Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

On Barry Hindess's Discourses of Power

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

On Barry Hindess's Discourses of Power

Article excerpt


Given the limitations of a short commentary, this article is restricted to an attempt to summarize the argument of a relatively small book, Discourses of Power. This book is adorned by a beautiful picture of Citizen Kane, no doubt chosen by its author, and characterized by an argument of dazzling coherence, which not only sums up and dispenses with most of the fundamental ideas about power in the canon of Western political theory but also provides a balanced appraisal of its radical alternative. Here, I attempt to resist the thesis that it is impossible to disagree with anything in this book. I ask whether, in addition to the view of power as capacity and power as right addressed in the book, Hindess should have considered the influential view of power as appropriation.


power, legitimacy, moral autonomy, political community, appropriation

We should note the title of Barry Hindess's book. Discourses of Power. This alerts us to its topic, which is not "power." (1) itself but authoritative discussions of power. Furthermore, while it distinguishes two recurrent senses of the word "power" in the discourses it addresses (i.e., power as capacity and power as right), it is only one of these which is the central focus of the book. In the end, the book is principally concerned with power as right, that is, the kind of power exercised by the sovereign or by government and which claims or is granted legitimacy.

This sounds straightforward enough. There are, however, two points that the reader of this book should grasp at the outset. The first is that focusing on power as right, or as legitimate power grounded in the consent of those over whom it is exercised, illuminates certain analyses of power as capacity, including ones which explicitly reject the view of power as right as, for instance, those found in Steven Lukes's Power: a Radical View. (2) The second point can be made with respect to the subtitle, "From Hobbes to Foucault." If the book does not seek to answer the question of "what is power?" it also does not attempt to provide a history of discourses of power. The text makes references to classical political philosophy. Yet, it does not locate canonical thinkers in order to define the origins of an intellectual trajectory but rather to examine recurrent themes concerning power. These can be illuminated by texts sufficiently distant from contemporary affairs. Thus, while the book contains careful discussions of political and moral philosophy, particularly that of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, it also discusses more recent political science (Robert Dahl and the community power debates) and a substantial host of theorists associated with sociology and social theory from Max Weber and Talcott Parsons to Lukes and critical theory represented by Marcuse and Habermas. A chapter is devoted to Michel Foucault and it is he who is viewed as providing something of an alternative to the standard themes and analyses.

I was going to use the metaphor of the surgeon's scalpel to describe the way the text cuts one way and the next dissecting different positions with precision. Even the somewhat privileged interlocutor, Michel Foucault, emerges with a couple of minor incisions, as we shall see. Perhaps, however, that metaphor is too harsh and too visceral for such a refined thought as this. Paying heed to Hindess's own intellectual formation, the book's formulations manifest a kind of mathematical precision linking political philosophy and the social sciences.

The book takes its reader, from whom it demands some degree of investment, into domains not easily recognizable in terms of conventional discussions of power: those of morality and the person, notions of civil society and community. It forces its reader to follow challenging links--between, for instance, Locke's Law of Opinion and Reputation and Lukes's "third dimension of power"--in a way which makes these links seem obvious. …

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