"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

Nov 15, 2010

Claryifying for Misreaders

Power does not exist on its own. It has no ontological value. A person cannot possess power, because power does not function as an object. Understand this as fully as possible: power is not a thing. Power exists only between persons, as a relation. As an inequity, or a disparity of effect.

If a person has power, he has that power in relation only to another person, who does not have it, or has less. Despite unsubstantiated insistence (which does not follow its own logic far enough) to the contrary, power remains social. Power has no personal component, no singularity.

A man alone in the woods has no power, because power has no context but society.

A person may have strength, skill, intelligence, wit, capability, memory and effect. But these traits do not define power. Power can only operate when one person has it over another.

A person does not to need to experience fear or subjectivity to see this clearly. One must only attend to events as they occur, and attribute no spirit, person, belief or assertion of entity to them.

Observing only, one observes that power exists only as a relation between constituent parts. Power, in human relations, does not exist outside of the context of those relations. It is not a quantum of energy. It is not a thing a person can obtain and use.

Power only describes how a person or persons controls another or others.

[I suspect lingering bourgeois attachment to "empowerment" and "personal power" informs many of the plainly ill considered assertions to contrary. Those who argue thus fail to observe properly the occurences they attempt to describe, because they reify a set of relations, treating the relation described as an object-in-itself, which a single individual can thereafter obtain for his or her (very bourgeois) self. And it is by doing this that they come to treat with power as a thing, or trait. This reification allows them to remove the "over" from "power over" and then act and believe as if the "power" is an independent etheric fluid, that it can or does remain separate from the domination/subjugation the word actually describes. That this then describes a process of mystification ought to become apparent...

...One could also note that the familiar phrase is not "the rich and empowered." It's the "rich and powerful," and with good cause. Men accumulate wealth, resources and influence be subordinating others. By relating to them as a superior, to their inferiors. By dominating them. "Empowerment" is a feeble bourgeois attempt to democratize the possession, and assume the glamor, of a throne, whilst also ignoring how that throne gets its force, in the first. Any attempt to "empower" a person, as if he or she can be injected with a mystical quantum of agency, is the attempt to give that person the majesty of a throne, and its effects, while divorcing her from the actions necessary to achieve it.

It treats with the epiphenomena as if they were a primary cause, and I imagine this is why some people continue to argue as if power is merely a trait a person can express, on his or her own, without any relationship to another person, and without the force and domination that inform all actual instances of observable power.]


Anonymous said...

and power is bad because....

Jack Crow said...

...being on the subjugated end of the relation sucks, especially on a planet where you only get one life, and that an exceedingly brief one...

Coldtype said...

I fully accept your observation that "power" in human terms can only mean one person or group assuming control over others. There was never any confusion from my end on that score. The point of our departure is whether or not power is justified within human relations under ANY circumstance.

Landru said...

You're not wrong yet. When do we get to the practicum? Not that you're my monkey or anything.

Picador said...

My understanding is that this train of argument began with JRB's recent post, which you criticized for using the word "authority" to mean something other than a coercive, dominant social position.

But both "authority" and "power" means something more general than the way you're using them. The primary meaning of "power" is not at all the social dynamic you're describing; it simply means physical force or strength. One of the consequences of "power" is that, properly directed, it gives control over parts of the physical environment; for instance, it allows one to move other physical bodies through space. The social meaning of "power" that you're using is a figurative one based on this primary meaning.

Similarly, the English meaning of "authority" used by JRB actually predates the one you say he should restrict himself to. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

early 13c., autorite "book or quotation that settles an argument," from O.Fr. auctorité (12c.; Mod.Fr. autorité), from L. auctoritatem (nom. auctoritas) "invention, advice, opinion, influence, command," from auctor "master, leader, author" (see author). Usually spelled with a -c- in English till 16c., when it was dropped, in imitation of the French. Meaning "power to enforce obedience" is from late 14c.; meaning "people in authority" is from 1610s. Authorities "those in charge, those with police powers" is recorded from mid-19c.

