Swyer's questions on Power

Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Wed, 13 Mar 1996 15:45:20 -0500

More on power:
On March 12, Holly Swyer wrote

`Another question whose answer may inform this question is this:
assuming that complex societies evolve eventually from egalitarian
societies, what traits/knowledge/event/etc (?) creates the first
perception of different levels of "power." Or do different levels
of influence, power, etc. exist even within egalitarian societies,
acknowledged in ways that do not have to do with distribution of
goodies (please forgive the Marxist slant on that)? Response: First of
all, I don't see any particular Marxist slant here. Marx, with
together with most of the other Enlightenment philosophers and
philosophes believed that there was such a thing a `primitive
communism'. This is not substantially different from the view of
other nineteenth century scholars such as Henry Sumner Maine, or
Morgan, who also believed that there was lack of private property in
pre-capitalist/savage/primitive societies, and that the
differentiated societies of the present (their present or ours -
accoring to these time- scales it does not matter) evolved from
egalitarian ones. This is wrong for a number of reasons. Malinowski's
work showed quite clearly - since this is what he set out to do, in
part - that there was `property', `law' `status' and, in effect
`contract' in Trobriand society and that power was very significant
in everyday interactions. Althouhg Malinowski never, to my
knowledge, specifically mentioned Marx, he was reacting explicitly to
the work of WHR Rivers, and other exponents of the `primitive
communism' theory (ie. No property, ergo no conflict, and therefore
no need for exercise of power). Rivers was a socialist, and was
guided by his political orientation, and wanted very much for there
to be a primiitve communism that would serve as a kind of positive
proof of conflict-free society which, ideally, we could all become.
Most of these arguments however, ignore completely the question of
scale. There is absolutely no sense in `comparing', say, Trobriand or
Bushman `society' with `English society', Western society' or
`Capitalism'. These are entirely different levels of integration and
complexity. As we all know, there are entirely different ways for
behaving and structuring one's world if it consists for only
thousaands of people at most, compared to the millions that are
invovled in the apparent comparisons with `The West' or whatever.
Moreover, the reification and essentialisation of `The West' or even
of `Society' that is invloved here makes the concept of `comparison'

Richard Lee and the Harvard Kalahari project made this
mistake most famously, I think ,and Sahlins extension of
Lee's data to argue that the Bushmen constituted the
`first affluent society' is equally spurious for the same
reason. Lee revived the nineteenth century search for
true communitas (as my teacher Victor Turner termed it)
in the pure primitive society based on sharing and caring
in the absence of power and property. The problem is nto
that the Bushmen are not wonderful people, but that the
band of a few tens of individuals can scarcely be
compared with `The West' as was, and is, so often done.
These moves entirely distort our understanding of power.

Thus, I would not agree that `complex societies evolve
eventually from egalitarian societies'. What happens, is
that simple, face-to-face societies are gradually
agregated and incorporated into larger complexes, while
specific mechanisms for exercising power evolve. In
other words, the notion of Elman Service and Sahlins,
Leslie White, and others, that `simple societies' evolve
into complex ones, is spurious since it assumes that
there is something called `a society' or even `society'
that evolves. How can this be? Bushman-like bands
continue to exist at the scale of small social groups,
but the label society can hardly be applied to a band of
Xu or !Kung in the same sense that it can be applied to
the United States or Japan. The problem that I am
highlighting here is again one of scale. Power is
manifestly different, and functions in manifestly
different ways between two people, between ten, between
100 or between 10 or 100 or 1,000 million. These are
manifestly different scalar levels, and power exists
different. There is, in other words (and to my mind) a
kind of quantum difference, or quantum differences in
social power depend on the scale of the phenomenon.

So, yes, power exists in complex and simple `societies',
but not in the same way. The nineteenth century concepts
of `society', `politics', `economy' and so on - yes, even
`culture' - are, I believe, spurious reifications that we
must now leave behind. The sad thing is that this would
leave much of the nineteenth century theory behind - Marx
and Durkheim especially included.

Later on Holly writes:

The reason I chose the word "influence" as a descriptor of
power was to suggest that sometimes its presence as observed ex
post facto (?is there such a thing as *potential* sociopolitical
power; are threats power?) is not via such overt actions as
"overcoming resistence" but is in covert, or at least in more
subtle actions as pursuasion, agreement not to publically
disagree, etc.

Holly also says:

I am interested in covert vs. overt power, particularly in
issues of power and gender and power as it relates to
socio-economic class. I am curious to find out if the same
kinds of power . . .

