‘Power over’: two faces and three dimensions

In an influential critique that was published in 1970, two American political scien- tists, Morton Bachrach and Peter Baratz (1970), argued that power has two faces. One face concerns the outcomes of decisive battles between different actors over specific issues. It corresponds to the diagram of power in Figure 7.4 . The other face is subtler, however. It concerns the ‘mobilization of bias’ (Schattschneider 1960: 71) that can result in ‘non-decision-making’. Some things never make the political agenda; they are either implicitly or explicitly ruled out of bounds, hence they are not raised. To adapt Haugaard’s (2003: 94) terms, the existing elites do not collab- orate in the reproduction of these new issues as phenomena to be taken seriously rather than ignored, disdained or dismissed. Only those issues that conform to the dominant myths, rituals and institutions of politics will be admitted. Hence, important issues that challenge these dominant ideas will not be heard. Their exclusion from consideration signals a neglected face of power. If analysis is restricted merely to those issues which elites sanction, we miss the power shaping and restricting agendas; we miss the way in which, anticipating the likely reaction to what are perceived to be contentious issues, these issues are never raised (Friedrich 1937). The major marker of the influence of Bachrach and Baratz’s (1962; 1963; 1970) work (discussed at length in Clegg 1989) was that the imagery of two faces of power was shortly extended by the British political theorist Steven Lukes (1974; 2005) to include an account of three dimensions of power – where the second dimension accorded with their second face. The diagram of two-dimensional power is represented in Figure 7.6.

Figure 7.6 The second face – or dimension – of power

Lukes’ (1974) book Power: a radical view was a major landmark in the concep- tualization of power. It sought to bring what had hitherto been a largely liberal and individualist tradition of theorizing about power as a causal relation into a fruitful dialog with broader traditions of thought. He shows that each dimension of power rests on a different set of moral assumptions: the one-dimensional view of power is premised on liberal assumptions; the two-dimensional view of power is premised on a reformist view; while it is the moral assumptions of radicalism that underlie the three-dimensional way of seeing power.

The one-dimensional view of power pivots around an account of the different preferences that actors might hold and how these will be settled empirically. It concentrates on observable behavior and concrete decisions that are expressed in overt conflict concerning specific issues, revealed in political participation. The focus was on community power – who was powerful in local communities and what issues were the key ones over which power was exercised. (Clegg’s 1989 Frameworks of power discusses the community power debate.) It is power as Dahl (1957) saw it. The two-dimensional view adds some features to the primary view. It does not focus just on observable behavior but seeks to make an interpretive understanding of the intentions that are seen to lie behind social actions. These come into play, especially, when choices are made concerning what agenda items are ruled in or ruled out; when it is determined that, strategically, for whatever reasons, some areas remain a zone of non-decision rather than decision. What is important is how some issues realize their potential to mature while some others do not; how some become manifest while others remain latent. Given that an issue may remain latent then conflict is not merely overt; it may also be covert, as resentment simmers about something that has yet to surface publicly. One may address these two-dimensional phenomena not so much through discrete political participation as through express policy preferences embodied in subpolitical grievances.

From Lukes’ point of view, the two-dimensional position is an improvement on the one-dimensional – but it could be improved further. Hence, he provides what he calls a three-dimensional view – a radical view to be contrasted with liberal and reformist views (Figure 7.7). While the previous views both define their field of analysis in terms of policy preferences, with the second dimension relating them to subpolitical grievances, the radical view relates policy preferences to real interests. Real interests are defined as something objective, as distinct from the interests that people think they have and express themselves as having through their preferences. He summarizes the distinctions that he is making in the following terms:

Extremely crudely, one might say that the liberal takes men as they are and applies want- regarding principles to them, relating their interests to what they actually want or prefer, to their policy preference as manifested by their political participation. The reformist, seeing and deploring that not all men’s wants are given equal weight by the political system, also relates their interests to what they want or prefer, but allows that this may be revealed in more indirect and sub-political ways – in the form of deflected, submerged or concealed wants and preferences. The radical, however, maintains that men’s wants may themselves be a product of a system which works against their inter- ests, and in such cases, relates the latter to what they would want and prefer, were they able to make the choice. (1974: 34)

Implicitly, Lukes is suggesting that power distorts communication and that by imagining it away, by thinking of a utopia undistorted by power, one could be in a situation to reflect on the nature of one’s real interests. Otherwise, whatever preferences people might express can always be charged with being subject to sys- tematic distortion and thus a result of ‘false consciousness’: that is, if they do not accord with the preferences that one would expect, analytically, on the basis of one’s moral preferences or their theoretical articulation, one can always see them as something other than real interests. By definition, real interests are what the analyst would have them be. They cannot be judged by the subject who does not express them, because such subjects are systematically deluded about their interests – a con- dition which he refers to as being subject to hegemony, a term that he borrows from the work of Antonio Gramsci (1971).

