Power therefore never dies out: tracked, pursued wornout, or driven away here, it will always reappear there, where I expect it least.
— Trinh T. Minh-ha [1]

… the model to which political power is referred and the unit by which it is measured are constituted in advance by the idea Western civilization has shaped and developed.
— Pierre Clastres

Power is a central concern for anarchists.

How we understand power has serious consequences on our actions, analysis and organization. Many anarchists argue that power is the problem as an external force that is imposed from outside the individual or community by the State, Capitalism or the Church [there will be future entries on the concepts of “the State” and “Capital”]. Often, I hear anarchists talking about “destroying power” or fighting power. Power is articulated as The State, and we, as anarchist, are attempting to “smash the state.” This is framed as if The State was an object or thing that where destroyed, and if it was, we would immediately live in a free and egalitarian society.  I would like to move in another direction thinking about power differently.

To quote sasha k and Leila from Killing King Abacus: “Power is the potential to exert force, the ability to act in a creative, transformative, productive or destructive way, the state as a transcendent institution is that which cuts us off or separates us from our active power.” [3] If we think about power this way, power is not a “thing” that is pushed on us, but a set of relationships and practices we engage in as individuals, collectives and communities. Power, then, is manifested in how we understand, conceptualize and engage with the world and people around us. So when thinking about power, I want to think about power as active power and alienated power.

Active power is our creative/transformative/productive activities. This is different from the concept of “empowerment” because empowerment is the external giving or recognition of power or authority. Active power, unlike empowerment, is not the recognition by an outside authority that you can act for yourself. Active power is people living and creating individually and collectively without the permission of an external authority. This power is open ended, but examples can be building communities and kinship on our own terms or producing the needs and subsistence for our communities or organizing forms of resistance to liberate ourselves and communities on our terms. In each of these examples, the people who are living/experiencing the situations are in control of their lives, the direction, and outcome of their actions.

In contrast to active power, there is alienated power. Alienated power are the forces of power exerted by institutions like The State and Capital. We can see these forms of power when individuals need to sell their labor or starve because they are separated from their creative/productive potential which is controlled by someone else (an individual or a committee or institution.) This form of power can also be seen in the physical force of the police as they arrest and incarcerate those who deviate from the norms codified into law. In each of these cases, the standards, deviations, and expertise are created externally from those who are effected by the situations. The decisions and outcomes are abstracted by experts who are not tied to, or directly responsible to, individuals who are living in the outcomes of these institutions. The institutions maintain their power by separating people from their active power individually and collectively.
One of the central techniques of alienated power is though convincing people that The State and Capital are needed for safety and survival. If we look at Capital, it is argued that people can not collectively or individually produce subsistence and basic needs on a global level, so we need experts and managers to control production (the argument is used equally for corporate or state management.) If we look at The State, we can take the example of the police. People are taught that the police are necessary for the safety and well being of their communities. People do not believe that they have the power to work as community members to resolve conflict within their own communities. Instead people bring in external experts. These experts, and these experts alone, have the training, skills, knowledge and institutional infrastructure to "protect people." Traditional and/or alternative forms of conflict resolution are not seen as “effective” or trust worthy. Because of external expertise, communities trust these forms of external intervention as well as the standards of normality and deviancy used by the interventionist. Street checks of youths of color become invisible/acceptable because the police can produce abstracted and statistical knowledge that categorized this group of people as having a higher risk of deviating from the norm.   

When I was young and first getting involved in the anarchist milieu, one of the things that stuck with me and has focused my analysis was the idea of “the cops in our head.” I bring this up because “the cops in our head” help alienate people from their active power and maintain the alienated power of institutions like The State. How we know the world and categorize the world is very important to the potential we see in our active power as well as the possibilities to create a new world. An example of the “cops in our head” speaking up would be when in a meeting to plan an action and you become uncomfortable as an individual who might be categorizes as “mentally ill” volunteers to speak to the media. You are happy that they are a part of the group and you know that their voice needs to be heard, but you are afraid that their nonlinear and often fragmented way of communication is not the most “effective” voice for the action. You might think that it would make more sense to have someone with experience talking to the media. But by privileging the language/forms that are understood to be logical and intelligible as articulated by social norms, the individual is then alienated from their active power/voice. While choosing another speaker might be strategic, it also reproduces the categorizations and knowledge of The State within our anarchist organizing which is then a form of alienated power. Instead of silencing the individual in the name of "efficiency," we can work with, or accompany them, as they use their active power to voice, create or activate their desires and resistance.    

Why should this different way of seeing power matter to anarchists? The State and Capital are still a problem and if we “smash” them we will be free. I disagree for two reasons both tied to the “cops in our head.” (1) is tied to our own organization: When we are organizing ourselves do we reproduce forms of alienated power or do we engage active power? This can be in the structures of our organizations: do we practice informal or formal organizations. Are we reproducing forms of divisions of labor that alienate people from their active power? In the name of efficiency or experience, do our groups reproduce experts that speak or decide “for people?" Do our practices challenge or reinforce categories that alienate people from their active power—for example based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, age, mental illness or ability. (2) is tied to our forms of organizing and resistance: Is it based on alienated power or active power? When we engage in resistance do we “organize other communities” or do we accompany them in collective resistance? Do communities have autonomy or are they organized by others outside of the community? Are we struggling for ourselves side by side with others (and other communities) to create a world where everyone has active power? Or are we speaking and acting for others? There is no absolute or abstract answer to these questions because they need to be answered in the particular, but they are necessary questions if we are to create a new world.

The next entry of the Firebrand Dictionary will be the concept of “The Family.”   

Other entries of the Firebrand Dictionary: The Family, The Sate, The Individual and Society


[1] Trinh T. Minh-ha (1989) Woman, Native, Other. Writing postcoloniality and feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[2] Pierre Clastres (1989) Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology. New York: Zone Books.

[3] sasha k and Leila (2016) “The Anarchist Ethic in the Age of the Anti-Globalization Movement” In Killing King Abacus Anthology. Regina: Changing Suns Press. pp. 133-152 [Chick here to go to Changing Suns Press’s Books]

Posted on September 22, 2015 .