The Dimensions of Political Power

The Dimensions of Political Power

While rewatching a MandaloreGaming video on Tyranny, a role-playing game on being a bad guy in a fantasy Iron Age world, he mentioned a concept in political science called the Faces of Power, also known as the Dimensions of Power. It’s an academic theory put forth by Steven Lukes, a British political and social theorist currently based in New York University, which looks into how it is to rule over other people’s lives and influence their actions — something that politicians also do in this day and age in the real world.

The player character in Tyranny is a Fatebinder, a political commissar working for Kyros the Overlord, a godlike being who rules over the land of Terratus. The story goes into what Kyros does to rule over the people of Terratus, with their fatebinders enforcing their laws and punishing those who don’t follow them. It explores the idea of what happens when the bad guys win and how they would rule over a land they subjugated by force. It’s an interesting CRPG, although somewhat unfinished.

While I’ve added current events and politics categories in this blog, I’m not one to immediately write about whatever is happening at the moment in public affairs, either foreign or domestic. I don’t have enough mental faculties and fortitude to wrap my head around these topics so quickly, so I would rather leave that stuff to pundits and bloggers, most of whom are biting off more than they can chew on a regular basis. What I can write about instead is learning about the mechanisms of what makes such things become like this in the first place.

For instance, if you’re reading this right now, you’re likely living in a democratic country, unless you’re in Mainland China (this blog is not yet blocked by the Great Firewall). Learning about this concept can help you recognize it being done to you and your community, which can happen right under your nose. While you can’t stop the powers that be from influencing everyone, you can at least understand what’s going on whenever you notice the prevalence of a zeitgeist among people around you.

Whether it’s the government or corporations or even your own community, they exercise their power to influence people to do and think as they wish without having to coerce them. I’d like to look more into what makes power and authority able to do what it does to society in this day and age by looking at the Dimensions of Power.

DISCLAIMER: I did not study political science and am an amateur philosopher at best (who first heard of Nietzsche’s famous “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” quote from Madonna). I wrote this blog post to consolidate what I’ve learned about this topic.

If you see anything wrong or in need of clarification, please feel free to tell me about it in the comments section. Reader discretion is advised.

The Three Dimensions of Power

Steven Lukes is a professor of politics and sociology in New York University and previously in University of Siena, the European University Institute, and the London School of Economics. In 1974, he published a book titled Power: A Radical View, which was revised in 2005 and 2021.

This theory claims that power is exercised through three dimensions — decision-making power, non-decision-making power, and ideological power. With each succeeding dimension, things get subtler and power becomes more pervading. You then realize that the softer touch can potentially control more.

Let’s take a closer look at each of them, then check out a possible fourth dimension of power.

Power of Outcome: “Do this or else.”

Also known as Decision-making Power, this is the most basic and most public of the first three dimensions of power. The simplest way to influence people’s decisions is to put forth a consequence — “Do this or else, something bad happens to you.” Influencing the people’s ability to make their decisions by simply restricting it is the easiest to understand, but also the hardest to implement as you scale it up.

You’re making others do what you want through open conflict, forcing them to make the choice you want them to make by making the other option a negative consequence.

For instance, there’s capital punishment. If you vandalize in Singapore, you get a flogging. If you commit a heinous crime, you may get a life or death sentence. Most people can understand how bad of a consequence it is to have your posterior turned into hamburger because of being a stupid teenager or even put to death after murdering or raping someone.

However, there’s still the need for due process. I hate discussing this topic with family.

Outside of legal matters, things are different. As someone who works in the pro wrestling industry, I know from experience that if you just tell people to do something without sufficient threat, authority, or proper buildup, they’ll just laugh at you and do the opposite of what you want them to do. That’s how heels (the bad guys) can get ‘cheap heat’ — surface-level antagonism that’s easy to create and foster on the spot.

Just yell at the crowd to “shut up” and they boo at you louder. That’s cheap heat.

It’s like raising a child with negative reinforcement. Consequences become less effective as the child grows up as they gain more agency and are able to circumvent those punishments through both overt and covert means. They rebel and become harder to control, and the parents trying to control their every action is usually the cause of the problem in the first place.

Unfortunately, such parents tend to see more abuse as the solution. Ask me how I know.

