Dispatch #41: The age of political naivety (Part 2)

In this dispatch I have summarised key arguments by Steven Lukes on power, domination and elitism

“The world does not reward honesty and independence, it rewards obedience and service. It’s a world of concentrated power and those who have power are not going to reward people who question that power” – Noam Chomsky

“Nearly all men can stand adversity but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”

-Abraham Lincoln

The TIME magazine’s 2011 year end issue had the ‘protesters’ as the person of the year. It was a surprise to see a century old magazine dedicating its cover to the men and women, from across the world, who braved the tear gas and water cannons of the tyrannical ‘state’ that used its full might to gag dissent. It should be a subject of research for scholars and political scientists to understand what exactly happened that year or earlier, that pushed thousands of people to protest on streets. 

There are some possible answers to that question. One could be that due to a prolonged period of economic growth, several countries had a significant number of its population moving towards the middle-class that was enjoying the fruits of growth; accumulating material benefits due to rise in income and was well connected with the world outside through technology. But the state was not equipped for this rapid transformation and had scant regard for the growing demands of its people. There was a palpable resentment and a general sense of frustration among the people that erupted in the form of massive protests. While it was a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in the Middle East; it was the Occupy protest in America that resulted from the simmering anger in the face of income inequality and inability to climb the upward mobility ladder. 

India was also not spared. While in 2011 the citizens mobilised while demanding strong anti-corruption laws, in 2013 young men and women stormed the Raisina hill, to demand for strong anti-rape laws in the wake of the horrific 16th December Delhi incidence. Turkey, Brazil and China also saw similar citizen protests.

It was quite evident at that time that the citizens of these countries were highly dissatisfied with their government, political institutions and the political elite who seem to have abandoned them. Ramlila Maidan, Tahrir Square and Taksim Square became the epicenters for the change that the people wanted to see.

Against whom were these protests directed to? Who was accountable to provide public services to the people without corruption? Who was entrusted to enforce the rule of law? It was the structure of power that the people were up against.This structure of power comprises the ruling elites. Therefore it is essential to understand how this structure works and how the decision making capability of these elites affect millions of people.

Steven Lukes, in his seminal book Power:A Radical View, unpacks this power structure. He opens the book with two powerful quotes by two most influential thinkers of power- C Wright Mills and Floyd Hunter.

“As the means of information and of power are centralized, some men come to occupy positions in American society from which they can look down upon, so to speak, and by their decisions mightily affect, the everyday worlds of ordinary men and women . . . they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences. Whether they do or do not make such decisions is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions: their failure to act, their failure to make decisions, is itself an act that is often of greater consequence than the decisions they do make. For they are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They run the big corporations. They run the machinery of state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy”- C Wright Mills

“Often the demands for change in the older alignments are not strong or persistent, and the policymakers do not deem it necessary to go to the people with each minor change. The pattern of manipulation becomes fixed . . . the ordinary individual in the community is ‘willing’ that the process continues. There is a carry-over from the minor adjustments to the settlement of major issues. . . . Obedience of the people to the decisions of the power command becomes habitual. . . . The method of handling the relatively powerless understructure is through . . . warnings, intimidations, threats, and in extreme cases, violence. In some cases the method may include isolation from all sources of support, including his job and therefore his income. The principle of ‘divide and rule’ is as applicable in the community as it is in the larger units of political patterning, and it is as effective . . . the top leaders are in substantial agreement most of the time on the big issues related to the basic ideologies of the culture. There is no threat to the basic value systems at this time from any of the understructure personnel. . . . The individual in the bulk of the population of Regional City has no voice in policy determination. These individuals are the silent group. The voice of the professional understructure may have something to say about policy, but it usually goes unheeded. The £ow of information is downward in larger volume that it is upward.”- Floyd Hunter

In this essay I will try to dissect the three dimensions of power as explained by Steven Lukes in his book. According to Lukes it is the multi-dimensionality of the power that can help us find a lot of our answers about the power. The purpose of this essay is to establish a ground on which one can argue that in order to redefine the scope of power it is very important to understand the three dimensions of power. 


Power and Domination:

The conventional idea of power is that the exercise of power is a tendency or a capacity which may or may not be exercised over someone depending upon the situation. Hence one person exercises his power over the other and the other person depends on the powerful. The conventional definition gives a very simplistic idea about power. It equates the dependence with the domination assuming that the dependence is always contrary to the dependent’s interests and neglecting that power can be productive and often compatible with dignity. The common assumption that power is repressive and affects interest of the dependents falls short in explaining what those interests are. Since this binary approach could be counterproductive in order to understand the dimensions of power, we need to diversify our scope of understanding. It is very important to know how the power helps in securing the compliance of those who are being dominated. 

