Real power cannot be given, it must be taken

Apparantly a quote from The Godfather 3.


Is this true, and if so does that mean top-down community empowerment is an illusion?

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I imagine someone came to the conclusion that 'real power can't be given, it must be taken' long before Godfather 3, or any movie, was produced - or any book was written for that matter.

The issue of power is wide and infinitely complex: you are narrowing it down a bit when you ask whether or not top-down community empowerment is an illusion.

I presume you're referring to the wide range of programmes/initiatives/directives/ we've experienced over the last ten to fifteen years or so?

Thinking back, the serious top-down money came via Objective 1 & 2, NRF, New Deal for Communities, HMRP etcetera which, depending on if you part of the core management group or involved on the periphery, dealt mostly with the management structure and the physical appearance of neighbourhoods, rather less with empowering the people who lived in them. For me, it was all about control. I don't come across many community-based people who consider themselves to be 'empowered' - or too optimistic that they will ever be.

What are your views on the matter Jez? Perhaps you can guide us along the lines you were thinking of when you opened what could be an interesting and timely discussion.

Yes Joe, you are right... I was at least partly thinking about whether government has any responsibility/interest/desire to empower individuals or communities.

Yet I don't want to narrow it down too much. I'm more interested in others take on power and community activism.

(And can't say I am a great fan of the Godfather as a role model for a healthy just society....)

Perhaps my question was sparked by comments from an academic friend who is studying empowerment policy under New Labour, and feeling rather pessimistic about how limited (or limiting) it was.

Empowerment as a term has now been largely expunged by the coalition (at least in DCLG under Pickles)

Does that matter? Isn't it actually helpful to have an administration being more overtly 'market orientated/small state/neo-liberal', so we know where we stand. Less chance of being co-opted...

On the other hand parents don't have to be in conflict with their offspring to empower them. A more empowered state of being can be nurtured surely? If only by making people more confident about themselves?

>Perhaps my question was sparked by comments from an academic friend who is studying empowerment policy under New Labour, and feeling rather pessimistic about how limited (or limiting) it was.

He's entitled to feel pessimistic. Not long back I was at a conference where Margaret Ledwith was guest speaker

She described the years from 1997 to 2010 as the 'Age of Partnership - a euphemism for Centralised Control' a time when anyone, George Bush, Gaddafi, the Taliban - you name it - was a potential friend. The enemy were those who didn't agree to work 'in partnership'.

I could see lots of nodding heads around the room, many belonging to community representatives on LSPs and other thematic partnerships.

One of many lessons we learned from those years is 'believe nothing the government says until it's been officially denied'.


>Isn't it actually helpful to have an administration being more overtly 'market orientated/small state/neo-liberal', so we know where we stand. Less chance of being co-opted...

Helpful? Is it helpful to know that we face a future where, thanks to the bailouts, everything the previous generations sacrificed and struggled to build to make this country a better place – our manufacturing base, jobs for our children, our universities, our schools, our NHS, our public services, our pensions, our benefit system - is under serious attack and whatever is left will be subjected to the laws and logic of the market, where nothing is valued but profit? Yes, we know were we stand - with the failure of generations of political leaders who found it more expedient to cater to the whims of the wealthy than serve the population they were elected to represent.

Remember the Beetles saying 'Give Peace a Chance'? Will Participatory Democracy/Community Empowerment be given a chance? Not unless there's a really good quid in it for somebody.

This is a very timely and important area to explore.  Glad that this conversation has been started.


Firstly, regarding 'empowerment' policy under New Labour.  I have direct experience of this, having been employed by a Community Empowerment Network.  There was some very good work done in networks around the country, with communities working together to try to get their voices heard and to effect positive change in the way that statutory services related to those they serve.  However, the system was overly centralised, prescriptive and controlled.  What was missing was the work with the statutory providers - yes, those public servants - to ensure that community involvement in decision making that affects those same communities was possible, and guaranteed.  The whole approach was designed to fail.  Community empowerment by central diktat is an oxymoron - being 'empowered' because central government tells you to be 'empowered' in a very specific and restricted way is not remotely empowering.  It is the complete opposite - it creates a chimera. It is more along the lines of an 'offer you can't refuse' (had to get a gratuitous Godfather reference in somewhere...)


The current administration is not remotely interested in empowerment - unless you can afford to pay for it.  I am afraid that the only positive to come from the current robber barons of the rotten boroughs (aka politicians of all hues) is that they are at least open in their antipathy for community development and involvement. 


What is the more fundamental issue here?  It is constitutional, political and cultural.  There is a huge gulf between the political class and the population.  People are disenfranchising themselves because they have no faith in the political system and our current alleged democracy.  The level of public trust in politicians is at rock bottom, and there is a real risk that our society could become even more divided than it is already.  I am a citizen - I should be empowered constitutionally to hold public servants to account.  That is a marvellous theory.  What I actually appear to be is a client of an isolated and insular elite who operate a closed system.  At least Russian oligarchs pay their own bills. 


So where now?  There are systems being brought in through the Localism Bill that could potentially see small local groups wiped out to be replaced by commercial businesses and large charities delivering public services and controlling funding to community based groups.  Consortia of developers and business interests could drive through development in neighbourhoods without any right of redress.  Large sections of public service delivery could be privatised with no consultation.  But by the same token, all these mechanisms and more can be used by organised local communities to ensure that citizens have a say and involvement in decisions affecting their neighbourhoods.  It is a question of learning, publicity and politics.  We need to take the power that is rightfully and justly ours and make full use of it. 


