Bearing in mind your own particular research interests, how do you think power is best conceived? Draw on two (or three) approaches that we have covered this term (Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, Simmel, Arendt, Foucault, Bourdieu, Smith, Mann and ANT) and produce your own synthesis, one which includes those components of a theory of power you deem most essential. Be sure to make an argument for your theory and bear in mind the ‘fit’ between the approaches that you are bringing together.
This essay discusses a conception of power which draws upon and synthesises the work of Karl Marx and Pierre Bourdieu. In doing so, the essay also invokes a related formulation of power – that of Gramsci – in presenting its final synthetic position. Throughout, there is consideration given to the way in which power articulates with a particular geo-political issue, where it is relevant and organic to so do. The issue explored in the essay is that of the ongoing Brexit negotiations, and the aftermath of the 2016 European Union referendum. The essay proceeds as follows. The first two sections offer an overview of Marxist and Bourdieu’s conceptions of power. These are then discussed alongside the insights offered by Gramsci on power, which is brought into the equation as it has a relationship with Bourdieu’s approach; from the resultant understanding of what power is, a synthesis of Marx and Bourdieu is offered, and discussed in the light of Brexit. Summary comments conclude the submission.
In their discussion of power and Marx, Nigam (1996) begins with an overview of how power has been defined per a range of theorists from multiple theoretical traditions – including Foucault, Parsons and Giddens – finding that there is a common understanding of power as a creative and productive force (Nigam, 1996, pp. 5-6). Power and action are positively linked in Giddens, for example, whereas in Talcott Parsons’ functionalist sociological paradigm, the existence of power as a social phenomenon is a prerequisite for social actors and institutions to enable “the fulfilment of consensually arrived at obligations necessary for the system’s survival” (Nigam, 1996, p.6). In that sense, power is not only positive and constructive, but that there is a need for consensus to legitimate it. Foucault is summarised by the same commentator in respect of also perceiving power in productive terms, albeit in terms which will have positives for some and negatives for others, in that “power is the way in which the action (of some) of action (upon others), makes a difference in any desired direction, toward achieving certain outcomes or ends” (Nigam, 1996, p.6). In each of these definitional approaches which the Marxist variant is then applied to, power is associated with the capacity for human actors to effect change, that there are forces both of resistance and of domination invoked, and that there will necessarily be constraints placed on some (or on some social groups) by others (or by their social groups) in the exercise of and creation of power (Eagleton, 2018, pp. 36-45). For example, this is made explicit in Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, in which there is a call to action made in strident terms, for those powerless under the mid-nineteenth century economic and social context of rapidly-urbanising Western European nations and of economies driven by factory production and of the extraction of profit – surplus value – from the powerless worker by the various middle and upper classes who own this new industrial mode of production (Marx and Engels, 2015, pp.1-47). The call is for rebellion, and for the working classes to take their own control of their labour, the surplus value generated from it, and thus their social and political destinies (Marx and Engels, 2015, pp.1-47; Woolf, 2017, paras. 14-19).
For Marx – in Nigam’s reading – power is constructed not in terms of human drives in themselves, but in the sense of the ways in which different epochs of human history are constructed in terms of material relations; from this it is the economic base of a society and/or of a time period in which power relations are to be ultimately rooted; new forms of power are developed to support the specifics of the contemporary organisation of the economy (Nigam, 1996, pp.7-8). The political supports the economic, and the quest for social control is not only one of the exercise of political power in order to take or to retain dominance, but the utilisation of the political in order that the economic might be controlled, as this is where true power lies. Political power is seen in terms of the organised means by which economic control is exerted; ruling classes exist not only to perpetuate themselves, but also to ensure that all social classes within that society are operating in ways that support the needs of the dominant few (Nigam, 1996, pp.8-9). Such needs relate to the perpetuation of the current mode of production; this is destined ultimately to fail in Marxist terms as all societies evolve, not least when their internal tensions become so significant that the society crumbles to be replaced by another, more complex form. In his discussion of the collective power of the masses within then-contemporary industrial society, Marx asserts that the next evolution – or revolution – will be a communist one, where there will be equity among humans, and where the economy will reward everyone equally; in order to do that, though, there must be a harnessing of “the collective power of the masses being generated from this collective activity – cooperation and the division of labour” (Nigam, 1996, p.16). It perhaps follows from this that conflict is engineered in Marxist terms where there is ultimately a conjunction of the political and the economic; fundamentally, there needs to be an economic justification for struggle, and it is this prerogative which will influence the exercising or otherwise of power.