If it doesn’t work that well in the smaller scale of a household, it certainly won’t work well in the larger scale of running a country. However, people who don’t think critically tend to see it as a solution for all of society’s ills. Throw them all in jail, punish them without trial, kill the really bad ones, and make examples out of them because they’re criminals.

They wouldn’t be caught if they weren’t doing anything wrong to begin with, right?

As is often true with dictatorships and autocracies, the more the authority tries to control the population, the more things become uncontrollable over time and the more brute force needs to be employed. Most of the time, that doesn’t work for long. If it does keep working, the system slowly rots from the inside as people are too afraid or unmotivated to do good work.

The disadvantages of forcing people to do what you want or not do what you don’t want may be too much, especially at a national scale. That calls for a more subtle approach.

Power of Agenda: “You have these choices.”

Also known as Non-decision-making Power, you provide choices that don’t include an undesired option or a consequence. You focus on elaborating the merits of those available options and never mention or give any attention to the undesired option. By not bringing up that option you don’t want to be chosen, you’re able to influence their actions without having to force them to do exactly what you want or not do what you want them to not do.

This becomes even more powerful when a culture is fostered around the mainstream options, thus further excluding the undesired option. Whoever wants to pick the latter ends up looking like a weirdo. By making certain things “mainstream,” whatever is related to them that’s outside of the mainstream can range from peculiar novelty to the stuff of nutjobs and losers.

This is a bit more subtle than just the Power of Outcome — “Do this or else” — yet it can end up being more effective because it doesn’t immediately elicit a negative reaction. Perhaps there would be some pockets of the population who somehow catch on to the agenda and rail against it, but it’s neither as pronounced nor as widespread of a negative reaction towards this power.

The simplest way to avoid a revolution is to provide the illusion of choice. That’s pervasive in our capitalistic society, where we are appeased with being able to attain our needs and wants easily, not having to struggle to survive while also being easily distracted and entertained.

Whether you think that’s merely innocuous and normal or actually a conspiracy to pacify and subjugate the masses, you can’t deny that’s quite powerful.

An example of such an agenda was the Red Scare in America, which effectively made public discussions of socialism taboo. While American politics nowadays doesn’t seem to be as oppressive as it was in the 1950s, when you could be blacklisted and lose your livelihood if you’re suspect of leaning even slightly to the left, you can still have troglodytes yell “COMMIE SCUM” at you for having favorable views of universal healthcare and workers’ unions.

Mind you, McCarthyism has been a lot less consequential in the US for decades, enough that politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez can run for office on a socialist platforms and public figures like Hasan Piker can express left-leaning views and be successful.

Meanwhile, here in the Philippines, McCarthyism is still prevalent with red-tagging — publicly labeling someone a communist to smear their reputation, discredit their words and actions, and make them a target for harassment by authorities. That’s made even worse by social media.

The power of agenda also involves controlling the parameters of a discussion, thus allowing for discourse while also minimizing the raising of topics or motions that the authority doesn’t want to be addressed. That tends to include things that are beneficial for the people, but also happen to take away from the powers that be.

Ancient Athens had its citizens participate in political decision-making, but they also had the Senate choose which policies are discussed with them on any given day. While the Athenian citizens got to be a part of the process, their political agency was still controlled and regulated.

Here’s another example. One of the things that employers make sure never gets brought up when discussing terms with workers is unionization. You may hear this getting brought up whenever there’s a dispute about compensation and working conditions. Unions make it easier for workers to band together and strike, which can grind even a whole industry to a halt.

But simply communicating that to the people directly may not be effective enough in influencing everyone. To really influence their thoughts and actions, you have to be able to plant those seeds much earlier on. You need to do it while they’re still young and impressionable.

It’s a whole lot easier and more effective if you control the media and education system.

Power of Ideology: Influence Through Indoctrination

Also known as Ideological Power or Subconscious Power, this is basically the power of agenda taken to the next level by using education and media to influence the masses over the long term. The advantage of this is the people can be told what to do and believe starting from childhood. Some would say this is mass indoctrination, which it technically is.

But to think that being taught how to read and write, basic scientific concepts, simple arithmetic, and so on are indoctrination is quite the stretch. That kind of thinking is how we get flat-Earthers and anti-vaxxers, which ironically is indoctrination as well since they had to have heard of those ideologies somewhere and be convinced that they’re the truth.

