“You’re not killing the right guy.” “That’s so,” the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him.” … “But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.” “I don’t know,” the driver replied. “Maybe there’s nobody to shoot.”—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
It is difficult to define what power is and how it may manifest. One may conceive of power as control or coercion exercised by one individual over another. One may also point to the complex structural or cultural forces that permeate our perceptions and values, as well as our relationship to the state and other social actors. However, when analysing relations of power, there are two highly pertinent conceptions—one that orients power around particular individuals or groups, whose actions and inactions confer political responsibility on them; the other regards structures and institutions as well as the often unintentional flow of constraints and oppression that stems from them as the true thrust of power. Both analyses reveal truths about our political maelstrom, but the first is more accurate and more liable to result in practical reforms and broad social change. For, while power can be understood, in part, as a web of interrelated structures, the origins of that power lie in the agentive decisions of individuals and collective actors who choose to actively pursue their respective interests.
Agents vs. Structures
Political theorists Clarissa Hayward and Steven Lukes have overlapping conceptions of power and its genealogy. For instance, in this dialogue, both agree that considerations of structural hierarchy should be integral to the analysis of power. That is, Lukes advances an agent-centric locus of control and action. In other words, power, whether by means of domination or structural control, resistance to this power or submission to it, relies upon individual agency that resolves to do so whether this agency aligns with individual interests or not. Power, resistance, submission and domination are preconditioned by agents who are responsible for their occurrence through their action or inaction.
Hayward, on the other hand, emphasises the influence of social structures on the formulation and function of power. She highlights the structural constraints on the freedoms of certain groups: constraints consisting of possibly unconscious, unbiased decisions and actions that nonetheless result in inegalitarian outcomes in the aggregate, outcomes that work against the interests of some groups, yet are amenable to change.
Both arguments have merit. I agree with Hayward that the net effect of the decisions of ostensibly agentive persons within a complex apparatus of action and hierarchy may, in a lot of cases, absolve those persons of moral agency due to myriad constraints either unbeknownst to them or at least partially out of their control. No one could doubt that hierarchies and structures can constrain freedoms. However, Lukes convincingly locates the locus of power in the moral agency and political agency of what he calls “specifiable agents.” Moreover, when moral and political agents are identifiable, so are the focal points at which remediable change can begin to occur through said agents of action and inaction at different levels within social structures.
Specifiable Agents Within Structures
Lukes agrees with Hayward that social and political life are encapsulated by a grand system of structures that will inevitably guide, if not totally constrain, actions. However, for Lukes, responsibility for action can be attributed to individuals at different levels that operate within and upon structures. For how is a structure established and maintained, if not first by politically responsible institutional agents and then by an amalgam of individual decisions acting upon and affecting the outcomes as both theorists know to be the case? Moreover, how can a structure be transformed if not by a decision to remedy that structure made by a responsible agent with robust institutional power? In the pursuit of locating a particular origin from which patterns of decisions and constraints are derived, Lukes is much more ambitious. He seeks this origin by thoroughly analysing degrees of influence at a social level and identifies an agentive element of inaction on the part of powerful and thus responsible agents at institutional levels.
Take, for instance, Lukes’ diagnosis of the political failures that took place during the catastrophic events of Hurricane Katrina, under the Bush administration, in 2005—failures that the administration attributed to structural failures. Lukes identifies several agentive entities, four of which he asserts bear moral and political responsibilities for the subsequent structural constraints that many of the impoverished citizens of New Orleans faced after the levees were compromised and the city was devastated. Perhaps the housing authorities in New Orleans, who approved the demolition of thousands of damaged public housing units in the city and then built largely unaffordable mixed-income projects, were acquiescent to more authoritative actors constraining their actions. Perhaps there was no specifiable agent to whom blame could be assigned. Perhaps, in this scenario, there was nobody to shoot. However, Lukes highlights two central agents in another aspect of the crisis in the city, before larger structural cycles of constraint were brought to bear. When faced with the strategic decision to deploy combat troops to New Orleans to placate the situation immediately after the levees broke, then Defence Secretary and Assistant Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and Paul McHale were hesitant to bypass constitutional constraints. What is more, ambiguities arose surrounding former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco’s requests for aid and the prospect of her diminishing authority during this process.
By way of contrast with the inaction of highly politically responsible agents in this matter, Lukes cites Michigan sheriff Warren Evans, who took immediate action by sending food, water, medical supplies and search and rescue aid. Finally, Lukes implicates those within the highest realm of political agency for their inaction when he points to the Bush administration’s reluctance to act during the initial effects of Katrina as well as President Bush’s glib promises of reconstruction afterwards. This intermingled web of action and inaction, constraint and informality begs serious questions: from whence is power derived and wherein does it lie?
The Political Responsibility of Political Actors
It seems almost too obvious to trace the origins of moral and political responsibility to the highest authorities within legal and political institutions. It is not enough to say, as Hayward does, that multiple agents contribute to structural outcomes, without necessarily being at fault, and then qualify that as political responsibility. Yes, there are actors whose strings of decisions are often constrained and yield harmful yet non-malicious results. Both thinkers agree on this point. But it is not enough to allude to vast, yet somehow remediable, metastructures without offering real evidence as to the origins of the constraints or their remedies. The most significant task in delineating power relations is, as Lukes argues, to “fix responsibility for consequences held to flow from the action, or indeed the inaction, of specifiable agents.” We must acknowledge the moral and political responsibility of the various agents who not only encourage and maintain institutions and structures but also create and shape them.
