Tuesday, January 15, 2008
People have the power, so don't throw it out with the bathwater
Anthony Giddens’ “Agency and Structure” posits a greater degree of individual volitional agency than is normally acknowledged by social theorists such as Marx, Durkheim, Freud, and Althusser. These theorists posit a version of an overarching structure (economics, social utility, the sub-conscious, powerful ideological institutions) that compels people to behave as they do (think of Hegel's a priori Spirit as the fountainhead of history and time, things as they are). Giddens also takes issue with those who go to the other extreme, claiming that individual actors rationally and consciously make decisions without constraint. This is the tactic taken by radical free-market economists. Power then, according to Giddens is not entirely structure or actors, but rather, “power relations are always two-way, even if the power of one actor or party in the social relation is minimal compared to another” (93).
O.K., my ideology antennae start to flail when I read that power is a modality or resource used to conduct relationships among actors in a system unrelated to motivations or wants, but I am open to this broader conception of agency because it does remind me of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, which invests much in the consent of individuals in creating and reproducing systems of power. Gramsci writes about people acting in their self-perceived best interest, even if this is won by ideologically grounded persuasive means unconnected to their actual self-preservation, and might act to keep things stable (if imperfect) just to keep conditions from getting worse than they already are. The point is that social relationships large and small are all subject to change, even if some systems and institutions persist over time. In line with this, Giddens sees power as “centrally involved with human agency,” with both “transformative capacity and “domination” (89).
Foucault describes a similar notion of power that is cognizant of the good works it can produce: “If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but to say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it? . . . It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression” (119). I’m at least convinced that power is not easily understood, and I am beginning to see how it functions as a resource or modality that is at its nature unconnected to outcomes, even as it is imbricated in structures (economic, political, social) that are dominating and repressive. Just don’t throw out the power with the bathwater. People have the power, just not all of it at any one time.
Thank goodness Foucault and Giddens’ conclusions are more succinctly stated (but less methodologically grounded) in Patti Smith’s “People have the Power” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCn-mpXZZps
Posted by Technical and Professinal Summer 08 at 1:08 AM