GABlog

July 23, 2016

Power

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:54 am

Power has always been a bit of a mystery for political thought—some people do what other people say—why? Maybe because they will be harmed if they don’t obey—but that just means that the person giving the command can also command others to harm the disobedient, which just pushes the question back another step. Maybe because they agree with the command—but in that case, they would agree no matter who issued the command, and their obedience has nothing to do with the person giving the order which means that power is not involved at all. All of this is still true if, instead of speaking of “hard” power (commands) we think of “softer” versions, like the power of an example (why did people follow Martin Luther King Jr., whose opinions and proposals were no truer or more remarkable than plenty of other people’s?). We can follow Hannah Arendt in distinguishing “power” from “strength,” insofar as the former involves “acting in common” while the latter is the capacity to have effects—that is, dropping a bomb on a village has nothing to do with power (other than the power the commander has over the bomber), but why do people act in common when they do and why—an element of power Arendt seems to me to have neglected—are some people more capable than others of initiating such action, of directing and sustaining it? Here as well, someone has to go first—but you have only gone first when others have gone after you. So, the question of power is, why do the others go after?

I think that power is simply a display of discipline greater than those impressed by that display consider themselves capable of. I’m drawing here, as I have often done, on Philip Rieff’s theory of “charisma,” the original meaning of which (exemplified by Moses) he took to be obedience to a higher imperative manifested in extraordinary levels of abstemiousness. The individual you see resisting temptations you give way to and controlling impulses you are overpowered by has power over you—you will defer to him because you know that your own indiscipline (revealed to you by this example) blinds you to cause and effect, good and bad, and that the more disciplined individual will have more insight into these matters. Rieff also contended that the notion of “charisma” has been debased and reversed in modern times (he sees Max Weber’s study as the crucial turning point) so that it now refers to the individual willing to transgress against established norms. It is still the same concept, though—for the modern, over-civilized and over-regulated individual, temptations and impulses are channeled into the market system, and it is breaking with that system and its norms that seems to require courage and therefore greater self-control and self-command (in the American context, Ralph Waldo Emerson is probably the central figure here). To transgress—quit your job, leave the rat race, have an affair, tell your neighbors what you really think of them, whatever (it has all become clichés by now)—in a sense does call for greater discipline, as the temptation to back down, give in, try and fit back in, recover the benefits one discovers one has thrown away, is very powerful. And this kind of disciplining of the fear response is different from mere criminal activity (criminals also must master fears that would cripple normal people—which is why their activity can be represented as more than “mere” criminality) insofar as it is driven by self-sacrifice rather than self-interest.

The same logic holds for intellectual power—the founder of a discipline has managed to control, set aside, and think outside of assumptions that everyone else has so far taken for granted and have been incapable of challenging. Such a founder opens up a world others can then move freely within, making the modes of thought previously adhered to constraining by comparison. It takes discipline to take those founding assumptions and, one by one, control for commonsensical ways of accounting for things and replace them with this new way. In the normal operations of power, where we obey fairly uncharismatic (by any definition) people and most resort to familiar ideas in making sense of things, it is the residual power of the founding, replenished unevenly over time, that attracts us. The politician is clothed in the dignity of the office, the manager embodies the accumulated capital and knowledge present in the enterprise, the mediocre academic plays by the rules of and takes on a patina of the prestige of, an institution that has been a home for geniuses and site of discoveries and innovations—in which case, power is conveyed by a tacit reference to the founding and maintenance of the institution, which did require degrees of discipline well beyond the capacity of the average individual. The same people who ordinarily obey figures legitimated by past discipline (but also by the disciplinary demands, iterating the demands met in the original founding, required to enter and remain within the institution) can be brought to rebel against them, to follow a new form of power, by a new display of discipline, whether it take the form of exposing what has been hidden by those institutions, including their “mythical” foundings, or by a claim to hew more closely to that founding, or even by a simple show of insolence towards authority figures you yourself would never have considered challenging.