According to Weber, domination is ‘the probability that a command with a  given specific content will be obeyed by a given group of persons’ and added that ‘the existence of domination turns only on the actual presence of one person successfully issuing orders to others’. The problem with this definition is that there is no limit to the domination and it could take a repressive form.

Ian Shapiro gives an entirely contrary definition of domination. According to Shapiro ‘domination arises only from the illegitimate exercise of power’. He further argues that domination often comes up when one group shapes the agenda for the others, hence influencing the ‘preferences and desires’ of the others. He also emphasised the role of coercive power of domination by giving examples of slavery and caste subordination.

The act of domination or acquiescence can be interpreted in different ways. It is very important to determine when the compliance to power can be equated to the domination. Power as an act of domination connotes a constraint upon someone’s desires or interests which restricts the fulfillment of those desires. Therefore 'the concept of domination helps in adding to the notion of power over others the claim that those subject to it are rendered less free’. 

It can be argued that a person is said to be free until anybody ‘interferes with their doing whatever they prefer at any given moment’. Living autonomously without depending on anyone else’s order is said to be a rational judgment. Hence power can also be considered as an instrument that impedes rationality or one’s ability to reason. Therefore one can conclude from the above argument that the failure of rationality or reason leads to the deployment of power.

It was Steven Lukes who extended the argument on whether power can be considered as domination. He famously used the term ‘essentially contested’ to define this relation.  The concept is contested because there is not one answer for this concept. There are several dimensions and endless disputes about the relation between power and domination. Lukes explained the relation by giving the three dimensions of power theory.

Three Dimensions of Power

One Dimensional View:

Often known as the pluralist view of power, the original version of this concept was given by Robert Dahl. Before getting into the details of this model it is very important to understand what is ‘Pluralism’ and what is ‘Elitism’.

Pluralism: In this form of structure, several groups of like-minded people, unions, business lobbies and activists together collaborate to influence the policy making mechanism. Since the participants are some handful people, the public acts as passive actors who are merely the beneficiaries. Pluralists are of view that direct democracy is unviable and it leads to anarchy. They have scant regard for representative democracy either. For them a representative’s election to legislation does not mean an endorsement of a particular policy.

Elitism: This structure comprises few elite on the top echelons having the control over the policy mechanism. At the top a small group of elite makes the decisions for everyone below.

Lukes quotes Dahl to explain the latter's concept of power, ‘A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do’. Therefore ‘it is the exercise of power that is central to the view of power’. Dahl adopted a method which helped in identifying whose decisions were the most influential and who prevailed in the decision making process. It was this method which laid incredible emphasis on the ‘observable behavior’ of individuals. Pluralists argue that who prevails in the decision making would help identifying the powerful individuals/groups because there would be a ‘direct conflict’ between the actors present in that situation. Hence the ‘direct/observable’ conflict became the central argument for the pluralists.

Lukes concludes, “ one-dimensional, view of power involves a focus on behaviour in the making of decisions on issues over which there is an observable con£ict of (subjective) interests, seen as express policy preferences, revealed by political participation”.

Two-Dimension View:

This concept was established by the duo of Bachrach and Baratz. It laid emphasis on the fact that in the decision making the dominant group/individual creates a situation to create a ‘barrier to the public airing of policy conflicts’. This is known as ‘mobilization of biases. It is this bias that benefits few at the expense of others. Those who are benefited secure top echelons in society.

This control of one group over the other can also be considered as an act of securing compliance of the latter by the former through the acts of sanction or coercion. Other methods of securing compliance are: coercion, influence, authority, force and manipulation. In the two-dimensional view the act of non-decision making by the subjugated group is equally significant. It prevents certain potential issues from becoming actual issues. This is done intentionally by the dominant group to prevent any sort of challenge from the subjugated group.

Therefore, “two-dimension view allows for consideration of the ways in which decisions are prevented from being taken on potential issues over which there is an observable con£ict of (subjective) interests, seen as embodied in express policy preferences and sub-political grievances”.

Three-Dimension View:

This concept emerged from the criticism of the two-dimension view on three grounds: over dependence on behaviorism; association of power with observable conflict and the narrative that non-decision making takes place when the grievances are suppressed to become actual political issues. 

This concept introduces another concept ‘latent conflict’ which are contradictions between the interests of those exercising power and the ‘real interests’ of the excluded lot. This conflict is not overt as compared to that in the first two views but it also helps in preventing potential issues to gain significance. 

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