Hayward asserts that said structures are social in origin and are amenable to change, but fails to establish the nucleus of power where structural change may occur. Although Lukes does not explicitly mention institutional dynamism, it is nonetheless a crucial influence on political action. He endorses institutional entrepreneurship in the creative and organizational dimensions of institutions. He argues that, within institutional fields, such entrepreneurs act as agents of strategic action and change. In her book Building the Bloc, Ruth Bloch Rubin emphasizes the role that intraparty organization plays in swaying the pivotal votes of lawmakers, thus translating them into desirable policy outcomes, despite the fact that such outcomes often go against the party leader’s interests. What is more, consistent with Lukes’ third dimension of power, laid out in Power: A Radical View, which defines power as the ability to influence the “very wants” of a group, Bloch Rubin’s work points to the ability of intraparty organization to exogenously shape the preferences of party members and legislators, in what she calls “the collective origins of individual preferences.” One might object to this example by demonstrating that many constrained actors lack political influence and operate within the structures without a proper means to negate or change them. That is, however, Lukes’ point in a sense. Those who are in a position to contribute to remedying structures, especially by working to alter structural or institutional frameworks that they may not have contributed to causing, are responsible if they decide to exercise or not exercise this capacity for change, and are thus powerful in both instances. Responsibility can and should be delegated to agents from whose actions and influence different policies are derived, proving that structures can be established, changed or maintained, even though many players are ostensibly powerless to assuage them.
Structures, Hayward says, both constrain the actions and freedoms of individuals even in the absence of some moral agency, as well as manifest implicitly in the form of norms that shape and produce predictable patterns of meaning and behaviour. Indeed, many political theorists, within the tradition of power posit this relation of power. Does it not logically follow that it is from some agentive nucleus that the produced patterns of meanings and expectations that constrain individual perceptions, values and behaviour are first created? Moreover, can it not be said that the disruption and transformation of these patterns-as-structures over time must entail one or more disruptive agents?
The Power of the Powerless
In his meditation on political dissent The Power of the Powerless, Vaclav Havel describes the “ideological excuse” inherent in what he calls “post-totalitarian systems”:
The complex machinery of units, hierarchies, transmission belts, and indirect instruments of manipulation which ensure in countless ways the integrity of the regime, leaving nothing to chance, would be quite simply unthinkable without ideology acting as its all-embracing excuse and as the excuse for each of its parts.
This description is similar to Hayward’s and many other accounts of structural anatomy. The perpetuation of a structure may be material or manifested through codified and institutionalized human actions transmitted through an ideological or socio-political pretext. Some theorists, such as Michel Foucault, have even historicized and hierarchized codified patterns of bodily conduct, as it were, as a self-policing microphysics of biopower. These theorists assert that the integrity and function of structures are only guaranteed when the rational capacities and behavioural patterns of those working within them are produced and constrained by those same structures. Havel calls this structural subordination of individuals toward the ideological excuse a blind automatism, which, when transgressed by someone who steps outside his or her predetermined role, constitutes an attack of the system upon itself. For Havel, to live within the true conditions of life means denying the rituals and symbols that make up the self-codifying ideological excuse of the system that would inevitably negate it. That is to say, individual decisions to adhere to or negate a structure determine its continuation or ruin.
Hayward is correct to define social structures as relatively durable. A political or economic structure cannot be established or substantially altered without significant effort. One should include William Sewell Jr’s theory of structures in one’s examination of agency within structures as power. Sewell demonstrates the same material and behavioural residues of structures that Hayward does, but he takes it further, to include material and social resources in his theory. Agency empowers and arises out of actors to varying degrees when an agent possesses human and material resources within his or her social milieu that determine his or her capacity to alter structures. This is consistent with Lukes’ link between power as the capacity to act and power as responsibility for action or inaction.
Hayward’s position seems inchoate and often contradictory. In many ways, she inadvertently argues in favour of Lukes’ position. When she claims that man-made institutions create patterned, freedom-limiting asymmetries and therefore those who oppose these constraining institutions should study and criticise them, she urges both individual and collective agents to act to change those structures but refuses to say that that is what she is doing. Her claim citing “shared political responsibility” is tantamount to an abdication of individual responsibility for ameliorative socio-political engagement. In other words, the resolution that there is nobody to shoot is equivalent to allowing oneself to be shot repeatedly ad infinitum. As Samuel Beckett puts it in Waiting for Godot, “There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet.” Lukes’ arguments are superior not because he denies the existence of powerful social structures or because he neglects their importance in driving psychosocial locomotion but because he adequately traces the inceptive relations of power to structure and assigns responsibility to those at each level who can contribute, by action, to changing those structures for the betterment of those whose freedoms are constrained by them, or by inaction let them reign free and unchecked. In other words, Lukes is not blaming the faults of his feet on his boots, regardless of how tightly they fit.
If we are trying to allocate power between individuals and structures. I’d argue that both exist, but structures dominate. (Whether Hayward has correctly analyzed the effect of the structures in the US is another question). Those given power to exercise are usually heavily constrained by structure; a judge, holding a position of apparently enormous power, is required to decide according to law, and is subject to appellate review. If she starts behaving erratically or oppressively she risks removal…as long as the structures are set up to select for “judicial temperament”. A manager in a corporation is granted power, but constrained to advance the interests of the corporation, constrained to follow law and regulation and subject to review by her superiors. At the top of this tree of power, lies the board of directors, where power is dispersed among several members. Politicians and high government officials perhaps wield the greatest power… Read more »
I was a bit surprised Russell Clarke made no mention of Adolf Eichmann’s famous or infamous attempt to portray himself (and convince observers like Hannah Arendr into accepting) as nothing but a boringly plodding bureaucrat with no particular views, passions, or prejudices of his own simply following the dictates of an impersonal bureaucratic machine he had no control over or responsibility for.