Luke’s Three Dimensions Of Power Essay, Research Paper

Power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce

powerlessness”(Gaventa,1980:256). Such is the essence of the on going

relationship between the Powerful and the Powerless of the Appalachian Valley where acquiescence of the repressed has become not only common practice but a

way of life and a means of survival. In his novel Power and Powerlessness, John

Gaventa examines the oppressive and desperate situation of the Appalachian coal

miners under the autocratic power of absentee land-owners, local elites, and

corrupt union leaders. His analyses is based on Lukes three-dimensional

understanding of power from his book Power: A Radical View. Gaventa applies the

three notions of power to the politics of inequalities in the Appalachian Valley

and, while demonstrating the inadequacies of the first or ‘pluralist’ approach

and the merits of the second and particularly the third dimensions, asserts that

the interrelationship and reinforcing affect of all three dimensions is

necessary for an in depth understanding of the “total impact of power upon the

actions [or inactions] and conceptions of the powerless”(Gaventa:256)

This essay will examine Luke’s three power dimensions and their

applicability to Gaventa’s account of the inequities found in the valleys of the

Cumberland Mountains. Reasons for the mountain people’s submission and non-

participation will be recognized and their nexus with the power relationship

established. In this way, Gaventa’s dissatisfaction with the pluralist approach

will be justified and the emphatic ability of the other two dimensions to

withhold issues and shape behaviour will be verified as principal agents of

Power and Powerlessness.

The one dimensional view of power is often called the ‘pluralist’

approach and emphasizes the exercise of power through decision making and

observable behaviour. Robert Dahl, a major proponent of this view, defines

power as occurring in a situation where “A has power over B to the extent he can

get B to do something that B would not otherwise do”(Dahl as cited in Lukes,

1974:11). A’s power therefore is defined in terms of B and the extent to which

A prevails is determined by its higher ratio of ’successes’ and ‘defeats’ over B.

Observable behaviour then becomes a key factor in the pluralist approach

to power. Dahl’s Who Govern’s? expresses the pluralist belief that the

political arena is an open system where everyone may participate and express

grievances which in turn lead to decision making. Those who propose

alternatives and initiate issues which contribute to the decision making process

are demonstrating observable influence and control over those who failed all

together to express any interest in the political process.

The Pluralist approach assumes that in an open system, all people, not

just the elite, would participate in decision making if they felt strongly

enough about an issue and wanted their values to be expressed and represented.

Non-participation therefore is thought to express a lack of grievances and a

consensus with the way the leaders are already handling the system. Political

inaction is not a problem within the one-dimensional system, it merely reflects

apathy of ordinary citizens with little interest or knowledge for political

matters, and their acceptance of the existing system which they see as rewarding

mutual benefits to society.

While politics is primarily an elite concern to the pluralist, ordinary

people can have a say if they become organized, and everyone has indirect

influence through the right to the franchise in the electoral process.

Pluralism recognizes a heterogeneous society composed of people belonging to

various groups with differing and competing interests. Conflict is therefore

also recognized as not only an expected result but as a necessary instrument

which enables the determination of a ruling class in terms of who the winner is.

Dahl,(as cited in Lukes,1974:18) states:

Who prevails in decision-making seems the best

way to determine which individual and groups have

more power in social life because direct conflict

between actors presents a situation most approximating

an experimental test of their capacities to affect


Both Lukes and Gaventa put forward the notion that restricting your

analyses of a power situation to the one dimensional model can skew your

conclusions. If you limit yourself to this approach your study will be impaired

by a pluralistic biased view of power. Where the first dimension sees power in

its manifest functions of decision making over key issues raising observable

conflict due to policies raised through political participation, it ignores the

unobservable mechanisms of power that are sometimes just as or even more


Many times power is exercised to prevent an issue from being raised and

to discourage participation in the political arena. Potential issues and

grievances are therefore not voiced and to assume this means that they do not

exist would be an outright deviation from fact. By restricting analyses to what

is expressed and to observable behaviour and overt conflict only, you miss any

preference not expressed because of fear of sanctions, manipulation, coercion

and force.

This critique of the behaviourial focus and the recognition of

unobservable factors of power is discussed in the two-dimensional view of power

developed by Bachrach and Baratz by which “power is exercised not just upon

participants within the decision making process but also towards the exclusion

of certain participants and issues altogether”(Schattsneider, as cited in

Lukes,1974:16). This theory proposes that political organizations develop a

“mobilization of bias… in favour of the exploitation of certain kinds of

conflict and the suppression of others… some issues are organized in while

others are organized out”(Ibid.,16).

