The All-Seeing Eye

Musings from the central tower…

Organized Labor: A Power Analysis

One place where the question of power has had a great effect on society is the relationship between employer and employee. Marx portrayed this as a class struggle, between the proletariat – those laborers whose physical activities produced value in the economy – and capitalists, whose role is to organize the activities of those laborers. Marxism generally holds that the capitalists do not produce value through their activities, and instead exploit the laborers by making profits (that is, unfair monetary gain) from the work of the laborers, who receive wages worth less than the value of their work.

The question Marxism must answer, then, is: how do the capitalists maintain this exploitation, if they are indeed adding nothing of value? Why do the laborers allow the capitalists to exploit them? Clearly, the capitalists must have some power over the laborers.

What is the nature of this power? To begin, the capitalists own the means of production. They may own land, tools, supplies, or other property that the laborers cannot obtain due to political or economic factors. Modern ownership of land goes back to feudalism, where all property rights flowed from the king, down through the nobility, and usually stopping there but occasionally ending in yeoman farmers. And of course colonial American plantations are a perfect example of workers laboring to make profits for a plantation owner who was granted the land by a monarch or the monarch’s representative. And plantation workers – often indentured servants or slaves – are a perfect example of the exploited worker who does not and cannot own property and, as a result, whose work benefits another. Furthermore, the system of property rights at the time of colonial America was so extensive that one person could own another, in the form of indenture, or slavery.

Aside from simply condemning this system as evil, it is worthwhile to analyze it further. The system of property rights is a way of organizing some or all of the things in the world (people, places, objects) so that each thing is accounted for in some way. This can be viewed from a functionalist perspective – in other words, the function of fertile land is to be farmed, and so it is up to the nobility to make sure that it is farmed so the people do not starve, and it is similarly up to the peasants to do the actual farming, for the same reason. In this way, power is not simply a tool of privilege, but a tool of productivity. As society advanced, the economy evolved, and the nobility was replaced by a more efficient system of administration. People who were better at organizing the means of production were allowed to be in charge, and to grow rich from their success, and these people are Marx’s capitalists. Capitalism proved more efficient at organizing productive power than its predecessors (mercantilism and feudalism) , but the power relationship that existed under feudalism was never really abolished. Instead, it is simply better organized.

One of the ways that the system is better organized is that it is better at sorting people based on their productive capacities. It is by no means perfect – the system is still marred by things like gender, class, and race discrimination – but it is certainly better than a system where a son of a farmer is automatically also a farmer. The system provides people with a range of options and then rewards those who choose the options that enable them to be more productive.

The individualism that comes with a system in which individuals feel that their lives are created by their choices provides a certain amount of resistance to metonymic power. Metonymic power involves a displacement of agency and an abdication of personal or individual responsibility. Individualism encourages people to take individual responsibility for their lives, and a broader range of choices provides people with a sense of agency. So in a sense, capitalism can be seen as a substitution of productive power for metonymic power – individuals become more productive (producing productive power) and also gain a sense of their own agency (reducing metonymic power). Another way of saying this is to say that the economic sphere has gained power while the political sphere has lost power.

The fact remains that under capitalism, laborers still find themselves the subjects of a form of power. The difference is that while metonymic power is explicitly linguistic (or at least semiotic) – the acting agent thinks of an action as having originated from a symbolic agent – productive power is more phenomenological: it is felt, experienced, performed, and quite difficult to express linguistically. In other words, while a peasant can express any number of symbolic agents (God, the King, his feudal lord, duty) to explain why he continues farming, and thus make it very clear that he is under the effects of a power relationship, the worker is denied these symbolic agents, and is left only with the idea that his labor is a personal choice, that he could choose to do something else, or nothing at all, that nobody is forcing him to work, and thus is told that he is the one with the power. And so we come across arguments that say that the laborer and the capitalist both have power – the capitalist offers wages, the laborer offers work, and thus an equitable bargain is struck, with no force, threat, or coercion – and the productive power that organizes the labor by organizing the laborer is obscured and hidden.

