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Negara mawi tata, desa mawi cara (The capital has its order, the village its customs)

One of the great debates in defining the ontological properties of power in the modern era has been the relationship between the State and the individual. Another has been regarding the composition of the State and the source of its legitimacy. These are the key nodes of power that have influenced the individual and shaped history. To understand the exercise of power by the State upon the individual and vice-versa would contribute to understanding the nature of power itself. Power, like everything else, is a social construct and can therefore not be studied separate from its environment. I do not mean to imply that power is somehow less “real” or less worthy because it is a social construct—in fact, I believe that many social constructs have real impact and can therefore not be separated from “reality” in any meaningful way. What I wish to stress is that the nature of power is fluid and therefore its wielders have the ability to constantly reshape its role in society. Power is a relationship of domination and subjugation, of both creation and repression—it is simultaneously a process that one actuates as well as the effects of that process.1 It is this constant flux has obfuscated our understanding of power.

I try to trace the arguments made about power by some western intellectuals such as Niccolò Machiavelli, James Harrington, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, GWF Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Jürgen Habermas over the past few centuries. I also wish to demonstrate that despite the radical change in society, power has worked in a fairly similar fashion during this period. The liberation of the individual that had been the mission of the Enlightenment has been achieved but with unforeseen side effects. Despite the pessimistic readings of twentieth-century theorists, it is my contention that individual liberty has increased with the increase in State power and is today perhaps at its highest in human history. As Anthony Giddens has stated, the State is today “the pre-eminent form of power container…a locale is a power container in so far as it permits a concentration of allocative and authoritative resources.”2 Therefore, I focus on the discourse on the legitimacy of State power over the past five hundred years. I hope to show that as State power has increased, its criticism has too, as has individual liberty.

Any project of this magnitude and nature is fraught with many structural difficulties. It is nearly impossible to take into account every major idea over an epoch that may have influenced the overall thinking about a notion as ambiguous as power. Therefore, the author’s choice of chronological situation of the project and thinkers can considerably skew the conclusions the project draws. However, my aim here is to merely offer one avenue of thought in the larger project.

Early Modern Theorists

Niccolò Machiavelli’s 1513 work, The Prince, laid down the guidelines for effective rule by autocratic regimes.3 For Machiavelli, effective government means the stability of the State, not the good of the people. In a departure from classical thinkers such as Aristotle, Machiavelli treats the subjects of a State as simpleminded and fickle. He writes, “people are fickle by nature: it is easy to convince them of something, but difficult to hold them in that conviction.”4 Therefore, people will either love or hate their ruler, depending on whether they are content or harmed. However, Machiavelli stresses that the relationship between the ruler and the ruled is a kind of social contract. In Machiavelli’s cosmology, a prince is created “either with the favour of the common people or with that of the nobility.”5 Since the people wish not to be oppressed and the nobility wish to oppress, they both agree to create a third alternative, the prince. Machiavelli insists that the prince is secure only with the support of the people since they are so many. Thus, power emerges from conflict between the aristocracy and the people. Clearly, power here does not originate with the State but is a force of permissiveness created through a kind of social contract. Further, Machiavelli notes that while the nobles will attempt to use the prince to satisfy their drive to political control, the people desire “only not to be oppressed”; as a result, the prince is advised to ally himself with the people and to seek their legitimation “because men who are treated well by those from whom they expect harm are more obliged to their benefactor.”6 Machiavelli conceives of power as series of ties that bind together individuals and their force relations. Also, once the prince is in a position to exercise the permission for power he has received from the people, he has to balance his drive to acquire more force with the recognition that his permission-to-power can be taken away from him. Thus, Machiavelli sees the subject as making a choice about his own political domination. Although Machiavelli’s prince rules in an autocratic regime, he must nonetheless practice the type of politics demanded in republics. His aim is not to be loved, but to not be hated. In this odd balance, although Machiavelli’s aims are not the general welfare of the populace, it is one of the by-products of Machiavellian rule.7 Thus, even though the people do not directly have power, they are the source of power for Machiavelli in that they could deny the prince his power through civil disturbance if they were dissatisfied.

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, written nearly a century and half after The Prince, also argues that the common good will come only from a strong State. However, like Machiavelli, Hobbes also sees power as originating from the people and being handed to the ruler in a form of social contract rather than originating at the top of the social structure and spreading to the bottom. Hobbes declares,

I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. And the cause of this is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power, but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more. And from hence it is that kings, whose power is greatest, turn their endeavours to the assuring it at home by laws, or abroad by wars…fear of oppression disposeth a man to anticipate or to seek aid by society: for there is no other way by which a man can secure his life and liberty.8

For Hobbes, the state of nature is cruel and harsh. Competition and conflict are the natural states of humankind—all men are equal and thus are destined to engage in constant and unwinnable battle. Hobbes asserts that “without a common power to keep them all in awe, men are in a condition of war of every man against every man.”9 The function of the Leviathan, argues Hobbes, is to repress the competitive and anarchic nature of mankind and thus to allow for the creation of civilized society in a condition of peace. Thus, Hobbes claims that power has a dual repressive/creative function, both of which are necessary for the proper functioning of society. Hobbes also asserts that the only way to emerge from a state of anarchy and achieve a civilized society was for “the multitude” to voluntarily “confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men.”10 Society must enter into a covenant, “that a man be willing, when others are so too…to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself.”11 Power here is the potential for productive and repressive action that Hobbes believed inhered in every man. For Hobbes, neither the “constitution of the law or even the actual workings of the political system make any difference”—they only make hierarchical the pre-existent force relations embedded in society at large.12

Hobbes is aware that the system of government he recommends is severe. The iconography of the Leviathan is a sea monster from the Bible.13 However, Hobbes believed that to ensure that the contract between men is not broken, it must be held together by fear of a higher power that can enforce it. The realm of the metaphysical could not, for Hobbes, serve as the higher power for want of certitude. Thus, despite rejecting Robert Filmer’s advocacy of the divine right of Kings in the Patriarchia or the Natural Power of Kings, Hobbes did not believe that power should be shared between Parliament and the King. Hobbes’ fear of the state of nature, of the unpredictability and danger of and to men in that state force him to expound his theory of a strong sovereign who would control society. Hobbes’ sovereign, however, is created through a contract, and therefore, despite his “absolute rule,” he is still subject to that contract. Therefore, it seems that Hobbes is also arguing that the people have the ultimate power, but Hobbes does not mean that individuals have power. “The people,” for Hobbes, is a collectivised category. As a unity, society is the source of power, but the sovereign, who represents this unity has absolute power over any one individual.