The first dimension claims there is an open system and although

admitting that political resources are not distributed equally, they are also

not centralized in one groups hands. Everyone has the opportunity to use other

resources and be heard. The second approach however, sees a monopolistic system

of inequalities created and maintained by the dominant power. The elite have

the means and the political resources to prevent political action that would not

benefit themselves and to push forward those that would. The Elite therefore

determine the agenda of both decision making and non-decision making and in so

doing establish their dominance and the subordinance and compliance of those on

the bottom of the power hierarchy.

Although the two dimensional approach to power delves deeper than the

first into the nature of power and powerlessness by involving analyses of

potential issues, grievances, nondecision-making and non-participation, Both

Lukes and Gaventa find that it is on the same level as the first dimension in

that it also emphasizes observable conflict only. Of course it is true that

the first does stress only overt while the second stresses both overt and/or

covert conflict. Nonetheless, an affinity between the two results in their

belief that where there is conflict, there is an element of power in decision

making and, for the second dimension, in nondecision-making. Barach and Baratz

(as cited in Lukes,1974:19) states that if “there is no conflict, overt or

covert, the presumption must be that there is consensus on the prevailing

allocation of values, in which case nondecision-making is impossible.” Here,

there is obviously no consideration of latent conflict or attention as to how

interests not consciously articulated may fit into the power relationship.

Lukes identifies manipulation and authority as two forms of power which

do not necessarily involve evident conflict. People abide by the power of

authority because they either respect or accept its legitimacy. Compliance to

the power of manipulation often goes unrecognized by the conformer because focus

is placed on irrelevant matters and the key aim is downplayed. In neither is

there observable (overt or covert) conflict, but latent conflict occurs because

the individual may be agreeing to something contrary to their interests without

even knowing.

The three dimensional view of power then, criticizes the behaviourial

focus of the first two dimensions and adopts the consideration of hidden social

forces and conflict which exercise influence by shaping the consciousness of the

individual or organization. This view strays from the others in that it focuses

not only on decisions and nondecisions but on other ways to control the

political agenda which are not made deliberately by the choice of individuals or


The third mechanism of power seeks to identify “the means through which

power influences, shapes or determines conceptions of necessities, possibilities,

and strategies of challenge in situation of conflict”(Gaventa,1980:15). In

other words, it involves specifying how A gets B to believe and choose to act in

a way that reinforces the bias of the system, advancing the cause of A and

impairing that of B, usually in the form of compliance.

Such processes can take place in a direct and intended way through media

and communication. ‘A’ takes control of the information channels and ‘B’ is

socialized into accepting, believing and even supporting the political notions

instilled by ‘A’. The shaping of individual’s conceptions can also take place

indirectly or even unintentionally through ones membership in a social structure.

Patterns of behaviour, norms and accepted standards apparent in the action and

inaction of the group are automatically adopted. “Social legitimations are

developed around the dominant, and instilled as beliefs or roles in the

dominated” (Gaventa,1980:15).

Passive acceptance of situations or circumstances that are in conflict

with one’s interests occur even when the subordinated realise they are being

repressed. They submit quietly because of fear of sanctions but also because

they have gone through a “psychological adaptation to the state of being without

power” (Gaventa:16). They recognize their powerlessness and see no possibility

to reverse it and therefore submit to their hopeless situation with lethargic


After continual defeat, the conceptions of the powerlessness may be

altered as a learned response. “Over time, the calculated withdrawal by ‘B’ may

lead to an unconscious pattern of withdrawal, maintained not by fear of power of

‘A’ but by a sense of powerlessness within ‘B’, regardless of ‘A’s condition”

(Gaventa, 1980:16). Although ‘B’ was originally aware of their state of

oppression, time has quelled the initial fear and has desensitized their drive

to remain unconstrained and autonomous. Without even realizing, B continues to

submit, more as a form of habit then as a response to a particular situation.

As a further adaptive response “the sense of powerlessness may also lead

to a greater susceptibility to the internalisation of the values, beliefs or

rules of the game of the powerful”(Gaventa, 1980:17). What may have once been

strong convictions to a people are systematically lost and the beliefs of the

ruling class are accepted in silence, not only because of a sense of

powerlessness but because they have been indoctrinated to condone whatever the

powerful put forward.