I think the
covert versus overt contast is useless. What is power that always
remains `covert'? How would it be measured, perceived, function, or
exist? If it has an effect, that is, if it does something, then it
is not `covert', but rather naked power (although perhaps power that
one happened not to see). Power can not be power that does not act,
but - here is the important point, a `powerful' person (or powerful
advertisement, divinitory technique, prophesy, etc.) does not have to
"act" so long as people who witness it, or believe in its existence,
can be seen to modify their behaviour or belief either in its
presence, or with `it' (the power) in mind. Marilyn Strathern's
account of power in New Guinea in her masterful _Gender of the Gift_
makes this point most eloquently. In her account, persons (not
individuals - but that is another complex argument) act `with other
persons in mind', and this is what she takes to be power.

Swyers asks, further,

If certain overt political structures are manifestations of a
patriarchal view of the world, is it possible that covert
political structures - perhaps left unstudied or unrecognized by
our current mode of thinking about power - are manifestations of
a matriarchal view of the world? I lived for a time in
Swaziland, and a friend of mine asked a Swazi woman how she felt
about the way men dominate the political/power/etc scene in
Swaziland. The response, as I understood it, was laughter - let
the men go do that stuff that makes them feel important, it gets
them out of our way to do the important things, the things that
really keep our country going. This is anecdotal and did not
come from an anthropological inquiry, it was just a curious
question asked by an 18 year old female American in a foreign
culture. However, the answer has stuck with me throughout my
training as an anthropologist.

First of all, `matriarchy' and `patriarchy' are nineteenth century
left-overs that need to be left behind. They come from the debate
about the evolution of gendered power that was entered into by German
and English scholars such as Bachofen, McLennan, Andrew Lang,
Kraft-Ebbing, and (interstingly) Karl Pearson (the founder of
contemporary social science statistics) among many others. The
debate revolved around misapprehensions of how small-scale and
`savage' society worked, was largely speculative - and has been
pretty soundly knocked on the head by anthropologists such as, again,
Malinowski, Fortes, Schapera, and others. Matriarchy, and Patriarchy
are the voculary-debris left over from this mis-guided debate. Were
it not for the new life breathed into them by feminist theorists that
had no knowledge of anthropology they would be as dead as diffusionism
or phrenology. [I would be willing to accept an argument that the
feminists who use the term mean something entirely different, and
have only appeared to use the same vocabulary, but I am not convinced
of this now.]

But, Yes, Swazi women, and many other South African women
feel this way about men. Marriage is not really popular
in this part of the world, and it does not generally
last. In South Africa, however, even women who are not
`dominated' by their husbands are `dominated' by their
brothers and their sons. On the other hand, they do
regard many male concerns as none of their concern, and
do exist in different spheres. Again, I think that it is
a spurious notion that there is some single entity called
`power' that can unite political organisation of the
!Kung, the United States of America, and marital
relations in Swaziland. Again, I think Marilyn
Strathern's approach to power in Gender of Gift is
relevant. Women and men are said to act in terms or the
`relationship' between them, not in terms of command or
domination of one over the other. Violence, in these
relationships, especially violence of men towards women,
is merely seen as `excess' and superfluous to the real
issue of control that is exercised elsewhere and through
other means.

Swyers: Third, returning to where I started several days ago,
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?

This seems to me to be a largely American response, conditioned by
the political environment in the US today. It is also conditioned by
the rather peculiar emphasis that has been placed on `resistance' in
historical, anthropological and literary critical studies of
colonialism and post-colonialism. I am thinking, for instance of
James Scott, Nick Dirks, Charles Tilly, Eric Wolf, the `subaltern
studies group', and many others who see primarily the signs of
resistance in virtually everyone's response to the West. The all
vastly reify The West, a remove agency from all but the European
imperialists. It is not for nothing that Eric Wolf's magnum opus is
sometimes called _Europe that the History without People_ (See
Fernando Coronil's long article in the latest Cultural Anthropology).
Outsidr of the States, people all over the world crave `power' and
see it as wholly and fully positive, offering salvation, peace,
wealth, health - in short, whatever is good. Power is the ultimate
good, one might say, in most third world countries, and `resistance'
is often rather `resentment' (Nietzche's _ressentiment_ - he thought
French said it best). Marx, for instance, fantasised that the
workers in power would somehow remain `workers' and not people with
power. He was disastrously wrong of course, but his error was based
on his imagination of essentialised qualities of `workerness' that
simply did not turn out to exist. The majority of South Africans
today think Mandela is as close to a saint as the twentieth century
is likely to get, and I am profoundly thankful for this. He has a
`power' that no one else has. Machiavelli would call it _virtu_, and
here the sense might come close to contemporary English `virtue', but
it is more than that. If, in America it seems that saints can not
exist, then perhaps you have been listening to too much Pat Buchanan.
Turn off the TV. The world won't make more sense if you do, but at
least you wont' add the senselessness of American politics to the
difficulties we already have in trying to understand power.

Swyers asks
`Are we asking the right questions?'

By now it should be obvious that my answer tothis question is `no,
certainly not.'

===========Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology======
University of the Witwatersrand, PO Wits, 2050 Johannesburg
South Africa
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