A friend of mine once admitted that she thought politics is what you do when ethics fails. In a better world, she imagined, politics would not be necessary. After all, politics is about power and power is necessarily corrupting, unless of course it is for a good cause. But we should beware. Politics would became unnecessary only if there were no more social conflicts; if no more conflicts, then no more differences of interest, opinion, or understanding. No politics implies the absorption of all of us within a single will or our consignment into defined slots where our interests would supposedly all be met. This is a picture of docility, oppression, and horror. And yet, it begins in what seems reasonable, a kind of common hope—if only people got along and did the right things and did not fight each other.

This recurrent and seemingly reasonable hope rests on a theory of power as corrupt (and coercive), on an idea that ethics should whenever possible replace or displace politics. These beliefs are both misguided. A number of theorists argue against coercive theories of power, insisting, for example, that power’s paradigmatic form is not coercive but enabling, not just power over but power to do. I am sympathetic to such theories, especial the analytic account offered by Peter Morriss.[1] My goal, however, is not to add a new theory to the academic contests about power. Instead, I want to attack the insidious charm of imagining power as a necessary evil. This will require that I examine how power is manifest as anything for which we need a theory. My argument will not be that power is something separate from our conceptualizations, but that it is open to many different descriptions. A minimal description of power relative to how it is manifest will deflate some of the key ways in which the concept of power is used to support various ideologies. What we need is not more theories, but more descriptions.

We need these descriptions because, as I will show, power is nothing separate from how it is manifest. Power is most immediately manifest through and in actions (and events). I have the power of my authority, for example, when I command that something be done. My power is manifest in you doing what I command. Similarly, your power to influence me is manifest in my being influenced. Actions, however, are not separable from our ways of understanding them. “[O]ne and the same action (or other event),” as Anscombe observes, “may have many descriptions” (“‘Under a Description,’” 210). And again: “a single action can have many different descriptions, e.g. ‘sawing a plank’, ‘sawing an oak’, ‘sawing one of Smith’s planks’, ‘making a squeaky noise with the saw’, ‘making a great deal of sawdust’, and so on” (Intention, 11).[2] Even if one rejects the idea, as one should, that there is a brute action which is the ‘real action,’ one might still wonder what is the best description. Often the best description will be a question of why one is offering a description and what distinctions one wants to make. Someone might describe your sawing the plank as “making a nuisance” or as “waking the baby.” Your sawing intentions matter, of course, but you cannot simply say to yourself that you intend only to saw the plank and not to wake the baby, in order to avoid the blame when the baby wakes up screaming (Anscombe makes this point with a different example in “Murder and War”). An important consequence of the way actions are undetermined relative to their descriptions (i.e., that we can always offer further descriptions) is that we can only generalize about actions through our descriptions of them. The power of description and redescription, however, is not restricted to actions and events. We understand people and situations also through descriptions, and these descriptions are also open to distortions and revisions. Actions, events, persons, and situations are all sites of power. Consequently, whatever power is we can only discover and determine through descriptions and redescriptions. 

 

The Power of the Bee

Power is specific to a situation. This means that in order to understand power we must understand the situations in which it is putatively manifest. A bee flying near my face has the power described by my flinching. Similarly, the bullet that kills me has the power described by my death. If it misses me then it is powerless, at least if I do not flinch. The manifestation of power (my flinching) describes this power. To say that the bee’s power is described by my flinching captures that my flinching is the actual power the bee has. The relationship between the bee and me constitutes the bee’s power. My flinching describes the power of that which prompts my flinching.[3]

The flinching is a kind of measurement of the bee’s power, but a contingent measurement. Instead of flinching I might simply feel fear, if, for example, I was allergic to bee stings. The bees power is manifest in my reaction and its effect on me. When I talk about power I am describing not just the bee but this effect. The effect describes not the bee, however, but the bee’s power over me. The bee and the bullet both cause hurt and thus invoke fear—and this is what we call their power. The bullet needs a gun and a shooter, and we can just as appropriately say that the gun and the shooter cause the hurt and fear. In both cases, we discover the power these have over us; power describes our sense of this effect. The effects manifest their power and measure that power, just as a thermometer is effected by heat and measures that heat (and a measure is a description).