Ideology can influence people’s very way of thinking and make them desire even things that go against their own self-interest. You can make them even give up their own freedoms for either a sense of moral correctness, contempt for an opposing group of people, or simply being ignorant of how much they’re giving up for something that’s actually disproportionately trifling.

Lukes put forth this third dimension of power as both addendum and synthesis of the first two dimensions, which focus on people who are directly affected by the political process. This third dimension also affects the people who are excluded by the political process — those who don’t pay attention and just want to get on with their lives. That’s the power of the subconscious.

This dimension reminds me of how philosopher Slavoj Žižek introduced his 2006 documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. He said, “Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire; it tells you how to desire.”

The power of ideology is all about influencing the subconscious while avoiding conflict. For example, work culture holds the willingness to work hard as a virtue. It’s a pervasive belief that has become a part of the zeitgeist of capitalism itself. If you’re not grinding, you don’t contribute to the whole machinery and you won’t be able to buy a house or build passive income.

Some would even say you don’t deserve even basic human rights because you’re a freeloader, especially if you’re on welfare.

That kind of culture is instilled by one’s upbringing and the very environment they grow up in, brought on by legitimate needs. However, it becomes ideology due to either the ulterior motives of the establishment or simply the peoples collective desires giving it power. These things tend to grow organically and they can take over your whole life in and out of your occupation.

You’re a frog being slowly but surely boiled. When you realize you’re being cooked, it’s way too late to jump out of the pot.

We now have a new thing that the powers that be are trying to plant into the masses in this day and age. Perhaps you can say it’s a conspiracy theory, and I’d like that to be the case since the implications are indeed deplorable. I’d rather be proven wrong and labeled a kook for talking about this here that be proven right yet see it come to pass, which is looking pretty likely.

If you look around the internet long enough, you’ll encounter the quote, “You’ll own nothing and be happy.” This is a phrase that came from a 2016 video by the World Economic Forum (WEF) which summarized an essay written by Ida Auken, a Danish politician who’s a member of the country’s social democratic party and previously served as an environmental minister.

The essay was originally titled “Welcome to 2030. I own nothing, have no privacy, and life has never been better.” It espouses the merits of restricting ownership of private property in the name of reducing waste and preserving the Earth. The title is later changed to “Here’s how life could change in my city by the year 2030” on the WEF website, which irks me to no end.

If you really believe in what you’ve written, you would want maximum impact. I don’t agree with it, but at least I could respect how provocative she made the first title because it was certainly trying to say something. The ideas she put forth in that piece are now what the WEF and its chairman Klaus Schwab are being villainized for — a world where we share everything.

When you look at it from the perspective of preserving our planet for future generations, it may be convincing. While I may not follow the vegan route and stop consuming animal products for either health or ethical reasons, perhaps the seemingly utopian vision of a system that’s less wasteful and soul-crushing as capitalism is something I can go with.

However, there’s a big caveat to this. The message seems good, but you must then take a very close look at the messengers. Who are they? Who are they working for or with? Who are their friends? Once you start looking up the answers, then you start to see how there could be an ulterior motive to them promoting a world where material minimalism is a virtue.

Yes, we must pivot and come up with a more sustainable system so we don’t eventually doom humanity to extinction. No, I don’t trust the powers that be who are telling me to not own a house and personal transportation. But I digress. I’ll write more about this in a future post.

An ideology of working for the greater good while being happy with little to nothing to one’s name seems pretty bleak, even if its aims are supposedly not. I’m not sure if I’m sold on it.

The Fourth Dimension of Power

Take note that this whole thing is a theory, which means new ideas can be added to it or old ones can be taken out over time as more information is gathered through study and experience. As a theory is put under more scrutiny, it can become more refined as it’s put through rigor by other people. In the case of this idea by Prof. Lukes, a fourth dimension of power was put forth to both complement and critique the previous three.

Power of Paradigm: Establishing Ideas That Are Universal

You can also call this Universal Power. If the first three dimensions of power can be combined to create a cube that can be cast like a die, this fourth dimension of power is the hand that rolls and casts it. This power does make use of media, education, and cultural indoctrination like the third dimension, but its power can go beyond that of ideology — that of paradigm.