Gaventa applies Luke’s three dimensional theory of power to the case of

the Central Appalachian valley in the United States. He argues that the

dimensions of power can be used to better understand the pattern of quiescence

that has been occurring in this region of indisputable inequities for over a

generation. The pluralist approach is established as inadequate in its attempt

to interpret power relationships alone and the implementation of the other two

dimensions is found to be essential to explain the situation in the Appalachian


The History of Central Appalachia has developed much like that of a

primitive country under the influence of colonization by a dominant world power.

It is one in which an isolated, agrarian society has sparked the interest of the

industrialized world as having economic potential, and has consequently been

established as a dependant and thrust into a rapid series of transformation to

bring it up to modern standards. Productivity and economic pursuits are the

principle concern while the people and their culture are more of a hindrance

than a priority. They are expected to shift right along with the rest of the

changes. Their traditional way of life is subsequently threatened, altered, and

eventually irretrievably lost.

By the late nineteenth century, the economic potential emanating from

the vast wealth of natural coal resources of the Appalachian Mountains were well

recognized and Middlesborough, a once quiet rural community, had experienced an

economic boom and grown into the industrial mining centre labelled the ‘Magic

City of the South’. The entire enterprise had been established under the

singular leadership of the American Association Ltd., of London. Millions of

dollars were pumped into the area but because of the ownership monopoly and

primarily foreign investors, the mountain people themselves reaped little or

none of the benefits.

Their agrarian based mainstay was threatened and destroyed as the

‘Anglo-American enterprise’ expropriated acres and acres of mineral-rich land.

“The acquisition of land is the first step in the process of economic

development and the establishment of power.” (Gaventa,1980:53). It was also the

first step in the subordination of the mountaineers. Losing their land meant a

change in lifestyle from a largely independent group of farmers to a group of

coal miners dependent upon the Company for a salary.

Mountaineers were most often ‘voluntarily’ bought out. Few cases of

actual conflict occurred and the people’s land was taken virtually without

challenge or opposition to a new order. Often the land was sold to the Company

for a price far below its worth. The inherent value of the mountaineer’s land

went unknowing to them while the Association who knew full well of the highly

valued mineral-rich soil, took advantage of the situation and bought it for very


If this ‘acquisition’ of land were studied using only the first

dimension of power, the Company would be comparable to A who’s power is defined

by its higher ratio of ’successes’ over B’s ‘defeats’”. One would recognize

that the Company demonstrated observable control and influence over the

Appalachian people but would be justified in their actions.

The lack of challenge on the mountaineer’s (or B’s) part would be seen

as an expression of consensus to the take-over of their land. Since few

grievances were expressed it would be assumed that the issue was not of enough

importance to the people who therefore did not organize to put forward any

alternatives. The Association had the initiative to propose issues and

contribute to decision making while the Middlesborough citizens were apathetic

to what was going on. The Company’s ’successes’ in decision making enhanced

their power, legitimizing them as more fit to rule.

Limiting yourself to this analyses would dismiss many factors that led

to the quiescence of the mountain people, and would prevent a deeper

understanding of this case. Using Luke’s second dimension of power, the non-

challenge to the land-takeover would not be viewed as apathy on the part of the

ordinary people but as the result of unobservable forces and covert conflict

working to prevent their expression of scepticism and dispute.

This would support the view that within the political organizations of

Middlesborough there was a “mobilization of bias”. When distribution of the

land was decided by the court, it most often went to the highest bidder. The

Company held obvious power in its economic advantage leaving no doubt to anyone,

including the courts, who would win out. By basing ownership rights on economic

capabilities, challenge on behalf of the mountaineers was made scarce and

considered a futile effort. In this way the issue of Company ownership was

‘organized in’ and the people’s land claims were ‘organized out’.

The second dimension therefore recognizes elite accommodation occurring

in a system which pluralists claim to be ‘open’. It is viewed as a system where

inequalities are created and maintained by allowing the dominant class to

determine the decision-making agenda, therefore establishing the quiescence of

the subordinated.

The first dimension assumes that lack of overt conflict means the

consensus of the mountaineers to their land loss, and the second would have

assumed consensus if there were no observable overt or covert conflict, but

still another dimension is essential to get to the actual root of consensus.

The third dimension considers the possibility of latent conflict where the

people’s wants and beliefs are unkowingly shaped to establish a consensus to

that which is contrary to their interests, but not recognized as such.

