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Saturday, Nov. 02, 2002 at 3:55 PM
A development of two lines of thought on the nature of power
based on the work of Michel Foucault
The Power. Speaking Truth to Power.
Sketches of a post-Foucauldian anarchism
The majority of anarchist literature I read seems to have yet to absorb the analytics of power left as the legacy of the French historian Michel Foucault. A brilliant philosophical scholar, Foucault left us not with a system of analysis, but rather a series of critiques and suggestions that ultimately demolish all systems of thought.
He presents two lines of thought that I'd like to develop here, for their relevance to anarchism. First is to deepen the understanding of power, an understanding that is frequently lacking among anarchists. The other is to counter claims made by some anarchists to be recovering some fundamental aspect of human nature by clearing away authoritarian or heirarchical institutions that impede the expression of an anarchic, nonauthoritarian true human nature. Human nature does not exist indepedent of the cultural institutions and practices that construct it: as anarchists our goal might better be described as instituting practices that create humans as anarchic. We are growing a collection of fluid and free institutions and organizations that will replace those institutions (such as the corporation and the nation-state) which produce persons as obedient workers and obedient masters.
Often the anarchist position is spoken of as "speaking truth to power." In speaking truth to power, we will dispel the myths which power uses to keep people enslaved. Sometimes our struggle is framed as a confrontation with "The Power," a loosely defined enemy but certainly includes corporate executives, heads of state, leaders of restrictive churches, in short, any political, economic, or social elite. We thus identify with the "powerless." Our language suggests that power is a thing that some people hold or have or own, and others don't. Power is a commodity, that can be exchanged or seized or donated; or it is a position one can have in society.
The first thing to consider, then, is that power is none of these things: power is not a thing one can have, power is not a position, nor is it control over particular institutions. What is it, then? Consider a conception of power not as a thing, but as a relationship. Further, consider that *any* human relationship can be seen as having power relations as a component. This relationship may be symmetrical, with both parties dominating and submitting to a roughly equal degree (as between friends); or one person may clearly dominate another (as the employer dominates the employee). Power is not outside our relationships: it is part of our relationships.
We must replace this concept of The Power. All too often, we forget that there is no secret cabal of powerful people meeting and intentionally plotting to maintain poverty and hunger. The activities of organizations like the IMF or the WTO clearly result in an increase of poverty and a greater concentration of wealth, which tempts us to be suspicious of their claims to have the elimination of poverty as a goal. But we should be sure to be suspicious of our suspicions: I find it more likely that the delegates of the WTO or IMF earnestly and honestly want to help, but are constrained both materially (for example, by corporate interests) and intellectually (for example, by thinking as capitalists, with fundamental ideas like the "creation of wealth" which are taken as absolute truths or facts). In fact, we all know that there is no cabal, yet our language may often be mistaken as though we think there is. This is partly a consequence of our employment of institutional analysis, a mode of analysis that ignores the individual, personal actors within the institution and instead considers the institution itself as an actor with interests and strategies.
Let us replace this concept of The Power with Foucault's notion of the "infra-power." He writes of a power infrastructure, composed by the state, the hospital, the asylum, the corporation, the factory, the prison, the school, the family. Power is implicit in every one of our relationships: there are local centers of power, like the parent/child or employer/employee or teacher/student. The asymmetries of domination in these relationships add up to the global power structures, which may be given names like The Establishment or The System. In using those names, we forget that these systems of domination are not imposed upon us by some elite, rather they are implicit in the arrangements of our relationships. Viewed in these terms, the goal of anarchism shifts from the elimination of power to the redistribution of power; from the eradication of The Power to the re-organization and re-arrangement of social relations so that power relations are symmetric.
The System is composed of our personal interactions. It is something like the sum total or composite of every one of our relationships. This fact has been known to anarchists for some time, and is the impetus for "civil rights" movements such as the feminist or anti-racist causes. We understand that "the personal is the political," and that the first step towards building an anarchist society is to examine our own personal relations for asymmetries in domination. This is not easy: a single relationship between a particular man and a particular woman, embedded in a global sexism, requires great care in order to be locally egalitarian. The global power structure reinforces local power relations. The good news is, of course, that local power relations reinforce global power structures as well, so if a man and a woman to achieve equality in a sexist society, that society is ever so slightly less sexist. It becomes more difficult when interacting in an institution like the employer/employee relationship: this relationship has been structured so that the employer cannot help but be exercising power over the employee.
The other point I'd like to elaborate is the conception of human nature. Humans are
naturally competetive, the capitalists insist, and they claim capitalism best expresses
human nature. No, the answer comes from various economic philosophers opposed
to capitalism, human nature is naturally cooperative, and capitalist or statist institutions
impede the cooperation humans naturally seek. Both of these beliefs rest on a basic
fallacy: the independence of "human nature" from the social institutions.
To whatever extent we can speak of human nature (that is, to whatever extent a
particular society allows us to collect certain human behaviors and declare them
to be "human nature" and talk about this object thus defined), this human nature
is constituted by social relations. Whatever capacities may be available to us
biologically, our understanding and use of them is determined by society; this
means the social, political, and economic institutions.
People born and raised in capitalist society are naturally competetive. And
people born and raised in the state find themselves placed within a network of
relationships of domination and submission. Our goal as anarchists is not to
destroy those institutions that impede the expression of cooperative creativity
that is our true nature; our goal as anarchists is to create new practices and
organizations (I hesitate to use the word "institution," hesitate to connect the
coming anarchy to the fossils that are raping our world) that constitute new
human beings, create new human natures. As people leave the power structures
of the capitalist state, and work their way into the power structures of
anarchist groups (like Food Not Bombs or an Indymedia Collective, for
example), they leave behind their competetive natures and are transformed.
They learn new habits--habits of sharing, habits of neither being submissive
My vision, as an anarchist, is that these groups that re-create persons into
sharing, loving beings will grow; that eventually they will offer an attractive
enough alternative to the people currently plugged into the great state machine
that those people will disconnect, and let themselves be transformed.
Perhaps these notes were obvious. Perhaps I've wasted your time. In any
case, thanks for your time.
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