Power: Meaning and Concept

  • In political theory, power is the central issue, whether it is clothed in law that qualifies it or whether authority that renders obedience to it voluntarily sustains it.
  • Robert Dahl defined power as one actor’s ability to make another do something that the latter ‘would not otherwise do’.
  • Hannah Arendt argued that power is not the property of lone agents or actors, but of groups or collectivities acting together.
  • Mao Zedong thought of power as “flowing from the barrel of the gun”.
  • Gandhi, an apostle of peace, regarded it as the power of love and truth. Power is ascribed to different things on different grounds.
  • Power cannot be merely encircled in a political or economic framework; it is broadly a social phenomenon.

The Power Theories: Conventional View

State as symbol of power

  • The power theory where state is a symbol of power, had its first brilliant expression in the ‘Leviathan’ of Thomas Hobbes. After Hobbes, Hegel absolutized sovereign power of the state to the extent of discarding all ethics of international morality..
  • The State power theory found its concrete manifestation, when the Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini declared ‘nothing against the state, nothing above it’ giving birth to the ideology of Fascism.

Different Perspectives On Power:

Class Perspective On Power

  • Class perspective on power was developed by Marx and Engels during the mid of the nineteenth century. According to this theory political power is the product of economic power.

Elitist Perspective On Power

  • Elite theory of power was advanced in early twentieth century by three famous sociologists: Pareto, Mosca and Michels.
  • Like class theory, elite theory accepts a broad division of society into dominant and dependent groups. But unlike class theory, elite theory treats this division as somewhat natural. It regards competence and aptitude (and not the emergence of private property) to be responsible for this division. Again, while class theory held that the division of society into dominant and dependent classes could be set aside through a socialist revolution, elite theory sees little prospects of a thoroughgoing change in this position.
  • Within the elite Pareto distinguished between ‘governing elite’ and ‘nongoverning elite’.
    • ‘Governing elite’ is one that wields power for the time being while ‘non-governing elite’ constantly endeavours to replace it by showing greater ability and excellence.
    • In short, behaviour of elite is characterized by a constant competition between governing and nongoverning elites.
    • This results in what is called ‘circulation of elites’. In any case, masses have no chance of entering the ranks of elites.
  • Apart from intelligence and talent, Pareto also recognizes courage and cunning as the qualities of elite. He observes that ‘the lions’ (who are distinguished by their courage) are more suited to the maintenance of status quo under stable conditions, while ‘the foxes’ (who are distinguished by their cunning) are adaptive and innovative and cope better during periods of change.
  • While Pareto regards intelligence and talent as the outstanding qualities of elite, Mosca’s ruling class was distinguished by its capacity of organization.
    • Of the two Italian elitists, Mosca is more democratic. He believed that leadership could emerge at all levels including grass-root level.
    • Each stratum of society has the potential of producing good organizers for itself. They need not look for outsiders for their guidance and control.
  • A significant contribution to elite theory was made by Robert Michels , a German sociologist. In his famous work Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy Michel propounded his ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’. He proceeded to demonstrate that every organization—whatever its original aims—is eventually reduced to ‘oligarchy’, that is the rule of the chosen few.
  • C. Wright Mills , an American sociologist, presented a new version of elite theory in his famous work, The Power Elite . He preferred the term ‘power elite’ to ‘ruling class’. While Marxian concept of ‘ruling class’ implied that an economic class would exercise all political power in society, Mills’ concept of ‘power elite’ implied a combination of several groups who exercised all power by virtue of their high status in all important spheres of social life. It signified an inner circle of power holders in modern American society.

Group Perspective on Power

  • Group perspective on power corresponds to pluralist theory, whereas class perspective, elite perspective and gender perspective on power maintain that the exercise of power divides the society into two broad categories dominant and dependent groups, pluralist theory of power does not subscribe to this view. According to this theory, power in society is not concentrated in a single group, but it is dispersed amongst a wide variety of social groups.
  • These groups are largely autonomous and almost independent centres of decision. ex-Organizations of workers, peasants, traders, industrialists, consumers, etc. could be cited as examples of such groups in the contemporary society. These groups cannot be classified into dominant and dependent groups. They have their share of power in their respective spheres of operation.
    • Pluralist society is that society in which power and authority are not concentrated in a particular group but they are spread to various centres of decision-making. Dahl’s model of democracy, described as ‘polyarchy’, postulated that society is controlled by a set of competing interest groups, with the government as little more than an honest broker in the middle.