James Harrington, in his The Commonwealth of Oceana, enters into a debate with both, The Prince and Leviathan. In many ways, his work was a restatement of Aristotle’s own work on a theory of constitutional stability and revolution. Harrington believed that neither Machiavelli nor Hobbes had considered the full impact of economics upon politics. His belief that political power stemmed from economic wealth convinced him that the only viable form of government in England was a republic controlled by the people, for the monarch and aristocracy no longer possessed the bulk of the country’s wealth as they once had. Oceana is a carefully elaborated work, right down to the salaries of officials, but Harrington’s basic idea is that the determining element of power in a State is property. Therefore, he recommended an agrarian law, limiting holdings of land that would yield revenues of up to £2000. A popular land distribution secured by agrarian institutionalised laws would prevent the dominion from being under the authority of the aristocracy and would maintain a popular government. Harrington believed that the executive should be rotated through office, and this should be done through a secret ballot.

An equal commonwealth is a government established upon an equal
agrarian, arising into the superstructures or three orders, the senate
debating and proposing, the people resolving, and the magistracy executing by
an equal rotation through the suffrage of the people given by the [secret]

Harrington’s system was far from completely egalitarian—only male citizens over the age of thirty would be enfranchised. He wanted a series of hierarchically organized assemblies from the parish at the bottom to the national level at the top. These assemblies were to be divided—according to wealth—between commoners and knights.15 The knights’ assembly (House of Lords) would propose legislation and the commoners’ assembly (House of Commons) would approve or reject it.16 The individuality of Harrington’s thought lay in his economic theory of power.

Thus, for Harrington too, power derives from the people. Unlike Machiavelli and Hobbes, Harrington believes that power originates in the economic activity of the people, not their value as political pawns (Machiavelli) or in their desire to escape from fear (Hobbes). However, Harrington also believed in the institutionalisation of laws, that which we associate with the modern State. Thus, all three thinkers we have discussed so far believed that the power of the State, within limits, would guarantee individual liberties.

John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government has had a tremendous impact on modern thinking on liberty and capitalism. Locke is at great pains to actualise Hobbes “state of nature,” the primordial state of brutality and cruelty that necessitates the presence of a strong government that could protect the liberties of individual people. Locke also believed that the relationship between the State and its citizens took the form of a contract: the governed agreed to surrender certain freedoms they enjoyed under the state of nature in exchange for the order and protection provided by a State, exercised according the rule of law. However, if the State overstepped its limits and began to exercise arbitrary power, the citizens not only had the right to overthrow the State, but were morally compelled to do so. Thus, Locke also saw the power of the State as vital to guarantee individual liberty. Especially with the monetisation of the economy, it was required that the State be a guarantor of the paper currency that served as the medium of exchange. Letters of credit, fluid values of currency, and a general market economy needed institutional structures that we today associate with the State. Locke therefore argued that the State was integral to a well-ordered society. Locke wrote,

If man in the State of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which ’tis obvious to answer, that though in the State of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain and constantly exposed to the invasion of others. For all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this State is very unsafe, very unsecure.
This makes him willing to quit a condition which, however free, is full of
fears and continual dangers: and ’tis not without reason that he seeks out and
is willing to join in society with others who are already united, or have a
mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and
estates, which I call by the general name, property.17

However, the State as envisioned by Locke was viable only as long as it did not overstep its bounds and restrict the general well-being of the people. The main difference between Locke and Hobbes is that while Locke believes that it is the moral duty of citizens to overthrow a bad ruler, Hobbes thinks that even a bad ruler is preferably to returning to the state of nature. Because Locke did not envision the state of nature as grimly as did Hobbes, he could imagine conditions under which society would be better off rejecting a particular civil government and returning to the state of nature, with the aim of constructing a better civil government in its place. It is therefore both the view of human nature, and the nature of morality itself, which account for the differences between Hobbes’ and Locke’s views of the social contract.

Thus, Early Modern thinkers viewed the State as a necessary imposition upon the individual. Some thinkers, like Machiavelli, spoke disparagingly of commoners and it is easy to miss the importance of the populace in his writings. However, Machiavelli makes it clear in his Discourses on Livy the importance of the welfare of the people. For Hobbes, because of the variance in human desires, the State should be run in common agreement. Therefore, he reifies the people into a Leviathan that speak collectively, much like Jean-Jacques Rousseau would imagine a century later. However, unlike Rousseau, Hobbes does not think that administration can be done through plebiscitary methods and gives his sovereign absolute authority over individuals, not the collective people. Locke and Harrington are closer to modern political structure than the others in that they both speak of a participatory system that resembles a democracy in many ways. However, both these philosophers are aware of the dilutive effects of including everyone in the political system. Therefore, they restrict political participation, and therefore power, to the upper classes of society. In historical context, the period in which these writers lived was one marked by the first stirrings of the emergence of the modern State. The transition from traditional, or pre-modern, society to a modern State concerned all these theorists, though not in those exact terms. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the emergence of a State that governed for the general welfare of the common people, though not necessarily by their will—women and slaves were not represented, and for a while, neither were unlanded gentry—was strongly advocated. The emergence of a centralised State helped some segments of society. For example, women, particularly in the Mediterranean countries, gained more rights and protection under the new centralised State.