I have spoken a great deal about this productive power, but I have not yet described what productive power is. My answer, which I will elaborate upon later, is that productive power is disciplinary power, which is panoptic power, which in turn is inverted, or reflexive, metonymic power. I have teased you all a great deal with this answer, which opens up more questions than it answers. I believe my meaning will soon become clear. Continue reading

February 24, 2008 Posted by | Economics, Power | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Panopticon

I’ll start this post with a brief recap:

The Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD) is a concept in game theory that describes the situation of two suspects who have been apprehended by the authorities. In the PD, the authorities need a confession in order to get the conviction they want, so they come up with a scenario to try to convince each suspect to confess. They offer each prisoner a reduced sentence in exchange for a confession that incriminates the other prisoner. If both prisoners stay silent – a play that is conventionally called “cooperate” – they both get a short sentence. If one prisoner chooses to “cooperate” but the other prisoner makes a confession – a play called “defect” – the defector goes free and the cooperator gets a full, long sentence. If both “defect” they both get a medium sentence.

Like the Traveler’s Dilemma, it is better in the Prisoner’s Dilemma for both players to cooperate – choosing (100) or choosing to stay silent. Also like the TD, in the PD if one player cooperates, the other player can increase his payoff by defecting – choosing (99), or choosing to confess. And finally, if one player defects – by choosing (2), or confessing – the other player can mitigate the harm done by also defecting.

The Panopticon is a philosophical concept that describes the situation of prisoners in a more general sense. The original panopticon was a design for a physical structure that would house prisoners in such a way as to maximize the number of inmates who could be supervised by one warden. This design consisted of a central tower where an observer could remain unseen by the inmates but from which all of the inmates could be seen. The inmates were situated in individual cells surrounding the central tower, separate from each other.

The idea of the panopticon is that this situation – isolation and the perpetual possibility of surveillance, would produce within each prisoner a sort of self-surveillance. Each prisoner would know at all times that he could be under supervision, and so each prisoner will act at all times as though he were under supervision.

The difference between self-surveillance and regular surveillance, though, is that self-surveillance can be much more intrusive. After all, an outside observer can only see certain physical manifestations of our actions – in other words, can only see what our actions look like. We, on the other hand, can, in a sense, see what our actions are. We form the intent that turns a motion into a gesture, an activity into an action, a sound into a word. We can read our own minds.

This paves the way for what I like to call the panoptic model of power. The panoptic model of power says that power is constituted and magnified by the effects of isolation and self-surveillance. Isolation and self-surveillance are interlocking, mutually reinforcing forces – in other words, isolation helps constitute self-surveillance and self-surveillance helps constitute isolation. A good example of how this works is the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The most obvious intersection of the PD and the panoptic model of power is isolation. Without isolation, the PD would not be a dilemma. Imagine the PD with both prisoners in the same room. They can talk to each other, they can see each other, and they know what the other one is doing at all times. In other words, you’ve removed the hope that one player can defect without the other player defecting, and so now the options are only (defect, defect) or (cooperate, cooperate). Between those two options, one is strictly better, and it’s the one that benefits both players the most – so there’s no dilemma.

The self-surveillance part of the PD may not be as obvious. First we can look at the effects: The expected effect of the PD is that both prisoners confess. Is not confession a form of self-surveillance? It’s self-incrimination, certainly. One might expect the prisoners to provide additional information to the authorities in the course of their confession – details of the crime, perhaps the location of weapons used in the crime, perhaps details about other accomplices, or motives, or planning. In other words, the PD goes a lot deeper than the surveillance the authorities were able to place upon the prisoners without the PD.

To find the cause, we need only locate the central observer. In the panopticon, the prisoner exercises self-surveillance because the prisoner might be under surveillance. In the PD, the prisoner confesses because the other prisoner might confess. In the panopticon, the possibility of being watched leads the prisoner to watch himself. In the PD, the possibility of being incriminated leads the prisoner to incriminate himself.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma, thus, provides both an example of the panoptic model of power at work, and an insight into one of the mechanisms of the panoptic model of power.

