A matter of Power

From difference and identity to power

“The relations of different nations among themselves depend upon the extent to which each has developed its production forces, the division of labour and internal intercourse” (Marx 1846: 38). We studied in the first section the interrelation of difference and identity and introduced its relation to power. Difference, identity and thus, inequality are an essential part of the discussion of power that has been one of the most important elements of study since the origins of anthropology. We will compare the different approaches to power, discourse and hegemony to analyze if the theories propose a social order and provide a possibility of agency or resistance.

Political economy vs. Utilitarian approaches

Friedrich Hegel viewed human history as progressive, subject to transformation and destruction through the necessary force of conflict. Karl Marx supported this idea that constituted the dialectical process of change.

Marxism materialistic conception of history is based on the production of means to satisfy people’s needs. The first historical act represents the first identified need that required being satisfied. With time and population growth, Marx explained more needs were created and additional means were required. As explained, the first form of property in society is latent in the family where the wife and kids are considered as owned by the husband. With capitalism, this form of property expanded to society that developed through history and struggle from a conflict between an ownership class controlling production and a laboring class providing the labor force for production. These two classes represent for Marx, the division of mental and physical labor: the bourgeoisie retaining all the capital and the proletariat using their labor force as their only asset. Capitalism is for Marx, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

In the Marxist theory, capital holders structure the property relations. After working, transforming and adding value to the commodity, workers receive a wage as payment for their work. The capital holder then sells the final product and gains the benefits that surpass the wages paid to the workers. Marx denounced this schema that transferred rights from the worker to the owner since the producer should keep the outcome of the sale from the product they produced. As explained previously, with the alienation of the worker, wages are never sufficient for the worker to become an owner, maintaining the oppression of the worker and endlessly reproducing the system. As long as men are part of this society, where activities and production are divided naturally, “men’s actions are an alien power opposed to him” (Marx 1846: 53).

The relationship between production and social cooperation represents the materialistic connection between populations. Marx was a firm critic of the Invisible Hand of Adam Smith and the liberalist economics that postulated a self-regulating behavior of the markets where individual efforts to maximize individual gains would benefits society in a free market. For Marx the role of the State and the markets in this relation of power is to act against the even repartition thus maintaining the personal interests of a few.

The question is why should the oppressed class accept this production system?

Antonio Gramsci, considered one of the most important Marxists, explains that the Bourgeoisie’s hegemonic culture is accepted by society by common sense. Bourgeoisie for Gramsci is not dominating the working class by pure force or coercion but exerts an intellectual and moral control through alliances and compromises that shape social forces in a “Historical Bloc”. The latter is composed of the Structure (the base) and the Superstructure where political ideologies are created and permeated through society. Structure and Superstructure are interconnected and based on a mutual consent of the players that results in a certain social order. The latter produces and reproduces the hegemony of the dominant class. Gramsci explains the importance of the political and ideological superstructure in either maintaining or rupturing the relations of the economic base. In this sense the oppressed class is an essential part of the preservation and reproduction of the oppression. Domination through common sense generates compromise, which is more powerful then coercion.

As part of the Marxists theorists, Louis Althusser followed the reproduction phenomenon that was ensured by the exercise of state power in the State Apparatus (SA). Althusser extends the Marxist theory by including the role of the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) that construct and subject the individual. The SA functions by repression while the ISA promoted through ideology permeates the subject in a more permanent way (as Gramsci claims, compromise is a more powerful instrument of hegemony.) Althusser’s main thesis is that ideology existing within the ISAs is material and represents a intermediary between the systems of power and the individuals allowing for hegemonic power to reproduce itself by disguising traditional forms of repression and including individuals into the power structure. Marxist theories designated the State as the repressive apparatus including the government, the army, the police and prisons. Althusser includes the role of the ISAs represented by family, hospitals, schools or Church.

Along with Marx, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber are often mentioned as the fathers of sociology. Weber was more focused on individuals but supported Marxist theories in that he visualized a dominant capitalistic economy, which influences permeate across all society. Weber discusses domination in terms of the social interactions that lead to obedience to capitalism. However, Weber criticizes Marx, considering people act based on personal beliefs and defends the importance of religions to understand societies. He opposed Marx regarding the material base that could not explain the origin of capitalism since there is no such thing as an inevitable course of history. He explains that domination and power are forms of social action. Particular forms of power and legitimacy occur through tradition, the charisma or skills of the dominator where the dominated is free in theory but motivated to obey by personal interests and, is maintained through a rational and legal system. Weber criticizes the rationalization and bureaucracy of the systems that contributes to the “meaningless of modern life” (Hughes 1995: 121). He explains that work within modern organization is constrained to an “iron cage” that oppresses the individuals through regulations and administrative repression. The iron cage was for Weber an inevitable destiny of society that no social movement could contend.