The Middlesborough workers developed no consciousness that saw

themselves as being exploited. The authority presented to them by the multi-

million dollar enterprise of the American Association Ltd., of London was

accepted as an overwhelming but legitimate power structure not to be questioned.

In the case of authority, “B complies because he recognizes that A’s command is

reasonable in terms of his own values and because it has been arrived at through

a legitimate and reasonable procedure”(Lukes,1974:18). The people complied

because the Association was put forward as an enterprise which valued harmony,

as they did, and would compensate them financially for the land.

Manipulation, however, was the key in convincing the mountaineers of the

Association’s legitimacy. The people were payed far too little for what the

land was worth. They were deprived of reaping future benefits because the

Company neglected to inform them of its true value and their aim to gain

millions in profits. Instead they focused only on the irrelevant matter of what

insignificant sum of money would satisfy the people into giving up their land

which was, at the time, of no real apparent value.

With manipulation, “compliance is forthcoming in the absence of

recognition on the complier’s part either of the source or the exact nature of

the demand upon him”(Lukes,1974:18). I highly doubt that the people would have

so quietly handed over their land if they had realised that, at the same time,

they were handing over their traditional way of life, and in so doing, hastening

its extinction. How were they to know that this was only the first step to

becoming dependants of the Company and that to make a living they would be

forced to work under the oppressive conditions of a higher power on land that

had once been their own.

After the acquisition of land and the initial economic boom, conditions

worsened for the mountain people and a set of stable controls was necessary in

order to maintain the system the Association had created and in turn, their

position of dominance. As Middlesborough developed into a Company Town,

the absentee and unitary control exercised by the British owners grew to ensure

the dependence of all upon it. They owned not only most of the land but

controlled the town’s key factors of production, requiring even independent

companies to function under their terms. As was mentioned earlier, the people

who had once been independent in earning a living for themselves were now

required to work as miners and labourers under the autocracy of a huge

enterprise. Even small entrepreneurs now found themselves answering to the

higher power of the Association.

Although the Company had created many jobs for the people, inequalities

developed as the absentee owners ,or upper class, extracted wealth from the

region leaving few of the profits to be distributed among the workers themselves.

Within the Appalachian area itself there developed a local elite who ranked

next in the class hierarchy. “They were the men of wealth, and fine backgrounds,

and politics was not new for them”(Gaventa,1980:59). They were usually those in

positions of political leadership where they could benefit the company and

promote its best interests. Next were a class of small entrepreneurs and

professionals who were attracted to the booming city by its promising commercial

future. The bottom of the hierarchy consisted of labourers, miners and other

manual labour workers. This class was composed mainly of those who were

originally from the region and had come from a rural background, while the

‘upper classes’ had been derived primarily of those attracted to the area

because of its economic potential. “[Mobility] was of a horizontal nature, the

coming together in one area of various representatives of pre-existing strata

from other areas”(Gaventa,1980:57).

The workers were therefore destined to poverty and inequality, but also

had to endure such things as poor and even dangerous working conditions with few

health benefits and little compensation. And one cannot forget the ongoing

demise of their valley as entire mountain sides were stripped away and the air

and water were blackened with millions of tiny coal particles.

Why then, in this state of economic, social and even environmental

depravation did the people not cry out with enough strength to be heard? While

nearby mining communities experiencing similar conditions responded with

militant, collective organizations, Middlesborough expressed grievances but

never took the form of organized action or went as far as creating a

consciousness of the situation. The first, second and third dimensions of power

would give different reasons for this in answering how the Association was able

to maintain the new order they had created and the quiescence of a people

amongst their condition of poverty and inequality.

The pluralist approach would recommend using the democratic political

process of the electoral system in determining the legitimacy of those in power

and of their policies and practices. If the leaders who have been elected by

the people and for the people do not voice concerns about the existing system or

the desire for change, it must be assumed that there were no concerns but

instead an overall approval of the status quo. The people of Middlesborough had

a choice between local and ‘Company’ candidates and with few exceptions

continued to place their support in the latter. Even within their own unions

where leadership had become increasingly dictatorial and Company biased, the

workers remained loyal to the existing leaders and opposed the reform movement.

By considering only the face value of voting practices, one would have

to agree that the Appalachian miners appear to be in accordance with the

management of the existing system and their place within it. The second

dimension of power would disagree, however, and would explain the maintenance of

the system and the compliance of the people as a result of the Company’s control


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