Aside from this linguistic point, though, I think I still disagree with you about the nature of social "power". If I am a charismatic leader -- Pat Robertson, say, or Noam Chomsky -- with a population of eager viewers/readers who adopt my edicts entirely of their own free will (i.e., they will not suffer any consequences if they simply change the channel and never tune in again), is it actually true that I hold no "power"? And if so, I think you're unduly restricting the meaning of the word. Noam Chomsky has more power -- more "influence" -- than I do, owing to his status as an "authority" on certain subjects. But I don't think there's anything particularly coercive going on there.

Jack Crow said...


Power and authority are Latin/Roman concepts. They predate the OF, ME and MedL.

Potis and auctoritas describe a man with imperium, or with the stature or role which obligates others to follow his will. A person with auctoritas, or authority, has so because of his role, a role and a rank (such as CEO, or paterfamilias) which others must consider, because it is backed by the hierarchy in which that person has membership.

A CEO, a cop, a Roman Senator, a Pontifex, a Commissar only has authority because he belongs to a hierarchy. Alone, in the woods, with no other person around to (a) recognize his role, (b) adhere to it, and (c) defer - he has no authority.

It is always social, because a man alone has no person over whom he can exercise his authority or power.

Start there.

And you've not really addressed the main concern, which is this treatment of "power" as if it's "empowerment' or some etheric quality a person can possess.

Power is not a virtue (property) inherent in a person. Power describes a relationship between persons. It always and only occurs between persons. It is social.


There's a reason to subjugate a person, good or otherwise?

Jack Crow said...


I don't know. I think it's like kicking an addiction you actually want to kick. I think, typing only for myself, that it works by abstention at first. I have an available experimental environment, in so much as my children still need some adult supervision.

I can easily demonstrate for myself the difference between power/domination and persuasion/negotiation. If I lose my patience and order my son off to his room, it's because I have a role he does not possess. I can do him harm that he cannot really do back to me. Regardless of the fact that I don't do him harm, I can easily subordinate him if I were to please to do so.

We both know this.

On the other hand, if a assume his autonomy and his developing sense of self, any action which violates that autonomy is by definition an exercise of power. If I seek to persuade him, I have to assume that his person and identity are distinct from my own, such that we can interact as a temporary community of two, with a persuader and an intended persuadee. A power relationship does not assume this distinction of persons. In fact, it violates it, by treating the subordinate or subjugated party as an extension of the will, the identity and the instrumentality of the dominator.

I know some people believe that the absence of compulsion serves as some kind of empowerment, so much so that the proper role of a radical or revolutionary is to "empower people" to govern their own lives, and the conditions of their labor. Not only do I think that's a bunch of hooey, I think it's dangerous magical thinking, ascribing to events a motivating spirit for which we have no evidence. The lack of compulsion is just the absence of compulsion.

I see no reason to assume an unseen force into which a person can tap, or any quanta of unobservable energy which adheres to a person who accepts this "empowerment" - when plain observation demonstrates only that a relationship has changed, or does not exist.

I think, in this light, that the revolutionary role is that which a person assumes to break the bonds of power, to attack the concentrations of it where they exist, in the manner suited to the occasion, circumstances and environment.

To sever the ties that bind...



Jack Crow said...

What I'm saying, briefly, is that any treatment of power which ignores it's materiality is magical thinking.

A person does not possess authority. A person has authority **over** others. It's physical, material, actual.

Treating power as if it's a feeling of self-determination and authority as if it's expertise mystifies how people actually, really, materially obtain power.

A person may certainly have expertise, but that person is not "an authority" unless identified as such, within a hierarchy which propagates and propagandizes this expertise as if it's a quality he possesses above and beyond the organic materiality of his brain-based memory.

Put an expert in an isolation chamber, and all of her expertise is for naught. Allow him a classroom, and he may impart it, as a teacher.

Place him in a hierarchy - and you have an authority...

Jack Crow said...

...as to Chomsky.

