‘Power over’, in one dimension, conceived as a mechanical relation

Parsons saw himself as explicitly addressing Hobbes’ problem of order – how society is possible – while the others did not choose to do so through the approach to power that he pioneered. They accepted the Hobbesian question but not the Hobbesian tools.6 Hobbes’ tools were fashioned from the dominant intellectual resources of his day – the emergent ideas of classical mechanics and a conception of the mechanical world as composed of wheels, springs, and counterbalances in a causally harmonious clockwork. At the center of this conception was a basic idea that power was equivalent to a cause: it held things balanced, in restraint, it produced order and made things happen.7

Thomas Hobbes was the first really great English-language theorist of power and he constituted a modern understanding of the concept that has been remarkably pervasive in debates down to the present day. It is a minimalist definition of power: that power is equivalent to cause (Hobbes 1651). Power and cause are identical terms, he maintains. If an individual can make something happen, something spring into motion where previously it was at rest and there was no action, then that individual has power (see Hindess 1996). It is a mechanistic conception of power, premised very much on Galileo’s physics of inertia, where changes in state are a result of forces acting on each other. Certain corollaries flow from this primitive, or initial, conception of power. Things have to be visibly related for us to say that they are causally connected. Hobbes thought of clockwork as the appropriate analogy: small flywheels might drive other wheels to effect motion, with a complex system of weights and springs connecting and holding everything in tension.

Indeed, the idea that power and causality are identical has been remarkably durable: the atomistic, mechanistic and causal representation of the world of power became a decisive image. It was picked up by later theorists of political philosophy such as John Locke (1976) and David Hume (1902), who traded the movement of clockwork for the slightly more fluid movement of balls responding to the force of the cue, either directly or intermediately, on the billiard table. With Hume the underlying idea of causality was clarified: if one phenomenon was to be the cause of some other phenomenon they must be entirely discrete or separate from one another in space and time but must share a contingent or contiguous relationship. Effects must be logically, conceptually and substantively separate from presumed causes. In social phenomena the universe of causal relations will occur between separate, distinct and discrete subjects: the subject is identified by their possession of a unique body, occupying a unique space. Different subjects have dif- ferent interests and will shape their preferences accordingly; thus, their actions are not merely mechanical but also purposive. These notions of power as a causal rela- tion do not seem amiss when modern conceptions of political power, constructed in the twentieth century, are considered.

Galileo’s ideas have continually been pressed into service: bodies will remain at rest unless outside forces act on them; the distance that they traverse is an opera- tional measure of the force exerted; power is thus equivalent to the force exercised. Even Foucault (1988a: 50), the man who pronounced the death of sovereign power, respects the micro-physics of power. Foucault recreated a conception of power that returned analysis to the core of Hobbes’ concerns: the body politic considered not simply as a metaphor but also as a materiality that was not only physical and biological but also anthroposocial (see Ibarra-Colado 2001b: 300). Isaac (1987: 27) suggests that the mechanical causal view of power has almost become second nature for contemporary theorists, who tend to think of causality purely in terms of contiguous phenomena acting on one another in the same time–space continua. Causality retains its mechanical push and shove imagery, rather than attending to genetic or structural conceptions of causality.

When the American political scientist Robert Dahl (1957) defined the concept of power, cause was as central to his conception as it had been to classical forebears of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as Hume. Power, he says, occurs as a relation between actors, where the category of actor may refer to individuals or to collective entities. Underlying these relations is differential access to resources that finds expression through different instruments of power, whose efficacy is limited to specific arenas (1957: 207). Within these arenas there will be a variable range of key issues over which power is exercised. Empirically, argues Dahl (1961), the fact of different issues confronting people with different preferences will tend to bear out the fact that the distribution of power (at least in political communities) will be pluralistic.

Figure 7.5 Causal power

Such consistency of definition around the bare essentials might suggest to the casual reader that there is great consistency and certainty surrounding the nature of the phenomenon under discussion; power indubitably is a matter of proximate things related by clashing causal forces. To the less casual reader it should suggest no such certainty; instead what we may deduce is that a set of representational terms has become well entrenched as devices for thinking about power. They have become so because they tap into powerful discourse, the rhetoric of classical mechanics, extended from the world to which it initially referred – a world of object relations – to a world of subject relations. The diagram appropriate to this conception of power is very simple, as we see in Figure 7.5. Power occurs when A gets B to move from rest by doing something that they wouldn’t otherwise do, i.e. moving from position B1 to position B2.

Once the social reality of a world of subjects rather than the object world of billiard balls and cues is approached then it becomes evident that what is of far more importance than the impact of cue on ball is the strategy and gamesmanship behind the cue: the understanding of the rules, the state of play, and the skill of the contestants at the table. We might say that while the billiard cue presents only one face to the ball, it is the face that the skillful player presents in taking his or her cue from the evolving state of play that is crucial to the outcome of any competition.

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

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