Techniques Of Power

Index to posts in this series

Related posts

Posts on The Dawn Of Everything: Link
Posts on Pierre Bourdieu and Symbolic Violence: link
Posts trying to cope with the absurd state of political discourse: link
Posts on Freedom and Equality. link

In the second part of The Subject And Power Michel Foucault discusses techniques of power. He focuses on one issue: what exactly happens when power is exerted by one person on another. He describes power as intentional actions of one person to affect the actions of others. He thinks that this involves three types of interaction: power relations, communication, and objective capacities.

  • Power relations are not explicitly defined, but he gives examples: they “… consist of obligatory tasks, of gestures imposed by tradition or apprenticeship, of subdivisions and the more or less obligatory distribution of labor”.
  • Communication sets up the structure of information and understanding between the parties to the power relationship.
  • Objective capacities are the physical actions which one party can impose on a thing, or other person.

These three things are not separate, though the latter two can exist apart from the exertion of power. Communications can be used to convey information, feelings, inchoate ideas and more, without necessarily affecting or intending to affect the actions of others. This post is an example. I have many physical capabilities that have nothing to do with power relations, such as my ability to type.

In a social setting we can see that these three can be combined for the purpose of exerting power, of affecting the actions of others. One obvious way is direct one-on-one interactions. The parent tells the child to put on a coat before going outside. The child probably does so, perhaps because it understands the power of the parent. It may also require physical action, such as putting the coat on the child, or carrying the coat to the car and telling the child to come along.

Alternatively, the parent may say it’s cold out, and we’re leaving for school in five minutes. The child (hopefully) responds by getting its coat and putting it on, gathering backpacks and lunch and standing by the door. This would be a simple example of what Foucault calls a block, a discipline. The power relations between the child and the parent create a situation where the direct application of physical capabilities and communication are unnecessary.

We all follow similar patterns in our lives. An employer has expectations, and employees try to meet them without being bossed around. A school is an institution designed to teach whole blocks of behavior so that the student can emit them as needed for productive activity. An apprentice learns how to carry out complex tasks without supervision or complaint. A grad student learns the behaviors appropriate to college professors. Once learned, there is no need for imposition of control by others. There is still some surveillance, and some testing, but normally the student learns to accept that as part of the production function.

These blocks combine with related blocks to form what Foucault calls disciplines because they condition large parts of our productive lives. At one level, these are mere behaviors, but over time they are internalized; they are so ingrained that they define us in certain parts of our lives, and affect us in all parts of our lives to some extent.

The creation and inculcation of disciplines is an act of power. The people who do this are changing other people’s actions.

The creation of disciplines may or may not involve violence against or consent of the subject, though of course both are possible. Foucault writes:

It is a total structure of actions brought to bear upon possible actions; it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; it is nevertheless always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action.

Once these disciplines are incorporated by the subject they operate apart from conscious control. The dominant person can change the form of the discipline as they see fit, at least within the boundaries of the relationship, and possibly to a greater extent. Foucault says that the subjects have learned to govern themselves. They have learned how to behave in ways that are useful, or at least acceptable, to the dominant person.

The last point I take from Foucault is this: power can only be exercised over free individuals. The dominant party structures the field of possible actions and the subject chooses from the possibilities left open. But the subject remains free to reject the governance of the dominant. That freedom of “recalcitrance” is crucial to an understanding of power relations. The individual or group of subjects can always reject authority and force a physical confrontation. If not, then the dominant person is an enslaver, a relationship outside power relations, strictly governed by violence.


1. There is more in this paper, but it carries me away from the purpose for which I took it up, so I’ll stop here.

2. Again, I note the similarity between Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. Links above.

3. This part of the paper summarizes some of the ideas in Foucault’s book, Discipline And Power.

Conclusion To Series

I read this paper because in The Dawn Of Everything Graeber and Wengrow assert, with some evidence, that much of the decision-making among our ancient ancestor groups was at least partly communal, perhaps even egalitarian. I had the feeling that a good bit of that decision-making was bases on force or violence. I think Foucault would agree. Here’s an enigmatic sentence from the paper:

Is this to say that one must seek the character proper to power relations in the violence which must have been its primitive form, its permanent secret, and its last resource, that which in the final analysis appears as its real nature when it is forced to throw aside its mask and to show itself as it really is?