So where do we start?  Ideas please - time to wake the slumbering lions....

'Real power can not be given, it must be taken'.......maybe Marlon Brando picked this up from Saul Alinsky!

It's got the Alinsky stamp of confrontation viz. He is obsessed with “how to create mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people...” (Rules for Radicals p.3). Would a mass organization willingly gain power only to pass in on "to the people"?

I guess that our response to the statement ultimately comes back to our individual life/community development view - in my case I think it's about 'give' and 'take'! (my liberal colours to the fore!); I feel that a strong argument against taking or seizing power is that it may actually re-enforce inequalities so that capable, educated, wealthy communities race ahead, whilst the have nots are left trailing in their wake.

(University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham....where the sun has just burst through)

'The meek will inherit the earth' They may well do, but only when the strong have finished with it.

Governance in one form or another, is necessary, always has been and always will be. The problem arises when governance is enacted as repression, eventually repression will be resisted. Extreme repression eventually results in extreme resistance as in the recent and ongoing events in Libya.

The recent English 'riots' may and I only say may have their roots in a feeling of repression. Unfairness in terms of opportunity, employment and income, a feeling of powerlessness, an inability to change the factors which cause this unfairness and the feeling that Government is not addressing the issue can always manifest as repression.

Empowerment is the antidote to repression and yes, real empowerment can only come as a result of individuals and communities empowering themselves. I do not believe however, that you have to take power, its more a case of assuming the mantle of empowerment. Put it on every morning, let it guide your thoughts and actions and your attitudes. We are already empowered, we just need to learn how to control our empowerment. Can government give us 'empowerment' ? No it can only concede the empowerment we demonstrate. 

it seems like its not in the governments interest to truely empower local communities, we only need to look at the governments responses to the general population when it does 'speak out' such as the anti war march. Government empowerment initiatives are an illusion as they seek to control more than empower.  The Big Society concept has been noticeably absent recently, one wonders if the call to action was a muse for the government to see whats going on out there, who comes out onto the streets, what do they say, who are the non conformers?

i know few people that are empowered in local communities as they face a tirade of obstacles and barriers rather than initiatives that nurture and develop.

Great Discussion. Empowerment Rhetoric versus Reality.


Many of the above comments already made by James, Jez, Joe, Amanda, Peter and Shamsher are all very true.


Well, as I am working for one of the few remaining community empowerment networks still going in England, I can say that we are grappling with the concepts and limits of empowerment all the time. 


Margaret Ledwith hit the nail on the head when she went some lengths at dislocating the concept and ideology of partnership etc which has dominated ideological thinking during the past thirteen years. 

(It would be great to see how much academic research there has been on the ground to actually evidence the effectiveness of partnership working as oppose to groups/individuals organisations tackling problems and issue on there own when they have a sense of autonomy and power to change things themselves)


Empowerment from the top does not work. Yes it can be partly fostered and encouraged but truely it has to grow at grass roots level. In reality I can't empower anyone if there is no power to give or share out. People can only create the conditions for empowerment to take place and empower themselves by become more aware of the deeper issues affecting self and others through the process of "conscientization" and creating opportunities for on going learning and reflection.  (well worth dipping into)  (Some Pearls of Wisdom about empowerment and its limits from AWB)




Simon/ all,


"academic actually evidence the effectiveness of partnership working" e.g. for starters:


'Rural Development principles & practice', Malcolm Moseley, Sage books 2003, chapter 9 (Partnership: working in harness)

'Local Partnerships and Rural Development in Europe', Westholm, Moseley & Stenlas, 1999. ISBN 91-88790-62-2







"The Big Society concept has been noticeably absent recently"....yes I think it is what is called a "tainted" brand or idea! Not least given the recent riots and background of cost cutting.

'Big Society seems to have given way to 'localism' bad thing since (I think!) localism conveys more direct intent/meaning


James (from blue skies in sunny Cheltenham!)

Hi All, 


Thnaks James for the links to the research on the effectiveness of partnerships. 


I was deliberately being somewhat provocative about the effectiveness of partnerships, no doubt many really are, others far less so. In some of my experience its a word used far too glibly without critical examination or evidence and conversely can be used to dissipate blame when things go wrong or make it harder for people to challenge the status quo. There have been other times when partnerships have worked really well. 


It is fair to say that it can be much harder to be independent and empowered working in the constraints of some partnerships though! 


The Big Society Brand in recent weeks does appear to have been locked away in the policy cupboard and it will be interesting to see if makes headlines again. 


Simon (from a sunny September morning in St Helens!)

Dear sunny in St Helens! Yes you are so right about the variability of partnerships, not to mention the axes being ground in some and the different agendas, expectations, transparencies.....


"When they are good they are very good and when they are bad they are horrid"!

I'm pretty sure Joseph Rowntree have published some good stuff re partnership working (& CDF?)


More generally I recommend the exceptional & short:

Botes, L and van Rensburg, D (2000) Community participation in development: nine plagues and

twelve commandments, Community Development Journal Volume 35 (1) pages 41-58 


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