From consensus to contestation: the nature and culture of power

In a sense, the project of Western political and organizational theorists of power since the 1940s has been to conceptualize the constitution of forms of power which are compatible with values that are as close as possible to democratic kinds of values. It is, perhaps, for this reason that the work on total institutions that we reviewed in Chapter 6 seems to have had such short shrift. It stresses totalitarian rather than democratic impulses. It is also why authority occurs much more than power in the indices of management textbooks. In this democratic project, organizations are seen as solutions to the establishment of particular institutions likely to limit and eventually contest domination.

We shall see in the next chapter that an underlying question that obsessed sociological theorists from Gouldner, Merton, and Selznick to Crozier, and more recently, in a different manner, to Bourdieu or Giddens, is to understand why the power of elites is barely contested in most Western societies – to understand how organizations have been constituted as means of limiting resistance and contesta- tion rather than the power of the ruling few. The answer to this question refers to the existence of forms of distribution and structuration of power that obliterate, at least for a while, the necessity to deliberate about proper patterns of legitimacy. How do forms of power shift the focus of politics from discourses on power to expe- riences of power, and how do they produce outputs for most segments of a polity that offset the absence of true participation and resistance?

The types we are going to outline now (see Table 11.1) are related to these diverse aspects of politics, namely how leaders provide people with reasons to work, act and decide in the workplace, as well as with instruments, procedures, rules and values to help people accept and internalize the unfathomable limits of their indi- vidual power. As Giddens would put it, these forms are thought to facilitate the co-production of patterns of legitimacy by people and their leaders, the structures of power being the intermediate connection between both ‘parties’.

In most approaches the difficulty in conceiving credible and convincing alterna- tives to bureaucracy stems from an inability to analyze hybrids in political terms. By this we mean hybrids are mostly conceived as more or less harmonious combi- nations between presumably opposite organizational characteristics, or as peculiar organizational devices devoted to a unique set of managerial preoccupations (such as organizational control in Greenwood et al. (1990), or transversal cooperation, and quasi-firms). We can find a similar tendency at more paradigmatic levels of reflection, which present new hybrid forms as a third alternative to market and hierarchy models (see for instance Adler (2001) on the community form). These attempts, however fruitful they are, do not address which antagonistic processes an organization must undertake to construct a hybrid; and, most important, never address why and for whom new hybrid forms might emerge. Moreover, these approaches to hybrids neglect that political forms mostly evolve through the ‘pro- duction of authoritarian knowledge’ via multilevel social mechanisms entailing contestations (Lazega 2000: 17). Political forms invariably do not respect the para- dox of emancipation, that one can only free oneself and cannot be freed by others acting on one’s behalf. New hybrid organizational forms may be designed with an increase of the freedom of others in mind but there can be no guarantees that the new freedom will not be another tyranny.

The central concern of the study of organizations, according to Greenwood and Hinings, is ‘how organizations affect the pattern of privilege and disadvantage in society … [and] how privilege and disadvantage are distributed within organiza- tions’(2002: 411). In other words, how do elites produce power and perpetuate themselves? Or, how do subordinates demand this perpetuation because they interpret it as politically performative?

The study of organizations is often characterized as a politically neutral vision. It is one that accords with ideas of a value-free science. Organizations are conceived as places where political change occurs either for rational-calculative reasons or because the consensual-governed philosophy is so pervasive that nobody would even think to question its superficiality (Mouffe 2000). The poles that organi- zational debates on power operate between are, on the one hand, institutional models of power (Selznick 1957) and more flexible models such as that of the circulation of control (Ocasio 1994; Ocasio and Kim 1999); and, on the other hand, the resource-dependency approach (Pfeffer and Salancik 1978), in which light is shed on the actual apolitical character of these models, fitfully addressing (or shrewdly dodging) the question of the prominent struggles that arise when leaders are fired or when elites are put into question. These accounts present organizations as moved by relatively smooth events, concealing antagonisms and violence, partly because they would be mostly exogenous and generated by isomorphic processes (Fligstein 1985; DiMaggio and Powell 1977).