Take him out of the hierarchical military-industrial complex (MIT), take away his corporation and state sponsored funding, as a participant in that hierarchy, deprive him of the government protected publishing industry and those tiered media corporations which allow him to propagate his opinions...

...and you have a guy with opinions who is not an authority on anything.

This is what I mean when I suggest that those who treat authority and power as if they are properties of a personality do so only by ignoring the material conditions in which a person actually obtains them, and then by reifying the relations those conditions support into "concrete" virtues of the character of their alleged possessor(s).

Picador said...

And you've not really addressed the main concern, which is this treatment of "power" as if it's "empowerment' or some etheric quality a person can possess.

Power is not a virtue (property) inherent in a person. Power describes a relationship between persons. It always and only occurs between persons. It is social.

That's not the part of your argument I took issue with. I agree with you that power describes a relation between, at least, things (if not necessarily people).

In English, and Latin, the same terms are used to describe two different qualities. Stranded on a desert island, "power" refers to the ability to directly manipulate my physical environment. If I come into contact with other humans who have been less successful at manipulating their own environments, I may end up having "power" over them as well: e.g., I may choose to share my food only with those who follow my rules, or I may kill those who don't using the weapons I have fashioned. Regardless of whether this narrative has any scientific validity, it underlies the cultural understanding of the concept of "power". And it's important to note that only the second use of the term implies any kind of coercion.

A socially "powerful" man is like a physically "powerful" man: he can control the trajectories of objects in his environment. In this case, the objects are other people, and their trajectories may be intellectual or emotional rather than physical. This surely is the Roman understanding of potis and auctoritas, as qualities that can be physical, political, artistic, whatever. I may have -- in either a social or a purely physical environment -- the "power" to feed myself and my family. This, I think, is a perfectly reasonable use of the term, and the one which JRB relies upon in talking about his hopes for an equal distribution of "power" in society.

I take part of your argument to be that the Romans conceived of even artistic and intellectual authority to be derived from a hierarchy: from the gods, to the sages and rulers, to the peons. True enough, I suppose, but it seems to me that one would have to strike half the words from the English language if one wanted to avoid relying on language ultimately rooted in domination, exploitation, and violence. Recall that "virtus" means "strength": if "power" is evil, then so is "virtue".

I'm not averse to projects aimed at eliminating problematic uses of language, up to and including the adoption of kooky non-gender-specific pronouns. But I can't help but feel that any such project aimed at eliminating the language of oppression from English will never be anything but superficial.

Jack Crow said...


You keep ignoring the main point. The mystical use of "authority" and "power" ignores the material conditions in which a person can and does actually have them.

Chomsky is not Chomsky-The-Authority without MIT, the publishing industry, the State and the various media conglomerates.

Cicero is not Cicero-The-Authority without the Senate, the Office of High Pontifex, the latifundia his family owned, and the Roman military machine.

Jack Crow said...

Napolitano and Greenwald are not "authorities" on the law (regardless of your opinion of their actual expertise) because they have a skill set. They're authorities because they each have a State, an industry and a social hierarchy willing to propagate their ideas and confer authority upon their persons, as if it's an essence.

The use of "authority" and "power" which ignores these material conditions is magical thinking.

It's falsehood.

Jack Crow said...

And I guess it needs to be said again - I'm not suggesting that the alternative meanings (especially the one first employed by JRB) don't exist.

I'm suggesting that they mystify the real material conditions under which people use them. They are literally bourgeois* mystifications of actual power (domination/subjugation) relations, concealing the economic and material reality in favor of an extreme personalization which obscures the social.

Examine any example of authority, even as the term was originally used by JRB, and you find hierarchical institutions...

* - this use arising at precisely the same time as the bourgeoisie was liberating itself from the ancien regime.

Anonymous said...

Drew Napolitano is an "authority" because he used to be a judge in the NJ judiciary, which led to his ideological enemies exposing his closeted status, which led to MSM outlets thinking he's provocative and therefore worthy of being a leading commenter on matters of "justice."