For Bourdieu, the articulation of power in society is as much cultural as economic. Positions in society, and affiliations with class in particular, may well have an economic context and set of rationales to them, but they are made manifest through the ways in which we live our lives. Qualities such as taste and distinction are of relevance here, as social relations are defined, upheld, navigated and negotiated through the articulation of the everyday and the wider political and economic aspects of life (Grenfell, 2012, pp.1-9). As Storey (2009) puts it, “learned patterns of consumption … are internalised as ‘natural’ preferences and are interpreted and mobilized as evidence of ‘natural’ competencies which are, ultimately, used to justify forms of social domination” (Storey, 2009, p.202). The cultural and behavioural are not only supportive of the social order, and of the political and economic bases of power, but are constructive of it; cultural distinction of and between social classes works both to maintain and to justify difference, and to assert and articulate power relations.
The ways in which we live our lives do not only give meaning, they represent difference, and such differences are generative of power. In Bourdieu’s analysis, dominant groups in society maintain that dominance through their ability to assert that which signifies themselves both to themselves and to others, and to construct difference from that as other and wrong (Bourdieu, 2010, pp.398-426). This operates in multiple ways: in the defining of societies into groups and of subgroups, in controlling who is and who is not tolerated in terms of being a member of that dominant group, and in constructing both alternatives for those who would seek to become part of the upper echelons of society, and for those who would not. It might be argued that while Marx suggests ways that give insights into why power is constructed and its true reasons for existence – to support and maintain economic control – Bourdieu instead focuses on how this is done, and on the implications for societies who might seek change as a consequence; cultural capital is as important as economic (or political) forms of capital – and therefore of power – in societies, and therefore it is of importance to appreciate the subtlety of its working, not least so that the true exercise of power is not perceived (Savage, 2015, pp. 49-50). As this commentator puts it, “[t]he transmission of cultural capital … is opaque and is necessarily masked in a language of meritocratic achievement and hard work … [because] the minute it is actually seen as a form of overt privilege, then it can be contested” (Savage, 2015, p.50). Through the discourse of capitalism and of the notion of the rational self-interested individual working to gain the rewards of their personal industry, we are made willing fools, so the analysis goes, and can never do more than buy some of the trappings of the dominant classes (Savage, 2015, pp.49-51).
In the contemporary era, it is perhaps in the zone between maintenance of certain signifiers of dominance and of the ability to navigate across multiple cultural landscapes with ease and authenticity which is where cultural capital – and therefore power – might be seen to lie (Matthys, 2014, pp.236-252). Bourdieu’s analysis of power in these terms offers a development from Marx’s in that it can be more clearly seen how power might be used, represented and protected in a society; capital exists in cultural forms as well as in the explicitly economic and political – though these articulate with each other – and it is in the cultural arena of life in which the centrality of lived culture, and of questions of taste, distinction, and of way of life – habitus, in Bourdieu’s own terminology – which is where power is exercised (Weininger, 2002, pp. 125-126).
In moving towards a synthesis of Marx and Bourdieu in defining power and how it might best be conceived, this section draws on insights from a post-Marxist commentator who concerned himself with the definition, exercise, and justification of power. Antonio Gramsci’s conundrum was that while socialist revolution made sense in terms of the real interests of the people, such revolutions had not taken place in industrialised countries – such as in the UK and Germany – where they were predicted to have arisen by Marx (Hoare and Sperber, 2015, pp.117-138). In considering this quandary, Gramsci concluded that it was not so much the overt political and economic aspects of power – backed by the repressive mechanisms of the police and the armed forces if so required – which held capitalist regimes in power, but a separate (though interlinked) form of intellectual and moral power, which he termed hegemony (Hoare and Sperber, 2015, pp.117-138; Jones, 2006, pp.41-56). Per Gramsci’s understanding of the operation of power and authority, the ruling stratum of society maintains its control not merely through coercive means, not through political and economic control in itself, but through maintenance and control of ideas, passing off as natural to others that which is constructed in the interests of the dominant minority. Thus, the construction of threats to which societies should unite against – the European Union in the contemporary contexts of Brexit – might be made to appear rational and clear, and crucially not merely being accepted unquestioningly by the people, but being made to appear as though such ideas are theirs (Simon, 2015, pp.22-30). While the concept of hegemony has been criticised as being an easy and at times catch-all solution to the problem of the lack of questioning of capitalist societies to the extent of revolution, there is nevertheless usefulness in the concept, not least when allied with those of the other thinkers privileged in this submission (Morton, 2007, pp.107-110).
