Power Doctrines I: What Are Power Doctrines?

TL;DR: Power doctrines are beliefs that utilize power analysis. Power analysis reduces society into two groups based upon an unequal distribution of “power”. The choice of what defines power is often arbitrary. From there, the whole social system is demonized, with most of the negative actions of the unempowered group being excused, and most behavior of the more powerful group being vilified. Power analysis adds nothing to a doctrine in terms of offering solutions. Instead it serves as a rhetorical strategy to add to a position’s credibility. Indeed, the method itself is usually intellectually bankrupt, and precisely why this is so shall be outlined elsewhere.

Much of what has gone wrong in modern political thought springs from what I call “power doctrines”. The method of modern analysis of “power” is fairly difficult to firmly pin down, exactly because this method is so political, and in many ways intellectually bankrupt. It is also difficult to describe exactly because the entire basis for the method is firmly entrenched in a complicated philosophical background. The method has become a default in many circles,even though in many cases it is unclear that they understand what they are doing.For this beginning article I shall outline what a power doctrine is. In future installments I shall express the historical origins and intellectual deficiencies. A power doctrine is any belief that utilizes power analysis, which we shall now discuss.

The essence of power analysis is the following, one can perform the following method:

Step 1: Identify an inequality between two groups of people

Step 2: Identify what one considers a superior position, and which group holds that position. The system is immediately negative for upholding superior and inferior positions within a social setting.

Step 3:

-Label the group which has the superior position as being “privileged” and oppressive, holding all significant “power”.

-Label the group with the inferior position as being “oppressed”

Step 4:

-Condemn the actions of the privileged group because they are oppressors

-Laud the actions of the oppressed group, and excuse most negative behavior its members display, instead blaming the “system”, which is beyond their control.

One can see this being done in many different places within society, but the most obvious and widespread instances deal with sex, race, and religion. I shall use sex to demonstrate the process of power doctrines precisely because it is the easiest example, and it most immediately demonstrates what a power doctrine does.

Let us consider the stereotypical vision of 1950’s America. Women are assumed to want to be housewives and mothers, generally being unemployed except for a select number of professions. Men are considered leaders who must work in order to provide for their families. Women are considered frail, while men are considered strong and positively coarse, necessarily being able to deal with any situation that they find in the world. I am perfectly aware that the situation was more complicated than this, but nevertheless I believe it encapsulates the essence of the modern understanding of mid-century sex relations, and serves as a basis for demonstration.

Now from an objective perspective it is not immediately clear who is “oppressive” in this scenario. Indeed, one could spin the power in either direction. We are used to the traditional interpretation, where, because women are generally restricted to lesser positions and often financially dependent upon men, they are being oppressed. If we so wished, however, we could turn this entire paradigm upon its head quite easily. In this scenario men are expected to be financial providers to their wives, forced to work longer hours to support someone who does not work, and who only works to clean and cook some of the time, and dote on the children that she primarily raises. The man in this situation must swallow what he feels, weighed down with responsibilities, while the woman is allowed to naturally experience her feelings, and allow her husband to lead the way.* (Note: when there are stars like this I am including a footnote matched with a star at the bottom of the page)

I have structured the argument in this way to show one thing: the choice of privilege is, in this scenario, fundamentally arbitrary. Is the man exploiting because he promotes a system in which women generally don’t work, or is the man being exploited because he’s expected to work for another who provides no monetary compensation? One could draw a power doctrine here either way, and indeed, I argue that this flexibility is important in utilizing power doctrines as political tools. While in some cases, such as racial income gaps, it is hard to advocate that one group doesn’t have the worse deal, others have an amazing degree of flexibility.

Another essential thing to understand about power doctrines is that they are separable from almost any set of policies or any social situation. Power analysis is a way of framing our analysis of social situations that adds little to what is being discussed. By this I mean that power doctrines fundamentally do not ask “what is the problem?”, they instead simply say “this is a problem, and it is oppressive”. Looking back on our idealization of 1950’s America, all we did was to display that there was a social “problem”, due to this inequality. We then labeled the entire system as being inherently negative, and classified one group as oppressors and the other as oppressed. Thus this method is not, by itself, a means of identifying policy solutions, only policy problems. It does, however, by its nature, tend to suggest policy solutions. If I describe someone as “a horrible human being” then this does not mean that I don’t get along very well with them, but it heavily implies that I do not. Similarly, if you label an institution as being negative, and a group of people as being oppressed, then this immediately suggests that the way the system works should be changed and we should employ direct policies to try and end the inequality, rather than more nuanced policies that might work within the system.

If one simply believed that women would be happier if they participated more in the familial decision making process and the job market,one could easily support policies that would promote this, without blaming men as being actively “oppressive” and implying that their motivations are nefarious and malicious. This would not require a direct attack upon “the social system” as a whole, but only parts of the system that prevent it from producing those results. This demonstrates that power analysis normally provides very little to the actual discussion; it does not provide clear solutions under most circumstances. Instead, power analysis is an unneeded component meant to add rhetorical force and an intellectual guise to positions.

