Friday, August 28, 2015


213. The causality of power

If power is indeed a matter of ‘actions on actions’, as assumed in foregoing items in this blog, then perhaps one can analyse it further on the basis of a causality of action. As earlier in this blog, in items 96-100, here I use the multiple causality of action proposed by Aristotle. The efficient cause is who/what acts, with the material cause of means, according to the formal cause of knowledge/skill/technology, with the final cause as the goal of action, under the conditional cause of circumstances (that enable or constrain the other causes), possibly following some model (the exemplary cause).

In one of his publications[i] Foucault considered ‘how to analyse the power relationship’, and proposed the following elements:

1.      The efficient cause concerns who is able to act. That seems to appear in what Foucault called The system of differentiations that permit one to act, in ‘differences of status or privileges, economic differences in the appropriation of wealth or goods, differing positions within processes of production, linguistic or cultural differences, differences  in know-how and competence, etc.’
2.      The final cause concerns why people exert power. That seems to appear in The types of objectives ‘pursued by those who act upon the actions of others: maintenance of privileges, accumulation of profits, the exercise of statutory authority, the exercise of a function or trade’.
3.      The formal cause concerns how power is exerted. It seems to appear in Instrumental modes such as ‘threat of arms, … speech, … economic disparities, .. means of control, systems of surveillance, .. rules, .. means of enforcement’.
4.      The conditional cause concerns the conditions under which power is exerted. That  seems to appear in Forms of institutionalization such as ‘legal structures, .. habit or fashion, .. hierarchical structures, .. the state …’ I would add: the structure of networks and one’s position in them. I discussed this in item 209.

In Foucault’s account I see no clear material cause. That might include information used to exert power.

Why is this multiple causality useful here? If it is valid, it renders Foucault’s analysis less arbitrary or ad-hoc, more systematic, thus linking it to other issues and analytical perspectives.

While power can be positive, widening options and freedom of choice, the analysis focuses on the negative side. To include the positive side, in the final cause one might include a striving for justice, equity, legitimacy, etc. In the formal cause: development of capabilities, forms of complaint and redress, debate, opposition, etc. In the conditional cause: democratic procedures, elections, plebiscites, laws and regulations of labour, competition, reporting, civic responsibility, etc.

Also, a causality of action might be used it for the other side of the coin: of actions of those who are subjected to power, in an analysis of counter-power. This would yield something like the following.

1.      Efficient cause: Coalition formation, …
2.      Final cause: Justice, equity, countervailing power, ..
3.      Formal cause: capabilities, know-how (‘being in the know’, as discussed in the preceding item in this blog), forms of control (e.g. the ‘horizontal control’ discussed in item ….), whistle blowing, protection against ostracism or retribution, …
4.      Conditional cause: democratic procedures, a culture of trust, …
5.      Material cause: access to information, …
6.      Exemplary cause: role models such as Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, …..

Finally, consider the phenomenon of ‘involuntary power’, where people, organizations, or governments are caught in prisoners’ dilemmas. I discussed this as part of ‘system tragedy’, in items 109, 113, 159, 187, 190.

The example was banking, where employees and banks, or some of them, see the unethical nature of their conduct, and may honestly want to change but cannot afford to do so unless the others do so as well, and governments do not intervene to impose proper conduct out of fear of driving out their banking sector. Here, the final cause is institutionally imposed rather than chosen. The conditional cause determines the final cause.


[i] The subject and power, first published in English as an appendix to Hubert Dreyfus & Paul Rabinow (eds.), ‘Michel Foucault: Beyond structuralism and hermeneutics’, 1982.