Introduction to Politics
‘A gets B to do something that he or she would not otherwise do.’ Does this sum up the essence of political power?
Iain Foreman: 0305494
Tutor: Rosalba Icaza
Power and the discussion of it has been a constant source of intellectual debate in political science. A range of debates have occurred and different theories have been proposed, ranging from the ‘one face’ of power put forward by pluralists such as Dahl1, the ‘agenda setting’ of Bachrach and Baratz2 and Lukes’ ‘radical’ or three dimensional view of power which complicated the definition of what constitutes power as he proposes it as ‘preference shaping’3 in addition to the ideas that had been put forward prior to his work. One should not also discount the contributions of others such as Schattschneider when considering the exact nature of political power. To sum up the essence of political power, an agreement needs to be reached on not only what the political and power are but if it is measurable, and if so, how.
I shall at first attempt to cover Dahl’s one dimensional view of power. Here Dahl suggests that power is quantifiable and can be measured by counting the number of decisions that are reached and from that decide who is the most powerful by counting the number of decisions that go in each persons favour. As expressed by Hay whilst analysing Dahl’s work “the powerful are those whose opinions hold sway in the decision making area.” 4 This implies that such a society is pluralistic with a dispersal of power because differing groups compete with each other to advance their own interests. In such a situation there would be an overt conflict of interests because a power relation could only be observed where decisions had to be made and a conflict of interests arose. This suggests that power in these instances would only occur in institutions where decisions had to be made but it has to be asked what is the political?
If the political is defined as something that is what takes place within public bodies then this view of power is perfectly correct with regards to the question, but if you have a different view of what constitutes the ‘political’, such as feminists who see the personal as the political, where decisions in everyday life have a political undertone to them then obviously disagreements as to what political power is are going to ensue. Another criticism of the ‘one dimensional’ view of power is that power is not a zero sum game with only winners and losers, but instead all benefit from the decisions that are reached. It is as Parsons points out the ‘right’ of A to “make decisions which take precedence over those of B, in the interests of the effectiveness of the collective operation as a whole.”5 The distinction being made here is that between power and authority, where the former is where A is actually to get B’s acquiescence and the latter where A has the legitimate ‘right’ to enforce B’s acceptance of a decision.
An alternative criticism of this viewpoint comes from Steven Lukes. Here, Lukes says that Dahl’s study shows that the bias of the system is being studied and not power in itself6. Is the decision being reached as a consequence of A’s ‘power’ or because of the prevailing culture and bias inherent in the decision making process? Alternatively put, we should ask ourselves if the same outcome (A’s interests being realised) would have happened if A had chose to get a different decision being reached. If that is the case, where A’s new interest are realised, then we are observing the power of A over others and if not, we are instead seeing A using the inherent bias or ‘common sense’ of its contemporary decision makers to support its interests. In this scenario, A is not that powerful.
Another theory of power was that proposed by Bachrach and Baratz who said that power was two dimensional with an element of agenda setting. The reason that this theory is relevant to the question is that if A is capable of only allowing certain topics to be discussed then the chances are that the outcome is that B or any other group different to A is going to do something that they may have originally been opposed to. They put it as thus: “a person or group-consciously or unconsciously- creates or reinforces barriers to the public airing of policy conflicts, that person or group has power.”7 This is in essence Schattschneider’s mobilisation of bias8. Power in this sense is one that not only has A exerting influence or control over B’s actions but also restricting the options that were discussed to ensure that the only decisions that were reached are ones that A would allow to be reached. Evidently, this sees power as only being exercised by an elite that are in control of what topics are up for discussion and hence the decisions that are made in any society.
It should also be noted that a power relation is taking place on two levels. A is able to control the decision making process, thus limiting the options available to decision makers as well as having the power over B to get B to do something that B presumably not have done. In this sense, there is a covert element to power because how can you tell if a ‘non-decision’ has been made? Is it possible to differentiate between a proposal not being aired because it has no support and between those which don’t make it on to the agenda because their supporters’ views are repressed by the dominant elite? For A to exercise power over B and get B to do something contrary to their interests, I feel that for a power relation to have occurred, B must have had his viewpoint ignored and that the decision reached must be against B’s perceived interests. If not, it can’t be said that A was able to get B doing something he otherwise would not have done.
