Something I wrote in 1997 on empowerment


We need to rebuild the links between personal empowerment and collective action,
says Stuart G Hall

Its on prime time on Australian TV, been sent to thousands of British teenagers and is being used in prisons to educate rapists, such is the success of the first issue of Body Shops Full Voice magazine. Outraged by fashion magazines which glamourised battered women and worshipped heroin chic, Anita Roddick and her campaign team set their sights on the beauty industry and the media. The media are doing something they havent done for decades, they really making cult of passivity – of being beaten – as a fashion cult or icon. Women are angry because it works so bloody well, says Roddick.

At the heart of the mini-magazine, over half a million of which were distributed in January, was the belief that if passivity is the problem, empowerment is the solution. The second issue of Full Voice developed this theme, from how schools create passivity, to Ten Ways To Be An Activist – handy hints for the ethically-minded consumer on how to Act Up. Words over the picture of a womans scratched out face say: I cant. I want to. What Stops me? The Full Voice answer: Its about empowerment. Once we accept that were powerful as individuals, that people will listen to us, that we can make a difference. Once we accept that, we act.


The courage of Helen Steel and Dave Morris reminded us that people acquire strength through struggle. The need for individuals to gain self-esteem as a first step to collective action has long been recognised by feminists, and in particular ways to systematically link individual empowerment and collective action to obtain power. Usually this process is unconscious. It was a means born of necessity amongst women during the 1984-5 miners strike, who discovered a new self-confidence and an exhilarating sense of personal liberation within their day-to-day involvement in keeping the fight going (Susan Watkins, Red Pepper). Understanding how to forge the link between individual empowerment and collective action, and a systematic means to forge that link, is crucial to political action.

Until now bosses and politicians who have reaped the benefits of empowerment. Getting more out of your workers by setting up quality circles to discuss improvements in production is packaged in the language of empowerment. But empowerment without power is a currency of limited value as the link between individual empowerment and collective action is twisted to benefit the bosses. A similar problem is presented by New Labour’s use of empowerment. Peter Mandelson recently called for a different sort of government…consciously adopting a different style of governing. A government…that rejects top down solutions and that reaches out to engage public opinion and bind effective partnerships from the bottom up. But it is doubtful whether they mean to give real power to ordinary people, including party members.

Exposing the empty words of empowerment of bosses and politicians, and exploring ways to link real empowerment with collective action, is common currency amongst the DIY activists. Reclaim the Streets, born out of the M11 and Twyford Down protests, which joined forces with the striking Liverpool dockers and Women of the Waterfront, state in their manifesto. Direct action is not just a tactic; it is about empowering people to unite as individuals with a common aim, to change things directly by our own actions. But direct action only works well for specific protests. Often faced with the superior resources of the state, and bringing no more than moral victories, it can end up making people feel less powerful.

Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire, who died in May, argued that a top-down approach to teaching and learning simply kept people poor and passive. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1970, he advocated a process of reflective learning within the community itself, with professionals being a catalyst for change through action-reflection-action-reflection and a collective development of consciousness. I realised the power of this approach when I was training mental health user groups across London with basic media skills – a necessity for people facing the daily taunt of psycho. I witnessed what Freire had described as they gained the confidence to fight for what they need in a media-manipulated economy.