Swans Commentary » swans.com October 19, 2009  



Dimensions Of Power


by Jeffery Klaehn and Garry Potter





(Swans - October 19, 2009)  

Jeffery Klaehn: How would you define the concept of power? What images and/or metaphors does it evoke for you?

Garry Potter: There are two power phenomena: individual power and structural power. Weber famously defined the former as the capacity of an individual to exert his will over others even against their resistance. Something along these lines, at least, still seems good enough to me for a definition of individual power. But individual power is definitely not the most significant exercise of power. Nor is it what, as a social theorist, I am most concerned with. Structural power is the power that inheres to social structures, which are emergent entities, deriving from, but not reducible to either individuals or individual social actions. Extraordinarily powerful and also quite weak structural forces, in harmony and in conflict with one another, are constantly at work upon all individuals. They are both enabling and constraining of all human action. They are the most significant causes of all events. By contrast individual power is relatively insignificant. For example, using Weber's definition of individual power, it is something that individuals would possess to varying degrees. Bill Gates would have much more power than would a homeless person, more power than most all ordinary people. However, the decisions he makes, the methods he uses when he attempts to use his power for good (as to give the man credit, he certainly does try) are nonetheless not the best decisions or the best methods to obtain the goals he seeks. This is not accidental but rather a result of the impersonal power, the structural forces at work upon him that continue to, on the one hand enable him and yet powerfully constrain even his thinking. Does Bill Gates's structural position within the capitalist system affect his decisions (again in my view not good ones) as to how to use his money in the battle against malaria? Very obviously yes; and I would say that these forces are much more crucial to understand than the purely individual quirks of character of someone like Gates.

As for a metaphor for power in contemporary society, I think the best one was produced a long time ago: Franz Kafka's The Castle captures the subtleties and contradictions perfectly.

Jeffery Klaehn: What about the power of corporations and media?

Garry Potter: Today's media, notwithstanding some newly emergent structural forms and institutional entities on the Internet and other alternative venues, most significantly are corporations. This fact reaches deep, deep down into their form as well as their content. For example, the usual absence of significant contextualization of events in mainstream media is not simply a matter of editorial choice with respect to content made by an individual concerned with the communication of some particular information. There is that aspect to it certainly; but more significant is the fact that the media is structurally embedded in the political economy. That fact allows the contradiction of a populace being constantly bombarded by news from a plethora of sources on the one hand, yet still managing to maintain the most astonishing ignorance of what is actually going on in the world on the other.

Jeffery Klaehn: In what ways does power manifest itself, ideologically, economically, socially? Whatever you may like to touch upon...

Garry Potter: Power manifests itself everywhere. All of the social institutions intended to produce and disseminate knowledge have within them a contradiction that derives from the power relations that underpin social inequality in society. The contradiction is that the institutional production of knowledge entails its dialectical opposite: structural mystification.

Jeffery Klaehn: On intellectuals, and their relationship to power...

Garry Potter: I think intellectuals seldom hold an accurate or balanced view of their own power. They frequently attribute power to themselves as individuals, which in fact inheres to the position they hold in the structures they are part of. Or they go to the opposite extreme and believe they have no power whatsoever and thus can morally and politically forfeit all responsibility for their words and actions. We are certainly no philosopher kings. Relatively speaking, intellectuals have little power. However, little does not mean none! Just because we are not the rulers of the universe doe not mean we do not have any responsibility toward it.

Jeffery Klaehn: Your thoughts on engagement and resistance?

Garry Potter: Well, a weak resistance is all we have at the moment. That is, we can recognize the human condition as very grim and do our best to combine with others to resist the powerful impersonal forces of global capitalism making it so. At the moment, the balance of power seems very much not in our favor. But as we as individuals work with others there is always the possibility that out of these small efforts something new may emerge of a qualitatively greater order of force to have a positive effect upon the history of the future. We cannot know that this will not occur. This perhaps does not sound very hopeful but at the moment it is the only realistic hope there is.


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About the Authors

Jeffery Klaehn is a widely published author and cultural commentator. His scholarly writings have been published in national and international peer-reviewed journals and he is the editor of several books, including Filtering the News (2005), Bound by Power: Intended Consequences (2006), and Roadblocks to Equality: Women Challenging Boundaries (2008). His most recent edited collection, The Political-Economy of Media and Power, is currently in press with Peter Lang. He lives in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.

Dr. Garry Potter is an associate professor of sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He recently contributed a piece to Swans, "New Orleans And Katrina: Past Prediction, Future Dystopia."



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/klaehn05.html
Published October 19, 2009