The immediacy of the effect produced by the bee, my flinching, has the force of necessity. This force of necessity, a kind of compulsion, however, is not absolute, let alone logical. It is relative and contingent. If I know nothing of bees or bullets, then they might not make me flinch. Once I learn about bullets and bees, however, I recognize their possible effects. I recognize their power and grant them, in effect, a certain authority over some domains of experience. But they do not achieve their effects by themselves, and therefore, we might recognize the potential power of a bullet, but not fear it when it lies on the table, or even if it is in a gun when that gun is 1000 miles away. Propinquity changes things; and the potential for death can not only be figured in the bullet or in the report of a gun, but also in the place where shots had once been fired. An old battlefield. The inner city. Places produce fear and in that effect they are exerting a power, that we grasp because of cues and through our understandings of circumstances. Thus, we might decide not to go to the inner city; it isn’t worth the risk.

This kind of power was formalized as part of an argument about the nature of decisions in the early 1960’s. Bacharach and Baritz, arguing against the idea that power is a function of overt actions, describe the common ways in which someone might decide not to assert her position or question the status quo, given his understanding of the risks she will run, the costs that might be charged if she does so, especially if she does so and fails to win the day.[4] Our options for action can be so constrained that our freedom of action becomes no freedom at all, but becomes a choice between acquiescence or catastrophe.

 Power need not be overt, of course, but it must be manifest in some way, even if in a refusal to act. Our sense of our own power is tied to the effects we produce; and the failure to produce effects is to become powerless. When our actions seem to have no consequence, a kind of helplessness settles on us. Thus, we refuse to vote. We turn resentful or cynical after our efforts to help someone fail. We remain passive because our possible actions seem fruitless.

An act of power is determined as an act of power independently of the agent so acting. We might act in our tyrannical joy, but it need not be successful, nor is it successful simply because we wish it so. Human power is always close to a condition of conspiracy. We exist and act as one of many agents bound within some order of power transcending all of us. Our political acts of power are gambles because they must have the force of necessity that we cannot give them in the acting or by the act alone. Others must react to our actions in order for our actions to have or express power. What we call ‘power’ is an effect to which we react, and that reaction describes that power, which in some sense is that description.

At this point, I can provide a provisional definition of power. Power, in its most common forms, is the production or the recognition of necessity relative to a particular set of possibilities. It is a form of relative necessity. Some things are more possible than others, and others less so. My contingent actions are intelligible relative to (can be distinguished from) what I feel I cannot do: what is difficult, what is costly, what is improbable, what is impossible. Both ‘necessity’ and ‘contingency’ are complex, mutually dependent descriptions, under which situations and actions can be seen as constrained by limits and open to possibilities. ‘Power’ is a name for the attempt to produce the sense of necessity in other human beings. The highest goal in politics is often to mask the contingent as necessary.

 

Is Power Coercive?

Does this mean that power is necessarily coercive, as many imagine?

If power is understood as necessarily coercive, then we are understanding it as a kind of action, which requires an agent. Coercion is directed towards someone’s will or choice. We do not say: “The water was coerced by the banks to flow towards the mill.” The phrases “to coerce” or “to be coerced” imply an action pursued by an agent, someone who can be held responsible. Non-agent coercion, therefore, is not coercion per se, although it could be analogous to it. If an effect is blind in its force, then it is not coercive, but limiting. Gravity is not coercive, but a limit on what we can do. Gravity is difficult to escape, but moral outrage against it would be irrational.

