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Impersonal Power

The different forms of power discussed so far, whether variants of power to dominate or power with, are all intimately connected to specific and identifiable persons. One knows who the bully is in a group. One can identify the government functionaries who put out misleading propaganda. One can identify the persons who, through their solidarity and unity, give strength to their group, or even their nation. The power of ideology is more diffuse; it is less easy to identify the prominent contributors to dominant beliefs that reduce the possibility of resistance. But the ruling ideology is promulgated by and in the interest of the ruling strata of the society, and one knows who the members of these ruling strata are. One may not know all of them, but one knows that there are specific individuals and associations of individuals that yield the powers that manipulate the majority of the population. All the variants of power discussed so far belong to specific human beings or groups who wield this power.

But the power individuals wield presupposes complex social arrangements. Thomas Wartenberg points out that a judge's power to punish a convicted criminal depends on an intricate network of other institutions and the different roles these institutions contain. Judges can condemn the criminal only while seated on the bench in the courtroom; they must be within a prescribed context in order to exercise their official role. They cannot do it in their home while lounging in the bathtub. The court is not only a place; it is an institution, complete with court officers, stenographers, lawyers, prosecutors, and so forth. The entire power of the judge presupposes the law and the many different institutions that give rise to the law and legitimate it. The judge's power does not belong to the judge unless there exists an extended set of institutions that function because everyone is doing his or her job and exercising the power that comes with that job.

It is important that the different participants in the drama of crime and punishment understand the significance of the places, the institutions, and the actions of functionaries. Everyone must understand what it means when the judge bangs her gavel and says "Twenty years." Various persons understand that these two words instruct them to lead the criminal out of the courtroom and remand him to the prison authorities who, in their turn, must follow established bureaucratic procedures. In these two words the judge manifests her power and everyone must understand that. For power to function there must be a wealth of shared understanding of the significance of words and actions.

For this reason, Niklas Luhmann says that power is a "code"—a quasi language. This conception was first introduced by the American sociologist Talcott Parsons, who criticized the conception of power as belonging to individual persons, urging us, instead, to understand power as a "medium" analogous to money as the medium of the economy. An economic system, Parsons pointed out, consists of a large number of offers and demands for goods and services. These offers, and their acceptance or rejection, must be communicated, and money is the medium of this communication. ("Money" here does not refer to the dollar bills in your wallet but to the institution of the market and the banking institutions and other financial contrivances for communicating offers and demands within the economy.) Political institutions correspondingly are the medium in which in politics we pass on messages. Power is a form of "social knowledge."

The importance of personal power.

Power as medium or as code or as social knowledge is, indeed, social; it no longer belongs to specific individuals but inheres in the society. It is interesting to notice that, from the beginning of Western philosophy, the power inherent in societies to shape each of us has been familiar. In Plato's dialogue Crito, Socrates, on the eve of his execution, receives his friend Crito in prison. Crito urges Socrates to escape with him; everything is prepared for him to flee. But Socrates refuses. The laws of Athens, he says, have made him who he is. He owes them obedience even if they are, in his case, applied unjustly. Our culture shapes and constrains us and makes us who we are. While not a modern discovery, this social power has attracted a great deal of attention in modern times. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) complained about the conformity modern societies demand of their members, forcing them to pretend to be persons they are not rather than be themselves. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) echoes that understanding of the power of social structures. Karl Marx (1818–1883) is very clear that the injuries capitalism inflicts on workers are not to be laid at the door of individual capitalists because they, too, are under the compulsion of the laws of the capitalist marketplace. The power to exploit inheres in the capitalist system; it is not the fault of the capitalists.

Discussions of the impersonal power of social institutions, the "regime without a master" in the words of Joan Cocks (p. 187), have become even more frequent in the twentieth century. John Dewey complained about the standardization of human beings in modern society. Members of the Frankfurt School—Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and others—wrote about the power of mass entertainment to regiment members of modern societies and to make it impossible for critical voices to be raised, let alone be heard. The concept of a power not owned by anyone, implicit in these critiques, was then made explicit by the theorists of power, Talcott Parsons, Niklas Luhmann, and Barry Barnes.

Popular culture took up the worry of these theorists; the subservience of the individuals to their culture that seemed to Socrates a perfectly obvious and uncontroversial fact about each of us, has in our world become a matter of unease. In many cases this unease takes the form of a polemic against what the author labels "conformism" in such works as The Organization Man by William H. Whyte (1956), or Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949), and in David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950) as well as the novel by Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (1961). After World War II, talk about authenticity became very common—being oneself in the face of great social pressures to conform became a frequently heard moral demand. Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more recently The Matrix, had enormous appeal because, among other things, they expressed the anxiety felt by many that impersonal forces, unknown to us, hold us in their thrall.

It was left for the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984) to attempt an explanation of why we moderns are much more concerned about being subject to impersonal social power. The eighteenth century, he believes, brought many changes: the beginning of capitalism with its much more rational, carefully planned methods of production, the acceleration of urbanization, which brings many persons together in a small space, and the beginnings of the study of humans and their societies. These changes gave rise to many new techniques of surveillance, of controlling and keeping track of persons. The new social sciences developed a typology of persons; each of us exemplifies many different types, being men or women, parents or not, educated or not, belonging to a particular income bracket or not, practicing a particular religion or not, having children in the approved way ("in wedlock"), and so forth. The typologies serve to "normalize," to set standards by which we are measured from birth as being within normal range of variation or needing to be supervised, cured, corrected, counseled, tutored, or otherwise brought back to the norm.

All of these are forms of domination, Foucault argues. But the origins of the acts of domination are obscure. We are dominated by impersonal systems, much more often than by specific persons. "Power is no longer substantially identified with an individual … it becomes a machinery that no one owns" (Foucault, p. 156).

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Positive Number to Propaganda - World War IiPower - Personal Power, Impersonal Power, The Value Of Power, Bibliography