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Towards a Libertarian Theory of Power - part 1

category international | anarchist movement | opinion / analysis author Friday June 03, 2011 19:37author by Felipe Corrêa Report this post to the editors

Ibáñez and Libertarian Political Power

“Towards a Libertarian Theory of Power” is a series of elaborated reviews about books or articles by authors from the libertarian camp who discuss power. Its objective is to present a contemporary literature of authors who treat the theme in question and contribute elements for the elaboration of a libertarian theory of power, that could contribute to the elaboration of a method of analysis of reality and of strategies of libertarian basis, to be utilised by individuals and organisations. Originally published in Portuguese on the site Estratégia e Análise.

[Português] [Part 2: Bertolo and Power as Social Function of Regulation]


Towards a Libertarian Theory of Power - part 1

Ibáñez and Libertarian Political Power

by Felipe Corrêa

“Towards a Libertarian Theory of Power” is a series of elaborated reviews about books or articles by authors from the libertarian camp who discuss power. Its objective is to present a contemporary literature of authors who treat the theme in question and contribute elements for the elaboration of a libertarian theory of power, that could contribute to the elaboration of a method of analysis of reality and of strategies of libertarian basis, to be utilised by individuals and organisations. Originally published in Portuguese on the site Estratégia e Análise.

In this first article of the series I will use for discussion the article “For a Libertarian Political Power” (“Por um Poder Político Libertário”), by Tomás Ibáñez [*]. In it - a short article, which does not exceed more than a few pages - the author places himself critically in relation to the libertarian approach that had been made the theme. The article by Ibáñez was originally written as a contribution for the seminar “Power and its Negation” (“O Poder e sua Negação”), promoted by the CIRA and the CSL Pinelli, in July of 1983. Until that time, for the author, anarchism was “tied to the rigidity of concepts and proposals created, for the most part, during the 18th and 19th centuries”. And, for him, to discuss the question of power in depth would be a relevant renovation in the theoretical camp of anarchism.


Already at that time Ibáñez identified that “the polysemy [a word that has more than one meaning] of the term ‘power’ and the breadth of their semantic spectrum constitute the conditions for a dialog of the deaf”. For him, in the discussion about power, the discourses overlap and do not articulate with one another. And this happens because “they deal with profoundly different objects, in the confusion induced by the recourse to another common term: power”.

And so the identified need for “our defining the term ‘power’, before we initiate the discussion”. Regardless of such efforts, the author did not believe it to be possible to arrive at an objective and ‘aseptic’ definition of the word “power”, since “it deals with a political term loaded with meaning, always analysed from a precise political location, and of which it is not possible to have a ‘neutral’ definition”.


The first element to start a definition of power is that, within a libertarian perspective, it cannot be considered only in a negative manner: “in terms of negation/denial, exclusion, refusal, opposition, contradiction”. For Ibáñez, power can be defined starting from three interpretations: 1.) as capacity, 2.) as asymmetry in power relations, and 3.) as structures and mechanisms of regulation and control. Let’s see, according to the author himself, how one defines power in each of these meanings.

1. Power as capacity

“In one of its senses, probably the most general and diachronically first, the term ‘power’ acts as an equivalent of the expression ‘capacity to’, i.e.: as a synonym for all the effects of which a given agent, animated or not, can be the direct or indirect cause. It is interesting that, from the beginning, power is defined in relational terms, to the extent that, in order for an element to be able to produce or inhibit an effect, it is necessary to establish an interaction.”

Thought of in this sense, power could be conceived as ‘having power to’ or ‘having power for’, a capacity for realisation or a potential force that could be applied in a social relation. This places social relations as the premise of this definition of power. That is, interaction between social agents.

2. Power as asymmetry in power relations

“In a second sense the term ‘power’ refers to a certain type of relation between social agents, and one is now accustomed to characterising it as an asymmetric or unequal capacity that the agents possess to cause effects on the other pole of a given relationship.”

While still anchored in power as capacity, this other meaning allows us to think of the asymmetries of the different social forces that are encountered in a particular social relationship. These forces, always asymmetric and unequal, when in interaction/relation, forge the effects over one or more poles, as each one of them possesses a distinct force and, therefore, a distinct capacity. Again, it affirms power as a relationship between social agents, each one of which has a distinct capacity to cause effects on others.

3. Power as structures and mechanisms of regulation and control

“In a third meaning, the term ‘power’ refers to the macro-social structures and the macro-social mechanisms of regulation or of social control. In this sense it speaks of ‘instruments’ or ‘devices’ of power, of ‘centers’ or of ‘structures’ of power, etc.”

Conceived of in this way power would constitute the “system” of a given society, with regards to its structures and mechanisms of regulation and of control. It would be the set of rules of a given society, which involves both the taking of decisions for its establishment and to define its control, as well as the actual application of this control. A structuring of society that makes deliberative and executive instances necessary.


Departing from these three interpretations, it can be affirmed that “to speak of a society ‘without power’ constitutes an aberration, whether we position ourselves from the point of view of power/capacity (meaning that one would have a society that ‘couldn’t do’ anything?), whether we position ourselves at the level of asymmetric relations (which would mean social interactions without asymmetric effects?), or by positioning ourselves from the point of view of power as mechanisms and structures of macro-social regulation (which would be a system whose elements were not ‘forced’ by the set of relations that define exactly that system itself?)”.

