By Oudai Tozan
Transforming oppressive structures is one of the most complicated but important undertakings for us. It is a topic that captures my imagination. I always find myself wanting to understand how we can transform oppressive social, political, and economic structures that are imbued with behaviours such as sectarianism, racism, and exploitation. This blogpost doesn’t provide a definite or single answer as to how this transformation can occur as I don’t think there is such an answer. Instead, it will try to provide some perspectives on this matter based on critical-race, post-colonial, and peacebuilding theories.
Let me first explain my understanding of oppressive structures. An oppressive structure is any economic, political or social/cultural system that allows for the exploitation, marginalisation, descrimniation or oppression of people. This could be an authoritarian political system that oppresses people, a capitalist or other economic system that exploits powerless workers, or a culture that legitimises the dominance of males over females or certain groups over others. These structures translate into everyday life through institutions, organisations, relationships, and individual behaviours that normalise and institutionalise the violent behaviour of these structures.
There is a tendency for oppressive structures to reproduce themselves. An oppressive, exploitative and discriminatory structure will spawn oppressive, exploitative and discriminatory structures. And they do not reproduce themselves by a mere coincidence; these structures reproduce themselves when we don’t take action to change them (complicity) or when we actively maintain them un/consciously (perpetuating). Even when we think that we have transformed them, we discover that they shed their skin, adjust their practices, and recast themselves to operate on more hidden, subtle and embedded levels. The civil rights movements in the United States of America have succeeded in dismantling the political, economic, and cultural structures that were oppressing African Americans. However, such structures have left behind awful legacies that remain embedded in institutions, relationships and behaviours at national and local levels.
Four interlinked concepts could provide us with insightful perspectives about transforming oppressive structures: consciousness, agency, power and dialogue. I have labelled them as projects to emphasise the importance of transforming these conceptual frameworks into practical projects with inputs, outputs, resources, structures, tools, strategies and plans etc.
Many intellectuals have discussed the importance of consciousness for social change, notably Paulo Freire (see for example the Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and Johan Galtung (see for example Peace by Peaceful Means). We cannot transform oppressive structures without being made conscious of them, and of our contextual position in those oppressive structures in relation to others. This requires developing a critical consciousness to question and see the world through a self-reflexive lens. Idahosa and Vincent (2018) have beautifully argued this; they argue that this involves “an acknowledgment of one’s position in the existing configuration of social structures, the privileges/disadvantages that one’s position confers on one, and understanding the attendant structural inequities and injustices”. They explain that coming to consciousness is what makes us able to “identify the discourses, practices and ways of being that perpetuate injustice”. It is equivalent to “hav[ing] one’s eyes opened to the power relations and discourses that ensure the continued domination of some groups and the subjugation and marginalization of Others”.
However, merely being conscious of these oppressive structures is not enough. We need to have the agency and capacity to change these structures. Herein lies the importance of education, training, capacity building, empowerment and skills development that give us better capacity to exercise our agency and eliminates some of the barriers to transformation as well. Although critical consciousness and agency increase our chances of transforming oppressive structures by enabling us to interact with them more significantly, thereby altering them, there is a third essential factor to transforming structures: Power. Perhaps the most critical question in changing oppressive structures concerns power. How can we possess the power to change these oppressive structures? Power presupposes resources, connections and influence, which are all essential to making a change. I would like to share two possible answers to the question of how we can possess power: 1) mobilisation and collective efforts, and 2) occupying a strong position in the hierarchy of power.
Our individual position in the social, political and economic structures could afford us virtually none of the power, resources, or connections needed to make change. Therefore, theorists such as Marx, Freire and Galtung have discussed in depth the mobilisation projects (striking, marching, etc) that give the masses the power to resist and potentially paralyse oppressive structures and alter them. This will lead to changing the oppressive structures “from without” by resisting them and pressuring them to change to accommodate the mass. The second possible option to overcome the power dilemma is to occupy a strong position in the hierarchy of power that exists in the economic, policial, and social order. This world is designed in a hierarchical way. In any institution, religion, organisation, political party, and government there is a hierarchy of power. While a hundred thousand people marching in the streets could not nudge the system at all, one president, minister or religious leader could make a drastic change to social, political, or economic structures. Their position in the hierarchy of power confers them huge influence over the design of these structures. Occupying a stronger position in the hierarchy of power will lead to changing the oppressive structures “from within” by changing their design. Therefore, I believe occupying a stronger position in the hierarchy of power as a group, by allowing others to enter this hierarchy, could be our most impactful strategy to bring about change for good.
The previous three projects – consciousness, agency and power projects – could bring about change to oppressive structures and work towards dismantling them, but do they bring about peace and sustainable change? This brings me to the importance of the fourth project: Dialogue. This project is essential, especially with those who maintain the oppressive structures unconsciously. It is our best way to bring sustainable and peaceful change. Without it, we risk violence and new oppressive structures in our attempts to make change. All peacebuilding theorists and activists, such as Johan Galtung, John Paul Lederach, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, have emphasised the importance of the dialogue project.
However, oppressive structures have a powerful set of their own strategies and projects to counter our projects. If we look at the politically oppressive structures built by dictators, such counter-projects become more obvious. Dictators and oppressive leaders strive to kill any consciousness projects by suppressing freedom of speech, creating media outlets that brainwash societies, and building education systems that work to keep people living in ignorance. They will kill any agency project by making sure their population is incapable of amassing to instigate change and can only think of their basic survival needs. They will kill any power project that opposes them by limiting or eliminating people’s ability to mobilise together or access the hierarchy of power (parliament, government, unions, etc). They will kill the dialogue project by creating and demonising the “Other” to limit our power to influence change through dialogue. These tactics might be more obviously used in dictatorships, but even in liberal countries oppressive structures use subtle practices to protect themselves and their political, economic, or social orders. We can see an example where big MNEs (Multinational Enterprises) do their best to stop their workers from joining unions, in order to limit their abilities to gain collective powers.
Changing these structures could take years and will require sustained and widespread efforts. It is never a linear process and it is context dependent. Worst of all, at times, the violence that these structures exert is not easy to recognise and is embedded in our daily lives, which means that many of us could be unwittingly complicit. Nevertheless, transforming oppressive structures is possible; recent history tells us as much: from the abolition of slavery, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the civil rights movements in the United States of America, and more recently, the progress in gender, women’s and human rights. It is our collective task to eliminate oppressive structures by coming to consciousness, developing agency, gaining power and establishing permanent dialogue.
Idahosa, G.E., Vincent, L., 2018. “The Scales Were Peeled from My Eyes”: South African Academics Coming to Consciousness to Become Agents of Change. The International Journal of Critical Cultural Studies 15, 13–28. https://doi.org/10.18848/2327-0055/CGP/v15i04/13-28
Oudai is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Cambridge, researching the potential role of the Syrian diaspora academics and researchers in rebuilding the higher education sector of Syria. He is currently a co-chair of the University of Cambridge Peace and Education Research Group (CPERG). Oudai has 10 years of experience in teams and projects management for the purpose of supporting access to higher education. He recently managed the first online conference for the Syrian Diaspora “Syrians Around the World”, attracting 1200 Syrian attendees from 50 countries. He is interested in the intersection between education and other fields such as politics, economy and sociology.