The Foucauldian Concept of Power

  • Michel Foucault, one of the most important figures in critical theory has been the centre of attraction on the concepts of power, knowledge and discourse. His influence is perceptible in post-structuralist, post-modernist, post-feminist, post-Marxist and post-colonial theories.
  • The thought provoking nature of Foucault’s theoretical works has been the reason for very productive debates from the nineteen sixties to the present.
  • During Foucault’s collegiate period Marxism and phenomenology were the predominant theories in French intellectual life. Foucault became familiar with Marxism and phenomenology because they were the most influential bodies of theory during the postwar years. According to phenomenology, meaning has to be found in a person’s perception of the universal essence of an object. Foucault is influenced by the historicising work of Martin Heidegger and Georges Canguilhem.
  • Canguilhem was interested in the way in which scientific rationality and reason is always changing. Although Heidegger was a phenomenologist, he emphasized the centrality of the social and cultural contexts in which truth and meaning were produced. For Heidegger, people’s ideas and activities were largely determined by the background in which they lived. But people tend to think that they are acting freely and independently on their context.
    • According to structuralists/post-structuralists meaning is relational. Events, ideas and activities do not mean anything in themselves but they only make sense when they are related to other events, ideas and activities.
    • Structuralism celebrates the death of the subject. Structuralism extends Heidegger’s insight that people are not really free to think and act. Their ideas and activities are produced by the structures (social, political, cultural) in which they live.
    • According to this perspective, people do not think or create meanings. On the contrary, structures think and speak through people.
  • Psychoanalytical theory, especially as developed through the works of Sigmund Freud and, later, Jacques Lacan, continued this critique of the free subject. According to Freud and Lacan, the subject is a kind of myth which emanates from one’s repressed desires and the subject’s existence is based on ignorance.
  • The most important influence on Foucault’s work, particularly from The Order of Things onward, was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s ideas on the relationship between truth, knowledge and power influenced him very much. Nietzsche rejected the notion that history unfolds in a rational way with the gradual development of higher forms of reason. Any form of knowledge or truth that emerges in a culture not because it is valuable or eternal, but it is because one group manages to impose their will on others.
  • Foucault addresses the question of power in his seminal writings. In The History of Sexuality Volume one Foucault defines power as “the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organisation”.
  • Foucault argues, in medieval society power had been consolidated largely through the existence of a sovereign authority who exercised absolute control over the subjects through the open display of violence.
  • In the modern era, power is exercised in a different way. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was an invention of a new mechanism of power possessed of highly specific procedural techniques. This new mechanism of power is more dependent upon bodies.
  • By means of surveillance power is constantly exercised. The common conception is that power is attributable to and exercised by agents and is exercised on agents. Foucauldian power is impersonal, purely relational and blind. Power is impersonal because it is neither possessed nor exerted by individuals, groups, or institutions. Foucault termed power as a complex set of relations. Power is the sum total of influences that actions have on other actions.
  • Foucauldian power is blind and purposeless. It emerges from a strategic situation or web of relations. Power is impersonal; it is not anyone’s power, because it is a web of relations among actions rather than among agents.
  • Power is pervasive. No one can escape from power relations. To act in defiance is to act within power, not against it. In order to escape from power one would have to be utterly alone and free of all the enculturation that makes social beings. One cannot escape power without achieving complete solitude or total enslavement. Power is not something that individuals can or cannot escape. It is the intricate web of constraining interrelationships that exists, the moment there is more than one agent. The point is that there cannot be interaction among individuals outside power. Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, because it is ever-present in the environment of which human beings are subjects and agents.
  • Foucauldian power is not domination. It is the complex network acts of domination, submission and resistance. The aim of this technology of power is not mere control, which is achievable through imposition or restrictions and prohibitions, but pervasive management.
  • What is new in Foucault’s consideration of pervasive management is description of how it is achieved not just through restrictions, but through enabling conceptions, definitions, and descriptions that generate and support behaviour governing norms.
  • Power is not just the ruthless domination of the weaker by the strong. The most significant feature of Foucault’s thesis is his stress on the modern exercise of the productive nature of power. His main aim is to replace the negative concept and attribute the productive nature to power. It produces reality and truth.
  • Foucault suggests that power is intelligible in terms of the techniques through which it is exercised. Many different forms of power exist in society such as legal, administrative, economic, military, and so forth. What they have in common is a shared reliance on certain techniques or methods of application, and all draw some authority by referring to scientific truths. Power must be analysed as something which circulates, or rather as something which only functions in the form of a chain. It is never localised here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a commodity or piece of wealth. Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organisation. Individuals not only circulate between its threads but they are always in the position of undergoing and exercising this power.
  • The most important feature of Foucault’s theories on power reveals that power is not a thing or a capacity which can be owned either by State, social class or particular individuals. Instead, it is a relation between different individuals and groups and only exists when it is being exercised. A king is a king only if he has subjects. Thus, the term power refers to sets of relations that exist between individuals, or that are strategically deployed by groups of individuals.
  • Institutions and governments are simply the ossification of highly complex sets of power relations which exist at every level of the social body.
  • Foucault distinguishes his ideas on power by criticising power models which see power as being purely located in the State or the administrative and executive bodies which govern the nation State. The very existence of the State in fact depends on the operation of thousands of complex micro-relations of power at every level of the social body. Foucault offers the example of military service which can only be enforced if every individual is tied in to a whole network of relations which include family, employers, teachers and other agents of social education. The grand strategies of State rely on the cooperation of a whole network of local and individualised tactics of power in which everybody is involved. The State is merely a configuration of multiple power relations.
  • Foucault criticises traditional power models; power is not about simply saying no and oppressing individuals, social classes or natural instincts, instead power is productive. It shapes forms of behaviour and events rather than simply curtailing freedom and constraining individuals. He argues in The History of Sexuality, Volume. One: “if power was never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but say no, do you really believe that we should manage to obey it?”.
  • There must be something else, apart from repression, which leads people to conform. Foucault suggests that power is intelligible in terms of the techniques through which it is exercised. It generates particular types of knowledge and cultural order. He describes in The History of Sexuality, Volume One the concern that developed in the nineteenth century about male children’s masturbation, and the way that this led to the publication of numerous advice manuals on how to prevent or discourage such practices which, in turn, led to a full-scale surveillance of boys.
  • Power produces different types of behaviour pattern and discipline in human lives. Thus, in Discipline and Punish Foucault states: We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it excludes, it represses, it censors, it abstracts, it masks, it conceals. In fact, power produces reality, it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.
  • In Foucault’s view power and oppression should not be reduced to the same thing for a number of reasons. To identify power with oppression is to assume that power is exercised from one source and that it is one thing. By regulating people’s everyday activities, power produces particular types of behaviours.