Steven Lukes and others argue, however, that the limitation of our possibilities for action constitutes coercive power.[5] Such limitations structure our actions and are defined as conditions of possibility. Lukes reasonably defines the conditions of possibility as constituted by people’s beliefs and values, that which he also calls “internal constraints.” Understanding how beliefs and values determine action and are learned and accepted involves many difficult questions. We can simplify the problem, however.  Conditions of possibility describe how the world is for us. If such conditions are coercive, then that is analogous to the environment, a particular configuration of the world, being coercive. If the environment can be coercive, so can conditions of possibility. Let’s see.

A rat in a cage is tempted by an attractive smell to enter a maze constructed by an experimenter. Where is the coercion in this scenario? The smell would not be coercive at all, since attractions to certain smells are natural to rats. The environment would not be coercive per se, separate from the intentions of the experimenter. The purposes of the experimenter make the situation coercive for the rat. If, on the other hand, that rat found itself in the wilds of a city and smelled that same attractive smell, and if it negotiated a maze of obstacles to get to it, it would not be coerced to do so. The rat’s actions could be identical in both cases—but in the first case the rat is placed in circumstances for a purpose—and it is the accomplishment of that purpose that constitutes coercion, and nothing else. In the wilds of the city it is just acting like a rat. Without the intentions and purposes of the experimenter the rat’s actions are just its actions, and not consequences of low-level environmental coercion. Instead, like gravity, the maze of circumstance is a limiting condition on the actions of the rat; they are not coercive conditions.

The maze does not embody coercive power. It is not a form of micro-aggression. The coercive power in this situation is manifest in the relationship between experimenter and rat (through the means of the maze).

 

Let’s look at another example.

The landscape of any place embodies the conditions of possibility for my movement through it (limited further by my means of moving). The making of that landscape, therefore, is the making of those conditions, and thus would be like the inculcation of beliefs about the world that would count as the corrupting kind of conditions of possibility many ascribe to the pernicious forces of culture and power. With this in mind, we can further explore the idea that power is dispersed as a coercive force within our social environment.

A city council controls the agenda concerning city improvements. One of its members manipulates the council, and thus the agenda, because he wants a sidewalk built in his neighborhood. He arranges, entices, cajoles, and threatens. This councilor particularly wants a sidewalk built through the greenbelt area near his house. He sidelines various other projects, and makes it known that he wants to focus on sidewalk building. Through various deals and arguments, he convinces his fellow city council members to table discussions about road development in the poor section of town, and instead to discuss sidewalk building. In addition, he holds the council meetings about the project at 5 p.m., which diminishes the participation of the city’s citizens, especially those who are less well-off and who participate less anyway. The sidewalk building project passes, and he hints to the contractor that it would be best to start in his neighborhood. The contractor understands that future contracts would be facilitated by his acquiescence, and it doesn’t much matter anyway. The councilor gets his sidewalk. The sidewalk might seem, therefore, to embody his power, exist as a residue of his power, like a monument to the Confederacy.

As a sidewalk walker I find that I walk on the councilor’s sidewalk quite a bit. I believe that walking on sidewalks is generally better than walking next to them. And while I am not coerced to so walk, when I am walking, I find my walking facilitated by the sidewalk.

Is the councilor, with his manipulations like the experimenter? Am I one of his rats when I walk on the sidewalk? His fellow city councilors and citizens are more immediately his rats, since he consciously manipulated them. But what about me? The sidewalk certainly defines conditions of possibility for my travel. It also manifests the councilor’s power in a landscape that has been altered by his will. That sidewalk sings its siren song to me, maybe years after his death, and I find that I inevitably walk on it. The sidewalk facilitates my walking, and the cost in energy and convenience that I would pay if I did not walk on it is higher than I want to usually pay. Does the sidewalk, therefore, coerce me in the way that an experimental maze might coerce a rat?

