Structure, psychology, power

Political and social power involves the exercise of social resources to compel various kinds of unwilling behavior by others. What creates power in society? What are the sorts of social and structural factors that permit individuals to exercise power? And what features of personality lead a given individual to choose to use the instruments of power to achieve his/her will? In short — how does power pertain to “structure” and “agency”?

This is one of the categories in social analysis that requires that we bring together both agency and structure. Individuals wield power; but they only do so on the basis of resources and advantages that are conferred upon them by existing social relations. The enduring social relations that exist in a society — for example, property relations, administrative and political relations, or the legal system — constitute a structure within which agents act, and they determine the distribution of crucial social resources that become the raw materials on the basis of which agents exercise power over other individuals and groups. So the particular details of a social structure are crucial in determining the forms of power that exist in the society. For example, a privileged position within the property system — the possession of significant income and wealth — confers a resource advantage on people in that position. They can use their wealth to solicit powerful allies; they can purchase media outlets; they can influence politicians — all with an eye to achieving their goals in spite of the contrary wishes or interests of others.

Likewise, a privileged position in the communications system — a television news producer or newspaper publisher, for example — can use his/her position to alter the way in which stories are presented in such a way as to change the way the public thinks about the issues; and these changes in thought can lead to changes in behavior. And an elected official can exercise power by setting the agenda for others — by including or excluding various options from consideration.

So one’s position within these various social structures — systems of social relations — determines the volume of social resources upon which one can call in the effort to constrain or compel the actions of others. Position determines one’s capacity for power. But it does not determine the exercise of power. To be said to exercise power, it is necessary to have the goal of compelling people to do things they don’t want to do. This is where agency or the “will to power” comes in. It is possible for a person with access to great power resources to nonetheless behave in ways that do not make use of power but rather depend on building consent and consensus. We might contrast Churchill with Stalin in mobilizing society for war; Churchill persuaded the British people to sacrifice in support of the war effort, whereas Stalin used the coercive power of the state to achieve his war mobilization goals.

This fact suggests that we need to consider something of the psychology of power. This is a topic that Adorno and other critical theorists invoked through the concept of the “authoritarian personality” — an idea invoked largely in an effort to understand fascism. Others might attempt to assimilate the willingness to use power under the category of “opportunistic” or “instrumentalist” decision-making: coercion is considered as simply one out a menu of feasible strategies for achieving one’s will. (This is perhaps the foundation of Hobbes’s understanding of the pursuit and use of power.) And here we might speculate that the “democratic personality” is a set of dispositions to behavior that lead the agent to seek out persuasion and consensus rather than force, deception, and coercion as instruments through which to achieve one’s goals. (Taken to the limit, we might say that a proper democracy creates an environment in which there is neither opportunity nor impulse towards the exercise of power.)

On this way of laying out the landscape of power, there are several dimensions to be considered: the social arrangements that make it possible for some individuals to pressure, coerce, and compel other individuals to do their bidding; the social arrangements that create profound conflicts of interest in the context of which the incentive to wield power naturally arises; and the circumstances of social psychology and personality that lead some individuals to choose to make use of resources of power to coerce, while others choose strategies that depend on willing consent to achieve collective purposes.

The power of the authoritarian state


If any collective entity possesses power, surely it is the state in a dictatorship – the Burmese military dictatorship or the single-party states of Cuba or China. So how does an authoritarian state exercise power?

It is common to equate power with the ability to coerce and threaten in order to compel behavior. And certainly force and repression play a crucial role in authoritarian politics. But even within a dictatorship the instruments of coercion are less than total. When the priests and young people of Burma went into the streets of Rangoon a few months ago, the military rulers were able to use a mix of violence and restraint that permitted them to prevail against a budding democracy movement in Burma. But in the past twenty years rulers in the Philippines, Czechoslovakia, and Tbilisi have found that their arsenal of water cannons, secret police, and truncheons have not sufficed to silence the streets. Plainly, then, control of the forces of repression is an important component of the power base of an authoritarian dictatorship; but its scope is not unlimited.

