What is power? Peet’s Geography of Power

Published online 25 June 2009.

This is a book review of an ambitious text, Richard Peet’s 2007 book Geography of Power, which gets at the issue of social power by defining it as a physical thing and by locating it in time and space.  As will be shown in this book review, this is really a thing worth doing, and so the critique of this book will be aimed at sharpening Peet’s discussion of “power” while helping him resist just being another David Harvey.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

(introductory note to new readers of this blog: these book reviews are pertinent to your political desires — odds are that the ENORMOUS DISPARITIES IN WEALTH AND POWER discussed in books like this are a contributing reason for why you’re making so little headway.  So please lend this modest piece a bit of your time, and give it a try.)


One of the primary concerns laid upon Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, one of the most important historical studies of power ever written, was that the word “power” defines a number of different things.  When we say that the United States has a lot of “power” as a nation, or that politicians are “powerful,” or that corporations have a lot of “economic power,” what do we mean?  In Geographies of Power, a two-year-old book by a professor at Clark University in Worcester MA, Richard Peet tries to sort these issues out by writing a “geography of power.”   Here the power of “global governance institutions” is explained:

Power has increasingly been accumulated at the global level by governance institutions — the G7/G8, the European Union, the Bretton Woods Institutions and the United Nations.  These institutions control the economies and livelihoods of people the world over through policy devices like structural adjustment, the ‘conditionalities’ accompanying loans or debt relief, annual inspections by teams of experts, and other similar strategies.  This book looks at types of power accumulation — economic, ideological, political — and the forms taken by power in global space.  And the book examines popular resistance to concentrated power by alternatives constructed by social movements and organic intellectuals.  (1)

So that’s “power” for Peet — it’s exerted by institutions over people, and if the people are going to fight back against the institutions, they do so through social movements and through “organic intellectuals.”  (No, “organic intellectuals” are not intellectuals who eat organic food.)  That term “organic intellectuals” should tip readers off to one main facet of this book: it’s a neo-Gramscian analysis, looking carefully at what ordinary people (“organic intellectuals”) think as part of the overall equation of political power.  The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci famously said that “All men (sic) are intellectuals, but not all men perform the roles of intellectuals in society.”  That’s the point of “organic intellectuals” — the are the ones left out of the snobbery-rights offered by the college hierarchies.

So what’s power?  Peet starts with an explanation of the intangibles of power, probably the hardest things to discuss.  He begins with a discussion of “hegemony,” which he defines as the way in which socialization supports domination.  “By ‘hegemony’ Gramsci meant the cultural production of systems of values, attitudes, beliefs, and morality so that people supported the existing social order and the prescribed way of life,” Peet says.  In my reading, Peet underestimates the difficulty of translating this aspect of power into practical experience.  Everyone behaves as if there were such a thing as “government” — we obey its cops, respect its property definitions and money, and so on, and our way of life is structured such that “government,” which would otherwise be an unrelated collection of buildings and people in cute uniforms, actually exists.  This explanation only comes alive, in my opinion, if we can imagine government not existing.  What would that take, for government to disappear from everyone’s lives tomorrow?  We’d have to behave differently, for starters, and our lives would have to be arranged in a different way than they currently are arranged.

Even more difficult-to-explain is the notion of the “social imaginary,” popularized by Cornelius Castoriadis, which receives some attention in Peet’s discussion of “discursive formations.”  What’s the “social imaginary”?  It’s the aspect of our social institutions that cannot merely be described by pointing to a concrete object, but which have to be imagined.

Take law, for instance — the law is courts, cops, judges, lawyers, prisons, lawbooks, statutes, and so on, but it also is a symbolic connection that we have to imagine as real in order for these material things to be what we see them as being, and for the people I’ve named to behave as they do with respect to “law.”  That symbolic connection has to be constantly reimagined for it to be real — after all, law is nothing without its interpretation — and yet the collective imagination which makes “law” real, the social imaginary of law, does not change very much with the passage of time.  The US Constitution might have added a few new amendments, over the decades; murder and arson and theft remain more or less what they were two hundred years ago, and so on.

Peet’s book glosses quickly over this material, which might perhaps be important to readers who are new to this subject matter.   Ultimately, Peet’s priority is to discuss what he calls “policy regimes.”  Policy regimes are institutional realities which decide how the economic world is going to go.  This is because Peet’s real pet peeve is the policy regime called neoliberalism.  In summary, this book would have benefited by a further re-use of the concepts of the first chapter; instead, they look too much like aspects of a “lit review” that one would expect to read in a dissertation.

Peet wishes to discuss the way in which “economies are directed by policies, policies reflect rationalities, and rationalities are developed through the quest for power.”  (5)  Power, for Peet, is a question of the way in which we are ruled.  We can be ruled in a ham-fisted manner, as the Iranian people are today, or we can be ruled subtly, as is the case in much of the “First World,” for the sake of propping up a global elite of 794 billionaires while marginalizing a bottom half of humanity which lives on less than $2.50/day.  But in either case we are ruled, and Peet wishes to explore how this is so.

