Power <debate> <long>

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 14 Mar 1996 10:51:14 +0900

The thread on power has grown so rich that choosing a place to
respond is like trying to settle on a menu at large Chinese
restaurant. One delicious dish precludes another. (History in the

Mike Cahill writes,

"Like the old saying about organizations, the first concern of
power is to maintain itself "in power," and, if possible, to grow."
Consider two hypotheses:

(1) This view of power reproduces the basic economic logic of
capitalism, i.e., there is no end to the capitalist's efforts to increase
her profit. Have there been or good there be examples of societies
in which the powerful are trained to say, "Enough"? Political
analogues to the peasants Weber complains of who don't see the
point of continuing to work after satisfying what they see as their
basic needs? Or the simple-life people whose ideology is spelled
out in Joe Dominquez and Vicki Robin's _Your Money or Your
Life_? People who see the modern rat race as "making a dying"
instead of making a living?

(2) Power is, at root, a biological phenomenon, the pecking order,
to which human beings add a cultural twist. In pecking orders
there is no need to exercise power as long as the order remains
unchallenged. Power becomes visible only when a higher-
ranking animal fights off a challenger. It is, however, increasingly
characteristic of the modern world that social arrangements are
fluid. This instability explains why "power" is now such a central

Robert Thornton writes,

"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."

I hear what you are saying, and I think we share an interest in the
mechanisms (linguistic, cultural, economic, military, etc.) by
which power is exercised. But stepping back from the argument, it
seems to me that we have the following ways of conceptualizing
power on the table:

(1) A uniform attribute: People have it or they don't. Hard to
defend in a world where influence seems to ebb and flow.

(2) A function of multiple inputs that might or might not be
useful to map using probabilistic concepts: The biggest objection is
that whoever wants to write this quantum mechanics of power
will first have to sort out how to quantify the variables involved.
Here I make no claims. I do keep an eye on what the chaos and
complexity theorists are up to in their efforts to simulate self-
organizing systems.

(3) A family of concepts whose prototype is, as you point out, the
command issued by someone in authority, with outliers spilling
off into various forms of "influence." My only difficulty here is
that I am then at a loss to "explain" power in any but purely
historical terms, by pointing to certain contingencies and saying,
"There, that's how it worked." I would like a more robust theory.

Any ideas?

John McCreery
March 16, 1996