Re: power <debate> <long>

Michael Cahill (MCBlueline@AOL.COM)
Wed, 13 Mar 1996 11:09:10 -0500

In a message dated 96-03-11, John McCreery writes:

>are we
>ready to see power in anything but negative terms? Are the
>powerful always villains or fools? Have saints and heroes
>become unthinkable? How, then, as anthropologists, do we
>understand those who imagine saints and heroes to bring
>meaning into their lives?

Then later adds (in a message dated 96-03-11)

>The proposition that power always works
>against the will of those on whom it is exercised is, it seems to
>me, fundamentally flawed and an artifact of bourgeoise
>individualism carried to an extreme that sees any
>acquiescence in power as a threat to personal autonomy. By,
>in effect, denying the possibility of both legitimate authority
>freely accepted as such and and happy acceptance of quid pro
>quo, this position leaves only violence as a ground for

In my view, power is neither always negative or foolish, nor is it
necessarily illegitmate. Power may be exercised wisely for the good. Power
may even be of the people, by the people, and for the people. It may be more
narrowly exercised and cause great harm. Power may be legitimate and still
cause great harm. The point I would like us to consider is that power is
essentially about "power," not the ends of power or its "character." It is
fundamentally amoral, an important caution.

Like the old saying about organizations, the first concern of power is to
maintain itself "in power," and, if possible, to grow. This "focus" of power
helps explain why it can, for example, start out doing good and end up doing
something else, as anyone who has ever joined and left a political party,
movement, group, bureaucracy, or business organization -- knows. What it
does is secondary to the fact *that* it does.

In this thread, I'm concerned with ethnography of power, more specifically of
bureacractic power. I work for a large state social services agency with a
multi-billion dollar budget and thousands of employees. I've worked in the
trenches (as a county caseworker) and near the very top of the organization
(as a special assistant to a deputy commissioner), with stops at other levels
along the way. I've seen change in this power structure as the result of an
election. Many (but by no means all!) of the former principals are now gone
and my guess is that about 10 percent (so far) of the organization has been
downsized. Major change in the levels of support for dependent people living
in this state, and in the nature of that support, are on the way. There is
principled resistance to the new approach, based on "ideas" and even
"research," but the organization has a tremendous capacity to coopt opposing
views. In doing so, the power structure rolls along quite nicely, thank you.

The fact that a new administration can, with the wave of an ideological (or
revitalizational!) wand, so easily redirect the mission of power (downsizing
it has been much more difficult!) should tell us something about the role of
ideas in bureaucracies. Bureaucratic life is not primarily about researching
our way, painstakingly, to better solutions to the problems, in this case, of
poverty, crime, or social violence. It's about administering a received
status quo. Hence the kind of administrator I described in prior posts.
(One very capable manager told me that surviving in the bureaucracy involved
recognizing "trains" [trends or movements] and knowing when to get on board
or off the track.)

If my experience is any indicator, anthropologists studying bureaucracies
would do well to look closely at their research arms. Are they strong or
weak? Do they continually monitor the *outcomes* of their practice,
adjusting practice accordingly, or do they simply process numbers or lurch
about on one kick or another?

Agencies that are too successful run the risk of putting themselves out of
business. It's for this reason, in my view, that their research capacities
tend to be modest when compared with the rest of the organization.

So far I've been in the main talking about what bureaucratic power, at least,
is not primarily about -- here, ending poverty. The more central concern,
and this is a worry for all power I would think, is how to maintain itself.
What does it take to survive. Power is powerful, but it cannot simply wish
away certain unpleasant facts. It must adapt to forces beyond even its
control by coming up with strategies to address pressing problems. It's this
interface that anthropologists might want to keep in mind when doing or
planning fieldwork. Where does your community fit in this "adaptive

Downsizing is a good example. Arguably, downsizing was developed in the US
to address the problem of competitiveness, a major concern for business from
the middle 80's. American firms needed to cut costs if they were to defeat
foreign competition and, given the availability of new technology, shedding
labor costs was one way to do it. In fact, downsizing American businesses
now enjoy high productivity. They're very competitive. This strategy was
adaptive. Unfortunately, downsizing has given rise to new problems which
corporate power must solve -- un- and underemployment and the maldistribution
of wealth. It will be very interesting to see what strategies are proposed
to deal with them.

Actually, downsizing and its effects are part of a larger demographic and
socioeconomic puzzle, global in nature. Power must get this puzzle straight
if it is to survive, and anthropologists, in my view, need to study how power
attempts to do this, if only to better understand where our communities fit
in world processes -- that darkly unknowable world. The work of people like
Paul Kennedy (_Preparing for the 21st Century_) would be a great place to
start. This is the context that I think our discussion has missed so far.

I'd like to continue, but a constraint is bearing down on me. I have to go
to work.

Mike Cahill