There is no society without social agents with capacity, and there is no society where all social relations are symmetric - that is, a society in which all social agents have the same capacity to cause effects on others, in all social relations - or without structures and mechanisms of social control and regulation. This allows us to agree with Ibáñez in relation to the absurd which means, taking into account the definitions presented by the author, speaking of society without power, of struggling against power, of ending or destroying power.

Ibáñez believes that “power relations are inherently linked to the social fact itself, they are inherent in it, impregnate it, contain it, at the very instant in which they emanate from it”. When dealing with any aspect of the so-called social context, it can be affirmed that in it exist interactions between diverse elements that constitute a given system. For the author, besides this, “there are inevitably certain effects of the power of the system on its elements, exactly as there are also effects of the power between the elements of the system”. That is, power permeates both the relations between elements as well as the relations between the system and elements.

To conceive of a society without power means, for the author, to believe in the possibility of the existence of a “society without social relations, without social rules and without processes of social decisions”. That is, it would be to conceive the “unthinkable”.


Such arguments allow for the affirmation that “there exists a libertarian conception of power, and it is false that this has to constitute a negation/denial of power”. To deny this fact would necessarily imply a difficulty both in terms of analysis of the reality, and in terms of conception of a strategy. “While this is not fully assumed by libertarian thought”, Ibáñez emphasises, “it will not be capable of initiating the analyses and actions that enable it to have force in the social reality”.

And what he argues makes sense if we look at the history of anarchism or even that which was called the “libertarian camp”. Going beyond the semantic assertions - which very often gave/give to the word ‘power’ a State meaning - it seems clear that “libertarian thought” never denied the capacity of social agents, the asymmetries in power relations or the structures and mechanisms of regulation and control.

An example that is significantly common in the libertarian tradition. Considering the asymmetric relations of classes in capitalist society and, basing it on the idea of the capacity of the working class, libertarians seek to promote a social revolution in which the force of the dominant class is overridden and which establishes a system of regulation and control founded on self-management and on federalism. Even with this generic example, it can be said that if the dominant class is removed from its condition of domination and gives way to a libertarian structure, even in the future society, this power relation between the dominant class separated from domination and the working class constitutes an asymmetric relation.

In this sense it is possible to assume that in fact, historically, there is a libertarian conception of power that - even though it has not been discussed in sufficient depth and has been complicated by a series of factors - possesses elements of relevance to this debate which is now being realised.


When libertarians realise a discourse against power, says Ibáñez, they use the “term ‘power’ to refer in fact to a ‘certain type of power relation’, that is, very concretely, to the type of power that is encountered in the ‘relations of domination’, in the ‘structures of domination’, in the ‘devices of domination’, or in the ‘instruments of domination’ etc. (be these relations of a coercive, manipulative or other nature).” So, for him, domination is a type of power relation, but you cannot define domination as power, as they constitute distinct categories. For the author, you can not encompass in the relations of domination “the relations that link the freedom of the individual to that of groups”. That is, you can not incorporate libertarian relations in to the category of domination. But this seems somewhat obvious. What is not obvious, in fact, is that when you equate power with domination, you assume that power is contrary to freedom. An affirmation with which the author disagrees. “Freedom and power are not really situated according to a relation of simple opposition.” And: “Power and freedom thus find themselves in an inextricably complex relation of antagonism/possibility”. Thus conceived, power could be contradictory to freedom, but could also potentialise its realisation. It would be, in fact, the type of power that would determine this relation with freedom.

Thus, Ibáñez believes that “libertarians are situated, in reality, against the social systems based on relations of domination (in the strict sense).’ Down with power!’ is a formula that should disappear from the libertarian lexicon and be replaced by ‘Down with relations of domination’. But on this point it is necessary to try to define the conditions that make such a society possible”.


It can be said, based on this structural argument, that “libertarians are not against power, but against a certain kind of power”, and in their strategies seek to be “builders of a variety of power, which it is convenient (and accurate) for us now to call ‘libertarian power’, or, more precisely: ‘libertarian political power’”. This would mean to assume that libertarians defend a (libertarian) working model of instruments, devices and relations of power.

* Tomás Ibáñez. “For a Libertarian Political Power: epistemological and strategic considerations around a concept”. Article originally published in 1983 in the Italian magazine Volontà. For the quotes I use a translation into Portuguese by Miguel Serras Pereira, done for a Portuguese publication from the 1980s. The article is also on the compilation called Actualidad del Anarquismo, published by Aarres Books, Buenos Aires in 2007. [Translator to English’s note: quotes were subsequently translated from Portuguese to English and not from the Italian, and there might therefore be slight discrepancies].

Translation: Jonathan Payn (ZACF)

Commentary from the editors of the site Estratégia e Análise

Felipe Corrêa is an intellectual worker who embodies the concept of the term. He works as an editor, is a militant, studies like a professional and dedicates his life to spreading and implementing ideas that will lead the majorities to amplify and guarantee their rights in the fullness of their accomplishments. This site receives Felipe’s texts with enormous satisfaction - in fact, immeasurable satisfaction - because we understand the relevance of these words, meeting our vocation of scientific diffusion, of the sciences of the humanities produced in order to liberate ourselves from the dark evils of the world of domination that usurps the will and castrates the potential for achievement. Thus we returned to one of our permanent goals, the popularisation of high-level political debate arising from the matrix of libertarian thought.

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