Power Has a Rationality that Rationality Does Not Know

“A person who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction” – Machiavelli

Francis Bacon’s famous tenet that “knowledge is power” encapsulates one of the most fundamental ideas of modernity and of the Enlightenment tradition: the more rational knowledge, the better. Empirical study of the relationship between knowledge and power demonstrates the relevance of Bacon’s statement. Yet such study also shows that power and knowledge cannot be separated from each other in the way Bacon does. And even if one were to speak in Bacon’s terms, studies show that the relationship between Long Readknowledge and power is commutative: not only is knowledge power, as Bacon says, but more important, power is knowledge. Power determines what gets to count as knowledge and what kind of interpretation attains authority as the dominant interpretation. Power procures the knowledge, which supports its purposes, while it ignores or suppresses that knowledge which does not serve it.

Francis Bacon famously said that “knowledge is power.” This is true. But more important, “power is knowledge”

The relations between knowledge and power are decisive if one seeks to understand human phenomena, including in government, business, and civil society. There is a long intellectual and empirical tradition from Thucydides over Machiavelli and Nietzsche to Foucault for providing such an understanding. The principal question asked in studies in this tradition is, “What basic relations of rationality and power are at work in human affairs and how do they shape how humans think and act and the outcomes they achieve in specific endeavors?”*

This question will be elucidated in what follows by summarizing ten propositions about rationality and power. The propositions are based on empirical and theoretical study of rationality and power, and especially the relationship between the two. The propositions are intended as tentative guidelines for understanding rationality and power. The ten propositions may also serve as a phenomenology for testing, refining, and further developing the classical statements about power, knowledge, and rationality found in Bacon, Machiavelli, Kant, Nietzsche, and more recently in Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, and others.

The order of presentation of the ten propositions begins with a focus on the rationality of power and gradually move toward describing the power of rationality.

Understanding Power and Rationality

Proposition 1: Power defines reality

Power concerns itself with defining reality rather than with discovering what reality “really” is. This is the single most important characteristic of the rationality of power, that is, of the strategies and tactics employed by power in relation to rationality. Defining reality by defining rationality is a principal means by which power exerts itself. This is not to imply that power seeks out rationality and knowledge because rationality and knowledge are power. Rather, power defines what counts as rationality and knowledge and thereby what counts as reality.

Empirical study confirms a basic Nietzschean insight: interpretation is not only commentary, as is often the view in academic settings, “interpretation is itself a means of becoming master of something” and “all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation,” in the words of Nietzsche. Power does not limit itself, however, to simply defining a given interpretation or view of reality, nor does power entail only the power to render a given reality authoritative. Rather, power defines, and creates, concrete physical, economic, ecological, and social realities.

Proposition 2: Rationality is context-dependent, the context of rationality is power, and power blurs the dividing line between rationality and rationalization

Theoreticians in philosophy and science often present rationality as independent of context; for example, in universal philosophical, ethical, or scientific imperatives. Recent examples are Jürgen Habermas’s “theory of communicative rationality” and “discourse ethics”. If the imperatives are followed, the result will be rational and generally acceptable actions, or so the theoreticians claim. However, empirical studies have shown rationality to be a discourse of power. Rationality is context-dependent, the context often being power. Rationality is penetrated by power, and it becomes meaningless, or misleading, to operate with a concept of rationality in which power is absent.

This holds true for substantive as well as communicative rationality. Communication is more typically characterized by nonrational rhetoric and maintenance of interests than by freedom from domination and consensus seeking. In rhetoric, the “validity” and effect of communication is established via the mode of communication – for example, eloquence, hidden control, rationalization, charisma, using dependency relations between participants – rather than through rational arguments concerning the matter at hand. Seen from this perspective, Habermas cuts himself off from understanding real communication when, in developing his theory of communicative rationality and discourse ethics, he distinguishes between “successful” and “distorted” utterances in human conversation; success in rhetoric is often associated precisely with distortion.

The assertion of Harold Garfinkel and other ethnomethodologists that the rationality of a given activity is produced “in action” by participants in that actiUnderstanding Power and Rationalityvity holds true. In addition, study shows that when powerful participants require rationalization and not rationality, such rationalization is produced. Rationalization is a pervasive feature in human affairs, and especially among the powerful.

Proposition 3: Rationalization presented as rationality is a principal strategy in the exercise of power

To better understand power, Ludwig von Rochau, following Machiavelli, distinguished between formal politics and Realpolitik. To develop a superior understanding of rationality, one must similarly distinguish between formal rationality and Realrationalität, or real rationality. Real rationality is the freedom to interpret and use “rationality” and “rationalization” for the purposes of power. This is a crucial element in enabling power to define reality (see Proposition 1) and, hence, an essential feature of the rationality of power.