As a counterfactual observation I can say that the sidewalk would not exist if not for the coercive powers that put it in place. But that does not place me amidst his coercive powers. Since I had to be born into some environment, that I am where I am, and that I am faced with his sidewalk is not coercive in the way placing the rat into the experiment is. A sidewalk, or even a maze, may make certain activities easier, and in those cases we choose to walk on it.[6]

The sidewalk does manifest the powers of the city, and it may be the result of some coercion, but once it is in the environment it does not coerce me by virtue of its limitation of my options. It facilitates some possibilities and diminishes others. Regardless of the source of this condition of possibility, the sidewalk is not coercive. And thus, conditions of possibility, regardless of their source, need not be coercive. The idea that they are seems to confuse coercion with limitation.

To counter my argument, Lukes might insist that the coercive force of the conditions in which I find myself are tied to my beliefs and not my actions, and those beliefs might be the effects of coercion. I believe, for example, in sidewalks and their energy saving effects, and that is why I walk on them. Is that a freely chosen belief? That belief, for Lukes, would be coercive only to the degree that it blocks my real interests. In essence, Lukes is confessing by this appeal to ‘real interests’ that there is no fact of the matter about whether power is coercive or not, separate from our attitudes towards it. Is a sidewalk coercive if I use it in ways that are not in my ‘real interests,’ as a place of gambling, for example? No, it is not.

In any case, my real interests are difficult to determine, and what anyone says about them will often be question-begging. My putative real interests can change and vary, and are dependent on what I care about and on various ideas about what I should care about. My real interests will always be based on contingent judgments about what matters, and will change over time. If sidewalks save the lives of children who no longer have to ride their bikes or walk in the street, then sidewalks are good. If the building of sidewalks siphons money away from the improvement of roads in the poor sections of town, and these poor roads result in the deaths of children, then sidewalks are bad. Since both might be true, sidewalks are likely both bad and good. We can determine by rational means how to prioritize these, but my walking on the sidewalk does not mean I am making a decision about that. Once the sidewalk is built my beliefs about sidewalks or walking cannot determine the goodness of the sidewalk relative to the powers that built it. (Conditions of possibility determine our options but also how we value these options.)

Thus, conditions of possibility understood as limiting are not coercive as such (they can be, but need not be). And thus, power need not be coercive.

 

 *

Politics as Simplification

Our attitudes towards power reveal our understanding of life. To imagine that power is necessarily coercive encourages utopian fantasies about escaping power into some kind of unbounded freedom. It is a dangerous temptation: to imagine that the good life is the god-life. Thrasymachus, for example, understands the tyrant of the city to be the most free in that city, since he is most able to get what he wants—his power is the means by which he satisfies his desires. In this case an ethical ideal (to satisfy one’s own desires) finds expression in a political tyranny. Given his absolute power, Thrasymachus’ tyrant need not bother with politics; his rule would be organized around his ethics, disguised in political garb. Ethics defined, in this case, not as a concern for moral good, but as a concern for the good of a particular person, the tyrant. Thrasymachus’ tyrant, in effect, establishes two kinds of political regimes—the first, a regime for those who rule (whose concerns are ethical: about his own life) and the second, a regime for those who are ruled. The ruled must do politics because they lack the power to do ethics.

Thrasymachus’ ideal, his definition of power as freedom, the freedom to satisfy one’s desires, would fragment the social world of the city into political victims and ethical winners. The politics of the community, focused on either resisting the power of the tyrant or succumbing to that power in a self-sustaining way, would lack any relevant ethical dimension. The community could only respond and react to the power of the tyrant. Consequently, no one would be in a position to make any relevant ethical decisions, except about how they might resist or accept that power. The hyper-powerful tyrant would not need to make any political decisions, except about how to accomplish his will, given his other desires.

The tyrant, driven as he is by his desires, and enabled by his absolute power, has no need to recognize a domain of power or of politics. For him everything becomes ethics—his ethics—and he has no need to recognize anything else. Such a tyrant reduces all politics to ethics, an ethics of extreme selfishness. In such a context, politics would involve the attempt by the tyrant’s subjects to survive power, and make a social space for ethics.