The term ‘hegemony’ derived from debates that occurred in Western Marxism in the 1920s: the fundamental issue, according to the theorists of the Soviet Union, was why the Western working classes had not joined together in revolution against the ruling class, as had the workers and peasants of Russia. The reason, according to Gramsci, is that potential revolutionary consciousness has not been able to emerge because of the intellectual leadership enjoyed by the ruling class. Where this intellectual leadership is established, the concepts with which people ordinarily analyze their situation are those of the rulers rather than the ruled. For Gramsci (1971) hegemony is the normal form of control, and it is rare for ruling groups to have recourse to explicit force or violence to assert their will; in fact, that they have to do so shows that they lack real power – because it means that they have not successfully established hegemony. Hegemony occurs when the ruled consent to their rule and imagine the reality of their everyday existence in terms of concepts that cannot do other than reproduce their consent and subordination. Usually, these concepts are provided by organizations in civil society rather than the state: it is to the church, schools, unions, media that one should look to find the loci of hegemony. Here organic intellectuals attached to the dominant class reproduce its worldviews, concepts and categories for popular consumption.

One consequence of Gramsci’s view is that power rarely needs to be exercised where hegemony reigns. Hegemony legitimates existing distributions and structures of power. It is only when there is some crisis in the normal reproduction of these powers, when the illusions of hegemony are exposed, that those in positions of power seek to exercise it in order to reassert control. Hence, the exercise of power, rather than being a talisman of forcefulness, becomes a tacit admission of weakness. Real power, power that is secure, power that rules successfully, does so through hege- mony. Thus, there is a contradiction in Gramsci. On the one hand Gramsci views hegemony as real power, but on the other, when he actually mentions power, it is equivalent to coercion which, just as in Arendt, is actually the absence of power.

Under hegemonic conditions the favored groups that dominate have their inter- ests routinely attended to by all the everyday aspects of existence that are taken for granted in the ways things normally work. As Westergaard and Ressler argue, we should look for power as something present in uneventful routine rather more than ‘in conscious and active exercise of will’ (1975: 144). These uneventful routines attain naturalness and are reproduced as if they were natural in such a way that they are rarely if ever challenged. To do so would be, in a word, unthinkable – unthinkable under normal conditions, that is. Lukes (1974; 2005) suggests that under extraordinary conditions, when routines break down, people may be able to pierce the veil of their everyday ‘consciousness’ and grasp their real interests. Or rather, they may grasp their interests in terms of another discourse made available to them, or which they have only glimpsed dimly previously. Lukes (1974) is not explicit about the nature of such alternative discourses. In Western society they have usually been identified with various oppositional movements that define their meaning against whatever they determine is the ruling orthodoxy, such as socialism against capitalism, feminism against patriarchy, animal liberation against meat eaters, and so on.Typically, reality is reduced to a great cleavage around some cate- gory of difference that is regarded as absolutely fundamental, morally, such that it is seen as the essential basis defining existence.

Notice that with the third dimension of power the concept has shifted into a rad-ical interiority: it is tied up with what people find themselves able to articulate and say, what their consciousness, defined in terms of normal discourses and language, enables them to think and feel. In other words, what we have is a kind of negative account: rather than shaping consciousness positively, through discourse, radical theorists such as Lukes (1974) see power as prohibitory, negative and restrictive. If it were really more radical it would have to be about what people are able to artic- ulate and say and what language enables them to think and feel. However, in the second edition of his book, Lukes cites Przeworski approvingly to argue a slightly different tack: that hegemony ‘does not consist of individual states of mind but of behavioral characteristics of organizations’, noting that when wage-earners ‘act as if they could improve their material conditions within the confines of capitalism’ they are consenting to capitalism (2005: 9, citing Przeworski 1985: 145–6). It is a long bow. If there is only one game in town, one has to play it. Lukes (2005: 10–11) also relates his position to that of Tilly and, in so doing, shows that his fundamental views of ‘real interests’ have not changed in the intervening 30 years since he first wrote Power: a radical view. In Tilly’s words, with which Lukes concurs, ‘subordi- nates remain unaware of their true interests’ because of ‘mystification, repression, or the sheer unavailability of alternative ideological frames’ (1991: 594).