The relationship between rationality and rationalization is often what Erving Goffman calls a “front-back” relationship. “Up front” rationality dominates, frequently as rationalization presented as rationality. The front is open to public scrutiny, but it is not the whole story and, typically, not even its most important part. Backstage, hidden from public view, it is power and rationalization which dominate. A rationalized front does not necessarily imply dishonesty. It is not unusual to find individuals, organizations, and whole societies actually believing their own rationalizations. Nietzsche, in fact, claims this self-delusion to be part of the will to power. For Nietzsche, rationalization is necessary to survival.

Power concerns itself with defining reality rather than with discovering what reality “really” is

Even though rationalization is a principal strategy in the rationality of power, the freedom to rationalize is neither universal, inevitable, nor unlimited. All exercise of power cannot be reduced to rationalization; different degrees of rationalization exist; and rationalizations can be challenged – both rationally and by means of other rationalizations.

While it is possible to challenge rationalizations, this does not happen often. The relatively “untouchable” position of rationalizations may be due to the fact that rationalizations are often difficult to identify and penetrate: they are presented as rationality, and, as demonstrated elsewhere, often only a thorough deconstruction of an ostensibly rational argument can reveal whether it is a rationalization.

In other cases, actors may be prevented from revealing a rationalization because so much power lies behind it that critique and clarification is suppressed. A final explanation for actors’ unwillingness to reveal rationalizations is that doing so may be dangerous: attempts at deconstruction and critique may lead to confrontations, to the destabilization of power relations, or to negative sanctions on those actors who reveal rationality as rationalization.

Proposition 4: The greater the power, the less the rationality

Kant said, “The possession of power unavoidably spoils the free use of reason.” We may expand on Kant by observing that the possession of more power appears to spoil reason even more.

One of the privileges of power, and an integral part of its rationality, is the freedom to define reality. The greater the power, the greater the freedom in this respect, and the less need for power to understand, how reality is “really” constructed. The absence of rational arguments and factual documentation in support of certain actions may be more important indicators of power than arguments and documentation produced.

Power knows Nietzsche’s “doctrine of Hamlet,” that is, the fact that often “knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion.” A party’s unwillingness to present rational argument or documentation may quite simply indicate the party’s power and thus its freedom to act and its freedom to define reality.

In a democratic society, rational argument is one of the few forms of power the powerless still possess. This may explain the enormous appeal historically of the Enlightenment project to those outside power. Machiavelli, however, places little trust in rational persuasion. “We must distinguish,” he says in The Prince, “between . . . those who to achieve their purpose can force the issue and those who must use persuasion. In the second case, they always come to grief.” “Always” may be somewhat exaggerated, and much has changed in terms of Enlightenment and modernity since Machiavelli. Nevertheless, Machiavelli’s analysis applies too often for comfort.

Understanding Power and Rationality

Nietzsche puts an interesting twist on the proposition “the greater the power, the less the rationality” by directly linking power and stupidity: “Coming to power is a costly business,” Nietzsche says, “power makes stupid” (emphasis in original). Nietzsche adds that “politics devours all seriousness for really intellectual things.” In a critique of Charles Darwin, Nietzsche further points out that for human beings the outcome of the struggle for survival will be the opposite of that “desired” by Darwinism because “Darwin forgot the mind,” and because “[h]e who possesses strength divests himself of mind.” Nietzsche identified the marginalization of mind and intellect by power as a central problem for the German Reich, and on this basis he predicted – correctly, we now know – the fall of the Reich. Will to power is a will to life, but it may well lead to self-destruction, for individuals as well as societies.

“Coming to power is a costly business, power makes stupid” Nietzche

In sum, what we find when studying rationality and power is not only, and not primarily, a general “will to knowledge” but also “a far more powerful will: the will to ignorance, to the uncertain, to the untrue! Not as [will to knowledge’s] opposite but – as its refinement!” Power, quite simply, often finds ignorance, deception, self-deception, rationalizations, and lies more useful for its purposes than truth and rationality. Yet Nietzsche is wrong when he says:

“Who alone has good reason to lie his way out of reality? He who suffers from it. But to suffer from reality is to be a piece of reality that has come to grief.”

