Democracy and the essence of power

Key questions about the real inclusiveness of our democratic institutions remain largely unanswered

What is power? In the first edition of the book “Power: A Radical View”, which dates back to 1974, Steven Lukes responds with an in-depth analysis of its nature and origins. However, since then, the book’s underlying question — whether different kinds of power are able to jeopardize our democratic systems — has remained largely unanswered.

Are our democracies really inclusive? Are there powerful groups capable of influencing our decisions in subtle ways? These questions require not only a careful examination of the essence of power, but also the methodological capability of measuring the fuzziest aspects of power exertion.

3D power and our capacity to measure it

The focus of the book is power as capacity of domination. “How do the powerful secure the [willing] compliance of those they dominate?” (p. 12). Thanks to a profound and detailed examination, Lukes indirectly responds to authors like James March, who emphasize the temptation of the residual variance, the risk of reducing power to a residual category for explanation [1]. This happens when the researcher does not know exactly how to justify his findings by the means of tangible mechanisms. Instead, Lukes wants to give power the dignity of being the main variable in the equation.

According to the author, power is a multi-faceted phenomenon, with three interrelating dimensions, from the most explicit to the most tacit. Each dimension has its different measurement challenges.

1) Power as observable behavior and decision making, in the presence of open conflict between two actors. This is the easiest dimension to be observed in practice through case studies, by looking at the presence or absence of consistent patterns in decision making (e.g. whether a given group always get what it wants, or not).

2) Power as decision making and “nondecision making” on both actual and potential issues. For example, this dimension of power can set the agenda in debates and make certain issues politically infeasible and unacceptable for discussion in public forums. According to Lukes, it is “difficult to identify an exercise of power of this type” (p. 41), but probably not impossible. This requires careful examination of both open and covert conflict, as well as political preferences of different groups.

3) Power as the capacity to influence other individuals to the point that the powerful can determine their wants and desires and make them think that they do not have other options but to comply as the “natural order of things.” This is the hardest dimension to measure, since it is by definition the subtlest and implies potential risks in objectively determining the real interests of the people that have internalized and socialized shared values and beliefs.

CC BY-NC Eric Constantineau

While the first two dimensions can be studied and relative power can potentially be measured, the third dimension appears to be the most difficult to empirically grasp. In fact, although there is no doubt about its theoretical importance, empirically testing this kind of tacit and covert characteristic of power represents a real challenge.

As North [2] points out, endemic uncertainty about the reality, and the subsequent difficulty to both predict what is going to happen and learn from experience, makes the world studied by the social sciences a world so complicated that social scientists could never be able to understand its complexity.

In particular, the main risk in this exercise is to apply our own lens to reality and transform a supposedly objective and scientific work into mere storytelling implying subjective interpretation [3].

“Instead of discovering enduring facts […] and reporting them through neutral description, we actively create truth by assigning meaning to the phenomena we observe and experience. […] Our knowledge of objective reality is subjectively constructed”

The presence of a risk of false consciousness is the main observation that many critics have addressed to the first edition of Lukes’ book, challenging the underlying assumptions of the third dimension of power. How does the author know what the people who are subject to this hypothetical power are really desiring? How does he know that they are in fact exploited?

This does not mean that we can conclude that Lukes’ third hypothesis is false. However, the methodological challenges we face when empirically testing the third dimension of power are far more complex than in the case of the first two dimensions. This makes the very exercise of drawing conclusions quite difficult to do in practice.

A key question: Do certain elites exercise ideological hegemony?

These methodological questions about the actual possibility to measure and test Lukes’ third dimension of power are key to find out if we have the possibility to answer to what it is, in my opinion, the central question of the whole book, i.e. Are there some elites or powerful groups that are able to systematically influence people behaviors within our current democratic systems? This question is obviously very important to assess the real nature of our democracies, their openness and inclusiveness.

North [2], starting from the observation that pattern recognition is a powerful way to interpret reality at the individual level, asserts that economic and social systems that are able to develop inclusive institutions can leverage this diversity of views to improve their capacity to cope with uncertainty. Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson [4] build on North’s point by providing examples of how inclusive institutions have been able to foster economic development.

These authors share the same faith in Western democratic systems and, in particular, in the capacity of the Western world to develop institutions that are able to include and represent plural interests, as opposed to authoritarian regimes, where “extractive” institutions are dominated by political and economic elites that control the allocation of resources and exert power on all the rest of the population in order to maintain the status quo.

Lukes seems to shake this faith in our democratic institutions.

Lukes describes the historical conjuncture in which the first edition of his book was written. Authors like Mills and Hunter were convinced that the US was dominated by an élite controlling key positions, while manipulation, obedience to those in power and inexistent voice of the people in policy determination were prevailing. These views were tested by Dahl who, along with the other scholars labeled pluralists, observed which groups prevailed in decision-making situations and concluded that no group really prevailed, that the power was equally distributed and so that no elite class really existed in the US.

