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Thursday, June 1, 2023

POLGOV 101: The Nature, Dimension, Types and Consequences of Power (Lesson 3)

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Approaches to Power Analysis

Many political philosophers have tried to define power—what it means and what it entails. Nevertheless, there is a general understanding that power has an essence and this essence is precisely what theorists have been debating about for the past century. Here, we will be focusing on Michel Foucault’s notion of power. To firmly grasp the approach of Foucault, let us first examine how his predecessors defined power. 

For Max Weber, state power consists of a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.” In this sense, he sees power taking the form of unified control. This is characterized with the ability to carry out one’s will despite resistance. [1] This coincides with the Machiavellian notion that power is an end in itself and that any means, no matter how devious they may be, to acquire power are justified.

Thomas Hobbes, the founder of the theory of state power, identified sovereignty (The Leviathan) as the essence of power. He figured that only a single sovereign called the Leviathan can best exercise power.

Meanwhile, for Karl Marx, economic power drives all other means of control. For him, power takes in the form of control over resources (i.e., the means of production), productive capabilities, and political domination. In this perspective, power relations can be best understood by looking at the relation between the ruling class and the working class. 

Other contemporary scholars such as French and Raven (1959) presented five distinct forms of power. Reward power involves providing benefits to get someone to do something. Coercive power necessitates the use of force or threat to stimulate an outcome, usually against the will of the person being subjected to it. Meanwhile, a person with formal authority within an organization has legitimate power i.e., democratically-elected official. Referent power is afforded to people with exceptional interpersonal relationship skills and is often associated with a person’s perceived value and charisma. Lastly, expert power rests on the idea that a person’s level of competence or skills makes them trustworthy and credible.[2] 

What we have proven so far is that depending on the lens we see it from, there are many contentions as to what power means and entails. Foucault, while refusing to establish a unified theory on power, seemingly encapsulated all these notions of power. Instead of seeing power as something that can be defined only in a single approach–that it is essentially repressive, he dabbled on the multiplicity of power. He acknowledged the oppressive nature and the reality of state power in the Hobbesian sense. He knew that forces of violence are real and can be found not only in the state but also in corporate and private structures. He knew the danger that comes from powerful institutions of capital, gender conformity, white supremacy, and even the prison industrial complex. But at the same time, he also saw power as something that is not automatically destructive, but can actually be formative, as it imposes order, structures institutions, and produces individuals’ subjectivities in society. Power is everywhere and while it is generally perceived as bad, it has the potential to be good too.

In the next part, we will be focusing on the repressive mechanisms of power espoused by Foucault. 

Foucault’s Discursive Conception of Power: Biopolitics and Disciplinary Power

Foucault distinguished between two most relevant oppressive mechanisms of power today: biopower and disciplinary power. To understand how these types of power operate, let us first define and contextualize them.

Biopower, simply put, is power over life—the ability to bend things (and quite literally, even bodies) according to one’s will. Back in the day, whoever ruled the land had power over people’s deaths. As long as subjects adhered to the ruler’s demands that kept the state secure and in order (i..e, paying taxes, worshiping the “right” God, not joining uprisings, fighting whenever and wherever needed, and the like), they were more or less safe. 

Eventually, kings figured out they can use the power they already enjoy to create more power. And before we know it, more laws were created and the sciences increasingly developed. As our knowledge about humanity increased, power over death became power over life. At this point, states are not just trying to survive anymore. States are also attempting to establish a healthy and thriving populace. Laws, now, do more than just impose cruel punishments against those who refuse to observe it—they impose order and dictate what is right and healthy for the state. While this may sound great, this is also precisely the problem for Foucault.

What exactly is meant by a healthier state? Who gets to decide what is right? What counts as the right ideas? This is where Foucault’s biopower comes into play. It is through biopower that states have power over my body, your body, and even those yet to be born. The state, by dictating what is and isn’t right, gets involved in all social processes—be it in education, health, occupation, eating habits, and even your personal desires and urges. We all have ideas about what is right or wrong. If such ideas do not fall within the ambit of what the state can tolerate, what becomes of us? Thanks to biopower, the state can “fix” us! 

But wait, there’s more! Biopower is also power over the collective population. States do not just want you to be right and healthy, they also want all of us to be right and healthy. Yet again, who gets to decide who is “us”? Case in point: Adolf Hitler and the rise of Nazi Germany. By arguing that something as atrocious as the holocaust had to be done for the good of his nation, Hitler was able to convince (or at least, manipulate) his people into supporting it. As a result, there was no limit for what Hitler was able to justify. 

Photo taken from Cargo Collective

It is not necessarily wrong to want the best for one’s state, but when such desires are used at the cost of other people or states, the venn diagram often becomes a circle. What Foucault is ultimately trying to tell us is that biopower is the tool through which sentient human lives are seemingly reduced to mere inanimate objects and subjected to the whims of an inherently flawed society (which is the only kind we have now). 

