, , , , ,

In everyday communities and institutions – families, universities, businesses, clubs – we cannot help but engage in politics, in the sense of influencing or making collective decisions. I think political philosophy does better when it turns its attention to those communities and institutions smaller than the state, where most of our political actions take place: political philosophy should be a philosophy not just of the state but of office politics, of academic politics.

In that regard, I’ve noticed an interesting commonality between two works whose authors likely wouldn’t see themselves as having anything in common: Graeber and Wengrow’s anarchist anthropology The Dawn of Everything, and the standards set out by the Project Management Institute. Graeber and Wengrow look at a wide range of anthropological and archaeological sources on how humans organize their societies; the Project Management Institute examines how an individual (a project manager) can get a group of people to succeed at a collective institutional goal.

To the former (one of whom is the author of Bullshit Jobs), the latter probably looks like a deadening or sinister tool of The Man. To the latter, the former likely looks like a juvenile whining that refuses to sully its hands with getting anything done. Yet both concern themselves with the questions of how non-state institutions can be run: the latter in the day-to-day practice of making those institutions’ projects succeed, the former in imagining the functioning of a world without a state. And so both wind up exploring one core and inescapable concept: power.

Neither The Dawn of Everything nor the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) really define power. They are more interested in classifying it. Max Weber had defined power as “the probability that one actor within a social rela­tionship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests.” That definition isn’t a bad starting point, and it’s not too far from the usage in the books at issue here, as long as the “one actor” can be a collective and not just an individual, and as long as the “despite resistance” can be hypothetical: some of the more powerful forms of power come by ensuring others don’t resist.

That brings us to the key concern in the two works we’re comparing: classifying types of power. Power in Weber’s sense is essential to a project manager’s work, because projects are collective and require the contribution of others. The PMBOK classification derives from a 1974 article by Gary Gemmill and Hans Thamhain, identifying “five basic forms of interpersonal influences” that a project manager can use to get others to support the project. These are formal power (“you’re the boss”), reward power (“you’ll give me a day off if I do this”), penalty power (“you’ll cancel my trip to Japan if I don’t do this”), expert power (“you know your stuff”) and referent power (“I like or respect you enough that I want to do it”). The practical importance of the distinction (according to the authors) is that expert and referent power are the best ones to use when possible, precisely because they don’t meet with resistance: people want to follow the commands, they think that following the commands is a good idea.

Graeber and Wengrow’s classification of power is very diffferent, as befits the different purpose to which the classification is put. They are interested in elementary forms of power, such that other forms of power are derivative from these elementary forms. Namely the three elementary forms they propose are “control of violence, control of information, and individual charisma” (365). The point, as I understand it, is not to say that forms of power like Gemmill and Thamhain’s don’t exist; rather, it’s that other forms of power are derivative and parasitic on the basic three. In particular, for Graeber and Wengrow, control of property can only be derived, ultimately, from control of one of these basic forms. The kind of reward and penalty power involved in project management (thankfully!) does not usually depend on violence, but on access to property of some sort (including money, and services like plane trips). But Graeber and Wengrow’s key claim is that control of property – which they would clearly like to see abolished – would not be possible without these three more underlying forms.

Because of the very different purposes of the classifications, I’m not going to try to fit them together into an overall theory of power. But it is worth highlighting a couple key points of comparison. First, notice that “referent power” and “individual charisma” are roughly the same thing: people are willing to do something because they like or respect the person who wants it done. The importance of this kind of power may be overstated in contemporary electoral politics – we often assign a leader’s popularity to their “charisma” when we can’t understand why people would be drawn to the ideology they represent. But its reach is huge in everyday life. Anyone who was ever afraid of a popular Mean Girl in high school knows this. Most of us have likewise been exposed later in life, in our work or social organizations, to people who are charming, funny, smart, physically attractive… and thus become so able to influence others that they can bully and terrorize those who step out of line, with the fear of ostracism and its consequences. (Thus there is a reward and penalty power that comes out of referent power: even if you no longer like or respect this person, you still do as they say out of fear of others who do.)

“Expert power” and “control of information”, in turn, look like the same thing. But they function very differently in the systems. Graeber and Wengrow tend to think of “control of information” in terms of secrecy: people have power over you because they know things they keep out of your hands. And while there’s no doubt that that happens, very often the power of information is more banal. I do what my doctor tells me to do because the doctor knows how human bodies work; that information is not at all a secret, it’s all over the internet. But to actually learn it myself would have taken years of my life that I would rather have spent on other things. Information is power here, but it’s not the machinations of a sinister cabal contriving to keep the population in ignorance. Even if human beings were to “get unstuck” as Graeber and Wengrow hope, and find some new form of social organization that did not depend on states and property, there would still be good reason for specialization of knowledge: for some people and not others to learn the vast panoply of human medical knowledge, and for those who don’t to trust the judgement of those who do.

That isn’t to say that the PMBOK classification is better – again, the purposes of the two are so different – only to point out a place where things come out more complex than Graeber and Wengrow’s elementary forms allow. Still, I think we learn something valuable when we look at their lofty macro approach to power alongside the everyday micro approach of the PMBOK. Whatever scale we’re at, access to information and personal liking make a difference in what gets done.