What Is Power and Who Has It?

The following essay was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded as a 2:1.


One of the critical areas of study in political science is power, its forms, sources, distribution, modes of exercise, and effects. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assert that political science itself is very much the study of power given its preoccupation with constitutions and institutions, which are themselves simply ways of regularising and defining its distribution and exercise (Partridge, 1963). With this in mind, it is vital that we, as political scientists, can define what we mean by power and determine who or what it is that has it. As such, this essay aims to arrive at a qualified definition for power and explain its mechanics. Following this, the essay makes the case that the distribution of power follows an elitist-leaning framework and that, while almost any entity can exercise power, the majority of absolute power is held by the ruling class.


Definition of Power

In 1957, political scientist and originator of pluralist theory Robert Dahl defined power as follows: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (Dahl, 1957). For example, a teacher has power over a student to the extent that they can get the student to complete their classwork. Both the teacher and student are agents who decide what actions to take, and both command a relative degree of agency – the freedom and autonomy to decide what actions to take. It just so happens that within the classroom – the structure within which these agents operate – the teacher commands more agency than the student and can utilise their greater agency to make the student complete their classwork. Therefore, power can be viewed as the disparity in agency between two or more agents, allowing one agent to influence or compel the actions of others.

The major flaw in Dahl’s definition is the use of the pronoun ‘he’, which is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, Dahl’s definition implies that the entity exercising power must always be masculine. By associating power with masculinity, political scientists who strictly follow Dahl’s definition will be blind to situations where women exercise power. Secondly, by using a pronoun typically associated with humans, Dahl’s definition implies that the entity exercising power must also always be human. As a result, political scientists will also be blind to situations in which non-human entities exert power. For instance, the power culture and religion have in shaping our preferences. Therefore, the pronoun ‘he’ limits our understanding of power, constricting political science as a field of study. Given this, Dahl’s definition of power should be amended: “A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do”. By replacing ‘he’ with ‘A’, the application for Dahl’s definition is now widened in its scope.


Mechanics of Power

Between 1959 and 1965, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven developed a set of six bases to analyse how power operates in specific relationships (French & Raven, 1959) (Raven, 2008). According to French and Raven, power depends on the specific understandings that A and B apply to their relationship. A must draw on a base or combination of bases of power appropriate to their relationship to motivate B to change in the way A intends. Failure to use the correct bases of power may result in a reduction of A’s power. These six bases include:

Legitimate power – power due to one’s authority given by their relative position in a power structure. Military generals use legitimate power to command their soldiers.

Referent power – power due to one’s charismatic ability to attract followers. Celebrities use referent power to influence consumers into buying their sponsors’ products.

Expert power – power due to one’s skills or expertise. Doctors use expert power to convince patients to take their medication.

Reward power – power due to one’s ability to provide incentives. Employers use reward power to incentivise employees to work harder.

Coercive power – power due to one’s ability to negatively impact another. Dictators use coercive power to oppress and threaten their citizens into doing what they say.

Informational power – power due to one’s access to information. Social media platforms use informational power to influence the type of content their users interact with.

In 1974, political and social theorist Steven Lukes proposed that power has three distinct dimensions: the three faces of power (Lukes, 1974). The first face of power refers to its direct decision-making capabilities to identify an issue and respond to it. When the government implements new COVID-19 restrictions, it is clear who makes decisions and why they are making them. The second face of power refers to its indirect agenda-setting capabilities to control the context in which decisions are made. When lobbying groups influence government policy behind closed doors, it is unclear who makes decisions and for whose benefit. The third face of power refers to its subtle manipulation capabilities to shape preferences and control responses to new decisions. When the government uses propaganda and rhetoric to deliberately shape people’s values before a new law is passed, it is not always clear to people that they are being influenced.

In 1992, political scientist Peter Digeser expanded upon Lukes’ three faces of power by introducing a fourth face of power (Digeser, 1992). The fourth face of power refers to its capability to control and shape the current paradigm. A paradigm is an unquestioned set of fundamental beliefs that shape the reality of everyone in society. All actions and decisions taken by agents will indefinitely be influenced by the parameters set by the paradigm in which they operate. Controlling the paradigm allows one to, in effect, control all agents operating within the paradigm. The actions of any government will inevitably always be the result of the cultural paradigm it operates in. For example, it would be improbable for the United Kingdom’s government to criminalise alcohol consumption, given how pubs are central to British culture.

