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Power, Politics, and Government

Theories of Power

Marxist Model of Power

The Marxist model of power explains politics in terms of the operation of a society's economic system.

German theorist Karl Marx (1818–83) analyzed how power is distributed through a society's economic system. Marx believed that the structure of a society is rooted in its economy. He particularly focused on how society is shaped by the ownership of the means of production—facilities and resources, such as tools, factory buildings, and machinery, used for manufacturing goods–that are dominant in that society. He defined the social classes that made up a society through the relationship each class has to the means of production. In a capitalist society, most power is held by the owners of the means of production. The means of production are how society ensures its continued existence, through producing food, shelter, clothing, and other goods, as well as cultural products such as art and literature. In a feudal society, most production took the form of farming. The ruling class was made up of royalty and nobles who owned the land and thus possessed most of the power in their society. In industrial capitalism, most power rests with the bourgeoisie, the class that owns property, including owning and controlling the means of production, such as wealth, factories, resources, patents, and so on. In a capitalist society, most people are not members of this class of owners and instead must sell labor to the bourgeoisie in order to survive. Marx called this larger class the proletariat, the working class, members of which own only their own labor. Members of the proletariat are forced to sell their labor because they have no control over the means of production. Their role in a capitalist society is to create a profit for the bourgeoisie.

Marx viewed these classes as always in conflict with each other. Class struggle is a key concept in Marxist analysis, referring to the conflict between classes as each tries to advance its own goals and interests. The primary struggle between the classes is over control of the means of production. Because it controls the means of production, the bourgeoisie has economic dominance over the proletariat. Along with this economic dominance, the bourgeoisie also dominates the proletariat politically and ideologically. The bourgeoisie controls the political sphere of a society and imposes its beliefs and values on society at large. This contributes to the tendency of the proletariat to accept the domination of the bourgeoisie. Marx argued that social change can occur when the proletariat develops class consciousness, an awareness of shared economic, social, and political circumstances leading to an understanding that cooperation with others in the same class is necessary in order to solve problems faced by all members of the class. Class consciousness for the proletariat involves recognizing that its working conditions are created by the bourgeoisie, in the interest of the bourgeoisie. Awareness of this structural exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie produces solidarity—a feeling of connectedness among individuals with a common interest, leading to cooperation and mutual support. Class consciousness also entails recognition that class conflict is built into the structure of society and a corresponding recognition of the need to fundamentally change the exploitative capitalist system. Marx believed that the development of class consciousness among the proletariat would lead to revolution and a change in the nature and structure of society.

Marx argued that one way in which the bourgeoisie holds on to its power is to prevent class consciousness from forming among the working class. The domination of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie goes beyond economic domination to include political and ideological domination. Marxist class struggle thus plays out in economic, social, and political conflict between the haves and the have-nots. Marx argued that class struggle is a fact in all societies. The struggle between the classes over power and resources has produced several major revolutions throughout history. Marx wrote that the overarching tendency of these revolutions was usually to move toward more equalized distribution of power and resources. Marx looked forward to an ultimate revolution that would abolish capitalism and end class-based societies. He thought that ending the concept of private property would produce the ideal, classless society. This classless, egalitarian society was Marx's concept of communism. While in the 20th century some countries, such as the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea, implemented forms of government based on Marx's ideas, these countries never became truly communist in the Marxist sense, since they were not really classless societies. Indeed, most so-called communist countries implemented systems where certain groups, such as the military and government officials, had extreme power. Marx's notion of communism envisioned an end to the unequal distribution of power.

Marx's model is extremely influential, although not without criticism. The Marxist model centers examination of power in a society on the fundamental economic system of that society. Some sociologists reject Marx's version for being too simplistic or dismissive of social complexities. They suggest that real societies are less antagonistic than Marx claimed and that many factors other than economics must be considered. Others debate how historically accurate Marx's model is. Some criticisms of Marxism focus on how there are many conflicts among social groups that are not reducible to class conflict. For example, conflict between the LGBTQIA community (individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, or asexual) and groups who oppose rights for LGBTQIA individuals is not based on competition for economic resources or power. Later Marxist sociologists have worked to rectify these failings, with varying degrees of success.
Marx wrote that human history is defined by ongoing class struggle. Power rests with the class that is dominant in the struggle. Marx argued that this struggle leads to revolution, which upends the power structure of a society.

Pluralism Model of Power

Pluralism describes power as spread throughout society among many competing interest groups, resulting in an overall balance of power.

One model of how power functions in a society is pluralism—the theory that power is, or should be, distributed among multiple interest groups in society. An interest group is a group with a specific focus, need, or goal. Interest groups are formed by sections of society united by shared interests, including economic interests, ideologies, cultures, and traditions. While the interests of different groups are often in conflict, pluralists see competition among different interest groups as positive. They argue that the distribution of power among diverse groups within society helps to forge a kind of social order. It also prevents elites from holding all the power within a society. Pluralists believe that when power is fragmented and dispersed among many groups, rather than concentrated, social and political policies are formed by negotiation and compromise. This helps ensure that different groups get their needs met. For example, unions represent the interests of workers, industry groups represent businesses and corporations, and groups based on cultural affiliation represent the interests of members of those cultural groups. Each group advocates for laws and policies that it favors. Pluralists theorize that interest groups mostly become influential in the areas that are of concern to them. An agricultural interest group, for instance, would mostly impact laws, policies, practices, and any area of society related to farming and the business of agriculture. A Mexican American cultural group would mostly influence areas of interest to its group members, such as bilingual education policies. If groups come into conflict, government acts as a mediating force, with the broad result being an equal distribution of power among all groups. Pluralism arose as a theory in developed countries, such as the United States, in the mid-20th century. This theory is highly influenced by the culture and values of the United States, particularly the American emphasis on individual liberties, democracy, and a market-oriented industrial economy. The United States's history of forging a national identity out of waves of migrants from around the world also helped promote the core ideas of pluralism—strength from diversity and mediated conflict between diverse interest groups.

