How power begins

In the beginning, there was nothing. No power, no nature, no hope. Then, there was something.

Power by legitimation is exercised in this sculpture of a female deity in the first city-state of Uruk, Mesopotamia (Creative Commons).

Time, space, atoms, and energy sprang from the strange singularity that gave birth to our reality. Since 4.7 billion years ago, or so determinists argue, we’ve been living one long video game, dictated by the rules set out at the Big Bang and the inscription of nature’s everlasting laws onto the fabric of the Universe.

Others, like myself, beg to differ. (For one, laws break down at the subatomic level, where ‘quantum mechanics’ suggests Newtonian laws break down.) At the human level, it’s pretty difficult, if not impossible, to apply physics to society. They just seem to be operating at different levels. Physics explains relations between things; society explains relations between people. Things are predictable. People are not. Why?

One reason is consciousness. We have feelings, thoughts, intentions. Things don’t. There is something it is like to be a person. There isn’t something it’s like to be a non-conscious thing. That makes people worth protecting, because they can suffer. Their interests for conscious flourishing shouldn’t be neglected. Things don’t suffer, so they don’t have these interests.

But consciousness is programmed by nature. How we feel is mostly dictated by how evolution has made us feel in response to certain stimuli. We have interests, given to us by nature, which we strive to fulfil. And power, or the capacity of some people to fulfil their preferences and interests against the preferences and interests of others, is also rooted in nature. It’s rooted in natural interests, and natural scarcity. In human nature, and non-human nature. How?

Nature does not just furnish us with fundamental human interests. It also furnishes us with conditions for satisfying these interests. We live on a finite planet with finite resources. This means technological innovations tend to spread. Because if one society adopts an innovation, and another doesn’t, what will happen? The first will take the other’s land, because it will have better means of producing stuff, coercing other people, and legitimating their coercion. Scarcity produces competition. Competition spreads innovations. Innovations give people power.

When one society develops agriculture, for example, pressures develop for others to follow. As hunter-gatherers need lots of land, the spread of agriculture made hunting and gathering less competitive. Darwin thought competition between species produces ‘natural selection’ for the most adaptive genes. I think competition between societies over scarce resources produces ‘productive selection’ for the most efficient productive forces, and the power relations which best correspond to these forces.

As population continued to rise and technologies such as the plow developed, we created the first states from 3,300 BC. As coercion centralised and the first empires developed, religion itself needed to change, giving rise to Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, and other legitimating ideologies of the Axial Age from 500 BC.

From this snapshot of world history, we can discern three sources of economic, political, and ideological power. These sources are technologies of production, coercion, and legitimation. Production is the economic power to transform nature into stuff humans can use. Coercion is the political power to make others do what you want them to do. Legitimation is the ideological power to influence people to want what you want. They emerge from competition between societies to manage natural scarcity. So natural scarcity, along with human interests, is where power begins. What comes next?

Karl Marx (another sociologist of power) thought ‘forces of production’, or technologies such as the plow and the steam-engine, determined the ‘mode of production’, or class structures such as slavery or wage labour. He thought this because development of forces or technologies guards against scarcity. But he neglected ‘forces of coercion’, or technologies such as spears, swords, and canons. He also neglected ‘forces of legitimation’, such as books. He favoured economic power over political and ideological power. But I think we need to consider all three. Here are their sources:

  1. Forces of production (e.g., agriculture, irrigation, the plow, the steam engine);
  2. Forces of coercion (e.g., the hand-axe, the spear, the bronze sword, the canon);
  3. Forces of legitimation (e.g., symbolic speech, writing, the internet).

Each technological force is a source of power because it requires changes in social organisation that allow some people to accrue more power than others. Only those societies which best develop these forces and foster appropriate power relations will tend to survive. Societies which don’t fail to manage scarcity, so they fall victim to it. Other societies take their land and win out in the great competition over scarce resources.

So scarcity ‘selects for’ the most productive systems, as well as the most coercively powerful and legitimate ones, which tend to manage scarcity better in the long-run. Competition produces ‘productive selection’, driving development of the forces and ensuing changes in society. It’s a fairly Darwinian picture of social evolution, I’ll admit. But at least ‘social evolution by productive selection’, as I call it, helps explain why most humans live in industrial, capitalist societies and only a minority today don’t.

So, here are the three modes of power that societies tend to map onto:

  1. Mode of production (egalitarian, extractivist, capitalist, ?);
  2. Mode of coercion (band, tributary, state, ?);
  3. Mode of legitimation (animist, theist, nationalist, ?).

Modes of power flow from changes in forces of power in order to manage scarcity and satisfy (some) human interests. Its sources are the ‘forces’ of production, coercion, and legitimation. Its ‘modes’ are also productive, coercive, and legitimatory. They’re economic, political, and ideological, all at once.

You’ll notice, though, that the bracketed modes suggest a linear development of one mode after another. I don’t for one moment pretend that this is the case for all societies, which follow so many varied trajectories over time and space. I am just presenting some of what Weber called ‘ideal types’ about how change might come about.

But as someone who takes both ‘inevitability’ and ‘contingency’ seriously, I argue we can speculate, but only speculate, as to what might come next. The question marks at the end of the brackets ask where we might be going. I’ll soon try to suggest some answers.

In the mean time, I’ll continue advocating explanation – but with moderation. Because we will always want to know everything about nature, power, and the human condition. But we never will – and neither should we. Because in the gap between the known and the unknown, we discover part of what it means to be human.

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