Power elites after fifty years


When C. Wright Mills wrote The Power Elite in 1956, we lived in a simpler time. And yet, with a few important exceptions, the concentration of power that he described continues to seem familiar by today’s standards. The central idea is that the United States democracy — in spite of the reality of political parties, separation of powers, contested elections, and elected representation — actually embodied a hidden system of power and influence that negated many of these democratic ideals. The first words of the book are evocative:

The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. ‘Great changes’ are beyond their control, but affect their conduct and outlook none the less. The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes now press upon the men and women of the mass society, who accordingly feel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power.

And a page or two later, here is how he describes the “power elite”:
The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences. Whether they do or do not make such decisions is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions: their failure to act, their failure to make decisions, is itself an act that is often of greater consequence than the decisions they do make. For they are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy.
Mills offers a sort of middle-level sociology of power in America. He believes that power in the America of the 1950s centers in the economic, political, and military domains — corporations, the state, and the military are all organized around networks of influence at the top of which stands a relatively small number of extremely powerful people. (It seems that Mills’s description of the military is less apt today; perhaps not surprising, given that Mills was writing in the middle of the Cold War.) Power is defined as the ability to achieve what one wants over the opposition of others; and the levers of power are the great institutions in society — corporations, political institutions, and the military. And the thesis is that a relatively compact group of people exercise hegemony in each of these areas. Moreover, power leads often to wealth, in that power permits firms and individuals to gain access to society’s wealth. So a power elite is often also an economic elite.

The central thrust of the book stands in sharp opposition to the fundamental assumption of then-current democratic theory: the idea that American democracy is a pluralist system of interest groups in which no single group is able to dominate all the others (Robert Dahl (1959), A Preface to Democratic Theory). Against this pluralistic view, Mills postulates that members of mass society are dominated, more or less visibly, by a small group of powerful people in the elite. (See an earlier posting on power as influence for discussion of how power works.)

So what is Mills’s theory, exactly? It is that there is a small subset of the American population that (1) possess a number of social characteristics in common (for example, elite university educations, membership in certain civic organizations); (2) are socially interconnected with each other through marriage, friendship, and business relationship; (3) occupy social positions that give them a durable ability to make a large number of the most momentous decisions for American society; (4) are largely insulated from effective oversight from democratic institutions (press, regulatory system, political constraint). They are an elite; they are a socially interconnected group; they possess durable power; and they are little constrained by open and democratic processes.

And, of course, there needs to be a theory about recruitment and the social mechanisms of steering given individuals into the elite group. Is it family background? Is it the accident of attendance at Yale? Is it a meritocracy through which talented young people eventually grasp the sinews of power through their own achievement in the organizations of power? We need to have an account of the social means of reproduction through which a set of power relations is preserved and reproduced throughout generational change.

What is interesting in rereading Mills’s classic book today, is how scarce the empirical evidence is within the analysis. It is not really an empirical study at all, but rather a reflective essay on how this sociologist has been led to conceptualize American society, based on his long experience and study. The most empirical chapter is the section on chief executives of corporations; Mills provides an historical and quantitative narrative of the rise and consolidation of the corporation over the prior 75 years. But overall, there is quite a bit of descriptive assertion in the book; relatively little analysis of the social mechanisms that reproduce this social order; and very little by way of empirical validation of the analysis as a whole.

So how does it look today? To what extent is there a compact set of powerful people in contemporary America who have a disproportionate ability to bend the future to their interests and desires? One thing is strikingly clear: the concentration of wealth in America has increased significantly since 1956. Edward Wolff provides a summary graph for the percentage of wealth owned by the top 1% of wealth holders since 1920 in Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It. In 1955 the top 1% held 30% of the nation’s wealth; from 1970 to 1980 this percent declined to about 22%; and from the Reagan administration forward the percentage climbed past its previous highs to about 38% in 2000. So plainly there is an economic super-elite in the United States. This is a group that benefits from durable privileges and inequalities of access to wealth and income.

But this isn’t exactly what Mills had in mind; he was interested in a power elite — a fairly compact group of people who had the ability to make fundamental decisions in the three large areas of modern life that he highlights. And though he doesn’t say very much about this point, he implies that it is an interconnected group — through interlocking directorships in corporations, for example. So how can we assess the degree to which contemporary society in the United States is run through such a system? Is there a power elite today?

In one sense it is obvious what the answer is. Corporations continue to have enormous influence on our society — banks, energy companies, pharmaceutical companies, food corporations. In fact, the collective power of corporations in modern societies is surely much greater than it was fifty years ago, through direct economic action and through their ability to influence laws and regulations. Their directors and CEOs do in fact constitute a small and interlocked portion of the population. And these leaders continue to have great ability to determine social outcomes through their “private” decisions about the conduct of the corporation. Moreover, as we have learned only too well in the past year, there is very little regulative oversight over their decisions and choices. So the existence of a “power elite” is almost a visible fact in today’s world.

But to get more specific — and to make more precise comparisons over time — it seems that we need some way of identifying and quantifying the idea of a sociologically real “power elite.” One way of trying to do that is by making use of the tools of social network analysis. For example, here is a network graph of corporate America compiled by kiwitobes. What the graph demonstrates is that the boards of America’s largest corporations are populated with directors who overlap substantially across companies; there is a high degree of interconnectedness across the boards of directors of major corporations. So this bears out part of Mills’s thesis in today’s corporate social reality.

