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Antonio Cerella is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory and International Studies at Kingston University in London. His research lies at the crossroads of international political theory, continental philosophy, and political theology. He is the co-editor of The Sacred and the Political (Bloomsbury, 2016) and Heidegger & the Global Age (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017). His new book, Between Earth and Sky: Political Genealogies of Modernity, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2019.

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Power is everywhere. Everyone speaks of power.


We are told that the majority has the power to make decisions that are binding upon the whole. Professors have the power to decide the academic fate of their students; or, more simply, my wife has a strange power over me. In all of these examples, the word ‘power’ denotes an asymmetrical relationship between two or more actors. In effect, in the modern Western world ‘power’ has been traditionally described as a coercive force. As we shall see, however, this power of coercion should not be understood merely as a physical force, but above all as a relational dynamics of individuation. (Image 1. The Power of Architecture - Credits: Léopold Lambert).

To Thomas Sheehan: fortiter in re, suaviter in modo

According to Max Weber’s now classic definition, power is “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests.”[1] In this ‘bipolar’ relationship, there is a ‘+’ and a ‘–’; a positive pole, charged with energy, and a negative pole over which energy is exerted. But what is the source of this energy? From a sociological standpoint, Weber argued that power is amorphous or without a predetermined form. Its content and source are thus not directly visible in abstract relations. Outside of social and historical contexts, it is difficult to think, in concrete terms, of an absolute power such as the one theologians attribute to God: the power to create ex nihilo


















Image 1. Thousands of Palestinians walk through an Israeli checkpoint in in order to attend the first Friday prayers of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound  in Jerusalem on June 2, 2017 (photo credits: AFP Photo)



To investigate power, then, Weber suggests, it is crucial to focus on its real manifestations and sources, i.e. on what he calls ‘dominion’ (Herrschaft). Dominion is where power manifests itself in actual commands: if the police stop us at a checkpoint, we usually obey this command because we recognize law enforcement as a legitimate use of force. In this sense, police officers are an embodiment of state power (a power that we generally recognize as legitimate). It is important to note, though, that systems of domination–and the commands connected to them–do not simply rest on a legitimate or illegitimate use of force. The government does not need to use the stick, so to speak, whenever it levies taxes, just as parents, when they issue a command to their children (e.g. “don’t be late!”), do not need to recall their authority to compel them to obedience (e.g. “I’m your mum, I carried you for nine months!”).


This is because dominion is closely related to discipline, i.e., a series of practices that standardize behavior and make obedience–even mass obedience–automatic. In short, we are socialized to order by several practices, which we internalize in the form of respect for the ‘authority’ of the law, the elderly or our professors. These practices create what Foucault, more than a half-century after Weber’s death, would designate as ‘regimes of truth’ [2], wherein we believe that the authority of the state and its system of laws are not simply ‘just’ but also ‘true’, even if they are, essentially, contingent and conventional.






















Image 2. Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978) and Michel Foucault, Du gouvernement des vivants. Cours au Collège de France, 1979–1980 (Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2012).

This is why power, in a modern sense, is something other than authority and the infinite forms of domination and discipline it can elicit. Authority is not merely the power to compel obedience through force but, markedly, a form of dominion over truth and its practices. The various types and sources of legitimate domination studied by Weber–the legal-rational, the charismatic and religious–establish not only different commands (e.g., “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife” or, in a more secular fashion, “you should respect the law”), but also ‘real’ systems of truth (“I am the Lord thy God” or “equality before the law”). To understand the mechanisms of power it is therefore fruitful to investigate their exemplary forms, i.e., to analyse how these mechanisms were conceived in the ancient Roman Republic, from which we inherited all the fundamental notions concerning power and its actualization.


The Romans, however, had no single term to express what we understand by ‘power’. They used three terms that, though interrelated, indicated distinct sociopolitical functions: imperium, which referred to the sacral, transcendental and foundational source of power; auctoritas, which expressed social wisdom, i.e., a socially recognized vision of truth; and potestas, which designated force, or the concrete expression of a socially acknowledged power.