Digeser’s fourth face of power is synonymous with Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony, which he developed during his imprisonment under Italy’s National Fascist Party (Gramsci, 1929-1935). According to Gramsci, the ruling class manipulate society’s culture so that their worldview becomes the accepted cultural norm. This universal dominant ideology presents the social, political and economic status quo as natural conditions that benefit every social class. In reality, the status quo only benefits the ruling class. Currently, the USA has a global cultural hegemony evidenced by its considerable social, political and economic influence in countries worldwide. The USA maintains its geopolitical dominance by using its media to present its goals as righteous and for the greater good. In addition, the threat that the US military poses to subordinate states also ensures that they do not step out of line.

In summary, power has two aspects: bases and faces. For A to get B to do something that B would otherwise not do, A must draw on the appropriate power base or combination of power bases. This is A’s source of power. There are six potential power bases: legitimate, referent, expert, reward, coercive and informational. A’s source of power can then be used in four distinct ways: the four faces of power. To illustrate this conceptualisation of power, one can refer to the example of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal.

Social media platform Facebook exposed the data of up to 87 million of its users to political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica which utilised it to influence the outcome of the 2016 United States presidential election in favour of Donald Trump (Vox, 2018). The main power base that Cambridge Analytica drew from was informational power in the form of user data. Cambridge Analytica then utilised the third face of this informational power to shape the preferences of Facebook users in favour of Trump without them knowing. When it came to election time, these same users voted for Trump. Therefore, Cambridge Analytica had power over Facebook users as it could get them to vote for Trump, which they may not have done otherwise.

Based on this essay’s conceptualisation of power, it can be concluded that any entity can exercise power so long as it has access to a sufficient base of power. Almost anyone can exercise the first two faces of power. For example, a child has the power to decide which flavour of ice cream they wish to consume (first face of power). Similarly, the child’s parent decides whether the child is allowed to consume ice cream in the first place (second face of power). However, the last two faces of power, which are far more absolute in nature, are usually reserved for entities with access to far larger power bases, namely the state. As such, the remainder of this essay concerns the distribution of state power, focusing on the third and fourth faces of power.


Distribution of Power

There are two predominant theories for the distribution of state power: elitism and pluralism. The main difference is that pluralists assert power is horizontally dispersed, whereas elitists assert power is vertically concentrated. Therefore, pluralism and elitism can be viewed as two extremes on the same scale. However, as we will come to see, the truth is really a mix of both views with a slight leaning towards the elitist framework.

Classical pluralism is predicated on the idea that society comprises vastly different groups vying for power (Smith, 2006). These groups compete to influence different parts of the state; however, no single group is able to dominate policy-making. Power is dispersed between these different groups. As a result, the state remains relatively neutral, balancing the weight of different demands in the national interest. Classical pluralism thus sees all groups as having an equal say in the decisions taken by the state.

The fundamental flaw in classical pluralism is that certain groups’ interests are not reflected in the national agenda, having zero say in policy-making decisions because they lack the necessary resources to influence the state. In other words, some groups lack the necessary power bases to exercise the third and fourth faces of power while others do. For instance, the championing of neo-liberal ideas under the Thatcher governments of the 1980s led to increased depoliticisation as many decision-making powers were given to non-governmental organisations, taking them out of the purview of the general public. In addition, tax and welfare reductions transferred resources from poor groups to wealthy groups (Harvey, 2005). Subsequently, some groups felt their concerns were not being addressed by the state leading to widespread dissatisfaction, particularly amongst the working class. The continuation of depoliticisation measures in the decades since has contributed to anti-politics and the recent rise in populism (Hay, 2007).

Reformed pluralism addressed this flaw in the pluralist model by conceding that certain groups exercise greater influence over the state than others. (Smith, 2006). Groups achieve this by forming close relationships with the state and pooling their resources together in policy networks, such as the British Chambers of Commerce. Power is still dispersed but only amongst a particular set of groups. Despite this, reformed pluralism maintains that countervailing powers can develop in other parts of the state to challenge the position of the dominant groups. Overall, this concession moves pluralism closer to the position held by elitists; power is concentrated.

Classical elitism is predicated on the idea that there are two classes in every society: the ruling class that holds power and the subordinate class that does not (Evans, 2006). The ruling class constitutes a single socially cohesive group territorially closed-off from the subordinate class. Power is concentrated amongst the ruling class. As a result, the state is dominated by a single group, whose ideas become the ruling ideas of society. This is an inevitability in all societies making direct government by the masses impossible. Classical elitism thus sees society as the dictatorship of the majority by the minority.

The major flaw in elitism is that the ruling class is one homogeneous group with a single goal in mind. If this were the case, opposition parties would not exist, and all democracies would be reduced to single-party systems. In addition, if power were concentrated in a single group, they would do as they please without anyone having the power to challenge them. In reality, the decisions made by the executive are checked and balanced by the legislature and judiciary. For example, in 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that introducing employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200 in 2013 was unlawful (BBC, 2017). Therefore, it would be disingenuous to reject the pluralist’s ideas outright. In other words, power bases must exist outside the control of a single homogenous group.

