Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Stephen Lukes on power


Stephen Lukes. Power: a radical review.

THREE DIMENSIONAL POWER – THE APPROACH OF LUKES

Lukes's 1974 study, Power: a radical view,[1] was in response to the ongoing debate in American political philosophy about whether their politics was dominated by a ruling elite or by pluralist democracy. Lukes broadened the debate and attempted to put it on a more practical footing by asking not only theoretical questions about power, but by considering how they could be answered empirically.

He contended that existing views – elitist and pluralist – all took too narrow a definition of power. in particular, picking up on his point about establishing empirical answers, he felt that not enough attention was paid to those latent aspects of power which are least suited to measurement. In analysing power, it is most important, he said, to consider those aspects which are less able to be observed.

One-dimensional view
Underlying his study he uses Dahl's [2] basic definition of power: A exercises power over B when he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do. This model focuses on behaviour, decision making, key issues and observable conflict. In other words, it concentrates only on the overt wielding of power, that which is intentional and active and revealed through observable conflict in which the prevailing subjective interests of the political elite are revealed by policy preferences. This could be described as a one-dimensional view, and is broadly that of the pluralists. It describes how political power is conducted. But it does not reveal how the political agenda is controlled.

Two-dimensional view
Researchers like Bachrach and Baratz ,[3][4] take this much further. They say that Dahl's approach only takes account of concrete actions and decisions. In reality, however, power may or may not be used, and it may or may not even be evident. It is not purely intentional nor is it always active. Moreover, there is an element of non-decision making as well as decision making: power resides not only in the ability of A to force B to do something he would not otherwise do, but also in his ability to make choice impossible in the first place, by dictating what may or may not be discussed. Political debate can be confined to relatively unimportant issues. This was described by Schattschneider [5] as the 'mobilisation of bias' – the promotion of some kinds of conflict and the suppression of others – where demands for change which are contrary to the interests of the ruling group are effectively removed from the political debate. Lukes describes Bachrach and Baratz's approach as a two-dimensional view, which focuses on decision making and control of the political agenda, issues and potential issues, and observable (including covert) conflict.

Three-dimensional view
Lukes says that even this does not go far enough because it does not allow for unobserved conflict. B's thoughts and beliefs may be shaped without him even being aware of it. There may be latent conflict – B is not fully aware of his own needs and cannot therefore articulate them, because the political debate has been shaped to prevent discussion of those needs. In such circumstances, then, conflict may not even exist – the use of manipulation and authority may obviate the need for it. This is a three-dimensional view. It allows a deeper analysis of power which is at once theoretical and empirical. As with the two-dimensional view it focuses on decision making and control of the political agenda, issues and potential issues, and observable (including covert) conflict. It also focuses, however, on the prevention of grievances. Where the two-dimensional view stated that non-decision making only arose when grievances were expunged from the political debate, Lukes argued a more insidious case, that B's perceptions and beliefs could be effectively shaped in such a way as to prevent the grievance from even being formed: in other words, B simply accepts the status quo as being in his interests because he has no evidence and no discourse to suggest otherwise.

The third dimension of power, therefore, could be summarised as the mobilisation of political power to ensure grievances do not enter the political debate and that conflict and issues are prevented from existing. It is, if you like, the prophylactic approach to power. It builds on previous conceptions of power which are based on the analysis of behaviour and outcomes, but ensures that the focus falls equally on those aspects which are less easily observable. By focusing on the unconscious shaping of an individual's thoughts and beliefs, the political elite can remain pre-eminent.

However, what Lukes fails to do successfully is declare exactly how he can evaluate what is, by definition, not there. If B is unaware of his better interests, how may this be measured? If power is manifested through inaction rather than action, how may this be measured? If power is, as Lukes asserts, on occasion exercised unconsciously, how may this be measured? Bachrach and Baratz have a patrician way of dealing with trifles such as the question of how to measure unmeasurables, saying they find the argument 'unimpressive,'[6] without explaining why or how it can be countered. Lukes takes this approach even further: he simply ignores the question.

[1] Stephen Lukes. Power: a radical view. London: MacMillan, 1974 (Expanded Second edition, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005).
[2] Robert A. Dahl. Who governs? Democracry and power in an American city. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961.
[3] Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz. Two faces of power. The American Political Science Review. Vol. 56, No. 4. (Dec. 1962), pp. 947-952.
[4] Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz. Decisions and non-decisions: an analytical framework. The American Political Science Review. Vol. 57, No. 3, (Sep. 1963), pp. 632-642.
[5] E.E. Schattschneider. The semi-sovereign people: a realist’s view of democracy in America. Harcourt College Pub., 1975, p. 71
[6] Bachrach and Baratz. Decisions and non-decisions. Op. cit., p. 642.

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