Fictional Expectations and the Ontology of Power


While we have little difficulty in our everyday interactions to identify who has power and who does not, there is deep disagreement about the ontology of power. What kind of thing, as it were, is power and how does it fit into out our understanding of the social world? In this paper, I approach this question by exploring the pragmatic character of power ascriptions. I argue that power ascriptions involve fictional expectations directed at an open future. When we take an agent to be powerful, we act as if that agent had a robust capacity to make a difference to the actions of others. This pretense can never fully live up to a social reality whose future is open. Nonetheless, acting on such expectations helps constitute social order. Fictional expectations are built into the material practices that constitute power and in that sense, power itself has a fictional character.

I develop this idea by comparing power ascriptions with attitudes towards monetary value. Money can only function if we can expect that it will retain its value in the future. This projection of monetary stability requires that we abstract from possible futures in which money fails to retain its value. Such idealized expectations have a constitutive effect, i.e. they help constitute the social relations that ground monetary value. The point of characterizing these expectations as fictional is not to assess their truth or justification, but to emphasize their pragmatic effect, which consist in articulating new social possibilities. By providing an articulation of abstract purchasing power, money makes it possible to engage in multilateral exchanges and to create relations of credit and debt over long periods of time and between anonymous agents.

Like ascriptions of monetary value, power ascriptions involve an expectation of stability under conditions of uncertainty. To ascribe power to someone is to assume that they will continue to be able to affect the actions of others in a wide range of situations. But the future towards which this expectation is directed is uncertain. Empowerment is not a literal transfer of personal strength, it depends on the ongoing willingness of aligned agents to comply with and sometimes actively implement and enforce the powerholder’s commands. While social reality can never fully live up to the idea of power as a stable and robust capacity, acting on this idea helps constitute social order.

I suggest that this account helps to reconcile the disagreement between consensual and conflictual accounts of power. Conflictual theories characterize power as a robust and stable feature, while consensual theories emphasize the dynamic, social character of power. Rather than interpreting them as literal descriptions of social reality, we should attend to the performative role that both kinds of characterizations play in creating and maintaining power.


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