But even more compelling would be a study that doesn’t exist yet — a social network map that represents something like the whole population of a community, linking individuals to the institutions in which they occupy a position of power. The vast majority of the population would exist in single points at the bottom of the map; most people don’t have a position of power at all. But, if Mills is right, there will be a small subset of people who are interconnected through many relationships to institutional sources of power: memberships in boards, offices in corporations, directorships of banks, trustees of universities. And we might give our thought experiment one additional feature: we might look at snapshots of the same data for each generation identified by families. Now we have Mills’s hypothesis in a nutshell: at a given time there is a small subset of the population who occupy most of the positions of power; and the probability is great that the sons and daughters of this group will occupy similar positions of power in the next generation. And in fact, it is perfectly visible in our society that the likelihood of occupying a position of power in one generation is highly influenced by the power status of the antecedent generation.

Regrettably, we don’t have a direct ability to carry out this experiment. But we might consider a test case invoking an important decision and a large number of “stakeholders”, large and small: the current effort to reform the health care system in the United States. Will this issue be resolved in a fully democratic way, with the interests of all elements of society being represented fairly in the outcome? Or will a relatively small group of corporations, political interests, and professions be in a position to invisibly block reforms that would be democratically selected? And if this is in fact the case, then doesn’t that speak loudly in support of the power elite hypothesis?

With the advantage of fifty years of perspective, I think two observations can be made about Mills’s book. First, he seems to have diagnosed a very important thread in the sociological reality of power in America — albeit in a way that is more intuitive and less empirical than contemporary sociologists would prefer. And second, he illustrates a profoundly important ability to exercise his sociological imagination: to arrive at a way of looking at contemporary society that allows us to make sense of many of the observations that press upon us.

(Another important voice on this subject is G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America? Power, Politics, and Social Change (1967). Domhoff has a very nice web version of his theory on his web page.)

Running a dictatorship


What is involved in running a military dictatorship in a large country like Burma? Simply having a lot of military force is obviously not enough. It is necessary to organize and manage a number of complex processes in order to manage the basic “metabolism” of the government and society. Even a dictatorship requires a political administration that is capable of solving problems and implementing policies on a broad basis. And this means decision-makers, a bureaucracy, rules and procedures, agents at the local level, etc. There are several tasks that simply must be attended to; if not, the state would collapse:

  • maintaining the nuts and bolts of a military organization — command, discipline, recruitment, training;
  • monitoring, co-opting, and repressing internal opposition groups;
  • monitoring telecommunications and internet activity;
  • controlling borders and potential military threats across borders;
  • negotiating with and controlling internal armed groups;
  • collecting revenues for use by the government and its officials;
  • maintaining a minimum level of civil amenities (routine policing, sanitation, provision of electricity, water, and fuel).

Not essential but certainly in the interest of long-term stability are functions such as these: a plan for national and regional economic development, a plan for development of stable institutions for civil society, and a plan for transition to civilian rule. If it is possible to demonstrate that ordinary life is improving for the mass of ordinary people, the state is more likely to gain a degree of acceptance.

Almost none of the positive functions of government seem to be available in Burma today. Corruption is rampant. Brutality and mistreatment of civilians by soldiers appear to be rampant as well, especially in peripheral states. (Examples of brutality by soldiers drawn from the twitter feed include beatings, rapes, forced marriages, and forced labor.) And economic prospects for typical citizens are not improving; the country’s wealth is being exploited for the benefit of military and political elites almost exclusively.

Burma’s generals have done everything possible to keep their regime inside a black box. It turns out, however, that we know a little bit about how the Burmese military goes about a number of these tasks. Mary Callahan’s 2005 book Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma provides quite a bit of detailed information and analysis of the organization and goals of the Burmese military. The Epilogue provides an extensive description of the strategies and actions of the military in the past decade. She notes the apparent stability of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) regime, indicating that it was necessary to rebuild the military state substantially after the elections and riots of 1988. Stability and order were the highest priority, and the military went about building the institutions and organizations that it needed in order to suppress threats against its survival. Callahan highlights a number of important steps that have occurred since then — all of which fall under the general heading of “military dictatorship state-building” (211 ff.):

  • Ministry of Defense reorganized
  • Substantial rearmament
  • New army garrisons in towns and villages throughout the country
  • Expansion of military industrial base
  • Expansion of system of education, health, and welfare facilities for members of the military
  • Office of Strategic Studies takes charge of policy — ethnic areas, drug trade, economy, foreign relations
  • State-building and civil administration delegated to (corrupt) regional commanders
  • Funding derived from taxes and fees; profits of drug trade; control of natural resources (gems, forestry, tourism) controlled by Myanmar Economic Corporation
  • Development of severe discipline problems in the ranks and corruption problems in the officer corps

So what does this suggest about Burma and its current subjection? Several things. First, the Burmese military state appears to have a very secure grasp on power; the opposition has little real leverage to force change. The ethnic armies have either come to cease-fire agreements with the regime, have been crushed (Karen National Union), or have settled into an acceptable status quo. Even the more active Kachin Independence Army poses no realistic threat to military rule. The National League for Democracy (NLD) may have widespread support in Rangoon and London; but it is hard to see how it can lead a movement that would seriously challenge the military and police system. Even mass demonstrations appear to be ineffectual in forcing change on the SLORC — this was one of the lessons of 2007. The regime has adequate access to revenue, through its control of Burma’s natural wealth. The junta’s willingness to use overwhelming brutal force against civilians is entirely credible — witness the past forty years. And internationally, only China appears to have real economic leverage with the Burmese junta — and the Chinese are doing a great deal of investment in Burma. Western sanctions have not had economic effect on the junta or the military, and it appears that ASEAN censure is harmless as well.

