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Towards a Libertarian Theory of Power - part 2

category brazil/guyana/suriname/fguiana | anarchist movement | opinion / analysis author Tuesday July 12, 2011 04:13author by Felipe Corrêa Report this post to the editors

Bertolo and Power as Social Function of Regulation

"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 1: Ibáñez and Libertarian Political Power]


Towards a Libertarian Theory of Power - Part 2

Bertolo and Power as Social Function of Regulation

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.

In this second article of the series, I will be using the article "Power, Authority, Domination" [*] by Amedeu Bertolo for discussion. The main contributions of the author will be presented schematically.


According to the author, "the custom, not only academically, is to start a discourse of semantic definitions from: 1) an etymological point of view and/ or 2) a historical point of view". However, for him, neither of the approaches have much relevance to the discussion he intends to have. According to his claims, the etymology of the three terms is of distant origin, in terms of time, allowing one, at most, to carry out an exercise in "linguistic archeology". Besides this, for him the three terms have a very similar original meaning. Power, for example, "derives from the Latin ‘polis’ (boss, owner)"; "Domination derives from ‘dominus’ (head of the household, head of the family); Authority, by contrast, comes from the Latin ‘auctor’, which in its origin means one that make believe, that adds something" [1].

With relation to the historical usage of the terms, Bertolo identifies that they are multipurpose and can, in many cases, be substituted for one another. And in this case, according to his belief, a historical analysis also could not solve the problem posed. For him, "in relation to the definitions of authority and power, they have everything for everyone", which motivates him to search for some definitions that will be now reproduced.

Definitions of power

"Power is a) capacity or natural faculty to act [...]; b) general or moral faculty, right to do something; c) authority, especially in the concrete sense, the body constituted to exercise it, government’ (Lalande,1971). ‘Power is the participation in decision making’ and ‘a decision is a line of conduct which carries severe sanctions’ (Lasswell and Kaplan, 1969). Power is the ‘right to be in charge’ (Ferrero, 1981). ‘We call power the capacity of a social class to realise its specific objective interests’ (Poulantzas, 1972). ‘Power is the ability to establish and execute decisions, even when others oppose them’ (Mills, 1970). Power ‘is a permanent body which we are accustomed to obey, which has material means to oblige us and that, thanks to the belief that one has in its strength, to the belief in its right to command, that is, in its legitimacy and in the hope of its kindness’ (Jouvenel, 1947). By power, one must understand ‘all the means by which one can persuade the will of other men’ (Mousnier, 1971). You can define power as the ‘capacity to realise desires’ (Russell,1967). ‘By power one must understand [...] the possibility for specific mandates (or for any mandate) to be obeyed by part of a given group of men’ (Weber, 1980). ‘Power is communication regulated by a code (Luhman, 1979)."

Definitions of authority

"Authority is ‘any power exercised over a man or group of people by another man or group’ (Abbagnano, 1964). ‘Authority is a relationship between unequals’ (Sennet,1981). ‘Authority is a way to define and interpret differences in strength’ (Sennet, ibid.), ‘Authority is a quest for stability and security from the force of others’ (Sennet, ibid.). Authority is an ‘accepted dependence’ (Horkheimer, no date). Authority is (psychological) superiority or personal ascendence [...] and (sociological) right to decide and/ or command’ (Lalande, 1971). ‘The essence of authority [...] is to give to a human being that security and that recognition in the decision that logically corresponds to an effective and supra-individual axiom or to a deduction’ (Simmel, 1978). ‘Authority is the expected and legitimate possession of power’ (Lasswell and Kaplan, 1969)."

