This week I have been talking to my students about a theory of power by a bloke called Steven Lukes.
Some of you may be familiar with it, others may be thinking I’m just one more example of everything that is wrong with nurse education - talking about theories and books and thinking and stuff when everyone knows nursing needs to be about processes and doing and trying to save money.
Anyway, one of the things that Lukes suggests is that power is born not simply of expressing authority, but by getting to set the agenda around what is being talked about. Obvious really, isn’t it?
If we establish as fact that my wife cannot afford the £160 boots in Kurt Geiger that she keeps pointing at, then the more she points, the more unrealistic, acquisitive, irresponsible and downright bad she is. By establishing that affordability fact as an indisputable given, we are exercising power. If she acts despite it, we are equipped to judge her.
Eventually - and remember, even if she points out that she has been saving up,
has forgone a new winter coat and been growing her own vegetables, we had earlier decided together that she absolutely cannot afford them - her pursuit of said boots (and frankly, dear reader, she has a pair not unlike these, I really don’t see what the fuss is about) makes her an enemy of good sense or, worse, an enemy of economic recovery.
Power is not just about authority, it is about controlling what feels permissible and what we are allowed to expect. No coats, no shop-bought fruit or vegetables and now - no boots. Heaven knows where exactly the Christmas satsumas are going to come from.
But then around now I am thinking - and I suspect this is the only reason she married me - buy the damned boots. If only because at some point, even with an example as trite and silly as boots, you remember that loads of stuff is more important than economics. Particularly bad, misrepresented, corrupted and self-selecting “economics”.
And so it is with the current argument over a 1% pay rise. Has it come to this? We, the public services, are wondering if we might consider, maybe, if its not too much trouble, objecting to the suggestion that we will not get a 1% pay rise, which will amount to yet another pay cut, of course, given the rate of inflation. Isn’t that a stunning expression of power by the current government? That it has created a circumstance whereby we are wondering if maybe just a little bit of a pay cut is actually acceptable in place of a larger one.
I suppose it does that by influencing public opinion. When we stopped being public servants and became the public sector, we became primarily an area of expenditure rather than an area of civilisation and humanity. But it also undermines us as individuals; it scares people with whispers of job losses and cuts. And it stories the experiences of nurses or teachers in such a way as to show them to be beneficiaries of the work (tax) of others rather than facilitators of the wellbeing of all.
But it is wrong. Politics needs to be about more than how you “rescue the economy”. And it needs to be about a lot more than how you represent the interests of those you like and punish those you don’t in the name of national salvation. We are governed by people who don’t like other people, which has to be the worst of circumstances. Not standing up to that and the assault on nursing it cultivates would be indecent.
Mark Radcliffe is senior lecturer, and author of Gabriel’s Angel. Follow him on twitter @markacradcliffe