So it’s hard to see how this is going to turn out well for the forces of democracy in the medium term. A democracy movement needs a certain amount of space in order to act effectively on a mass scale; and the junta seems to be all too capable of ensuring that this doesn’t happen.

Marx’s theory of political behavior


Marxism is concerned with the politics of class: the success or failure of working class organizational efforts, the occurrence of collective action in defense of class interests, the logic of working class electoral politics, and the occurrence of revolution. Marx attempted to analyze and explain a variety of political phenomena–e.g., the forms that working class political action took in 1848 in France, the reasons for Napoleon III’s overwhelming electoral victory in 1849, and the efforts by organizations of the English working class to achieve the Ten Hours Bill. What assumptions underlie Marx’s analysis of the political behavior of class? I would say that his theory comes down to three elements: a theory of individual means-end rationality, a theory of ideology, and a theory of class consciousness.

I believe, surprisingly, that there is much in common between Marxism and the rational-choice model of political behavior. (So does Adam Przeworski; Capitalism and Social Democracy.) The rational-choice approach postulates that individuals’ political behavior is a calculated attempt to further a given set of individual interests–income, security, prestige, office, etc. One might suppose that such an approach is unavoidably bourgeois, depending upon the materialistic egoism characteristic of market society. However, I maintain that Marx’s theory of political behavior, like his theory of capitalist economic behavior, is ultimately grounded in a theory of individual rationality. Roughly, Marx’s fundamental postulate of political analysis is that:

Agents as members of classes behave in ways calculated to advance their perceived material interests; these interests are perceived as class interests (i.e., interests shared with other members of the class); and class organizations and features of class consciousness permit classes to overcome implicit conflicts of interest between private interest and class interest.

Second, Marx’s theory of political behavior incorporates the concept of ideology. Ideologies, or “false consciousness”, are systems of ideas that affect the worker’s political behavior by instilling false beliefs and self-defeating values in the worker. An ideology may instill a set of values or preferences that propel individual behavior in ways that are contrary to the individual’s objective material interests. Further, ideologies modify purposive individual action by instilling a set of false beliefs about the causal properties of the social world and about how existing arrangements affect one’s objective interests. Rational individuals, operating under the grip of an ideology, will undertake actions that are contrary to their objective material interests, but are fully rational given the false beliefs they hold about the social world they inhabit and their mistaken assumptions about their real interests and values. An ideology is an effective instrument, then, in shaping political behavior within a class system; it induces members of exploited classes to refrain from political action directed at overthrowing the class system. And this is indeed Marx’s use of the concept; an ideology functions as an instrument of class conflict, permitting a dominant class to manipulate the political behavior of subordinate classes. It is an important task to try to identify the institutions and mechanisms through which an ideology is conveyed to a population.

A third important component of Marx’s theory of political behavior is his concept of class consciousness. The term refers to a set of motivations, beliefs, values, and the like, that are specific and distinctive for a given class (peasantry, proletariat, petty bourgeoisie). Marx holds that these motivational factors serve to bind together the members of a class and to facilitate their collective activities. Class consciousness takes the form of such motives as loyalty to other members of one’s class, solidarity with partners in a political struggle, and commitment to a future social order in which the interests of one’s class are better served. Marx describes such a complex of psychological properties, and their social foundation in The Eighteenth Brumaire.

“A whole superstructure of different and specifically formed feelings, illusions, modes of thought and views of life arises on the basis of the different forms of property, of the social conditions of existence. The whole class creates and forms these out of its material foundations and the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives these feelings, etc. through tradition and upbringing, may well imagine that they form the real determinants and the starting-point of his activity.” David Fernbach, ed., Surveys from Exile. Political Writings Volume II., pp. 173-74.

A class is supposed to develop its own conscious identity of itself as a class. Insofar as a group of people who constitute a structurally defined class fails to acquire such attitudes, Marx denies that the group is a class in the full sense at all (a class-for-itself as well as -in-itself). Marx does not provide an extensive analysis of the process through which class consciousness emerges, even within capitalism, but he suggests that it takes form through a historical process of class struggle. As workers or peasants come to identify their shared interests and as they gain experience working together to defend their shared interests, they develop concrete ties within their political groups which provide motivational resources for future collective action. Here again, we need to have a sociology of the institutions that contribute to the formation of this feature of social psychology — perhaps along the lines of the analysis offered by E. P. Thompson in Making of the English Working Class (link).

A central function of class consciousness in Marx’s political theory is to explain the moral capacity of members of exploited classes to join in prolonged, risky struggles in defense of their material interests. The concept of class consciousness thus functions as a bridge between individual interests and collective interests in classical Marxist analysis of political behavior. It gives workers effective motivation to undertake actions and strategies that favor their group interests, and it gives them motivational resources allowing them to persist in these strategies even in the face of risk and deprivation (i.e., in circumstances where the collective strategy imposes costs on the individual’s interests). This treatment of class consciousness shows a sensitivity to the point that political behavior is often driven by a set of motives that are richer than a narrow calculus of self-interest. Ralph Miliband’s work illustrates this point; State in a Capitalist Society: An Analysis of the Western System of Power.