He doesn’t really answer his own question, but I interpret this to mean he assumes that violence was the original source of power relations. When I started this series I assumed the same thing, that power in even the earliest societies must have ultimately arisen from violence and fear.

After reading this paper I’ve mostly changed my mind. I think it’s possible to imagine different routes to the creation of societies. For example, we can imagine that as our ancestors evolve into fully human creatures, they live in groups that work together for survival. These groups create ways of working and living together. They recognize, whether or not they verbalize it, that their survival depends on these structures.

The structures they create are oriented to survival. As a result, deviations from those structures are not tolerated. As groups become larger, and interact with other groups, structures are modified by consent, but still, deviations from the agreed structures are not tolerated. Changes are very slow in coming, because the desire to survive is so strong. As evidence consider the slow evolution of tool-making.

The importance of structure is internalized by all the members. In larger groups some kind of social mechanism may be needed to reinforce the rules. These people might be proto-kings or proto-priests. Or they might be people of empathy, able to guide towards good outcomes. Thus, different forms of leadership can emerge.

Well, that’s just a projection and there will never be evidence one way or the other. But the fact that I can imagine such a pathway means that I shouldn’t be so quick to reject the pollyanna-ish take offered by Graeber and Wengrow.

And with that, I’ll return to The Dawn Of Everything.

26 replies
  1. skua says:

    I’d accept ethnographic studies as evidence, though I’m not sure how much weight I’d give them. This is because I understand evidence to be a category populated by “claims that are presented as evidence by the claimant”. Spectral evidence, inadmissible evidence, and heresay evidence fit this understanding which holds that judging, evaluating and weighting evidence is seperate to its categorisation as evidence.

  2. Patient_Observer says:

    I would be interested in an exploration of how these theories do or do not apply to the relations between various members or factions of the elite on the one side and the base on the other of political parties/movements in general and the Republican Party/conservative movement in particular.

    One sees much writing about the bidirectionality between the two — elites at some times seeking to direct and motivate the base and at other times conforming to the latter’s appetites.

  3. narya says:

    Wittgenstein is your friend here, IMO. (I wrote a dissertation that used LW to examine two so-called divisions of labor that we take for granted in many ways–workers/professionals and men’s work/women’s work–and I used specific cases to do that, not just theory.) One of the useful bits, though, that is more germane to what you’re saying (I think) is LW’s insistence on the intertwining of language and practice. He’s silent about power, so Pierre is necessary for a full elaboration of language and the systems to which you refer, but I think LW helps support what you’re saying about multiple paths, not all of which are structured around dominance.

  4. Peterr says:

    Another element to discussions of power has to do with authority. In shorthand for this context, authority is the permission to act; power is the ability to act. These must be distinguished from each other, though they often interact. Similarly, there are two kinds of authority — formal and informal — which must be distinguished as well.

    Formal authority comes by virtue of an office or position (“Here are your duties, and they come with the permission from the group to take action so as to accomplish them.”) Formal authority is a socially-agreed upon thing, with written descriptions and such to support it and define its limits.

    Informal authority, on the other hand, is the kind of permission and power granted regardless of a current office or position. It may come from personal persuasiveness, general respect given to the person, or other intangible sources of community assent. In the church, particularly the African-American church, a pastor may have lots of formal authority by virtue of the pastoral office, but woe be unto the pastor who unthinkingly goes up against the informal authority of the matriarch of the most important family. A wise pastor listens when an elder says, “That’s a good idea, Pastor, but maybe you should check with Miz Lillian before we go ahead with it . . .” It doesn’t mean the matriarch is always right or always gets her way — just that the informal authority is significant enough to merit consideration. In the realm of politics, Barack Obama holds no formal authority as an ex-president, but a great deal of informal authority by virtue of his popularity and persuasiveness, especially within the Democratic party.

    When I arrive in a new congregation as the pastor, sorting out the expectations and assumptions about authority and power are among the first things that I do.

