Toward a Technical Definition of Power

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Toward a Technical Definition of Power

Postby stanr » Mon Nov 30, 2015 2:12 am

I originally encountered Capital as Power (CasP) by googling for "money as power" and then "capital as power". I was (and still am) working on theorizing a technical definition of power usable across the social sciences. My background is cognitive psychology, but I read widely in the social sciences.

I will try to link some of my work to the CasP framework and also provide some signposts to other bodies of work. In so doing I'm hoping to help nail down the material for the essay contest, but above all, provide some material of value for the other CasP researchers.

I hope that my criticisms will be seen as growing pains for a promising body of theory. CasP focused on explaining capital, not explaining power. Explaining power is incredibly difficult. Bridging folk notions of power with technical notions usable in analysis is even harder. Many have tried, many have failed. And so I will take my turn. But first, I begin with a critique of CasP minus the Cas.

CAPITAL AS (CONFIDENCE IN AN ESTIMATE OF) POWER

NB's ground-breaking Capital as Power has a lot to say about capitalization and business, but not much to say about power itself. What power means and how it relates to their cosmology seems to be left as mostly self-evident. On closer inspection, it's neither self-evident nor consistent. The good news is, the problems with their definitions of power hardly impact their insights about the economics of capital.

Their intuitions about power are generally correct: relative differences matter. Differential accumulation can only be understood in the frame of social power. Property is a rival good, and a structure of ownership for a pool of property is a zero-sum game, no matter how it is sliced. Similarly, most theories of power, and our own intuitions about social power, hold it as a zero-sum game.

NB's definition of power is found in the introduction and postscript of their book: power is confidence in control. This seems to be a start at an operational definition, but it's not clearly measurable, nor is it clearly connected with capital. To be fair, within their exploration of capital, it may well be that defining power as a technical notion isn't particularly important: capital is already measurable.

However, power makes many appearances as the force driving processes, behaviors, and structures. A solid theory cannot contain a force this operationally vague, so we must dissect it.

"[Power] represents the certainty of the rulers in the submissiveness of the ruled." (CasP 17) Let us allow that certainty can be a probability, and that certainty, measured, can be essentially the same as confidence. "In modern capitalism, this certainty is manifested in the ability of capitalists to control and systematize the upward movement of prices." (CasP 398)

Let's try to work with these definitions. First, confidence in control and certainty in the submissiveness of the ruled are essentially the same. We can just consider the definition "confidence in control of the ruled." Further, this confidence is "manifested in the ability of capitalists to control and systematize the upward movement of prices." Let's drop the vague "manifested." We are left with NB's definition of power being the confidence of the rulers in controlling prices and maintaining the submissiveness of the ruled.

We already have a problem. Confidence can be, and often is, misplaced. If power is confidence, then it can be the over- or underestimation of an outcome. However, folk notions of power make distinctions between estimations or feelings of power (ex ante estimation) and power itself (ex post outcome).

Power as confidence in control could only be a guesstimate of actual power. This only makes sense: rulers are estimating their power and making choices informed by those guesstimates. It couldn't be any other way. But this is ex ante, not ex post. This is confidence in power, not actual power.

There's another problem. Confidence in something is a sort of certainty (whether probabilistic or otherwise) in a predicted outcome. Ex ante is not an outcome, but a prediction of an outcome; confidence is certainty applied to that prediction of an outcome.

Now we can see plainly the confusion among the three meanings of power: measuring an outcome of a social relationship (ex post); measuring the predicted outcome of a social relationship (ex ante); and measuring the confidence of someone's prediction of the outcome of a social relationship (confidence in ex ante).

<footnote>
Ex post, prior points of confidence in control ultimately has some element of "power hype." This could be either in the extent to which someone was over- or under-confident of some predicted outcome, or the difference between the predicted outcome and the actual outcome, which would be closer to their notion of "hype" for capitalization. It's not clear whether it's better to think of hype being at the level of predicting an outcome or at the level of confidence about a predicted outcome.
</footnote>


QUALITATIVE VS QUANTITATIVE: NOT REALLY THE SAME COIN

Before considering the impact of the three different meanings of power used by NB, we should briefly visit a related cluster of concepts: their distinction between qualitative and quantitative power.