Definitions of domination

Distinctly from the broad definitions of power and authority, the author notes that, in relation to domination, there is a little more conceptual agreement: "the word domination is almost only used in the sense of the power to imposed ad altri (by law or in fact) one’s own will, with instruments of coercion, physical or mental". The term domination, and its correlating adjectives and verbs, is less "multi-purpose than authority and power. Perhaps by reason of the emotively negative value disseminated that exists in its current use". Still, Bertolo highlights three cases in which domination is used in a "neutral" sense: Simmel (1978), "for whom domination is a universal category of social interaction, of which power is a particular form"; Dahrendorf (1970), "who proposes a definition of domination as ‘possession of authority, that is, as a right to promulgate authoritarian orders"; Lasswell and Kaplan (1969), who consider that "domination is an effective model of power (but the English term used is ‘rule’ and not ‘domination’, which could be translated differently)". [2]

As it can clearly be noted in the definitions above, the semantic range certainly poses difficulties to the debate. There is, as the author points out, a fundamental question that arises between what you might call a form-content issue, in which it is impossible to deepen the discussion by taking only the form (the name of concepts such as "power", "authority", "domination" etc.), without entering into the contents given historically by the authors in the discussions about the themes. It is, in this sense, about going beyond the terms – that is, the name given to a particular "box" – and entering into concepts – that is, investigating the contents of the box. An aspect that would already eliminate much of the polemics generated in discussions of the libertarian universe. [3]

Thus, as Bertolo puts it, it is "necessary to resume the attempt of definition from an identification of the concepts and the contents, even though, naturally, this way of proceeding implies some difficulties in lexicon that we will try to overcome". In reality, the problems identified in relation to the discussion about power do not exist only in anarchism: "it may be comforting for the anarchists to know that not even official science has brought much clarity to this set of ‘things’ (relations, behaviors, social structures...) that are classified as power (or as authority or as domination) in the last century". A problem which, if it affects human sciences in general, could not fail to affect anarchism.


Bertolo identifies the gap in theoretical anarchist discussions about the theme of power. It would mean, for him, not necessarily "to unfasten it, but at least to clearly define an extremely complex conceptual node – and not simply to find an agreement in relation to the words – a central node within anarchist thought".

Paradoxically, he says, "anarchism – which can be regarded as the most radical critique of domination explained so far, a theoretical and practical critique – has not produced a more articulated and subtle theory of power than the apologists of domination".

The author believes that "the brilliant intuitions about power that the ‘fathers’ of anarchism had were not followed by an adequate reflection on their importance". Intuitions which, following this, would even be fruitful today, but which, if they are not the subject of discussion and deepening of understanding, run the risk of "sclerosis in stereotyped formulas, in beliefs, in taboos, losing a large part of its usefulness as a fundamental working hypothesis for the interpretation and transformation of reality".

The need for deepening the debate on power, therefore, would be fundamental in the libertarian camp for the establishment of adequate methods of analysis and of strategies capable of carrying out social transformation. For this, the intuitions that Bertolo understood to be present in the classics would not be enough: "The intuitions have become sclerosis and the relative lack of terminological and conceptual precision, inevitable and perhaps necessary in the first developments of reflection, becomes an obstacle to the progress of thought and action, the source of unjustifiable ‘orthodoxies’ and, therefore, of unjustifiable ‘heresies’, of traditional immobility and of ‘innovative’ nonsense, of semantic discussions and of social powerlessness".

This writing by Bertolo intends, as he himself affirms, "modestly and ambitiously – to propose some definitions that, according to the author, could make the debate between anarchists not only more rewarding, but also make the confrontation between anarchists and non-anarchists less arduous". Otherwise, he believes, one runs the risk of continuing a "dialogue of the deaf". For this he proposes to define, in terms of form and content, power, authority and domination: "it is clear that the defining work is directed not so much at the terms, but the concepts behind the terms and at the contents behind the concepts".


Seeking a conceptual alignment, Bertolo suggests standard definitions for power, authority and domination.


"The production and application of norms and sanctions then define the function of social regulation, a function for which I propose the term power". The author believes that power, defined in these terms, is related to Proudhon’s concept of collective force and also with the definition of Lasswell and Kaplan posed earlier: "Power is participation in decision making" and "a decision is a line of conduct which carries severe sanctions". He believes that Clastres also works with a similar definition to distinguish "non-coercive power", which would resemble this definition of power, and "coercive power", which is close to the author’s definition of domination. For Clastres, "political power as coercion (or as relations of command-obedience) is not the model of true power, but simply a particular case". He also maintains that "the social is not thinkable without the political, in other words, there is no society without power".

