Politics, Power and Resistance 2: Theories of Power

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Information about Politics, Power and Resistance 2: Theories of Power

Published on March 11, 2014

Author: AlanaLentin

Source: slideshare.net


This week we will be examining classical theories of political sociology examining the origins of political power. Marx and Weber have generally been seen as instigators of the two main currents in political sociological understandings of state power. Marx and Marxists have emphasised the role of capitalism in creating class divisions that stratify society. Max Weber has been credited with spawning both elitist and pluralist theories. While elitism argues that power is basically controlled by the same culturally reproduced group of power-mongers over generations, pluralists believe that power can be influenced by various groups in civil society exerting pressure on the centre of power.

Marxists tend to have a class-based explanation of the state, emphasising its determination by economic structural factors and the way in which states are driven by capitalist rather than democratic priorities. They see the state as subordinate to particular economic interests rather than as balanced between the interests of plural groups in society. There are, however, differences of emphasis amongst Marxists and within the writings of Marx himself on the question of precisely how and to what extent the state is subordinate to capitalist economic priorities. We shall look at these differences, in order to explain the complexities within Marxist thinking about the importance of the state for understanding society. This has been of crucial importance for the field of political sociology.

Weber was pessimistic about the possibility of mass participation in modern nation-states. He emphasised the role of parliament as a training ground for politicians rather than as a democratic arena. He suggested that parties tend to subvert parliaments and stressed the role of charismatic leadership. He also analysed processes of rationalisation and bureaucratisation, the distinctiveness of the modern nation-state, the importance of legitimacy and authority and the way in which classes and other sorts of groups struggle for power.

Politics Power & Resistance Week 2: Theories of Power A/Prof Alana lentin a.lentin@uws.edu.au

“The governments don’t rule the world, Goldman Sachs rules the world.” Alessio Rastani, Trader Who Rules? People around the world were shocked at the candour of trader, Alessio Rastani, who implied on BBC News in September 2011 that investment banks, speculating on failing economies - and not governments - rule the world. The current economic crisis has brought many to return to questions, first raised by Karl Marx, about the nature of the relationship between the state and capital and the effect this has on the relationship between classes - effectively between the rich and the poor in society. As Kate Nash explains, political sociologists have typically been concerned with the power of the state rather than with more general questions of how power operates.The state is often seen as the most important site of power because, as Max Weber stated, it has the ‘monopoly over the legitimate means of violence’. The state is the only entity that has the right to enforce itself over individuals. However, we all know that whereas this may be true in theory, individuals are subjected to exploitation and sometimes even violence from a whole host of other sources, in particular their employers. As Kieran Allen (2011) explains, although the relationship between employers and the workers may appear to be based on the freedom of workers to enter into a contract or withdraw their labour, in fact the freedom of capital is much greater than that of labour. While capital is free to decide where to operate and who to employ, and in many parts of the world under what conditions to do so, workers are only free to choose between working for different capitalists. Very often, even if a worker is treated badly, they do not have the possibility to withdraw their labour as to do so would mean being unable to feed their family. But what we are interested in this week is to look at what gives rise to this situation. How does it come about that different groups in society appear to have so many power differentials? In particular, what role is played by the state - if any - in facilitating the unequal relationship between capital and labour? We shall focus on three main approaches to the understanding of power which have underpinned political sociology and continue to be relevant to how we interpret the question of ‘who rules’ - Marxist approaches, elitist approaches and pluralist approaches.

3 Approaches Marxian Weberian Elitist Pluralist Neo-Marxist 1. Marx and Marxist scholars believe that power is exercised through the control of the means of production meaning that those who do not have access to this control - workers - are disempowered, there are nonetheless different attitudes among Marxists as to the degree to which the state mediates class relations. 2. Theorists of power inspired by a Weberian approach place less emphasis on the power of capital. The writings of Max Weber on power and the state have been credited with inspiring two types of approaches to power: 2 (a) Elite theorists privilege the power of the state, often in collusion with big business, and see this power as basically constant despite appearances to the contrary. 2 (b) Pluralists, on the other hand, see power as more circulating and based on the ability of different interest groups in society to seize the popular imagination, shift public opinion and in this way bring about a change in power dynamics. We’ll spend the rest of the lecture fleshing out and critiquing Marxist and Weberian approaches by focusing on: - Marx’s own changing approach to the relationship between the state and capital - The reinterpretation by neo-Marxists of Marx’s writing on power, in particular that of Antonio Gramsci - Weber’s understanding of power - The main currents in elite theory - Some ideas from pluralist theories.

