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Power And Powerless 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 outcome.

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 important.

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 groups.

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 acceptance.

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 mountains.

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 little.

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 over the political apparatus.

The longstanding political science maxim that low socio-economic status, poor education and lack of information, translate into low political participation would be admissible in the second dimensional view. The elite made up a closely-knit group of political leaders in Appalachia who made decisions to advance their causes more than those of the Mountaineers. “There was little regard for what law there was and money ruled the day”(Gaventa,1980:59). This could help explain why Acts were passed to protect the rights of the Company while demands for miners rights rarely even made it to the courthouse. This supports the view that non-participation was not the result of apathy but of a caste system, and that non-issues did not mean lack of grievances but lack of opportunity to voice them.

This does not, however, support the documented cases where workers themselves did participate, although minimally, and wilfully voted for candidates who were backers of the Company. This discrepancy can, nevertheless, be explained with Bachrach and Baratz’s use of the term ‘power’ in its sense as “the securing of compliance through the threat of sanctions”(Lukes,1974:17). Fear is thus presented as reason enough for the mountaineers to express support in the form of a vote, even though it is not an accurate portrayal of their position.

Traditional political dominance in the Clearfork Valley belonged to a group of local landowners called ‘The Family’ who maintained their power position by serving as “mediators between the Company and community gaining further power as brokers of favours concerning jobs or home tenure”(Gaventa,1980:143). The Family was associated with Company housing, welfare and employment, and in order to receive any benefits, one had to be in their good graces. “Even now, people say those who live in company housing or work in mines on company land are expected to vote in the Family’s favour”(Gaventa,1982:143).

As brokers of benefits, they were also capable of taking them away and imposing sanctions. Many, for example, would not spend their food stamps anywhere but the Company store where prices were higher, with the fear that they would lose their welfare or even be evicted as a consequence. The people were therefore quite aware that by accommodating the Company leaders with their support, they stood a chance at being granted certain benefits. Conversely, if one were to advance the cause of the reform movement and upset the system, life could be made very difficult for them. “While the benefits of the status quo are high for the powerful, the costs of challenge are potentially higher for the powerless” (Gaventa, 1980: 145).

Lukes second dimension of power explains how the Association was able to maintain its dominance and the quiescence of the people in terms of creating a political apparatus to organize certain issues and participants in, and others out, as well as impose recognizable sanctions. Further analyses, however, would require a look at the less obvious controls which stemmed from the shaping and instilling of an ideological apparatus in support of the Company among the ordinary citizens.

This would describe Luke’s third dimension where power is executed in a more subtle way. “It is one which shapes the outcome of ‘choice’ while allowing the chooser to believe that, in fact, a choice has been made”(Gaventa,1980:63). The Mountaineers non-challenge then, although appearing to be a freely chosen state of quiescence was actually more of an imposed choice. By both deliberate and unintentional means, the consciousness of the people was slanted to adopt the newly created Industrial ideology. Gaventa identifies four observable ways that the Association was able to maintain their hegemony.

Conditioning the people’s wants involved first a perversion of information which exaggerated benefits of the industrial order and downplayed its oppressive effects upon them. The mountain valley had drawn in millions of dollars, attracted all kinds of investors, and created hundreds of jobs. In addition to this it also became “a vacation ground for the wealthy”(Gaventa,1980:63) where luxurious hotels were built and a new leisure class developed.

This lifestyle contrasted drastically with that of the labourers living in dilapidated shacks, yet a working class consciousness failed to develop. This is because an equal opportunity ethic was emphasized, stressing the belief that by hard work these benefits were attainable by all. Social stratification was therefore accepted by most workers and instead of participating equally, they chose to splurge what little money they had on alcohol which was the only way they knew to “replicate the pattern (of enjoyment of luxuries) in a lesser style”(Gaventa,1980:65). The appeal of the new industrial order and its economic benefits was enhanced by the debasement of the mountaineer’s traditional way of life and culture. The two were in direct contrast so the glorification of the first meant the degradation of the other. The old culture was criticized as a dirty, primitive and meagre way of life while the new order was proclaimed for its virtues of civilization and progress. Miners were therefore socialized to strive for membership under the new order and to be ashamed of the old.

Imposing values took on a third form in the process of changing names of towns, schools and other cultural establishments. Names that had been familiar to the old system were changed to those derived from the new. Only Company workplaces and mines kept their local names. In this way, ties to the past were severed and a clear path for a new society was created. Symbols play an important part in the way people interpret their society. By manipulating linguistic symbols the Association was shaping the societal consciousness. “By the imposition of one identity over another in the cultural arena, and by allowing names to lend the appearance of local possession in the workplace arena (where there was none at all) the development of a counter-hegemony was made less likely”(Gaventa,1980:67).

The creation of a set of controls in the form of political and ideological constructs resulted “in a shaping and influencing away from (the mountaineer’s) ’stock’ to participation in the ways and values of the new order”(Gaventa,1980:68). Conformity to the extent where contradictions of conscience go unnoticed because workers are no longer certain of their orientation occurred repeatedly and was the main reason challenge was rare.

It must be noted, however, that the workers of Middlesborough were not completely inact


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