In this sense, there are a few elements that should be highlighted. For Bertolo, power is defined around social regulation and may or may not be coercive (and therefore imply domination). In this sense, as any society has regulatory systems, there could not be, in this sense, society without power, endorsing Clastres’ affirmation.

Identifying that one uses in the literature on the topic the term power to describe different conceptual categories, the author proposes "to retain this term only to define [...] the social function of regulation, the processes by which a society is regulated, producing standards, applying them, making them to be respected". And in this sense, to define power from a macro level, that would function in terms of societal management and would be linked to the decision making processes.


For the category of authority, Bertolo defends the following usage: "I propose, finally, to call authority the asymmetries of competence that determine asymmetries of reciprocal determinations between individuals and the influence in the asymmetries by reason of personal characteristics". In this sense, authority would be fundamentally linked to the capacity to properly execute a certain activity and the multiple influences that, personally, are exercised in this sense. Distinguishing personal and functional relations, Bertolo puts it thus: "in the case of personal relations, we can define the asymmetry as influence; in the case of functional relations we can define the asymmetry as authority".


"Domination, then, defines the relations between unequals – unequals in terms of power, namely, freedom – the situations of ‘supra-ordination’ and subordination; it defines the systems of permanent asymmetry between social groups." Domination, in this sense, would imply the inequalities of power that would define permanent relations of command/obedience, also at the macro level, not between individuals, but between social groups (castes, classes etc.).

The relations of domination are based, therefore, on the relations of command/obedience, "in which the command has the content of regulating the behavior of that which obeys". This relation of command/obedience, according to Bertolo, does not come from the regulatory function. He argues that one does not obey (in a broad sense) a norm; for him one respects a norm. Obedience is connected to a command, "that is, to the way in which a norm is presented within a system of domination". Thus, domination would be fundamentally linked to the "expropriation of the regulatory function exercised by a minority", responsible for enforcing its rules "on the rest of society” – that is, it would be linked to imposition.

Therefore, if the "social function of regulation" of a society is "exercised only by a part of the society, if the power is then the monopoly of a privileged (dominant) sector, this gives rise to another category, to a set of hierarchical relations of command/obedience that I propose to call domination". Domination, defined in this way, would imply hierarchy and the monopoly of power.


Defined in these terms, Bertolo affirms that power and authority would be "neutral" concepts, that is, they are neither necessarily good nor bad. Authority would imply something evident in society; the differences in competencies between individuals and groups and the interaction and mutual influence that is exercised between the diverse agents in any social relationship. That is, it is a category that embraces social diversity and assumes it as inevitable. In relation to power, the author says: "we define power in this way as a ‘neutral’ and even necessary social function, not only for the existence of society, of culture and of man, but also for the exercise of that freedom seen as a choice between certain possibilities, which we take as a departure point for our discourse".

This relation between power and freedom allows us to better understand Bertolo’s propositions. For him, freedom is directly linked to the possibility of choice that each one has and, thus, "the level of participation in the process of regulation" is fundamental "for freedom as self-determination, because the individual is freer [...] the greater is their access to power". If power is defined around the regulatory functions of a society, it is natural that, the more these functions are shared, the higher would be the level of freedom of this society. "An equal access to power for all members of a society is, then, the first and inescapable condition of equal liberty for all". What the author calls "power for all", that is, a generalised democratisation of power, or at least a generalisation of the opportunities for the access to power, would be fundamental for societal processes of freedom, of equality and, why not, of democracy.

The differentiation between the concepts of power and domination is fundamental for Bertolo. Power, as we have seen, would imply social regulation. This power could be more or less shared in a given society and, when it is exercised by a minority from hierarchical relationships of command/obedience, this means that this power implies domination. The more collective is the power, the greater is the freedom of a society – and, therefore, it is possible to note a connection made by the author between freedom and equality.