This I feel takes us into a third view of power as proposed by Lukes. This three dimensional view of power takes the previous two views and adds a third element; preference shaping. If A is able to shape the values that B holds then it will be easy for A to get B to do something against his true interests. In this sense, what Lukes is talking about is what Marx referred to as ‘false consciousness’ where the less dominant party in this power relationship, namely B, does not have complete information as to what is actually in his best interests but actually blindly follows A’s orders. I don’t think that power solely is getting someone to do something to do what they would otherwise do so I would agree that this is a relevant take on the very essence of power. As Lukes says when he quotes Dahl saying that leaders “do not merely respond to the preferences of constituents; leaders also shape preferences.”9 Lukes later goes on to say “is it not the supreme exercise of power to get another to have the desires that you want them to have- that is to secure their compliance by controlling their thoughts and desires….the most effective and insidious use of power is to prevent such conflict from arising in the first place.”10
In this sense power is not necessarily something that is observable. If B happens to agree with A, one can’t say for sure that it is because of A’s power over the things that influence the shaping of B’s preferences or because A has the power or the ability to coerce B acting against his own best interests. What also needs consideration is the possibility that, according to Lukes, whether or not B had access to complete information on which to base his decision to agree (or not agree) with the preferences of A.
To conclude, I feel that the ability of A to get B to do something that he would not otherwise have done is only partially the true essence of political power. To a certain extent, it depends upon one’s definition what constitutes the political and what power actually is. If the political is part of the everyday life, as Leftwich suggests by saying “relations of power are an intimate condition of the relations of people”11, then there will be no difference between political power and power that is exercised without an explicitly political element. The true essence of political power also depends upon B knowing what he is doing may be against his own best interests. If B would follow A’s orders anyway, even if he had full knowledge that they were detrimental to him, then I would suggest that A does have power over B. However, if A is able to get B to do something that B wouldn’t object to then I would say that B doesn’t have power exercised over him, even if A has some sort of authority to order B to do something. What should not be discounted before I finish is the possibility that B accepts a decision made by A as some sort of quid pro quo enabling B to get his own way later. In this scenario, can you say that power lies with A if he gets B to do something that he would not otherwise do, without a concession or bargaining on the part of A?
1.Dahl, R.A (1961) Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.
2.Bachrach, P & Baratz, S.M (1962) “Two Faces of Power”, American Political Science Review Vol.56: pp.947–952
3.Lukes, S (2nd edition 2005) Power: A Radical View, London: Palgrave McMillan.
4.Hay, C (2002) Political Analysis: A Critical Introduction, New York: Palgrave, p172
5.Parsons, T (1967). Sociological Theory and Modern Society. New York: Free Press, p318
6. Lukes, S (2nd edition 2005) Power: A Radical View, London: Palgrave McMillan, p38
7.Bachrach, P & Baratz, S.M Power and Poverty: Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press,p8
8.Schattschneider, E.E (1960).The Semi Sovereign People: A Realists View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, p71
9.Dahl, R,A (1961:164) quoted in Lukes (2005:27)
10.Dahl, R,A (1961:164) quoted in Lukes (2005:27)
11.Leftwich, A ‘The Political Approach to Human Behaviour: People, Resources and Power’ in Leftwich, A (ed) (2004), What is Politics? USA: Polity Press, p111.
Bachrach, P & Baratz, S.M (1962) “Two Faces of Power”, American Political Science Review Vol.56: pp.947–952
Bachrach, P & Baratz, S.M Power and Poverty: Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press
Dahl, R.A (1961) Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.
Hay, C (2002) Political Analysis: A Critical Introduction, New York: Palgrave
Leftwich, A (ed) (2004), What is Politics? USA: Polity Press
Parsons, T Sociological Theory and Modern Society. New York: Free Press (1967)
Schattschneider, E.E (1960).The Semi Sovereign People: A Realists View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston