To have or have not: power as a relation in space, not a thing

1. Digging deep into power

The dimensional view of power resolutely dissects power into layers. Analytically, the imagery is of the theorist digging deeper into the topic, but the topic is rather static. Nothing much flows. Power is all about stopping things happening in this radical view of power. Lukes’ account of power moved steadily towards a view of power as something oriented to preventing people, ‘to whatever degree, from having grievances by shaping their preferences, cognitions, and interests’ such that they ‘can see or imagine no alternative’(1974: 24). It moved power into the control of consciousness, not bodies in space, as we saw in the previous chapter’s concerns with total institutions.

In many ways these dimensional views of power match the structural view of organizations in their timelessness and motionlessness. Just as, in organization theory generally, such static synchrony has come under attack from writers such as Weick (1969), with their emphasis on organizing rather than on organization, on process and verbs rather than nouns and structures, so we need to move towards a more relational view of power and of organiz/ation/ing as the complex recursive articulation of order–disorder, in which structure regulates the relations (and their settings) that produce–reproduce–transform such structures.

One might note, in addition, that these analyses are confined to inner space, consciousness, rather than to outer space, the material world. If we think about the analyses of power that we have presented, space was obviously important for the early political economies of the body, as well as for the sense of confinement found in total institutions. Yet, by the time that the debates have switched to dimensions, space fails to make an appearance. Inner space – in terms of consciousness – is traversed but not the space between people, the situation of bodies in relation to each other, at a distance, embedded in space (see Deleuze 1992).

When organization theorists started to think about power from the 1950s onwards they often took over the definitions and causal assumptions from their colleagues in political science: indeed in some cases, such as J. G. March (1955), the scholars who were contributing to both debates were equally at home in either. But there was little connection between these analyses of causal power and the analyses of total institutions by theorists such as Goffman (1961). The former confined themselves to space as defined proximately in small slices of time; the latter explored how confinement shaped power over time in small slices of space. The former confined themselves to situations that could be defined as ‘normal’, while the latter were confined to the ‘abnormal’. Indeed, it may well be in the perception of the abnormality of total institutions that their neglect by those concerned with the normal can be located.

There were methodological issues as well. The mechanical-causal views of power were quite strict: they placed restrictions on the possibility of action at a distance that flowed from the initial specification of power in mechanical-causal terms. For something to have caused something else to have happened the two putatively connected events or phenomena had to be coterminous in space and connected, and the effect had to time-lag the cause. Analyzing power empirically in relatively small political communities was ideally suited to these restrictions. Had power been analyzed in total institutions, using the mechanical-causal models, then it would hardly have had much more to say other than to identify order givers and order takers. That power might somehow have been constituted in the relational and constitutive fabric of the organization was not something that a purely episodic and causal-based view of power could grasp easily.

2. Grasping power relationally and spatially

Confinement clearly aids power over people. Total institutions are all strongly bounded by physical barriers marking out space: the Berlin Wall; the asylum wall; the walls bounding the reserves and the Magdalene Laundries; the barbed wire of the death camps. It is confinement within space that made total institutionalization possible. As John Allen recently suggested, the connection of space and power is familiar:

Most political disputes over land and territory, in Europe and beyond, where borders have been torn up and redrawn by coercive states or countries subjected to the domi- nant force of neighbouring governments or ethnic groupings, have geography at their core. Closer to home, the gated communities which sprung up in major cities to enable the affluent to live beyond high walls and electronic fences are an integral mix of geographic and economic constraint. (2003: 1)

In the terms used in the previous chapter, these are all further examples of total institutions. But, of course, dramatic as these examples are as peculiar condensa- tions of power, they are hardly typical of the way that power traverses space.

Not all space is experienced as confinement, as Deleuze (1992) identifies. Power ‘is a relational effect of social interaction,’ suggests Allen (2003: 2). It may traverse space but usually less through the confinement of space and more through ‘mediated relationships or through the establishment of a simultaneous presence’ (2003: 2). Allen opposes any unduly centered notion of power as well as any overly ubiqui- tous concept. Power should not be seen as concentrated in particular organiza- tions, institutions or the resources they have available to them, he suggests. The ‘odd tall fence, high wall and exclusionary boundary marker’ are easier to recognize than ‘the many and varied modalities of power’ constituted differently in space and time (2003: 4).

