Societal power versus individual freedom

French sociologist Bourdieu explained the precept of power by expounding the concept of capital to encompass economic, social and cultural

Discourse exploring the symbiotic relationship between the individual and society is nothing new. Though, of course, this translates differently from one political system to another. This holds especially true when it comes to personal freedom, which, in turn, is contingent upon other societal factors such as class (and linked to this, social status), creed, gender and caste. Consequently, power and freedom become conceptually intertwined. In order to understand this dynamic we must first evaluate power while keeping in mind the sources from where man derives this.

The late French sociologist Pierre Felix Bourdieu explained the precept of power by expounding the concept of capital. Meaning that it is the economic, social and cultural capital which determines an individual’s power. Economic capital refers to financial assets mainly comprising of liquid cash and property, both moveable and immoveable. Whereas social capital means who one knows especially in terms of those of social import or influence; as well as general social networking circles. And finally, cultural capital pertains to the relationship an individual enjoys with powerful institutions. For instance, if one has either studied or worked at a prestigious establishment – one has likely already secured as certain social status.  Though the important thing to note here is that one form of capital can be converted into another. Meaning that if, for example, an individual has ready access to economic capital this can then be used to acquire social capital. And once the latter is achieved, this in turn may be put towards securing cultural capital; thereby expanding an individual’s power.

Yet leaving aside the concept of capital, social institutions, too, play an instrumental role in determining individual freedom. These may encompass the family unit, places of education and worship as well as society’s fourth estate, the media. Undoubtedly rapid advances in science and technology profoundly impact our lives by increasing our interconnectivity. Nevertheless it is a misnomer to believe that this in itself gives way to greater freedom and liberty.

The media seeks to frame public opinion based on a particular ‘philosophy’; promoting this until it becomes the benchmark by which to measure all societal mores. Thus does the fourth estate pre-determine the free flow of information to the end consumer who becomes anything but empowered

For if it were so, then there would be no need for the multi-billion dollar advertising industry which the corporate sector heavily funds every year to come up with marketing campaigns aimed at influencing consumer choices; thereby controlling market behaviour regarding supply and demand for goods and services. In short, all of this encroaches upon individual consumer freedom. This is what the German sociologist Theodor W Adorno refers to as corporate logic superseding individual liberty.

Conceptually, education is a significant social institution leading the individual towards certain emancipation, leading to empowerment and eventual freedom. Yet here we must qualify education, especially when talking of countries like Pakistan. For bluntly put, the aforementioned only readily applies to those studying at elite private schools. For almost everyone else, the journey towards individual freedom is hampered at every turn; principally by an overwhelming lack of basic amenities such as clean water and access to lavatories. And then comes the sad truth that those in government schools, right from the start, do not enjoy a level playing field since they simply do not have the same opportunities when it comes to expressing freedom of thought or else challenging established wisdom. This is because the public education system may be said to discourage the independence of thought that is instilled into students in the private sector.

The media, of course, represents another significant social institution and it outreach is far and wide. Indeed, it is said that its power lies in influencing public opinion. This is because it is, at its core, an information service provider. Thus an informed individual becomes an empowered one with increased personal autonomy. Nevertheless, we need to understand the politics of representation that is at play here; and which, in turn, is endorsed by powerful media houses. This is similar to what Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and social theorist, identifies as the symbiotic relationship between education and power. In other words, those at the helm – that is, those who control the free flow of information or knowledge – exercise collective power by promoting a particular ideology. This then, over time, becomes recognised as a socially accepted norm. Similarly, the media is guilty of the same when it takes it upon itself to frame public opinion based on a particular ‘philosophy’ and then promotes this until it becomes the benchmark by which to measure all societal mores. Thus does the media pre-package and pre-determine the free flow of information to the end consumer. The result, therefore, is anything but empowerment of the individual.

Hence as we find ourselves in this post-modernist era we discover that truth is now multi-dimensional in nature. This is due to the fact that post-modernism itself has its roots in deconstructionism, the strand of philosophy pioneered by Jacques Derrida back in the 1960s, where traditional assumptions relating to truth and identity are challenged outright. Meaning that these two ‘knowns’ become a social construct; shaped by social institutions like places of education and the media. Today, in the post-modern world, hegemony is restored through power and established discourse which is then used to subjugate the masses. And social institutions like the ones mentioned above play an instrumental role. In order to better understand this – I would recommend reading Orientalism by the eminent philosopher Edward W Said, the founder of the academic field of post-colonial studies. In that seminal work, he explores how the West (occident), through its chosen narrative, has distorted the identity of the East (orient) and subsequently rendered it inferior and thus irrelevant. Said explains that this is only possible when one group exercises its ‘positional superiority’ over the other.

This is what the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci terms spontaneous consent. And this happens where a particular class ends up essentially indoctrinating society so that the latter kowtows to its ideological values. Or what American philosopher Noam Chomsky prefers to call manufactured consent.  Either way a specific doctrine is constructed, with selective supporting facts as its foundation. So, for instance, we may be watching news coverage of the Iraq war when we notice differences in treatment of the conflict depending on whether we switch channels between CNN, Fox News or Al Jazeera. All of which erodes the individual’s freedom of independent thought. For the media is, in reality, violating its own tenets as society’s fourth pillar. Indeed Foucalt’s theory of the panoptic model of surveillance argues that those who have power and who wish to exert control over society are aided by technological advancements. After all, the authorities track us via our mobile phones, the Internet and social media thereby destroying individual freedom. The individual therefore is no more at the centre of his universe.

The writer is a human rights and constitutional lawyer


Published in Daily Times, January 11th 2018.