Peet’s second chapter attempts to explain economic power, which is accomplished through general consent to the rules of money and property, according to which the wealthiest of us are allowed to belong to an “investor class” whereas the rest of us must work earn our daily bread by the sweat of our brows.  The rich, in short, PARLAY their wealth into power.  Peet takes all of that for granted in this chapter; he wishes to explain how this age, the one we live in today, is a specifically neoliberal age.  And he wishes to tell us how:

Thirty years of neoliberal freedom for the market, Harvey says, turn out to be little more than the spread of corporate monopoly power, while disproportionate influence over the media enables the message to be propagated that everyone is better off under neoliberal freedom.  (29)

So how does corporate monopoly power spread?  Peet concentrates upon the “combination of expertise, concentrated in specialized institutions, with real physical control over substantial capital investment” (35).  From this formulation, Peet goes directly to the big hitters in the financial world, naming the powers-that-be of the Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations.  Peet discusses the tie-ins between the World Bank and the IMF, the World Economic Forum, transnational capital, investment banking (with a spotlight on Morgan Stanley), in a world in which “countries restructure their policy regimes to become more attractive to foreign direct investment” but “the benefits often do not amount to much.” (49)

The chapter on “ideological power” in Geography of Power discusses the history of neoliberal economics as an ideology, suggesting in the end that economics is “a liberal ideology devoted to the bourgeoisie,” a fiction reinforcing their self-congratulation. (82)  The chapter on political power discusses in detail how government is controlled by lobbyists seeking access to power and think-tanks who determine the intellectual parameters of debate.

In summarizing the combination of these forces, we are told that policy power in this era boils down to a “Washington consensus,” in which elite academia, international banking institutions, and the US government set policy throughout the world, especially in the debtor nations of the IMF and World Bank.  This story has been told numerous times elsewhere, interestingly in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.  It is refreshed here by Peet’s willingness to name names (Timothy Geithner is mentioned here in detail).  Peet finishes this portion of the book with a critique of Jeffrey Sachs’ book “The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities For Our Time,” in which (Peet argues) Sachs attempts to put a benevolent smiley-face on what are destructive policies for the rest of the world.  Peet focuses his critique of Sachs on what he views as Sachs’ fatuous claim that the main thing wrong with the Third World is that it is not “developed” enough.  Such a position, he argues, avoids an important debate over how poverty is created, materially, in countries undergoing capitalist restructuring.

From there Peet goes into an “applied” geography of power to show how poverty is actually created, here with reference to the post-apartheid history of South Africa.  Here Peet reveals how the white business community worked with the international banking elites to co-opt the ANC and bring South Africa under the neoliberal umbrella, and how neoliberal policies there are not even succeeding by neoliberal standards.  Moreover, the persisting inequality of South African life is characterized by violence, violent crime, murder, and dire poverty.  The solution to South Africa’s poverty that would work involves property redistribution, which is not happening (144).

Being a neo-Gramscian, however, Peet is not content to complain about neoliberal hegemony, but further willing to specify alternatives.  His first example is that of the World Social Forum, and he goes from there to a discussion of what the UN (with Jeffrey Sachs’ finger in the pie) is doing about global poverty.  The author points out that none of that activity really addresses root causes of poverty and is mainly effective in sanitizing dominant models of development:

Why a lack of funds for what is probably the most important activity in the world today — devising alternatives to the Washington Consensus?  It is because the funding for research comes from people who have money.  When the rich give to the poor, they fund charities — such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — that try, ever in vain, to clean up the consequences of poverty, rather than transform its causes.  For good reason, since an over-accumulation of global wealth in the hands of people like them is the cause of poverty — you cannot expect the rich to fund their own demise! (154-155)

Sometimes it seems as if the division of political discourse into “issues” is designed to keep the people talking about every “issue” in the book other than that which would solve problems most swiftly — taking from the rich and giving to the poor.

Peet proceeds from the evisceration of official charity to a discussion of political alternatives from South America — land redistribution in Brazil with the MST, the landless worker’s movement, Chavez‘ regime in Venezuela and Evo Morales and MAS in Bolivia.  What do these regimes do?  The MST occupies land “owned” by rich landowners who aren’t using it and puts it to use in communes of self-reliant poor people.  Chavez’ regime creates “misiones” to grant self-help resources to Venezuela’s poor.  Morales’ regime attempts land reform in a country where private appropriation of public resources has been rampant.

All of these counter-hegemonic alternatives involve granting people rights to live off of the land.  They grant the masses whom they serve alternatives to the dependency traps in which the wealthiest have placed the world’s masses.

The last portion of this book concerns the “three neos” — neo-imperialism, neoconservatism, and neoliberalism, but I would have been more satisfied with a conclusion which went back to the categories of ideology, discourse, governmentality, etc. and summarized the prospects for changing the “social imaginary” in each case.  Geography of Power is a very good book, offering to explicate a daring theoretical concept with polemic verve, but its author needs to resist the temptation to write the standard sociological critique of neoliberalism in the style of David Harvey and concentrate more on the points at which he is offering us fresher angles than Harvey’s.



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