  • Power is not an institution, a structure, or a certain force with which certain people are endowed; it is the name given to a complex strategic relation in a given society. Foucault suggests that one should refrain from questioning the objectives and intentions of those exercising power. Power is reducible neither to the actions nor the intentions of its putative agents. Power should be seen as a verb rather than a noun, something that does something, rather than something which is, or which can be held onto.
  • Foucault puts it in the following way in Power/Knowledge: Power must be analysed as something which circulates, or as something which only functions in the form of a chain. Power is employed and exercised through a netlike organisation…Individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application. Power is conceptualized as a chain or as a net that is a system of relations spread throughout the society rather than simply as a set of relations between the oppressed and the oppressor.
  • Individuals should not be seen simply as the recipients of power, but as the place where power is enacted and the place where it is resisted.
  • In The History of Sexuality Volume One, Foucault states that “where there is power there is resistance” . It allows to consider the relationship between those in struggles over power as not simply reducible to a master–slave relation, or an oppressor–victim relationship. Where power is exercised, there has to be someone who resists. Foucault goes as far as to argue that where there is no resistance it is not, in effect, a power relation. Resistance is written into the exercise of power.
  • In order to analyse a power relation, one must analyse the total relations of power, the hidden transcripts as well as the public performance. The possibility for resistance is an elementary condition for every conceivable relation of power. Foucault maintains that resistance is a necessary precondition for the operation of relations of power. He insists resistance must be a precondition for power, without such forms of contestation and struggle there would be only complete domination, subservience and obedience. Power and the potentiality of resistance are hence thought to be coterminous. Power cannot be treated as complete control or absolute subservience. It is only through the articulation of resistance that power can spread through the social field. Resistance is an internal property of power. It is a condition of operation that remains inherent to power itself. Resistance is everywhere and at every level.
  • Foucault argues that power can be exercised only over free subjects. By freedom, Foucault means the possibility of reacting and behaving in different ways. If these possibilities are closed down through violence or slavery, then it is no longer a question of a relationship of power. There is no power without potential refusal or revolt.
  • Foucault’s works try to evolve a methodology to analyse power and knowledge. Power is based on knowledge and makes use of knowledge. Power reproduces knowledge by shaping it in accordance with its anonymous intentions. Power re-creates its own fields of exercise through knowledge. In Discipline and Punish Foucault points out the relationship between power and knowledge: Power produces knowledge ,there is no power relation without the correlation constituting of field of knowledge nor knowledge that does not presuppose and constituted as the same time power.
  • Foucault asserts that knowledge produces power and power produces knowledge by reciprocating each other. He accepts the popular saying that knowledge is power. Foucault states that power is the source of sovereignty. Power is used as a repressive means to control and rule people with individual’s body targeted for punishment by means of torture. Torture was used to get confessions .
  • Foucault introduces panopticon as one of the regulatory modes of power. Panopticon is an architectural settings designed by Jeremy Bentham in the mid nineteenth century. It was used to regulate the inmates of prisons, asylums, schools, hospitals, and factories. Violent methods and dungeons were replaced by surveillance and observation. Panopticon offers a powerful and sophisticated internalized coercion through the constant observation. The modern structure would allow guards to continually see inside each cell from their vantage point in a high central tower, unseen. The constant observation was seen to act as a control mechanism.
  • The knowledge further categorizes people, sets norms for the society and the subjects are meant to follow the laid down rules. In this way, society is categorized into mental institutions, military institutions, prisons and hospitals from which a madman, a patient and a condemned person must be kept and observed through panopticon. The Panopticon is a metaphor that allows to explore the relationship between systems of social control and people in a disciplinary situation, and the power-knowledge concept. Power and knowledge derive from observing others. It marks the transition to a disciplinary power.
  • Surveillance enables every movement supervised and all events recorded. The result of surveillance is acceptance of regulations. Panoptic surveillance aims at transforming individuals such that it shapes their behaviour in prescribed directions and dimensions.
  • Suitable behaviour is achieved not through total surveillance, but by panoptic discipline and inducing a population to internalize that surveillance. Power becomes more efficient and active through the mechanisms of surveillance. The major goal of panopticon is “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” . Panoptic surveillance is fundamentally concerned with monitoring and controlling the people.
  • To Foucault knowledge is a form of power and knowledge can be gained from power. Through observation knowledge is produced. Human sciences (psychology, sociology, economics, linguistics, even medicine) seek to define human being simultaneously as they describe them. Human sciences work together with such institutions as mental hospitals, prisons, factories, schools, and law courts to have specific and serious effects on people. The human sciences carefully define the difference between normal and abnormal, and then use these definitions always to regulate behaviour. The study of abnormality is one of the main ways in which power relations are established in the society. When an abnormality and its corresponding norm are defined, it is always the normal person who has power over the abnormal.
  • The psychologist tells about madmen, the physician about the patients, the criminologist talks about the criminals, but people never expect to hear the latter talk about the former. In this way, certain people get the rest of them to accept their idea of who they are. The people who decide what knowledge is in the first place can easily claim to be the most knowledgeable.
  • Foucault’s point is that regimes of truth, such as those of the human sciences, are infused with relations of power. For him, power exists everywhere and comes from everywhere. It acts as a complex form of strategy with the ability to secretly shape another’s behaviour.
    • However, Foucault sees the effects of power as a producer of reality. It produces domains of truth.. Truth is not outside power. Truth is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraints. Foucault argues that knowledge is power over others, the power to define others. In his view, knowledge ceases to be liberation and becomes a mode of surveillance, regulation and discipline.
  • Foucault’s concepts of history are derived from Nietzsche. He expressed his indebtedness to Nietzsche for having outlined a conception of history called genealogy. It leads to the idea of will to power. Nietzsche believes that power is the motive that works behind the production of knowledge. It is the will to power that motivates all actions of human beings.
  • Knowledge of things are not something the human intellect perceives or intellectually grasps words or merely conforms to use the accepted conventions. Power is implicated in the manner in which certain knowledge is applied. Truth is not outside power; truth is a thing of this world. Each society has its regime of truth. Foucault’s argument is that social power is ultimately created through individuals who internalize discipline and this internalization is through knowledge. This practical inseparability results in new modes of control in which the growth of human science knowledge, the innovation of intricate disciplinary technologies and the production of the psychological subject come to be linked.
  • The mechanisms of power produce different types of knowledge. Foucault describes truth as historical because it is relative to discourse and it is the product of power. Truth is relative to social and learned discourses because truth is produced by power relations. If each society has its own regime of truth, then truths must somehow be produced, in a way that makes them specific to their respective regimes. Knowledge and truth cannot exist outside the circulation of power. There can be no possible exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth. People cannot exercise power except through the production of truth.
