Defining Power: Coercion vs Voluntary Cooperation
Originally posted on damienmanier.com
Recent Essay for political sociology class defining power:
Power may be better understood as coercion, to differentiate from natural, electrical, or even Bertrand Russel's definition (as cited in Janoski, 2005) as “simply the capicity to realize ends” by the individual. To treat power as a synonym for coercion would fit the definitions provided by Max Weber (as cited in Janoski,2005) as “the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a social action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action.” The other similar definitions cited in the text (Janoski, 2005) correctly state this kind of power leads to “zero-sum” contests and is “thus inextricably linked with conflict in social life”; however, the application of the definition seems overly broad to include any type of influence, dependence, or interaction between individuals. This view presents a very cynical take on human nature that casts every relationship and every type of coordination or interaction between individuals with the roles of exploiter and exploited. Not only is this overly broad application cynical but it also diffuses any analysis and makes extracting any concrete principles regarding the concept of power nearly impossible since this application makes power “sociologically amorphous” since “all conceivable qualities of a person and all conceivable combinations of circumstances may put him in a position to impose his will in a given situation.” (Max Weber as cited in Janoski, 2005)
Coercion, the use of force explicitly or implicitly, is only one way individuals and groups interact with each other and will inevitably lead to “zero-sum” contests but individuals and groups can also interact through voluntary cooperation, in which case they will be mutual beneficiaries and cast off the doomed outlook that every relationship is that of “exploiter” and “exploited.” Even if a disinterested third party finds the interdependence of various relationships to be unbalanced, so long as it is voluntary each party involved in the interaction will be exchanging some good, service, etc that they value less for one that they value or more or else they would withdrawal their participation, absent coercion.
With this definition of power, it is clear that power is the very essence of politics. “The modern state is a compulsory association which organizes domination.” (Weber as cited in Janoski, 2005) The state is power, or coercion, incarnate. The difference between state power and individuals exercising power, though, is that state power has been legitimized by appealing to divine sovereignty, historically, or popular sovereignty, by wrapping itself in the enigmatic “general will.” In all the examples of exploiter/exploited relationships provided in the text one can easily find evidence of explicit coercion of one individual or group over another, which would be condemned by most any observer, or with a little more effort be traced to the implicit coercion of the laws, regulations, influence, and support of the state lingering in the shadows of the interaction, choosing the winners and losers in relationships that are no longer free.
Janoski, Thomas. (2005). Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization. Cambridge University Press.