Marx: Capital & the State The instrumental model “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (The Communist Manifesto) The arbiter model The functionalist model [Show film] In this brief video, David Harvey explains how capital is accumulated and gives some clues as to how capitalists come to wield so much power over western societies. Owning the means of production means being able to transform labour into a commodity - meaning that workers are not free to operate outside the capitalist system which needs them for the accumulation of more profit. But, it also means that the role of the state is transformed to meet the demands of capital. As western states begin to grow through colonialist expansion and greater innovation fuelled by technological innovation in machinery and transport, they require the wealth created by a growing capitalist class. We are interested in how power is constructed and maintained, so our focus will be on the relationship between capital and the state in Marxist thought. Marxist perspectives on the state are distinguished by the fact that they place primary emphasis on the inextricable relationship between state power and economic power. Unlike liberal thinkers who depoliticise this relationship, Marx and Marxists believe that the question of who controls the means of production is an inherently political one and cannot be presented as separate from the discussion of where power lies. The state and the market cannot be separate entities, because by acting to secure private property and punishing those who violate it, the state is de facto an interested party, on the side of capital. Despite the importance of the relationship between the state and capital, Marx conceives this relationship differently throughout his career. Kate Nash distinguishes the three periods as follows: 1. The instrumental model: This is the idea put forward by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. They argued that the bourgeoisie, or the dominant capitalist class rule over the people by controlling the liberal state. This is very similar to the beliefs of elite theorists who, as we shall see later, believe there is ultimately no difference between the interests of big business and the interests of the state. 2. The arbiter model: In contrast, Marx highlights the relative autonomy of the state from capital. The state is able to remain relatively autonomous because of its highly structured bureaucracies. These institutions of the state can both shape civil society and curtail the power of the bourgeoisie within the capitalist state.

Hegemony Gaining consent Creating commonsense Mobilising Good sense Neo-Marxists including the Italian Antonio Gramsci, the French Louis Althusser (a functionalist) as well as later figures such as Nicos Poulantzas are inspired by Marx but take issue with the economic determinism of Marx’s third approach to state power. We do not have time to go into the differences between the various neo-Marxist thinkers, so will focus on one important idea first posited by Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci goes back to Marx’s second, less well-known approach, which places more emphasis on the state’s role as arbiter between labour and capital and bring back an emphasis on politics rather than economics alone. The idea of hegemony associated with Gramsci has become central to the work of many scholars who seek to show how political culture is shaped by the predominance of certain ideologies over others, and how this in turn determines the opportunities some have and to which others are denied. Unlike Marx, Gramsci does not consider the state to be the only site where politics is done. He places great emphasis on the role of civil society - that is competing groups within society such as trade unions, the Church, and so on.Today we could add in the myriad interest groups (environmentalists, women’s and gay rights, consumer rights groups, etc. as being part of this). Politics is about sensitising and involving these groups rather than merely being a functional and institutional set of processes practiced at the level of the state. The job of those who want power, in Gramsci’s view is twofold. 1. Firstly, hegemony is about the dominant class - the bourgeoisie in Gramsci’s view - gaining consent for its rule. It does this through a series of negotiations and compromises with other groups in civil society, most significantly workers. So, it is not just that capitalists harness state power in order to extract the working class’s labour in a directly exploitative sense. Workers also participate in creating this situation by accepting it and complying with it for the mist part. Gramsci explains this by noting the relationship between coercion and consent. He says that ultimately the ability to create consent rests on the state’s capacity to repress its citizens if they fail to comply through its control of the means of violence - the army, the police, prisons, etc. But Steve Jones (2006) problematises this relationship by pointing out that most repressive institutions operate with a high degree of consent. For example, most ordinary people call for more - not less - police on the streets. 2. This relates to the other important aspect of Gramsci’s thought - hegemony as the creation of commonsense. As Jones explains, rarely do states in the West carry out the kind of direct violence against its own systems that