The triangular relationship between these dimensions gave life and dynamism to the political order of the ancient Roman Republic. So it was that, when the consulate became vacant for voluntary or involuntary causes (abdication or death of the consuls), the imperium returned to the patres, i.e. to that small group of senators who were the custodians of sacral wisdom (auctoritas), and who had the duty to preserve the political order during the interregnum. And that the renovatio auspiciorum (repetition of the auspices) was the cornerstone of the Roman political and legal system is due precisely to the fact that the patres were invested with the transcendent power (imperium) that bound them both symbolically and directly to the founding act of the city: Jupiter’s blessing [3]. Re-election was, therefore, an act of re-foundation that lent continuity to the political order: Jupiter’s power is eternal and transcendent, yet continually ‘reincarnated’ in its historical and sapiential forms. By means of this articulation, the problem of the foundation, actualization and, above all, continuity of power found its proper rhythm.


What one should take from this brief reconstruction is the compelling relation between different forms and sources of what we today simplistically call ‘power’. For the Romans there could be no force (potestas) without wisdom (auctoritas), and there could be no wisdom without truth and transcendence (imperium). This original conception of power has left indelible marks on Western thought and politics: what or who establishes political unity? How is it possible to guarantee the continuity of the political order once it is established? Who has the authority to decide upon and embody the ‘truth’, making it socially recognizable?

These questions became more urgent with the clash and fusion of the Roman Empire and Christianity. They re-emerged in full force with the discussion on the so-called ‘just war’: who should have the authority to make the ultimate decision to take a man’s life? Who decides when it is possible to use violence in a ‘just’, i.e., legitimate way? As Augustine writes in De civitate Dei, the divine commandment (‘Thou shalt not kill’) can be suspended by those who represent “in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government” and, in this capacity, put “to death wicked men.” War–Augustine maintains–is always a fratricidal fight (bellum semper in fratres geritur) caused by the will of dominion (ex libidine dominandi) [4]. To contain violence, we require a proper authority that embodies the exception of the divine will. The universal truth of God (fons iustitiae) must be embodied in concrete and public authorities that have the ‘power’ to decide upon life and death.


Just before the advent of modernity, the distinction between ‘power’ (understood as force and domination) and ‘authority’ (understood as power of and on truth) was still preserved in Europe. Following the discovery of America, to give a case, a dispute started between the Crowns of Castile and Aragon and John II, the King of Portugal. Both sovereigns claimed rights on the coveted new territories: who should have sovereignty over ‘India’? The dispute was settled by Inter Caetera, the papal bull of 1493 that culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas. In this bull, Pope Alexander VI exhorted the Spanish monarchs to spread the faith west from a line drawn “one hundred leagues towards the west and south from any of the islands commonly known as the Azores and Cape Verde”[5].  The Pope had the authority to decide territorial and political disputes by means of a ‘geography of truth’, i.e. by drawing an imaginary line endowed with political significance. Truth and authority thus converged in papal power.





Image 3. The Cantino planisphere, completed by an unknown Portuguese cartographer in 1502, is one of the most precious cartographic documents of all times. It depicts the line of demarcation established by the Treaty of Tordesillas. (Image Credits: Biblioteca Universitaria Estense, Modena, Italy).



This dialectic between temporal and spiritual power–potestas directa and potestas indirecta–collapsed under the Reformation and the wars of religion that swept through Europe in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The political response to this violent reaffirmation of ‘political theology’ was the neutralizing principle ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ (whose realm, his religion); namely, the attempt to reassemble religious fragmentation through the territorialisation of churches and religious orders. As is known, the main objective of the modern state at the beginning of its historic-conceptual formation was to produce an internal homogeneity and an external balance between political entities that were now considered as legally equal. But in order to achieve this goal, theological categories and the Pope’s auctoritas spiritualis had to be neutralized.