Disciplinary power, on the other hand, is much more complex but is not necessarily poles apart from biopolitics. It rests on the idea that mechanisms of power regulate the thought and behavior of social actors through subtle means.[3] This is also where Foucault’s notion of knowledge and power (and their inherent inextricable relation) enter the equation as discursive formations. 

While Foucault was not the first thinker to consider the relationship of power and knowledge, he was the first to argue that these concepts are inseparable, even in principle. Whenever one speaks of knowledge, one is also ipso facto speaking of power relationships that generate systems of knowledge the same way whenever one speaks of power, one is also speaking ipso facto of the systems of knowledge that uphold and maintain such power relationships. 

For Foucault, power would not make sense if there were no systems of knowledge present. At the same time, generally accepted systems of knowledge would not come into existence without power relations. This can be loosely understood through the idea that, for example, societal standards of beauty reflect the ideas of existing powerful structures that dictate them. And often, truly influential powerful structures are run, by direct correlation, by those with capital. 

The discourses within these powerful structures enable, constrain, and constitute what is right. As Foucault argued “Discourses produce knowledge and knowledge is always a weapon of power… Each society has its own regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth – that is, the types of discourse it accepts and makes function as true.” It doesn’t really matter if ideas are true. If they are believed, they establish and legitimize particular regimes of truth. 

People back then used to believe that the earth was the center of the universe and that everything revolves around us—that system of belief empowered through social institutions went on for about 1400 years. For 1400 years, the idea that man is the measure of all things was the regime of truth. It was not until Johannes Kepler discovered the heliocentric model that we realized that we are, in fact, not the center of the universe. If there is anything powerful structures hate, it is when the ideas they have peddled for centuries are proven wrong. As a result, Kepler was excluded from the sacrament in the Lutheran church.[4] This brings about the danger that comes with challenging the caricature of truth built from the false narratives of powerful structures.

Even in today’s age of information, we can still draw examples of the disciplinary power relegated to knowledge structures. Tech companies, particularly Google, have a monopoly of knowledge. The algorithm which dictates what an individual is exposed to and the inevitable commercial and cultural biases around the world based on control principles are enforced by these corporations. For example, most, if not all, search results for the term ‘beauty’ predominantly yield images of young, caucasian, skinny women. The system of knowledge (that is, the idea that only young, caucasiam, skinny women are considered beautiful) is enforced by existing power structures (i.e., Google). Everything that we see on the internet is highly curated to our liking as long as they fit on the regimes of truth defined by those whose names we do not even know.

Panopticon: The Perfect Prison

Photo taken from E-International Relations

The theory of panopticon is yet another manifestation of the effectiveness of the previously mentioned mechanisms of power, particularly the disciplinary power. This theory originated from Jeremy Bentham but was brought to a wider attention in the 70s by Foucault. 

Imagine a prison complex with a tall tower in the middle guarded by wardens who are capable of seeing into each and every cell. While the watchers cannot see everything at once, the tower is mirrored and so the prisoners cannot see who is inside it or when the guards enter or leave. Even if we completely remove the watchers, the prisoners will never know and behave like someone is watching them constantly for fear of punishment. 

The assumption was that being under possible scrutiny would cause people to regulate their behavior—self-policing in action. According to Foucault, people will behave themselves if they are made to believe that they are being watched all the time and any transgressions made will be punished. The Panopticon is therefore a threat that never needs execution. The very structures of surveillance (and not necessarily the act of surveillance) discipline us to the extent that we behave, all the time, in acceptance of normative ways as if we are actually being watched by state forces. 

With social media and the rise of cancel culture, we often find ourselves policing our thoughts, carefully filtering them, and making sure that we would not get called out by angry keyboard warriors as soon as we hit ‘post’. This is also what Gilles Deleuze points out in his work Societies of Control. The advent of new technologies of security and surveillance provided new methods to exert power at the individual level. He adds that physical enclosures were no longer necessary to control people.[5] What makes this more disconcerting, however, is that we willfully participate in this space of content creation. We subject ourselves to surveillance, but at the same time fear for its possible consequences and so we regulate our media engagements. This self-imposed repression is precisely what makes the panopticon the perfect prison—proof that oppressive mechanisms of power do in fact work, often, in ways more cruel than actual punishments. 

On the Overuse and Misuse of Power

Lord Acton famously asserted that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to  corrupt absolutely.” This aphorism has since then been used as some kind of forewarning. It captures the basic political reality present during Acton’s time up until now. Many of us are eager to claim power and get a closer grip on the workings of the “system.” Neophyte politicians try to make a name by holding unto promises of helping the poor and rooting out corruption. The most rational way to do this, in the post-savagery era, is to get themselves elected and gain legitimate power. 

