The distribution of power

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The distribution of power

There are three major theories of power distribution:

  1. The pluralist model.
  2. The elitist model.
  3. The Marxist model.

All three models have undergone major changes.

1. Classical pluralism

Pluralism has changed partly as a response to theoretical criticism, and partly because it is clear that liberal democracies don't correspond very well with the pluralists' rather idealistic view of their operation.

The classical pluralist position argues:

  • Power is diffuse rather than concentrated.
  • In society a large number of groups represent all the significant and different interests of the population.
  • Groups compete with each other for influence over government.
  • Competition follows the 'rules of the game'.
  • All groups accept the legitimacy of the decision making process and of its outcome.
  • Competition between groups ensures that no one group dominates.
  • The government is a neutral arbiter between interests.

The logic of this model leads to a decision-taking methodology - Lukes' first dimension of power. It means that:

  • Inputs into the decision making process and the outputs are studied.
  • Decisions are seen as being rationally taken.
  • Governments consider alternatives and adopt policies that meet national interests.

Dahl's approach clearly illustrates the pluralist approach. In his study of New Haven in Connecticut, Who Governs (1961), he studied three major issues, and concluded that no group dominated New Haven politics. The study reflected the pluralists' preference for the study of specific issues and concrete decisions. This conclusion is echoed by Polsby (1963), who argued that sociologists should study specific issues in order to determine who gets their own way.

A clear problem with this approach is that it is only examining the public face of decision-making.

A group may also exercise power through its ability to prevent a policy option being considered - a process often called 'agenda setting'. This preventative option is the second dimension of power and is frequently called non-decision-making.

Additionally, a group may exercise ideological hegemony with the dominant ideology serving the groups interest, although such interests will be presented and often widely understood as being the national interest (systems effect). This process is the third dimension of power.

This classical pluralist position is no longer regarded as an accurate description of the distribution of power in contemporary liberal democracies. Increasingly, theorists are adopting what is called the 'elite pluralist position'.

2. Elite pluralism

The development of the elite pluralist position has emerged in Dahl's, Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy (1982). The emphasis remains upon the existence of a number of interest groups, which compete with each other for scarce resources. However, it differs from classical pluralism in two main ways:

1. There is recognition that not all individuals are necessarily represented by the interest group system. Among the under-represented are black people, the working class, consumers, women, the unemployed and the old. (Note that they are all groups with little economic power.)


In this view, under-representation occurs because people do not wish to be represented. Additionally, the government protects the interests of the under-represented, because although they might not have any economic or political resources, they do have a vote. So the representative electoral system acts as a check on the unrepresentative aspects of the interest group system.

2. It is acknowledged that groups are less open and responsive to their members than classical pluralists assumed, because all organisations tend to be hierarchical. They accept Michel's argument that organisation leads to oligarchy. As a result, it is accepted that some groups (and individuals) have more access to decision-making than others. Generally, it is argued that economic interest groups have more access than ideological (cause) groups.

The elite pluralist response to this situation is to contend that the policy-making process is made up of a large number of policy communities. In each policy area there will be a distinct set of interests to be represented. The interest groups, quangos and civil servants involved in the policy area will form an actual or potential policy community. The very existence of such diversity, within a policy community, with no segment of it with a claim to a privileged position, preserves pluralism and prevents the domination of government by any particular interest.

This version of pluralism presents us with innovation without change - the essential elements remain the same. Groups are still seen as competing with each other for scarce resources, with no one group dominant, and with the government retaining an independent and neutral stance. The main divergence with classical pluralism is over the process by which power is exercised and decisions taken. For the elite pluralist, fewer groups are involved in the process of consultation and indeed this process may have certain elitist or corporatist elements.

Elite theories see power as concentrated in the hands of a few. There is, however, a difference of opinion as to the origins and characteristics of elites.

  • Pareto emphasised the psychological basis of dominance.
  • Mosca highlighted social structural factors.
  • Michels stressed the organisational basis of elite rule.

Developed as a response to Marxism, elite theory originally argued that elite rule is inevitable in all societies, including socialist ones.

However, newer approaches argue that elite rule results from the way societies are organised, rather than being an inevitable and universal feature of human society.