In contrast, Glenn Greenwald is an "authority" because he tells people what they want to hear, in legal-ish terms. Please never mind his idiocy of ideology, where he ignores reality in favor of his favorite theories based on state power never being abused. Ironic, given his first book documenting the abuses of state power. Why the inconsistency? Donkey partisanship.

Therefore non-authoritative.

Therefore bullshit.

Therefore, not an "expert" -- not even in the litigation realm, where "expertise" is simply knowing or experiencing things beyond the ken of the average juror. Which isn't a very high hurdle to clear, especially since most jurors never went to law school and those who did often (if not almost always) stricken from the jury panel during voir dire.

There are a lot of humans in America who know more about the law and politics than Glenn Greenwald. Why then should he be an "authority" while the others aren't?

Those who follow him with slavering fandom, they don't want to ask that Q. They're proud to follow a Gay Lawyer! How Progressive!

Anonymous said...


I agree with this, Jack:

The mystical use of "authority" and "power" ignores the material conditions in which a person can and does actually have them.

You're commenting on the exercise of power/authority, the dynamic.

Your supposed, erstwhile critics are talking about etymology and playing at deconstruction, Derrida-style, which I find both fraudulent and obnoxious, but apparently many think is an indicator of advanced intellect/schooling.

Naked emperors, dude. Totally nude.

Jack Crow said...


What I'm trying to say is that there's a difference between expertise and authority. The caveat was actually written with you in mind, because I was aware of how you might perceive my argument.

Someone can have no expertise and be treated as an authority, because authority is conferred, while expertise is learned.

My problem with the treatment of "authority," "power," "authoritative," "empowerment" and like terms is that they preserve a fiction. Any attempt to undo the existing order which does not also jettison these attachments will end up reconstituting the order in a similar form. These fixed ideas need a Stirnerite caustic applied to them, because they are exactly ghosts in the head, divorced almost entirely from actual and material conditions.

A person can argue that Glenn Greenwald is or is not an expert. That's not my point, at all. What makes him an authority, all the same, is the hierarchical superstructure which exists and which allows for him as a smirking dissident. Greenwald isn't an authority because he has a passing familiarity with law. Greenwald is an authority because he has a merit degree, obtained at great cost from a hierarchical institution, and operates as a member of several hierarchies. In his own particular case, he is a dissident authority, in so much as he criticizes the hierarchies of which he is a member; but any attempt to divorce his "authority" from those hierarchies is mystification.

That's my overarching point. It's why I object as ardently as a do to the mystifying usage of the terms.

Even when someone wants to just mean "expertise,' the conferring of authority is not divisible or separable from the material conditions (the resources, weapons, hierarchies) in which all authorities (as experts, or as powers) are actually found.



Anonymous said...

Yeah I get that point about Greenwald -- I just chose the angle that suits how I see others adoring him, as an "expert" because of his writing style and not because the content of his writing is verifiably true or accurate, or faithful in its rendering of what American Jurisprudence is about... or is supposed to be about.

He does indeed have authoritative cachet with many -- I don't dispute that for a moment.

What I dispute is the notion that I'm supposed to find him expert or authoritative, because I find him to be neither.

I would object most strenuously to anyone who posits that Greenwald should be given rein to make jurisprudential decisions on a broad, society-wide scale... mainly because I do not trust him to be objective, mainly because of what you just said: that he is an "authority" because he feigns objectivity while buttressing or buffering (depends on the context) the power of the State. The State has agreed to give him such authority -- he moves from random blogger, to noted author, to Salon's leading light, to someone the MSM now consults for his "expertise."

All the while, he's been praising the State -- while blaming its excesses almost always on Republicans or certain Democrats, and almost always shying away from noting the Repub/Dem dynamic is itself a big sham.

Arthur Silber made some good observations today on this score.

Jack Crow said...

That's a great point, Charles. Greenwald (and he his analogs on "the right") makes his living pretending that there are good and noble thrones who would be liberated to do goodness, light and nobility in the world if only the corrupt, evil and dark overlords of the shadow thrones were finally disposed of...

