What power is

Power, for the sociologist Max Weber, is the capacity of agent A to achieve their will despite the resistance of agent B, regardless of the basis on which this ability rests. But there are two problems with this view of power, which might suggest what an alternative theory of power might look like. In this post, I hope to begin presenting this alternative theory of power, drawing on the work of sociologists since Max Weber, and my own thoughts. I can’t wait to see yours.

Meet Max Weber, a sociologist of power (Creative Commons).

For one, power isn’t just about preferences. It’s also about interests. Sometimes, the exercise of power can satisfy common interests. Other times, the exercise of power can neglect these common interests in favour of the interests of a few. I call the first kind ‘interest-satisfying power’, and the second ‘interest-neglecting power’. Power not only shapes behaviour, as Weber suggests, but it can also shape preferences. Power is most insidious when people willingly embrace it, without resistance. Some forms of power are necessary, and some are unnecessary. Necessary power satisfies interests. It includes coercion and influence. Unnecessary power neglects commons interests. It includes domination and manipulation. So, all things considered, there seem to be about four forms of power:

  1. Coercion, or the power to shape behaviour by using force or threats, satisfying common interests;
  2. Domination, or the power to shape behaviour by using force or threats, neglecting common interests;
  3. Influence, or the power to shape preferences through persuasion and rewards, satisfying common interests;
  4. Manipulation, or the power to shape preferences through persuasion and rewards, neglecting common interests.
Table 1: My two forms of power, which can either satisfy common interests to the greatest extent possible, or neglect them more than other power arrangements would

Maybe the following are examples of interest-neglecting power, or domination and manipulation. Maybe they’re not, and instead are necessary coercion and influence. I’ll let you decide.

In order to survive, you must perform a certain duty for eight hours every day, until you reach a designated retirement age. What you do is determined by what is marketable to consumers. What you do is therefore limited, but you are nevertheless compelled to do it, in the interest of staying alive. This might be a classic form of power by domination, where coercion is exercised so as to satisfy the interests of the owners of stuff and neglect the interests of the people who sell their minds and bodies in order to survive. This is because the owners can choose what to do with their own time – their interest for preference satisfaction is thereby fulfilled. But the workers can’t so choose, because they have nothing but their own labour power to sell. Hence the name for this allegedly dominating power: ‘wage labour’.

On the other hand, wage labour might just be necessary coercion in order to satisfy common interests better than they would otherwise be satisfied. As you can never satisfy all interests very well all the time, perhaps sacrificing your interest to choose what to do with your own time is necessary in agricultural societies (under tributary and feudal institutions) and industrial societies (under capitalist wage-labour institutions) to feed people and maintain social order.

Without wage labour, in other words, we wouldn’t have the manpower needed to produce stuff to feed a growing industrial population. This means it’s very difficult to see what is necessary coercion and what is unnecessary domination. Some say wage labour is unnecessary domination. Some say wage labour is necessary coercion. Others argue it is somewhere in between, depending on technological conditions (a subject I’ll return to in later blog posts). So behaviour-shaping power, or the power to make others do what you want them to do, can be either interest-satisfying coercion or interest-neglecting domination. But it’s rarely clear which one it is.

Now consider preference-shaping power, or the power to make others want what you want (as Joseph Nye put it). Preference-shaping power can be interest-satisfying ‘influence’ or interest-neglecting ‘manipulation’. Which one it is varies depends on your perspective on the range of alternatives to current configurations of power (a topic I will return to in later blog posts). But first, let us consider how preference-shaping power can sometimes take allegedly manipulative forms. As humans are constantly striving for recognition, one way of constructing their preferences manipulatively is by telling them a story.

One such story is the consumerist story. Our story. The story of using the money we earn from wage labour to buy stuff. Far less stuff than oligarchs, mind you, but enough stuff to keep us buying, whether or not we can enjoy any of it! When was the last time you gave someone a Christmas present they have never really used? When was the last time you bought a book, or a song, or a cool new pair of wintery gloves you never got round to enjoying? And when was the last time you got lost in the supermarket, clothes store, or amazon.com, admiring all the things you’ve love to buy, but can’t, or can buy, but can’t use? It’s a story. A myth. But at least it keeps us happy, and keeps our preferences on the straight and narrow. That suggests consumerism is indeed manipulation, not just influence.

On the other hand, consumerism helps to prop up demand and keep economies afloat. Without consumerism, or ‘privatised Keynesianism’ as political economists put it, we’d be unable to maintain demand for products without which economic growth would decline. Of course, it is questionable whether ‘economic growth’ is really something that satisfies collective interests. But consumerism at least could be a form of interest-satisfying ‘influence’, rather than interest-neglecting ‘manipulation’. Though there is clearly a difference between power which satisfies common interests and power which neglects these interests, how we tell the difference depends on whether we think common interests could be satisfied better through alternative arrangements. How we view power depends on our hopes (another topic for later on in this blog).

So, what is power? Coercion and influence, or domination and manipulation. Coercion and influence are necessary forms of power, which may play a part in satisfying common interests. Domination and manipulation are unnecessary forms of power, which neglect common interests in favour of special interests. But we can never be sure whether we’re dealing with interest-satisfying coercion and influence, or with interest-neglecting domination and manipulation.

At least, that’s one story we can tell ourselves about what power is. If we want to know how power began, or what the sources of power are, we’ll need to tell some other stories, too, while trying to free ourselves from the manipulative ones.

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