Twelve Theses on Institutionalized Power

3 January 2011


A few days ago I was posting some brief thoughts on Twitter (necessarily brief, given the 140 character limit) about social contract theory, and as the ideas developed I realized that I had something more to say about the exercise of power within institutions. What follows is something of an elaboration of my previously tweeted ideas, which were, in turn, an elaboration of the use of “institutionalized power” as I used that term in Web 2.0: An Alternative Vision.

1. It is not so much power alone that corrupts, as it is institutionalized power that corrupts.

Perhaps in the familiar line, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” it is to be implicitly understood that the power in question is institutionalized power and not merely the power of an individual, but we would do well to be specific that it is an institution that transforms the ordinary vitality of life, which is power, into something sinister.

2. Power channeled through institutions raises the arbitrariness of the power of an individual to a higher order of magnitude.

The power of an individual, while potentially dangerous, is limited to the scope of the individual, and the scope of the individual does not extend to a significant reach in either time or space. Thus the arbitrariness of power of an individual is merely the arbitrariness of a bully, but the arbitrariness of a bully allowed the powers of an institution, to be omnipresent and all but omnipotent, is power not subject to the natural limitations inherent in the individual person.

3. Once an individual experiences the aggrandizement of institutionalized power, the scope of merely individual arbitrary power feels paltry.

To be the representative of institutionalized power (which today means holding political office and basking in the power of that office), is to exercise a power that no individual could cultivate himself in isolation, and which no individual could implement without an institutionalized apparatus of power. To hold institutional power is to have more than the reach of an ordinary man, but it is also to be dependent upon others: in other words, it is to be institutionalized.

Herman Melville has made the definitive comment on this condition:

“It cannot have escaped the discernment of any observer of mankind, that, in the presence of its conventional inferiors, conscious imbecility in power often seeks to carry off that imbecility by assumptions of lordly severity. The amount of flogging on board an American man-of-war is, in many cases, in exact proportion to the professional and intellectual incapacity of her officers to command. Thus, in these cases, the law that authorises flogging does but put a scourge into the hand of a fool.”

Herman Melville, White-Jacket: or, The World in a Man-of-War, Chapter 36: “Flogging not Necessary”

While the scourge no longer takes the form of a cat-o’-nine-tails, the principle remains the same, and, similarly, although the fools who wield the scourge are not the same, the arrogance of office is unchanged.

4. In the state of nature there is arbitrary individual power; it is only in the context of social organization that institutionalized arbitrary power emerges.

Arbitrary individual power in a state of nature, without social organization, can at most result in a duel, which will usually be a contest of equals if not rivals, since a non-equal match will result in the disadvantaged party fleeing. Arbitrary institutional power, made possible by social organization, turns every contest into an unequal confrontation of an individual against an institution, with the individual’s ability to flee the confrontation compromised by the same social organization.

5. The state of nature is a condition of absolute impunity and of absolute absence of impunity.

There is a dialectic of impunity when raised to its absolute form, in which an identity between the absolute possession of impunity and the absolute lack of impunity are seen to amount to the same state of affairs. For further elaboration of this thesis cf. the explication of Theses 10 and 11 below.

6. Impunity of power is an institution that emerges in parallel with the institutions of power, but it is an informal institution.

There can only be impunity is a formal sense when there is a law from which one is immune. However, as we shall see below, there is an informal sense of impunity that is realized in the state of nature. But where the formal institutions of power are present, impunity is an exception to the rules that constitute an informal social contract. It should be pointed out, though, that impunity as an informal institution is a peculiarly modern phenomenon, since in pre-modern states legal authorities were almost always exempt from the rule of law, or, if subject to laws, authorities were subject to separate laws — an instance of the personal principle in law not tied to ethnicity or confessional community — as when English Peers of the Realm were tried in the House of Lords or churchmen were tried in ecclesiastical courts according to Canon Law. This, in turn, is another development of formal institutional power, and impunity is an informal exception to formal institutional power. Thus the historical trend is toward the constitution of formal institutions that acknowledge informal exceptions.

7. An informal institution is an implicit social contract. A formal institution is an explicit social contract.

There is always a degree of exchange between the conventions of implicit social contracts and explicit social contracts, so that formal institutions borrow from informal institutions and vice versa. in other words, the distinction between the two is not absolute. But the distinction is nevertheless valid as far as it goes. This must be taken in the spirit of what I have called an unnamed principle and an unnamed fallacy (which I subsequently christened The Truncation Principle), namely that for any distinction that is made, there will be cases in which the distinction is problematic, but there will also be cases when the distinction is not problematic.