No tyrant could have the kind of power that would give him free ethical reign. The leader of any actual reign of terror, which is what absolute ethical freedom invariably becomes because of our natural human egotism, remains bound to politics because of his own paranoia and the fact that his power always depends on its recognition by others. Thrasymachus’ thought experiment, in its inadvertent production of a division between ethics (enabled by the tyrant’s power) and politics (required by people’s lack of power), offers an inverted picture of the more common belief, that politics and power are opposed to ethics and morality. Consequently, we need to understand politics and ethics as entangled, just as well as power and morality are entangled. How are they entangled? How should we understand the relationship between politics and ethics (and how does power fit with these)? To answer these questions we need further descriptions.

 

Ethical justifications are often open-ended. How to determine what is good and bad in our lives requires that we determine an adequate set of criteria to guide us in our choices. Such a set of criteria constitutes a certain vision of life. Whether to live heroically and die young or to live quietly and die old describes an ethical dilemma to which there is no right answer. The answer is itself an ethical commitment embodying a set of values and an idea of what counts as not only good but worthy.

Political justifications and considerations are more easily defined, which doesn’t mean that to define them is easy. Schmitt famously defines the concept of politics through the distinction between friends and enemies.[7] He qualifies this, offering an existentially inflected notion of an enemy, where all is at stake, in order to define a domain of political power separate from our everyday interpersonal realm of friends and enemies. Definitions of politics by other theorists invoke the state, institutions, and the like. I have no wish to argue with such attempts at definition. My concern here is with how political actions relate to ethical actions, in order to understand how we should understand the relationship between power and ethics as ways of understanding our lives and what we do.

Hamlet, for example, fails politically, but there is no easy or non-question begging way to judge his ethical success or failure. His concerns are not political. In considering how to act he does not envision the political consequences of his acts, the possibility that control of the Danish kingdom could shift to another prince, another family, or another power. Claudius, on the other hand, failed in a way Hamlet simply could not, since Claudius lost the power that organized and motivated his actions and goals. Hamlet had to discover what would count as success in order to act. But what counts as success will not be determined by his accomplishment of revenge for his father’s murder, but by what that revenge means to him relative to what his life means. Hamlet is puzzling out the value and content of his life, and this is an ethical problem. A political act is an act under a description that makes primary its relation to competing powers, and this description is necessary in order to articulate the political reasons for acting in that way. One might decide that the political justification conflicts with one’s moral convictions. These can be costly conflicts, since the consequences may not simply be borne by yourself but by others.

But we must be careful here. Someone might say the following: 'To survive is good, therefore, this war of survival is good.”  Even without its enthymematic truncation, this is a stranger argument than it first appears. This may or may not be the reason for the war, and more importantly it is not a political reason for fighting a war. If I say: “our survival as a nation requires this war,” I am making a political statement. The good of this survival is certainly implicit, but I need not invoke it, as if in order to understand the politics, I needed to convince myself that survival is good. A number of modern political positions are a form of ethics as well as a politics because their adherents pretend to need (and maybe sometimes do need) such convincing. (I leave it to the reader to identify these political positions). Once one has made the political judgment that a war is necessary (one could be wrong about this), then how one fights the war will involve ethical decisions. All acts of war will be subject to ethical evaluation. But that is something separate from one’s political judgment, and might very well be more important than one’s political judgment.  

Politics, therefore, often involves a simplification of aspects of our ethical lives. Politics, like ethics, depends on specific kinds of descriptions, a way of evaluating actions relative to consequences and relative to the necessities (constraints and compulsions) of a situation. Politics is not a domain and is strictly speaking not separable or even different from ethics. It is in some ways narrower, but also more fundamental, since it concerns the relative necessities that make life possible. These would include, for example, protection from arbitrary violence in one’s community.   