This approach to power might be compatible with Michel Foucault’s notion of power as all-encompassing, as always involving an interaction with some “counter-power,” and as working through the myriad “capillaries” as much as through the main “arteries” of the social order—as long as we keep in mind the fundamentally qualitative dimension of power I am examining. “Power” is not just what one is capable of doing to others, with those others in turn capable of doing something back in turn—if we ask where this capability comes from, we just go around in circles. But if we follow the reactionary futures blogger in prioritizing power (over culture, morality or economics), then the sovereign power Foucault wanted to make secondary to “micro-power” does indeed work on all kinds of micro levels we’d need to attend to. But the real problem is distinguishing between Rieff’s two modes of charisma, evidenced in what we might call the power of deferral, on the one hand, and the power of transgression, on the other. The distinction is not so easy to make—as I have been suggesting, transgression relies upon a certain kind of deferral, while Rieff’s favored form of charisma might take on transgressive forms—can anything be more transgressive than Moses challenging the divinely sanctioned might of the Egyptian empire?

Perhaps, though, we can distinguish between sovereignty clarifying and sovereignty confusing power—it may not always be obvious which is which, but we can improve our analytical perspicuity, and assume that disinterested inquiry over time will settle such questions. We can call the sovereignty clarifying power, defying one of the most popular modern maxims, “absolute” power, and the sovereignty confusing power, “dispersive.” Absolute power models itself on sovereign power, trying for minimal application (issuing orders and using force only where strictly necessary), clear lines of authority and identity of power and accountability (when something is done, everyone knows who wanted it done). Even more, absolute power seeks delivers its own power to the sovereign power as soon as possible, and seeks out the most likely candidate for sovereignty when sovereignty is uncertain, taking sovereign power itself if no other candidate emerges. Dispersive power tries to generate more power centers, to uncover potential new centers within existing ones so that no one really knows who’s doing things and why and to turn sovereign power itself into an agent of dispersal, an enemy producing machine for eternal civil war. And this brings us back to Rieff’s two modes of charisma: the kind of discipline yielding absolute power knows and even respects the power of transgression, which is an indispensable discovery procedure—but realizes that transgressive, dispersive power is itself ultimately just another temptation, an excuse to lower inhibitions and act barbarically. Transgression cannot, in the end, produce anything new (it can only disperse), except esthetically, but even there only insofar as the transgression is constrained by some esthetic form and therefore discipline. Absolute power, meanwhile, enhances itself by telling the truth, about itself and about transgression; dispersive power eventually resorts to lies and slanders about any potential form of sovereignty. So, Moses before Pharaoh is not transgressive insofar as he obeys a form of sovereignty superior to that of Pharaoh, even if it’s a form of sovereignty (and here is where Moses is breathtakingly daring, even if not transgressive) that has yet to be vindicated by being housed in an adequate human form (and any form of power must have been so imagined before being realized).

This line of thinking was instigating by my finding myself making extensive use of the notion of “informal power” in my previous post. Even the tightest, more totalizing sovereign, as understood in “reactionary” terms, will delegate power and rely upon institutions the sovereign has not itself created—even when strict orders are given in a clear chain of command occasions arise where those orders need to be interpreted in light of changed circumstances, and the relationship between the individual charged with the order and his subordinates as well as superiors must have an informal, tacit dimension to handle such revisionary situations. How do his subordinates know they should obey? Well, they’ve followed him before, have found him loyal and reliable, and have seen him rewarded by his superiors—in the light of that experience, which cannot be completely formalized, they will interpret this unorthodox proceeding in his favor—no sovereign, however efficient, benevolent and far-sighted could have ordered them in advance to obey in this situation. In that case, ensuring that informal powers—which will always emerge and develop unpredictably, as charisma cannot be planned—reinforce sovereign power is the central problem of reactionary politics. This tacit dimension is, further, rooted in the nomos, and ongoing reformations and deformations of the nomos: new powers emerge when the originary distribution no longer sufficiently accounts for social relations because some members of the community, being more disciplined, have made more of their “part” than others. All social crises, all sovereign uncertainty, can be traced back to such developments, and an assessment of the various forms of power is needed to resolve those crises.

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