Lists of the ‘elite’ are interesting, but never forget that power is at its most effective when it is least observable.

Earlier this week, on the 24th September to be precise, The Guardian made a big splash about an analysis of what it claimed were the UK’s most powerful people – the ‘elite’. This provoked various responses, including one from a good friend of the Progressive Pulse blog, Richard Murphy, on his Tax Research blog ( in which Richard took issue with ‘the premise that these are the most powerful people in the country, let alone the elite.’

One of the things that struck me reading Richard’s blog and the comments that followed, was the degree to which people have a variety of ideas and understanding of what actually constitutes power. In other words, what really makes a person or group powerful.

As we might imagine, this is a question that has been debated for centuries: see the work of Karl Marx and Max Weber, for example, and that of French and Raven (1959), Charles Handy (1976), and Gareth Morgan (1997), amongst others, that examine sources of power and the nature of power relations in organisations specifically.

What I want to do in this blog – which is as short as I think is warranted by the subject, but not that short – is briefly introduce an extremely insightful example of work that seeks to define what real power is and its various forms.

In his seminal work, Power: A Radical View, Lukes (1974, 2nd Ed. 2005) set out to critique existing definitions and conceptualisations of power. Lukes argued that existing theories of power were limited because they were two dimensional. Thus, while useful in certain situations they did not fully explain power. To do this he added a third dimension. Note however that the dimensions are not mutually exclusive. One conceptualisation is not, therefore, better than another. Instead, each provides an insight into a different type – a different dimension – of power. In some circumstances one applies more than another but all are present in one form or another in almost every context.

Additionally, Lukes’ work is also important to the study of both social and societal power because the focus of attention is decision making: when, where, how, why, why not and by whom. For that reason, it is an approach that is relevant to the exploration and analysis of domains of power and power relations at any analytical level.

The first dimension: decision making

This definition of power developed from studies of decision making in American government undertaken by Robert Dahl in the 1950s and 60s. Dahl set out to critique previous definitions of power, and particularly the view that power was largely restricted to elite groups in society. Dahl instead focused on the decision-making process (using as a case study a town in the US) and concluded that in different settings at different times different groups dominated decision making. This system he deemed ‘pluralist’, and the definition of power that underpins it is straightforward: ‘A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do’.

Lukes saw this as the first dimension of power: power exercised overtly by one actor/group over another. The main criticism of this approach is that it is built on a number of assumptions. First, that power is only exercised in situations of observable conflict. Second, that ‘individuals were assumed to be aware of their grievances and to act upon them by participating in decision-making and trying to influence these key decisions.’ The decision-making environment is seen as ‘open to anyone who had an interest in it, and absence of participation as a sign of consensus’.

The second dimension: non-decision making

As might be imagined, it was not long before Dahl’s work drew a response. The assumption that non-participation meant that groups/individuals agreed with the decisions made was a particular area of attention. It could, for example, be due to:

… the suppression of options and alternatives that reflect the needs of the non-participants. It is not necessarily true that people with the greatest needs participate in politics most actively – whoever decides what the game is about also decides who gets in the game.

(Schattschneider, 1960, quoted in Hardy, 1994)

Schattschneider referred to this as ‘the mobilisation of bias’, and, following this line of argument Bachrach and Baratz (1960) developed the concept of ‘agenda setting’. This captured the empirically observed phenomenon that in any process of decision making certain groups of actors/agents may be able to determine the outcome from behind the scenes or prevent or limit other (subordinate) groups from participating in decision making. This can be done in many ways, such as the use of rules and regulations, setting agendas, or specifying a certain timetable and controlling or withholding resources (as we see on a regular basis with current negotiations over Brexit).

Importantly, Bachrach and Baratz identified the fact that ‘power is not exercised solely in the taking of key decisions, and that visible decision makers are not necessarily the most powerful’, a good point to keep in mind when considering the power – or lack of it – of politicians and government ministers, and members of so-called elites.

Bachrach’s and Baratz’s approach became associated with the term ‘non-decision making’ because of their focus on the mechanisms by which conflict was suppressed, questions about ‘who gets what, when and how’ remained unasked, and therefore no decisions needed to be taken.

The third dimension: power as a “deep” structure

Lukes developed the third dimension of power primarily as a response to the shortcomings of the first two dimensions, and latter versions of the Bachrach and Baratz model in particular. Thus, while accepting the relevance of the non-decisional and decisional approaches in certain circumstances, he maintained that these theories still failed to recognise the exercise of power where there was no conflict.

Lukes’ argument is that this use of power helps maintain the dominance of elite groups and those social (i.e. cultural and normative) and economic mechanisms that perpetuate a situation which allows the dominant classes to define reality and therefore justify their material domination whilst preventing challenges to their social and economic position. Garenta (1980) subsequently elaborated on Lukes’ work arguing that the third dimension represents a ‘deep structure’ that conditions decision making through such features as ‘social myths, language, and symbols and how they are manipulated in power processes.’  In short, power has become institutionalised and therefore virtually invisible.