Enlightenment and Nineteenth-Century Theorists

Jean-Jacques Rousseau has been one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. His famous work, The Social Contract, emphasises some of the same arguments Hobbes and Locke made, that man’s existence within a society depends upon a contract between him and that society. For Rousseau, earlier governments had been of aristocrats seeking to preserve their privileged position and maintain the inequalities in society. These governments, through their limited contracts, rigidified class difference and violated the principle of summum bonum. “Civilisation” had corrupted man’s natural moral state. Rousseau’s suggestion is an extremely involved participatory democracy, whereby the will of each individual in the contract is taken into account.

Rousseau’s covenant requires the agreement of individuals to come together to form a collective, a community, which is more than the aggregation of individual wills and interests.18 This is very similar to Hobbes’ idea of the Leviathan. The formation of this abstracted collective is, for Rousseau, the foundation of a real society. The sovereign is thus formed when free and equal persons come together and agree to create themselves anew as a single body, directed to the good of all considered together. Included in this version of the social contract is the idea of reciprocated duties: the sovereign is committed to the good of the individuals who constitute it, and each individual is likewise committed to the good of the whole. Given this, individuals cannot be given liberty to decide whether it is in their own interests to fulfil their duties to the sovereign, while at the same time being allowed to reap the benefits of citizenship. They must be made to conform themselves to the general will, they must be “forced to be free.”19

Criticism of the Enlightenment did not take long to appear. Joseph-Marie de Maistre’s 1809 essay titled, Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques et des autres institutions humaines, argued for the centrality of God in History. In this work, his fundamental argument is that constitutions, or social contracts, are not the result of human deliberations but come in due time and under suitable circumstances from God. De Maistre’s opening line clearly indicates his view of the ideas of earlier thinkers:

One of the grand errors of an age, which professed them all, was, to believe that a political constitution could be written and created a priori; whilst reason and experience unite in establishing, that a constitution is a Divine work, and that that which is most fundamental, and most essentially constitutional, in the laws of a nation, is precisely what cannot be written… To this general rule, that no constitution can be made or written, à priori,
we know of but one single exception; that is, the legislation of, Moses.20

De Maistre argues that Locke and Hobbes only speak of conventions and regulations, but not laws. Apparently, De Maistre does not see how a sovereign can impose absolute order legitimately. He writes,

Locke endeavours to discover the characteristic feature of law in the expression of united wills; but has thus happened to hit upon the characteristic which exactly excludes the idea of law. In fact, united wills form the regulation, and not the law,
which manifestly and necessarily supposes a superior will that makes itself to
be obeyed. In the system of Hobbes, (the same that has had such currency in
our day, under the pen of Locke,) the force of civil laws reposes only upon a
convention; but if there is no natural law which requires the execution of
laws that are made, of what use are they? Promises, engagements, oaths, are
mere words: it is as easy to break this frivolous bond as to form it. Without
the doctrine of a Divine Lawgiver, all moral obligation is chimerical. Power
on one side, weakness on the other, constitutes the whole bond of human

In his other important work, Du Pape, De Maistre argues that the Pope is the sovereign in the Church and since it is an essential characteristic of all sovereign power that its decisions should be subject to no appeal, the Pope is infallible in his teaching—it is by his teaching that he exercises his sovereignty. Furthermore, he argues that nations require protection against abuses of power by a sovereignty superior to all others, and that this sovereignty should be that of the papacy, the origin of European civilisation. Thus, for De Maistre, God is the source of all power and the betterment of society lies in the rule of his representative on Earth.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s renowned The Philosophy of History, published around the same time as Du Pape, introduces an odd twist to the debates on the legitimacy of the State. Hegel agrees that the “State is thus the embodiment of rational freedom, realising and recognising itself in an objective form.”22 However, for Hegel, it is the geist that is the mover of History, an amorphous concept that is the combination of freedom, reason, and self-consciousness. Hegel’s view of power thus has a metaphysical element to it as well. To Hegel, “world history is thus the unfolding of Spirit in time, as nature is the unfolding of the Idea in space.”23 For Hegel, however, reason takes on many of the characteristics commonly attributed to God—it is infinite power, it is the substance of the universe, it is the infinite energy of the universe, it is the infinite complex of things, “their entire Essence and Truth.”24 In Hegelian thought, because reason and spirit are complementary, and because nations were the manifestation of the spirit—and the quantum unit of world history was the nation-state—the origin of nations and their power can be construed to have divine origins. Hegel argued, “But in the History of the World, the Individuals we have to do with are Peoples; Totalities that are States.”25 Thus, Hegel is convinced that power is of divine origin, manifesting itself in the perfect logic of statism—the State is the source of power, not the people. For Hegel, the State is “the Universal that has expressed its actual rationality, representing the identity of the general and the particular will. It is the embodiment of complete freedom, in which the individual’s particular interests have their complete development and receive their adequate recognition of their rights.”26