  • Power does not produce truth in any systematic way. Power produces truth blindly and nonsubjectively. The idea of a single meaning is a philosophical myth. There is no meaning but countless meanings. It is produced in discourse and it has nothing to do with how things really are. Truth is not outside power, truth is a thing of this world. It is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. It induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth. The world or brute reality does not contain truth or facts. Truth works without necessarily referring to how things are. He argues that there are strict historically and culturally specific rules about how truth is both accessed and disseminated. One cannot make any claims about truth except from within quite specific cultural and historical settings. Any system of rules is also a finite system of constraints and limitations.
  • Foucault is interested in the way that power operates through different forms of regime at particular historical periods. In Discipline and Punish he describes the way that power has been exercised in different eras in Europe, the application of power moved from the public spectacle of the tortured body of the individual to the surveillance. In Discipline and Punish, he examines how discipline which is a form of self-regulation is encouraged by institutions. He analyses the way that regimes exercise power within a society through the use of a range of different mechanisms and techniques. He analyses a range of different institutions such as the hospital, the clinic, the prison and the universal practice of disciplinary techniques. Discipline consists of a concern with control which is internalized by each individual. It consists of a concern with time-keeping, selfcontrol over one’s posture and bodily functions, concentration, sublimation of immediate desires and emotions. All of these elements are the effects of disciplinary pressure. In Foucault’s account, disciplinary power first began to develop at the end of the eighteenth century. It replaced and worked in tandem with an older form of power which Foucault designates as sovereign power.
  • Sovereign power is operated in feudal societies. There were highly individualised authority figures such as the king, the priest and the father who were designated as the holders of power and to whom allegiance was owed. It operates via divine right, public ceremony and by making examples of those who transgress authority. Foucault argues that forms of sovereign power began to become less and less efficient as a way of regulating the behaviour of populations in Europe towards the end of the eighteenth century leading to the development of new techniques of social control. Discipline is a technology aimed at keeping someone under surveillance. There are ways to control one’s conduct, behaviour and aptitude. It also deals on how to improve one’s performance, multiply one’s capacities and how to put someone where he/she is most useful. Disciplinary techniques were first developed in the army and the school, and then were very quickly applied to hospitals, factories and prisons. One of the effective techniques in the exercise of disciplinary power is the examination associated within the institutions such as school, hospitals and asylums. The examination is able to combine both surveillance and normalisation and turn people simultaneously into objects of knowledge and power. Through the examination, individuals are required to reproduce certain types of knowledge and behaviour. Their performance can be measured, and entered into a data bank which compares them with others.
  • Sexuality by contrast, is an individual matter which involves personal desires, fantasies, and pleasures. Has a matter of discourse and governmentality. It is here that norms and standards are established and policed. People come to understand the relationship between our sexuality and our society’s rules. Sex and sexuality together comprise a set of practices,behaviours, rules and knowledges by which people produce their selves. Sexuality enabled establishment of the normal and the abnormal. Suddenly individuals became vulnerable to classification based on conformity with or deviation from norms generated by a supposedly objective sexual nature. However, conformity with or deviation from norms is not just a matter of what individuals do or do not do. Classification as normal or abnormal is not mere cataloguing of normal or 35 abnormal actions. The History of Sexuality shows how members of a society are made to perceive themselves as having certain sexual natures by application of theories that define the nature of normality and abnormality.
  • There is imposition of a new self-perception, and here too individuals are made complicities in their own control. The other side of the coin is that some members of society are empowered by special knowledge to exercise control over sexuality to prevent and correct deviationism. In The History of Sexuality, Madness and Civilization, and The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault describes how human nature became an object of detailed scientific study that enables and supports regulative disciplinary techniques. Post structuralism has emphasized that the subject is not a free consciousness or a stable human essence but rather a construction of language, politics, and culture.
  • Foucault argues that the policies developed by disciplinary sites establish discursive norms. Foucault argues that bio-power is a technology which appeared in the late eighteenth century for managing populations. It incorporates certain aspects of disciplinary power. If disciplinary power is about training the actions of bodies, bio-power is about managing the births, deaths, reproduction and illnesses of a population. Bio-power emerges at the end of the seventeenth century from a disciplinary focus on individual bodies. It is typically localized to the institutional confines of schools, hospitals and so on. Medicine and health interventions have a crucial role to play. Meticulous attention was paid to individual bodies, to a concern with the body of the population. Singular and collective life came under the influence of power in the respective forms of bodily technologies of discipline and biopolitical technologies of regularization. Bio-politics can be understood as that type of biopower that targets collectivise, constituting its subjects as people, a nation and a race.
  • Bio-power begins with the body and its potentials. Bio-politics is always necessarily a form of government. Bio-power deals with the strategies of the government that acts under the guise of improving the welfare of the individual. Bio-politics is to be understood as the calculated life-management of human population. The state has a crucial role in regulating vital biological processes such as birth, mortality, disease and life-expectancy.
  • These biological processes come under the domain of bio-politics. He also uses the term governmentality to describe a particular way of administering the population. He later expands the definition to encompass the techniques and procedures which are designed to govern the conduct of individuals. By government, Foucault means the techniques and procedures which govern and guide people’s conduct.
  • In short, governmentality is the rationalisation and systematisation of a particular way of exercising political sovereignty through the government of people’s conduct. The idea of governing a population, rather than simply ruling over a territory is something that only started to appear in Europe in the sixteenth century, adapting aspects of the pastoral forms of governance aimed at saving people’s souls which already existed in the Church.
  • Foucault, moves away from the sovereignty-centric (Hobbesian) conception of power toward what he calls “disciplinary power” or the micro mechanisms of power– –the techniques and tactics of domination–– that, as a closely linked grid of disciplinary coercions, keeps the social body in a steady state (a society of normalization).So, the new power operates through disciplinary norms rather than through command and obedience relationship.
  • The state in this situation, becomes a superstructural meta power, rooted in a whole series of multiple and indefinite power relations, and as Foucault argues, “The state consists in the codification of a whole number of power relations which render its functioning possible…”. Foucault’s analysis has opened up new ways of looking at power in society, not so much as a juridical concept as a socially networked relations of domination and subjugation.
  • According to Foucault, in common parlance, power has been viewed in reductionist term. It is the top-down vision that has always looked at power as a striking force and a visible . In Foucault’s analysis, to ascribe all phenomena of power to the prevailing power apparatuses is a form of unrealistic reductionism. Power, in this view, is not what and where people think it is. In reality, it is the expression of hundreds of micro-processes defining various currents coming from a multitude of different sources. The reductionist view ignores that “the state, for all the omnipotence of its apparatuses, is far from being able to occupy the whole field of actual power relations, and further… the state can only operate, on the basis of other, already existing power relations.”
  • Thus, attention should be paid to domination and the infinite ways in which power operates. Foucault calls this power ‘non-sovereign power, lying outside the form of sovereignty. It is disciplinary power taking the shape of a closely linked grid of disciplinary coercions intended to assure the cohesion of the social body.

