McCreery's comments on power and probability.

Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Wed, 13 Mar 1996 16:24:03 -0500

John McCreery writes in reponse to some comments of mine on the
concept of _virtu_ in Machiavelli:

`It is that "against their own will" that I would like to hear
more comments on. 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 inequality. That
way lies the shadow of Hobbes and Hitler both.

I agree with John that the idea of power being always and uniquely
exercised `against the will of the other' is wrong (not just flawed).
The problem inheres in the concept of `the will' itself. If all
persons are held to be `individuals' and all individuals are held to
contain, as it were, `will', then the exercise of any individual's
will `over' another is necessarily `against' the will of that other
person. This has been held to be the essence of power, since it is
held that power is by definition, a contest of wills. Several
respondents on the list have confirmed that this is indeed their own
`native category', or working definition of power, and thus it is not
just Plato, Numa, Caesar, Augustine, Aquinas, . . . or . . . Marx of
Weber that we are really worrying about. There are real people, in
fact, probably most of them, who believe this too. The alternative
is to understand power as depending not so much on exercises of will,
but on techniques and practices, such as knowledge and knowledge
practices (e.g. literacy, writing of laws, and thus a basis for
Weber's `legitimacy', literally, according to the `legit -` or
*written* tables of the law), but also bureaucratic practices, and
things like uniforms, big imposing buildings, flags, emblems, bodies
(with their own powerful meanings inhering in such things as hair,
wombs, penises, musculature, fluids, bone . . .), and so on.
Nietzsche's insights are broadly relevant here, especially since a
great deal of his work is really an extended argument with Arthur
Schopenhauer about the nature of `will' ( the German _Wille_) and
Schopenhauer's notion of the world as `illusion' (the Sanskrit
_Maya_) which he borrowed from the Upanishads. Nietzsche, for
instance, sees Greek tragedy as ritualised anxiety about the death of
the will, or its subsumption into the mass or the collective as being
responsible for the birth of tragedy. Later on, however, I think
Nietzsche means by `will' a sort of diffused functioning of knowledge
and practices to construct social and cultural order, as for
instance, in the construction of the distinction between `good' and
`evil' which Nietzche, famously, relates to the perspective, with
respect to power, from which one views it. That is, good is good and
evil is evil, only from a particular `perspective' or position. This
is, in any case, what Foucault took out of Nietzsche in his
contribution to our understanding of power. (Malinowski's concept of
function in _Crime and Custom in Savage Society_ for instance, is not
far from this, incidentally. )

McCreery: Also, I am not yet convinced by the argument that
probabilities cannot be assigned to individuals. If the
individual is seen as a uniform sample of one, this argument is
unassailable. In practice, however, power is ascribed to some
individuals among many. Each individual is, moreover, the nexus
of numerous relationships, each of which may, in turn, generate
multiple interactions. Here I see room for probabilities. I
could be persuaded otherwise.

Think about it: There is a probability that you will be dead by the
time I post this (sorry), or that you drive a Maseratti. But this is
not the case (let us assume). As just another member of the human
race, of a certain age and background, with certain habits, etc.,
however, actuaries can calculate a very precise probability that one
of these might be true of some arbitrary `item' of the category for
which they have data. That does not make it you, nor will it ever
make it you, that will die tomorrow or own a Maseratti. I can say
with absolute certainty, moreover, that someone will die in Yokohama
tonight. Again, that will not make it you, despite the absolute
certainty with which I can assert the previous sentence. The
probability of you death is measurable only for some arbitary `you'
and tells us absolutely nothing about when you, the real you, will
die. As a human, there is also an abstract probability that you are
Bill Gates. But you're not, and probability will never tell us
anything about who you really are. There is no such thing as
`uniform sample of one', by definition.

Again, the multiple interactions that you mention are what
Machiavelli called `fortuna', and that I would call context, or
contingency. This is not `probability' but the sum of what
statistics calls `stochastic process'. Again, this is no very useful
to social sciences.

I find it especially fascinating how the relatively recent notion of
probability has replace the notion of divine intervention, 'luck',
'fate' and so on that expressed in folk cultures something of the
same sense of uncertainty. Appropos to power, however, it is clear
that Weber used the notion of 'probability' simply as another way to
say that he did not know how power functioned in concrete, individual
instances, except in terms of 'command' and a measurable obedience to
the verbal (or written) command. This is not all there is to power,
however, and probability is not determinable in the way Weber used
it, and thus amounts to a weasel clause.

===========Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology======
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