[The terms ‘hegemony’, or ‘hegemonic power’, from the work of Antonio Gramsci are often used in some academic disciplines, such as politics and sociology, to describe and define power in a similar way to Luke’s third dimension.]

The contested nature of the concept of power meant that Lukes’ 1974 book created much debate. This did not, however, alter his view that ‘we need to think about power broadly rather than narrowly – in three dimensions rather than one or two – and that we need to attend to those aspects of power that are least accessible to observation: that, indeed, power is at its most effective when least observable.’ (Lukes, 2005, my emphasis).

Furthermore, drawing on the work of Morriss (2002), Lukes argued that there are three contexts in which we need to analyse and discuss power and thus why it is important:

  • practical (as in needing to know our own powers and those of others to find our way around in a world populated by people);
  • moral (as in the connection between power and responsibility), and;
  • evaluative (as in the means to assess and evaluate social systems and specifically the distribution of power in societies).

But perhaps most importantly Lukes acknowledged that defining power as the exercise of power in the first edition of Power: a radical view was a mistake. In fact:

Power is a capacity not the exercise of that capacity (it may never be, and never need to be, exercised); and you can be powerful by satisfying and advancing others’ interests: PRV’s topic, power as domination, is only one species of power. Moreover, it was inadequate in confining the discussion to binary relations between actors assumed to have unitary interests, and failing to consider the ways in which everyone’s interests are multiple, conflicting and of different kinds. The defence consists in making the case for the existence of power as the imposition of internal constraints. Those subject to it are led to acquire beliefs and form desires that result in their consenting or adapting to being dominated, in coercive and non-coercive settings.

(Lukes, 2005)

Lukes’ reinforces this point by noting that the ‘exercise fallacy’ is also joined by the ‘vehicle fallacy’, by which he means ‘those tempted by the idea that power must mean whatever goes into operation when power is activated.’ (p.70). That is, equating power with the use (exercise) of such resources as wealth or military weapons. As he notes, history teaches us that using such sources or means of power does not necessarily make a person, group or country more powerful than another entity: witness the ex-Soviet Union and the US and her allies in various wars in Afghanistan; or the US in Vietnam; or indeed the inability of many powerful countries to resolve the ongoing conflicts in the middle east. ‘In short, observing the exercise of power can give evidence of possession, and counting power resources can be a clue to distribution, but power is a capacity, and not the exercise of the vehicle of that capacity.’ (Lukes, 2005).

[As an interesting aside it is also worth registering that the distinction between possessing a capacity and actually exercising it is something we see reflected in the seminal book on strategy by Sun Zu, The Art of War, and specifically a central dictum of that work that, ‘To win without fighting is best.’]

Finally, having noted that both John Stuart Mill in his study of the subjection of Victorian women and Pierre Bourdieu’s work on the acquisition and maintenance of ‘habitus’ both illustrate the workings of power in creating conditions that those subject to it consider ‘natural’ and ‘even to value it, and fail to recognise the sources of their desires and beliefs.’ Lukes concludes:

These and other mechanisms constitute power’s third dimension when it works against people’s interests by misleading them, thereby distorting their judgement. To say that such power involves the concealment of people’s “real interests” by “false consciousness” evokes bad historical memories and can appear both patronising and presumptuous, but there is, I argue, nothing inherently illiberal or paternalist about these notions, which, suitably refined, remain crucial to understanding the third dimension of power.

(Lukes, 2005)

In summary

There are other ways of approaching the subject of power in both academic and mainstream literature, of course – a frequent one being the use of taxonomies of sources/bases of power, such as those of French and Raven, Handy and others noted above. And I should also add that I have not included here any exploration of the work of Michel Foucault, whose views on power are often referred to as ‘ultra-radical’. I’d only note Lukes’ response, that far from being ultra-radical they are in fact a restatement of some elementary concepts in sociology in a ‘distinctively Foucauldian way.’:

Individuals are socialised: they are oriented to roles and practices that are culturally and socially given; they internalise these and may experience them as freely chosen; indeed their freedom may, as Durkheim liked to say, be the fruit of regulation – the outcome of disciplines and controls.

(Lukes, 2005).

Whether Lukes is correct about Foucault can no doubt be disputed. Leaving that aside, with this relatively brief review I hope I’ve established why focusing on elites – however they might be defined – and claiming they are therefore powerful by definition of being defined as such, without establishing the nature of their ‘power’, might make for an interesting feature in The Guardian, but does little to recognise the true nature of power relations in contemporary society.


