Definition of power and its role

1. Three ways of fixing things

The book that you have in your hands will fix some aspects of the terms ‘power’ and ‘organizations’, and we consider that fixing in three ways. First, we use ‘fixing’ as in fixing a hole where the rain gets in, that is repairing the fabric of a construction. With this book we aim to repair the construction of the problematic of power in organization analysis, and thus, by extension, that sphere of analysis itself, because we will argue that power is the most central concept in the analysis of organiza- tion(s) and organizing.

Second, we use ‘fixing’ as it is deployed in the context of developing an image, as in the pre-digital use of fixing fluid in a photographic darkroom. The image, its properties, what is exposed and what is not, are a matter of aesthetic judgment and technical know-how by the persons doing the developing. Thus, we develop differ- ent images of power in this book, some familiar, others more challenging in their representation and imagery. (By extension, some may think some images are too underdeveloped, and some perhaps too overdeveloped: the aesthetic dimension is important, as we have said, and the readers are as entitled to their aesthetic sense as are the authors.)

Third, we use ‘fixing’ in the sense that one of us used it previously in design- ing a model of circuits of power (Clegg 1989). Here, the idea was that one could exercise power by fixing or refixing its relations, thus making them necessary nodal points, obligatory points of passage through which exchange, intercourse or dis- course, must pass. Power resides in the routing. Using this notation to make sense, we may say that in this work we seek to refix the institutionalization of power and organizations in both theory and practice, in the analysis and even the experience of being in organizations, as well as of organizing. We wish to reroute these terms and change their circuitry, transforming their currency, terms of trade, and meanings.

While some books, somewhat immodestly, claim to change lives, we want merely to change the orientation of a discipline and field of research. We believe that after this book makes its appearance it will be impossible for organization theorists, in their discussion of power and organizations, to marginalize certain things that should not have been marginalized; to disdain to mention certain scholars and researchers who should not have been slighted; and to confine speculation within a straitjacket of narrow concerns that should never have been so restricted. Thus, our ambition is to signal a way to reinscribe a field of analysis and to provide some tools with which to do so.

2. What is power and why is it important?

What is organization but the collective bending of individual wills to a common purpose? If, once upon a time, it could be said that man was born free but is every- where in chains, today we would have to conclude that the links in those chains, binding both men and women, are overwhelmingly organizational, often fashioned from the finest things money can buy. With organization almost anything can be attempted: wars waged, empires challenged, worlds conquered, space explored, and good fortune built. Positive, wonderful things may be achieved with power: tyran- nies defeated, democracies created, relationships forged, and freedoms established. Equally however, as we learn from the daily news, the power to achieve each of these good things may entail violence being unleashed, domination being enforced, and manipulation being employed.

When words such as manipulation, violence, and domination are so often associ-ated with power, it is not surprising that power is often seen as something bad, something ignoble, indeed, as famously remarked by Lord Acton, something cor- rupting.1 Yet, power is not necessarily constraining, negative or antagonistic. Power can be creative, empowering and positive. The organizational media that form, con- dense, and distribute social relations shape power and they can shape it either way. We cannot enquire into power without an enquiry into its organization. Equally, we cannot make serious enquiry into organizations without an enquiry into power. Power is inscribed in the core of organizational achievement. If it were not, there would be nothing to remark on because, whether for good or evil, the social relations that constitute organization, the collecting together and coordinating of individual wills, endeavors, and energies, would not occur.

Organization requires power and, while not all power requires organization, most does. Power is to organization as oxygen is to breathing.2 Politics are at the core of public life and their expression is invariably dependent on organization, be it in government, business, administration, religion, education, or whatever. Formal politics are organized and all organizations are themselves crucibles of political life. The term ‘organizational politics’ is not a part of the lexicon of every- day speech without good reason. Usually it has negative connotations, as if there were an organizational life without politics which was somehow more technically rational. We doubt that very much, but we do not think that organizational life and politics are necessarily nasty and backstabbing. They often are, but power – the cen- tral concept of the social sciences – need not always be regarded as something to be avoided. Power can be a positive force; it can achieve great things.

3. Positive power

Nothing has quite captured what power can do positively so well in recent years as the Live8 Make Poverty History events held globally on July 2, 2005. It was a move- ment organized from scratch in a matter of a few months by a small group of high- profile entertainers and socially engaged activists. The point of the event was to demonstrate the importance of new modes of politicking, organizing and educat- ing, in order to make a difference to the conditions of everyday life and death in contemporary Africa.

Popular music cannot change the world but it can help make complex issues of power, ethics and inequality relevant and understandable for mass audiences who might not otherwise be moved. And, in democracies, the elected leaders are ulti- mately responsible to those who elect them and no political party in any country could have captured the imagination to the extent that occurred that day. The mes- sage was simple, but simple messages are much more likely to be understood widely than complex ones. And not only did the message reach an estimated 5.5 billion people globally, but the fact that it had done so, and that the stars involved used the celebrity that their status bestows on them to repeat the simple message widely and often, had some effect in shaping the views of the eight world leaders and their advi- sors who attended the Gleneagles G8 meeting, convened shortly after the concert. 3 Power concerns the ways that social relations shape capabilities, decisions, change; these social relations can do things and they can block things unfolding. Power is ultimately about the choices that we make, the actions we take, the evils we tolerate, the goods we define, the privileges we bestow, the rights we claim, and the wrongs we do. Power means finding the most effective leverage for particular relations, such as those that The Economist argued for with respect to the Make Poverty History campaign, including an end to agricultural subsidies in the devel- oped economies in order to open them to imports from the developing economies.4 To do so would encourage economic growth in the poorest sectors of African countries as well as trade liberalization, improving infrastructure, and access to capital, all of which can hasten improvement in the lives of the continent’s poor. The leaders who met in Gleneagles began the slow job of putting in place globally agreed policies that might serve to deliver on some of the aims of the Make Poverty History movement. These leaders are able to do so because they occupy the relational spaces from which a difference might be made. However, it is how the local contexts of power unravel in specific countries that will ultimately make – or not make – a difference. And making a difference is what power does.