February 17, 2008 Posted by | Game Theory, Power | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Free Will, Determinism, and Motivation

It is possible to look at the universe like a giant computer. If you know the software a computer is running and all of its inputs you can predict the result. Similarly, one might think that if you knew all the rules of the universe – that is, if you understood physics perfectly and accurately – and if you knew the position and velocity of each particle in the universe, you would be able to predict the results – that is, how everything would turn out. Such a view is called determinism. When Newton first proposed that all matter obeyed certain laws, he was accused of atheism, because the obvious implication of his theories was determinism, which is a theory that leaves no place for God and no place for free will.

The question of free will vs. predestination or determinism is, of course, older than Newtonian physics, but physics is the way in which I first conceived of the question. One might ask, if God is all powerful, how can anyone act in a way God does not want? One might ask, if God knows all, then isn’t destiny written – isn’t there no way to change things? I have never been particularly into theology, but physics always fascinated and frightened me.

Some time ago I read Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation trilogy, which despite its name consisted of approximately thirteen thousand books. This series is based upon the idea that there was a mathematician named Hari Seldon who was able to predict the course of history using mathematical models and a deep understanding of historical trends. I did not find this idea credible. People, after all, are far too complicated to reduce to a mathematical model. Aren’t they?

Can we predict what people will do in a given situation? If we can, what does that say about free will? If we can’t, how can we enact social change?

In Freakonomics, authors Levitt and Dubner describe a scenario in which parents were charged a small fee (I think it was $3) for being late to pick their children up from daycare. The result of this fee was that lateness increased dramatically. According to Levitt and Dubner, the fee was too low, and parents felt as though paying $3 justified their lateness. In other words, when no provision is made for lateness, the parents have to pick their kids up on time or risk their kids being scared and alone. When the daycare center charges for lateness, watching the kids for a few more minutes becomes just another service that the parent can buy, and buy they do. The point of this story is that incentives don’t necessarily work the way we think they will. There are complicated issues at stake even in something as simple as daycare. As we saw in the Traveler’s Dilemma, it’s not a simple task to predict how people will make their decisions, and sometimes rational behavior isn’t what theorists think is rational.

However, what both of these scenarios show is that despite the difficulty, despite the complications, it is possible to develop models and predictions for how people will behave. It is possible to find, with experimentation, the fee amount at which parents will begin picking their children up on time to avoid the fee. It is possible to find, with experimentation, the punishment amount at which people will begin picking the low number rather than the high number in the Traveler’s Dilemma. In other words, people’s behavior may be more complicated than we think, but it is not unreasonable. People act based on motivations, and although these motivations are often not obvious, they are there and they can be found.

Of course there will always be exceptions. There’s always room for free will. There will always be people on the far ends of the bell curve, people who defy expectations and act inexplicably. But in order to effect positive change in the world, we have to believe that we can predict behaviors for most people. We have to believe that there’s a number of dollars that will decrease the amount of late pickups from daycare. After all, isn’t this how we determine prison sentences? Isn’t there a number of years of incarceration that we believe will make the commission of murder unattractive to most potential criminals? Isn’t there a number of dollars that we believe will deter people from speeding and thus decrease the number of traffic accident fatalities?

I’ve never really believed in free will. I’ve always thought that everything is already determined by particle vectors, that everything I do is explainable by something that happened to me in childhood or by a set of circumstances that outlined my choice to such an extent that I didn’t really have a choice. And that’s why, for me, I think it is important for us to search for these motivations, search for these incentives, to build and discredit and rebuild these mathematical models to predict behavior. Because I want to set things up so that people have no choice but to make the right choices. I want a society full of people who pick 100 on the Traveler’s dilemma and pick their children up on time from daycare, and if we’re going to have that we have to pick the right game.