Marx’s searing analysis of modern capitalist society in the 1867 Das Kapital has exerted and continues to exert enormous influence in both political theory and practice. Like others before him, Marx theorized in his work about the origins of power and its effects. In Marx’s system, both workers and bourgeoisie are alienated from society and from each other because they are all estranged from the means of production—the bourgeois does not produce the products s/he owns while the labourer is alienated from his own body by the deadening mechanized routine of his/her labour. Man is estranged from the human species at large because the links between labour and the products of that labour are severed at every level.27 Power for Marx seems to be related to labour and the ability for a worker to enjoy the fruits of his/her labour is an affirmation of each person’s “essential power,” in much the same way as liberty is for Hobbes.28 Lack of power is here equated with dependence; thus, “a man who lives by the grace of another is a dependent being.”29 Thus, Marx argues that engine of socio-cultural change is the fundamental antagonism of the classes which produces class struggle. Social conflict is at the core of the historical process. The origin of this social power lies, for Marx, in the ownership or control of the forces of production. Under the capitalist system, neither worker nor capitalist is truly free, then, since they depend on each other for the means to sustain life. However, Marx argues for the possibility, indeed, for the necessity, of system-wide change, writing in the Communist Manifesto that when class distinctions have been obliterated by the revolution of the proletariat, all political power will disappear, since “political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another.”30 The forces of commodification that had previously produced alienation will be swept away and along with them, unequal force relations. All the previous social contracts were flawed because they were entered into, not in full consciousness, Marx argues, but because the previous economic structure influenced the people’s social consciousness.31 “Legal relations as well as form of State are to be grasped neither from themselves nor from the so-called general development of the human mind, but rather have their roots in the material conditions of life, the sum total of which Hegel…combines under the name of ‘civil society.’…The anatomy of civil society is to be sought in political economy.”32 Thus, for Marx, the source of power is capital, for it lends shape to the social contract which society agrees to live by. Unlike Harrington, Marx believes that the source of power lies in the means of capital production, while Harrington argued that economics is the source of power. For Harrington, who lived in a primarily agrarian time, wealth, and the ability to regenerate it, symbolised power. He was not witness to the industrial revolution as Marx was, and did not expound on the subtler points of Marx’s argument that class structures created through various means of producing wealth and control of them held power.

Friedrich Nietzsche has had a tremendous impact on the literature on power. Nietzsche’s model of power in On the Genealogy of Morals is based on a struggle internal to every individual rather than at the level of the State. It is “a critique of moral values” and a search for their origin.33 According to Nietzsche, the origin of the terms “good” and “bad” stems not from “unegoistic action” but rather “from the protracted and domineering fundamental total feeling on the part of a higher ruler order in relation to a lower order.” In this view, “good,” which originally meant “noble,” “aristocratic,” and “privileged,” was hijacked by the priestly caste of Christianity and subverted into a definition of weakness rather than one of power.34 Power here is conceived of as an essential dynamism and stems from an essential aspect of a man’s nature—one is born either a “master” with a will-to-power or a “slave” without it. Conversely, powerlessness, or impotence, is equated with lack of will.35 Although power is here an inherent quality, it is also dynamic, since Nietzsche also insists that power does not exist apart from its expression, noting that just as the popular mind separates the lightning from its flash and takes the latter for an action, for the operation of a subject called lightning, so popular morality also separates strength from expressions of strength…but…there is no “being” behind the doing, effecting becoming; “the doer” is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.36

The deed here creates the doer and the two are inseparable. In a way, the subject does not exist in the power paradigm, only the power exists and creates its subject in the moment of expression. Thus, Nietzsche’s übermensch is one who creates his own justification—his power is embodied in his actions and represents both the motive and the means. Interestingly, the Nietzschean hero was always conceived of in individualistic terms, in opposition to society rather than part of it, making power an expression of resistance to the social will rather than inhering in it.

An important Nietzschean concept is “the will-to-power,” in which the sovereign will grants its possessor “the right to make promises” and thus, to take action to actuate them. In Nietzschean cosmology the emancipated individual is the one with the most active will who is not afraid to take the action that is power.37 The will-to-power is an instinct and the man who can act upon it is superior to the one who is restrained by law or by his own superego. It is involuntary and the power it projects through its subject that is embodied in the act is like a force of nature—not to be judged as good or bad but simply as existent:

He who can command, he who is by nature “master,” he who is violent
in act and bearing—what has he to do with contracts? One does not reckon with
such natures; they come like fate, without reason, consideration or
pretext;…their work is an instinctive creation and imposition of forms; they
are the most involuntary unconscious artists.38

Thus, for Nietzsche, power is born of individual struggle of man against himself. It is the struggle of the man with the will-to-power to live a life according to the heroic ideals of yore and not to succumb to the puny temptations of the modern “herd.” The Nietzschean man desires to suffer; he seeks out suffering to give meaning to his life and ultimately to his death, an idea similar to Sigmund Freud’s death instinct. Perhaps in both Freudian and Nietzchean constructs of the subject, power resides in the ability to throw off the restraints of the superego (or the slave morality) and to march boldly toward the death that is the endpoint of all instinctual life.39

Nietzsche was a staunch anti-statist. In Also Sprach Zarathustra, he wrote, “Staat heißt das kälteste aller kalten Ungeheuer. Kalt lügt es auch; und diese Lüge kriecht aus seinem Munde: "Ich, der Staat, bin das Volk.”40 Nietzsche opined that ultimate power had to reside in the individual, for power meant liberty.41 He spoke out harshly against the herd mentality of belief systems—Nietzsche was against the Christian’s belief in absolutes or God, the fervour of nationalism and democracy among the people, the scholar’s pursuit of Truth, or any other mechanism that prevented people from realising their own will-to-power. In a manner, the will-to-power was an individual’s contract with himself. Power comes from thinking for Nietzsche. His critique of society was based on the unwillingness to question things and follow custom. As Pierre Bourdieu would later write, structured structure is predisposed to acting as a structuring structure. The endless and periodic repetition of daily tasks creates an aura of legitimacy around the status quo, the logic of habitus, as it were, so inculcated that it seems innate or like a reflex. Nietzsche was against the unthinking, mind-numbing repetition of quotidian life. The State could not offer liberty because it forces equality, which Nietzsche believed was unnatural.42

