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A Reconceptualization of Power and Its Normative Value

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Power has historically taken on different meanings and functions. For Max Weber, power is merely instrumental, whereas Hannah Arendt sees it as communicative, and Michel Foucault as strategic. Although power is traditionally defined as essentially repressive and negative, I will argue along the lines of Arendt and Foucault, who share similar objections to Weber’s model but dissimilar views about the normative value of power, that power can be both creative, since it produces knowledge, and positive, since it encourages solidarity. Weber holds the traditional view of power as in the state, defining it as “the inescapable instrument of all politics,”serving to implement the regime through subjugation.

This view maintains that power is something that can be possessed, contained in a sovereign who foist rules on subjects; for instance, he states that “the professional politician can feel himself elevated above the everyday level by the sense of exercising influence over men, of having a share in power over their lives. ” Weber distinguishes between two kinds of power which complement one another. On the one hand, coercive power, which he defines as the ability to make use of one’s power regardless of opposition, especially with the use of force. On the other hand, legitimate authoritative power which will assure the compliance of its subjects; among these are “traditional rule, relying on custom (e. g. , inheritance and religious or royal lineages); charismatic rule, relying on the exceptional character of the leader; and, rational legal rule, relying on legal statue and judicial action to enforce rationally designed rules. ”In sum, Weber advocates a definition of power which is essentially negative since it is used to restrain the freedom of subjects; hence, the need for threats and violence.

Arendt rejects Weber’s power as sovereignty model, “for power itself in its true sense can never be possessed by one man alone; power comes … into being whenever men act ‘in concert’ and disappears … whenever one man is all by himself. ” Arendt thus defines power, not as a fixed physical or mental quality that can be acquired, but as a potential that can be actualized where words are “used to disclose realities,” i. e. , intentions and motives, and deeds “to establish relations and create new realities. ”

Thus, power is the result of action, speech and deed, originating from plurality, or collective action, and depends on discussion and debate since it cannot come about through coercion, but “flows from the will of people. ”Power is generated in the public space of appearance which “comes into being whenever men are together in the manner of speech and action;” therefore, the living of men together is a requirement. For Arendt, the legitimacy of our political institutions is established by this collectivity. On the whole, Arendt defines power as a positive force because it prompts people to get together and stimulates rational deliberation, leading to cooperation and action which drive political change.

Similarly, Foucault criticizes the relationship sovereign-subject model of Weber, which can be identified with the economistic analysis of power, more specifically, what he terms the liberal approach where “power is taken to be a right, which one is able to possess like a commodity, and which one can transfer or alienate, either wholly or partially, through a legal act or through some act that establishes a right, such as takes place through cession or contract. Weber could also be identified with the non-economistic analysis, the Reich hypothesis, which associates repression as its mechanism of power.

However, Foucault introduces a new mechanism of power which he thinks is more representative of modern society: the disciplinary power. Instead of focusing on an analysis of power at the macro level, he focuses on micro-power structures. He uses the example of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, “a model for a prison that allowed the guards to observe the prisoners at all times,” to illustrate the disciplinary mechanisms, the means by which our everyday power relations are exercised: surveillance. The concern is “with individualizing observation, with characterization and classification. ”

Being permanently visible without being able to see “automizes and disindividualizes power;” thus, power becomes omnipresent and omniscient. Unlike Weber, he does not see power as hierarchical, but “as something which circulates,” and which is not “localized here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a commodity,”but is common to all. Power is no longer corporeal, but mental: “The exercise of power is not added on from the outside … but is so subtly present in them as to increase their efficiency by itself increasing its own point of contact. That is to say, we choose to follow the norms and laws, not out of fear of punishment, but because through the “procedures of normalization,” we have come to internalize the values of society. This process originates in our institutions which include not only prisons, but the family, education and health care systems. They are powerful because they shape our discourses, or the way we talk about things. Discourses are caused by knowledge, and the discovery thereof is at the core of our institutions. These discourses are then perpetuated by people who have authority over certain fields of study, who get to determine what we call normal or abnormal. The disciplinary mechanisms are seen in “the existence of a whole set of techniques and institutions for measuring, supervising and correcting the abnormal. ”As can be seen, then power is not only repressive, but also productive since “it forms knowledge [and] produces discourse,” which he thinks explains why we comply so readily. Unlike Arendt, he does not assign it a normative value.

Foucault’s view may leave us with the impression that there is no way to break free from power relations, since power is produced by discourses which are present in every sphere of life. An implication is that, if one wants to gain access to power, one should focus on generating a new discourse in line with their interests. This shows that it may be possible to become more autonomous if we remain consciously aware of those existing power relations, which often arise outside the juridical-political structures in the most subtle ways. In conclusion, Weber saw power as a means for control, Arendt as concerned with the conveyance and exchange of opinions, and Foucault as carefully designed to serve the particular purpose of surveillance. As shown above, power is productive and positive, since it inspires cooperative rational deliberation by bringing people together, and it leads us closer to the truth by extending knowledge in all spheres of life.

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A Reconceptualization Of Power And Its Normative Value. (2020, March 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 24, 2021, from
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