Gender Perspective on power

  • Gender perspective on power is represented by feminist theory. It recognizes the division of society into two broad groups on the basis of gender: men and women who were biologically fit to perform different functions.
  • The age-old and universal dominance of man over woman is manifested in the concept of patriarchy.
  • Steven Lukes’ Three-dimensional Approach to the Study of Power:
    • Luke’s principal argument is that we need to think about power broadly and pay attention to those aspects of power that are least accessible to observation. Lukes maintains that power is one of those concepts which is unavoidably value-dependent, that is, both its definition and any given use of it, once defined, are inextricably tied to a given set of (probably unacknowledged) value assumptions which predetermine the range of its empirical application.
  • Lukes sketches three conceptual maps which reveal the distinguishing features of three views of power:
    1. The pluralist view (which he calls the one dimensional view);
    2. The view of critics of pluralism (which he calls the two-dimensional view); and
    3. A third view of power (which he calls the three-dimensional view).
  • The distinctive features of these three views of power are summarized as follows:
    1. One-dimensional View of Power: Here the focus is on Decision-making
    2. Two-dimensional View of Power: Here focus is on agenda setting
    3. Three-dimensional View of Power: Here focus is on thought control process.
  • Lukes argues that the first two views of power are inadequate, claiming that the threedimensional view is a better means for the investigation of power relations.


  • Legitimate plus power is authority.
  • Authority is the right to do a thing.
  • Power is often used to mean authority when we speak of giving someone legal powers. A person with power holds a special office (e.g. a minister or a President); this means that he has authority and is able by virtue of that position to get others to do what he tells them to do; his power is the exercise of authority. That is why the word power can be used to mean authority.

