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Something CasP has made me think about more and more is the nature of power. It seems to me, hitherto discussions of power have mostly treated it as a thing in and of itself, that can accumulate in absolute terms, to be appropriated and fought over by competing parties, like a body of energy that can be put to any kind of work be it for good or ill. In this thinking, we can imagine a benign individual or group appropriating power and putting it to work for the betterment of all, and to the extent this kind of effort fails, it is due to a deficiency in the will and ability of that individual or group to resist using that power for purely selfish ends (this is how I’ve always understood the phrase: “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, as if the problem is the corrupted, rather than power in general). For sake of argument, let’s just call this the “Liberal notion of power.”
CasP totally flips this thinking by reconceptualising power as a quantitative relationship between entities, the qualitative features of which are determined by the creorder from which it emerged and that we can only identify and understand it by its effects, nothing more. If power is not a thing in itself, but a relationship that emerges between entities, the question arises as to how this relationship emerges, to which CasP also has an answer: strategic sabotage. This is the second CasP insight into power that is so ground breaking, the notion that power is not a neutral, homogenous energy, but rather a contingent relationship created through inflicting damage, limiting potential, excluding and wasting. Ultimately, power is always a negative phenomenon, not positive, in the sense that it limits and destroys rather than liberates and creates.
When reading CasP literature, one can encounter a a few different definitions of power.
(1) Power is confidence in the obedience of others.
(2) Power is a quantitative relationship between entities.
(3) Power is nothing but its effects.
From what I can gather, (1) isn’t really a definition that CasP anchor’s its approach to, instead working from (2) and (3). While (2) and (3) are different definitions, they seem to me nonetheless consistent in the sense that, we can identify a power relationship both by identifying its qualitative effects and associating those effects with a quantitative relationship between relevant entities.
However, Colin Drumm in his “Capital and Power” seminar series claims there’s a problem with this approach to power, in that it seems to only go in one direction. Granted, he’s directing this criticism against definition (1), but I feel it somewhat applies to definitions (2) and (3) as well. The way I read this criticism, is that if we treat power as a relationship forged in abuse, which we only identify retrospectively by looking at the effects, the implication is we’re only really understanding the nature and actions of those “calling the shots” at the top and its difficult to conceive of the “power” of those at the bottom (power used here just as a manner of speaking). When power is a relationship, we can speak of its magnitude as representing the scope of control of those at the top relative to those at the bottom, but this offers little in the way of understanding the scope of agency of those at the bottom. CasP doesn’t offer a single, systematic way of challenging power, but this is to its credit, as its liberated our thinking from reductive and limited approaches like “seize the means of production” as being the primary path to challenging power. Nonetheless, while we have a theory of the powerful, we now need a theory for the powerless!
Enter Drumm’s notion of power as an “option”: the present value of the ability, absent the obligation, to make a choice in the future. I love the example Drumm offers in the seminar to demonstrate this idea: You happen upon bobcat on a hike. Perceiving you a threat, the bobcat flees quickly, clearly demonstrating that it is faster than you. However, rather than waste energy running away to a safe distance, the bobcat stops and looks back at you, to check that you now understand it has the option to ran away faster than you can catch it. To the extent this act stops you from pursuing the bobcat, the bobcat has extracted the present value of the ability to choose to run away in the future, without having to actually make that choice (and waste energy).
This conceptualisation of power effectively resolves the issue stated above, in that we can now think of the power of all parties/classes/individuals at every strata in a detailed and systematic way. Where before we could only think of power retrospectively, as something of an emergent quantitative phenomenon resulting from various intersecting historical and social factors (the creorder) to be identified only after the fact, we can again think of power more as a thing in itself that everyone possesses to varying degrees and can exercise in the future. While this brings us closer to the “liberal notion of power” I outlined above, we’re able to avoid at least some of the associated hang ups. Contrary to thinking of power as a body of homogenous energy, options are entirely contingent on the conditions or creorder of the time and space in which they emerge. Furthermore, this notion of power still highlights the highly intersubjective nature of power; whether the bobcat can actually maintain that speed for long enough to escape is not as important as you thinking it can. However, we’ve now returned to placing the blame on those “corrupted” by power, rather than power itself, and can again imagine power as something that can be put towards benign ends.
I feel there’s something to be said about the naturally anarchist conclusions one is drawn to from a CasP model of power compared to the more Hobbesian view that Drumm’s takes that his “options” approach perhaps lends itself too. If power is a relationship between entities forged in abuse, then power is the problem and is thus the thing to be minimised if not abolished. However, if power is a thing in and of itself, albeit a highly contingent and intersubjective one, then perhaps we can harness it for the greater good? Is power the root of all evil or our best chance at achieving a better world? Can power ever be a positive phenomenon that creates and liberates or is power necessarily negative, limiting creativity and destroying creation?
So what is power? Is it a thing in itself or does the term denote the space between things? Perhaps this is looking at the problem the wrong way by trying to tie down a definition of power rather than explore further these concepts in their own right.
Should we try to salvage and carefully define “power” as one of or some combination of the concepts outlined above, or should we perhaps leave “power” as one of those many vague and ill defined terms (such as “mind” or “life”) and instead seek to further formalise and deepen these concepts like “option”, “creorder” and whatever term we might wish to attribute to those quantitative relationships between entities? My vote is to maintain the CasP notion of “power” as outlined in (2) and (3) above and further work that in with the ideas of “option” and “creorder”.
Finally, what inspired this line of questioning on the nature of power is that I increasingly feel that Capital as Power is first and foremost actually a theory of power rather than a theory of capitalism, albeit one that uses capitalism as a case study. These insights, conceptualisations and questions about power, to me, present enormous potential for all social sciences to better understand all manner of social phenomena beyond capitalism. I can see a new discipline emerging from CasP that we might simply call “Power Studies” or something, focusing on questions like:
- What power relationships can we identify both in their quantitative magnitudes and qualitative effects?
- How are the specific features of these power relationships shaped by the existing creorder, and how might understanding these relationships broaden our understanding of the current creorder?
- Finally, what options can we identify for different groups and can we define a group by the options they share?
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