Ideology has to be believed, while paradigm rules over people’s lives.

This was put forth by Peter E. Digeser, a professor of political philosophy at University of California, Santa Barbara. His work looks into the concept of power, identity, forgiveness, friendship, ethics in international relations, and the relationship between theory and practice.

Digeser wrote about what he thinks is the fourth dimension of power in The Journal of Politics published in November 1992. He takes a look at the dimensions of power through the lens of Michel Foucault, who is best known for looking into the relationship between knowledge and power and how that is being used as a form of social control through societal institutions.

You can definitely see that those institutions hold tremendous power over society as seemingly monolithic bodies of authoritative knowledge.

Religion is the ultimate expression of this dimension of power. For many centuries, even as secularism has become more of the norm, religious institutions will always hold sway over the people. Being raised in a religious family, being educated in religious school, or growing up in a religious community instills within you the inherent fear in a god and suffering for eternity in the afterlife if you don’t follow the tenets of that religion. 

Even if you convert to a different religion or become an atheist, the paradigm of that religion will still pervade, especially if that’s the main religion of that culture. The power of the majority’s faith in that religion, how it rules over their lives, and how it influences how they judge and treat their fellow human beings is something that’s hard to escape without leaving that area.

It’s like what Plato described in the Allegory of the Cave, where the people in the cave only see the shadows on the wall as reality.

Summary of the Four Dimensions of Power

While looking into this, I’ve seen some really interesting takes on the subject. This is perhaps the best possible way to summarize all four dimensions:

First Dimension: Power of Outcome
Making people do what you want through threats and open conflict.

Second Dimension: Power of Agenda
Getting what you want through suppressing conflict and limiting debate.

Third Dimension: Power of Ideology and the Subconscious
Getting what you want by influencing the preferences of others.

Fourth Dimension: Power of Paradigm
Establishing a web of power through which societies organize themselves.

I’ve seen other interpretations of the faces or dimensions of power that are also interesting, but I found myself getting confused since they’re either really dense or are very different from what I’ve summed up here.

Other Related Concepts

While reading about this topic, I also encountered things that either add to it or run parallel to it. I include them here in case it helps you be able to better wrap your head around this topic.

Coercive and Non-coercive Power

Someone has power ‘over you’ by putting a gun to your head and forcing you to give them your wallet. Obviously, armed robbery is a crime and can be punished with jail time, and homicide or murder can be punished with a longer jail sentence or even death if that country still hasn’t abolished the death penalty. That’s coercive power.

Despite the consequences, armed robberies still happen.

You can see that the government is more powerful than the armed robber as they’re more numerous and monolithic, having the police to enforce the law. The armed robber can band together with other criminals to form a gang or syndicate that does what they want because they have enough force and resources to coerce ordinary people to let them do as they please.

But in order to make sure the government doesn’t directly intrude in their matters, they may have to incentivize them to look the other way. Acts like bribery are examples of non-coercive power that merely suggest that they make a different choice, albeit temporary.

Unless there’s enough of them to pose an armed threat and mount a rebellion or even a coup d’etat, the criminals don’t have coercive power over the government and law enforcement. They only have coercive power over civilians who don’t have an equivalent level of coercive power and are dependent on the government to protect them in such situations.

But the government itself is beset by bureaucracy and legal restrictions, so these criminal organizations can come in and offer their “protection” for a fee they collect periodically — or else.

In some parts of the world like the United States of America, they have the Second Amendment that allows citizens to bear arms. However, even with that, they usually wouldn’t have equivalent coercive power to criminal organizations as civilian populations tend to not be a cohesive unit who are willing to fight against criminals. There are some exceptions throughout history, of course, but they’re few and far between.

Let’s take another example that’s less about killing or scaring people. You live in a rented apartment and your landlord is a penny-pinching miser who doesn’t care about their tenants’ health and safety. There are no smoke alarms and other safety features in your apartment because they cost money, but that’s against national safety guidelines and you’re concerned about your own safety during your stay there.

One-dimensional power is coercive, and it becomes more non-coercive as you add more dimensions to it while actually becoming more pervasive and all-encompassing.