Along with Émile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons studied the problematic of social order. Durkheim believed in the power of the social fact that exerts a force on the individuals within a society, he opposed Weber in that he focused on collectivism. In the same line, Parsons saw power not as a matter of domination, but instead, depending on a social system’s potential to organize itself in order to accomplish certain goals. He studies power as a “circulation medium, analogous to money” within the political system where its influence on society is structurally similar to the function of money (Parsons 1963: 236). He argues that influence, money and coercion represent different forms of power that cannot be seen as one and unique specific mechanism of change. While utility (in the economic sense) through money is the value generator in economy, the effectiveness of the political power is the value for the political system and, solidarity through influence is the basis of societal order. Hence, the hierarchized authority and power can only exist through a mutual obligation between authority and collectivity. Society is then based on a social solidarity achieved by social control. Solidarity for Parsons is applied based on Durkheim’s definition of organic solidarity: according to the nature of interdependence in a system of “different organs each of which has a special role” where individuals gather based on coordination and differentiation between individuals is maintained (Durkheim 1893: 143). Power in these theories is not as concrete as in the Marxist theory but exists through different forms and parallel structures in the context of societies. For Parsons, coercion and consent are interlinked factors essential to maintain political power.

Power: Radicals vs. Classics

Radical theories tend to clash with Classic theories on power and difference by seeing the idea of one unique state apparatus or one exclusive source of power and oppression as obsolete. In classic theories, power was studied “in the adversary camp as a domination force: in Soviet socialist power, opponents called it totalitarianism and in Western capitalism, class domination” (Foucault 1972: 116).

“Marxism exists in nineteenth century thought as a fish exists in water; that is, it ceases to breathe anywhere else” (Foucault 1970: 274). Radical political theory and Michel Foucault widen up the definition of power away from the mere class domination. For Foucault, power is the understanding of knowledge. He explains how power used to be discussed in terms of sovereignty in political theory and people tend to have a juridical conception of power as a mere negative law representing prohibition. However, he argues that power is accepted by society since it doesn’t represent only a negative force but a productive force. He claims that phenomena of power exist beyond the parameters of the state, within knowledge, family and kinship. Power for Foucault, creates new forms of knowledge, and produces discourse leading through the social body. The latter is the target of power as an object of knowledge and represents a society’s or a person’s consciousness created through discourse. History, for Foucault as opposed to the classic theories, has no dialectic meaning but is a way of reducing reality to the study of the past. Foucault criticizes the tendency of historicizing and constructing the subject that limits the study to historical images. For Foucault, this approach does not include the present and proposes instead, the genealogical approach as a form of history, which accounts for the constitution of knowledge and discourse by including an understanding of the present. Foucault therefore describes his life project as writing “the history of the present” (Foucault. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison 1979: 31). In this project, discourse is the unit of analysis and he wants to define whom is discourse serving. He explains how the parameters of discourse shape the parameters of truth determining true and false and leaving everything out the discourse as almost impossible to happen. In this line, the soul is for Foucault the prison of the body, a discipline of the subject part of the institutions’ discourse. Truth is in this theory, disseminated by the institutions subject to a constant economic and political motivation. The effects of domination and power are attributed by manoeuver, strategies and techniques from the institutions and it cannot be localized in a particular type of institution or state apparatus. The objective of discourse is then not to change people’s consciousness but the political, economic, and institutional production of truth. Discipline increases the forces of the social body in economic terms and diminishes these same forces through obedience. In his analysis of punishment, Foucault explains how in our society, the system of punishment is situated in a certain political economy as a complex social function and as a political tactic. He presents the evolution of punishment from public executions to more subtle forms of control. In its historical form, punishment was a spectacle to show and impose truth to everyone though the public confession of the punished. When public execution disappears, power acts by means of visibility, this can be done through housing, hospitals, asylums, prisons or schools as places of hierarchized surveillance. Foucault names these the means of training assuring social order by observation and examinations. The latter are created between formations of knowledge and exercise of power. They transform the economy of visibility into an exercise of power. To exemplify his power theory of subtle surveillance, Foucault presents the Panopticism: “an enclosed and segmented space”, observed at every point where individuals are objects of constant observation (Foucault 1977: 197). Individuals are seen but are not able to see anyone else. Discourse is then induced by a state of conscious and permanent visibility that becomes an automatic functioning of power through self-control where surveillance is always a possibility.

