Capitalist power is not possessed.

I have tried unsuccessfully to post this twice.

> To quote JanMohamed:
> The problem with the Foucaultian formulation of pwoer...that power can =
only be "exercised," never "possessed," become readily apparent once the =
temporal structures of exercise and possession as well as of subjectivity=
as such are probed. Exercise and possession, as activities, can be chara=
cterized by relatively long or short durations: the ability to exercise p=
ower can endure over a long period of time, for decades and--in terms of =
group authority, rights, and so on--for centuries; conversely, possession=
can be fleeting. How is one to distinguish power that is exercised over =
a long duration from that which is possessed? (JanMohamed 54).
> Yoshie Furuhashi

I would like to, as Lenin would say, "patiently explain" the importance o=
f Foucault's idea that power is only exercised and not possessed for an u=
nderstanding of the power of the capitalist ruling class (the group that =
exercises decisive economic power, under normal circumstances, in a capit=
alist social formation).

My treatment of the issue is based on Thomas Wartenberg's discussion of "=
situated social power," his name for Foucault's conception, in the book h=
e edited called RETHINKING POWER.

First, we need to understand the idea of an "alignment" of power. If I a=
m a teacher, much of my (capacity to exercise) power depends on the fact =
that I shall be assigning a grade to each student. (And other aspects of=
the power that I exercise can be analyzed along similar lines.) Student=
s want to secure my approval because they want a good grade. But why wou=
ld they want a good grade? Because OTHER people, not participating in th=
e teacher/student relationship, will determine their own conduct toward t=
he student differently, depending on the grade that I assign to that stud=
ent. For example, an employer may decide to hire a student with "straig=
ht A's," but not one with C's and D's; the university may not grant a deg=
ree (which also matters to employers etc.) if I give the student a failin=
g grade; a graduate school will not admit a student with a C average, and=
so on. This means that the power that I exercise over the student depen=
ds crucially on the expectation that others will
"align" their behaviour with mine in a coherent way. Only because the st=
udent anticipates the operation of this alignment can I exercise power ov=
er the student (govern his or her conduct). The student, in most cases, =
will attempt to write essays in the way that I want, hand the essay in ac=
cording to the timetable I set, perhaps even try to defend ideas that s/h=
e thinks I will look favourably on -- all in the hope of securing my appr=
oval, and thereby to secure the approval of the "de-centered" alignment o=
f agents acting on the basis of the grade that I assign.

Now, clearly, this means that I definitely do exercise power. But do I "=
possess" power? I don't think so. My own power is entirely contingent o=
n my successful reproduction of the alignment that backs it up. Thus, if=
the university administration ceased to recognize my competence to assig=
n grades, if employers regarded all university teachers as useless egghea=
ds, or if the students regarded me with such contempt that their self-est=
eem was never at stake in the grading process, then my power would quickl=
y begin to break down. Students might even demand that their papers be g=
raded by someone else, and the administration might even grant them that =
demand. (Not that this happens every day! But that is just to say that,=
in fact, teachers generally do continue to exercise power, which we alre=
ady know.) So, in this example, I exercise power, but I don't possess it=
=2E It is "located" not in my conduct or position per se, but in the net=
work of co-ordinated actions of an indefinitely large
and dispersed series of agents, most of whom neither I nor my students wi=
ll ever actually meet: admistrative bureaucrats, various sorts of "select=
ion committee," other teachers, and generally whoever might find themselv=
es acting toward the student, with or without his/her knowledge, in a way=
that is affected by the grade I assign. Foucault's point is not that I =
don't have power, nor that it is not reproduced over time, but only that =
it cannot be understood by looking at me alone or my relationship to the =
student alone, without taking into account the network of agents who alig=
n their conduct with mine and THEREBY constitute my relationship to the s=
tudent as a power relationship.

This brings us to capitalism. What sort of power is exercised by bosses?=
They not only control, but as a class tend to monopolize control over t=
he means of production. (This, of course, means that a power alignment b=
acks up their claim to ownership: cops, judges, other capitalists and so =
on.) By virtue of this monopoly, and the correlative "separation of the =
producers from the means of production," it is the case that workers must=
sell their labour-power in order to survive. This is indeed a social st=
ructure. But what is a social structure if not a power alignment that is=
reproduced over time (like that of teachers)? Marx understood that the =
wage-labour/capital relationship had to be reproduced on a daily basis by=
workers actually showing up, actually doing what the boss wants, actuall=
y allowing the boss to keep the proceeds. This is what Marx calls "the d=
ull compulsion of economic relations" (i.e, the power relations of produc=
tion through which the "economy" is organized). If
they don't do what the boss (backed up by the police, as workers who try =
to occupy their workplaces eventually find out) says, then they will not =
get paid, in which case they will have no money to buy food etc. Thus th=
e power of the employer depends on the fact that grocers only give food t=
o those with cash, which in turn is only secured (within the framework of=
capitalist production proper) either through wage-labour or through capi=
talist revenues.

This implies not a discrete one-on-one relationship between a boss and a =
worker, but an entire network of co-ordinated actions which presuppose th=
e recognition of property rights, of the commodification of labour-power,=
of the right of bosses to fire workers who don't obey orders, of the ill=
egality of factory occupations and so-called "employee theft," and so on.=
These are exactly the sort of thing that break down in a "revolutionary=
situation." Consider the USSR (which I regard as having been a "state c=
apitalist" social formation, which is a topic for another day). The powe=
r of the ruling class there, TO THE EXTENT THAT IT BROKE DOWN, which is o=
ften exaggerated, broke down in the sense that some army units stopped re=
cognizing the legitimacy of orders from the central government, some work=
ers stopped recognizing the authority of their bosses, lower levels of go=
vernment stopped recognizing the commands of higher levels, and so on. T=
here was a breakdown of the power alignments that had
hitherto stabilized the society. If the rulers had ever "possessed" powe=
r in the way that Foucault denies they did, then they would not depend on=
this reproduction of their recognition by others.

To wrap up: Wartenberg uses this sort of analysis to show how capitalists=
use economic power to control governments (to constitute themselves as a=
ruling class politically), essentially by threatening "capital strikes" =
(which is only a partial account, but illustrates how Foucault would go a=
bout analyzing it); and how a particular boss exercises power over a part=
icular worker in the same way that a teacher does in relation to a studen=
t (namely, by relying on the importance of "reference letters," and so on=
). There is nothing in these capitalist power relations which is in tens=
ion with Foucault's denial that power is "possessed." On the contrary, t=
hey illustrate it quite well.

One last thing. It is not only capitalists who exercise power, but also =
workers. Consider: strikes, unions (which partially decommodify labour-p=
ower by constituting a counter-alignment against the "free" operation of =
the labour market), or even the very threat that they will strike or form=
a union, and so on.

I didn't intend to be so long-winded. Sorry. But I hope the idea is cle=

Steve D.
U.of Toronto

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