    • Epicurus says:

      Probably saying the same thing in a different way. I would think power is the ability to control as anyone can act but not everyone can control through her/his actions. Authority would be the control function vested in a person or position by the determined group. Formal authority is usually based in legality in some specific way. Informal authority – the leading lady in your church example or President Obama – is based in legitimacy. Authority can be legal but not legitimate, the true mistake Justice Roberts makes in his definition of the SC’s legitimacy.

      Unlike Foucault above I don’t think there are free individuals. I think we are prisoners of our minds as noted by Daniel Kahneman or conditioned to our lives as exemplified by work of Skinner. I think those situations are what causes the situations and structural/societal constuctions Mr. Walker refers to in his last four or five paragraphs above.

      • Peterr says:

        I think Roberts’ mistake is conflating formal and informal authority. He and the rest of the Court are learning that their formal authority is running up against a rising tide of informal authority among those with informal authority who may be leaning toward using their power to work through Congress to curb their formal authority.

        What might that look like? Two relatively easy things Congress could do, that would piss off Roberts, would be to require SCOTUS to provide livestreams (audio at least, if not video) of all court sittings, and require justices to adhere to the same code of ethics as all other federal judges.

        • bmaz says:

          Yeah, they have already moved pretty far on live audio because pandemic, so that is already moving. And not quite sure Congress can mandate that or video on them. This conversation has been going on for years. SCOTUS will never agree to video.

          • JamesJoyce says:

            “The structures they create are oriented to survival. As a result, deviations from those structures are not tolerated. As groups become larger, and interact with other groups, structures are modified by consent, but still, deviations from the agreed structures are not tolerated.”

            “Changes are very slow in coming, because the desire to survive is so strong. As evidence consider the slow evolution of tool-making.”

            “The importance of structure is internalized by all the members. In larger groups some kind of social mechanism may be needed to reinforce the rules. “

            “These people might be proto-kings or proto-priests. Or they might be people of empathy, able to guide towards good outcomes. Thus, different forms of leadership can emerge.“


            Power of a video and the need to suppress it?

            George Floyd…

            Abuse of Power 101

            SCOTUS is a corrupt entity, playing a deadly game with people’s lives.

            Establishment Clause is history, at Six week’s when one is busy working.

            Moms can attest.

            We video everything, with “truth”’ videoed the least of all.

            Dred Scott was entitled to protection of law correct?

            Can we ask Clarence Thomas this question and Video his answer?

            Ginni, his wife thinks voter fraud is real, maybe like Scott’s inferiority, Sam Alito?

            Who care about teapots, domes, truth or reality anymore.

            Acme Pixie Dust…

            Just add tainted water…

            Nina Turtle’s Primordial Goo and G. Santos…

            Trust and never verify, anything anymore?

            Common Sense seems dead today as it was in 1857.

            More Scorched Earth and gaslighting to come, as usual.

          • Peterr says:

            Yes, I know that they do not like it, and they are making that clear. They rolled back the streaming of live audio two weeks ago. From Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog:

            The Supreme Court will resume its pre-pandemic practice of announcing opinions from the bench, the court’s Public Information Office said on Monday afternoon. But although the justices now provide live audio of oral arguments, the opinion announcements will not be livestreamed. Instead, consistent with the court’s pre-pandemic practice, the audio of opinion announcements will not be available until the beginning of the following term.

            The resumption of in-person opinion announcements marks another step in the court’s slow return to business as usual since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The court closed to the public on March 12, 2020; later that month, the justices began to release opinions online, without taking the bench. And although they returned to the courtroom, with access limited to a small group of reporters and law clerks, in October 2021, they continued to release opinions electronically throughout the 2021-22 term.

            Since the start of the 2022-23 term in October, members of the public have been permitted to attend oral arguments. The court continued its pandemic practice of providing live audio of oral arguments – a departure from its prior practice of releasing argument audio only at the end of the week. Audio of opinion announcements, however, will only be available at the beginning of the following term, when the court releases it to the National Archives.

            The Supreme Court has not yet released any opinions in the cases argued in the 2022-23 term. The court is not scheduled to take the bench again until January 2023.

