Understanding Approaches to Political Power

It’s not very difficult to conclude that the understanding of power is central to understanding politics. The following paragraphs shall aim to enumerate various approaches to power and relate them with a hypothetical political example i.e. a child complaining to his father because he got fewer chocolates in number than his brother. 

Coming back to the two children, say, X and Y, where X is younger than Y. Now, suppose the father legitimized the situation by claiming that X got more chocolate pieces because he is younger than Y. Since the decision is not in the favour of Y, Y starts to express his displeasure over the same and consequently the father settles Y by the use of force. Implementation of the decision hence made through the coercive form of power exercised by the father explains the first approach to power, i.e. decision-making. This approach overlaps with the concept of Dahl where he defines power as the ability of A (father) to make Y do a task T (abiding by his decision) that he/she otherwise won’t do. 

This approach is known as the one-dimensional or pluralist approach to the understanding of power. It’s worth noting that this approach measures power as an exercise provided the exercise of power is visible, transparent and easily noticeable by the recipients of power. Here, the force exercised by the father is easily noticeable. This approach helps in understanding the visible exercise of power and the transparent use of coercion in the current political ecosystem. 

Now, consider a modified version of the same situation. The father just proclaimed that X got more chocolates just because he gave them to him and it’s unquestionable. Here, the father fails to give a plausible backing or a reason for his decision. This is explained by Carl Schmitt as the divine power of the decisive where the decision/law is legitimized by the lawmaker. I.e. it’s the decision-maker that matters and not the decision. Here, the event where X got fewer chocolates than Y is deemed to be legal and justifiable only because it was the decision of the father. This is known as decisionism.

Now, let’s attribute a specific gender to both X and Y. Consider X and Y as identical twins where X is a boy and Y is a girl. Now, assume that the father gave more chocolate pieces to X only because he’s a boy. And, for the time being, assume that Y accepted his decision and no conflict was triggered. This is what Bachrach and Baratz claim to be the two-dimensional form of power, i.e. power as non-decision making. Here, we cannot notice the exercise of power with ease as it requires precise observation. 

The above example could be easily comprehended by explaining the father’s action to be his contribution to ensuring the future existence of patriarchy. As it’s said, the subjugation of women is central to the existence of patriarchy. The exerciser(s) of power (the father) attempts to keep potential issues (gender equality) out of the political arena. Such potential issues are excluded from the current political scenario as they conflict with the current, dominant, perpetuating norms (patriarchy) and most importantly, these are in favour of the powerful (the father, men in general). 

Considering a larger political environment, this approach helps us to identify the issues that are intentionally kept out of the purview of the public or the opposition. For instance, consider a speech on ‘merits of capitalism’ proposed to be delivered in the erstwhile USSR. The Government will never give consent to the same as it’s against the socialist interests of the Government. It aspires to keep this issue away from the purview of decision-making to avoid any future conflict with their interests. This is also known as the neo-elitist approach to power. 

Again consider the two children, X and Y, where X is younger than Y. Now, suppose they are born in a family that has been inculcating the social value of brotherhood since their birth. Now, consider that the father gave them a full chocolate piece and they’re supposed to divide them amongst themselves. In this case, Y divided the chocolate pieces in such a manner that X gets more pieces than Y. This is what Lukes claimed to be the three-dimensional approach to power, i.e. ideological power or radical approach to power. On analysing this situation, we cannot see a visible exercise of power and it’s noteworthy that even the recipients of power aren’t aware of the fact that some form of power is exercised over them. 

In such cases, the exerciser of power attempts to shape the preferences and mould the thoughts of the recipients of power, ensuring acceptance of certain decisions in the existing order. This can be explained by a simple example- a rustic woman, born in a conservative household will consider the concepts of female literacy, love marriage and wearing the dress of their choice as illegal and unsanctioned. They may not realize the exercise of social power over them that impedes even their basic fundamental rights. On growing up, they will be accustomed to the aspirations of the society that are reinforced on them. As it’s said, one is not born as a woman. It’s the society that attributes womanly characters and thought-process to them. 

Similarly, consider the two children X and Y asking their father chocolate of brand Z. In this case, large scale advertising and glorification of brand Z has created an impression in their mind and successfully shaped their preferences. Therefore, the concept of radical power overlaps with the concept of soft power and ideological hegemony

On considering a larger political arena, this helps us in understanding the widespread concept of “McDonaldization” and the cultural impacts of Globalization. It’s also the main element in understanding the concept of Joseph Nye’s ‘soft power’ concerning the US Hegemony. 

Finally, we can derive three more approaches to power from the above three approaches. They’re:

  1. Power as control over resources: The father is considered to be ‘powerful’ because he has money and can buy chocolates (resources) for the children, X and Y. 

During the cold-war era, the USA and USSR were considered to be ‘superpowers’ as they owned vast resources (oil, minerals, water, money, maritime routes, satellites, technology, etc) that were necessary for human survival. Moreover, they owned nuclear warheads and weapons of mass destruction. 

  1. Power as control over actors: The father is powerful as his decisions are binding on both the children. i.e. he has control over their children. 
  2. Power as control over outcomes/events: In the case of X being a boy and Y a girl, the father gives fewer chocolates to Y as he aspires for the continuity of patriarchy. The desirable outcomes are always defined in terms of the more powerful actor. 

Throughout this article, every concept mentioned was explained using a seemingly apolitical situation- the division of chocolate between two children. This alone implies the inseparability of politics from human lives and how even a microscopic issue can be conferred with infinite political dimensions.