Michael Mann (1986:2-3) argues that “the central problems [in social life] concern organization, logistics, communication — the capacity to organize and control people, materials, and territories, and the development of this capacity throughout history.” The following essay is an analysis of despotic and infrastructural power in the organization of social life, written for National University of Singapore’s (NUS) SC3205 Sociology of Power module in 2017.
According to Mann, the primary issues in social life are associated with politics — when social actors, organizations and institutions participate in the constitution of power and authority that regulates decision-making and order. Politics and power are intertwined; in fact, politics is the ultimate power as it involves the power to set binding rules that govern the collective life and social relations (Piven & Richard: 33). There are many theories of power as it is a complex concept but on a fundamental level, power is the propensity to accomplish objectives through dominating one’s environment (Mann 1986: 6). I propound that the ruling entities such as states have to use a combination of despotic power and infrastructural power to organize and control civilians, resources, and territories.
Despotic power is based on a notion of resistance, coercion as well as observable conflict and is wielded by a ruling organization like the state. This materialization of “power over” can let ruling entities eliminate enemies, inflict damage and impose rule without consultation and consent (Mann 1986: 169-170). However, the capability to eliminate targets does not reveal how effectively a ruling entity can organize, rule and control large territory through bureaucracy. The modern army has effective and technologically advanced weapons, making the military power that modern states possess far superior to that of the ruling entities before it.
Yet, modern states do not employ despotic power most of the time because it is unnecessary. The possession of despotic power merely grants them the means to rule. Furthermore, the employment of despotic power may actually induce people to contravene the rules set by the ruling entity. Thus, the limitations of despotic power mean that ruling entities have to rule through another type of power, namely infrastructural power.
Infrastructural power penetrates society and allows a ruling entity to execute political decisions (Mann 1986: 170) such as taxation. Infrastructural power is the materialization of “power to”, power created through organizational means. Such power is collective as it is consolidated when groups of people in various domains like politics, military and economics, come together to cooperate and work towards a common objective (Mann 1986: 6). This form of power demonstrates how social life manifests in concrete expressions of power such as the ability to pursue complex goals through gestalt organizations. For example, educators are needed to run a higher education institution like the university to reproduce a productive workforce. Such organizations are the means of controlling citizens and other states. Infrastructural power can be achieved through political, military, economic and ideological means (Mann 1986: 11). I will elaborate on the aforementioned sources of power.
Political power is germane to setting rules that bind people in a bounded territory, which regulates decision-making and order in social life. Rule-making is a power strategy in which actors can compel others to follow their bidding (Piven & Richard 2005: 44) and Dahl’s behavioural theory is pertinent to the discussion of rules. Dahl labels power as the odds that an actor exerts his will over another, making him do something he would otherwise not do (Dahl 1957: 202-203). As such, power is a zero-sum game where there is a fixed amount of power that is being dispensed. The actor that sets the rules gain while the actor that follows them loses (Piven & Richard 2005: 35).
There are three distinctions of rule-making (Poggi 1978: 2-8). First, the presence of rules will allow for an efficient system of distribution of valuable resources within a society that is plagued by the problem of scarcity (Poggi 1978: 2-3). Second, the supervision of social life is managed through setting of objectives, laws and legislation, which organizes people, land and materials (Poggi 1978: 3-4). For such supervision to be sustainable, centralization is imperative. A salient example is how decentralization of power in an empire can lead to imperial overreach, compromising the stability of the empire. When this occurs, an outlying part of the lands can revolt against the rulers because it has acquired the same administrative and military means. Hence, rules ought to be monitored and updated by centralized institutions.
Third, the confrontation with other societies is inevitable because of competition for resources and territories (Poggi 1978: 5-8). Most nations possess military service, a group of able-bodied citizens that can defend them, precisely because they are prepared for conflict. This brings us to the notion of military power.
While military power appears to be related to despotic power, infrastructural power can be harnessed through its procurement. This is because the violence in question is organized, purposeful and controlled. It enables ruling entities like city states and empires to conquer and defend territory. Thus, although rules bind people in a bounded territory, there is still a need for despotic power and coercion in order for ruling entities to secure command in the social arena.
Next, actors with the means to produce, allocate and consume goods and services wield economic power (Mann 1986:24) and this is one manner in which power is exercised consequentially despite the (usual) absence of observable conflict. Lukes’ second dimension of power elucidates how citizens usually do not participate in the decision to exercise power and are often unaware of how decisions are made (Lukes 1974: 20-24). An example would be the illegality of communism in Singapore. As the Singapore government subscribes to the capitalist system in which workers sell their labour power for survival, communism is perceived as delegitimizing and threatening. Hence, the topic of communism is not broached in an assembly like the Parliament.