Political hybrids are contested social productions. In a sort of post-Michels analysis, we argue that the political instability of organizations goes hand in hand with the very prevalence of solid and durable oligarchies in organizations. The instability is apparent (companies merge, leaders circulate, plants close, people are dismissed, consultants consult, and disciplinary practices form and reform) but the institutional basements of organizations are steadily resilient. Thus, democracy needs oligarchs to be credible and oligarchy needs democratic principles to be accepted by the governed. We defend the idea that this apparent paradox is a promising way of analyzing the emergence of political hybrids in the organiza- tional world. Political hybrids stem mainly from the deficiency of business leaders to address the cardinal political issue that a true democracy should cater for, that of inequality. We do not think the efficiency argument is well targeted to account for the transformations of bureaucracies, contrary to the relentless assertions of the recent managerial and new public administration literature (Osborne and Gaebler 1992; Peters 1987; Kanter 1990; O’Toole 1997). The growing move toward hybrids is mostly related to the search for proper forms with which to govern inequality. Organizations have a chance to become more democratic if business leaders under- stand or, more plausibly, accept that the establishment of hybrid regimes is at the heart of their political agenda, because that agenda concerns the distribution of power and privileges within organizational boundaries.8

To go further, we argue that a hybrid is not a smooth organizational combination of contradictory principles but a new creation, a singular model capable of politi- cally challenging the very nature of bureaucracies (Ashcraft 2001). To move in this direction we need to think about hybrids from a political point of view, as contro- versial social constructions that imply the political nature of organizations and of authority; organizations are political because they entail hostile relationships and often violent antagonisms between their diverse constituencies. Organizations find ways of legitimating these disagreements, governing them and restricting the violence of the internal struggles aroused. That is why the contemporary question posed by hybrids is that of complex intermediary forms between oligarchic and democratic systems of government.

Table 11.1 naturally does not exhaust the numerous hybrids existing in the literature, but it highlights the most representative political configurations that have been pro- posed for managing the dynamic nature of authority by constructing intermediate models between ‘pure’ oligarchy and ‘pure’ democracy. The problem is that these models seem to be composed of mutually exclusive components. They are conceived not as real hybrids, i.e. new original forms, but as relatively coherent sets of criteria and principles put together to create a combination of contradictory factors.

Table 11.1 A continuum of political forms

Table 11.2 Three alternative political forms and their relationship with the nature and culture of power

The core features enabling a comparative analysis of these ‘political regimes’ are the degree of centralization of power (nature of power) and the values pertaining to the type of power distribution (culture of power). Following the classical defin- ition of Montesquieu (1989), a political regime (form) is indeed the result of the congruence between a nature of authority (degree of political centralization) and the feeling of the governed. From this perspective, two political forms can be put forward when considering the social production of alternatives to bureaucracy. We present in Table 11.2 a possible ‘confrontation’ of these forms with bureaucracy, according to the above-mentioned criteria of the nature and culture of power.

The central question of politics in terms of our argument should be to ask for what end(s) is power exercised. Or, following Emmet (1958), we must address, fun- damentally, how holders of power act politically by analyzing how their intentions are possible rather than how their decisions are made. These intentions do not nec- essarily reside, primarily, in the purpose of setting up and perpetuating a certain type of structure of dominancy, or in establishing the dominion of a small circle of the ‘chosen few’. These are the features of a certain political regime we have called oligarchy. Nor are these intentions inaccessible or merely reportable inner mental states; they are accounted for in terms of the available vocabularies of motive for understanding the nature of political action. Thus, they are both recursive and reflexive of the analyses being promoted here.

The purpose of politics in the perspective we highlight in this chapter is to design congruence between a certain naturalization of socially constructed reality and a certain culture of power. In other words, it is to arrange things so that a certain form of power distribution can be viewed by a majority of members as naturally germane to a certain set of allegiance-generating values. No government can be legitimately designed and sustained without this political congruence. The social construction of political congruence gives obvious birth to contestation inside organizations. And this concerns democracy, where democracy is related to orga- nizational forms and, reciprocally, the question of organizational forms is also that of the degree of inclusiveness allowed (the ‘right to participate in public contesta- tion’ according to Dahl 1971: 4): that is, the degree of contestation which is likely to remain contestation and not turn into mere opposition, that is to say, the limits of permissible opposition. Organizational politics thus concerns separating the idea (and the consecutive types of behaviors) of participation from the idea of opposition. We will next suggest that this is at the center of the emergent polyarchy, which we present as the political regime in organizations that contemporary business leaders strive for.

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

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