As an example of Foucault’s views, Kalindi Vora, a feminist anthropologist that developed an analysis of the affective economies in Indian Call Centers, presents the work environment of Call Centers where Foucault’s surveillance tool is the heart of the functioning of the business. Self control is ensured by intensive but subtle measures such as competitions between colleagues, bonuses when certain levels of sales are achieved, random apparitions of the managers, long hours, small breaks but all within a generalized consent of the workers.

The question of power and hegemony for Post-Marxism relies on who is the articulating subject of power. They recover the basic concepts of Gramscian analysis but radicalize the concepts to lead them beyond Gramsci (Lacau and Mouffe 1985: 136). They state the two conditions of hegemonic articulation are the presence of antagonist forces and the instability of the boundaries, which separate them. Power does not emerge from a single point, as Marxists defend, but by an overdetermination of circumstances, by multiple causes depending on multiple aspects on the context. They called the Historical Bloc the hegemonic formation, and differentiate from Gramsci in that there is not a single political space and hegemonic subjects are not necessarily constructed on two fundamental classes. For Post-Marxists, the necessary social framework is not dichotomically divided between the oppressor and the oppressed and instead, LauClau and Mouffe propose the democratic struggles implying a plurality of political spaces. Social formations are then meaningless for post-Marxists. What is social is opened and undetermined which ensures the existence of articulatory and hegemonic practices.

Do these theories of power and hegemony concern the social order by providing a path for agency or resistance?

Social order and agency

LaClau and Mouffe visualize the potential of a populist demands and its possibility to articulate and mobilizing antagonistic claims depending on the organization of difference through the logic of equivalence. As explained, the social by itself has no essence hence, no agency. They propose the alternative of equivalence where the difference intrinsic to the elements becomes equal to one another, at least by one dissolved particularity. In other words, equivalence arises when at least one of the differences of the elements is reconciled with another element and thus, becoming a universal message, a discourse, for all the other elements. This reconciliation depends for LaClau and Mouffe, on the extension of democratic power in society that is not the liberal definition of democracy but is based on equality and includes difference. It is not simply the recognition of existing similarities, but the actual creation of a terrain of equivalence. In this sense, the particularity of difference and equivalence are not compatible but require each other for the production of stability and social order through discourse. Through socialist discourses, equality is then extended to economic relations, and, social movements extend further this equality to race, gender, culture and history. The extension of the logic of equivalence is a hegemonic process of creation of “new forms of universality”.

Althusser is less enthusiastic in that he does not foresee a space or a possibility for free will or manoeuver. Ideology is so deeply integrated by society that social action is limited. Proletariat would need to seize state power to destroy existing bourgeoisie’s state apparatus and impose a new ideology. The opposition to established ideology remains extremely difficult to achieve. Following this argument, Gramsci states that opposing hegemony by creating one’s own culture is complex since the subjects of bourgeoisie’s hegemony are deeply integrated.

As for Parsons, social order depends on the institutions and systems regulating human activities, the resources and the patterns of actions within a society. This regulation depends on the influence of the institution and the solidarity among a society. He analyzes the possibility of a social action in terms of collective and consented movements within the system. He explains power can become a specific mechanism of change in the action of others, by a process of social interaction within the system.

Social order for Weber was ensured by economic and legal order. He saw the increasing rationalization of human life as an unavoidable constraint for society. Bureaucracy could only be restrained by entrepreneurs and by the foundation of new creative systems. However, the iron cage seemed like a fatalist destiny for any society. Weber did not expect that society could overcome the basic conflicts in human life.

Karl Marx was considered fairly optimistic about the potential accomplishments of social theory. He and Émile Durkheim were part of an enthusiastic movement within Marxism that believed in the importance of natural sciences to provide a general theory of human history and society. Scientific knowledge, they believed, could provide opportunities for social improvement  (Hughes 1995: 87).

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness”. Marx saw social change as difficult but possible with the understanding of the functioning bases of the system. Through social theory, he looked forward to make people aware of the superstructure and the systems of class oppression to then be able to create a new consciousness. A social action could be achieved through the abolition of classes and the restructure of society. Social change could only be fostered by an overall consciousness of the revolution need.

Difference has been studied as a means and as an end, opposing classes, cultures, races and histories, as a source of identity, as a power process or, as an oppression justification. Edward W. Said argues: “The differences between different kinds of Orientalisms are in effect the differences between different experiences of what is called the Orient.” As long as society maintains its intrinsic heterogeneity, difference will remain at the center of discussions of social order and its rules of power, hence, it will remain at the heart of anthropology studies.

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