NB distinguish between two related processes: differential accumulation and capitalization. Differential accumulation is qualitative. It occurs in the restructuring of society using capitalist power. However, the capitalist measure of capitalist power is capitalization, which is both quantitative and speculative. Once again we've encountered both ex post (differential accumulation) and ex ante (capitalization).

These aren't really two sides of the same coin at all. Differential accumulation is the ability to control. Capitalization is the speculative quantization of that control.

A third side also appears: a close reading of NB indicates that capitalization includes a measure of confidence in that speculative quantization, called the discount rate. "The greater their uncertainty, the higher the discount rate."(p198)

Our brief visit to NB's qualitative and quantitative aspects of power has run into the same problem as before: different definitions of power are being used.

To clarify:
Control - capitalist power or differential accumulation or actual earnings
Estimated control - expected future earnings
Confidence in estimated control - discount rate

These are:
ex post power, or actual power;
ex ante power, or estimated power;
confidence in ex ante power.

Unfortunately, these differences in how the word "power" is used are a systemic problem within Capital as Power, and are too frequent and extensive to cover in this paper. Fortunately, by identifying and distinguishing among different technical notions of power in the CasP framework, we can both increase its rigor and begin to bridge it with other frameworks in the social sciences.

But, enough about capital for now. Back to power. Is there any type of power that's measurable? How do we measure power-related outcomes; how can we begin to measure power ex post?
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Re: Toward a Technical Definition of Power

Postby DT Cochrane » Wed Dec 02, 2015 3:33 pm

I don't disagree with the need to further conceptualize power. However, I'm concerned that you are attempting to reimpose a dual quantity theory of value.

What CasP theorizes - as I interpret it - is that capital valuation is an expression of quantified power as calculated by market participants. In my dissertation, I have referred to these people as 'assayers.' Assaying is an activity of the mining industry that gathers and tests soil samples looking for indicators of desired minerals. Crossing from the industry into the business of mining, assayers will further assess the concentration of minerals present to determine if a mining operation would be profitable or not. Compared to the relatively narrow range of geological materials that a minerals assayer might encounter, the assayers of the market scrape information from an incredible array of possible informants: Chilean copper prices; Russian teen buying habits; iPod sales last month; British consumer confidence estimates; health initiatives planned by the government of New South Wales.... All of this will be quantified via 'metrological chains' culminating in capital valuation.

What you appear to be suggesting is that there exists some other quanta of power that is being captured in the valuation of capital. In other words, you are reintroducing the nominal-real bifurcation. Capital values are absolutely a guesstimation of power. It is not an 'anything goes' estimation. It is richly informed. However, there is no absolute informant. Neither would the gathering together of every piece of information allow for the perfection of the quantification. The best that assayers can do is recalculate and recalculate and recalculate.
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Re: Toward a Technical Definition of Power

Postby wayburn » Thu Dec 03, 2015 9:02 am

I can just barely understand what sociologists are talking about; however, when it comes to theories of value, it seems that we engineers and physical scientists are better positioned to come up with answers that make sense. I have just begun to read CaP and I must admit I find it difficult to get my mind around the idea of capital as anything quite so abstract as power. Now, in a society that tolerates resource dominance and resource dominance hierarchies, it seems pretty clear that the power one person wields over another depends upon inequality in the distribution of resources. Moreover, if capital is power, we still need a word to quantify resources so that one can determine positions in a resources dominance hierarchy. I have proposed a four-dimensional vector-valued currency to replace money in keeping with our new computational technologies. The components are eMergy, land, water, and time. These are taken to be independent until such time as canonical relations for converting one to the other are established and accepted; for example, land might be evaluated in terms of the eMergy of the sunlight which strikes it, which would explain why land may be rented but never owned. More important is the ability of these four quantities to characterize whatever is taken to have economic value. Power, then, has a secondary derived value.

See http://www.dematerialism.net/emergyunit.htm for the definition of eMergy.
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Re: Toward a Technical Definition of Power

Postby stanr » Sat Dec 05, 2015 5:31 am

Troy, to be fair, you really ought to address my critique before you try to speculate on my goal. If you try to predict where I'm going, it's likely to result in a strawman (and it did). That's no fun. Slice the cliffhanger questions off the end of it, and consider my critique as a standalone piece. Does my targeted critique of power, as defined in CasP (the book), stand?