And that, in turn, is why it’s worth looking at something like the Traveler’s Dilemma and finding out that people will cooperate with each other as long as the risk for doing so isn’t too high. It’s why it’s worth looking at the daycare paradox to find out how much guilt is worth. It’s why it’s worth asking why people follow their king or their president against their best interests. We need to find out what motivates people. And in exploring incentives and economics, game theory and modeling, philosophy and psychoanalysis, that’s exactly what I hope to do. I hope to find a solution, a way to set up society so that we’re all playing a game that everyone can win.

In closing, right now I feel that most people are not playing a game that everyone can win. There’s a game called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this game, two prisoners are in the custody of law enforcement, but the police don’t have enough evidence to convict them of a serious crime. Each of them is told that they are both suspects and given the following options. If one prisoner gives up the other, that prisoner will go free and the other will go to jail for a long time. If neither of them confesses they will both serve a short sentence for whatever smaller crimes the police can put on them. If they both confess they’ll both serve a short sentence. The implications of the game are that it is better for each player, no matter what the other player does, to confess their crime. Unlike the Traveler’s Dilemma, the Prisoner’s Dilemma tends to lead to uncooperative behavior – in other words, it is much better for each player to screw the other player over, unlike in the TD in which screwing the other player leads to a greater loss.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma game describes many situations in modern life – situations in which people have a great incentive to hurt other people. If there is some way to change the rules of the game so that, like in the Traveler’s Dilemma, or many other games, people have an incentive to help other people, then everyone could benefit immensely. Changing the rules of the game is what I’m aiming for, but it’s going to take a lot of searching to find the right game and a lot of convincing to get people to play it.

February 10, 2008 Posted by | About, Economics, Game Theory | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Power: The Metonymic Model

In my last post I introduced the “panoptic model of power” as an explanation of where the name of this blog comes from. In doing so I touched briefly upon the concept of the panopticon, because at first glance “panoptic” is the word in that phrase that needs to be explained. I was able to take for granted that anyone reading would have some previous understanding of the word power. However, in presenting a new model of power I also implicitly challenged that understanding. Therefore, I believe that an examination of power as a concept is worthwhile before we go any further.

Often individuals and groups are spoken of as having power. For instance, America is a powerful nation – some would say the most powerful in the world. Within America, George W. Bush is currently in power. Here we are speaking of military power, political power, economic power. What does it mean to have this kind of power?

One can say, “George W. Bush invaded Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power” in all seriousness without considering that it was not Bush himself but rather certain members of the United States military who invaded Iraq and toppled the government. Using the name of the President to stand in for the troops who are carrying out his orders is an example of metonymy, a rhetorical device in which one word or concept is used to stand in for a related word or concept. The use of metonymy is widespread when discussing power relationships. If officials from the US government sign an agreement with officials from the British government, it is said that Washington and London have signed an agreement. This, too, is metonymy.

If we read these metonymic statements literally what we see is a displacement of agency. Bush himself did not invade Iraq, nor did the city of Washington, D.C. pick up a pen and write its name on a piece of paper. In these examples, Bush and Washington are not direct agents but related concepts – concepts linked by the relations of power. They do not do anything themselves and yet the agency of the actions taken is ascribed to them through metonymy.

So one formulation of power we could postulate would be the metonymic model of power – the possession of agency not through action but through metonymic relations. The reason I am formulating power this way is to point out that it is not just individuals who wield power – it is also concepts, and it is also the names of these concepts. Under the metonymic model, “Washington” has power even though it has no real agency of its own. Washington, instead, is a symbolic agent – it has agency through a metonymic relationship.

By definition, then, metonymic power is the displacement of agency from an acting agent to a symbolic agent. This displacement of agency is what gives metonymic power its power. A displacement of agency is also a displacement of responsibility. Therefore, metonymic power gets its power from the human tendency to evade responsibility. Continue reading

February 3, 2008 Posted by | Power | , , , , , , | 1 Comment