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What Are the Three Faces of Political Power?

In this article, we will outline the three faces of political power and provide some examples to illustrate how they operate.
There is one conceptualisation of power so influential in the study of politics that it is worthwhile spending a bit more time on.
That conceptualisation is Steven Lukes’ ‘three faces of political power,’ as outlined in his book Power: A Radical View (2005).
Addressing a number of the positions we have already looked at so far (and, in particular, Michel Foucault’s), Lukes outlines three different forms that power can take in our political world.
In this article, I will outline the three faces and give you some examples to illustrate how they operate.

1. The ‘first face’ of power: decision making

The first face of power is the most easily recognisable: decision-making is the process whereby an actor, such as an individual or a political organisation, considers their situation and acts upon a course they have determined.
Decision-making might then take into account both coercive and non-coercive action: Aminath might decide to force their penny-pinching landlord to install smoke alarms in order to comply with national safety guidelines, or Roger might decide to go and vote. Whereas the first action is coercive, the second action is not, and yet they are both examples of political decision-making.
Two other examples, one of coercive power and one of non-coercive power, might help:
  • I have power ‘over you’ if I put a gun to your head and say ‘give me your wallet’. In this example, I am putting you in a situation whereby you must do something you would not otherwise do if you do not wish to suffer worst consequences.
  • A town mayor’s power is shown when they decide to implement new penalties against armed robbery. Given that armed robbers intend to rob, in this perhaps more socially acceptable example, the town mayor appears powerful by stopping the robbers carrying out their wishes.

The ‘second face’ of power: agenda setting

The second face of power involves controlling the parameters of a discussion. One might want to do this, for example, so that the participants of the discussion might not even be able to address things that are in their benefits.
Bachrach and Baratz (1962) describe this form of power like this:
‘To the extent that a person or group – consciously or unconsciously – creates or reinforces barriers to the public airing of policy conflicts, that person or group has power’.
In other words, this face of power operates before the first: I might be able to prevent somebody else making a decision, or even discussing a decision and, in doing so, I demonstrate my power over them.
Again, here are two examples of where this might take place:
  1. A group of concerned citizens demonstrates its power over the public agenda by successfully lobbying for stricter gun laws and more prisons (rather than, for example, anti-poverty programs). Example, the group of concerned citizens actually enables a town mayor to be powerful: power does not necessarily have to be limiting or destructive, according to this face.
  2. In ancient Athens, although all citizens were able to participate in political decision-making, the powerful Senate was composed of elected individuals and set out which policies the citizens would discuss on any one day.

The ‘third face’ of power: thought control

Wouldn’t it be even easier if, rather than preventing somebody discussing something, we could prevent somebody from even realising what is in their real interests? In reality, this happens all the time and is one of the most important issues to address in the study of politics. As Lukes describes it:
‘The most effective and insidious form of power is to prevent … conflict from arising in the first place’ Steven Lukes (2005).
For example, and to continue with that which we have been using: in assuming that poverty is both ‘natural’ and unrelated to gun crime, those who would benefit from anti-poverty programs (and who are most likely to experience violence and prison) show their lack of power when compared to the concerned citizens of the previous example.

Problems with the ‘politics is power’ approach

Although this account of power has been highly influential, there are still perhaps four problems to outline:
  1. Again: What is power? It can be just as difficult to define as ‘politics’!
  2. Where is power expressed? In government institutions? In the economy? Society? The home? Everywhere?
  3. What is it to own power, rather than express it?
  4. Are all types of power equally important to politics? (i.e. is military power more important than economic power?)
Bachrach, P. & Baratz, M.S. (1962) Two Faces of Power. The American Political Science Review, 56, 947-952.
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