What makes Nietzsche wrong here is the “alone” in the first sentence of the quote. This is too categorical. In empirical studies of rationality and power, we find other groups that have good reasons to lie and rationalize, groups that do not suffer from reality. These are groups that stand to gain from propagating certain interpretations, rationalizations, and lies about reality and that use politics to create the reality they want. When it comes to politics, even Plato – the ultimate defender of rationality – recommended the “noble lie,” that is, the lie which would be told to the citizens of his model state in order to support its moral and political order.

Proposition 5: Stable power relations are more typical than antagonistic confrontations

Foucault characterizes power relations as dynamic and reciprocal: stable power relations can at any time evolve into antagonistic confrontations, and vice versa. However, Foucault overlooks that the reciprocal relationship between stable power relations and antagonistic confrontations is asymmetrical: stable power relations are far more typical than antagonistic confrontations, much as peace is more typical than war in modern societies. Antagonistic confrontations are actively avoided. When such confrontations take place, they are quickly transformed back into stable power relations. The result is that the issues that shape human affairs – whether in government, business, or civil society – are defined more by stable power relations than by antagonistic confrontations.

Understanding Power and Rationality

Because confrontations often are more visible than stable power relations, confrontations tend to be frequent topics of research on power and of public debate and press coverage. Concentration on the most visible aspects of power, however, results in an incomplete and biased picture of power relations.

Proposition 6: Power relations are constantly being produced and reproduced

Even the most stable power relations, those with historical roots going back several centuries, are not immutable in form or content. Power relations are constantly changing. They demand constant maintenance, cultivation, and reproduction. Different parties to a power relation typically have different awareness of the long, historical roots of power, and have different skills and perseverance in cultivating those roots and reproducing them to their advantage in contemporary power relations. Parties who effectively understand the long roots of power and how best to cultivate and reproduce them in current power relations typically benefit more from those relations than parties who are less effective in this regard.

Proposition 7: The rationality of power has deeper historical roots than the power of rationality

From the historical perspective of what Fernand Braudel and the French Annales school call the longue durée, ideas like democracy, rationality, and neutrality, all central to modern institutions, are young and fragile when compared to traditions of class and privilege. Centuries of daily practice have made the latter so firmly entrenched in social institutions that they have become part of modern institutions. Contemporary government, business, and civil society are marked as much by premodern relations of power as by modern rationality, by tribalism as much as by democracy. This is despite the fact that the very raison d’_etre of modernity has been to eliminate, or attenuate, the influence of tradition, tribe, class, and privilege, and even though modernization has been going on for several centuries. One consequence of this state of affairs is what by modern standards is called the “abuse of power” in modern institutions.

We need to remember that to call governments “democratic” is always a misleading piece of propaganda 

Modern institutions and modern ideas such as rationality and democracy remain in large part ideals or hope. Such ideals cannot be implemented once and for all. We need to remember that to call governments “democratic” is always a misleading piece of propaganda. We may want the democratic element in government to grow greater, but it is still only an element. Efforts at implementing democracy are a constant, never-ending task existing in a field of conflict between traditions and modernist initiatives, which in turn gives rise to new traditions. In this sense, modernity and democracy must be seen as part of power, not the end points of power. Modernity and democracy do not “liberate man in his own being,” nor do they free individuals from being governed, as Foucault says. Modernity and democracy undermine tradition and religion and compel man “to face the task of producing himself,” and of practicing forms of governance that will not obstruct, but will instead advance, “the undefined” – and never-ending – “work of freedom.”

Proposition 8: In open confrontation, rationality yields to power

Foucault says that knowledge-power and rationality-power relations exist everywhere. This is confirmed by empirical study, but modified by the finding that where power relations take the form of open, antagonistic confrontations, power-to-power relations dominate over knowledge-power and rationality-power relations; that is, knowledge and rationality carry little or no weight in these instances. As the proverb has it, “Truth is the first casualty of war.”

In an open confrontation, actions are dictated by what works most effectively to defeat the adversary in the specific situation. In such confrontations, use of naked power tends to be more effective than any appeal to objectivity, facts, knowledge, or rationality, even though feigned versions of the latter, that is, rationalizations, may be used to legitimize naked power.

The proposition that rationality yields to power in open confrontations may be seen as an extreme case of proposition no. 4, “the greater the power, the less the rationality”: Rationality yields completely, or almost completely, to power in open, antagonistic confrontation because it is here that naked power can be exercised most freely.