8. The state of nature can be defined as the absence of any social contract, formal or informal, explicit or implicit.

The possibility of an absolute state of nature, lacking either implicit or explicit social contracts immediately suggests the possibility of a relative state of nature in which there may be an explicit social contract but no implicit social contract, or an implicit social contract without an implicit social contract. We can identify the former with corruption and the latter with proto-civilizations. And, again, as above, the distinction between absolute and relative states of nature is not absolute, but remains valid as far as it goes (and subject to the same principle and fallacy noted above).

9. Despite the absence of a social contact in a state of nature, the substance of what we understand by impunity is realized in this condition.

Because in a state of nature, individuals possess the Freudian freedom in which, “their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him,” there is no action whatsoever that is forbidden us in a state of nature. We possess absolute impunity to do as we will — and also to suffer as we will.

10. Impunity in a state of nature is something very different from impunity within a social structure.

Although in a state of nature we possess absolute impunity to do as we will, everyone else possesses exactly the same absolute impunity, and nothing in a state of nature puts me beyond the reach of any individual who seeks to behave with impunity toward me any more than such an one is beyond my reach to behave with impunity. In a state of nature, no one is accountable to anyone, and everyone is accountable to everyone.

11. In a state of nature, no one is untouchable, even while everyone is, by definition, beyond the reach of the law.

As there is, by definition, no law in a state of nature, everyone is beyond the reach of an institution that cannot reach out because it does not exist; in other words, everyone is untouchable. But there is also no law to protect the individual, and so no one is untouchable. The two are merely alternative formulations of the same state of affairs.

12. Formal and informal institutions, explicit and implicit social contracts, exist side-by-side, in parallel in a social system.

Institutions feed off each other. The existence of formal institutions require informal institutions that either allow us to circumvent the formal institution or guarantee fair play by obliging everyone to abide by the explicit social contract (something I previously discussed in Fairness and the Social Contract). There is a sense in which formal and informal institutions balance each other, and if the proper equilibrium between the two is not established, social order and social consensus is difficult to come by. However, in the context of mature political institutions, the attempt to find a balance between formal and informal institutions can lead to an escalation in which each seeks to make good the deficits of the others, and if this escalation is not brought to an end by revolution or some other expedient, the result is decadence, understood as an over-determination of both implicit and explicit social contracts.

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2 Responses to “Twelve Theses on Institutionalized Power”

  1. Sounds as if you have been reading Hobbes lately.

    Though his “State of Nature” is an abstraction (as is Locke’s and Rousseau’s for that matter), it seems the most “realistic” of the social contractarians.

    Perhaps, that is why he seems to fall so clearly into line with a purely classical realism as first intimated by Thucydides. All future “realists” like Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, and even “neo-realists” like Kenneth Waltz tread in this Hobbesian shadow.

    However, for all the flaws of “Leviathan” is there not some legitimacy to the fears it is designed to allay? After all, if as you say, “In a state of nature, no one is accountable to anyone, and everyone is accountable to everyone” how can anything but chaos ensue since, by definition, there is no “law.”

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Lawson,

      Certainly, yes, there are good reasons that the Hobbesian bargain is struck despite the flaws of any political Leviathan. The fears of a state of nature are real, chronic, and not infrequently realized in actual fact.

      And, yes, the state of nature is an abstraction, but I hope to show in future posts that it is approximated in ways that are important for the constitution of political societies.

      If you define chaos as the absence of law — or, more generally, of any nomological processes — then anarchy must by definition result in chaos. The question then becomes what this chaos looks like. There are some who see the chaos of anarchy as a benign Golden Age, and others who see it as a Hobbesian nightmare in which life is nasty, poor, brutish, and short. There is a quite well known anarchist in Oregon, John Zerzan, who would probably argue for the former. While I am not an anarchist, I find some value in Zerzan’s formulations that reference prehistoric nomadic society.

      I would also suggest that anarchism is an abstraction, and that a fully articulated political theory would acknowledge interesting approximations to anarchism. In an earlier post (I can’t remember which one) I suggested the possibility of an exclusionary anarchism (based on the Athenian idea of an ostracism vote) in which disruptive individuals could be banished, thereby preserving the peace without subjecting those who remain to laws.

      How would we keep the banished out? That would require border protection and policing, and therefore a minimal state apparatus. There’s the rub. Is it just this thought experiment that, “makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?”

      Best wishes,


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