The Source and Nature of Power: Comparing "Noumenal" and "Structural" Power According to Forst and Strange

By Shaun Docherty
2015, Vol. 7 No. 05 | pg. 1/2 |

In 1981 ten incarcerated Irish nationalists starved themselves to death in protest against their denied political status and what they interpreted as an illegal occupation of Ireland by an oppressive British state.

Their protest challenged the paradigm of power as it existed at the time, specifically by revealing the limitations of the state's ability to exercise its will even in a situation where the state wielded seemingly absolute authority.1 Power, as Rainer Forst argues, is "noumenal" and as such it can only exist when recognized by the subject.2 The hunger strikers' symbolic act of defiance against the British state demonstrates how it is the subject who is empowered by their choice of whether or not to recognize the sovereignty of an outside authority. Even while imprisoned and in solitary confinement one of the most “powerful” states in the world could not impose their authority on these rebels because “power is what goes on in the head.”3 In this interpretation of power, if one simply chooses not to acknowledge its existence, then it does not exist.

In this interpretation of power, if one simply chooses not to acknowledge its existence, then it does not exist.
On the other hand, the late Susan Strange, in her seminal work “States and Markets, offers a different interpretation of power and its interaction in the global political economy. Strange introduces the notion of “Structural Power:” structural control over an entire system with the power to define how actors operate within that framework, the power to set the agenda and to manipulate it.4

While Forst offers a definition of power, describing its nature, Strange identifies the source of power and how it manifests itself in the world. These interpretations are not opposed and in fact work in conjunction. Structural power is communicated to the subject through noumenal power. Structural power, no matter how strongly manifested requires recognition from the subject to exist, just as the British Government found to their dismay and eternal embarrassment in the early 1980s when ten “terrorists” refused to recognize their authority.

Strange defines structural power as,

“the power to decide how things shall be done, the power to shape frameworks within which states relate to each other, relate to people, or relate to corporate enterprises.”5

Strange shows how structural power can exist in many different social contexts, from big oil corporations to domestic family dynamics; effectively it is the ability to dictate the agenda. 6 Her main concern is how it affects and manifests itself in international relations; especially in the relationship between authority and the markets. Strange coins the term “global political economy” and convincingly demonstrates how it has been crafted and controlled by the United States since World War II.7

Strange identifies four sources of “superior structural power” which allow the possessor to dictate the rules of the game: control over security, production, finance, and knowledge.8 She illustrates through the possession of structural power the U.S can manipulate the amount of access states have to each of these sources: limiting or increasing their opportunities, hence exercising an almost omnipotent control over subjects.9

Strange’s observations are not only profound and convincing but have changed the way we think about power and its interaction with economic and international relations. Although revolutionizing our conceptual understanding of power, Strange offers an empirical observation of how power functions in society, not a definition of the nature of power. Strange does hint toward an explanation of how structural power is applied when questioning the source of power,

“Moral authority, power derived from the proclamation of powerful ideas that have wide appeal, are accepted as valid and give legitimacy to the proclaimers.“10

The nature of power is implicit in Strange’s writing when she alludes to notions of validity and legitimacy but unfortunately she does not develop her ideas. Power is only valid if accepted by the subject, thereby empowering the authority by giving it legitimacy. However dominant, entrapping, even universal structural power may be it must be justifiable and reciprocated to exist.

Forst concerns himself with the application of power as opposed to observations of the source. He describes how power is noumenal, from the Kantian notion of being “a thing in itself”11 effectively a cognitive function occupying what Sellers describes as our “space of reasons.”12 We, the subjects, decide whether to accept power, whether it is justified. As Forst states he is interested, “in the power of justifications”13 where every individual possesses the capacity to sanction or reject power.

“Power is what goes on in the head, and what goes on is a recognition of a reason – or better and more often: various reasons – to act differently than one would have without that reason…Power rests on perceived and recognized justifications – some good, some bad, some in between. A threat can be seen as a justification, as can a good argument. But power only exists when such an acceptance exists.”14

As Forst illustrates it is a, “recognition of reason” which determines whether power is successfully communicated. Strange identifies four main “sources” for structural power: these can be interpreted in noumenal terms as four core “reasons” that must be recognized, justified and accepted by the subject to exist. However magnificently portrayed by Strange and in fact alluded to in her work, structural power requires recognition, it requires noumenal power to be successfully communicated to the subject.

During the Vietnam Conflict, the USA exercising structural power over half the globe could not impose their influence over a small impoverished nation in Indo-China. Despite the superpower throwing all its financial, military and political might into the conflict, inflicting a horrific loss of human life with an estimated 2-3 million Vietnamese fatalities, and dropping more tons of explosives than in the entire second world war;15 the U.S exercised almost no power on the ground. The Vietnamese people simply refused to recognize the structural power of the American authorities. The structural power was manifest, it existed and materialized itself in the global political economy but in this case was not justified to the people. The structural power of the U.S was not accepted therefore the military campaign was doomed to fail. Forst clearly demonstrates how shear physical force, however great, is not an exercise of real power,

“any analysis of power must have room for making a distinction between a case where you welcome a tank as liberating or protecting you, where you fear it, or where you see it as the enemy and no longer fear it.”16

Like the Vietnam conflict this analogy is very instructive, demonstrating even in the face of such an “objective threat”17 it is the subject who decides, who is empowered to accept or reject the application of power. Some observers have questioned why there have been no tanks on the streets and a rejection of contemporary structural power: a power that has dominated since the Second World War but now through corrupt neoliberal fiscal dogma is severely weakened, yet still accepted. Today, we find ourselves in a peculiar situation where the United States holds structural power over a dysfunctional and corrosive global political economy which creates a vast polarization of wealth whilst impoverishing its subjects; who paradoxically recognize and accept their predicament.

The U.S achieved structural dominance over a global economy traumatized in the aftermath of the Second World War. Strange describes how,

“the order and stability of international arrangements for the world economy (was) designed and partially imposed in the period after 1945. It is easy enough to see why. These post war “regimes” were set in place by the United States taking a lead where no other state could do so.” 18

The U.S were in a unique position, as one of the only developed nations to be unscathed by the conflict they were in possession of all 4 sources required for what Strange calls “superior structural power.”19 More importantly, Western European nations recognized their power; they wanted and needed their assistance in the form of Marshal Aid. It was noumenal power that cemented this new structural dominance. Through U.S control of security; production; credit and Knowledge they assumed structural dominance over the western world. The U.S offered security from the ominous threat of communism and nuclear holocaust and was therefore, “able to exercise power in other non-security matters.”20

Europe was crying out for goods, the U.S controlled production and was able to, “consolidate and defend its social and political power, establishing constitutions, setting up political institutions and laying down legal and administrative processes.”21 More important than any other source of power, Western Europe was already indebted to the U.S, as Strange stresses control of finance is pivotal as it can facilitate other sources of power, “whoever can so gain the confidence of others in their ability to create credit will control a capitalist – or indeed a socialist – economy.”22 The U.S also possessed control over knowledge, they preached capitalist democracy, and were pioneers in science and technology, as displayed in their monopoly of nuclear weapons. 23

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