The close proximity to power or the actual grasp of it, as Lord Acton warned, does not automatically make one corrupt, but it may make one corrupt. Often, this is the case with people in positions of power. As soon as some political figures get a taste of power, priorities change and platforms are only achieved during photo ops. The goal now is not to root out corruption but to enable it, reward powerful bureaucracies, and perpetuate repressive mechanisms of power. This is, and we Filipinos are not new to this anymore, misuse of power in the works. 

The overuse and misuse of power impact ordinary people in ways people in positions of power perhaps cannot even grasp. When power is abused, sovereignty no longer resides in the citizens. As we have learned from history, this essentially justifies any and all possible atrocities that could push a society into the brink of collapse. Anyone who tries to challenge this absolute stronghold on power is either antagonized or silenced until we are left with what appears to be an empty husk of a society.

Even more, it reduces ordinary citizens into mere cogs in the great socioeconomic machine. With this, people are instilled with a sense of false consciousness to the extent that they have become not only accepting of their struggles but also are more than willing to defend the power structures that enable their struggles in the first place. As the ultimate result, misuse of power hinders genuine progress. These consequences are far-reaching as they do not only threaten present conditions, but also the future of the generations to come. 

There is a fine line between having an iron fist and being chronically addicted to power. Often, this line appears blurred particularly when combined with failures to address demands for justice. In the same way, politicians posing as decent defenders of people, while being members and enablers of the powerful, are no different. Power abuse, no matter which way it is presented, is power abuse. The ultimate point here is that when we enable power-hungry politicians, we also enable decades of lies, historical revisionism, impunity, and violations to our most fundamental rights. So much is at stake and yet so little has been done.

Tinfoil Hat On: Power and Resistance 

Now that we have familiarized ourselves with the repressive mechanisms of power, we will now explore what precisely Foucault meant when he also viewed power in the opposite sense—a progressive and emancipatory tool.

There is a popular internet allusion to the belief that wearing a hat made of tin-foil will protect one against government surveillance, among others. This is often used facetiously before expressing a possibly contentious idea on the internet that could put one in danger. What is fascinating about this allusion is not that it could be real (it isn’t, of course) but the underlying concept of resistance and distrust to power structures. It affirms Foucault’s assertion: “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.” 

The tin-foil hat, or any form of resistance really, exists within the power relations that it is resisting against. As depressing as it sounds, no one can escape from power relations as they are deeply embedded in the very structures that make up our societies—schools, government halls, fast food chains, factories, and even in our own homes. 

Does this mean any attempts to resist will be ultimately futile? Of course, not. Despite the ever-pervasive existence of power relations, resistance is possible. This is why Foucault suggests that, in order to see the power relations that we are subjected to, we have to critically reflect on our experiences. For this to happen, we have to locate resistance as a force coming not from the outside but an attempt to use freedom, a form of power and resistance in itself, to change oppressive power relations from within. What Foucault was ultimately trying to say is that it is possible to use power against itself. 

Foucault repeatedly reminds us that power does not always have to assume a single form and that such a given form of power can coexist with or effectively challenge other forms of power. In the same way we cannot limit the meaning of power as only oppressive, we also cannot limit the meaning of emancipatory power as something that can be achieved by only donning a tin-foil hat (just to give an example). Power can take many forms and it is up for us to define and take advantage of it. If we keep refusing to see power in its many forms, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to resist the ways in which we are subjected to oppressive mechanisms of power. 


Let’s see what we have learned so far! Answer the following questions:

  1. Explain how knowledge becomes power according to Foucault. Give real life examples that illustrate this concept.
  2. Give examples of modern versions or forms of panopticon. 
  3. Give three examples or situations that perfectly illustrate resistance to modern forms of power or coercion.


[1] Chiang, S. (2015). Power and Discourse. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275658924_Power_and_Discourse

[2] Ibid.

[3] Routledge. (n.d.). Power/knowledge. https://routledgesoc.com/category/profile-tags/powerknowledge

[4] NASA. (n.d.) Johannes Kepler: His Life, His Laws and Time. https://www.nasa.gov/kepler/education/johannes

[5] Cargo Collective. (n.d.). Control Society: Biopower. https://cargocollective.com/biopower/CONTROL-SOCIETY 

[6] Koopman, C. (2017). Why Foucault’s work on power is more important than ever?. https://aeon.co/essays/why-foucaults-work-on-power-is-more-important-than-ever

[7] Dhal, S. (2020). The Foucauldian Concept of Power. https://www.lkouniv.ac.in/site/writereaddata/siteContent/202004021930365629saroj_dhal_socio_FOUCOULT.pdf

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