Politics is a simplification, a caricature, of ethics; not in the way A= kM/r2  can caricaturize a falling object into a set of quantifiable concepts and mathematical relationships, but in the way a road simplifies and caricatures our ways of moving through space or a clock simplifies and organizes the dynamic we label time. As much as politics is a simplification of something more complex, the significance of this simplification is that it defines the conditions and limits within which we naturally act. It is not that we could not act differently, but that the consequences of so acting are ones we naturally resist choosing. The energy and cost of acting outside of these patterns is great, and thus requires explicit commitments. It is easier to acquiesce to power than to respond in kind or degree.

Ethics, however, also seems to simplify politics, the complexities of power and interests, reduced to judgments about what is good or bad or what one should do or not do. Politics seems to involve the complexities of manipulation and accommodation, occasionally resulting in the simplifications of raw power, or force and violence. But it is power, itself, which is a simplification of complexity into reaction, into relative necessities which we acknowledge or resist or refuse. The judgments we make of good and bad and the decisions that seem or sometimes follow from such judgments are forms of power, but they do not define the ethic of our lives or condition. The ethic of our lives (what we care about) depends on various powers, but it also depends on the details of our involvement and understanding with all aspects of what and who we are. Politics is a reduction of this detailed texture into questions about our ability (our powers) to choose and act, about the conditions limiting and enabling our possible choices.

The Spartan invasion of Attica was a political act for the Spartans. Pericles counseled the Athenians to retreat behind their walls and refuse to respond, refuse to see the burning of their farms as a political act—as an expression of Spartan power. The Spartans were attempting to create a necessity in the Athenian world to which the Athenians would be bound to respond. To compel the Athenians still requires them to choose to be so compelled. This is Machiavelli’s point about an assassin indifferent to his survival. Such an assassin cannot be compelled. If he is willing to die (and is smart enough), then his chances of success are very high. Such an assassin refuses to be compelled by the power of either the prince or of death. Necessities in this sense are not ontologically necessary; they are responses which absorb the choices of others. So that to deny the seeming necessity (that to attack the prince will necessarily lead to my own death) is to ignore the consequences of the power expressed as that necessity (the power of the prince’s guards and authority). The Spartans had no political power over the Athenians when they burned their farms as long as the Athenians did not react and could survive their losses.

Political acts are those acts by which we attempt to produce or do produce, in whatever way, a necessary response in or by the target of the action. Politics attempts to produce, manipulate, and manage these seemingly necessary responses and reactions. Thus, again, ‘power’ is a name for the attempt to produce the sense or idea of necessity in other human beings.

 

Power as Relative Necessity

Power is what it does, even if that is simply to induce fear or hope. Power is not something separate from its effects, even if those effects are indirect. In saying this, I am, of course, distinguishing power from authority, which we might understand as involving the potential to exert power, even moral power. If power must be manifest in its effects, then how should we characterize these effects? These effects are often simplified into what I have called relative necessities. A sidewalk simplifies my walking as roads simplify my driving; one need not walk or drive on them, although there will be various consequences if one does not. The more necessary the sidewalk seems the more powerful it is.

The sense of necessity that defines, describes, and expresses what power means is not opposed to contingency; it is a relative necessity defining arenas of choice. (Very few things would be necessary in an absolute sense. Many things would be necessary in a relative or contingent sense. In this essay, I have argued for an understanding of necessity as a kind of limit that we acknowledge in various ways and in varying circumstances. One could call such a limit something else, but ‘necessity’ captures for me the kind of force and effect that describes what we often call ‘power’). Power itself is the production of these kinds of relative necessities. This sense of necessity is opposed to the ideas of being unformed and indeterminate, not to the ideas of contingency and freedom. Something can be contingently necessary (if you want to live, you must eat) and freedom is always limited and thus constrained. Power shapes and limits, hence it counters the unformed and the indeterminate. And this can be coercive, but it need not be. (Or one needs to distinguish oppressive coercion from facilitating coercion and relatively neutral coercion: in these cases, ‘coercion’ just means power).