Bertolo’s article also contains some philosophical reflections that may help in understanding the topic. Below are the main points of discussion, which will be briefly presented.

Bertolo wants to take into account the "cultural determinations" of man and not the "natural determinations" marked by instinct and by environment which, he believes, "do not play a similar role in this strange animal that is man". For him, "man does not know instinct in the strict sense (that is, accurate answers to genetically inherited behavior in response to given environmental stimuli), but, at most, traces or residues of instinct, which have little or no social significance". Therefore, he understands that “to man, the ‘environment’ is more cultural than natural”, since "the environment of human beings is constituted by relations with other humans and that the relations with the world ‘of objects’ passes through a symbolic mediation". Thus, a discussion about power must evade the pursuit of man’s natural instincts, which would be present in a given human nature.

As for him the human environment is much more cultural than natural, power, from the perspective of social regulation, does not stem from a natural instinct or specific human nature, but from a determined culture forged in social relations. "Man must produce norms, but he can produce the norms that he wants." The norms would then be a central operation of society and its content would not be determined a priori, but would be forged in the midst of a reality that is at the same time cultural and social.

This social reality is forged by a dialectic reality between individuals and society, a relationship in which the individual, though they can also determine the society, is more determined by it: "the single individual is always more determined by the society than they can determine it. Man produces society collectively, but is modeled by it individually".

Thus, one could say that a type of power that implies domination should not be analysed by the natural instincts or by the human nature of man, but by their relations, which imply social and cultural aspects. Bertolo identifies two fundamental types of justifications of domination: "a first type of approach is that which, proceeding from domination to power, justifies the first with bio-psychological motivations (that is, innate ‘natural’ psychological mechanisms): there are personalities naturally predisposed to domination and others naturally predisposed to submission". This approach relies on the "most attractive structural elements, coming to say that the ‘natural’ subdivision of man in to two categories (the masters by nature and the slaves by nature) produces a beneficial effect for both and, ultimately, it is an admirable contrivance of nature or of providence to make human society and the advantages derived from it possible". "The second type of approach is cultural", and those that defend it consider the natural explanations of power/domination unsustainable. From this approach, it is considered that power/domination "is not the effect of a pre-existing inequality but, on the contrary, is the cause of the first fundamental inequality amongst men".

Bertolo believes still to be able to classify the approaches to the genesis of power/domination differently: "those who explicitly or implicitly assume it, presenting man and/or society as the same, and those who posit its birth at a certain moment in history".

In his concept of domination, the author dismisses the natural, bio-psychological approaches, intending instead a cultural approach to domination. For him, studies such as those of Clastres, as for example Society Against the State, demonstrate that there is a history of cultures that did not have domination, but only power. Although it is only a hypothesis, Bertolo identifies the origin of domination as a cultural change in society that would have occurred at a particular moment, when man had already been living in society.


Departing from the definitions proposed by Bertolo, some conclusions are possible. Dividing the asymmetries in the social relations between authority (functional) and influence (personal), it can be affirmed that the author works with four key categories: 1. Power: Social regulatory function, a set of processes with which a society regulates itself by producing norms, applying them, making them to be respected.

2. Domination: Social regulatory function that is exercised only by a part of society, the power being the monopoly of a privileged (dominant) sector and implying hierarchical relations and those of command/obedience.

3. Authority: Asymmetries of competence that determine asymmetries of reciprocal determinations between individuals.

4. Influence: Asymmetries that exist by reason of personal characteristics.

When the author assumes power and authority (also including influence) as "neutral" categories, he is conducting a trial from the anarchist ethic/morality. Neutral because, in these terms, anarchism historically considered to be within its camp of ethically and morally justifiable relations, relations of influence, of authority and also of power – understanding them, clearly, from the categories defined by Bertolo.

Historically, anarchism placed itself in opposition to domination: for anarchists, social regulation should be collectivised, and the proposals of self-management, of federalism and of direct democracy have always sought this sense of sharing power and of exercising it for the benefit of the collectivity.