Cultural Spectrum of Guilt, Shame, and Fear

This is an anthropological concept that isn’t directly related to politics, but can be taken advantage of by politics. The terminologies of guilt culture and shame culture to differentiate nuances in western and eastern cultures and what motivates their people was popularized in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, the seminal work of American anthropologist Ruth Benedict that was published in 1946 — right after World War II. 

Benedict wrote the book based on analyses requested by the US Office of War Information to better understand and predict the behavior of the Japanese during the war. Her work would go on to influence the shaping of American ideas about Japanese culture right after the war.

This concept of a distinction between cultures and societies is based on the primary driving force which controls the hearts and minds of their people.

(Beware that the veracity of this map is widely disputed.)

In a guilt culture, control is maintained by the feeling of guilt for condemned behaviors. Such guilt comes with the expectation of punishment now or in the afterlife. This worldview focuses on law and punishment, as well as individual conscience. A major factor in the decision-making of a person residing in this kind of society is whether their behavior is fair or unfair.

In a shame culture, control is maintained by instilling shame and the threat of being ostracized. This worldview focuses on maintaining one’s honor, the violation of which can lead to acts of revenge. A major factor in the decision-making of a person residing in this kind of society is whether they will be shamed by others for taking a certain action, as well as “saving face.”

In a fear culture, control is maintained by the threat of direct retribution. This worldview focuses on physical dominance. A major factor in the decision-making of a person residing in this kind of society is whether someone will hurt them for taking a certain action and avoiding such consequences whenever possible.

You can say that fear cultures remain beholden to the power of outcome. Meanwhile, guilt and shame cultures are examples of the power of paradigm at work, and they’re likely reinforced by the power of ideology. Guilt and/or shame can be used to influence people through the power of agenda by providing choices that best avoid the risk of having to deal with guilt or shame.

While this idea from cultural anthropology may provide convenient explanations for what motivates certain cultures, one must resist the urge to generalize. People are more than just whatever scares and motivates them, so categorizing them according to these factors must always come with a caveat that there are exceptions and nuance.

You can say that the supposed guilt cultures are also motivated by shame and shame cultures are also motivated by guilt. There’s no clean, singular way to describe any culture because cultures and peoples are diverse and ever-changing. Make sure you remember that when looking into these factors.

Problems with the ‘Politics is Power’ Approach

Looking into the idea of politics being all about power seems sensible for most since that’s what pervades in the media and how people perceive politicians and authority figures. From works of fiction like Game of Thrones to books like The 48 Laws of Power, we’re constantly told that politics is all about cunning, plotting, and underhanded tactics.

This approach to understanding politics is ultimately problematic because it’s both too cynical and too short-sighted. We have to understand what power is, the forms it takes in every scenario, and how it truly affects our lives.

What is power? When you really think about it, you realize that it’s just as hard to define as politics itself. Many would say that money is power, while others are more about heart and minds, and a few still hold onto the idea of ‘might makes right’.

How is that power expressed? Whether it’s in government institutions, the economy, our society, in our own homes, or everywhere else, power is expressed differently in different settings. Perhaps the power of outcome works better in the household, but the power of agenda is a lot more effective in affecting society.

What does it mean to be powerful? How do you own power and wield it as your own as opposed to just expressing it? Is there even a difference between expressing power and truly owning power, if there even is such a thing as the latter.

Also, there are many different types of power, summed up by the acronym DIME — diplomacy, information, military, and economy. Are they all equally important in politics?

What’s being said here is that politics isn’t just about wanton displays of power, unlike what you may have seen in movies and television shows. It’s about knowing and being honest with yourself about what you’re strong and weak at.

It’s about making the right friends in the right place and at the right times, acquiring and consolidating resources, and investing in things that will grow your potential over time. Politics takes finesse, patience, and a bit of luck.

There are few things more ill-advised in politics than showing off power in hopes that you make everyone else piss themselves. Not only is showing off a fool’s idea of glory, as Bruce Lee once said, but it also puts a big bull’s eye on your back. Nothing will take you out of the game faster than showing your hand too soon.

There’s also the matter of how that power affects morality. Do people make moral choices based on their conscience which may guide them to do the right thing or the potential consequences of doing the wrong thing? That’s a topic for another blog post.

As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”

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