As we have seen, many post-Enlightenment thinkers were highly critical of the Enlightenment notions of State power. In this period, the State rapidly gained power. Tax proceeds, lists of taxpayers, land records, average incomes, unemployment statistics, mortality rates, economic figures, health data, maps, censuses, cadastral lists, and other abstractions of society allowed the State to enter into the every plane of human activity. “The invention, elaboration, and deployment of these abstractions represented an enormous leap in state capacity.”43 For the first time, state officials had direct knowledge of and access to a previously opaque society. With increasing State power, the more criticism it received. In some ways, it would seem, the constant vigilance demanded by Rousseau and Locke was achieved. Ironically, as state power increased, the quality of life also improved. In the pre-modern State, there was chronic gang violence and feuds of various sorts. The state authorities did not particularly concern themselves with maintaining law and order as long as it didn’t hinder the collection of taxes or disturb general order.44 As TJA Le Goff and DMG Sutherland have noted, “the old regime governed largely by not governing; it allowed rural communities to settle the bulk of their own affairs.”45 The modern State, however, followed Hobbes’ line that the end of the State was to produce a well-ordered life. Order was not the highest virtue for the intellectual movements of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Romanticism, bohemianism, and to some extent, even expressionism stressed the Dionysian side of the human. Post-Enlightenment thinkers were therefore not so enamoured by the role of the ordered modern State as Early Modern theorists were. Many intellectuals of the time believed, to paraphrase Ernest Gellner, that the Enlightenment came to Europe as a centralising rather than a liberating force.46

Twentieth-Century Theorists

The twentieth century has seen the greatest growth of methods of state surveillance. Bank accounts, social security numbers, credit cards, utilities, and other amenities allow a State to keep close tabs on the whereabouts and the activities of an individual. Not surprisingly, some of the most biting criticism of post-industrial society has come in the twentieth century. Intellectuals of the past hundred years have argued that not only does the State now watch over its citizens, but it also programs them through economic structures and mass media. Citizens are conditioned to a particular way of thinking through the bombardment of media images and ideas at all times.

C. Wright Mills first expressed his pessimism with post-industrial society in his 1959 volume, The Sociological Imagination. Mills noted that American educational aims had shifted from creating a good citizen to creating a good specialist. The reduction of humanities education in favour of vocational training had fuelled the growth of government bureaucracies. For Mills, there are three forms of power: the first, physical force or coercion, is not required in democratic societies and is maintained only as a last resort. He wrote, “All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence.”47 The second type is authority, derived from the position of the enactor in the bureaucratic framework and legitimised by the obedience of the subject. The third, and most sinister according to Mills, was manipulation, towards which bureaucratic authority was moving. Manipulation was wielded without knowledge of the subject, much similar to Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “false consciousness.” Like many of the Frankfurt School intellectuals, Mills saw the advent of mass communication and the accompanying technology as the harbingers of this new mode of control caused by increasing centralisation. As the mode of control shifts from overt to covert, the exercise of power is hidden, disabling any opposition to it. Mills’ solution is for individuals to become intellectuals, to possess the sociological imagination, which Mills described as “a quality of mind that seems most dramatically to promise and understanding of the intimate realities of ourselves in connection with the larger social realities…it is the quality whose wider and more adroit use offers us the promise that…human reason itself will come to play a greater role in human affairs.”48 The alienation felt in society was, Mill believed, the result of a lack of understanding of the social structures that surrounded people.49 Social research now focussed on an accumulation of data that reinforced the State rather than revealed any meaning of broader social issues. The goal of social research should be to view the individual in a larger context, and that of sociological imagination was human emancipation.

Jürgen Habermas brings together in his The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) the ideas of diverse schools of thought, from Hegel and Kant through Marx to the Frankfurt School thinkers. His work scrutinises the structural change of the public sphere in the modern era with the rise of state capitalism, the culture industries, and the increasingly powerful and influential role of multinational corporations in public life. Habermas contends that in the modern era, big economic and governmental organisations have taken over the public sphere, while citizens are relegated to become passive consumers of goods, services, and political administration. Habermas sees the rationalisation, humanisation, and democratisation of society in terms of the institutionalisation of the potential for rationality inherent to humans, which was developed or evolved through the political and socio-economic realms of society such as coffee houses, literary and other societies, voluntary associations, and the press during the eighteenth century. As ethnic, gender, racial, and class barriers fell during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the public sphere approached an ideal State, Habermas identifies a concurrent deformation of the public sphere through the growth of culture industries and the evolution of large private interests. Large newspapers devoted to profit, for example, turned the press into an agent of manipulation: “It became the gate through which privileged private interests invaded the public sphere.”50 The same structures that initially fostered the creation of a public sphere, i.e., the market and the State now work to repress it. The system, according to Habermas, takes on a persona of its own and the politico-economic logic suppresses the inherent rationality in “communicative action.” The misuse of publicity undermines the public sphere. “Manipulative publicity” has become common: “Even arguments are translated into symbols to which again one can not respond by arguing but only by identifying with them.”51 Such propaganda manages views, fosters political theatre, and conveys “authorized opinions.” Propagandistic spectacles are used by those in authority to assert dominance.52 This argument is similar to that of Theodor Adrno and Max Horkheimer in The Dialectic of Enlightenment: the culture industries are agents of mass deception, subverting the public thought of the individual. Propaganda is needed in the exercise of power for the simple reason that the masses have come to participate in political affairs.

Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, first published in 1964, addresses much of the same problems. Marcuse also contended that the mechanization of modern society has led to a loss of individual freedom at all levels, political, economic, and social. In fact, Marcuse argued that the separation between the public and private spheres has been obliterated by the increasing level of technological penetration of society, whereby modes of social, political, and economic control have become more scientific. Marcuse’s main criticism, however, is the gradual loss of pluralism and the institutionalization of important liberties that marked the birth of the Enlightenment. He argues further that post-industrial society lives in a state of subdued pluralism that is more threatening to pluralism than totalitarianism. Economic forces have restricted what is and what is not rational/possible in the work world, thought has become what the population has been manipulated into believing as public opinion by mass communication, politics has defined a narrow arena in which players can act, and science and technology continue to undergird our values, beliefs, and our sense of reality/rationality. In this controller-controlled binary power relation Marcuse conjures up, the controller has ceased to become any person or body of persons—power has shifted to an abstracted system of domination. Marcuse makes this point poignantly with his diatribe on empirical fetishism. The appearance of objectivity gives numbers and raw data much power, particularly in the eyes of the uninitiated (to the sciences). Thus, in Marcuse’s view, power now resides entirely outside of the state-individual relationship in an abstract manner. He who can best manipulate it holds power, be it a State or a corporation.