Figure 7.7 The three dimensions of power according to Lukes

Benton (1981) has argued that what Lukes creates with his thesis of hegemony as ‘control of consciousness’ against the real interests (or true interests) of people is a ‘paradox of emancipation’. If people are systematically deluded about their interests they cannot emancipate themselves. If their individuality and autonomy are to be respected then no one else can emancipate them; only they can emanci- pate themselves from mental slavery but, lacking the tools to do so, they never will unless some external agency interferes. But, if it does so, then it will be acting in their interests as that external agency constitutes them – not as the people whose interests they are would define them. Perhaps governments whose armies invade and occupy countries in the name of essentialisms such as markets and democracy would do well to consider the paradox of emancipation?

Lukes (1977) was to argue that subjects have a relative autonomy in being free to choose, notwithstanding that the choices they make will be made under conditions probably not of their own choosing. Their relative freedom will be indicated by the possibility of rational discussion occurring about the plausible relation of means and ends. However, as Barbalet argues, this is a long way from real interests – perhaps because if ‘to be subject to power is to have one’s real interests contravened, and if real interests can be identified only outside of a subordination to power, then it is impossible ever to determine whether one is subjected to power, except when it ceases to matter’ (1987: 8).

The debates around the third dimension of power are a replay of early debates in Marxism drawn from Marx and Engels’ (1998[1847]) The German ideology. There the idea of people having a false consciousness arose in relation to the proposition that the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: thus ordinary people will not know their own minds other than through the dominant ruling ideas, which will make them see things falsely and occlude their understanding of their real interests. Lukes’ views of power seem to be influenced by the work of Sir Isaiah Berlin on freedom, when, as Berlin puts it, people ‘would not resist me if they were rational and as wise as I and understood their interests as I do’ (2003: 205). The analyst is placed in the position of determining what the subject would choose if that subject were really free to choose (2003: 205). Similarly, the idea of a third dimension of power seems not too far away from Berlin’s defense of negative liberty:

To threaten a man with persecution unless he submits to a life in which he exercises no choices of his goals; to block before him every door but one, no matter how noble the prospect upon which it opens, or how benevolent the motives of those who arrange this, is to sin against the truth that he is a man, a being with a life of his own to live. (2003: 199–200)

The idea of free choice seems illusory. For instance, when one joins an organization and accept its conditions of existence as those in which hierarchical power over one will be exercised, how different is one as someone ‘free to choose’ than the subject that Berlin sketches above? Moreover, in such a situation, where the only freedom is either to show loyalty or to exit – the opportunities for voice being limited – isn’t holding on to the idea that one is really free a form of false consciousness (Hirschman 1970)? That is to say, wouldn’t holding an idea of freedom in such a setting be a situation of systematic delusion?

To suggest that someone is in a state of false consciousness presupposes that there must be a correct or true consciousness as its counterpart, which is theoreti- cally problematic (Haugaard 2003: 101), in exactly the terms that one might think from Berlin’s (2003) positive account of liberty. Of course, in some situations it might seem quite unproblematic to say that one is more rational and wise and understands the other’s real interests better than the other. Where such ideas are applied to deliberate systems of manipulation of knowledge, as, for instance, where cigarette manufacturers mislead their customers about the health risks associated with their products, then it might be appropriate to speak of a ‘false’ consciousness. Cigarette manufacturers or other ‘economical with the truth’ product liability statements are hardly the focus of false consciousness theory, however. Instead, false consciousness theories of ideology, hegemony and so on have been applied to issues of much wider scope, which are less specifically intentionally created and are lacking in clear-cut criteria of truth and falsity. In the strong case, such views of power assume a transcendent position which enables the theorist to determine what the real interests of other people are – even when the interpretations that theorists make rule against the sovereignty of individuals interpreting their own will. According to the theory, people cannot do this because they will always do so through the inauthentic and dominated categories of thought. Only the analyst, equipped with a transcendent theory, can pierce through to their real interests, as three-dimensional theories propose: however, with Miller (1987) and Rose (1999) one must question the morality of any critical apparatus that corrects the human subjectivity of others in a ‘calculus of domination and liberation’ (1999: 95). Not only does it miss the ways in which power is constitutive rather than distortive, it also opens up the possibility of some rather dubious moral practices. The theoreti- cal consequences of a radical three-dimensional position might seem insignificant. Theoretically, some Marxist or feminist scholars might ruggedly insist that the people about whom they theorize simply do not really know their own interests. ‘So what?’ the democrat might say, ‘Just ignore them.’ The practical consequences can be considerably more serious, however. Think of the practical consequences of a theoretical position that suggests that parents do not know their children’s real interests but that the employees of the state, with their superior theoretical con- sciousness, do. Then think about the ‘Stolen Generation’. Or, think about a theo- retical position that sees young people at risk because of their biological or sexual maturation. Then think of the Magdalene Laundries. As another option, think about a theoretical system which brands anyone who wishes to leave the society and reject the values that it has created an enemy of the state – and then think of the consequences of the Berlin Wall for the GDR. It existed not to keep deviants out but to keep them in – presumably because the theory created so many of them. Alternatively, think about some eugenics theories that declare that different ‘races’ populate the world and that some of these races are impure, along with other ‘scientifically’ constructed categories such as the feeble, gypsies, homosexuals, and Slavs. Then think of the ‘Final Solution’. Theoretical positions that presume to know the real interests of others, despite the views that the others articulate, are deeply dangerous.

