This is How Power Works: A Primer and Illustration

The following post was written in 2014 during a controversy on our campus involving the resignation of a recently-hired University president, Timothy Flanagan.  In just seven months in the position Flanagan had engaged in a series of unprofessional and abusive behaviors.  The Board of Trustees paid him $480,000 to leave quietly and provided virtually no information to the campus community about what had gone wrong nor did it explain why he deserved such a significant payoff after damaging the University’s reputation.  In this context students began mobilizing to demand answers and accountability.

For more on these events see The half-million dollar question

To my students who are inspiring me,

To explain how power works in 1,000 words is a fantasy. But, my students are engaged in social change and don’t have time for long-winded academic treatments; they need understanding that will be helpful to them right now.   Thus, I offer this incomplete, hastily-written description of power in the hope that it might be of immediate use in the midst of their struggle to realize their own power. Let me begin.

According to Steven Lukes, power operates on three dimensions:

I. First Dimension

The first dimension of power is the one most people recognize. It is, classically, the capacity to make someone do something they would not otherwise do. It comes in the form of formal displays, rituals and procedures that are widely recognized as powerful (e.g. elections, hiring, firing, wars). Office-holders, bosses, university administrators, ministers, and teachers exercise first dimension power every day in their respective roles. We generally accept that these players have power and have the authority to wield it.   Most people see this dimension as the beginning and end of power. In the Flanagan Fiasco we see first dimensional power in these ways:

The ISU Board of Trustees has the authority to hire the president. It exercised this power in hiring Flanagan. It also exercised its first dimension power in awarding him $480,000 when he resigned. They did it again when they appointed Dr. Dietz to replace him. All of this is squarely within the first dimension of power – they have the authority to do these things because of their position on the Board of Trustees.   

II. Second Dimension

STATEyoupowerThe second dimension of power is harder to see, but may be more important than the first. This is the agenda-setting dimension where the “rules” of the game are made. Those with power typically get to set the agenda and establish the rules. The rules typically reflect the interests and needs of those who make them (think personnel rules, course syllabi, or the law). Few people see agenda-setting and rule making as an explicit act of exercising power because rules seem detached from the relations of power that produce them.   But agendas and rules are inherently powerful. For every issue that gets on the agenda, others are excluded. Getting to decide which issues are deemed important enough to make it onto the agenda is powerful. Likewise, getting to write – and enforce – the rules we must live by is powerful. We see a lot of this in the Flanagan fiasco:

a) The rule is that when a staff member or professor is hired by ISU, they must pass a probationary period (6 months to 6 years) to be sure they are a good fit with the university. But these conditions do not apply to the President and high-level administrators. This arrangement benefits those with power and is detrimental of those with little power. This rule is used routinely against those at the bottom who must work hard, do what the boss says and not speak up lest they be deemed a “bad fit”. It is a double standard that is enshrined in the “rules” which makes it appear as if it isn’t anyone’s fault – it’s just “the way it is.” “They are the rules and we must all live by them.” Rules therefore mask power. They leave the power of the rule-makers invisible. 

 b) We see it too in the Board’s insistence that they cannot discuss personnel matters or the circumstances surrounding Flanagan’s resignation. Here the Board agreed to a “gag order” but made it sound as if they had no choice in accepting it. They are using a “rule”- that they created – to escape accountability for their actions (hiring Flanagan, asking him to resign, and paying him). Those in power can hide behind the rules to avoid responsibility. This is routine: “I’d like to answer your questions” they say, “but I cannot discuss personnel matters.” Sound familiar?

 c) Another aspect of the second dimension is “mobilizing bias” – the practice of the powerful invoking negative qualities to discredit challenges to their power. We see this in the way that those who challenge the powerful are pejoratively labeled “protesters,” “unreasonable” or “radical;” or patronized as “ignorant” to the “realities” of the situation. Painting those who dissent in this way is a key part of the second dimension because the powerful can invoke ideas that carry a strong negative connotation and assign it to challengers, whereas this is much more difficult for challengers to do to the powerful.

III. Third Dimension

The third dimension of power is even more difficult to see – and understand – than the second, but it is vital to the powerful maintaining power.   When people internalize the rules as the “natural” order of things, this is power’s third dimension. It is the insidious part of power whereby the powerless are socialized (through experience, media, religion, education) to adopt the interests of the powerful as their own.   And to accept their rules as just and right. Another side of the third dimension is when the powerless internalize their own powerlessness. Even when they can see the rules are unfair, they accept that there is nothing they can do about it. In the Flanagan case, we see ample evidence of the third dimension:

When people believe they can’t do anything about the payoff. When they defend the Board’s actions as pragmatic and reasonable, when they parrot the talking points of the powerful people issuing the talking points, when passersby tell you to “get a job”; when bitter staff people refuse to join with you even though they feel exploited, when supportive faculty won’t publicly join you, when people tell you that the right way to address your grievances is to pursue the appropriate channels, when people are afraid to even try because the problem seems too big and they feel too weak, this is the third dimension at work.

IV. So What?

BannerIPFFThis is where social movements come in. Social movements disrupt the dimensions of power. First, by breaking the grip of the third dimension, encouraging and cajoling people to realize their powerfulness. Then by getting them to challenge and question the rules being made by those in power (second dimension) and then by removing those from positions of power or altering the formal relations of power (first dimension).  That is the project you are now engaged in.

“There is a lot to do, so let’s get to work

2 thoughts on “This is How Power Works: A Primer and Illustration

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post on the three different dimensions of power. I never would have looked at the subject in so much depth if it weren’t for this article, and I feel like I have a better understanding of what power really is now.

  2. Thanks for the quick write up! I recently had an interesting talk to a Tea Party member and he was using some very strong rhetoric talking about the Occupy Movement. I was intrigued that someone whose political affiliation was named after a protest would be so anti protester. But it demonstrates the power of big media to mobilize bias and demonize groups attempting to shift power bases. Even amongst a community that one would think would be sympathetic!

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