Anonymous said...

Yep. I don't spend much time on the "right" side of the artificial right-left spectrum because I think the semblance of "right" in America is not where most people put themselves, and isn't the driver of American sociopolitical sentiment.

Rather, the crackpot realist center-"left" is the driver -- and was even under Bush/Cheney.

Once people allow themselves to imagine that the Repub vs Dem, Right vs Left dynamic is a huge ruse for private profiteering on the public dime, they can begin to see the uselessness of partisanship of the sort dictated by the Greenwalds, Napolitanos, Becks, Limbaughs, Maddows and Stewarts of the world.

Latent partisanship is especially powerful in America. Thanksralph!

Coldtype said...

"There's a reason to subjugate a person, good or otherwise?"-JC

Of course, for example, when one person rapes another or kills another not in self-defense. By these actions the transgressor sacrifices his autonomy. To believe that such actions won't, or worst, SHOULDN'T result in a loss of autonomy is to engage in fantasy.

Susan of Texas said...

There is the physical power structure, but also the mental one. That might be what people talk about when they discuss empowerment. The mental structure can be overcome, for instance, women could refuse to accept the authority of men to make all the decisons of their lives. They're still stuck in the same hierarchy, but at least they're not mindless slaves to it.

A man alone in the woods has power over himself but he can give it away--to nature, to a god, to the voice in his head that he cannot survive. Isn't power over one's self a type of power as well?

Anonymous said...

What exactly are the contours of "power over self"?

The concept sounds to me a lot like MSRP, which exists as an inflated thing so that "discounts" may be claimed for the purpose of announcing "SALE!"

It's not power unless someone wields it over you. What you do with yourself is autonomy. When you give up autonomy, you give another the power to dictate your life's workings.

Power requires 2 people (or more). By yourself it's not power, unless you can legitimately demonstrate a multiple personality and a conflict among those personalities you harbor.

Susan of Texas said...

What exactly are the contours of "power over self"?

The ability to reject obedience to authority. Some choose to accept others' authority but some simply don't realize they have the choice.

JRB said...


Yeah, I don't agree. I think power is a trait a person can demonstrate on his or her own.

Power is the ability to create, or to produce an effect.

Sometimes this ability is reflected in social relations, other times it is reflected in relations that aren't social. Not all relations are social, after all.

Obviously, the ability to create or produce an effect can have social implications of many different kinds. Evaluating these implications is necessary in order to know whether a particular exercise of power is justified or not; i.e., whether it can demonstrate its legitimacy to the people it primarily affects.

Certainly there is "power over," but there is also "power between." The idea that power moves in one direction alone isn't one that has much "power" socially, since few people seem to grasp it intuitively.

Maybe this is a "bourgeois" phenomenon, but we are living in bourgeois times, my friend -- lest we forget the value of communicating elementary ideas in a language everyone can understand!

Anonymous said...

I think you miss the point, Susan.

What you describe is merely a restatement of what I said. You haven't described anything to do with power.

In order for your assertion to be true, people would be born thinking like slaves -- slavery would be default, not a man-made constrcut.

I don't see that being the case. What's the evidence that such is the case?

Peter Ward said...

What you say is true. But while we're philosophizing, one could point out that any object is, strictly speaking, a fictional construct--a function of different "relations", we have chosen to isolate, either intentionally or because of the way our psychology works.

I think at a certain point one has to sacrifice philosophic a precision, because the price of saying something that one knows is misleading is better than saying nothing, often the alternative.

Apropos the case at hand: I don't agree that when one uses the word empowerment (or kindred terms relating to power) one is automatically shown to be naive about the social relations without which the term is meaningless--often they are, but if we all stopped using the word I'm not sure on average we'd be any less ignorant.

By the way, in general I think its best when talking about politics to avoid abstracts--but to point out specific examples and let the abstract concepts illustrate themselves.

Jack Crow said...

