How do cultural practices such as rituals and ceremonies constitute power? Clifford Geertz (1983, p. 124) writes that “the easy distinction between the trappings of rule and its substance becomes less sharp, even less real; what counts is the manner in which … they are transformed into each other.” Lynn Hunt (1984, p. 54) is more direct: during the French Revolution, “political symbols and rituals were not metaphors of power; they were the means and ends of power itself.” How exactly does this happen? What is the mechanism?
Our explanation starts by saying that submittting to a social or political authority is a coordination problem: each person is more willing to support an authority the more others support it. For example, Jürgen Habermas interprets Hannah Arendt as saying that “the fundamental phenomenon of power is not the instrumentalization of another’s will, but the formation of a common will in a communication directed to reaching agreement” (Habermas  1986, p. 76; see also Postema 1982 and Weingast 1997). This coordination problem can result not only from a desire to reach consensus but also from intimidation: according to Michael Polanyi (1958, p. 224), “if in a group of men each believes that all the others will obey the commands of a person claiming to be their common superior, all will obey this person as their superior…. [A]ll are forced to obey by the mere supposition of the others’ continued obedience.” Because submitting to an authority is a coordination problem, an authority creates ceremonies and rituals that form common knowledge.