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.

Explaining large social formations: fascism

In a previous post I discussed the problem of explaining fascism. Let’s return to this issue as a topic for historical and social inquiry.

There are clearly a number of different explanatory questions we might have in mind: why did fascist movements emerge and gain popular support in the first three decades of the twentieth century? Why did these movements prevail in several countries and not in others? (This version parallels Skocpol’s question about revolutions.) Why did fascist states develop the political institutions they did in Germany, Italy, and Spain? How did fascist states and leaders exercise power? What prevented the rise of powerful fascist movements on France and Britain — in spite of the presence of ultra-nationalist leaders and organizations?

These are all different questions — even if there are relations among them. A particularly central question concerns the factors that were conducive to the emergence of extremist beliefs and organizations in certain periods and what factors favored the growth and power of some of these movements. This is a bundle of questions about the conditions that favor collective mobilization and ideological formation on a mass society. It is the sort of research question that Chuck Tilly and other scholars of popular mobilization have been concerned with.

Another set of questions about the course of fascism has more to do with institution building and state formation. Given the goal of creating powerful stare institutions within the general framework of fascist ideas and goals, what institutional and organizational possibilities existed? Here we might refer to the repertoire of mass organization that fascist “revolutionaries” brought to their movement, as well as the historical and practical options that existed. This area of inquiry may provide a basis for answering questions about the
particular nature of fascist political institutions.

Finally, the distinct question of why it was that fascist movements and leaders were able to defeat democratic movements and states requires that we identify some of the circumstances that weakened democratic regimes. This may be a wide range of factors: challenges of war, ideological conflict with communists and other critics of the state, and the economic circumstances of the great depression. (These fall in the same category as the circumstances that Skocpol brings forward as being relevant to the success or failure of revolutions.)

It would appear that social scientists and historians have better tools for addressing the issue of successful mobilization than the institutional or causal conditions surrounding seizure of power and state building. Schematically, we might consider a causal narrative along these lines: Conditions that favor fascism include the presence of a marginalized group of young people who are subject to great economic insecurity; an ideology that combines nationalism, ethnic
suspicion, and disaffection from established social institutions and values, and a compelling narrative of how and why this group ought to wield power. To this we might add a few propitious international conditions: the threat of war, a widening economic crisis, and a broad
view that the modern state isn’t up to handling these challenges.

This approach sketches out a view of what might be a basis for an explanation of the rise of fascist social movements. Here we have singled out several causal-social factors that facilitate popular mobilization and the politicization of social movements. What it doesn’t yet explain is why and in what circumstances these movements are likely to grow powerful enough to challenge the existing state structure; this remains for another discussion.

Explaining fascism

Kevin Passmore’s short introduction to fascism comes out at a good time (Fascism: A Very Short Introduction). Passmore does a great job of framing the problem. He poses a definitional question — what is fascism — and demonstrates that this apparently semantic issue requires careful historical and theoretical analysis. Arriving at a good definition of fascism is itself an empirical and historical task. Passmore asks a set of causal questions: How do the fascisms of Europe relate to important social forces in the early twentieth century (for example, the role of great social classes in conflict)? And he addresses the issue of saying what is involved in explaining fascism (the role of analysis and theory). Passmore also presents a very sophisticated treatment of the variety and diversity of human institutions — issues raised elsewhere under the topic of “heterogeneity”.

Of special interest for us is the question, Is fascism a particular social system (dictatorship with such-and-so attributes)? Or was it first and foremost a historically distinctive political and social movement with characteristic values and ideology (violence, nationalism, anti-communism)? Is it a historically specific moment, or is it a systemic development stimulated by some structural feature of modern society (deadlocked conflict between workers and the bourgeoisie)? Crudely — is fascism a social formation, an ideological complex, a social movement, or a type of government apparatus? And our efforts of explanation will depend on what sort of answer we give to these ontological questions.

These alternative definitions of fascism would give rise to very different explanatory challenges. And in fact, there is a wide variety of explanatory and causal questions that can be considered: Why did the fascist movements arise? Why did they gain a mass following? How did the social realities of capitalism affect the emergence and form of fascism? How important were the particular qualities and ideas of Hitler, Mussolini, or Franco in the evolution of fascism as a social system? Why did fascist dictatorships take the form they did? Why did official and affiliate group violence take the virulent forms that it did? How did fascist governments maintain power? Did these governments gain “legitimacy” and support in their populations? Is there a characteristic “pattern of development” for fascist regimes, or are their political histories deeply contingent on events and persons? Are Germany, Italy, and Spain variants of one social form, or are they simply independent social systems possessing some family resemblances in ideology, propaganda systems, and propensities for violence?

We might also consider whether explanation needs to occur at a lower level — not “why fascism?” but rather, “why the Iron Guard in Romania”, “why this or that feature of Italian fascism”, “why this particular feature of Spanish state-military relations in Franco’s fascism?”. Here the point might be that there are no general or comprehensive explanations of the emergence and development of fascism in all the places it occurred; no common causes that were always or usually instrumental; but rather that each national history needs to be treated in its own terms. But, as Passmore demonstrates, this would be somewhat too skeptical; there certainly were some large international and national forces that facilitated fascist mobilization and seizure of power in many different countries.

The historical phenomena of fascism are interesting and important, because they represented powerful social forces (movements and governments that had great influence on events in the twentieth century). We would like for historical social science to have something substantive and illuminating to say about the causes and trajectory of fascism. And, of course, we would be well advised to notice the warning signs if there are any!

(Another excellent very short introduction from Oxford that is relevant to this topic is Helen Graham, The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction.)

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