Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Reflections on power

I have been re-reading George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four which I refer to in the book (pp.71-2). This I think is a particularly incisive fictionalization of organization, more particularly totalitarian political organization, and I suppose that no novel, except perhaps Kafka’s The Trial, has so insinuated itself into popular consciousness of ‘organization theory’.

The theme of totalitarianism is a tantalising one when thinking about organizations, because such arrangements seem to represent ‘limit cases’ – both exaggerating but also illustrating ‘normal’ organizations. But this understanding seems flawed if we take Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of the Holocaust (discussed in the book, p.23) seriously. For this implies not that totalitarianism or, more specifically, the organization of the holocaust was an anomaly but that it was an expression of a pre-existing and omnipresent tendency within modernity. Bauman’s analysis seeks to draw a continuity between modern and ‘holocaustic’ modes of the social, and, within that, modern and holocaustic modes of, specifically, organization are central. For the capacity to organize genocide industrially seems to be central to Bauman’s thesis that the Holocaust was a modern phenomenon. Specifically, it represented the ultimate triumph of instrumental rationality – the deployment of morally blind means towards horrific ends. So we can say that for organization theorists, the organization of the Holocaust should not represent a ‘limit case’ or a perversion but rather a crucial moment in the elaboration of organization.

But considering totalitarianism in terms of instrumental rationality, as Bauman’s thesis might urge us to do, is inadequate because of the particular theorisation of power which it embodies. Within instrumentalism, power has a particular meaning – as a means achieve ends. However totalitarianism entails something even worse. Theorisations of power have traditionally specified either where power comes from or what power leads to. The idea that power comes from somewhere is most manifest in the well known bedrock of organization theory: French and Raven’s bases of power. So power comes from possession of certain resources or capacities (coercion, reward, position, knowledge, personality/charisma), and there are numerous articulations of basically the same idea. The idea that power goes somewhere is present in all the various ways that power is linked to interests. Here power is used to serve some purpose – the pursuit of interests (sectoral, class, gender etc). In another variation, an interest-based theory of power might see it as flowing from interests as well as being directed towards the furtherance of interests.

What is different about totalitarian/Orwellian notions of power? This is the crucial point. Here, power is conceived of as neither coming from nor aimed towards anything other than itself. In other words, power is an end in itself. In Nineteen Eight-Four:

“Power is not a means, it is an end … the object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” (Orwell, 1949:  264)

And this was prescient if we consider Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov’s extraordinary analysis* of ‘moral life in the concentration camps’, which I urge you to read if you have not done so, where he says that:

“The aim of power is power; the enjoyment it offers is not of the material sort” (Todorov, 2000: 184)

Now, if we regard totalitarianism as a limit case, then this is not of general interest. But if as Bauman suggests it is an immanent, rather than an atypical, case then it is of huge interest. I think that this is so, and one way it is revealed is in the motivation of the archetypal chief executive or political leader:

Q: What motivates you?

A: I love the feeling that I can make a difference

Is this not the everyday equivalent of the totalitarian case: the point of power is (the sensation of) power itself? This sensation of power is only realizable if another feels and experiences your power, whether through happiness and pleasure or, as in the concentration camps, through pain and suffering. Clearly this contains the familiar irony (described most elaborately in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic) that the powerful are dependent upon others for their power. Revealingly, Todorov reports that the most vicious treatment was meted out to those who did not quickly enough show submission. This suggests that the full sensation of power is only possible where resistance is both met and overcome. He also remarks that this desire for power seems insatiable in that it was endlessly repeated with new entrants to the camps. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien makes a similar point when torturing Winston Smith – both that the same scene will endlessly be played out and that the image of the future is ‘a boot stamping on the human face forever’. There is no end to power in two senses: it has no purpose and it’s work is never finished.

The poet W. H. Auden wrote, in his 1939 Epitaph on a Tyrant, as follows:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

It is a damning indictment of those who use power, instrumentally, in pursuit of an ideal. But it is also a terrible reminder of the narcissism of power; of what happens when power has no object but itself: and when he cried the little children died.


*Todorov, T. (2000). Facing the Extreme. Moral Life in the Concentration Camps. London: Phoenix.


  1. Dear Chris,

    The capacity to organize a genocide 'industrially' was indeed a modern phenomenon. Genocide, however, has far wider and more complex roots, and it is time we started questioning Bauman's (and Arendt's) analyses the way they have been questioned and discredited by historians, like Bauer, Friedlander and Allen. We will then realize that the Jewish holocaust and other genocides call for more complex and nuanced analyses. In brief, the view that the holocaust was the outcome of a machine bureaucracy perpetrated by dull bureaucrats ("banality of evil" etc.) does not stand any more. Why? First, it fails to recognize the vital role played by anti-Semitic ideology of the German variety, what has been called 'redemptive anti-semitism'. Second,, it fails to appreciate the importance of HOT sadistic violence which is a feature of every genocide. Third, it greatly overestimates the efficiency of killing (as Bauer ad others have shown) and exaggerates the extent of its centralization. In fact, a considerable part of the killing in the holocaust was carried out in a localized fashion, with local managers engaging in creative problem solving (if I can use such terminology) and displaying different degrees of enthusiasm and creativity in pursuing their dreadful objectives. As Allen has argued "rather than a world of petty-minded bureaucrats in an institutional straightjacket, Nazi Germany unleashed a groundswell of initiative from below". Finally, and most contentiously, the Bauman thesis is blind to the different types of resistance as well as collusion of the Jews themselves and their organizations. There is what Primo Levy called a "Grey Zone" (sorry for the unwanted pun) of ambivalent behaviours between victims and exterminators: "From many signs, it would seem the time has come to explore the space which separates (and not only in the Nazi Lagers [camps]) the victims from the persecutors, and to do so with a lighter hand, and with a less turbid spirit than has been done, for instance in a number of films. Only a schematic rhetoric can claim that the space is empty: it never is; it is studded with obscene and pathetic figures (sometimes they possess both qualities simultaneously), whom it is indispensable to know if we want to know the human species, if we want to know how to defend our souls when a similar test should once more loom before us, or even if we only want to understand what takes place in a large industrial factory." (Levi, The drowned and the saved 1986/1988: 25–26)

    I really think that it is time we, in organization studies, stopped accepting Bauman has having had the final word on genocide or even 'modern' genocide.

    1. Thanks, Yiannis. I completely accept and agree with what you say about the deficiencies of Bauman as a complete or adequate account of the Holocaust (and in the book I briefly (p139) allude to one of the points you make i.e. issues of resistance and 'making out') But I still think we can still take important messages from it: one aspect (partial but striking) of the Holocaust was that in places it deployed bureaucratic and industrial methods and that, I think, was unprecedented? And I think the insight of a continuity between modernity and the Holocaust is also important, even accepting, of course, its wider and more complex roots.

      In any case, in the post I am also trying to question Bauman's analysis, in relation to whether the stress on instrumental rationality is adequate. The idea that the sensation of power is seductive as an end in itself does in its way call into question the idea of the Holocaust as exemplifying a 'sine ire et studio' bureaucratic detachment.


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