To be clear about my target, I am focused on social power, not the valuation of capital. I suspect my view of "valuation" will also seem weird, but perhaps include some useful considerations. Here, I was just showing that their switching between definitions of power was inconsistent and untenable for analysis. I'm also not sure, how in your view, NB aren't clustering three quanta of power within their view of people valuating capital: i.e. the three I identified. But honestly, I think that's a distraction from what I'm trying to do with this. Perhaps we need a discussion on valuation outside this thread.

My plan (first stab at #1 already posted):
1. Prep the CasP framework to show why power needs to be considered on its own terms, even in CasP.
2. Show that current social science theory can't do what we need with defining power.
3. Use a toy model to explain how, in theory, to measure power by outcomes in many different scenarios.
4. Show why we should care: we can use this to bridge CasP with other frameworks of analysis.


wayburn, I think you've got a solution looking for a problem. I don't have a problem that your new currency is a solution for, and posting it repeatedly in threads is starting to get spammy/advertisy. Consider this some admonishment from an unofficial source. If you find parts of the CasP book questionable or confusing, create a thread identifying those sections. If someone, like me, can clarify on CasP, or agrees with your critique of CasP, I'm sure that would be valuable feedback for researchers, forum readers, and the authors themselves.
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Re: Toward a Technical Definition of Power

Postby DT Cochrane » Mon Dec 07, 2015 10:55 am

I didn't offer a critique, so it can hardly be considered a strawman. You also haven't yet offered a theory, so again, there is nothing for me to misrepresent, let alone attack.

Instead, you offered some establishing points, which I think are interesting, and the intended terms of your impending theorization. So, in response to that, I offered what I specifically described as a 'concern.' You consider the concern misplaced. Great. I hope so.

However, if we're going to dig in a bit more, I'll point to where my speculative concern came from.

"[Nitzan and Bichler define power as] confidence in control. This seems to be a start at an operational definition, but it's not clearly measurable, nor is it clearly connected with capital. To be fair, within their exploration of capital, it may well be that defining power as a technical notion isn't particularly important: capital is already measurable.

However, power makes many appearances as the force driving processes, behaviors, and structures. A solid theory cannot contain a force this operationally vague, so we must dissect it."

You acknowledge what the theory is actually doing: capital is the measurement of power. But, you previously criticize their definition as a "start" lacking in the the capacity to be "measurable." Is it not reasonable to assume you think that power - beyond its quantification into capital - is, or ought to be, measurable? In effect, you seem to be softly hinting at locating a quantification apart from capitalization. Hence, my concern that you are reintroducing a dual quantity theory of value.

My concern was only compounded when later you made reference to "actual power," which you declare to be an ex-post outcome that constitutes 'differential accumulation.' However, this definition of accumulation as the outcome of past processes is distinctly at odds with Nitzan and Bichler's definition which is forward-looking. You want to make their definition pertain solely to capitalization. However, capitalization is the mechanism of accumulation. They are both forward-looking. Differential accumulation occurs not as a material or expressive outcome of the past, but via a complex translation anticipating the future. You are right to suggest that solving the issue of how the past informs that translation needs much more investigation. However, trying to again bifurcate from finance some "actual power" is strikes me as fundamentally contrary to Nitzan and Bichler's conception, which definitely conceives of capital as "finance and only finance."

Again, I appreciate the focused attention you've given to this issue. I think conceptualizing power is important for the theory. However, I have concerns based on what you've offered here. I hope you are correct and my concerns are misplaced.
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Re: Toward a Technical Definition of Power

Postby wayburn » Mon Dec 07, 2015 8:15 pm

Stan R wrote:

wayburn, I think you've got a solution looking for a problem. I don't have a problem that your new currency is a solution for, and posting it repeatedly in threads is starting to get spammy/advertisy. Consider this some admonishment from an unofficial source. If you find parts of the CasP book questionable or confusing, create a thread identifying those sections. If someone, like me, can clarify on CasP, or agrees with your critique of CasP, I'm sure that would be valuable feedback for researchers, forum readers, and the authors themselves.

I have been wondering only if anyone has read a word of what I wrote. Now, that you have responded, I am convinced that at least one person noticed my remarks but didn't see them at all as a solution to THE problem. I do not expect to be understood in this forum; therefore, we are alike in that each of us speaks a different language from the other. I am like an explorer who chances upon a hitherto unknown land with a strange language and culture. I shall continue reading CasP.
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