The evidence for the existence of a cohesive elite in Britain is rather limited. However, elite theorists assert four major arguments for the existence of elites:

  1. The existence of open political conflict between groups over issues does not rule out the possibility of a single unified elite operating behind the scenes.
  2. We cannot rely on evidence from public sources since they will not report the activities of a relatively secret elite with power that is exerted informally.
  3. An elite will not want to dominate all areas/issues, some will be of little interest to it.
  4. It is a mistake to focus on issues of public concern. Elites will be most effective in routine areas of policy where it can achieve domination without becoming involved in a power struggle.

Evidence for the existence of elites has been sought in three main ways:

  • Social background.
  • Reputations.
  • Patterns of benefit.

The social background approach is essentially suggesting that common experience will foster a common set of values. However, the real test is not whether elites exist - they clearly do - but whether existence is significant in determining political outcomes.

The reputations approach is premised on the idea that the more powerful you are, the less visible you need to be. Consequently, it has been thought worthwhile to look for traces left by the actions of elites - their reputations.

However, are reputations just that, a reputation for power rather than power itself?

Bachrach and Baratz pioneered the pattern of benefit approach during the 1960s. They introduced the concept of non-decision making. Certain decisions never arise and thus never get made. However, there is clearly a problem in recognising non-decisions.

At present, there are three variants of elite theory: Corporatism; the fragmented elite model and the veto group model.

1. Corporatism

There is no clear definition of corporatism. Some see it as an economic system characterized by state control of privately owned companies. Others see it as involving a particular pattern of relationships between interest groups and government - often referred to as the system of interest group intermediation.

As a system of interest group intermediation corporatism differs from pluralism in a number of ways:

  • In corporatism the emphasis is on a restricted number of groups.
  • Corporatism is particularly concerned with the relationship between capital, labour and the state.
  • The relationship between these interests is seen as very close.
  • The government is directly involved in negotiation rather than a neutral arbiter.


Corporatism is most concerned with the process by which policy is produced rather than with whose interests are served.

However, a crucial question for any theory of power or of the state must be: whose interest is being served by the system? Both Marxists and pluralists in support of their theories of power have used the corporatist model. They have tended to agree about how policy is produced, and disagreed about whose interest is being served. For example, Marxists argue that the incorporation of trade unions in corporatism has weakened them - they have a formal role, but little power. By contrast, pluralists argue that corporatism is a mechanism, which produces policies in the national interest.

2. The fragmented elite model

The key characteristic of this model (associated with Budge, 1983) is that although it identifies dominant groups in society, it argues that they are fragmented - they lack cohesion and a sense of purpose. The government itself is seen as composed of competing factions, with different ministers and departments each having different interests. The elite groups compete against each other with very few interests uniting them.

The policy adopted on any occasion reflects not national interest, but the aims of the strongest coalition of groups on that issue. Further, these groups are transient - they do not form the basis for a consistent dominant elite. So in this model:

  • The government takes decisions and has considerable autonomy from particular interests.
  • The decision is the result of a trial of strength both within the government, and between government and various elite groups.
  • Decisions are not rationally derived, nor necessarily in the national interest.
  • Decisions reflect the interests of ever changing dominant coalitions.

In this model, the crucial face of power is the first - who takes decisions? This inevitably involves a concentration on government decision-making.

3. The veto group model

In this model, one group is seen to occupy a privileged position. There are two variants on this model:

  • Lindblom's model - capital is the dominant group in all advanced liberal democracies.
  • Finer - trade unions are the dominant veto group.

Both variants argue that one group can exercise a veto over government policy in crucial areas, preventing the government doing what is necessary and what it otherwise might have done.

Lindblom argues that business enjoys a unique position in relation to government because of its structural position in the economy. Decisions taken by owners and controllers of increasingly large corporations about employment and investment, for example; are crucial to the performance of the economy and thus strongly influence the electoral chances of a government. This, argues Lindblom, means that business has two means by which to influence government:

  • Directly through interest groups.
  • Indirectly through its structural position in the economy.

Finer's argument is similar, except that it concerns the unions. Finer argues that the real power of trade unions stems from their socio-economic leverage. In particular, he argued that the strike weapon - particularly the threat of its use - ensures that the trade unions are in a privileged position. Thus unions can affect the economy and governments.