Here, then, we have an austere model of political behavior that can legitimately be attributed to Marx: Members of groups form beliefs about their material interests, and they act intelligently to further those interests. Members of groups form beliefs about their social world that are sometimes seriously misleading about how the social world works (ideologies). And members of groups sometimes gain a social psychology of solidarity and loyalty that gives them a degree of capacity to act as a group (class consciousness). The eventual behavior of an economic group is the aggregate result of the group’s perceptions of its interests, its mental map of how the social world works, and the resources of solidarity that it possesses. It is a materialist theory; it is an agent-centered theory; and it is a theory that invites serious investigation of the processes through which the social psychology of a group are formed.

See prior postings on class, power, and mobilization: link, link, link. An important finding of much discussion of political mobilization since Marx’s time is that a purely economic and materialist account of political motivation leaves out a great deal of contemporary political behavior — for example, ethnic mobilization, identity politics, and political protest (Teheran today).

Power and class in the 21st century


We could say that power and class are the two most important determinants of everyday life in the 21st century. Class relations – determined by the property system and the basic economic institutions within which we live – determine our opportunities, health, quality of life, and sometimes our basic freedoms. Power relations influence our careers, our opportunities, our freedoms, and very basic aspects of our behavior and choice. It is reasonable to think that the system of power and class within which we live constitutes the basic framework within which our lives and purposes unfold.

Further, the two schemata of post-modern life are interrelated. The property system within which we live is like a medieval cathedral – it cannot stand without the buttresses of power that retain its structure in the face of countervailing pressures. And the relations of power that exist in a society often derive much of their voltage from the structure of property that exists. Property holders need, want, and gain power; holders of power gain property.

But post-modern life is not so simple. There are multiple cross-cutting identities and positions that influence personal outcomes, not simply class or power. Race, ethnic group, gender – these are social systems that have quite a bit in common with class, and they have relationships to power as well. Race, ethnicity, and gender are also “social processing systems” – one’s status within the system of race or gender immediately influences one’s opportunities, status, prestige, and – yes, power. And one’s position within these ascriptive systems also has implications for the class system; thus black workers faced a different working environment than white workers in the Detroit auto industry in the 1950s and 1960s, and female workers earn less than male workers in many businesses.

We might define power in these terms: “access to social and material resources that permit an individual or group to control or influence social outcomes, including the behavior of other individuals and groups, the distribution of things, and the configuration of social institutions.” And we can give a simple schematic description of the chief mechanisms and tactics through which control and influence are exercised in contemporary society: coercion, threat, manipulation of the agenda, manipulation of information and thought, and positional advantage. These are almost all relational characteristics — they have to do with the relationships of influence that exist among individuals and groups.

We can also provide a simple definition of social class: “position within a system of property relations, defining one’s location with a structure of domination, control, and exploitation.” The group of people who share a similar position within the property relations of a society constitute a class. Their circumstances, resources, and opportunities are similar to those of others in the class, and they have common interests that are in opposition to members of some other classes. So class works as a social sorting process: individuals are tracked into one class or another through specific sociological mechanisms (schooling, parental attitudes, neighborhood). And it works to assign very different ranges of material outcomes to members of the various groups; working class families wind up more poorly educated, less healthy, and more vulnerable to economic fluctuations than their counterparts in the landlord class, the financial elite class, or the capitalist class. Part of the challenge of developing a sociology of class involved identifying some of the concrete pathways of difference created by class with respect to specific opportunities – education, health, adequate nutrition, access to creative work, .…

Status and consciousness are also part of the sociology of class. Individuals develop specific features of mentality out of the experience they have in the class environments of their parents, their schools, and their workplaces. And these differences in turn give rise to differences in behavior — consumer behavior, political behavior, and inter-group behavior. And members of a class may acquire a common perspective on their situation — they may come to diagnose the social relations around them in a similar way, they may come to a common “class consciousness” that leads them to engage in collective action together.

Further, the system of class relations also creates specific features in the social networks that exist in a society. A highly democratic and egalitarian society would be expected to have a social network graph that is widely and evenly distributed across the population. But in our society, it is likely that a social network map of Chicago would be highly differentiated along class lines: business people tend to know business people, manufacturing workers tend to know other manufacturing workers, and so forth. (I am sure there is some good research on this topic, though I can’t put my hands on it.) This in turn implies that there will be significant differences across classes with respect to social capital — the ability of people to call upon their social relationships and associations in pursuit of their goals and interests. (See Nan Lin, Social Capital: Theory and Research.) (This point comes up in a different context in the earlier posting about segregation in France.)

The concepts of power and class are often linked. However, it strikes me that the two concepts or theories are not parallel; they do different work within our analysis of the society in which we live, and they require different kinds of ontologies in order for us to explicate them. “Class” is a situational feature for individuals; it defines a set of circumstances and opportunities that fundamentally influence the shape of their lives. In this respect the theory of class evokes structures first and agency and consciousness second. “Power” is a fluid characteristic of individuals within social relationships. As such, it evokes social relationships and social resources wielded by individuals and groups against other individuals and groups. “Power” is a feature of the individual’s position within a set of social networks and relationships, not a social structure. Class is more akin to “the mass of the earth”, whereas power is akin to “the ability to fly”. The mass of the earth determines the most basic feature of life on earth — gravity. The ability to fly is a complex and variable capacity that permits specific organisms and artifacts to accomplish flight within the general influence of gravity. What is complicated about this analogy is the fact that there are several sources of social “gravity” — including the structures of race, gender, and religion that pull, push, and constrain us in multiple directions.

