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 | , , , , | Leave a comment

Economics Foundation

One of my goals in this blog is to examine the interplay between certain postmodern theories and certain economic theories that, due to certain political and demographic realities, might never be considered together. In Constituting Feminist Subjects, Kathi Weeks points out that there is a “paradigm debate” between modernists and postmodernists that makes it difficult to constructively combine elements of, for instance, Foucault and Marx. However, someone whose area of interest is feminist politics would be highly likely to, in their course of study, come across somewhat favorable accounts of both of these thinkers. Perhaps socialist feminism and postmodern feminism would be presented as opposing movements, but they oppose each other only in their approach to meeting ostensibly similar goals. Thus the logic of Weeks’ attempt to bring some degree of reconciliation to the two.

This same student of feminist thought would be very unlikely to encounter certain other
theories, thinkers, or schools of thought, or if they were encountered, they’d be likely to be presented negatively, misrepresented, or dismissed as irrelevant for one reason or another. This is not an attack on the feminist movement – merely an observation that, in any movement or school of thought, there are areas of particular interest that are studied in great depth, and there are areas of no particular interest that are not studied at all. I could easily level the same critique against economics. In fact, I arguably already have, when I said that Libertarian thought needed to be reevaluated in the face of certain postmodern theories. I’ve spoken a bit about some of the formulations of power that will inform this project of deconstruction and reconstruction, so now, I’d like to talk a little bit about the economic side of things. My project here is to begin to lay the foundations for my postmodern theory of economics.

Continue reading

March 2, 2008 Posted by | Economics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

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