Pluralism as a theory of power is criticized for presenting an ideal that has rarely, if ever, existed. Critics of pluralism point out that in most societies, despite the existence of multiple interest groups, elite groups do form. Different interest groups within a society have different resources at their disposal. Some interest groups have money and access to political decision makers while other groups do not. This is particularly true of smaller, less wealthy communities and interest groups that cannot compete against big corporations and industry groups. For instance, those in poverty campaigning for a more equal distribution of wealth do not have the same ability to advance their cause as a big business that wants to see a decrease in corporate taxes. Another example of how different interest groups have different resources can be seen in the conflict between communities and big corporations that engage in fracking, a process used to extract oil and gas from rock formations. These corporations have the wealth and political connections to pursue their interests. Some communities object to fracking because it causes environmental damage and may be tied to health problems that can arise as a consequence of drinking the tainted water the fracking process produces. Consider the town of Denton, Texas, which in 2014 voted overwhelmingly to ban fracking within its city limits. A fracking boom had already produced over 300 gas wells within the city, impacting residents' health and property rights. The relatively small interest group of the community of Denton worked to advance its interests by prohibiting fracking. However, the much wealthier and more powerful interest group of the oil and gas industry got the Texas Legislature and the governor to overturn the ban. With key allies in state government, the oil and gas industry was able to impose its interests over those of the town of Denton. Thus, a major question for pluralists is how to reconcile the pluralist ideal with the existence of elite and powerful interest groups in society.

Power Elite Model

The power elite model describes power as concentrated among a few elite members of corporations, the military, and the government.

While the pluralism model concentrates on how power is dispersed throughout a society, the power elite theory describes how power is concentrated in the hands of a small, elite group. Power elite theory was proposed in 1956 by American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916–62), who based his model on U.S. society in the mid-20th century. Mills defined the power elite as a small group of individuals within the government, the military, and large corporations who hold the majority of power in a society. These elites may compete among themselves to determine the direction of society, but they are united in preserving their power against challenges from nonelite groups, who make up most of society.

According to Mills, the power elite in the United States holds power through occupying key posts in American society—high political office, military leadership, and leadership positions in large corporations. Occupation of these posts allows the elite to make crucial decisions about the shape of the economy, the direction of politics, and military budgets. These decisions have immense power to shape society. Mills analyzed power in the United States during the period that followed World War II, when the military establishment grew to greater prominence because of the war and the Cold War that followed. He drew on the idea of the military-industrial complex, the powerful alliance of an enormous military, the defense industry, and the federal government. Major corporations also grew even larger during this period, in part because of a series of mergers that created large conglomerates—companies that own several businesses. Mills stressed that among the power elite, corporations have the most power.

Mills wrote that this power elite is tied together by a shared worldview and shared social connection. A worldview is a set of assumptions about the world, how it works, and one's place within it. In Mills's analysis of the postwar United States, members of the power elite share the opinion that the United States should promote business at home and free enterprise around the world, using U.S. power to secure American business interests globally. This worldview supports and promotes the business and wealth interests of the members of the elite. It is reinforced by the fact that many members of the power elite have a personal connection, through shared social acquaintance and shared experiences in education, business, or the military.

In the power elite model, the distribution of power can be thought of as a pyramid. Most power is held by the elite at the top of the pyramid. This elite group decides which issues matter in politics. They decide the overall direction of policy and have the power to set or thwart the agenda of society. Below the elite sits a middle level, which is mostly charged with implementing the policies set by the elite. Members of the middle level, such as state and federal legislators, may tinker with the details of these policies but do not have much meaningful influence or control. Below this middle layer is the public, made up of the mass of society that is almost entirely cut out of decision-making. Elections provide a medium through which the public can alter the priorities and makeup of the middle layer of society. However, it is rare for the public to influence the overall agenda, which is set by the power elite. The main ways that the public can have a significant impact are mass social movements and revolutions. However, this theory further argues that most movements and revolutions are stamped out by the prevailing powers, who have the resources to squash protest and eliminate dissent. This often occurs through military or law enforcement action. Even in the case of successful social movements and revolutions, a new power elite arises to gain control of the new social structure.

One problem of power elites is the tendency to engage in groupthink, thinking that occurs when a group makes irrational or ineffective decisions because its members value agreement and harmony over individuality or creativity. Power elites are prone to groupthink because of the high degree of cohesiveness—the tendency to agree, stick together, and support one another—that characterizes these groups. Groupthink occurs in highly cohesive groups where members share common backgrounds and interests. In this type of group, individuals may hesitate to voice disagreements or concerns about ideas and decisions when there appears to be group consensus because they fear the consequences of dissent. Highly cohesive groups are characterized by harmony and agreement; dissension is not a primary value. Individuals are more likely to question the validity of their own divergent thinking and to feel a pressure to conform. The dynamics of groupthink are thus useful to power elites because they help to preserve the power of the elite group. For the power elite, preservation of its power is a key goal. For society at large, however, groupthink can be detrimental because it can lead to decisions that are not logical or beneficial for all or most members of the society.

C. Wright Mills's Power Elite Model

The power elite model holds that power is concentrated in the hands of a few leaders. The beliefs, values, and decisions of the elite shape public policy and influence private life.