Classification of Authority

  • The German sociologist Max Weber suggested a three fold classification of the sources of authority in a modern state. They are rational-legal, traditional and charismatic authority.
    • Rational-legal authority is explicit and has the right to give orders and to have them obeyed by virtue of an office held within a system of deliberately framed rules which set out rights and duties. Bureaucracy is the best example of rational-legal authority. When a citizen accepts the authority of a bureaucrat, he does so not because of anything else but due to the powers allocated to the official by a legal system. The office, the individual holds, is important and not the individual himself or herself.
    • Traditional authority exists where a person, such as a king or a tribal chief, holds a superior position of command in accordance with long tradition and is obeyed, because everyone accepts the sanctity of the tradition. Religious authority is of this kind.
    • Charismatic authority rests on the possession of exceptional personal qualities that cause a person to be accepted as a leader. There may be qualities of saintly virtue giving their possessor religious authority or qualities of outstanding heroism, intellect, oratory that bring a following of loyal devotion in politics, in wars and other kinds of enterprise. The charismatic leader has the gift of divine grace and extraordinary qualities. Lenin or Mahatma Gandhi got their position on account of their charisma and qualities.A charismatic authority tends to be institutionalised. This is what Weber calls ‘routinization of charisma’.


  • The ideas of authority and legitimacy are integral to the understanding of state, politics and civil society.. Authority and legitimacy refer to how and why these rules are acknowledged by members of the community as being worthy of obedience and having a binding character.
  • Both authority and legitimacy refer to the nature of public and political authority. While obedience to rules can be elicited by governments through fear and coercion, forcible extraction of compliance is not regarded as legitimate. Authority is Legitimate Power.
  • While power denotes the capacity or the ability to affect and change one’s environment, authority refers to both the capacity to change as well as the right to change. Authority may, therefore, be seen as a modified form of power, where power is acknowledged as rightful. This means that authority does not depend on any form of coercion or manipulation, and invokes instead, a duty of obedience and compliance. In order to elicit voluntary or willing obedience, essential to effect changes, authority has to lay claims to being right.
  • Legitimacy provides to authority, the quality of correctness and justness, invoking thereby, obedience and compliance as a matter of duty rather than as an outcome of coercion and force. Thus, authority when associated with legitimacy, may be thought of as “legitimate power”.
  • While Liberals would see legitimacy as having a positive connotation, Marxists would be less inclined to see legitimacy as providing any valid moral claims or ‘right to rule’. The justification for authority is centred around the argument that it is essential for the maintenance of order.
  • The idea of legitimacy remained marginal to the understanding of political authority, until the advent of the modern age. Before the seventeenth century, it was widely assumed that political authority was divinely ordained and natural, and therefore, reasonable. Those who upheld this view believed in the unquestioned domination of one set of people over the other. This domination was sustained by the belief that the rulers represented divine will and authority, and they alone knew what was good for the people, and the appropriate ways to pursue, this good. From the seventeenth century, however, legitimacy, which had so for remained submerged in the notion of divine authority, started taking shape and developing the characteristics and became people centric.

Social Contract Theories: Hobbes and Locke

  • The legitimate power of the government to rule, is demonstrated by the consent of the governed, which is expressed and renewed periodically.

Montesquieu’s Alternative Views on Legitimacy:

  • Rejecting the individualist framework of legitimation espoused by the contractualists, Montesquieu , in his work The Spirit of the Laws , counterpoised alternative forms of legitimacy.
  • Montesquieu included in his framework a socially responsible role for the state by including elements of social reform, constitutionalism, and the safeguard of basic civil liberties. All of these were seen as contributing towards or constituting the essence of legitimate authority.

Rousseau: Going beyond Montesquieu:

  • In Rousseau’s scheme, the legitimacy of government, and of the exercise of power, hinged on the active participation of citizens.

Karl Marx’s Views:

  • He did not share Rousseau’s optimism about the relationship between active participatory citizenship and political authority.
  • Marx felt that in the framework of general will, one was distracted from the real issues i.e., the evils of society and the inegalitarian structures of capitalism, which produced them.

Max Weber

  • Max Weber’s formulation may be seen as a counter-perspective. Starting from the opposite end, Weber concerned himself with analysing the nature of authority and the problems of securing obedience.

Weber and the Belief in Legitimacy:

  • Weber considered legitimacy as fundamental to a systematic study of power relations. In order to sustain a given system of domination, there was normally a further element i.e. ‘the belief in legitimacy’. In other words, where there is a general recognition of the legitimacy of authority, its commands were bound to be followed. There would, consequently, be no widespread use of coercion, or the constant fear of subversion or disobedience .
  • Weber’s study of the systems of domination led him to the conclusion that there are different ideas or principles of legitimacy.
  • Accordingly, Weber constructed three ‘ideal types’ or ‘conceptual models’, which he hoped would help make sense of the highly complex nature of political rule, viz., traditional authority, charismatic, and legal-rational authority. Each of these models represented a distinct source of political legitimacy and corresponding to these, the different reasons why people obeyed a particular regime.