As was true in other postings about power, we have to begin by asking about the relational situation of the relevant actors. What is the will of the state? What is the scope of behavior that the state wishes to control? Who are the agents who are subjects to the state’s power? We might put the geometry of state power into a simple diagram: goals and priorities => levers of influence (repression, persuasion, bribery, cooptation, horse trading) => varied actors (civil servants, military officers, community leaders, bandits, citizens) => behavior. From the dictator’s point of view, there are two sets of actors over whom power needs to be exerted: intra-state actors – persons charged within the government to carry out the dictator’s will; and actors in civil society – the citizens and organizations that make up mass society. Intuitively, the power of a state is measured by its ability to constrain the behavior of a set of actors in ways that permit it to achieve its goals.

Let’s look first at the intra-state actors. A state is a bureaucratic entity with decision-makers at a range of levels. Ministries and organs of the state — the police and military for example — have their own sources of power and domains of influence that are not fully within the control of higher authority. So the highest authority — president or general – has only a limited ability to directly impose his will upon lower levels. In the extreme case the executive can discipline or remove the lower-level director. But this lever is imprecise; it leaves the agency director a certain amount of undetectable freedom of action. So we can readily envision the situation where the executive has announced a certain priority for his government, and where two important ministries come into conflict over what to do. And one or both may be motivated by local interests rather than the priorities of the state. (This seems to be an important clue in explaining some current developments in China. Central policies enacted in Beijing are ignored or reconsidered in regional government offices.) In this instance we need to ask, what levers of power and influence does the executive have within the government itself through which it can compel compliance by both agencies?

At this level we find the familiar processes of cooptation, alliance, inducement — as well as threat — found in all organizations. Perhaps a singular difference is that the use of violence is closer to the surface in dictatorship than in other political organizations. But the task facing the fascist dictator has much in common with that of the executive of other large organizations with multiple agendas. The 20th century confronts us with some extreme cases — Stalin’s terrorism extended within his government as well as towards Soviet society at large, and Stalin used purges and executions to compel bureaucratic compliance. But it is an important question in organizational studies to assess the degree to which force and violence can effectively run a complex organization. And it seems likely that more ordinary mechanisms of persuasion and cooperation must usually be invoked.

So much for the problem of exercising power within the state. Now consider the larger and more interesting question of power used against civil society and ordinary citizens. The issue of power arises only when the state wants a certain kind of behavior and citizens don’t want to behave in this way. Take the large issues over which states want to exercise their will over citizens: taxation, conscription, and delivery of agricultural products. There is, first, the use of the threat of punishment to compel conformance. Draft dodgers can be hunted down and punished, villages can be threatened with violent retaliation if villagers avoid taxes, and food can be withheld from non-compliant regions (for example, Stalin’s war on the kulaks; see Lynne Viola, ed. The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside). Moreover, if the state can establish a pervasive network of police and informants, it can make its threats credible — with the result that compliance with law and dictum is reasonably high. So the organs of repression are certainly an important element of power for the authoritarian state.

Beyond violence, beyond effective enforcement, what other levers of behavior modification exist for the state? Two come to mind immediately: propaganda and the market. States often have a substantial degree of control over the instruments of thought formation — schooling, media, and communications technology. And experience has made it clear that there is a substantial degree to which a population’s behavior can be altered through these tools. Markets and other impersonal social mechanisms are another important mechanism for shaping behavior. China’s one-child policy was successful in altering the reproductive behavior of hundreds of millions of Chinese people. And these policies turned on a combination of coercion, enforcement, and financial incentives.

So perhaps the question of how authoritarian states exercise power is somewhat straightforward to answer: through organized repression, through artful command of a bureaucracy capable of acting cohesively, through the development of alliances with actors inside and outside of government, through cooptation of some actors to the disadvantage of other actors, through management of large social structures such as the market, and through the ability to set the terms of political behavior through the media and schooling.

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