While Singaporean workers appear to have freedom because they can choose their jobs, they ultimately had no say in the decision of subscribing to capitalism instead of communism. This illustrates how the hoi polloi lacks the means of organizational power to pursue their objectives and challenge the status quo (Mann 1986: 7). Existing institutions reinforce the dominant norms of society, such as when universities equip students with the necessary skills to be productive in the labour force.
Emerson’s relational theory of power is also compatible with the aforementioned dimension of power and he draws a relationship between dependency and power, where the latter emerges from the imbalance of dependence of one actor to another (Emerson 1962: 33). Using the same example, Singaporean workers depend on the capitalist system more than the system depends on them since workers need to sell their labour power for their livelihood while no worker is indispensable or irreplaceable to the capitalist system. The chains of dependency are being translated into decision making and non-decision making. Thus, power transpires in the absence of decision making when addressing certain issues and ignoring others (Lukes 1974: 20-24) and ultimately, facilitates the organization as well as control of people.
Finally, ideological power is a significant form of power because it establishes the legitimacy of the ruling entity. Lukes’ third dimension of power offers insight on the aforementioned power. Ideological power is seen as the most insidious exercise of power meant to prevent people from developing grievances. People’s perceptions, cognitions, tastes and preferences are moulded in a way that they willingly accept their role in the existing order of things (Lukes 1974: 25-27). Their actions are conceived as natural as well as unchangeable and they cannot imagine an alternative to them.
This dimension of power concerns the performing of everyday routines and a simple example would be how a staunch Hindu refrains from the consumption of beef because it is divinely ordained and forbidden in the religion. Apart from one’s diet, religion can control other aspects of an individual and it performs broader functions like the organization of social relations as well as the production and regulation of meaning (Mann 1986: 21).
Another example would be how nations are imagined communities as citizens do not have to see each other face-to-face for concord and commonality to emerge and such an ideology is so powerful that people are willing to sacrifice their lives in the name of the nation (Anderson 1983: 5-7). When the people believe in a common ideology, solidarity and unification are established (Mann 1986:22). The preservation of social cohesion and prevention of uprisings are made facile. This is because acceptance of the rules increases the likelihood of obedience, which is Weber’s very definition of power, the probability that an actor exercises his will in a group action despite the resistance from another actor (Weber 1948: 180). Therefore, ideological power captures how shaping the norms and values of people can aid the ruling entity in its control and organization of social life.
A combination of despotic and infrastructural power is required for ruling entities to tackle the central problems in social life by organizing and controlling civilians, resources and territories. In the past, ruling entities used to exercise a high degree of despotic power. Today, their ability to wield despotic power has been enhanced but ruling entities refrain from doing so. Instead, they rule through the exercise of infrastructural power, which emerges from the multiplication of organizational means and power sources such as military, economic, ideological and political power. Ruling entities are granted legitimacy when they provide services and organize social life.
The possession of despotic or infrastructural power alone is insufficient for territorial centralization, which is essential for the ruling entity to administer its land. Wielding despotic power can increase the ruling entity’s hold over infrastructural power and vice versa, demonstrating how one type of power can reinforce the other. The dominant form of ruling organization today is the state, precisely because it successfully dominates both despotic and infrastructural power to organize social life.
Feature image by Sherryl Cheong
Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections On The Origins And Spread Of Nationalism. New York: Verso.
Dahl, Robert A. 1957. “The Concept of Power.” Behavioral Science 2: 201-215.
Emerson, Richard M. 1962. “Power-Dependence Relations.” American Sociological Review 27 (1962):31-41.
Lukes, Steven. 2005. Power: A Radical View. London, UK: Palgrave. Pp. 14-29, 38-48.
Mann, Michael. 1986. The Sources of Social Power, vol. I. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Ch. 5 “The first empires of domination.”
Piven, Francis Fox and Richard A. Cloward. 2005. “Rule Making, Rule Breaking, and Power.” Pp. 33-53 in The Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization, edited by Janoski et al. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Poggi, Gianfranco. 1978. The Development of the Modern State: A Sociological Introduction. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Ch. 1 “The Business of Rule.”
Weber, Max. 1948. “Class, Status, Party.” Pp. 180 -195 in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
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