Max Weber: Pluralist Elitist or Elitist Pluralist? Max Weber, who along with Marx and Durkheim is seen as one of the founding fathers of European sociology, objected to Marx’s focus on the interrelationship between the state and capital. He has been seen as a precursor to both elitist and pluralist thought, containing both perspectives within his theory of the state. Weber was a champion of European liberal-democracy and he thus opposed revolutionary Marxist ideas about the destruction of the state. Weber sees the power of the state and the bureaucracy upon which it is based, as inevitable. Quite simply, in organisations as large-scale as the state the rise of functionaries who have the technical skill and knowledge necessary to run such large and complex machines is unavoidable. Weber’s unique contribution to theorising the modern state is his characterisation of the state as having the monopoly over the legitimate means of violence in a given territory. The legitimacy of the modern western state in this domain is provided by the legal structure in which people believe and generally see as functional. Therefore, the state is separate to capital. Although the rise of capitalism helped shape and enlarge modern state bureaucracies, it cannot be reduced to the interests of the economically dominant class. Weber’s analysis of the nature of the state contains elements of both elitism and pluralism. Weber sees the power of the bureaucracy - more than that of political leaders - as potentially oligarchic (all powerful). He was therefore concerned with the necessity of holding the bureaucracy accountable. However, he advocates for the importance of a well-trained representative parliamentary system because he sees it as giving rise to great leaders who could ensure ‘national greatness’ (Held: 42). Inter-national competition for Weber, who believed in the primacy of the nation-state, was more important than democracy as a principle for society, which he saw as generally impossible. Like the pluralists, Weber saw interest groups and political parties - so-called ‘status groups’ - as equally important to classes in the establishment of state power. However, like elite theorists, he was extremely pessimistic about the ability of different groups to take power once bureaucratic control become established. Moreover, he does not see this as entirely negative because direct accountability to the masses would result in the inefficiency of the administration and he views the majority of society as uninterested in the working of politics. Keeping Weber’s important influence on both elitists and pluralists in mid, let us now turn to a discussion of

Elitism: Good or Bad? Lions & Foxes The ‘iron rule of oligarchy’ Elitism vs. Marxism An elitist approach to an understanding of power covers two groups of theorists - those who see elitism in matters of power and politics as a good things and those who see it as a bad thing. 1. Originally associated with two Italian thinkers Pareto and Mosca, ‘good elitism’ focuses on the necessity of strong rulers. Pareto famously characterised leaders as divisible into cunning foxes and strong and constant lions, both of whom were necessary to maintain rule over complex nation-states in competition with each other. Much elite theory is justified by the idea of the ‘tyranny of the majority’. This is based on the idea that ordinary people will naturally turn on minorities who need protection from a strong state. However, anarchist and socialist thinkers have challenged this idea, focusing instead on individuals’ capacity for cooperation if not faced with the hardships imposed by an exploitative capitalist system. 2. A second type of elite theorist does not see elite rule as good, but as inevitable. This position is most commonly associated with the German social democrat Robert Michels, and the American sociologist C. Wright Mills as well as Joseph Schumpeter. Michels: Based on a Weberian analysis of modern state structures, Robert Michels saw rule by the elite as inevitable and government by the people as ultimately impossible: The most formidable argument against the sovereignty of the masses is, however, derived from the mechanical and technical impossibility of its realisation. Robert Michels, Government by the Masses He sees what he termed, ‘the iron rule of oligarchy’ as a constant of modern bureaucratic states which can only be run hierarchically. Quite simply, a nation-state is too large an entity for all disputes to be solved directly by the rulers who cannot possibly be concerned by everything that happens in society. Michels, unlike other elitists, sees this as tragic. While democracy in principle accords the state the right to rule on the people’s behalf, this is very quickly perverted. This is because the sheer complexity of organisations in modern society require a greater degree of expertise which creates a need for elites who are well-versed in the technologies of rule. Even workers’ organisations are blighted by the rule of elites, according to Michels. Looking at the growth of trade unions and the German Socialist Party, he shows that however democratic the principles upon which