  1. Peter May -

    I think that ‘ruling élites’ are probably what The Guardian meant. But even so whilst many of them think they rule, I’m not at all sure they do.
    Our ‘democracy’ has become so complex that it is not clear who has control. Although money is constantly referred to – that is the danger…
    All those mentioned have a little control – but not too much. Which, for me, is good.
    And also of course ‘democracy’ has been captured by people such as Murdoch – outside that democracy, so again it is not clear who has control.
    Mind you if the Brexit Bill gets through we’ll know who rules ‘absolutely’ – we have to hope that the unelected Lords will save us!

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      ‘Money is constantly referred to’ Precisely, Peter. Democracy has effectively been sold off to those with the deepest pockets, and nowhere is that more evident than in the links between the 1% and the Tory Party (ditto the Republicans in the US).

  2. Sean Danaher -

    Thanks Ivan
    very nicely argued. Power is very interesting at present. We seem to be inexorably driving towards a cliff edge Brexit. Wheather it is the ironically named European Research Group, I don’t know but it feels as if there is some malevolent force at work.

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      Agree, Sean. The European Research Group is yet another example of a so called ‘think-tank’ funded by shadowy figures whose only interest is their own self interest and how this government – and UK democracy in general – can deliver on that desire. And that in turn is an example of cowardly politicians happy to sell their souls – and their credibility as key actors in our political system – to the highest bidder, just as long as they’re able to maintain the sham that they have power when in government.

  3. Richard Murphy -

    I greatly appreciated this

    It has reframed some of my thinking

    That’s good writing

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      Thanks Richard. Much appreciated.

  4. Geoff Plant -

    Thanks Ivan, an interesting and thought provoking piece.
    I was reminded also of the work of Max Weber and Kafka and the elimination of unnecessary levels of bureaucracy, such as seen in the structures of the EU and especially the Commission; If I’m not mistaken, MMT addresses these issues.

    As I was reading through your article I was struck by the different levels of power which together make up the whole. It seems to me that winning the argument is central to winning power; Thatcher and Reagan did it, and we’re all now suffering the consequences of that. The success of their narrative has been so effective as to be voiced with supreme confidence, in bars, restaurants and on facebook by ordinary people who don’t necessarily understand what they are talking about – becoming the voice of something that oppresses them – a fantastic achievement.
    Having also followed the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the subsequent shift in the arguments around what occupies the “centre ground” in politics and the move within the Overton window; Corbyn and the LP are becoming mainstream, which was unthinkable even a year ago.
    For me your article also focused my thinking on the current power struggles within the Labour Party established elite, the structures, rules and levels of power within those instruments of control; the tension between the various factions, always there, often unseen but awaiting their turn.
    Democracy is under serious threat, so to understand the nature of real power must be a first step to winning the arguments against those who set themselves up to control the arguments. In the end, I think real power lies with the people. How do we convince people that they have the power to change things? The success of Momentum in offering education, an alternative vision, and ways of describing that vision, is a good example. For a vision to be realized, elite or otherwise, it needs to carry the majority with it.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Indeed often power is very subtle, when I was younger far before “The Matrix” it seemed as if I lived inside an unseen cage, far more effective than a real cage. There are memes such as “taxpayers money” that seem to be ubiquitous. The Neoliberal perversion of Capitalism which I thought was criminally insane at its introduction under Regan and Thatcher seems to have spread like a virulent virus, which has hopefully run its course. Real power may lie in a shady “dark web” of interconnected and obscenely well funded right-wing think thanks of which the disgraced former defence secretary, Dr Liam Fox is the most prominent known UK member.

      1. Geoff Plant -

        I hope it has run it’s course Sean.
        I learn so much from people like yourselves on here and other bloggers like Professor Murphy, Bill Mitchell and Wren-Lewis.
        Living in France, as we do, it doesn’t feel like that right now. The elite have in Macron, the perfect clone.

    2. Ivan Horrocks -

      Glad you found my blog of interest, Geoff.

      You mention Weber, who had an interesting take on power because he was particularly interested in ‘authority’ and what made people carry out the arders of their ‘superiors’. Hence he came up with the concept of authority as taking three forms:

      Charismatic – authority based on the personal qualities of a leader.
      Traditional – authority based on precedent and usage.
      Rational/legal – authority is exercised through systems of rules and regulations.

      Even today most of us would be aware of these – and they are the staple topic of many books on management.

      You also mention Weber and bureaucracy. I’m sure you know, therefore, that Weber ultimately took the view that , while bureaucracy was technically superior to other forms of organisation it was to be regarded almost as ‘…if it were a scientific creation which has turned and devoured its human creators. Rational calculation has become a monstrous machine…Bureaucracy (the rational/legal model of organisation) was, ultimately, an “iron cage” and not a “model for perfect practice”‘ (Clegg, 1990).

      1. Geoff Plant -

        Thanks for your reply Ivan……..I concur.

  5. Graham -

    Where does the exercise of power through violence fit in?

    1. Malcolm James -

      First dimension, which is overt power.

Comments are closed.