Marx presents a conception of power which is both historically-specific and economic in its centrality; it is ongoing control of the economic structure of that society which is the central function of the dominant minority who maintain that control. Because this control is fundamentally unfair – through the extraction of surplus value from those who perform the labour in that society, but who do not receive their full share of profit – society must be organised in ways which prevent this from becoming manifest. This is the usefulness of Bourdieu’s ideas, confirmed by the similar ones contained within Gramsci, as summarised above. Key to economic control – and with it political and coercive authority – is the ongoing maintenance of cultural control; and it is here where the true articulation of power might be seen to be ongoing. The control of discourse, of taste, habits, cultural signifiers and of a sense of there being a meritocracy at work which is achievable through conformity to and advocacy of this unfair system is likewise central. Power, in that sense is in its obfuscation, in the hiding of the mechanics of society, and through misdirection in keeping a focus on the surface trappings of success, prestige, celebrity and achievement in capitalistic terms, while simultaneously working to restrict access to genuine and meaningful power. This is perhaps why conflict – and its resolution – are useful tools, as they can serve both as misdirection and as examples of others who threaten the ways of life constructed as ‘ours’; be they continental European bureaucrats or travellers seeking asylum from war-affected countries, somehow themselves now an invading force (Marsh and Topping, 2018, paras.1-10).
The example of Brexit is perhaps illuminating. Even those advocating the removal of the UK from the European Union are cautious when claiming that there is a firm economic case for leaving: “[t]he most compelling arguments for a Brexit are not necessarily economic ones. The matter of sovereignty, rule by bureaucracy and the democratic deficit are all much more powerful arguments for the Leave campaign” (Matthews, 2016, p.1). These are cultural arguments as well as political ones, which speak to the idea of a sovereign Great Britain, and which invoke nostalgia and the days of Empire; the majority vote for withdrawal from the EU, and for both main UK political parties’ attempts to find ways to respect that outcome through various forms of withdrawal deal, indicate the power of those cultural arguments, despite there being significant economic evidence that withdrawal of the EU does not make logistical or economic sense (Dunt, 2018, paras. 1-19; Cassidy, 2016, paras. 1-20). Furthermore, while there are economic arguments which have been forwarded to support the leaving of the EU, either under a negotiated deal or else in a no-deal clean break, those have been subservient to the cultural positions being forwarded. The very fact of the success of the Leave campaign in the referendum result might be indicative both of the power of the cultural argument forwarded, and of the lack of a counter-argument in the same terms put forward by the Remain campaign (which at the time of the 2016 referendum was the standing position of both the Conservative and Labour parties now both struggling to maintain a compromise position between respecting he referendum and damage limitation in the manner of exit).
From the standpoint of the synthesis of Marx and Bourdieu being forwarded, the example of Brexit indicates that the economic can be subverted by the political and the cultural. Bourdieu’s ideas take precedence over those of Marx here in that while there is still a working of discursive – or hegemonic – power in the interests of the minority, such power is being wielded for more clearly cultural reasons in themselves than those readily associated with the economic foundation which Marx asserts. The question is perhaps raised as to whether this focus on the surface – on the cultural – is wise, and while it may be powerful in the sense of being productive and being influential of change, that the articulation of such power might leave the UK in a politically and economically weakened state.
This essay has worked to discuss a conceptualisation of power derived from a reading of both Marx and Bourdieu, and of power and authority as understood by Gramsci. This latter thinker is useful in that there is recognition that true use of power is in the misdirection of the majority by the minority, so that ideas which are partial, in the interests only of a few, and aimed ultimately at the preservation of the existing status quo are not only accepted but are taken on enthusiastically as though they were organic and self-generated. The suggestion here is that the EU referendum and its aftermath is open to such a reading. Marx’s reminder of the economic locus of all power is connected with Bourdieu’s assertion of the importance of the cultural and of the everyday – power is not coercive, but both productive and embodied, so that its workings are insidious and naturalistic simultaneously. Mention has been made of the implications of this for questions of geopolitical relationships, and of the support of certain economic/political ideologies over others. A consideration of in whose true interests such decisions are being taken must be made. The essay has noted that capitalist societies are inherently unstable, which is why power must be exerted to maintain the interests of the minority; the task perhaps is to recognise and to exploit those instabilities, so that the partial workings of society might be understood, recognised, and held upon to true levels of scrutiny which will begin to effect meaningful – of not yet revolutionary – change. The essay therefore conceives power as productive of difference, and as sustaining of the hiding of that difference through assumed or asserted similarities, privileging some cultural aspects of our world over others for ends which are political, at the expense of the economic.
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