Proposition 9: Rationality-power relations are more characteristic of stable power relations than of confrontations

Interactions between rationality and power tend to stabilize power relations and often even constitute them. This stabilization process can be explained by the fact that decisions taken as part of rationality-power relations may be rationally informed, thereby gaining more legitimacy and a higher degree of consensus than “decisions” based on naked power-to-power confrontations

Stable power relations, however, are not necessarily equally balanced power relations, understood as relations in which the involved parties act on equal terms. In other words, stability does not imply justice, and stable power relations imply neither “noncoercive [zwanglos] communication” nor “communicative rationality,” to use Habermas’s terms. Stable power relations may entail no more than a working consensus with unequal relations of dominance, which may lead to distortions in the production and use of rational or quasi-rational arguments. Where rational considerations play a role, however, they typically do so in the context of stable power relations.

Proposition 10: The power of rationality is embedded in stable power relations rather than in confrontations

Confrontations are part of the rationality of power, not of the power of rationality. Because rationality yields to power in open, antagonistic confrontations, the power of rationality, that is, the force of reason, is weak or nonexistent here. The force of reason gains maximum effect in stable power relations characterized by negotiations and consensus seeking. Hence, the power of rationality can be maintained chiefly insofar as power relations are kept nonantagonistic and stable.

Special interest groups have substantially more freedom to use and to benefit from the full gamut of instruments in naked power play than do democratically elected governments. Democratic government of the modern Western variety is formally and legally based on rational argument and is constrained to operate within the framework of stable power relations – or at least appear as if they do – even when dealing with antagonistic interest groups, unless such groups go on to break the law and trigger police or military intervention.

Understanding Power and Rationality

This difference in the mode of operation of governments and interest groups results in an unequal relationship between governmental rationality and private power, and between formal politics and Realpolitik, such that governmental rationality and formal politics end up in the weaker position. Inequality between rationality and power can be seen as a general weakness of democracy in the shortrun struggle over specific policies and outcomes. It is a weakness, however, that cannot be overcome by resorting to the instruments of naked power, and modern democracy’s ability to limit its use of naked power can be seen as its general strength.

The fact that the power of rationality emerges mostly in the absence of confrontation and naked power makes rationality appear as a relatively fragile phenomenon; the power of rationality is weak. If we want the power of reasoned argument to increase locally, nationally, or internationally, then rationality must be secured. Achieving this involves long-term strategies and tactics which would constrict the space for the exercise of naked power and Realpolitik in the conduct of government, business, and civil society.

Rationality, knowledge, and truth are closely associated. “The problem of truth,” says Foucault, is “the most general of political problems.” The task of speaking the truth is “endless,” according to Foucault, who adds that “no power can avoid the obligation to respect this task in all its complexity, unless it imposes silence and servitude.” Herein lies the power of rationality.

Modernity’s normative emphasis on rationality leaves the modern project ignorant of how power works and therefore open to being dominated by power

In sum, while power produces rationality and rationality produces power, their relationship is asymmetrical. Power has a clear tendency to dominate rationality in the dynamic and overlapping relationship between the two. Paraphrasing Pascal, one could say that power has a rationality that rationality does not know. Rationality, on the other hand, does not have a power that power does not know.

Modernity relies on rationality as the main means for making democracy work. But if the interrelations between rationality and power are even remotely close to the asymmetrical relationship depicted above – which the tradition from Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche tell us they are – then rationality is such a weak form of power that democracy built on rationality will be weak, too. The asymmetry between rationality and power described in the ten propositions makes for a fundamental weakness of modernity and modern governance, be it in government, business, or civil society.

Modernity’s normative emphasis on rationality leaves the modern project ignorant of how power works and is therefore open to being dominated by power. Relying on rationality therefore risks exacerbating the very problems modernity attempts to solve. Given the problems and risks of our time – environmental, social, demographic; globally and locally – we need to consider whether we can afford to continue this fundamental weakness of modernity. The first step in moving beyond the modern weakness is to understand power, and when we understand power we see that we cannot rely solely on rationality to solve our problems.

Understanding Power and Rationality

Let us probe this point at a more concrete level. Constitution writing and institutional reform are the main means of action, in theory as well as in practice, in the modernist strategy of developing democracy by relying on rationality against power. Whereas constitution writing and institutional reform may often be essential to democratic development, the idea that such reform alters practice is a hypothesis, not an axiom. The problem with many advocates of institutional reform is that they reverse the axiom and the hypothesis: they take for granted that which should be subjected to empirical and historical test.

