On power: Tech, the state, and class

Power comes in many forms. Productive power is a relationship between society and nature, whereby people transform nature through technologies (or ‘forces of production’, as Marx called them). Social power is a relationship between people, involving both coercion (the use of threats and rewards, most often to maximise power over production) and legitimation (the use of persuasion and manipulation, most often to construct consent for coercion). But which forms of power matter the most? In this post, I will try to look for an answer—first by presenting the diverse forms of power, and second by considering why certain forms trump others in causal terms, even if they are less significant in moral terms. History moves in definite, yet often undesirable, ways…

The empire of Alexander the Great, who demonstrated the primacy of material power when he first used violence to acquire territories, and only thereafter used ideas to legitimate his (albeit short) rule

I/ The spheres of power:

  1. TECHNOLOGY: The mode of production;
  2. POLITY: The mode of organisation;
  3. ECONOMY: The mode of distribution; and
  4. SOCIETY: The mode of cultural socialisation.

II/ The levels of power:

  1. TECH: The mode of technological production;
  2. THE STATE: The mode of political organisation;
  3. CLASS: The mode of economic distribution; and
  4. CULTURE: The mode of cultural socialisation.

III/ The structural mode of power:

  1. PRODUCTION: The technological forces of power;
  2. ORGANISATION: The political relations of power;
  3. DISTRIBUTION: The economic relations of power; and
  4. SOCIALISATION: The socio-cultural relations of power.

IV/ The functional mode of power:

  1. PRODUCTION: Technology;
  2. COERCION: Material force;
  3. LEGITIMATION: Politico-ideological authorisation;
  4. DISTRIBUTION: Resource allocation; and
  5. SOCIALISATION: Cultural signification.

The most significant dimensions:

  1. Technology, polity, and economy;
  2. Tech, the state, and class;
  3. Production, organisation, and distribution;
  4. Production, coercion, legitimation, and distribution.

The less significant dimensions:

  1. Society‘ (narrowly construed);
  2. Culture‘ (narrowly construed);
  3. Socialisation‘ (narrowly construed); and
  4. Signification‘ (narrowly construed).

Three political implications:

  1. Technological primacy: Technology is that by which societies survive;
  2. Political priority: The state precedes all other structures of social power;
  3. Class centrality: Class struggle is more causally critical than cultural struggle.

Two metaphysical imperatives:

  1. Material matters: Material conditions trump ideational conditions in history;
  2. Structures anchor: Structures trump individuals in history.

Three theoretical upshots:

  1. Realistic historical materialism: Institutions, which are central in history, are caused by material conditions more than they are by ideational conditions, despite the fact that they are constituted by both matter and thought alike;
  2. Holistic historical realism: Capitalism is a social order, not a single aspect of it, and is constituted by cages of coercion and webs of meaning, even if the cages are somewhat more causally significant overall than the webs;
  3. Social political economy: The political economy and the symbolic economy are parts of a larger whole, the ‘social political economy’, which is disproportionately determined by the political economy than it is by the symbolic economy.

We must therefore fight for political movements that emphasise:

  1. The centrality of the state;
  2. The centrality of class; and
  3. The primacy of technology

Rather than:

  1. The centrality of extra-state institutions;
  2. The centrality of particular identities over class; and
  3. The primacy of some other world-historical force than technology.

Because human beings, above all else, need to meet their material needs before they can satisfy their ideational needs. Our needs form a nested hierarchy, from the most causally significant need (survival) to the least causally significant but most morally significant need (freedom):

  1. Survival,
  2. Community,
  3. Satisfaction, &
  4. Freedom to pursue the good.

Positive freedom (4), however, requires negative freedoms (1), (2), and (3)that is to say, freedom from necessity. Only when we have freedom from necessity can we enjoy the freedom to pursue the good. By this hierarchy, however, you might think particularising ‘identity politics’ (based on firm divisions along lines of gender and ‘race’) corresponds to the second interest for communal recognition, preceding the interest for economic satisfaction. But political community, in fact, precedes cultural community: before we can enjoy particular associations with other individuals within a state, we need the state and the economy to themselves exist. Technology, polity, and economy precede society as such.

Culture, therefore, corresponds to a mix of interests (2) and (4), and is overall less causally important than economic satisfaction, corresponding to interest (3), due to the primacy of material conditions over ideational conditions in determining whether we live or die. Don’t get me wrongI’m a Platonist at heart. I think ideas morally matter more than anything else, and I think that matter is just congealed thought, given that our brains are made of of the same stuff everything else is made of. But stuff outside our brains is at least ‘less conscious’ or ‘less ideational’ than stuff inside our brains. So, assuming this heuristic distinction between material and ideational conditions, I argue for two theses:

  1. The causal primacy of material conditions; and
  2. The moral primacy of ideas.

This distinction may sound strange, but it corresponds roughly to Weber’s distinction between the ethics of ‘conviction’ and ‘responsibility’:

  1. Order maintenance (‘the ethic of responsibility’); and
  2. Order improvement (‘the ethic of conviction’).

We must have order before we have a good order. We must have life before we have a good life. And we must survive before we can thrive. Material conditions precede ideas in history, even if ideas precede material conditions in morality. We should, I argue, embrace two theses, then:

  1. The political imperative of order; and
  2. The moral imperative of goodness.

But, since the state precedes our understanding of the good, we must have politics before we can have philosophy. We must have survival before we have recognition. And we must have material conditions before we have ideational conditions. This is why states usually emerge in two stages:

  1. The material foundation: A growth in productive or coercive capabilities leads to either ‘pristine’ or ‘secondary’ state formation; and
  2. The ideational superstructure: Ideas legitimate the productive and coercive underpinnings of state power, and provide socio-cultural signification.

Firstly, we must have

  1. Order, before we can strive towards
  2. Good order.

Let us begin, then, with returning order to society through:

  1. Technological abundance,
  2. Institutional unity, and
  3. Distributional equality,

In contrast to our current condition of:

  1. Scarcity in tech,
  2. Disunity of the state, and
  3. Class inequality.

Then, perhaps, we can hope cultural ideas reflects these changes in structural conditions, in part because we have left the old ones behind.

Shall we begin?

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