One of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century who has expounded on power remains Michel Foucault. For Foucault, power is intrinsically connected to knowledge. The later work of Foucault seems to posit that there is no subject who creates power, although there is motive for its creation. Thus, “power relations are both intentional and nonsubjective…there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives. But this does not mean that it results from the choice or decision of an individual subject.”53 Furthermore, he also notes that “the individual is not…the vis-à-vis of power; it is…one of its prime effects.”54 Consequently, “Foucault thinks of power as intentionality without the subject, such that power relations are intentional and can be described without being attributed to particular subjects as their conscious intentions.”55 In addition, Foucault’s ideas about power are predicated on the existence of a constant struggle between the forces of repression/coercion and those of freedom/resistance. Finally, Foucault subsumes his subject into the processes of power, until the subject disappears and only the power and its effects can be seen.

Power in the Foucauldian idiom is understood as:

the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms strengthens or reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system, or on the contrary, the disjunctions and contradictions which isolate and them from one another; and lastly, as the strategies in which they take effect.

This power is omnipresent because it is constantly being produced “from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every relation from one point to another. Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything but because it comes from everywhere.”56 These passages are perhaps the key to explaining the origin of power in Foucault’s model: since power is a dynamic force at the micro level, it is constantly being produced at the level of the individual subject. However, until the moment that an individual instance of power production can connect with another instance, it is not yet “power” in the Foucauldian sense, i.e., a multiplicity of force relations, but merely an expression of a singular force. Power originates at the micro level for Foucault in the sense that it is not unitary and imposed from above but is visibly composed of many tiny fragments of force that weave a grid when they come into contact. Thus, power “is a complex form of organization in which we are all involved”57 and cannot escape, since what holds us is inside us and among us. Foucault’s assertion makes power far more intangible. Its dissociation from any entity and appearance in the dynamic relationship between entities makes it more difficult to influence it. Thus, Foucault’s power paradigm becomes a prison for society. In a sense, Foucault continues Nietzsche’s assertion that the world is merely a system that the übermensch can rise above, but he then proceeds to declare that it is impossible to escape Max Weber’s iron cage of society, an all-encompassing institution Foucault calls the carceral system. Since power/knowledge in a post-industrial society can be defined only by technocrats and exercised by bureaucrats, it is impossible for the individual to access the nodes of power, and those who rise in the ranks of the technocrats or bureaucrats will have no incentive to reform, as Herbert Marcuse argued in One-Dimensional Man, because they themselves will have the most to lose.

For Foucault, like for Nietzsche, the main function of power is not a repressive but a creative one. “Power would be a fragile thing if its only function were to repress,” he writes, “if it worked only through the mode of censorship, exclusion, blockage and repression in the manner of a great Superego….If, on the contrary, power is strong this is because, as we are beginning to realise, it produces effects at the level of desire—and also at the level of knowledge.”58 Here, power functions through a set of shifting and personalized strategies, the chief of which are the production and normalization of a truth regime and invisibility.59 In fact, “power is tolerable only on the condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.”60 Thus, power appears to behave both repressively and creatively; however, both of these are essentially creative since power works to create its subject both positively through the disciplines as well as repressively through negation of desire. Since, desire in the Lacanian sense is a constant and cannot be satisfied, its repression is a creative and constitutive event for its subject.

Foucault’s detractors have criticized him on several counts. A prominent charge levelled at Foucault is that of his nihilism. Since most of his critics believe that a critique can only emerge from outside a dominant system, “by denying the possibility of an independent standpoint, Foucault appears to such critics to be not simply a functionalist but a nihilistic, fatalistic one.”61 A related charge is that of a deep-seated cynicism regarding the possibility for social change—thus it would seem that for Foucault, there are no historical “changes…which are justified by what we have become as a society” and no possibility for such change in the future.62 Another frequent charge is that his idea of power is so broad as to lose all true meaning, for if the notion of power is expanded “to include the background network of social practices,” how can there exist in society something that is “not-power”?63 It seems to me that one of Foucault’s most problematic positions is the lack of a subject in his grid of power relations that constitute society. Although it is clear that Foucault denies the possibility for autonomous agency within the system, action does not equal agency since actions can have unintended consequences from the motives of the agent in initiating action.

The focus on twentieth-century intellectuals has been the emancipation of the individual, not from a state of chaos or nature, but from a state of lock-step regimentation imposed by the State that was supposed to save them from chaos. Through its four institutional clusterings (heightened surveillance, capitalistic enterprise, industrial production, and the consolidation of centralised control of the means of violence), the State’s power has decimated the public sphere through manipulative propaganda and “colonised the individual’s psychic space” through mass media and abstracted, empirical socio-economic and political rationalisation.64 Power, for twentieth-century thinkers, is to be found in abstractions and in the networks we weave in our interactions. In traversing through time from Machiavelli to Foucault, the complexity or density, of power relations has increased, with more loci of interaction—more people, more institutions—to weave a finer web of interpersonal relations. With the domination of the State, however, then, as now, the State remains the ultimate arbiter of power. A finer web of power has increased the individual’s demands on the State as well as the State’s demands on the individual, and therefore, the state-individual relationship has become more reciprocal than before.