Contemporary elitism rectified this flaw by conceding that the ruling class comprises multiple factions engaged in an ongoing process of competitive elitism (Evans, 2006). These factions must retain links with global elite networks, such as the European Commission, to maintain their power bases in society. Power is still concentrated, but it is now concentrated amongst a particular set of groups rather than a single group. Overall, this concession moves elitism closer to the position held by pluralism; power is dispersed.

By consolidating these two opposing viewpoints, one can assert that power is distributed at three different levels (Evans, 2006). Each level consists of competing factions vying for state control with different degrees of power at their disposal. At the bottom level, there is the politically fragmented society of the masses. Agents only have access to the sufficient power bases needed to exercise the first two faces of power. At the middle level, there is the semi-organised stalemate of interest groups and legislative politics. Groups have access to the sufficient power bases needed to exercise the first three faces of power. At the top level, there are those in command of major institutional hierarchies, otherwise known as the ruling class. The ruling class has access to the sufficient power bases needed to exercise all the faces of power. The vast majority of absolute power is concentrated amongst the dominant ruling faction. However, there is still the potential for other ruling factions to amass countervailing powers, keeping the dominant ruling faction in check. Therefore, the distribution of power follows an elitist-leaning framework; power is concentrated in its dispersal. To illustrate this power distribution model, one can refer to the United Kingdom.

At the bottom level, there is the British public. In everyday life, British citizens can exercise the first two faces of power as they make direct decisions about their own lives as well as exert nominal control over those around them, whether it be family, friends or colleagues. At the middle level, there are multiple interest groups and political parties with varying degrees of influence competing to exert their control over the state. These groups can exercise the first three faces of power as they have the resources to produce propaganda and influence the values of the British public. For example, UKIP’s political rhetoric concerning immigration significantly influenced the outcome of the EU referendum. At the top level, there is the political elite with control over the United Kingdom’s major institutions. The political elite is divided into multiple factions and can exercise all four faces of power. Currently, the dominant faction is the Conservative Party, with control over the executive and the majority of the legislature. The Conservative Party’s power is countervailed by other factions of the political elite, such as the Labour Party with its control over the remaining legislature and the Supreme Court with its control over the judiciary. Despite this, all factions of the political elite remain part of the same ruling class.

Based on this model for the distribution of power, it can be concluded that the ruling class holds the most absolute power. They have access to the sufficient power bases needed to control and shape the current paradigm. By shaping the paradigm, they control all the agents operating within it. In other words, only the ruling class can exercise the fourth face of power. In addition, the ruling class retains the greatest degree of agency as they are at the top of the state structure. Overall, the ruling class are the most powerful actors in society.


Conclusion

To summarise, power is the extent to which one entity can influence another to do something it otherwise would not do. The entity must draw on the appropriate power base or combination of power bases to exercise power over another and achieve its desired outcome. There are six such power bases (legitimate, referent, expert, reward, coercive and informational) that can be utilised in four distinct ways (the four faces of power). While almost any entity can exercise the first two faces of power, only certain entities have the necessary agency and sufficient power bases to exercise the third and fourth faces of power. These entities are best typified by the ruling class. Therefore, it can be concluded that absolute power is an influencing force concentrated and dispersed amongst the political elite.


References

BBC, 2017. Employment tribunal fees unlawful, Supreme Court rules. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40727400
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Dahl, R., 1957. The Concept of Power. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 2(3), pp. 201-215.

Digeser, P., 1992. The Fourth Face of Power. The Journal of Politics, 54(4), pp. 977-1007.

Evans, M., 2006. Elitism. In: C. Hay, M. Lister & D. Marsh, eds. The State: Theories and Issues. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 39-58.

French, J. & Raven, B., 1959. The Bases of Social Power. In: D. Cartwright, ed. Studies in Social Power. s.l.:University of Michigan, pp. 150-167.

Gramsci, A., 1929-1935. Prison Notebooks. s.l.:s.n.

Harvey, D., 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hay, C., 2007. Why We Hate Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Partridge, P. H., 1963. Politics and Power. Philosophy, 38(144), pp. 117-135.

Raven, B., 2008. The Bases of Power and the Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 8(1), pp. 1-22.

Smith, M., 2006. Pluralism. In: C. Hay, M. Lister & D. Marsh, eds. The State: Theories and Issues. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 21-38.

Vox, 2018. The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, explained with a simple diagram. [Online]
Available at: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/23/17151916/facebook-cambridge-analytica-trump-diagram