Capitalist and statist society has always been understood as a society not only of power, but of domination, since the power would not be collectivised and would be exercised only by a minority – which has been called by various terms (the ruling class, the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie etc.) – which would exercise hierarchy and relations of command/obedience over the majority – (which has been called the proletariat, the oppressed class, the working class etc.).

In this sense, the anarchist strategy was aimed at transforming the relations of domination into relations of power, which should have no hierarchy or relations of command/obedience in its womb. The power sought by anarchism must be collectivised, socialised; it being the participation in power – or at least the opportunity for participation, open to the whole population – which should decide its rules and guarantee their application on the basis of mechanisms democratic in fact (direct democracy), guaranteed by self-management and by federalism.

* Amedeu Bertolo. "Poder, Autoridad, Dominio: una propuesta de definición". Article originally published in 1983 in the Italian magazine Volontà. Quotations translated in to Portuguese from the Spanish version (and subsequently into English from Portuguese - English translator’s note), translated by Heloísa Castellanos, available on the internet [] and contained in the compilation organised by Christian Ferrer, El Lenguaje Libertario, published by Libros de Anarres/ Anarres Books of Buenos Aires in 2005.


1. I have resorted, for this translation, to the Italian original "Potere, autorità, dominio: una proposta di definizione". In Italian, Bertolo says: "Potere’ deriva dal latino potis (padrone, possessore), così come ‘dominio’ deriva da dominus (padrone di casa, capofamiglia); ‘autorità’ invece viene dal latino auctor che significava originariamente colui che fa crescere, che accresce." An excerpt somewhat different to the Spanish translation: "Poder deriva del latín ‘polis’ (= patrin, amo) así como Dominación deriva de ‘dominus’ (dueño de casa, jefe de familia); Autoridad, en cambio, proviene del latín ‘auctor’, que en su origen significa el que hace crecer, el que acrecienta." The Italian version can be read at

2. Bibliography (in order of citation): A. Lalande, Dizionario critico di filosofia, ISEDI, Milán, 1971. / H. D. Lasswell y A. Kaplan, Potere e società, Etas, Milán, 1969. / G. Ferrero, Potere, Sugarco, Milán, 1981. / N. Poulantzas, in Franco Ferrarotti, La sociologia del potere, Laterza, Bari, 1972. / W. Mills, Politica e potere, Bompiani, Milán, 1970. / B. De Jouvenel, Il Potere, Rizzoli, Milán, 1947. / R. Mousnier, Le gerarchie sociali dal 1450 ai nostri giorni, Vita e pensiero, 1971. / B. Russell, Il potere, Feltrinelli, Milán, 1967. / M. Weber, Economía y sociedad, F.C.E., México, 1980. / N. Luhman, Potere e complessità sociale, Il Saggiatore, Milán, 1979. / N. Abbagnano, Dizionario di filosofia, UTET, Turín, 1964. / R. Sennet, La autorità, Bompiani, Milán, 1981. / M. Horkheimer, citado por T. Eschemburg, Dell’autorità, Il Mulino, Bolonia, 1970. / G. Simmel, Il dominio, Bulzoni, Roma, 1978. / R. Dahrendorf, Classi e conflitto de classe nella società industriale, Laterza, Bari, 1970.

3. You can say that Proudhon was against authority and can easily obtain excerpts from his writings with this affirmation. Similarly, one can affirm that Bakunin was against power and can also find support for this in his theoretical texts. However, both claims become empty if you do not say what Proudhon meant by authority and what Bakunin meant by power. Briefly applying a content analysis in relation to the claims put forward, we can say that Proudhon, on affirming himself against authority, opposed authority as alienation and appropriation of the collective force by a monopoly; Bakunin, on opposing power, positioned himself against the State. Without deepening the discussion in these terms, the debate about power becomes completely empty.

Translation: Jonathan Payn (ZACF)
Revision: Felipe Corrêa

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