Organizationally, power and resources are often confused, perhaps most famously by Crozier and Friedberg (1980), or possession or access to resources is somehow said to proffer power to their possessors, as we have seen in Chapter 5. With Allen we believe this to be a fundamentally mistaken view:

Resources may be misused, incompetently applied, mobilized for all the wrong reasons, and, perhaps worst of all, simply wasted by a misguided yet otherwise well-meaning bunch of individuals. Those in charge may make a string of bad decisions, or those nominally in control may pool all available resources, yet to no avail. What can go wrong may well go wrong, and if it does not it may succeed only partially or hardly at all. In short, power as an outcome should not be ‘read off ’ from a resource base, regard- less of its size or scope. Power is in this sense no more to be found ‘in’ the apparatus of rule than sound is to be found ‘in’ the wood of musical instruments. (2003: 5)

Power is above all a relational effect, not a property that can be held by someone or something. Thus, metaphors of its seizure – as if power were a tiller waiting to be grasped so that the crew might set a different course – or of its destruction – as if power could be blown up – are profoundly unhelpful because they lack a basis in primarily embodied metaphors of power (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). We experience power not as a thing but as a relation. And we are quite capable of understanding the relation and accepting it nonetheless because, for practical reasons, most of our social knowledge has to be based in those relations in which we are involved, and this tends to reproduce these relations. We cannot easily deny those relations we experience every day, if only for the ontological reason that most actors would become chronically insecure if they were, to any great extent, to confront critically the knowledge that they hold in their practical consciousness. The relational quality of power is a potentially great source of systemic stability.

When the Stasi could no longer translate the authority of their office into fearful subordination by the people, they could no longer exercise the power that they had done previously. If the heir to the throne of a country cannot even organize his own wedding as he would like, despite all the organization of flunkies, courtiers and advisors; and if, when he occasionally deigns to visit one of his mother’s dominions, he is largely ignored by his ‘loyal subjects’; then it is not clear that the authority claimed due to tradition translates into much power outside of the immediate spatial circumstances of the specific locale in which he knows that this authority will be recognized. Being an heir to a throne enables one to access resources but not necessarily to translate this access into the power to achieve specific outcomes – such as not being treated with indifference when one steps out- side the boundaries within which authority can be orchestrated. While primogen- iture may provide access to valuable resources of power, what one is able to do with its instruments of rule is not given by their access.

Instruments allow us to use them to exert our will; whether that will is repaid by sweet music or merely discord is a separate matter. To exercise power over an instrument to unlock its capabilities to produce great music requires considerable skill, discipline and practice. It is not enough to have a Stradivarius; one must be able to unleash what a Stradivarius is capable of being and doing. Often, this will require the concerted actions of many others – the orchestration of power – where it is less the power over some entity held by its possession that matters so much as the concertative power that surrounds and embeds this potential power over resources (see Bourdieu 1977: 72 on orchestration).

Orchestration implies a great deal. First, it implies a sign system that those who are being orchestrated can read and understand in common. Second, the sign system should be infinitely translatable from any one place to another. It should be capable of travel. Third, its instantiation requires a high degree of concertation across space and time. Orchestras are often found in theaters, and the theater metaphor is one that has been stretched far from its original usage; one talks, for instance, of a theater of war, where opposing forces seek to orchestrate their sway over a physical space defined as territory. With this metaphorical switch we shift from the orchestration of effective governance with a limited and spatially confined theater – the orchestra pit – to one that is far more diffuse but still territorially defined. We can make the territoriality aspect clearer with an example used earlier. Iraq, one of the venues for the ‘War on Terror’, is a definite physical space even if it is one in which the remit of sovereignty is highly contested and authoritative power is extremely limited by the pervasive use of violence on all sides.9 Power does not exist apart from its constitution; it is, as Allen puts it, ‘coextensive with its field of operation. Power is practiced before it is possessed and it is this that gives rise to the roundaboutness of power, not some facile notion that it is a shadowy force lurking in the murky recesses’ (2003: 9). In the next chapter we shall consider the views of Foucault, which are the most significant statement of a constitutive analysis of power.

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

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