However, Lukes believes that the pluralists’ findings are related just to the first dimension of power, while the second and the third dimensions remained largely unaccounted for. In particular, Lukes at that time was influenced by the Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci. In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci describes the bourgeoisie’s monopoly over the ideological apparatus as “hegemony.” The power of the élite in charge (the owners of capital and the means of production) is exerted in ways that put the workers in a psychological state of passively acceptance of the social-political order developed by the capitalists. While Focault describes this process as socialization of values and desires as voluntary compliance, North [2] puts forward the idea that individuals tends to develop institutionalized patterns to construct social representation of reality in order to know and understand the world.

Lukes’ point is that these socialized values can be influenced and exploited by certain groups of people to acquire or maintain power. But is this really the case in the US and in other democracies?

Giorgio Gaber during a concert (Source: Wikipedia)

One example of this phenomenon could be found in the control of information through mass media of communication. Lukes thinks that the selective use of information to be disclosed to the public can encourage “compliance to domination through the shaping of beliefs and desires” of the citizens (p. 144). Sometimes recurring to dystopian views of the world such as the “Big Brother” scenario [5], the critics of Berlusconi’s political agenda in Italy — for example — focus their complaints on his control of multiple private television channels (plus the national television, during his periods as prime minister), used as a way to shape the values and political preferences. The Italian singer, author and playwright Giorgio Gaber commented on this with his famous phase “Non temo Berlusconi in sé, ma Berlusconi in me”, which sounds like “I don’t fear Mr. Berlusconi per se, I rather fear the part of Mr. Berlusconi that is in me,” meaning that he was not comfortable with the fact that many people had already internalized Berlusconi’s values and so changed (or, from his point of view, corrupted) the views and values of Italian society.

In the Information Age, similar considerations can be applied to the control over the global Internet and the principle of Net Neutrality.

The Broadcast Tower is a key building to achieve the global “cultural victory” in the strategy game Sid Meiers’ Civilization V

A second example that can be, at least in part, explained by Lukes’ third dimension of power is the attitude of citizens towards civic engagement. As existing rules and routines shape individual and organizational behavior, state traditions have an influence on how civil society relates with the state [6]. In particular, in the nations following the Napoleonic tradition (including France and many countries in Southern Europe), the organic conceptions of the state

“tend to ascribe less of autonomous role to society and to citizens with the state having an obligation to defend society. […] There are prescribed procedures for exercising that power, but the power itself is inherent in the state” [7].

In particular,

“the French approach to governance appears to rely substantially more upon the direct imposition of the authority of the state over its citizens” [8].

This has implications on the citizens’ expectations about the role of the state in taking decisions on their behalf. The risk is to delegate all key decisions to politicians and spend less time than it would be necessary in directly suggesting new policies or regulations, or monitoring what the state does, even in current times of general distrust in government. At least in part, this is because this process and roles are part of a socialized tradition, which has deep roots in history.

Again, Gaber can represent the link between the first and the second example. In 1973, he reflected on the essence of democratic freedom in his song La libertà, concluding that he did not want to be a man “who spends his life to delegate and be controlled”, and that “Freedom is participation”.

Key questions face methodological constraints

The key question that “Power: A Radical View” implies — even if it does not address it directly — regards the existence in our democratic systems of political and economic elites that are capable of influencing people’s behavior in subtle ways. Are our democracies really inclusive as North thinks? Or are they undergoing a legitimation crisis? I have discussed the implications of these questions in the second part of this post.

While there are many examples of ways in which power can be exerted that are consistent with Lukes’ third dimension, a conclusive answer to these questions is hard to get because of the numerous difficulties in measuring these phenomena. As discussed in the first section, these difficulties are not limited to technical problems, but are fundamentally connected to the methodological issues regarding our capacity to apply an objective assessment of reality.

[1] March, J.G. and D. Easton, The power of power, in Classics of organization theory, J.M. Shafritz, J.S. Ott, and Y.S. Jang, Editors. 1966, Cengage Learning.

[2] North, D.C., Understanding the process of economic change. 2006: Academic Foundation.

[3] Astley, W.G., Administrative science as socially constructed truth. Administrative Science Quarterly, 1985: p. 497–513.

[4] Acemoglu, D., S. Johnson, and J.A. Robinson, Institutions as a fundamental cause of long-run growth. Handbook of economic growth, 2005. 1: p. 385–472.

[5] Orwell, G., 1984. 2006: Editions Underbahn Ltd.

[6] Allison, G.T. and P. Zelikow, Essence of decision: Explaining the Cuban missile crisis. Vol. 2. 1999: Longman New York.

[7] Ongaro, E. and B. Guy Peters, The napoleonic tradition. International Journal of Public Sector Management, 2008. 21(2): p. 118–132.

[8] Loughlin, J.P., State traditions, administrative reform, and regionalization, in The Political Economy of Regionalism, M.L. Keating, J, Editor. 1997, Frank Cass: London. p. 41–62.