Pluralising politics Bellamy’s functional representation Dahl’s Polyarchy Kymlicka’s group rights Advocates of the idea of pluralism deny the elitist notion that power is hierarchically organised. Rather, power is more diffused in society and can be mobilised by different groups at different times and under different circumstances. Although pluralists admit the existence of inequality in liberal-democracies, they do not reduce it to the unequal control over the means of production, as Marxists do. Pluralist thought can be seen as being a reaction to both Marxist and elitist frameworks. Richard Bellamy: Richard Bellamy (2001) traces the development of pluralist thought, and advances a new theory that he sees as adaptable to contemporary western societies. Firstly, he emphasises the theme of functional representation. Under this premise, early pluralists writing at the beginning of the 20th century argued that people identify more with functional associations, such as trade unions, than with territorial units, such as nation-states. Therefore, it is impossible for people to be represented adequately on a territorial basis. Rather they should be represented according to their memberships of different organisations, be they political, cultural, social, religious and so on. They envisaged the political system as being organised as a federal structure in which the interests of the various associations to which individuals belong would be represented. Within such a system, the principle of the corporate personality is key. This means that associations do more than just collectively represent individuals’ interests; they form their identity. What association you belong to says a great deal about who you are, possibly more than what nation you belong to. In pluralist thought, power of the state to impose one single vision of society is seen as less significant than the interest of individuals, and their associations. On this basis, pluralists see it as more effective to devolve power from the centre, creating horizontal rather than top-down structures. Whereas pluralists do not advocate the end of the state, they envisage its power as much more federal in nature. Robert Dahl: Dahl’s 1957 study of the organisation of politics in New Haven is a landmark study of power from a pluralist perspective. Dahl sees power as epitomised by the statement ‘A has power over B’. However, A’s power over B is limited in scope and A does not have the capacity to control everything that B does. In other words, power is constrained by context.

Case Study: Hackgate “Rupert Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth and her PR tycoon husband Matthew Freud threw a party of decadent opulence and excess that saw the political and media elite flock to their 22-bedroom Cotswolds mansion Burford Priory yet again. Just 24 hours later, the news broke that murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's mobile had been hacked by Rupert Murdoch's News of the World newspaper and his global empire was plunged into disarray. ...The group has been dubbed the Chipping Norton Set because its key members, including Prime Minister David Cameron, all own homes within a few miles of the Oxfordshire town. One prominent member of the set described its allure – and its value to the Murdochs. 'It is like the social wing of the Murdoch media empire. Rupert wields his influence through his newspaper and TV network. Elisabeth and Matthew feed off this by providing a link between the worlds of politics, business and showbusiness. Their wealth means they can provide for them all to meet in complete privacy at Burford. Behind it all is the unspoken assumption that if you are out of favour with Rupert Murdoch, you are not likely to get invited.'” The Final Hurrah of the Chipping Norton Set, The Daily Mail, 17 July 2011 The different theories for analysing political power can be applied to this ongoing political scandal involving the British government, the Murdoch media empire, the British police, celebrities and the public. This has ramifications in Australia and the US considering the degree of control exerted by Murdoch over the media (press and TV). The case if useful in analysing the issue of the creation of consensus. Important questions: How do we come to a consensus about a political matter? What tools do we use (media including social media, our own knowledge education, political figures, etc.)? How do we work out who is right? What role is played by networks of influence? (e.g. links between politicians, corporations, the media and the police/other state institutions?) What is the role played by capital? What other scenarios can we see similar scandals playing out in? What risks are involved in cover-ups? How do those in power calculate those risks?

Group Work What are the main elements of the case? Which elements of Marxist, elitist, or pluralist theories best describe the case? Create a tag cloud to summarise the political sociological analysis of Hackgate (small, medium, large).

Concept Map In the same groups, create a map of power in either a society you are familiar with, or on a global scale. Make interconnections between interest groups, individuals, institutions, etc. Try and show how and why they are connected. Is this an elitist or a pluralist map? What role is played by capitalism, the democratic process, institutions of the state, or non-state actors? Resources: Pens, coloured paper, pritt stick and large sheets of paper.

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