The Blog

Submission - on the Social Cost of Power

I'm angry, we're all angry and we're all taking it out on people who actually care because we're so frustrated at the limits society places us under, forcing us to submit, and smile about it, or else.

I've always had an issue with people telling me what to do. Perhaps this is because my step-dad could be a bit of a bully. Perhaps it's because my dad was a bit of a control freak. Perhaps it's because my mother would turn a blind eye for quiet life. Either way, by nature I'm a people pleaser, but by experience, I've become a rebel.

Over time, my stubbornness has set in, leading me to take issue with seemingly innocuous things. The kids' school introducing uniforms by stealth. People complaining about their children while not acknowledging they might be part of the problem. Being told to put my phone down at a pub quiz, even though I'm not cheating, but Tweeting. It's led me to get into rows with friends, and got people's backs up in organisations, simply because I hate being told what to do, think or feel. But the alternative, of course, is just saying nothing, accepting, submitting to what other people want, however arbitrary, simply because they have more power. And I'm not sure that's always healthy either.

All relationships are dictated by a balance of power. Your boss has more power over you than, say, your partner (unless you are in a relationship you should probably get out of). Power means you are polite, regardless of whether someone has been dismissive, unhelpful, or even downright rude. It means you tend to save up your frustrations for people you feel safe with, which can lead to resentments building up (or rather, trickling down), creating a chain of stress like the one that has occurred of late in my family. Kids negotiating relationships and school work taking out their frustrations on me. Me, taking out my frustrations about work, my health and my friendships on my poor other half. He, getting pissed off with the dog (or very likely, saving up for a heart attack).

Either way, power and authority has a way of offloading the bad behaviour it won't allow onto someone else, probably with less choice in the matter. Schools (as I have seen in my local authority - even the word itself wields a sense of power) may be cracking down on 'anti-social' behaviour with stringent, and often arbitrary uniform policies, no touch rules and 'zero-tolerance' detentions for transgressors, but this is only passing the buck to parents who have to deal with teenager's identity crises and experimentations on their own time, no doubt all the worse than if they were just left to do as they pleased. Repression inevitably brings backlash, and who's ever met a teen that likes being told what to do? And in my own experience, it makes for an increasingly stubborn adult.

Yet submission is a policy right-wing politicians are favouring at the moment, not least in dallying with oil rich dictatorships with abysmal records on human rights, but with draconian austerity measures shifting the reliance of low-paid workers on tax credits onto employers to increase salaries. Which is all well and good, but rather than upping pay, the slack is often now being picked up by families, who, as in my own, are forced to move in together to make ends meet - or never move out of home at all - meaning the poorest end up subsidising low pay so the young and those on low incomes can afford to live and work. It is a race to the bottom, with the ones who can least afford it picking up the bill. But this is the economics of power, and it is also, as right-wing politicians know too well, what keeps us grist to the mill.

Poverty and precarious working situations make people submit because they have fewer choices: everyone's too knackered and scared to raise their head above the parapet and risk losing their job. But the stress and frustrations this entails come out in other ways; in social problems, or mental health issues, like the guy in tracky bs and neck chain who started shouting at me for no reason today on my bike in Bethnal Green. He's angry (over what in particular I have no idea, but in general, I can certainly surmise); Like me, fighting with friends and family on a hangover after scary rumours at work drinks on Friday. I'm angry, we're all angry and we're all taking it out on people who actually care because we're so frustrated at the limits society places us under, forcing us to submit, and smile about it, or else. Like my friend, losing her rag over my sanctimonious and unwanted, though keenly-felt advice, or the government squeezing us till the pips squeak, it's easy to blame individuals for their behavioural outcomes, and not look at the wider causes.

So we need to recognise that by dividing us, by making us feud, compete, hate and become isolated, the powers that be also conquer us. This is the cost of submission. It doesn't solve people's problems, it simply hands them on to the least powerful, like shit flowing down to the sea.