Hebermas and The Legitimation Crisis

  • Jurgen Habermas has developed an alternative to the Weberian approach to legitimacy. Habermas admitted that modern capitalist societies or liberal democracies do have a system of drawing out consent and support of the people. He, therefore, focused not merely on the inequalities, which prevailed in capitalist societies, but concentrated also on the machinery through which legitimacy was maintained viz., the democratic system, the party system, social and welfare reforms etc. At the same time, however, Habermas pointed out the difficulties of legitimation, which would invariably be faced in a political process that produced and sustained unequal class power.
  • In his work, Legitimation Crisis Habermas identified these difficulties as ‘crisis tendencies’ within capitalist societies. These crisis tendencies emerged as a result of a fundamental contradiction between the logic of capitalist accumulation and popular pressures unleashed by democratic politics.
  • Anthony King described this problem as one of government ‘overload’. Government was overloaded quite simply because in attempting to meet the demands made of them, democratic politicians came to pursue policies which threatened the health and long-term survival of the capitalist economic order. For instance, growing public spending created a fiscal crisis in which high taxes became a disincentive to enterprise, and ever-rising government borrowing led to permanently high inflation.
  • Habermas’s analysis suggests that liberal democracies cannot permanently satisfy both popular demands for social security and welfare rights, and the requirements of a market economy based on private profit. Forced either to resist democratic pressures or to risk economic collapse, capitalist democracies will, in his view, find it increasingly difficult to maintain legitimacy.
  • Capitalist societies, based on the pursuit of profit and producing class inequalities, have to sustain political stability by invoking a normal claim to rule. In such a system, legitimacy is secured by democratic processes, which lead to further demands for social welfare provisions, increased popular participation and social equality. This in turn puts pressure on the state to expand its social responsibilities, and raises demands for state intervention for removing inequalities, forcing it to increase expenditure on welfare (non-profit) measures. These pressures lead to increase in taxation and public spending, and constrain capitalist accumulation by restricting profit levels and discouraging enterprise. Forced either to resist popular pressures or risk economic collapse, such societies find it increasingly difficult and eventually impossible, to maintain legitimacy.
  • Thus, a capitalist society is constantly in the grip of crisis tendencies, which test its ability to sustain itself through the legitimacy that it can elicit through various democratic institutions. According to Habermas, capitalist democracies cannot permanently satisfy both popular demands for social equality and welfare rights and requirements of a market economy based on private profit. The implication of such ‘crises’ involves a disturbance of integration or cohesion of society and the regulatory structures of the capitalist system.
  • In such scenarios of legitimation crisis, the modern state, according to Habermas, takes recourse simultaneously to ‘system steering’ and ideological measures to legitimize and stabilize the existing structures. This involves an ‘uncoupling’ or dissociation of the economic (wage labour and capital relations) and the political spheres (institutions of governance). The political sphere in turn becomes less participatory and more impersonal, bureaucratised, and distanced from the ruled. Such a system would, however, be held together ideologically by legitimizing ‘universalist’ discourses of rights, justice and citizenship which give the rulers the moral claim to rule.


  • The idea of revolution covers not only the political, but also the economic, the social and the cultural dimensions of human life. A precise definition of the term involves different ramifications ranging on the implications of change, whether peaceful or violent, total or partial, minor or major. In political theory its core meaning, is that it constitutes a challenge to the established political and the eventual establishment of a new order radically different from the preceding one.
  • Revolution is not merely concerned with the overthrow of the established order. It is equally concerned with the establishment of a new one. Thus, it is not merely an event, but a series of events.

Different Theories Of Revolution

  • Liberal Theory:
    • The Liberal theory of revolution emphasises preserving the status quo in the process of change. They look at revolution as a peaceful constitutional change.
  • Marxian Theory:
    • The Marxian theory basically emphasised that a social revolution takes place when the existing relations of production begin to act as a fetter on the future development of forces of production. Thus revolution is a holistic change.
  • Idealistic-Liberal Theory:
    • This idealistic-cum liberal interpretation of the idea of revolution is traceable in the political philosophy of M.N. Roy, who said that revolution means awakening the urge of freedom in man.

Theorising Revolution in Recent Social Literature

  • Comparative Approach:
    • The most influential exercise in comparative approach as applied to social revolutions is the work of Theda Skocpol in her book States and Social Revolutions, which was based on a comparative analysis of French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions. By following this approach, she tried to find out the ‘generalizable logic’ behind the revolutions she studied.
    • She concluded that social revolutions are simply the unplanned product of competing forces. Different groups enter the fray and the outcome is determined by which of them ultimately wins. Neither individuals, nor groups, nor even classes act throughout revolutions with the logic and consistency which traditional views would demand.
  • Psychological Approach:
    • Modern psychological theories of revolution under the influence of Freud focused attention on the psychological aspects.
    • The impulse towards the use of violence is found by Gurr ( Why Men Rebel)in a socialpsychological concept called ‘relative deprivation’, which is used to denote the tension that develops from a discrepancy between the “ought” and the “is” of collective value satisfaction.
  • Philosophical Approach
    • Modern philosophical explanations of revolution are dominated by Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution . For Arendt, revolution is one of the most recent of political phenomena. Revolution is the search for freedom and revolutionaries are those who fight for freedom in the face of tyranny. Freedom, according to Arendt, is a distinctive quality; a good in itself which is the highest achievement of human society to attain. The problem of revolution is that its spirit has failed to find appropriate institutions in which to express itself. She, therefore, concludes with the practical consequences for trying to realise this objective: not party government which she believes to be a government by an elite chosen by the people, but self-government by deputies of elementary republics.

Grounds and Limits of Political Obligation

  • The problem of political obligation is one of the most prominent issues of political philosophy. It is primarily concerned with the question: how far, when and why an individual is obliged to obey the law and commands of political authority.
  • There are theories of unlimited obligation versus limited obligation.There is another school of thought which prescribes no obligation at all.

Theories of Unlimited Obligation

The Doctrine of Force Majuere

  • Force Majuere means superior strength, an irresistible compulsion or coercion. The doctrine of force majuere, therefore, regards the superior strength of the state as the source of political obligation. According to this view, the state is so powerful that the individual has no option but to obey its laws and commands, whether he likes them or not. In this sense, political obligation is based on the fear of punishment or other unpleasant consequences which would follow from disobedience of law.
  • The difficulty with this theory is that it is not based on any moral ground. It simply invokes the dubious rule of ‘might is right’.

