provided to show that empowerment is an idea which reflects the restructuring of large organisations in the form of decentralisation at work and in the community. This form of empowerment seeks to legitimise control and underpins a management philosophy of change. The empowerer as teacher is central to this new managerial philosophy of self-organised leadership. It is concluded that this new philosophy is generated by a central contradiction at play in the productive process. This contradiction suggests that the greater the control given to workforces and communities over the productive and political process the greater the level of productivity and profitability. This process is generated by a lessening of alienation and can act as a challenge to the continued private control of resources if demands for greater workforce control and a new form of governance emerge.

In the domain of public sector welfare Hambleton and Hoggett (1987) suggest that the new policy initiatives of the 1990s stem from the failure of the post-war 'bureaucratic paternalist' model of local welfare. All sections of the mainstream political spectrum have embraced the philosophy of market-based privatisation whereas 'New Labour' is split between public service reform which emphasises both consumerist and collectivist solutions to the problems identified by the old top-down provision. The idea of empowerment is located firmly within all approaches - especially the growth of partnership structures. The idea of empowerment thus begins to show a pattern of concepts that are clustered around the management of change in the workplace and community. The concepts are ownership, control, integration, partnership, participation and citizenship and the emphasis is on sharing. This promotes a consensus view of the world and acts to conceal a conflict of class interests. The unpacking of the idea of empowerment shows it emerging as an idea that is becoming ideological, in the pejorative sense, and central to politics in the contemporary era.



2It is beyong the scope of this article to view ideology from a number of 'angles of vision' (Collins, 1990). The ideas of racism, nationalism, sexism, homophobia and attitudes to disability are all arguably ideological in the sense that reality is distorted and fragmented. This process of weakening solidarity and cohesion serves to divide those who are exploited and oppressed. These are also ideas which have been subject to sustained struggle throughout the twentieth century, continually contested and challenged. According to Callinicos (1983) there are two methods of undermining ideology. One is to generate a scientific understanding of reality. The second is to challenge 'reality' through direct action. He states, in opposition to the view that capitalism can forever generate ideological misrecognition and thus preclude empirical enquiry into the formation and development of ideology or forever be trapped in a state of 'false consciousness' that:...experience is always already conceptualised; no perception admits of only one interpretation (p 131). As Freire (1985) observed: Whom does reality serve? Whom does it hurt? (p 169).

3Fordism, as defined by Gramsci (Prison Notebooks 1971, pp 277-316) in the section of the Prison Notebooks entitled Americanism and Fordism refers to a form of productive organisation exemplified by Henry Ford's systems of mass automobile production and allied management technique known as 'scientific management' or Taylorism. In the latter half of the twentieth century, following the economic crises of the 70's, 80's and 90's it has been argued that new flexible production systems mark the end of the Ford-type era. Adherents of this thesis argue that we now live in a post-industrial, post-Fordist phase of capitalism.

4The Blair Labour administration in Britain came to power in 1997 under the banner of 'New Labour'. The distinction between 'New labour' and 'Old Labour' hinges on substantial differences of emphasis with regard to state intervention in the economy and the provision of welfare. New Labour is keen to promote partnership with the business sector whereas Old Labour continues to argue for a redistributive fiscal policy.


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