Peter, I'm not engaged in philosophy. I loathe "philosophy."

Susan of Texas said...

For my statement to be true people would have to be trained to think like slaves, which we are. Power exists over people, but it exists over minds as well, and the mind can be freed, "empowered" even while the body is not. Power is still being exerted but it is rejected.

Is power over the mind, which can be overcome by the mind, not power?

Landru said...

Once again, my bad. I'm with you on the interpersonal dynamic at the binary level, to the extent that I care. I'm simple; in the hypothesized two-way power flows, one person is a dick. While your description is certainly more extensive, mine tells me all I need to know.

Well, that's not quite true. The other thing I need to know is that sometimes the dick is me.

Back to my bad; I was talking about a practicum at the population level--i.e., government, society, civilization, however we couch it. That's where, I think, we begin to wave respectfully from one another from the backs of diverging trains. Or not; asserting that without some view of the practicum makes me...well, you know.

Jack Crow said...


Not ignoring you. I'm just waiting for the right language.



Landru said...

Gack. Proofreading.

"...PROBABLY a dick..."


"...wave respectfully AT one another..."

Jack Crow said...


I have kids. I'm often the asshole. But even as a perennial bunghole, I'm not sure we necessarily disagree about the population level.

Could you explain your thoughts further, kindly?

I don't want to assume.



Sean said...

I don't agree that power only exists where this is a relationship between two or more people. Boycotts are a powerful weapon that can destroy businesses and political parties and even collapse the entire system, if enough people observe the boycott. This is power.

But the power of the boycott derives entirely from the refusal to form a relationship with the target of the boycott, not the direct exercise of control within a relationship. No previous relationship need exist, as the boycotter may be someone who never had a relationship with the target to begin with, but now exercises his right not to have one. The man alone in the woods has power and influence by his refusal to come out of the woods and collaborate with the institutions that oppress him. He need not exercise control over a single soul but himself. Non participation is power.

Anonymous said...

If people stuck to the concept of power as articulated by Jack, they wouldn't have this problem of trying to understand why, for example, his concept doesn't include the type of power that water has when moving down a hill, or that wind has to provide lift and propulsion, or that magnets have to provide electrostatic and electrodynamic energy.

It's been clear to me from the start that Jack's talking about social power of the sort where one person is compelling another, or inversely described, one person is allowing another to compel his act/inaction.

Is that so hard to understand?


We can talk about all kinds of power. Christ on a crutch... Facebook has power. My blog has power.

But that's not what Jack is talking about, is it?

JRB said...

It's been clear to me from the start that Jack's talking about social power of the sort where one person is compelling another, or inversely described, one person is allowing another to compel his act/inaction.

Charles F.:

I agree.

Jack is describing a particular expression of power, and arguing that this is the sole definition of the word "power."

But nobody is obligated to accept this. If Jack is persuasive enough, people will adopt his view. If not, he can take comfort in what he gets out of it himself, and be content to let others use whatever language or concepts they will.

Coldtype said...

"Worst"? Jesus!

Jack Crow said...

I'm not articulating a competing view, in search of believers, JRB.

I'm stating as plainly as possible that your definition is a mystification which obscures the social basis of all power.

I don't mean to suggest that you are personally responsible for it.

I'm saying that the usage itself obscures because it is a bourgeois mystification. It takes "power over" and drops the "over," to treat with power as an effect without cause, as a neutral force.

It's an imaginary species in a wholly fictitious bestiary.

I don't particularly care if it has a two hundred year pedigree - it ignores what all power in actual human relations actually is.

Landru said...

I have no idea whether we agree or disagree, but I like you either way. I grokked early in this chain of posts that you were talking about social power (as opposed to, for instance, motive power). It's possible that what you're doing is simply articulating and observing (and, in your comments, parrying, but that's aside). All else is my assumptions about the underlying nature of the discussion.