Divine Right Theory

  • Since God’s will is binding on all mortals, this theory upholds an unlimited political obligation. It establishes political obligation on religious rather than moral ground.
  • The theory of divine right of Kings holds that the authority of the sovereign is derived from God; hence obedience to the state is as imperative as obedience to God. The early hints of this theory are found in the ancient Indian political thought. In Europe this theory was developed during the ascendancy of monarchy. Its chief exponent was Robert Filmer (1588- 1653). In the recent times, this theory was upheld in pre-communist Tibet and some tribal kingdoms. It is seldom invoked in the modem state.

Conservative View

  • Conservative thinkers uphold obedience to the state or political authority for practical reasons. David Hume argued that the advantages of obedience to any type of political authority outweigh the disadvantages of having no government at all. He, therefore, upheld unconditional political obligation in view of practical utility of a government. Edmund Burke similarly argued that politics was a matter of ‘prudence and practicability’.
  • In a nutshell, the conservative view of political obligation is based on legitimacy rather than on consent or morality.

Principle of Consent

  • According to this view, ‘man is born free’; he can be expected to obey a ruler only with his consent. In other words, a government can exercise its power only with an explicit or implicit consent of its citizens. The theory of the ‘social contract’ represents the best formulation of this viewpoint. Social contract represents the method of arriving at agreement for setting up the state; it marks a transition from the state of nature to civil society. The terms of the contract define the ground and limits of political obligation.
  • The chief exponents of the theory of the social contract are: Thomas Hobbes , John Locke and Jean Jaques Rousseau .

Idealist View

  • The idealist school of thought originally created an unconditional and unlimited obligation, but later it was modified to admit a note of caution. G.W.F. Hegel , famous exponent of idealism, eulogized the state as ‘the incarnation of divine reason’ and the ‘march of God on earth’. He argued that when individual obeys the state, he essentially follows divine reason and thereby exercises his freedom. Hegel, therefore, postulated an unlimited political obligation.
  • It was T.H. Green in the idealist tradition who declared that government cannot claim an unconditional obedience of its citizens. . Green’s concept of political obligation is based on his concept of the ‘common good’. He pointed out that it is society, not the state, which is the pivot of the common good. Green argued that the state itself is obliged to promote the common good as conceived by its citizens, and that individual is obliged to obey only those laws which will promote the common good. If individuals think that they will serve the cause of the common good by defying any command of the state, their political obligation does not prevent them from such defiance. Thus Green’s view of political obligation banks on the moral nature and capacity of human beings. It reduces the state to an instrument of securing the common good as conceived and defined by its citizens. By recognizing the organized power of the community rather than the state as the object of political obligation, Green rules out the claim of any government to demand unconditional obedience from its citizens
  • Likewise, Harold J. Laski argued that if a government claims allegiance of human beings, it will have to compete with other human associations in securing their highest welfare.

Theories against Political Obligation

Marxist View

  • According to the Marxist view, the state is by no means the organized power of the community. It is indeed the organized power of the dominant class— particularly the class owning the major means of production. Its purpose is not general welfare, but helping the strong competitors to increase their wealth and power by exploiting the weak competitors as well as the dependent class. In a class-divided society, individual can have no political obligation toward the state. At best, an individual can have any obligation toward society, provided it is a classless and stateless society

Anarchist View

  • The anarchist view advocates the abolition of all organized authority as well as the state mechanism in order to build a society wherein all human beings shall freely and spontaneously adjust with each other without requiring an external force to regulate their relations. It, therefore, upholds negative political obligation. Anarchists like P.J. Proudhon and Peter Kropotkin argued that all governmental authority is illegitimate because the state is indeed a coercive institution, which is suited only to a corrupt and unjust society. The individual is only obliged to uphold justice. So he is obliged to resist the state and devote himself to building a new system where all members of society will spontaneously cooperate with each other.
  • The Marxist and Gandhian views, as upholders of stateless society, come closer to the anarchist view of political obligation.

Gandhian Perspective

  • Mahatma Gandhi recognized severe limits of political obligation, as his principle of’civil disobedience’ indicates. Civil disobedience implies deliberately disobeying an unjust authority and breaking an unjust law. The duty of civil disobedience to an unjust law is the counterpart of the duty of civil obedience to a just law. Civil disobedience may be resorted to as a protest against an unjust policy of government or in order to draw attention of the government to a demand for political reform.
  • It is again important that the true object of civil obedience is ‘change of heart’ of the authorities concerned. This should be resorted to only against a tyrannical regime, foreign rule or unjust government. If a government generally maintains the citizens’ rights and can be influenced through democratic means, resort to civil disobedience will not be necessary. Finally, civil disobedience should not be resorted to for pressing the demands of any particular section against the general or public interest.


  • Political obligation is a complex issue. Its grounds and limits have to be considered very carefully before conceding it. At the outset, it is necessary to realize that the individual owes political obligation to political authority. Philosophically, we may owe political obligation to any ideal object, but in actual life such obligation is always demanded by a band of government officials which must be considered with utmost caution.
  • It is essential to see that the resistance should not be taken too far. As Burke had warned, resistance is the medicine of the constitution, not its daily bread. Reform should be undertaken to achieve a definite objective, and the situation should be reviewed and a further programme chalked out after fulfilment of that objective. If major issues are resolved, minor issues could be left to take care of themselves.

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