In Rationality and Power, Flyvbjerg showed how key actors in a case of Danish city management, again and again, for personal and group advantage, violated the principles of democratic behavior they were supposed to honor as civil servants, politicians, and citizens in one of the oldest democracies in the world. In real life – as opposed to ideal modernity – political actors are expert at judging how far a democratic constitution can be bent and used, or simply ignored, in nondemocratic ways. Such findings demonstrate that the question of how existing constitutions and their associated institutions can be utilized more democratically may frequently be more pressing than the question of how to establish more democratic constitutions and institutions as such. The findings certainly confirm Robert Putnam’s general observation that

“[t]wo centuries of constitution-writing around the world warn us … that designers of new institutions are often writing on water.”

Putnam’s research on civic traditions in modern Italy is one of the few other studies of the practices of democracy combining a micro approach with the historical perspective of the longue durée, the very long run. Like Flyvbjerg, Putnam and his associates find that social context and history profoundly condition the effectiveness of institutions. Premodern social practices that go back several centuries drastically limit the possibilities for implementing modern democratic reform. Such conditioning is not only a problem for democracy in Italy and Denmark.

People working for more democracy form part of a century-long and remarkably successful practical tradition

In most societies entrenched practices of class and privilege form part of the social and political context and limit the possibilities of democratic change. Putnam notes that the effect of deep historical roots on the possibilities of modern democracy is a “depressing observation” for those who view constitutional and institutional reform as the main strategy for political change. Nevertheless, such is currently the evidence. This does not mean, needless to say, that changing formal institutions cannot change political practice. It does mean, however, that institutional change typically moves much more slowly and circuitously than is often assumed by  legal writers and modern institutional reformists.

But looking at democracy in the time perspective of the longue durée is only depressing to those impatient for instant change. For it is also by employing this time perspective that we begin to see what it takes to make democracy work in practice. It is in this perspective we see that people working for more democracy form part of a century-long and remarkably successful practical tradition that focuses on more participation, more transparency, and more civic reciprocity in public decision making. The fact that progress has generally been slow within the tradition by no means makes such progress less significant; quite the opposite. The tradition shows us that forms of participation that are practical, committed, and ready for conflict provide a superior paradigm of democratic virtue than forms of participation that are discursive, detached, and consensus-dependent, that is, rational in modernity’s sense. We see that in order to enable democratic thinking and the public sphere to make a real contribution to democratic action, one has to tie them back to precisely what they cannot accept in much of modern democratic theory: power, conflict, and partisanship.

In the longue durée, we see that in practice democratic progress is chiefly achieved not by constitutional and institutional reform alone, but by facing the mechanisms of power and the practices of class and privilege more directly, often head-on: if you want to participate in effecting change, but find the possibilities for doing so constricting, then you team up with like-minded people and you fight for what you want, utilizing the means that work in your context to undermine those who try to limit participation and change.If you want to know what is going on in government or business but find little transparency, you do the same. If you want more civic reciprocity in governance, you work for civic virtues becoming worthy of praise and others becoming undesirable.Understanding Power and Rationality

At times, direct power struggle over specific issues works best; on other occasions changing the ground rules for such struggle is necessary, which is where constitutional and institutional reform come in; and sometimes writing genealogies and case histories laying open specific relationships between rationality and power, will help achieve the desired results. More often it takes a combination of all three, in addition to the blessings of beneficial circumstance and pure luck. Democracy in practice is that simple and that difficult.

Machiavelli is clear in his warning about the dangers of the normative attitude, when he say, “[A] man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction.” The focus of modernity and modern democracy has always been on “what should be done,” on normative rationality. What is suggested here is a reorientation toward the first half of Machiavelli’s dictum, “what is actually done,” toward what Machiavelli called verita effettuale (effective truth, that is, truth capable of change).

We need to rethink and recast the projects of modernity and democracy in terms of not only rationality but of rationality and power, Realrationalität. Instead of thinking of modernity and democracy as rational means for dissolving power, we need to see them as practical attempts at regulating power and domination. When we do this we obtain a better grasp of what modernity and democracy are in practice and what it takes to change them for the better.

*) For a version with footnotes and references, see

“This article can also be found at LinkedIn Puls with the title: Power has a Rationality that Rationality does not Know. It’s profound educational value made us do an exception to the rule and republish this article. We just don’t want you to miss out on this great article (Vibeke Vad Baunsgaard)”.

Interested in even more from Bent Flyvbjerg? Go to ResearchGate to see a many more of his publications.

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Bent Flyvbjerg (傅以斌) is the first BT Professor and inaugural Chair of Major Programme Management at Oxford University's Saïd Business School and a Professorial Fellow of St Anne’s College. He works for better management of megaprojects and cities. He is also the most cited scholar in the world on megaproject management, and among the most cited in social science methodology.