The All-Seeing Eye

Musings from the central tower…

Cooperation and Membership

In Organized Labor: A Power Analysis, I examined the power relationships involved in the formation of a labor union. In one sense, the formation of a union follows the prisoners’ dilemma: the workers can cooperate with each other by striking, or defect by becoming scabs. If enough of them cooperate, they can be successful and gain a measure of power back from the employers. If enough of them defect, the strike can be broken and the striking workers fired. In this and other examples following the panoptic model of power, cooperation is a counter to the isolation that produces the panoptic effect. Once the workers are part of the union, the union acts on their behalf – negotiates wages, benefits, vacations, etc. The union thus becomes a symbolic agent – instead of saying that the workers took an action, we say the union did it. The union thus has metonymic power. In this example, we see that metonymic power is also a counter to panoptic power – membership in a group with a powerful symbolic agent allows people to act without self-surveillance.

Let me explain that claim a little more. It is safe to say that laborers are under direct and indirect surveillance. An example of direct surveillance would be when a foreman or supervisor actually watches the laborers and directs their activities. An example of indirect surveillance would be an inspector who checks the laborers’ work for defects. In either case, the laborers must constantly behave as though they are under surveillance – hence they regulate their own behavior to fit the standards imposed on them from outside. These standards are imposed through a fear of punishment. If the work is defective, the laborer may be docked. If the laborer behaves the wrong way he may be suspended or fired.

With the intervention of the labor union, workers have a degree of protection from arbitrary discipline. The supervisor or inspector has a burden of proof to satisfy if action is to be taken. The laborer can work knowing that his membership in the union provides a degree of protection from the surveilling authorities. The more powerful the union, or symbolic agent, the more protection the worker, or acting agent, has. The same is true for citizens of powerful countries – the symbolic agent – the king, or president, or country itself – has a power that allows its citizens to act with greater freedom. At the same time, the cost of this freedom is a loss of agency. This may seem paradoxical, however, we can see how a displacement of agency allows greater freedom of action with the simple phrase, “I didn’t do it.” Americans benefit from the privilege of America’s dominance at the same time as many or most of America’s inhabitants disavow their responsibility for the actions which lead to this dominance. Hence the soldier who is just following orders or the taxpayer who is just doing his share for society – yet their money and their lives are used to maintain America’s power in the world at a deadly cost for all who oppose us. Our privilege as Americans comes from a lack of self-surveillance: we do not carefully watch and regulate our actions because we do not fear the consequences of carelessness.

If cooperation and membership both serve to attack the basis of panoptic power, what is the cost of these tactics? The cooperating prisoner takes a risk – the risk that the other prisoners will defect. The member of an organization sacrifices their agency in return for the power of privilege. It seems then that the two goals of any project to mitigate panoptic power should be to decrease the risks of cooperation on the one hand, and to combat the displacement of agency on the other. How can either of these goals be accomplished? A question for the future.


March 16, 2008 - Posted by | Power | , , , ,

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