I assumed that there was going to be a punchline--which may very well be a me problem. I assumed that underlying your articulation was a larger (population-level) complaint--again, quite possibly a me problem. And I assumed that this discussion was an outgrowth of some of the political labelling/classification (sorry Randall!) we touched on the other week, which may be the biggest me problem of all.

In that context, I am interested in the trip between the concept of social power that you've articulated and its relationship with pop-level organizational/political dynamics. There are implications here for the larger and related semi-political, semi-sociological, semi-animal-husbandry discussion we've chipped at fitfully for a couple of months.

On the other hand, I've been known to hallucinate. It's a funny old life.

Jack Crow said...

You did not assume incorrectly, Landru. I have a flat to clean and a week's worth of dinner to plan.

When I've got my muscle labor out of the way, I'll try to get in some think work and give you (and Susan) a better reply.

Let me note - though - that you've managed to cut right through to to heart of this dispute - "social power" versus "motive power."

The punchline? I'm suggesting that the word "power" just doesn't belong after the word "motive."

More later, I hope.

Anonymous said...

JRB, I haven't seen where Jack said the social power he is describing is the only type of power extant today.

Jack Crow said...

That's because I haven't, Charles. I have argued, on the other hand, that "personal power" reifies actual social power relations into an obtainable thing, a thing which is curiously divorced of its originating social context.

I think one use of the term "power" conveys meaning with correlates with observable phenomena. I think the other use obscures meaning, by mystifying it.



(Landru, Susan - I'm still on it...)

JRB said...


You make an interesting point, and I will think more about it. Until then, circumstances intervene!

Charles F.:

I don't think I said that, but at this point rehashing what people mean by power (motive vs. social, etc.) is not in my itinerary.

Bon temps!

Randal Graves said...

Jack, you plan dinners ahead? Man, you need some power in your life. Heh.

Jack Crow said...

I do, actually. It's a habit which I never felt the need to break. Years of planning menus and staffing charts for corporate chains has left me with the sometimes useful ability to do a food budget in my head and then plan accordingly.

But, I only use it to feed our kids.

If we manage to pawn them off on kin for a weekend, my wife and I become poor folk gourmands who like pigs in search of truffles eat exactly as they whimsical palate demands...

...I imagine if we ever manage to get to Spain, the Provence, Greece, the Dalmatian coast of the Aegean and Italy (Jack has a terrible and irrational fear of airplanes, he does), I will come back dead from eating whatever my my whorish taste buds desire.

Landru said...

Go to any airport and opt out of a body scan. That'll distract you from your fear of flying.

And please, do not hasten overmuch to address my concern trolling for practicality. You're not my monkey. And I'm someone else's monkey an awful lot right now, so it's not like I'm on tenterhooks. Would it be nice, getting a loving reply from Jack as I sit here in a hotel several hundred yards from a deep rural interstate in a province that recently elected more than one utter wackaloon, including perhaps the Wackaloonapalooza himself, to high office? Sure. But the Intertoobz are big. I'll find entertainment.

davidly said...

Jack, I see your point and think you've made your case. At least I hope so! At any rate, I'm gonna think thrice the next time I hear someone referred to as an authority on anything. Thanks for what must have been brain-thrashingly tedious work!

Maybe it'd be even more distracting (and fun) to insist on "the pat down" whilst being scanned.

Jack Crow said...

Still @ the paper and pen stage, Sean, Susan, Landru.

Jack Crow said...

Sean writes:

"I don't agree that power only exists where this is a relationship between two or more people. Boycotts are a powerful weapon that can destroy businesses and political parties and even collapse the entire system, if enough people observe the boycott. This is power.

But the power of the boycott derives entirely from the refusal to form a relationship with the target of the boycott, not the direct exercise of control within a relationship. No previous relationship need exist, as the boycotter may be someone who never had a relationship with the target to begin with, but now exercises his right not to have one. The man alone in the woods has power and influence by his refusal to come out of the woods and collaborate with the institutions that oppress him. He need not exercise control over a single soul but himself. Non participation is power."

I think I understand what you're saying. My quibble - and objectively, that's what this all amounts to - is with the term "power" used in the manner above.