In order to avoid these theoretical pitfalls, while still attempting to retain the essence of three-dimensional power, Haugaard suggests that ‘undermining power relations’ may be ‘a matter of facilitating individuals in converting their practical consciousness knowledge into discursive consciousness knowledge’ (2003: 102). This is not a question of some enlightened theorist presenting subject actors with some external truth. Social life presupposes a large tacit knowledge of everyday life and in routine social interaction this knowledge remains practical consciousness. The moment of insight is when what they already know – in terms of their lived experience and their practical consciousness of it – informs them that what is artic- ulated discursively for them as an adequate and true account of this experience is, in fact, false. It doesn’t ring true. When this occurs, people are facilitated in critically confronting their everyday social practices as part of a system of relations of domination which are reproduced, with their complicity, through everyday interaction. Practical consciousness is a tacit knowledge which enables us to be competent and capable actors in our everyday lives, while discursive consciousness comprises knowledge which we can put into words. These two forms of knowledge are not entirely separate. The relative separateness of the two types of social knowl- edge is an important element in the maintenance of systemic stability. If practical consciousness has never been critically evaluated, never formed part of discursive consciousness, then it will be reproduced virtually as a reflex. Marx and Engels argued that most people, lacking the critical education to see through the fancy words of political economy that hold them captive, can nonetheless grasp enough of them to know that their everyday life contradicts these words; and, once they are provided with an alternative way of interpreting their reality, these intuitions become the departure for social critique.

As Haugaard (2003) argues the case, the radical feminist and the Marxist do not dispense true consciousness. However, they may make actors aware of aspects of their practical consciousness, knowledge that they have never previously confronted in a discursive fashion. In consequence, they can see things differently. Thus, social critique entails converting practical consciousness into discursive consciousness. Once knowledge of structural reproduction becomes discursive, the actor may reject it or they might simply shrug and accept that this is how things are and there is little they can do to make them otherwise. In this event, it may become apparent that certain structural practices contribute to relations of domination and/or are inconsistent with other discursively held beliefs. What is useful about this approach to the matter of consciousness is that it accommodates arguments about the definition of the situation (Thomas 1923; McHugh 1968). On balance, as the adage has it, if people define situations as real they are real in their conse- quences, and while interlocutors may try and argue different definitions with different consequences, they rarely have any suitable fulcrum outside of the con- sciousness of the people whose definitions they are. Theorizing Lukes’ third dimen- sion of power in terms of a form of consciousness raising through the conversion of practical consciousness knowledge into discursive consciousness knowledge is theoretically consistent and avoids the chief pitfalls of Lukes’ analysis – that it requires the theorist to adopt a transcendent position.

In his study, Gaventa (1980) suggests another aspect to three-dimensional power that also does not hinge on the theoretically problematic dichotomy between true and false consciousness. Given the definition of the situation prevailing, there can be no guarantee that what is learnt will not reproduce domination and hegemony as easily as question it. In Gaventa’s (1980: 136–64) analysis of disempowered miners in the Appalachian coalfields, it tended to be the case that those communi- ties which were the most dominated were the most passive about their dominance, and the least likely to strike and agitate. The miners had learnt the practical condi- tions of existence only too well; the contradiction between what they experienced and what they might be brought to think simply did not arise as a realistic defini- tion of their situation. They were effectively governed by a complex confluence of two- and three-dimensional power. Gaventa (1980) argues that the third dimen- sion of hegemonic power comes into play under specific conditions:

  • When subordinated groups keep losing whatever struggles they mount, it is easy for them to become dispirited and to stop struggling.
  • Where people are unable to express themselves positively through concertative power relations, then they have no opportunity for building skills in and knowl- edge of power.
  • Where people are subject to many competing interpellations that chronically disorganize their consciousness, so that they cannot decide what to believe, then they will be more likely subject to hegemony.

All of these correspond to ‘organizational outflanking’ (Mann 1986), where subor- dinated groups lack collective organizational capacities in relation to, and relative to, the capacities that their dominators exercise. Definitions of the situation accept rather than question it.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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