Unequal polities

Most nations are at least nominally based on the idea of the legal equality of all citizens. This commitment provides a salient pathway through which even the most disadvantaged groups can pursue their goal of achieving greater equality for themselves and their communities, consistent with the defining values of the nation. Some countries, however, have embodied legal differences among groups of their citizens based on the religion or ethnicity of the person. And in these circumstances, pariah groups have no pathway — legal or moral — through which to attempt to create a non-violent pathway towards greater social justice for themselves.

Malaysia is a striking example of the latter circumstance. Its constitution and legal system give fundamental privileges to members of the Malay majority, referred to as “Bumiputra” privilege, and accord more limited rights and opportunities to non-Malay groups (Indian, Chinese, Christian, other). It is a polity based on differential rights for different ethnic and religious groups. Many of the most desirable opportunities in Malaysian society — in employment, government office, contracting, and education — are reserved or prioritized for Malays, defined as a racial group. It is hard to see how such a political system, defined on the premise of significant legal and economic inequality across different groups, could be justified to members of the subordinate groups. And, in fact, large street demonstrations in 2007 by the Indian community marked an exceptional indication of the discontent these policies create, and the lack of legitimacy these policies create in the whole population.

The question here is a fairly specific one: how can a polity founded on these sorts of invidious and permanent distinctions among groups of its citizens remain stable? Is it possible to generate any variety of “political legitimacy” across the whole population that contributes to political stability in these circumstances of extreme constitutional inequality among ethnic groups? How can the government maintain its power and ability to govern?

In the case of Malaysia the answer to the question about governing seems to be a combination of institution-rigging, force, and intimidation of the large ethnic populations. The constitution sets the stage with its stipulation of Bumiputra privilege. And electoral and parliamentary rules pretty much guarantee a permanent and large Malay majority in the parliament for parties such as the UMNO. So the political rules entrench the political hegemony of the Malay majority. This means that minority ethnic groups and parties have no hope of gaining progress towards legal equality of rights of citizenship through the legal process.

And this is where force and intimidation come in. It would seem that the strategy of mass demonstration and protest would be a natural recourse for large ethnic groups in Malaysia. But the state has made it clear that it will quickly suppress demonstrations with force — in fact, the 2007 demonstrations were striking by their rarity in Malaysian public life.

But there is a deeper and more sinister kind of force in the air as well. This is the threat of largescale “race riots” directed against Malaysia’s Indian and Chinese communities. The riots of 1969 were vicious and destructive, and they are remembered. The threat of pogrom and ethnic cleansing by Malays against Indian and Chinese Malaysians is not far from the surface and it is taken seriously. Rhetoric by UNMO politicians in speeches before parliament reinforce this sense of threat.

The theoretical questions at issue here can be posed from two angles — the state and the group. From the state’s point of view, the question is whether it is possible to navigate the fundamental conflict of interest that is created between Malays and the rest of Malaysian society through some combination of minor accommodation and the threat of repression. Can a consensus politics, backed by the perennial threat of force, emerge from this kind of fundamental inequality across groups? From the point of view of the large Indian or Chinese Malaysian populations, the question is whether there are tactics of collective action and popular mobilization that might allow them to pursue their demands of social and political equality effectively. Can they turn the tables on the Malay government? Can they gradually create the conditions in which the Malaysian state is compelled to accept the fundamental premises of a just civil society — equality of all citizens and free rights of political participation for all?

Here is a link to an independent Malaysian news source that many Malaysians have confidence in.

"Influence" concepts

Power is an elusive social concept, because it is fundamentally relational and composite. The power that a person or group possesses can only be defined in relation to the domain of persons over whom this power can be wielded and the set of social resources that constitute the levers of this power. Power must be characterized in terms of domain and mechanisms. The question here is whether there are other social concepts that have a similar conceptual geography. If so, this may give us a better basis for explaining the concept of power.

Consider these possible sibling concepts: status, affluence, charisma, eloquence, funny … Each of these is what we might call an “influence” concept. It stipulates a capacity to bring about a particular kind of effect in other persons. It follows that these concepts are inherently relational; we cannot define “charisma” or “eloquence” without explicitly or implicitly specifying the group of people who respond to these qualities. Second, conveying influence requires a mechanism of influence; and in fact each of these examples depends upon some set of qualities or assets through which the individual with the property is able to exert this influence (admiration, laughter, persuasion, willingness to follow, willingness to obey).

Further, each of these characteristics is social in one way or another. “Status” depends on an audience that is prepared to “read” a person with certain attributes as possessing a certain status, and it depends on the individual being socially situated on such a way as to acquire those tags (the Mercedes, the $600 haircut, …). “Affluence” depends on having resources adequate to support consumption noticeably superior to that of most other people in this social setting — in fact, it is doubly social, in that it depends upon comparison with other consumers and on the affluent person’s having access to socially defined resources, which implies a particular situation within a particular set of social relations (corporation, pirate gang, government bureau).

Power differs from these other influence terms in several ways. Most crucially, power is less dependent on the social psychology of others and more dependent upon material resources. Status and eloquence are pretty much in the eye of the beholder, whereas the power of a criminal boss depends largely on his ability to marshall force. Affluence is similar in this respect, while “funny” is more similar to status.

