Calling Their Bluff—Who Has the Power?

There are many ways of defining (or conceptualizing) power. Perhaps the most compelling definition of power is provided by the brilliant German sociologist Max Weber. Weber defines power as “the probability that one actor in a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests.” Elsewhere he defines power as “the chance of a person or of a number of persons to realize their own will in a collective action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the same action.” Either definition will do. (These, along with many other sociological definitions, are found in Weber’s Economy and Society, published in 1921 shortly after his death from the Spanish Flu.)

Power presents with variable quality. For example, authority is a form of power said to be legitimate (authority = power + legitimacy). The power exercised by an authority is valid not in a logical sense but in a social one. Legitimacy is the crucial element in presenting one’s power as authority and on this basis make claims that power is validly applied. The status of legitimacy is achieved through various methods. Here’s one: Establish an arbitrary rule that only people with racial power can be racist (with the possible exception of the powerless who collaborate with the powerful). Then theorize power in such a way that your speech and action cannot be racist by definition. In other words, since discrimination = prejudice + power, pretend you’re powerless. Perceived powerlessness is a source of legitimacy. It can be used to extract benefits from others. The proof that it is pretending is that the rule and theory emanate from a position of authority. Moreover, those you accuse of being the only ones who can be racist agree that this is true. They give racial power legitimacy. It seems that there is some confusion over who has the power.

This formula works for other identity categories, as well—as long as they are imagined. By imagined I do not mean abstracted from objective social relations. For example, “proletarian” is an objective position with respect to the means of production. There are ideological elements, but they stand upon an actual thing: social class. Sex is another example. Again, there are ideological elements, but the patriarchy is erected upon the facts of biology. Men have ruled over women in part because of genotypic differences, which men in part used to command others, including other men. One sees this elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Overthrowing the systems of class and sex oppression requires the realization of legal and political practices that demand equality of individuals before the law. In the case of social class, this would require the reorganization of society. Don’t get your hopes up on that last one.

However, such categories as gender and religion are imagined. Both can be gamed in a manner similar to race, which is also imagined. Sustaining their legitimacy is the work of the formula. This is often facilitated by evoking the Greek word for “fear” as a pejorative.

In establishing authority, it is useful to act as if everybody already agrees that the rule and the theory are correct and that those who disagree admit to their correctness by demonstrating the power their identity allegedly gives them. The work selling rule and theory, where rule is arbitrary and theory has no rational or empirical support, we might call (after Erving Goffman) “impression management.” We manage other people’s perceptions of us, which depends again on power. The common word is “bluffing.” Impression management or bluffing is one of the ways moral entrepreneurs establish legitimacy for power they wish to wield on an ideological basis.

Another way of gathering legitimacy about power is to construct a false narrative that makes accessible to power-seekers the arsenal of emotional blackmail. This involves the manufacture of victimhood. The perception of powerlessness is useful here. Some might argue it’s the same thing, but there is a subtle difference. Since reason requires a victim for victimhood to exist, in the absence of an actual victim, victimhood is manufactured by exploiting the past, present, and future suffering of others, living or dead, by making their suffering appear as one’s own suffering. This presumes some essential and transcendent connection among individuals who share an imagined community, ontological linkages supposedly binding all those with socially recognized characteristics, and who also agree with the ideology promoted by the moral entrepreneur (wrong politics can make you another color), the unelected and self-appointed gatekeeper presuming to possess the authority to speak for the group that ideology has called into existence.

Weber explains how dominance is established by conceptualizing domination as a power relation marked by obedience. Here, subordinates are not forced to obey (not in any obvious way, at least), but do so voluntarily (at least apparently). Such a situation implies the power relation has become structured, according to Weber’s argument. This is another way of saying that there is an established pattern of inequality. Obedience indicates that the subject is interested in following the commands of the ordinate. Who is ordinate? Who is subordinate? How is it that the established patterns of inequality run in a direction contrary to the character of obedience? It can’t. There is no legitimacy there. This is the biggest bluff of all. Working people have to call the bluff.

We emancipate ourselves as a people from imaginary categories by negating our commitment to the ideologies that ask us to imagine them. Eliminating these does not require reorganizing society. It just requires dissolving the legitimacy of their authority over us. For this to happen, we have to stop being obedience. We have to withdraw our consent.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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