Because even as you use it, it still describes a relation between two parties (or more) - between the boycotters and the boycotted.

I don't think a boycott is actually an attempt to seize and use power, because it's a response to existing power, embodied if you will in a demonstrable hierarchy. When it becomes another iteration of social power, in my estimation, is when the boycotters succeed and translate their temporary community of resistance into a self-perpetuating institution.

(cont'd below)

Jack Crow said...


FWIW, Sean - the idea of power divorced from authority-conferring institutions is contemporaneous with the emergence of two related social-material innovations of tremendous impact - the steam engine and the constitutional franchise.

Suddenly (especially historically), people had an example of motive force which was automatic, which with also functionally autochthonous, in that wherever it went, it seemed to bring its motive power, and its nativity to the space it occupied, with it. It seems to always originate itself wherever it is because its operation is sundered from the labor which creates it and fuels it.

An automobile (a direct machine descendant of the steam engine) is a further example of this self-motivating machine. Automobile = self-motivating. In truth, this is not the actual case. The automobile requires labor inputs. Its creation, construction, marketing and supply require the same hierarchical structures of authority and power which still exist and have seemingly always existed - it's just that the user and owner of this machine never has to be aware of the labor inputs in order to operate it.

Was not so long ago that a person shoveling coal into a stove knew, fundamentally, that it was brutalized men who lived and died in the bowels of the earth, in order to extract it. And the very worst Roman and Persian punishment was to be sent as a slave to the mines...

By divorcing the source of motivating power from the automobile machine, capital inadvertently managed to divorce awareness of labor from the products of labor, and in doing so gave rise to the idea that that power and motivation are singular, personal, immediate.

If Marx is right - and I think he is - then it's not surprising that the rise of the seemingly automatonic machine corresponds to the rapid and explosive development of the sovereign, and eventually universal, franchise.

Materiality shapes awareness.

Perspective is inseparable from contingency. The pervasive idea that single persons (and even in mass movements, the vote only records the will of a single person) have the "power" to shape the structure and operation of the State coincides with the (mental and moral) divorcing of motive power and motive fuel from the labor which extracts it.

As more people used machines which run on abstracted power - and which is literally referred to as "power" in the sense of electric and gasoline "power" - and cast votes which abstracted their caloric, material, physical humanity, their real labor, into a sanction and sacralization of the State, it's no wonder that the word power came to mean "empowerment."

I hope that clarifies, some, what I'm saying.


Susan, in reading this I realize that it's as much a response to your replies as to Sean's. If you believe this to other than the case, I would gratefully like you to dope slap with some truth.



Susan of Texas said...

Thanks for the answer, Jack. I just don't agree that power is never traded, only taken. Is coercive power the only type of power?

Jack Crow said...

I think, Susan, that power cannot be divided from inequity, because power describes the inequity itself. People can trade the proceeds of power, but I don't see a mechanism wherefrom they can trade the relationship that power actually is.

Could they swap roles, or sell their place in a hierarchy to another, so long as the hierarchy allows it? I imagine so, but that would still preserve the inequity by changing the occupant of the role or rank, but the not disparity between persons itself.

Can effort be made to change that relation? I would say yes. An abused wife can leave her abusive spouse - especially with the labor and assistance of others who have accumulated the resources necessary to provide support - and terminate the relation. She can, if he continues to pursue her and assault her, even finalize that termination by putting a bullet in his braincase; or in a less violent example, change her public identity with skill sufficient to become effectively dead to him. But the ending of an involuntary domination/submission relation isn't really exchanging power, is it?

Can people exchange the fruits of their labor in opposing power? Also yes, to my eye.

Thank you and respect,



Landru, still on it...

Jack Crow said...

Sigh. Sometimes I think Blogger hates me. I just spent the better part of an hour writing out a reply about the difference between resource use and using resources to enforce social power.

Fuck me.

Susan of Texas said...

Thanks for the conversation, it gave me a lot to think about.