Much of what’s going on in human life is the exercise of power. Individuals struggle to assert power over one another, and groups of individuals (up to the scale of nations) collaborate to do likewise. Fig leaf labels are pasted over the nasty business as camouflage such as ‘communism’, ‘christianity’, ‘islam’, ‘national socialism’, ‘the british empire’, ‘the trade union movement’ etc. but the underlying dynamic remains.

It all starts very early in pre-school days where even 3-year-olds establish hierarchies and build alliances. Writing this short book in 1974, Steven Lukes (https://stevenlukes.net/) outlined a ‘conceptual analysis of power, benefiting from the debate between pluralists and their critics’.  Thirty years after the first edition, Lukes included two supplementary chapters to take account of the more recent social science literature.

The author emphasizes several important points that have became landmarks in subsequent discussions of the social reality of power: that power is a multi-dimensional social factor, that power and democracy are paradoxically related, and that there are very important non-coercive sources of power in modern society. He begins his account proper with the treatment of power provided by the pluralist tradition of American democratic theory, including especially Robert Dahl in 1957 in The Concept of Power. This is the one-dimensional view: power is a behavioural attribute that applies to individuals to the extent that they are able to modify the behaviour of other individuals within a decision-making process. The person with the power in a situation is the person who prevails in the decision-making process.

The second dimension is brought out by noticing that it is possible to influence decisions by shaping the agenda, not merely by weighing in on existing decision points. Lukes quotes from Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz in their 1962 book Two Faces of Power  ‘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’. So shaping the agenda is an important source of power that is overlooked in the pluralist model. The third dimension emerges by seeing that people sometimes act willingly in ways that appear contrary to their most basic interests. Those in power manipulate others, without coercion or forcible constraint, by creating a pervasive system of ideology or false consciousness. In other words the powerless are duped.

There is now a large literature on the analysis and meaning of power. Lukes’ book remains a seminal work for this area of social science and politics, well deserving a place on your shelves. The second edition (2004) is available in paperback from Palgrave here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Power-Radical-View-Steven-Lukes/dp/0333420926/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1515929314&sr=8-1&keywords=power+lukes

Check if this seminal work on power is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at https://www.sllclibrary.co.uk/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/MSGTRN/OPAC/BSEARCH

204 pages in Palgrave

First published 1974

ISBN 978-0333420928

Professor Steven Lukes

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