The Futures of Power: The end of history

Some readers may recall, or have read about, those heady days when history allegedly ended, as the Berlin Wall collapsed.1 When the wall came down it seemed to many observers as if, with the end of communism – at least in Europe – the only threat to existing democratic political power was vanquished. Liberal, plural democracy, the open society and open organizations seemed to stretch as a vista into a future full of promise offering peace in our time, with all its assumed divi- dends, and the triumph neither of the will nor of the state but of decent, ordinary democracy. Surely the chance to build a better world of organizations was immi- nent? To review this question in terms of debates about power we first need to backtrack a little to the world before the wall came tumbling down. Then we can begin to consider the current state of affairs.

To imagine the end of history is to imagine a world without surprise, contin- gency and drama, a world wholly of order. Social order is an emergent drama enacted through the clash of imaginations, encoded through circuits of relational power, and experienced as different orders of domination. It involves prosaic as well as implausible projects, dreams as well as nightmares, ambitions as well as anx- ieties. Ordering uses whatever devices, actors and technologies come to hand for its constructing. And it always occurs in contested spaces. There is never a single social imaginary, despite what conservatives, radicals, or functionalist theorists might think. Always there will be imaginings, striving to come into being and seeking to deny the strivings of other projects. Such is life.

We will briefly review the recent history of power, its social imaginary, recapitulat- ing the relations between its changing theory and the context of political practice. Not surprisingly, in the 1970s many key debates overwhelmingly concerned power and the state, in part because in a number of European countries during this era, notably France, Spain and Italy, it looked as if the communist parties might gain elec- toral office.2 Hence, the debates about power at that time were conceived in terms of the extent to which the state was an organizational instrument capable of being run by alternative elites in different ways (Poulantzas 1973; Miliband 1969).

By the 1980s it was clear that the chance that these communist parties might have to gain office was past. The neoliberal agenda was resurgent, with the pace being set in the UK and the US and other Anglo dominions such as Australia and New Zealand; while, on the left, the debates had shifted to consider how it was pos- sible to construct coalitions and alliances between disparate and fragmented inter- ests from green parties, from feminism, and from social democrat parties in opposition to these neoliberal projects. As rates of unionization declined and the old heartlands of the male blue-collar working class, such as mining and steel making, were decimated by the switch to a post-industrial services economy in most Western countries, the notion of class position securing clear-cut identities weakened greatly, in both theory and practice. The debates shifted to encompass the insecu- rity, multiplicity and indeterminacy of conceptions of identity in a postmodern world (Laclau and Mouffe 1985).3 The proliferation of a plurality of identities introduces many more points of rupture into contemporary politics. The funda- mental role previously assumed by relations of production in defining identity as that of either the ruling or the working class cannot be sustained in the face of new, shifting, unstable identities. These new identities are not so much articulated through traditional forms of political representation (parties and unions), but col- onized and channeled through consumption, lifestyles and branding (consumer generations such as Gen X and Y, Boomers, as well as the new tribalisms of identity, such as dance, trance, Goths, etc.).

Increasingly, against the hybridity of identity, the business organizations that market and brand those identities with which people badge their bodies, posses- sions and lives were becoming increasingly global. Capital became ever more orga- nized on a transnational basis. Branch offices dispersed yet coordinated production and marketing capacities, and spread all over the world, exploiting global migra- tory patterns, profiting from globalized labor markets and consumption (Hardt and Negri 2000). The world’s space seemed to be shrinking, not only because of globalization, in at least three ways. First, time is eclipsed through virtual media. Second, whereas once there was a limited and secure set of identities planted in firm hierarchies in the social space, these are now expanding, proliferating, and complicating the nature of the social space such that it becomes simultaneously shrunk by overcrowding and much more difficult to navigate because of increas- ingly confusing signs. Third, social spaces that once were only colonized on the col- onizer’s terms are now counter-colonized in ways that threaten the security of these spaces. The buffering spaces of the social have shrunk.

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

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