So an important distinguishing feature within this conceptual space of “social influence” concepts is whether the attributes needed to wield influence are personal psychological traits or external, socially defined assets. David Letterman is funny because he has a set of capabilities — quick verbal wit, droll timing, sarcastic imagination, extreme facial motility — that we are culturally prepared to find amusing. These traits are not inherently funny — presenting the same skit to a group of Navajo ranchers might elicit only puzzled looks. But in our comedy culture, the person who has Letterman’s qualities but at a less adept level will not succeed in being funny. Al Capone was powerful because he had violent men available to do his bidding. This wasn’t a feature primarily of his psychological characteristics but rather his particular social location and the material resources of violence he could call upon.

We might consider how charisma fits in this analysis, especially since this concept has almost as common appeal in political analysis as power. We might say that a charismatic person is one who has the ability to influence other people to want to act in the ways he/she asks of them. This influence is often described as sub-rational and sub-conscious: followers act out the exhortations of their charismatic leader out of emotional allegiance rather than rational judgment. So the capacities required of the charismatic leader are features of personality and performance — the charismatic person needs the qualities that permit him/her to inspire followers. In this way charisma is similar to being funny. But these capabilities also give the leader the ability to influence followers beyond their rational will — which makes charisma more similar to power.

So we might summarize this analysis in application to the concept of power along these lines:

X has power =df {X has access to social resources Ri that permits him/her to compel the behavior of persons Pj}

X is funny =df {X has skills and personality traits Ci such that X’s performance typically elicits laughter from persons Pj}

X has charisma =df {X has skills and personality traits Ci such that X’s performance typically elicits admiration and loyalty from persons Pj}

Power as influence

We’ve looked at power as the socially embodied ability of some people to compel the behavior of other people. But this isn’t the whole of what we would want to include within the scope of the uses of power. Other important aspects of power are more impersonal, having to do with influencing outcomes rather than controlling behavior. Powerful agents have the ability to set the agenda; to influence the rules of the game (whatever game one is involved in, including the state); to influence the flow of resources; and to make decisions that will have important consequences for other people.

Consider a few examples.

  • A large employer is concerned about rising health care costs. The compensation team lays out several choices: eliminate higher-cost insurance plans; eliminate subsidy for dependents; or shift more costs to employees through a higher premium copay formula. The CEO has the ability to choose one option over others; he/she exercises this authority in favor of option 3. This is an exercise of power.
  • The vice president of the United States wants to see a reduction in the rate of the capital gains tax. He quietly lobbies with legislators to incorporate this provision into upcoming tax legislation. He prevails. This too is an exercise of power — an ability to bend outcomes to the VP’s will. And it proceeds through the ability to influence other decision-makers.
  • The mayor of a small city is in a position to influence which development projects will be permitted. He/she exercises this power to give the nod to A and to deny B. A receives a substantial business benefit and B is left out.
  • A faculty reappointment committee considers the case of Assistant Professor X. It considers his/her dossier of research and teaching in relation to the standards. The case is not clear-cut. The committee has the power to end X’s career at the university. It chooses not to support reappointment. It thereby exercises its power with respect to X’s continuing employment. It emerges that one member had an animus against X and spoke persuasively against X. This member used a private form of power and influence against X and in furtherance of his own wishes.

These examples illustrate much of what C. Wright Mills hoped to capture in his theory of the “power elite” — a relatively compact group of people who are in a position to shape social outcomes to their liking by influencing the agenda, the rules, or the decisions (The Power Elite).

And it goes with this social empowerment of small groups, that the possibilities of self-serving and self-interest arise. When individuals are in a position to determine the way social outcomes will occur, we have to consider the likelihood that they will have favored outcomes that serve their own interests best. So power in this circumstance has a lot to do with distributive outcomes — who wins and who loses. And it had a lot to do with setting the rules of the game in ways that favor some people and disfavor others.

These aspects of power are tremendously important in a complex society. People in positions to influence important decisions — private, corporate, or governmental — have a greatly amplified ability to shape outcomes to their own will. And this in turn permits elites to shape the social environment in ways that best serve their private interests. (Stephen Lukes’s book, Power: A Radical View, is particularly useful.)

And this in turn makes the strongest possible case for democratic transparency. We want the decisions that affect us to be made fairly, with full consideration of the impact they have on everyone affected by them. The decisions that influence everyone’s well-being need to be made within a culture of openness and transparency. But all too often, this expectation is frustrated.

Non-coercive power?

The most visible exercise of power involves the direct use of force or the threat of violence. Demonstrators are cleared from the streets by police with truncheons and water cannons. Storekeepers are compelled to pay protection money by the example of a few mysterious fires. But are there also instruments and tactics of power that do not ultimately depend on force?

Recall a familiar definition of power. A wields power over B if A can bring it about that B behaves in such-and-so a way against B’s will, desire, or choice. There are several mechanisms we might consider that involve the imposition of another’s will without recourse to the threat of violence.

Consider beach-front property owners who prefer that the public should not stroll on their bits of beach. If the property owners have the political clout needed to install “residents-only” gates on all the points of access, then they have succeeded in controlling the behavior of the strolling public — without having to hire a private security company to threaten the public with violence if they trespass. They have used power and influence to block certain kinds of behavior. But of course the enforcement of law brings with it the threat of force — so the private power identified here is actually effective only because it can leverage the coercive power of the state.

