After Power

Politics as power is fashionable. It makes us students of politics take pride in our discipline, for when politics is power, politics becomes present in all social relations and political science becomes an emancipatory venture. I, however, cannot find the same pride in politics as power; I only find contradictions and restrictions, which I shall briefly explore in this essay.

Politics as power reformulates politics as the struggle over the production, distribution, and use of scarce resources by means of exercising one’s ability to influence the behavior of others. It is a reaction against traditional definitions that confine politics to the public sphere. Politics also takes place at the private sphere; indeed, it can be all-present, for power can be located in all spheres of social interaction. In addition, the reformulation also radically changes the research agenda. The study of politics should aim to expose asymmetrical relations of dominance and control over resources and, thereby, liberate the individual from those bonds.

Advocates claim that politics as power does not render every relation of power political, but only those that concern the production, distribution, and use of resources. Yet, any relation of power can be framed as having an end of securing material resources. For example, in criticizing politics as power, this essay may be charged by radical feminists and classical Marxists — its prime advocates — as an ideological weapon, a product of male or bourgeois hegemony, that only serves to silence gender or class struggles and perpetuate the domination of men or the bourgeoisie over scarce resources that have long been denied to women or the proletariat. (So be it; I will have my turn later.) Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of power without reference to some material end. Power cannot be its own end, since the most effective power relies on having material support — incentives, reinforcing and punishing — to augment one’s influence over others. Moreover, even ideology is propagated precisely to preserve the existing distribution of resources or legitimize a new one. Every power relation can thus be rendered political.

Similarly, every social relation can be rendered as a power relation. As in above, any action can be framed as having been caused by some external power. If power is not already manifest, the analyst can always (and often does) resort to supposedly latent, difficult-to-verify forces. But it is a truism that we are (I dare add: always) externally influenced. Nothing we think is ever truly personal, for beginning with language, thought is always socially mediated. And if thought breeds action, nothing we do is also ever truly personal, for the supposedly private action either entails public consequences or is publicly learned. The analyst will always find a power to blame. Therefore, every social relation can be framed to be a power relation, and every power relation can be framed to be political. Now, because social relations are ubiquitous, politics itself also becomes ubiquitous.

But politics as power, while speaking of the pervasiveness of relations of dominance and control, simultaneously speaks of liberation from precisely those relations, and thus, of the possibility of autonomous thought and action. But if power is everywhere, then nowhere is my liberation from it visible. The premise of ubiquity contradicts the research agenda of emancipation. Politics as power prides itself on exposing the omnipresence of power, and thus, of politics, in all social relations, but in so doing, it shames itself in conflicting its emancipatory promise. Indeed, how can an individual escape an all-present relation? I can think of one way, though: death; but surely, that cannot be emancipation. For the moment that we remain alive, we cannot truly talk of liberation from power, because power, by its pervasiveness, will persist after liberation. Think of the Communist Party. In fact, even during liberation, be wary of the purported liberator. Think: is she not exercising ideological power over people in defining the terms of their oppression and their freedom from it? In this sense, emancipation may very well be subjugation to the emancipator.

The absurdity is clearer when we take “politics as power” as itself an ideology. It claims, as do its begetters feminism and Marxism, to be emancipatory, yet it imposes its own terms of emancipation on us. It tell us that the way to heaven begins with a recognition that politics is power. And when we reject its sacramental bread, it tells us that we are enslaved within an elaborate illusion. But who is enslaving? My feminist and Marxist friends will point to men and the bourgeoisie, but surely, they cannot deny that they themselves insist on ideological domination. Politics as power and its advocates claim to be empowering, but along the way, they deny us of autonomous agency.

Advocates may retort that politics as power does not aim to liberate the individual from relations of power per se, but rather from unequal or unjust relations of power. But how can there a just or an equal relation of power? Power imposes, neglecting along the way the will of the recipient, but justice and equality forge compromises, acknowledging along the way the wills of people involved. A just or equal relation of power is thus a contradiction of terms. Moreover, the assumption remains that when all relations cease to be relations of power, when they flatten to be equal or realign to be just, society reaches its most desirable form. But in the reduction, if not absence, of power, the concepts of order (which relies on power), society (which relies on order), and politics (on which societal order relies) lose their meaning. If anything, politics as power wants to lead us into a world with neither politics nor power. Indeed, feminists speak of a genderless heaven (where no gender exercises power over the other) while Marxists speak of a classless heaven (where no class exercises power over the other).

Behind all pretensions, politics as power is actually apolitical: it politicizes everything only to eventually depoliticize them. It also results in an unproductive discussion. What happens next after exposing where or to whom power is concentrated? Almost always, the intent of exposing power is to democratize it. And then? How — towards what vision of collective living — should that power be used? It does not end in genuine democracy, with each having uniform power to define the conditions that govern them. Democracy does not solve collective problems: it only presents a method to arrive at a solution. But how can democracy even function when politics as power, in its extreme, must eradicate the state? The state is a bastion of coercive power and is inherently dominating and controlling, yet it is essential, for instance, in the provision of public goods and maintainance of public order. Politics as power distracts us from focusing on collective problems, for the erosion of power does not automatically lead to the erosion of problems.

Politics as power already recognizes politics as the activity through which people determine the conditions of their collective existence, but emphasizes power far too much in the equation. Some relations of power are necessary, for collective existence relies on some settled order. Think of that between the state and the citizens. Moreover, the definition suggested above already fits to what politics as power attempted to fulfill in the first place. That politics concerns the settlement of collective existential conditions does not mean that politics concerns only the public sphere. Collectivity can be defined such that there are overlapping collectivities, from one as private as the family to one as public as humanity as a whole. By extension, those who determine collective existential conditions need not always be state actors and that the method need not always be formal decision-making. Indeed, social movements are sometimes able to determine circumstances of collective living through agenda-setting and preference-shaping.

I suggest that the idea of collective existence is far more central to politics (and far more optimistic a depiction) than power. In so doing, I also suggest that the state should remain central to political analysis, for with its resources, it remains the entity most effectively able to shape how we live with one another. Indeed, I suspect that politics as power (especially its less radical strand, e.g., liberal feminism) politicizes personal relations precisely to bring collective existence at that sphere to the attention of the state. In the end, I recognize that power is an important currency in setting collective existential conditions, but politics is never just power.