“Move!” A power conflict at the grocery store

Not long ago, a woman cashier at my local grocery store was scanning and bagging my items.  Close by a man, her co-worker, was sweeping the floor in the area where customers exit.   He whisked his broom across the neighboring exit lane and then directly into the area where the woman who was busy packing my bags was standing.

Suddenly, speaking to her, he proclaimed, “Move!”

For a moment, she had an expression of disbelief.  Then she declared calmly but indignantly “Move?! What do you mean ‘Move!’?  Can’t you be a little polite?”

The man said nothing and continued sweeping in the general area.

Then she spoke loudly to the woman cashier in the neighboring checkout lane.   “Move! He says ‘Move!’  Do we move because he says so? Isn’t there a nice way to ask?”

Her co-worker responded in a deprecating tone “Yeah, we don’t move just because someone says so.”

It was clear that the women at the registers had a lesson to teach their male co-worker. I don’t know if he ended up learning it but I think this little clash gives us a lot to say about power and complexity.

The imperative mood of a verb is often a sure sign that one party is trying to exercise power over another.  Move!  Stop!  Jump!  Such imperatives might also be issued in collaborative circumstances (say, for instance, when a dance teacher instructs a student on his or her next steps).  But when party A imposes its will on party B, when A succeeds in winning the blind obedience of B, power becomes a disorganizing force for B. This conclusion – linking the imposition of power with disorganization – originates, as I mentioned in my prior entry, in analogies drawn from information theory: namely that organization is an outcome of choice whereas disorganization is the outcome of a single option, that is to say no choice.  The strength of the analogies (what bolsters the prospect they might not be mere analogies but homologies) is evident in the concrete circumstances presented here.  If the man with the broom mutters “Move!” and the cashier, in spite of feeling oppressed by an arbitrary command, obeys, the effect is for her disabling, disempowering, disorganizing.  She cedes her “within”, her freedom of choice and becomes a passive, inert part of a social system, subject to the whims of an external force.  She becomes the anonymous part of a machine; she becomes alienated from her humanity.

We have developed words for criticizing power exercised over another in this manner, often as tools to fend off power-over attempts.  We call it bossy, domineering, pushy, overbearing, imperious, high-handed, controlling, playing “high and mighty”.  It is, of course, possible to see the outcome of power successfully imposed by one party over another not as a type of disorganization but as a type of order — but only if you define order in cause-effect mechanistic terms.  Humane order rests upon people freely collaborating and cooperating with one another, an order often held in place by the common courtesies we exchange with one another as we rub elbows in our daily dealings, an order whose disruption quickly becomes apparent with a verb issued in the imperative mood.  If our friend with the broom learned the lesson his co-workers were trying to teach him, then workers at the grocery store can expect a bit more humanity in their interactions.


2 thoughts on ““Move!” A power conflict at the grocery store

  1. My good friend, Charlie, sent the following comment by email and has graciously given me permission to post it here. (I will post a reply soon). He writes:

    “I consider the notion of no choice a dangerous falsehood. Dictators control the consequences of choices. They do not and cannot eliminate choice. Viktor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning and the actions of some who refuse to name names when being tortured are testaments to this.”

    “By creating aversive consequences, including but not limited to the threat of torture and death and the actual implementation of these, dictators succeed in greatly reducing the probability that most people will make certain choices. What I am saying is that it is important to maintain awareness that we have choices even under those circumstances. It is not a matter of “no choice’; we are still making a choice. Dictators try to convince us that we have “no choice’’ but to go along with their dictates. In fact, people have found ways to resist and exercise choice even in the most extreme circumstances of being tortured and living in Nazi concentration camps.”


    • Charlie, Thanks very much for your reaction to the “power conflict at the grocery store”. Given our long personal and intellectual friendship, it’s good to let some of our exchanges spill over here online. Some of the “spill over” (the jump from the grocery story to dictatorship and concentration camps) probably needs some explanation for any readers who happen by here. We’re both assuming, I believe, that power-over relationships are scalable from the interpersonal on up to far more complex levels of societal and political interaction. While their embodiment is radically different, power-over patterns easily scale from the grocery store to Auschwitz.

      Referring to the mathematical theory of information, I said that “disorganization is the outcome of a single option, that is to say no choice”. You call no choice a “dangerous falsehood”. Yes, there can be a danger in people saying “I had no choice” when in fact they did. But, as I’ll explain below, I’m using “no choice” in a different and, I think, valid way (for the purpose of building a complexity theory of power).

      First, quickly, two things referring directly to the issues you raise: Adam Pzerworski, a prominent voice in the literature on transitions from authoritarian rule, claims that “Under authoritarianism, there is no choice” (2003:266). Dictatorships remove all sorts of choices from the table, the most obvious one being the option to elect a national chief executive in free and fair elections, something I saw when living in Brazil and you saw when living in Franco-ruled Spain. The electorates of Brazil and Spain had no choice.

      Secondly, there are many choices that do indeed remain on the table and that confront people with morally challenging options. And it is useful to frame these choices in terms of probability as you do (and as I have been doing since I said in the 1977 essay posted in this blog that “dictatorship can be described as the politics of the probable”). That is, dictatorships reduce the likelihood of people making certain choices. But, while acknowledging, strictly speaking, that choices still remain, I find myself feeling that in some circumstances people effectively had no choice. I think of an incident when I was living in Rio de Janeiro after leaving the Peace Corps in 1971. At the newsstand that morning, I was shocked to see that the front page of all three or four morning newspapers had a story with the same headline, the same photo and the same story word for word. It claimed that a prisoner Rubens Paiva (a former congressman) had been kidnapped by “terrorists” while being transported by police in a Volkswagen (pictured in the photo full of bullet holes). I learned a few minutes later from a journalist in the Associated Press office that police had raided each newspaper, forcing each one to publish the article. It is now known that Paiva died while in police custody, probably from torture, and they were using this as a ploy to shift responsibility for his “disappearance”. A year or so ago, I read an online commentary by a Brazilian berating the journalists from the above newspapers for having published these fake stories about Paiva. The writer seemed to imply that the journalists had a choice to resist and, in a cowardly manner, did not do so. I feel they had no choice.

      But the main proposition of my piece about the grocery store is to take the mathematics of entropy (disorganization) and negative entropy (organization) and draw analogies to the disorganizing effects of power imposed and self-organizing effects of power exercised in a collaborative manner. The assertive reaction (and resistance) by the cashier to the command issued by her co-worker illustrates your point that choices exist in the face of attempts to impose behavior. But she could have succumbed passively to the command as well. In such circumstances, the reaction, whether assertive or submissive, has a concrete impact on reality. It reshapes reality. It affects the state of the cosmos. If the overall effect is to achieve more collaborative interactions of co-workers (the sweeper says “please” next time), then the cosmos has become more collaborative. But “the choice” presented by the sweeper, barking the command “Move!”, to the cashier is really no choice. If, against their gut instincts to resist, all the cashiers give in silently to the command, the social system composed of the sweeper and the cashiers reshapes the cosmos in mechanistic terms where no choice becomes the governing reality. The resulting social system constituted by this particular interaction takes on a disorganizing dynamic, assuming 1) that, as in the negentropy formula, a single choice (no choice) is a measure of disorganization and (this is a big “if”) 2) if the analogy is not merely an analogy but a homology, truly a way for diagnosing conditions of organization and disorganization in human social systems. It is always possible in this scenario of submission that the cashiers will eventually assert themselves but this will not have altered the fact that a mechanistic, no-choice system existed for a period – just as a transition from authoritarian to democratic rule does not alter the fact that a no-choice electoral system persisted and disorganized the political system for a certain period.


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