So here’s another strategy the private group might consider: deception. They might suborn the publishers of the local maps, disguising the points of access to the beach. Public picnic-seekers set off for an afternoon at the beach, only to fall into confusion because of the misleading maps. The private property owners have used their power to alter behavior — without the trouble of threat of force. (And it is in fact difficult to find some if the exclusive resort communities that have cropped up in the American west!)

And how about this: a well-financed program of disinformation designed to bring the public to believe that the beaches are unsafe, unhealthy, or uncool. The public loses its taste for beaches — and the property owners once again get their way. No random strollers on the beach. They’ve exercised power non-violently, by shifting the beliefs and wants of the public. Here the media can be an instrument of power.

And we might imagine, finally, that the property owners exercise their will by “log-rolling” with the community groups who are interested in gaining access to the beachfront — “our support for your issues X, Y, Z is contingent upon your dropping this issue. You may prevail on this issue, but then you’ll lose on X, Y, and Z.” The tradeoff is severe, and the property holders prevail.

We might refer to these strategies of power generically as “manipulating institutional outcomes,” “manipulating knowledge and belief,” and “manipulating preferences and desires.”

Where does Marx’s quip that “religion is the opiate of the people” come into this analysis? It’s relevant in several ways. First, it has to do with preferences. If a religious system leads a group to favor its spiritual redemption over its material improvement, its behavior will change. But it is also relevant to something not yet mentioned: the strength of motivation an individual or groups have to bring about the changes they favor. Strategies that blunt the effective motivation of a group to carry out its purposes are themselves an important avenue of power. And this is suggested by the “opiate” part of the statement, suggesting as it does the image of torpor. So when religion functions as an opiate, it serves to reduce the motivation for action by the group; it is demobilizing.

These examples suggest that elites can effect their will through a variety of means that do not depend upon threat of violence, but that nonetheless work effectively to constrain the actions of other groups.

Power and social class

What does social class have to do with power? The two concepts represent theories about how a modern society works, and there are some fundamental relationships between them. But at bottom they are separate social factors that allow for independent forms of social causation. The first is fundamentally concerned with the economic structure of a society, the systems through which wealth is created and distributed, and the second is concerned with the expressions of politics within a society.

Both class and power can be placed into the dichotomies of structure and agency. The class system sets some of the parameters of “structure” within which individuals act, but it also creates some of the motivations and features of consciousness that constitute the agency of class actors. The forms of power present in a given society define some of the features of agency on the basis of which individuals and groups pursue their goals; but it is also fair to say that the institutions and social relations that define social power are also a part of the structured environment of action that is present in the social world. So both power and class are simultaneously features of structure and agency within a complex society; and the configurations created by class and power are causally inter-related without being isomorphic.

A class system can be defined as a system for producing social wealth in which productive resources and the results of production are unevenly divided across different groups. The producing class is “exploited” by the ascendant class: wealth is transferred from producers to owners. Serfs and lords, slaves and masters, workers and owners represent the primary classes of feudalism, ancient slavery, and nineteenth century capitalism. Within any society there are groups that fall outside the primary classes — small traders, artisans, small farmers, intellectuals. But it is central to Marx’s theory of class, that there is a primary cleavage between owners of the means of production and the direct producers, and that this cleavage embodies a fundamental conflict of interest between the two groups.

“Power” is a compound social characteristic in virtue of which an individual or group is able to compel the actions or inactions of other individuals or groups against their will or contrary to their interests, needs, and desires. Power derives from the ability to impose coercion — truncheons, prisons, and punishment; and it derives from the ability of some agents within society to set the agenda for future action. Power is needed to get 1.5 million people to leave their homes in Beijing to make way for Olympics developments. Power is needed to prevent striking miners from shutting down La Paz. Power is needed to protect the glittering shop windows of Johannesburg from disaffected young people. Power is exercised by states — through military and police, through agencies and bureaucracies, through legislation; it is exercised by corporations and other large private organizations; and it is exercised by social movements and other groups within society.

The two social factors are intertwined in at least three ways.

First, a class system constitutes a set of social inequalities within which there are deep conflicts of interest. So a class system sets the stage for the exercise of power; various groups have an interest in wielding power over others within a class system. Ascendant groups have an interest in sustaining the productive economic activities of subordinates whom they exploit, and they have an interest in squelching acts of resistance. But likewise, subordinate groups have an interest in using instruments of power to reduce or overturn the exploitative social relations within which they function.

Second, a class system assigns resources and positions to different groups and individuals that greatly influence the nature and weight of the instruments and tactics of power available to them. Owners have economic assets, alliances, and the state in their column. Producers have their numbers and their key locations in the economic process. A strike of rail workers is a substantial exercise of power, given the centrality of transport in a complex economy. So the particulars of a class system provide key determinants of the distribution of power within society.

Third, a class system also creates a subjectivity of power, powerlessness, and resistance that may iterate into new forms of the exercise of power. It may be an effective instrument of social control to cultivate a subjectivity of powerlessness in subordinate groups. And likewise, it may be materially empowering to subordinate groups to cultivate a culture of resistance — by making collective action and solidarity more attainable, for example.

These are several ways in which facts about class and power intertwine. But power is wielded for non-economic purposes as well — effecting the will of the state, achieving ethnic domination, and influencing culture, for example. So it would be incorrect to imagine that power is simply the cutting edge of class conflict.

Is publicity an important source of power?