The most famous synthesis of this new conception of power appears in chapter 26 of the Leviathan (1651), where Thomas Hobbes writes that “authoritas non veritas facit legem”; i.e., the political order and the rule of law are established by the civil authority and not by theologians or the Church. The relationship between rulers and the ruled is thus subsumed under the protection-obedience principle. It is the sovereign state that now creates security and, for this very reason, subjects must obey its secular authority. As Jean Bodin had written almost a century earlier in his Six Books of the Republic (1576), sovereign power becomes a power both original and absolute, independent of any other powers (summa in cives ac subditos legibusque soluta potestas). Here, the notion of ‘sovereignty’ assumes the divine and tyrannical features of a ‘power over life and death’. And it is at this conceptual level, then, that powers is equated to coercion.









Image 4. Thomas Hobbes (1651) Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil [frontispiece engraving by Abraham Bosse]

Even so, the vertical relationship between sovereign and subjects is transformed by the democratization of political systems. In the liberal state, which is founded on the principle of popular sovereignty, it is the impersonality of law that is invested with the authority and power to establish a (formal) political equality among citizens. Problems arise, however, when the fictio juris of the sovereignty of the law is made redundant by international economic forces (e.g. multinational corporations) and new scientific practices (e.g., biology, psychiatry, statistics).


Once the principle of ‘authority’–one of the pillars on which politics rested for centuries–collapsed, ‘power’ (understood as coercion and legitimate use of force) also transformed into a new form of control and discipline. From this moment onward, political forces and parties are by no means the only ‘powers’ able to establish systems of domination. Rather, nascent economic, scientific and technological forces work together with their political counterparts to create different regimes of truth. When Foucault speaks of the power of discourses and governmentality, he in fact refers to the impersonal dominion of practices of control; that is, of discourses understood as normalizing forces capable of imposing norms of conduct and ‘frames of mind’. To cite his most famous example, the constitution of madness as mental illness in the eighteenth century was rendered possible by the new power acquired by psychiatry in its capacity as a ‘science of truth’ to impose a sovereign ‘scission’–an unbridgeable distance–between ‘reason’ and ‘madness’.[7]


Today, the con-fusion of truth, authority and power continues to create new forms of domination. It is enough to mention the ongoing debate on the so-called ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-fact’ society. “Why do lies”–the author of a not-so-recent publication wonders–“seem to linger so long in the cultural subconscious, even after they’ve been discredited?” Here the journalist maintains the classical distinction between truth and opinion, according to which truth is collectively shared and established through ‘scientific’ discourse (i.e., facts and evidence), while opinions are private beliefs, determined by our ideological positions. What is missing from this analysis, however, is the recognition that for many people today ‘science’ is no longer invested with the ‘authority’ of truth; or, better said, the sources of authority are multiplied by discourses, thus fragmenting the notion of truth. Different languages result in different truth regimes, and so language becomes a power that imposes a ‘linguistic vision’ in which one can recognize oneself (e.g., migrants are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”) [7]. Discourse has become truth’s shadow, on which Logos’s flame casts a feeble light.

This form of ‘power-without-authority’ also implies that the ‘normalization’ produced by discourses cannot simply be perceived as an external imposition. Rather, the structure of discourse (be it political, economic, or scientific) implies a twofold process of subjectivation and self-subjectivation (lots of carrots, so to speak, instead of just one stick). Once every universal principles (the ‘true being’, the ‘true art’, the ‘true God’, etc.) and imperative (‘act according to the universal law’) has been dispelled, it turns out that behind truth and its discourses is the power of the homo desiderans [8]. We have discovered that our conduct has always been inspired by concrete models, the embodiments of principles. Indeed, our actions are increasingly shaped by the interaction between our ‘will to power’ and the ‘models’ provided by power discourses. In this sense, it could be argued that today there is no absolute sovereign power but only an ubiquitous sovereignty of the will.











