Relations of power, Varieties of Power

Since Norbert Elias, it is customary to think of power as a relation and not as a possession. Power is constantly challenged and risked when it is applied. It often has consequences which are not predicted which may undermine that power, but it tends to follow particular, easily activated, patterns and routines.

Power depends a lot on social imagining, on fear of what would happen if it was found out we were not obeying, or imagining that those who appear powerful are legitimate in that power, rather than flimsy. Basically, power depends upon compliance and habit as much as on violence.

I think it would probably be useful to think about the sources of coercion and power. That way we could actually see why, and what kind of, organisations tend to coercion and what the bases of that coercion might be.

There are a lot of people around who see power as possessed only by institutions they don’t like. Libertarians, for example, only see the problem with the supposed power of the State, they hardly ever see economic power or plutocracy as a threat. Awareness of the potential origins of power might be useful to analysis and action. We may also be able to discuss non-coercive power and its importance. For example if co-operation is banned then few people will be able do anything…

First of all let me try to make an initial list of sources of coercion, and then discuss each one in other posts. The list is certainly not exhaustive, and other suggestions are welcomed.

1) Control of violence, and the appearance of legitimate violence. This can be possessed by institutions such as the police, by social categories such as ‘men’, or by wealth (‘I can buy protection’).

2) Economic power. This primarily arises from Wealth and Ownership or property relations. It appears in the ability to extract wealth from others, or from the labour of others, or from control of food supply. This is generally known as Plutocracracy.

3) Power over cosmologies. This is generally religious being known as theocracy, but can manifest through those who control any other form of ‘ideology’ or ‘world view’. In our world this comes through things like neoclassical free market economics, which tells us what is valuable, and how societies should be organized and patterned, and how things really work. This does not mean there are not other forms of economics, there are, but they have little influence unless they can look like the orthodoxy. Note the cosmology does not have to be accurate to work as a source of power

4) Organisation itself confers power. The organized are generally more effective than the unorganized (up to a point). Occupying a position in an organization may demand subservience from others. This is usually known as ‘bureacracy’, but nowadays that suggests a particular type of government organisation, but organization is visible in business and religion and so on, so we need a more general term, say Organising…. There may be more than one organising acting in a society. Possibly the more different types of Organising the better. Organising may be fractured; for example the State, or the Corporation, is rarely uniform, and there is competition and incoherence between various parts of that body.

5) Some power or status, or lack of power and status, arises from occupying a particular social category, (gender, race, or age etc.). This often blends with organising, as occupation and position in a hierarchy can give and exclude from power. This is usually part of the society’s cosmology. It is supposedly natural that ‘men’ demand obedience from ‘women’ or one ‘race’ from another. Categorising.

6) Control over access to communication or control over the structures of communication. This usually depends on having access to one or other of the above sources. This means control over who can be heard, who’s ideas are promulgated, what counts as news and what doesn’t etc. It needs to be noted that control over communication does not mean access to accurate information; the more tightly controlled the patterns of communication are, or the contents of that communication, the less likely it is that the contents are accurate. Those in charge may be ignorant.

7) Control over allocation of risk of danger, hurt and health chances – also usually depends on having access to one or other of the above powers. Nevertheless this is not negligible, and the results can severely damage the opportunities that some people have in life.

8) Networked legitimacy. This indicates the way that different sources of power can reinforce each other, and become part of daily habit, and appear natural. OR in which they can cut across each other and open up vulnerabilities for the establishment.

9) Inertia. There is a power which is based in the difficulties of change, in the fact that people tend to behave as they have in the past, in that people don’t know what to do when something new arises. This is the power of conservatism – not to be confused with the self-named political movement, which is rarely conservative

More than one source of power will frequently be controlled by the same people, or by people in opposition to each other. For example, aristocracy usually arises from a combination of control of violence, plutocracy and social category. It is also based on kinship as a mode of Organising.


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