What is publicity in the sense intended here? It is shared public knowledge of a given state of affairs. It stands in contrast to secrecy and deception, and it is cognate to transparency. Public knowledge is shared knowledge. And philosophers such as Rawls and Habermas have given great moral importance to this circumstance of publicity within their conceptions of a good democratic society. The Internet, with its ubiquitous voices and constant growth, is a particularly salient embodiment of the idea of publicity. But is publicity a resource of power and influence for ordinary people?

I begin with a simple observation: Powerful agencies in global society pursue their interests using the many forms of power available to them. Corporations, states, and powerful individuals exercise various kinds of power over ordinary people and groups. Coercion, deception, concealment, and intimidation rest in the portfolio of the powerful. What forms of self-defense are available to ordinary people against the misuse of power through coercion, intimidation, or the corruption of other wielders of power?

Amartya Sen’s answer to a part of this question is a famous one. He poses the question, why did major famine occur in post-Revolution China but not in post-Independence India? And his answer is, the existence of electoral institutions and a free press in India but not in China. The publicity of an emerging famine gave the Congress Party in India a major incentive to take steps that would prevent full-blown famine conditions. By contrast, the opacity of China and the non-accountable power of the Communist Party permitted the famine of the Great Leap Forward to continue through two harvest seasons and to accumulate to 20 to 30 million excess deaths. Publicity and public accountability of government played a decisive role in the different experiences, according to Sen and his co-author, Jean Drèze (Hunger and Public Action).

So, in suitable political circumstances, a free press involving independent investigative journalists can be a check on power, both in the hands of the state and for non-state actors. (Several earlier posts comment on the limits of this mechanism in authoritarian states; see entries under the label repression.)

What about the web and the blogosphere? Can these decentralized and non-official forms of publicity serve as an effective check on the abuse of power by the powerful?

There are several reasons for thinking they can, but there are also several countervailing factors. On the positive side, the web provides a broad and diffuse platform through which people with concerns or grievances can express their ideas and observations. Web pages and blogs provide everyone with a platform from which to make a case and present evidence. We can all be investigative journalists; we can all speak truth to power. And thanks to the power of search engines, these voices aren’t doomed to the oblivion of cacaphony. People concerned about a particular issue can find each other and pool information. And they can coordinate their actions into organized collective action. Whistle-blowers can publish their knowledge on the web — often behind a screen of anonymity that protects them from retaliation.

But we have to ask this question: to what extent does public knowledge of an abuse lead to effective actions or processes that remedy the abuse? What social mechanisms transform public knowledge into power? Sen’s argument about famine identifies one such mechanism: voters care about famine, and parties or candidates who are known to be ineffective in response to famine will be unsuccessful at the polls. So public opinion, energized by knowledge of disturbing facts, can lead to action by elected officials. But this mechanism isn’t available in all social settings or for all forms of bad behavior by powerful agencies, for several reasons. First, some forms of bad behavior by the powerful are largely outside the control of democratic processes — for example, business practices. Second, there are recognized strategies of “spin control” that allow bad actors to obscure their actions from public view. Finally, it is all too often that it is difficult to capture enough public attention to an abuse to gather a significant political force. (Think about how relatively ineffective public knowledge and revulsion about the violence in Darfur has been; and think about how little effect public knowledge of ineptitude and racial bias in governmental responses to Hurricane Katrina had on the actual policies and remedies that have been offered. The public knows quite a bit about both situations; but this knowledge hasn’t actually changed very much.)

Consider a hypothetical example. Suppose the XYZ mining company is developing a major gold mine in an underdeveloped part of the Amazon. And suppose that its practices of land acquisition, environmental effects, and labor relations are in fact highly abusive, coercive, and destructive. (Here’s a summary of a report documenting just this sort of behavior in Guyana.) For example, suppose the company has hired a private security company to evict local farmers, and evictions have taken place through the use of a significant amount of coercion; and suppose that the operations of the mine are creating significant and permanent environmental destruction. Now suppose, finally, that travelers and reporters have unearthed some of the details of these bad behaviors. How can that information be used to compel the company to improve its practices, or to lead to some form of punishment for the company that might deter similar practices in the future?

It would appear that there are only a few avenues of influence that exist. First, reporting the behavior to the national government that has jurisdiction might result in enforcement of national regulations about labor and environmental practices. Second, widespread global exposure of the practices might prove to be sufficiently embarrassing for the XYZ company that it has an incentive to reform its practices. And third, widespread exposure of the practices to potential customers of the XYZ company might lead these customers to purchase their gold from a competitor.

It is apparent that all of these remedies are very weak. National governments often lack either the will or the capacity to enforce regulations — even when they exist. Multinational corporations have thick skins, and public embarrassment may be a relatively small price to pay for profitable practices. And they have deep pockets when it comes to communicating their side to the story. And influencing consumers using this kind of information is possible but limited. The effort to discourage consumers from buying “conflict diamonds” falls in this category, and in the case of diamonds it may be moderately effective. But it is not likely to affect the purchasing behavior of anonymous companies buying raw materials whose business interests are defined by price, reliability, and quality.

So it seems that two things are true: first, that the internet has created a channel for the gathering and sharing of information that greatly increases the likelihood that bad behavior by powerful actors will be noted in some detail; and second, that this degree of publicity is only weakly to moderately effective in discouraging or punishing bad behavior by powerful actors. So publicity is a resource for the powerless; but it is a resource with fairly limited effects.

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