From the works of the thinkers analyzed above, it is clear that the origin of power, defined as force relations or the system that comprises them, can be found in the social contacts that are the carriers of power relations. While it is undoubtedly true, as pointed out by Foucault, that power is dispersed through a highly decentralized network, there are, nevertheless, some locales where power is concentrated—these points represent the convergence of strategies in which the combined forces that constitute individual relations join to create and disseminate a grammar of power that underlies our social structure. In this way, the grand strategies of macro-contexts—state, ruling class, or whatever—form the context in which micro-relations come to be, modify or reproduce themselves, while reciprocally these provide the soil and point of anchorage for the grand strategies. Thus, more than saying that power comes from the bottom, we should day that there is endless relation of reciprocal conditioning between global and micro-contexts.65

Together with the disciplinary institutions as described by Foucault, these include language at the level of its creation as an ideology and the law. By looking at the micro and the macro of power relations as forming a continuous, though not fully coherent, hegemonic system, it is possible to see that the law, which Foucault categorically rejects as meaningful creator of power creation, is actually one of the main loci of interaction between micro- and macro-power. Since laws do not just appear out of thin air but are legislated by elected officials who are human beings, they reflect the same integration into a system of conflict-generated power relations as the rules of the disciplinary institutions. This feat is achieved through the creation of an ideological discourse at the hegemonic, that is, universalizing, level.

Hannah Arendt’s On Violence deserves a special mention here. The notion that the State acquires legitimacy (and therefore power) by monopolising the means to violence is a popular one. As Max Weber is said to have claimed, the definition of the State was the rule of men over other men based on the means of (allegedly) legitimate violence. Arendt, however, challenges that idea, arguing that “actual power of the ruling class did not consist of or rely on violence. It was defined by the role the ruling class played in society.”66 Arendt seems to believe, as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke did, that “all political institutions are manifestations and materialisations of power; they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them.”67 Indeed, as Montesquieu noted, tyranny was the weakest of governments yet the most violent. Thus, Arendt’s work seems to bridge the gap between Early Modern and twentieth century theorists because she believes that power belongs not to an individual but a group, and it lasts only as long as the group keeps together. Power, for Arendt, is not simply the ability to act, but the ability to act in concert.68 When people talk of an individual that has power, they actually mean strength. Strength is the property of an individual independent of other external factors. Yet even the greatest strength can be overpowered, Arendt notes. Authority, another term often mistaken for power, relies upon persuasion, not coercion, for implicit in a relationship of authority is the unquestioned obedience and acceptance of it by those asked to obey. Authority is found in institutionalised power, and a rejection of the demands of that institution ends its grip on society. Thus, Mohandas Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement in the British Raj fundamentally violated the principle of British authority. His violence would probably not have been as great a threat. Arendt declares violence to be an instrumentalisation of strength.69 Violence appears to be a prerequisite of power because it is often used as a last resort to maintain order. Using the case of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, Arendt explains that when a regime loses power, i.e., violates its social contract, it quickly loses authority too. Violence is used to intimidate and coerce people to support the regime, but it is actually a symbol of the loss of power. Earlier thinkers, even Machiavelli, realised this, and therefore insisted that the welfare of the people be considered. In a showdown of a force of arms between the people and a regime, the regime has usually won, but only as long as it remained united. The Hungarian Uprising underscored the abstract nature of a State as its institutional representatives also abandoned it. Just as Hobbes’ Leviathan, it lost power without the support of its “contractees.” No government has ever existed, Arendt claims, based solely on the means of violence. “Even the most despotic domination…did not rest on a superior means of coercion as such, but on a superior organisation of power—that is, on the organised solidarity of the masses…Violence functions as the last resort of power against criminal or rebels—that is, against single individuals who…refuse to be overpowered by the consensus of the majority.”70 Arendt seems to agree with Hobbes when he says that laws are required, but they must be kept at a minimum, for Arendt sees an erosion of liberty in the overwhelming bureaucracy of the modern State. Bureaucracies deprive the individual of the freedom to act, or freedom, which as Vilfredo Pareto wrote, “shrinks every day, save for criminals, in the so-called free and democratic countries.”71 Arendt would probably agree with the notion that modern critiques of the State should be directed not at the State itself, but its burgeoning bureaucracy—to criticise the State would be to criticise the public contract, whereas to criticise the epidemic increase of the bureaucracy would be to criticise the nature in which the contract was being implemented. A citizen must be a co-ruler to be free.

The increasing power of the democratic State has in some ways increased our liberty yet restricted us in others. Over time, the ability of the State to influence virtually all relations between anyone or between anything has increased the stability of society that Early Modern thinkers worried about. In doing so, however, society finds itself within a panopticon, disciplined internally. However, the nature of power, its function and even its uses, has not changed radically except in scope. The relationship between the State and the individual has not, theoretically, been altered much. However, it is the ability of the State to penetrate into public and private power relations that has made us aware of the full impact of the thinking of the Early Modernists. In the pre-modern world, the State sought to affect its subjects but was not able to. It used coercive force in limited instances since it did not have the means to pervade over society. However, as revolutions indicate, people retained the ultimate power even in those States. The modern State has, while becoming ubiquitous, given its subjects the means to register their dissatisfaction through various avenues. Thus, in a modern State, citizens do not have to wait for extreme situations to participate in public discourse.