Notice that, in this introductory discussion of power, we have stressed not the outcomes achieved but the process. The reason is that these outcomes will always be indeterminate and subject to revision from the many here-and-now moments from which what is temporally defined as an outcome will be viewed, both retro- spectively and prospectively. If we were to determine power by its outcomes we would be in a state of constant revision as to the meaning and interpretation of these; even the definition of what they are taken to be would constantly change as the relevancies and priorities of the here-and-now change. Everything depends on the here-and-now and the relevancies one uses in making connections. For instance, in the week that these words were written the capillaries of power linked two highly disparate events, the 2012 Olympics and 2005 G8 meeting, to explosions on the streets of free London and occupied Baghdad. Power unleashed from the backpack of a suicide bomber, wreaking death and destruction, is clearly not posi- tive for those whose lives are ruined and whose security is threatened.

One of the last major concentrations of people in London before Live8 was the many tens of thousands who had gathered, on its eve, to protest against the Iraq war. There were huge marches globally against that war being waged and they had no success whatsoever in stopping it. Judged in terms of outcomes the protests were impotent, despite the war being widely seen as both ‘immoral and counterproduc- tive’, sanctioning ‘the use of state terror – bombing raids, torture, countless civilian deaths … against Islamo-anarchists whose numbers are small, but whose reach is deadly’ (Ali 2005a).

4. Negative power

As power politics the Iraq war appears to have been a bad calculation, at least in the short term. Judged by its outcomes at the time of writing it has been worse than impotent because it seems to have been counterproductive. The most optimistic scenario is that from some time in the future we may be able to look back and see that the ‘domino theory’ of democracy, implicit in the longer-term objectives of the war, has been achieved.5 Maybe then we will see that it was better power politics than it now appears. At present, it is overwhelmingly negative: continuing resis- tance to occupation, escalating deaths, much more expensive oil, and increased insecurity in the major cities of the combatants. As we will discuss in Chapter 7, is it paradoxical to think that it is in people’s real interests to liberate them by invad- ing and occupying their space? The ultimate arbiter of what such interests are is not some external agency but the selves whose interests are at issue, suggest some the- orists (Benton 1981). Of course, as Habermas (1979) has constantly stressed, the conditions for interest formation require a degree of non-distorted communication and reflection, both of which are inimical to a state of terror, political spin, military propaganda, or religious fundamentalism.

Leaving the contentious issues of Iraq and US foreign policy to one side, and returning once more to the issues that Live8 was designed to articulate, consider the parlous state that many of the countries in the continent of Africa find them- selves in. These states were, rather like modern day Iraq, an effect of power being imposed on peoples rather than an expression of some sense of linguistic, religious or ethnic solidarity.6 Colonial lines were arbitrarily imposed on tribal territories irrespective of ethnic, linguistic or traditional cleavages.7 When decolonization occurred in the post Second World War era, the states that were created had very few indigenous administrative resources on which to draw for state building, because these had largely been controlled by colonial European elites. The absence of indigenous elites, particularly in those countries most hastily decolonized, such as the territories previously controlled by Portugal and Belgium, which had been the most violently and corruptly plundered, was another factor hastening the descent into anarchy. What elites there were, or those who managed to claw their way in to office, increasingly relied on royalties and aid for income. Many states were ruled and managed by despots who were spectacularly malfeasant: they made themselves presidents for life, rigged elections, or seized power through military coups. It is not surprising that having gained office through one or other of unde- mocratically malfeasant means, rulers typically pursued ruinous civil wars, imple- mented disastrous economic policies, and practiced systematic kleptocracy, looting, and corruption on a grand scale.8

In African states power is highly concentrated rather than democratically dis- persed. Because of this, powers external to these African states, mainly European and US multinationals and governments, deal with their rulers to get things that they desire, such as oil or arms sales, precious minerals or metals. These external organizations deal with the power concentrated in the elites. Dealing with the regimes invests external legitimacy in them; in order to make deals the incumbent elites often demand concessions and favors from organizations and governments in transactions, which often amount either to outright bribery, blackmail and cor- ruption or to canalization of inward investment into opportunities for profligate personal gain at the expense of the general population and for the benefit of the elite.9 Whether or not they intend to, these external authorities feed both avarice and legitimacy, in a mutually dysfunctional loop. Of course, there are great differ- ences between states – democratic and responsible power exists in an increasing number of African countries – but a large number remain hostage to forms of gov- ernance that are unaccountable to their people and whose vicious circle of power is multiplied and accelerated by state and business organizations more globally.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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