Power is a name for a complex of behaviors, actions, beliefs, threats, possibilities, and necessities. Power is bound to its manifestation such that it is described, although not reducible, to those manifestations. In this, power is similar to time. Time is manifest in ways that also describe it. Clocks make this explicit.  Time is manifest in, but not equivalent, to change. A clock measures time through its ordered manifestation of change to which it is also subject. A clock both manifests and measures time. That measurement is, of course, a description. Similarly, my flinching from the bee describes the power of the bee. The expression of power is a description of power. This is part of its insidiousness and our confusion. We cannot get it into view without already giving it a shape, often an ideological shape. Time can feel like loss, and thus painful and bad; power can feel like limitation, and thus painful and bad. But time is not just loss—it is also gain, hope and possibility. And so is power.

If power is a measure of complex effects that we take as relative necessities, in the way time is a measure of change, then regardless of the variety of things measured, the mode of measurement reduces them or manifests them in its own terms. And so we imagine that Power names a particular thing or force. Power as I understand it, however, is nothing separate from its measuring. Lukes and many others measure power using rubrics of coercion and subjugation, and thus all power looks like these. Our ways of measuring power disguise what it is that we are measuring. Power is more complex and relational than our means of measuring. The measuring rod can seem ubiquitous and simple in ways that what is measured may not.

I return to a claim I made earlier: Power is specific to a situation. If power is manifest in the way time is, through our ways of reacting and describing it, then our descriptions of situations are all important, and from those descriptions political understanding, judgments and actions follow. One of the essential skills in politics is thus a skill in particular ways of describing. (It is, of course, not the only skill.) The vocabulary of power is essential in producing these descriptions. That vocabulary must be revised, rediscovered, clarified, and so on. This should be one of the tasks of political philosophy.

To show that some relations of power are dominating, subjecting, or oppressive is not to show that all power is this, separate from a tendentious definition of power relative to some ideal of what is dominated, subjugated, and oppressed. That ideal imagines, even if only conceptually, a morally positive condition separate from and opposed to the dominations of power (all of which are by definition negative). This is an adolescent fantasy—not only that it is possible to live in such a condition free of power, but that such a condition is morally positive. Mutual respect between people or a love of something or someone, for example, requires submission, constraint, and limitation of action and feeling—a discipline that is expressive of respect and love. Morally positive love is not coercive, but it necessarily involves power.

We cannot escape power, and thus there exists a limit to our ability to make certain choices, even choices we might understand as good and virtuous. Life will always remain messy, and moral compromise and even failure may be demanded of us for the sake of what we love. This can be terrible, and I think it often is, but it does not make it any less true. Wisdom about power requires that we see beyond its coercive forms.

[1] Morriss , P. Power: A Philosophical Analysis. Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2002. Also see Mark Haugaard: Haugaard , M. ( 2010 ) “ Power: A ‘Family Resemblance’ Concept ,”

European Journal of Cultural Studies, 13 ( 4 ), 1 – 20.

[2] G.E.M. Anscombe, Intention, 2nd ed. 1963 and “‘Under a Description,’” in Mind and Collected Works.

[3] I will make a brief argument in support of my claim that our flinching not only manifests power, but it describes it. The manifestation of power is the expression of power, its demonstration. Power must be manifest in some way but is not reducible to that manifestation. The power of the bee cannot be reduced to only my flinching, although my flinching manifests the power of the bee over me. Consequently, my flinching is logically distinct from the power it manifests. Since it is logically distinct from that which it manifests, my flinching can also describe that power. The describing is, in effect, a measuring. I will return to this argument at the end of this essay.

[4] Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz, “The Two Faces of Power.” The American Political Science Review, Volume 56, Issue 4 (Dec., 1962), 947-952.

[5] Steven Lukes. Power: A Radical View. 2nd edition. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

[6] For Lukes, a sidewalk or a maze, as conditions of possibility for movement through space, mine or a rat’s, are coercive if they block my real interests, however those are determined. Would the sidewalk, therefore, be uncoercive if I have real interests to walk quickly to the store, but if I did not have such real interests, then it would manifest coercive power because it facilitated my false desire to walk on it?

[7] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007.

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