Habermas defines ideology as “a form of communication systematically distorted by power—a discourse that has become a medium of domination, and which serves to legitimize relations of organized force.”72 This seems akin to Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, which is the “power that accrues to a dominant group in virtue of its capacity to pose on a universal plane all the issues around which conflict rages.”73 Thus, through the medium of language, a group with social resources is able to create an ideology through which to universalize the power relations that are most favourable to it. This ideology comes to constitute “the subject’s lived apparently spontaneous relations to a power-structure and comes to provide the invisible colour of daily life itself.”74 In a very Freudian construction of the subject, the classes who are subject to the hegemony-creating power of a successful ideology “will come to love and desire the very law that subjugates” them and will find resistance difficult because when hegemonic power entrenches itself in the unconscious, rebelling against the status quo comes to feel like rebelling against yourself.75 Ideology in the service of hegemony does not repress but simply restricts the mental range of options so that “it becomes impossible to think or desire outside the terms of the system itself.”76 In imperial rhetoric, it is called the “civilising mission,” but modern statecraft is in fact about the epistemological subjugation of the people. “State officials can,” James Scott notes, “often make their categories stick and impose their simplifications, because the State, of all institutions, is best equipped to insist on treating people according to its schemata.”77 Nevertheless, resistance seems possible. As Foucault alludes to in a Weberian moment in Discipline and Punish, the rationality of the day demands that “more” be done in less time. This fundamental Protestant ethic dictates much of our power relations. However, if we as a society rethink our values (as Nietzsche asks), through conscientious participation at all levels of political activity, it seems possible to create an alternative hegemonic ideology, leading to a new type of subject and to altered power relations as a result.

1 David Couzens Hoy, ed., Foucault: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1986), 135.

2 Anthony Giddens, The Nation-State and Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 13.

3 Machiavelli does not concern himself with republican regimes in his Prince at all. “I shall set aside any discussion of republics, because I have treated tem at length elsewhere.” Niccolò Machiavelli. The Prince (trans.) Peter Bondanella (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 7.

4 Ibid., 22.

5 Ibid., 35.

6 Ibid., 36.

7 In his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli argues that the purpose of politics is to promote the common good. In The Prince, Machiavelli states the same thing. For Machiavelli, the purpose is in service to a greater goal, the stability of the State. The stability of the State will, in turn, be good for the people. Thus, power is at once a relationship of domination and subjugation—it is simultaneously a process that one actuates as well as the effects of that process.

8 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 66-67.

9 Ibid., 84.

10 Ibid., 114.

11 Ibid., 87.

12 David Couzens Hoy, ed., Foucault: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1986), 62.

13 "None is so fierce that dare stir him up . . . his teeth are terrible round about. His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal. . . . His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth. . . . When he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid . . . Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear" (Job 41:10-33).

14 James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 34.

15 Ibid., 75.

16 Ibid., 23-24.

17 John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 350.

18 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (trans.) Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin Books, 1968), 60-63.

19 Ibid., 64.

20 Joseph-Marie de Maistre, Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques et des autres institutions humaines (Paris: JB Pélagaud, 1860), I, XXIX.

21 Ibid., II.

22 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History (trans.) J. Sibree (New York: Willey Book Company, 1944), 47.

23 Ibid., 72.

24 Ibid., 9.

25 Ibid., 14.

26 GWF Hegel, The Philosophy of Right (London: Bell, 1896), section 261.

27 Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” in Robert Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 71-75, 113.

28 Ibid., 88.

29 Ibid., 91.

30 Karl Marx, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” 491.

31 Ibid., 349.

32 Ibid. Marx does not, as many have accused, make an economically reductive argument. He clearly states later in his work, “The political, legal, philosophical, literary, and artistic development rests on the economic. But they all react upon one another and upon the economic base. It is not the case that the economic situation is the sole active cause and that everything else is merely a passive effect.”

33 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Walter Kaufmann, ed., (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 20.

34 Ibid., 26-8.

35 Ibid., 33.

36 Ibid., 45.

37 Ibid., 57-8.

38 Ibid., 86.

39 Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1960), 46.

40 Friedrich Nietzsche, “Vom neuen Götzen,” in Also Sprach Zarathustra (Leipzig: Naumann, 1902). Ironically, his work was also co-opted by the Nazi party in Germany after his death.

41 Ibid., “Von der Selbst-Überwindung.”

42 Ibid., “Vom Wege des Schaffenden,” “Vom Gesindel.”

43 James Scott, Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 77.

44 Giddens, 60.

45 TJA Le Goff and DMG Dutherland, “The Revolution and the Rural Community in Eighteenth-Century Brittany,” Past and Present, 62, 1974, p. 97. Quoted in Giddens, 60.

46 Ernest Gellner, “The Struggle to Catch Up,” Times Literary Supplement, December 9, 1994, p. 14. Quoted in Scott, 193.

47 C. Wright Mills,The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 171.

48 C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 15. “No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history, and of their intersections within society, has completed its intellectual journey…The sociological imagination is the capacity to shift from one perspective to another—from the political to the psychological; from examination of a single family to comparative assessment of the national budgets of the world; from the theological school to the military establishment; from considerations of an oil industry to studies of contemporary poetry. It is the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self—and to see the relations between the two.” Ibid., 6-7.

49 Ibid., 19.

50 Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Enquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (trans.) Thomas Burger and Fredrick Lawrence (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1991), 185.

51 Ibid., 206.

52 Ibid.

53 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1, 94-5.

54 Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 98.

55 Couzens, 128.

56 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1, 92.

57 Couzens, 76.

58 Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 59.

59 Ibid., 93.

60 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1, 86.

61 Couzens, 10. As Terry Eagleton astutely notes, “if there is nothing beyond power…then what is doing the resisting?” (Eagleton, 47) Although Foucault responds to this charge by positing the possibility of local resistances, it is unclear what effect he thinks they will have. It doesn’t seem, however, that he sees any possibility for change at the systemic level, only at the local one (Power/Knowledge, 141-2).

62 Couzens, 96.

63 Ibid., 136.

64 Giddens, 5.

65 Couzens, 85.

66 Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1970), 11.

67 Ibid., 41.

68 Ibid., 44.

69 Ibid., 46.

70 Ibid., 50-51.

71 Vilfredo Pareto, quoted from Arendt, 82.

72 Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction (London: Verso, 1991), 128.

73 Giovanni Arrighi, “The Three Hegemonies of Historical Capitalism,” in Stephen Brill, ed. Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 149.

74 Eagleton, 221.

75 Ibid., 180.

76 Ibid., 129.

77 Scott, 82.