            Accountability and transparency sucks, if you’ve gotten used to believing that you are universally adored and ultimately unaccountable. But given the increasing concern about “the legitimacy of the Court” that is so troubling to Roberts, Alito, et al, they may decide that livestreams are a small price to pay to get back some of that legitimacy.

            • Epicurus says:

              Justices want only accountability to and legitimacy from the political and social groups to which the justices belong. They don’t need video for that, just the desired majority opinion.

  5. massappeal says:

    It’s an occupational hazard that I’m so interested in discussions about power. And it’s a pleasure reading this series of posts, and the comments about them. (Thank-you, all.)

    A couple of semi-random observations about power:

    1) We’re born powerful—i.e., with the ability to act, and in our own interests. Babies know how to use what they have to get what they need. (If they’re surrounded by people who care about them, and are able to respond effectively to them, they flourish. If not, they fail to thrive.)

    2) Power is, according to Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, a good thing, one of God’s good gifts. Rahner derives that understanding in large part from his reading of the creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis where God creates the universe and everything in it in six days and pronounces all of it “good”. (And, like all of God’s good gifts, humans have the ability to misuse and abuse power.)

  6. AlaskaReader says:

    Some think power is acquired by one’s gaining higher office or being promoted to a higher rank.
    That’s subjective and often undeserved.
    True power is gained through the act of empowering others.

  7. mospeck says:

    Ed, apologize to you peace and loveniks who live on the higher ethereal plains. me, im mainly motivated by hate — how one fella could think that he can throw a hundred thousand other fellas lives away, and then vlad the great he gets to live on with a get out of jail free card.
    But then i checked. I was wrong. Those special orange ones are now on sale at Walmart by Pyramid America: Monopoly – Chance Jail Free Now $11.00 was $12.97

    • bmaz says:

      “Ed, apologize to you peace and loveniks who live on the higher ethereal plains.”

      That its your intro? Really? Do better.

  8. Silly but True says:

    Would like to know where Foucault places those born into a society as disempowered who had never had consented nor consents to the societal framework who acts with authority against them, and has the power to enforce their whims, but doesn’t have even minimal level of power to change their condition, which might even be generational?

  9. James Wimberley says:

    Foucault and Walker are missing one important feature of power: viz, that to exercise power effectively, you need to give it away. Delegation enormously expands the potential reach of the delegator’s power – while limiting its scope by generating a space of autonomy for the lieutenant. The failures of Trump, Musk and Putin stem in good part from their inability to build solid and trusting relationships with subordinates, which Biden and Zelensky conspicuously do, like Roosevelt and Lincoln before them, back to Augustus and Cyrus. This is not however a good guys / bad guys divide: Genghis Khan, Louis XIV and Stalin all delegated effectively.

    The point would be familiar to Karl Rahner. There is a long tradition in Christian theology (I don’t know about others) of seeing the Creation as a self-emptying or renunciation by God, necessary to empower life and especially human liberty. Some have used the word ekstasis, “standing outside”. A nice thought for the New Year.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Wielders of power would consider delegation to be an expansion of their reach, power, and authority, not the relinquishment of it. “Empowering” others in that sense is expanding one’s authority, not passing it on.

  10. Ed Walker says:

    I appreciate the commenters here at Emptywheel, and the comments here give me some confidence that my tentative conclusions are supported by writers I haven’t read.

    The techniques described by Foucault are related to his idea that power consists in the ability affect the actions of others intentionally, without regard to the purposes and intentions of the person exercising power. That’s why I think this definition is helpful: it leaves the purpose of exercising power out of the definition. That leaves open a wide range both of technique and purpose. And that’s why I think Graeber and Wengrow should be taken seriously.

  11. Bay State Librul says:


    Hard to tell if they were bad decisions.
    The good news is that 63 Judges admitted their failure to recuse, which caused additional costs to reopen and litigate.
    A quick and dirty solution – put your stock portfolio in a blind trust.
    What surprised me was that many Judges were unaware of the rules so ethical training and scrutiny a must-must.
    Ethical standards at WSJ – editorial board of course not, the reporters yes, but keep an eye on Clarence.

Comments are closed.