In both models the emphasis is on structural constraints rather than interest group activity, as such they are looking beyond the first face of power and onto the second and third.

In Marxist theory, it was the 60s and early 70s that saw the debate focussed around the differing views of instrumentalists and structuralists. The instrumental position was associated with the early work of Ralph Miliband, and the state was seen as an agent or instrument of the ruling class. The state, argued Miliband, takes decisions, which directly favour the owners and controllers of capital. This is done for three reasons:

  1. The state personnel are drawn from the same social background. Here, Miliband used an empirical approach.
  2. The state is capitalist; to protect it, they must encourage capital accumulation.
  3. In a capitalist society, the interests of capital and the national interest are often viewed as the same - economic growth and prosperity. So the state, in promoting the interests of capital, promotes the interests of the nation.

The Structuralist position, often associated with Nicos Poulantzas, emphasises the last two of the above reasons for class rule. That is, that it is the very nature of economic relations and ideological domination by the ruling class, that constrain the autonomy of the state. This emphasis on structural constraints was the main element in the debate between Miliband and Poulantzas.

Poulantzas offers a number of important insights:

1. He placed more emphasis than previous Marxists on the divisions existing within capitalism - for example, there may be conflict between banking and industrial capital over interest rates.


2. Following from the above, these divisions in capitalism permitted the state some relative autonomy from the ruling class. This was because in order to ensure conditions in which capital accumulation could occur:

  • the state needed to mediate between fractions of the ruling class, ensuring that the interests of capital in general were secured.
  • mediate between classes offering concessions in the form of higher pay or better conditions, in order to reduce economic and political tension.
  • intervene directly in the economy, even when opposed by some or all factions of capital - tax incentives, grants, or subsidies

3. Following Gramsci, Poulantzas laid great stress on ideology in preserving the basic nature of economic relations, and the role of the state in preserving ideological domination.

4. He argued that a Marxist theory of the state is not possible because relations between classes and the form and activities of the state would be different in different modes of production, so a general theory would be impossible. Even within capitalism, there are a variety of political forms and state structures.

There are a number of points that emerge from the foregoing outline:

  1. There are a limited number of powerful economic groups which enjoy a privileged position in the decision making process. We can make a clear division between economic groups and ideological groups. The latter are most likely to have influence in areas of no concern to economic groups.
  2. Economic groups are more powerful because of their structural position in the economy.

The picture presented is of a limited number of economic groups, which can significantly constrain the autonomy of a government. From this, two further points emerge:

  1. Most of these economic groups exercise negative or veto power. They can prevent a government carrying out a policy to which it is committed, or limit the options open to a government. This can limit the possibility for initiative or major change. Samuel Beer refers to this process as pluralist stagnation.
  2. In many cases, neither the government nor the interest groups seem to be in control of events. They are responding to events over which they have little control.

No theory has all the truth but each seem to contain an element of it. Certainly, it would seem that both classic pluralism and classic Marxism are inappropriate for analysing contemporary Britain.

Voting and lobbying can have some effect on some areas of state activity, but not the central importance that pluralism gives it. Classical Marxism suggests the government is merely the agent of the ruling class, whereas it is clear that the British government is certainly not simply the creature of a ruling class consistently taking decisions which forward its interests.

Additionally, with the exception of the fragmented elite model, and perhaps the more recent Marxist material, most theories appear to present a far too simplified view of government. There is a neglect of divisions that exist within government, for example, between government departments. More importantly, some models - the elite pluralist and some Marxist models, seem overgenerous in their view of the competence of government.

The elite pluralists see governments as willing to promote the national interest as against particular interests, while some Marxists see governments as capable of mediating between classes, and between fractions of the ruling class, in the overall interest of the ruling class.

The problem seems to be that at the surface level, there is some agreement about the visible features of power. There is agreement about many of the 'facts' of the decision-making process and the surface picture of the distribution of power. However, the elite pluralists and the fragmented elitists believe that this surface picture is the complete picture - they exclude any consideration of structural constraint and ideological control.

In contrast, the Marxist model takes capitalists' structural position as crucial and regards the surface pluralist picture as, at best - partial, and at worst - a mystification. So we end up only being able to say that the interpretation of the distribution of power in Britain depends on the model used.