Image 5. (1773 edition) De Imitatione Christi Libri Quatuor, Ad Manuscriptorum ac Primarum Editionum Fidem Castigati, & Mendis Plus Sexcentis Espurgati [The Imitation of Christ, in Four Books, Faithfully Edited from the First Manuscripts]. (Image credits: Abooks)


It is in this light that we can understand how the production of ‘norms’ and ‘subjectivities’ is both imposed and ‘voluntary’: our will is shaped and depends on models, but these models are never exempt from political discourses; rather, they are themselves constituted and imposed by historic powers (be these multinational corporations, national governments or religious figures). For example: during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Thomas à Kempis’s De imitatione Christi was considered the ideal-typical model of Christian behavior in Europe. Today, the society of the spectacle presents us with as many models as can be produced and sold to us. In an age where there is no final authority capable of deciding on the righteousness of our actions from above, as it were, where can one look for alternative models that are not shaped by the neoliberal economy and its pre-determined forms of life? How can one instantiate a different otherness that can give shape to a new form of power?


It is particularly difficult to take on these questions in a world in which even the instruments of liberation are the vehicles of a peculiar neoliberal subjectivity. Foucault’s idea – recently reformulated by Agamben [9] –that one should find new ways to desubjectify one’s ‘self’ by means of different uses of the body seems highly problematic, since the body has become a playground for new hedonistic forces of subjectivation (it is not by chance that the ‘beauty industry’ is recession-proof and booming) [10].  If the body is not to be considered just an instrument for the cure of the ‘self’ but rather a vehicle for the re-elaboration of the sensible, we are quite far from achieving this purpose. In fact, in order to break the dynamics of subjectivation, it has always been necessary to find a point external to the subject, an otherness that can allow one to overcome the mechanisms of self-subjectivation.






Image 6. Cover illustration, Beauty Economy Report, Raconteur: The Times. (Photo credits: Raconteur)

At every critical point in the history of the West, new models have arisen from the dialectical relation between a power that violently wanted to impose its truth and a subjugated minority, which opposed it in an implausible act of resistance. It happened in the relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity or, during the conquest of the Americas, in the clash between Europeans and native peoples. Modern international law was born, in fact, from a gesture of self-limitation based on the critical reflection of the brutality that European sovereigns were inflicting on Native Americans (as Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote to Philip II, “I am persuaded that, if Your Highness had been informed of even a few of the excesses which this New World has witnessed, […] Your Highness would…prevent any of the atrocities which go under the name of ‘conquests’.”) [11].


Historically, then, it has always been the ‘weak Other’ who has put us into question and set us on to new ethical quests and political ideas. Today, within a neo-liberal system of power in which dozens of neo-totalitarian discourses are flourishing, it is no longer possible to offer a detached resistance or to build one ex nihilo, out of the void of historical consciousness that distinguishes our era. In our darkest times – Hannah Arendt once wrote – “we have a right to expect some illumination. This may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering and often weak light that some men and women” shed with their lives [12].





Image 7.  Abdallah Al Omari, The Vulnerability Series. (photo credit:


Today, in our preformed, formless world, the destiny of our forms of power and knowledge is in the hands of those whom Fanon called the ‘wretched of the earth’: forced migrants, asylum seekers, people who live, but also press against, the margins of society. These ‘unexpected witnesses’ possess a power that’s intrinsic to their weakness: they are the custodians of the critical conscience of our age.  In the eyes of refugees who await life on a border, in the hopes of migrants who, adrift, beg for asylum, in the dreams of those who are trapped in the artificial space of a camp, there lies the fate of our idea of power and humanity. Look closer, what do you see?



[1] Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Vol. I, ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), p. 53.

[2] Michel Foucault, Du gouvernement des vivants. Cours au Collège de France, 1979–1980 (Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2012).


[3] See André Magdelain, Jus imperium auctoritas. Études de droit romain (Rome: École française de Rome, 1990).

[4] cf. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Chapter 21.

[5] Magnum bullarium romanum. Tomus primus, 1742, p. 454

[6] Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books, [1964] 1988).

[7] As Donald Trump, referring to Mexicans migrants, stated in his electoral campaign:

[8] See Miguel de Beistegui, The Government of Desire: A Genealogy of the Liberal Subject (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018).

[9] Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016).

[10]See the report:

[11] Bartolomé de Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, trans. Nigel Griffin (Harmondsworth: Penguin, [1542] 1992), p. 6.

[12] Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (San Diego, New York and London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1968), p. ix.






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