I do not believe that the employment of this method is necessarily conscious. Many modern academics do actively look to examine “power”, far beyond a simple analysis of how force is used within society. Even so I doubt that any but perhaps a very small minority would ever actively implement the process utilized above. Instead, this kind of thinking is primarily a tacit and pervasive way of looking at the world. A primary concern in this blog will be showing some of the areas in which power doctrines are improperly applied, and why the method is normally flawed.


*The full irony of the radical left being classically feminist is displayed when we consider that in many ways the position of women in this situation is both far more “humanistic” and “loving”, both life situations the far left lauds. Furthermore, in this scenario a woman is far more like the classical leftist strawman of a capitalist who does little to actually create the physical product by which they benefit, instead primarily just being passive while they receive the fruits of the labors of others.


5 thoughts on “Power Doctrines I: What Are Power Doctrines?

    1. Hi Daniel!

      I would argue that one side was chosen specifically because it suited the political ends of those who were utilizing these doctrines. If you paid me enough money, I could probably write you a compelling essay on why EITHER the central powers or the allied forces were actually the bad guys in World War I. I would say that radical second wave feminists, who were in tune with this kind of thinking, were interested in painting women as being exploited by the system, although I’m sure some might contradict me.

      If you have any additional questions or comments, feel free to share.


  1. Banhus

    I agree that we shouldn’t immediately reject or vilify any group that is found to have power over another. You are also right that being part of an oppressed group is too often used as an excuse for bad behavior (especially by those on the left). But I think we should also be careful not to fall into thinking that there are no power relations or that all such relations are arbitrarily constructed.

    To use an example, I think that adult-child relationships clearly demonstrate the traditional power relationship–with the adults having the privileged position. And yet to a large extent, I believe this power to be justified. Kids simply don’t always know what is in their best interest and need some control for their own good.

    The male-female relationship in 1950’s America also seems like an obvious power relationship to me. Again that doesn’t in itself mean that it is wrong. I have actually read some eloquent arguments from alt-righters who agree with feminists that men do have the privileged position in society but think the oppression of women is justified because the female reproductive strategy would be harmful to the nation if left uncontrolled.

    I’m curious to know if you have the same opinion about gender relations in strict Islamic societies as you do about 1950’s America. Do you not see an asymmetric power relationship there?

    I don’t think that who benefits more determines the power relation. We can imagine a village run by thugs who use violence to extort money from the residents. Clearly the thugs are the oppressors and the residents the oppressed. And yet it is also possible to imagine someone choosing to be a resident rather than a thug. The life of violence brings with it the constant risk of injury and death. Having to pay an extortion fee every once in a while might not be so bad by comparison.


    1. Hi Banhus, thanks for the comment!

      So I think that something key here that I would bring up that we may not agree upon is precisely what “power” means. A central part of my argument is that power in the sense being talked about here is EXTREMELY vague to the point of being useless. It makes more sense in a parent-child relationship, but far less so when we move to the “stereotypical” 50’s relationship. In the case of parent and child the parent has a great degree of power to directly punish the child, determine where they go and what they do, and the child has extremely limited legal rights to go and do anything else. In this sense “power”, meaning “influence over another” or “control over life”, is fairly easy to argue for. In the 50’s case it’s not quite so clear. The wife has the ability to get a job or divorce if she so wishes, and further in direct control over the household the husband is expected to take care of her while she still has a great degree of what happens in the house when she so chooses. Men may become violent, but this was against the law and largely seen as a great abuse of power by a man socially. Thus the direct control men wielded in this sense over women was much less direct.

      Further the social expectation that was tantamount to duty for men to support their families financially was very heavy. Nothing was a greater cause of shame for a man than not being able to be a provider for his family. Thus who holds power and what power means is far more unclear in this instance. You can make particular arguments, but I would say these are nuanced and start to become far removed from your stereotypical power doctrine.

      It’s hard for me to draw a comparison to strict Islamic societies for the sole reason that the values of most of these societies bleeds over into their legal code. Increase the ability for a man to physically abuse a woman, decrease a woman’s ability to get a divorce, and make it nearly impossible for a woman to get an alternative job, and my example above starts to sound way more “oppressive” in a more traditional sense of the term.

      I think that in a very deep sense I might ultimately be getting at arguing against inequality as an obvious source of negativity and arguing instead that we should be looking towards inequity as what qualifies as positive or negative (see my article on this if you’re unsure what I mean). We can argue that the 1950’s gender roles had negative consequences X, Y, and Z, and indeed it should be said that I am NOT arguing that we should go back to that time, but nevertheless just showing the inequality is not a necessary or sufficient condition is a problem. Both men and women might benefit from the relationship even if it is unequal. So let’s weigh the pros and cons of inequality and decide that way. Inequality is not enough.

      Thanks again for your intriguing comment!


  2. Pingback: Power Doctrines II: The Problem With Power Doctrines – Individualist Thought

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