Power, Possibility Surplus, Mass Incarceration

Power is doubly contingent. The holder of power and the subordinate must both have possibilities to act otherwise; that is to say, there must a possibility surplus on both sides. If either the holder of power or the subordinate must act in a given way, double contingency is compromised. But when both sides retain a range of possibilities for action, power can work. And power, in itself, is not a bad thing.

Freedom seems to be characterized by access to a possibility surplus. When the holder of power resorts to force and deprives the subordinate of freedom to select a response, power does not work effectively. Power is evident when the subordinate complies with the desires of the one in power when it is possible to do otherwise.

Power resides, at least in part, in the possibility of applying positive sanctions (providing pleasant things) or negative sanctions (inflicting punishment or withdrawing positive sanctions). Once the subordinate has become accustomed to positive sanctions (e.g., a paycheck, a nice home, etc.), then the positive sanction can be taken away; thus positive sanctions can easily be turned into negative sanctions. That is to say, the positive and negative values are symmetrical. This is how the modern welfare state exercises power.

Power does not reside in the application of either positive and negative sanctions, but rather in the possibility of applying them. In terms of negative sanctions, Luhmann argues, “Guiding power by means of negative sanctions does not mean that power resides in the application of negative sanctions” (Luhmann, Politics and the Theory of the Welfare State, 157).  If the holder of power can refrain from imposing negative sanctions, he can retain or enhance his power. But as soon a negative sanction is imposed, some power is spent because the sanction limits the possibilities for the next action and it restricts double contingency.

Precisely because it is not used and as long as it is not used, the possibility of imposing negative sanctions is a source of power. Power, therefore, comes to an end if the exercise of this possibility can be forced. (Politics and the Theory of the Welfare State, 158).

In other words, if the subordinate can “force the hand” of the power holder, then the power holder loses his advantage. This happened in the 1960s when civil rights workers goaded racist police forces into responding with violence. Violence is not a sign of power; it is proof of the failure of power. It’s a sign that the state cannot see any other options. The state has the most power when it has many ways of getting what it wants and when the people obey the laws when they could do otherwise.

Putting someone is prison is not a sign of a power, and a state that holds millions of its (mostly poor and uneducated) citizens behind bars has clearly lost most of its power. All it has left is brute force. The state also has to spend billions of dollars monitoring and controlling these people, and this burden significantly diminishes the power of the state. Any time an organization has to devote a lot of resources to control and surveillance, the organization is weakened.


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