Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by social group”

In a previous post, we discussed how the Varieties of Democracy “V-Dem” project measures “political equality.” V-Dem is an expert survey. They guide the expert-respondents’ attention to particular groups’ political equality. These groups are: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation.

In this post, we discuss how they measure “Power distributed by social group.”

See also

Political Equality as Measured by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), which includes “power distributed by socioeconomic groups”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by gender”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by sexual orientation”

V-Dem: “Power distributed by social group”

V-Dem tells the expert to focus on “caste, ethnicity, language, race, region, religion, or some combination thereof” but not sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. They say nothing about “gender” as constituting social groups, here, probably because it comes next (“Power distributed by gender”).

V-Dem does acknowledge intersectionality but do not dwell much on it. After the list of social groups, they include the intersectionality-esque phrase, “some combination thereof.” Next, they write that “Social group identities are also likely to cross-cut, so that a given person could be defined in multiple ways, i.e., as part of multiple groups.” The “cross-cut” can be construed as an intersection.

We should not make too much of their attempt at intersectionality, however. The concept of identity, critical to intersectionality research (see Hughes and Dubrow 2017) is lost when they mention only that people can “be defined,” and makes no mention of how people define themselves. The next word after that sentence (that starts the next sentence) is “nonetheless,” defined as “in spite of that,” and thus lessens the impact of a potential accounting for intersectionality.

Clearly, intersectionality is not V-Dem’s purpose for this item.

Again, this is a zero to four scale that starts with one social group monopolizing power, and that this monopoly does not often change (it is “institutionalized”). V-Dem refers to this powerful “social group” as a “minority:” “Political power is monopolized by one social group comprising a minority of the population.” Minority, as it is often used in the social sciences, is usually about the relative power, status, and resources of a social group; here, they might mean numerical minority.

The next level toward equality (1) is several social groups, also being minorities, and also enjoying an institutionalized monopoly on power. The difference between (1) and (2) is that the several social groups are now a “majority:” “Political power is monopolized by several social groups comprising a majority of the population.” It is hard to see this as a step up towards equality. Whether the group is a numerical minority or a numerical majority does not seem to matter much for the degree of power they have. Thus, I see it as not a step up, but a step different.

When we get to (3), we get a very different step:

“Either all social groups possess some political power, with some groups having more power than others; or different social groups alternate in power, with one group controlling much of the political power for a period of time, followed by another – but all significant groups have a turn at the seat of power.”

There are several issues with this formulation, both for quantitative approaches to intersectionality research that feature power structures, and for political equality studies in general. First, the phrase, “all social groups possess some political power” is problematic because while V-Dem does define political equality (as a distributional thing) they do not define political power. Certainly, if we take the interdependency approach to political inequality, as Piven and Cloward (2005), does, we see the power process as not merely distributional one, but between opposing political actors.

For a discussion, see Definining and Measuring Power Resources.

Second, for social groups’ distribution of power V-Dem introduces a time element:

“different social groups alternate in power, with one group controlling much of the political power for a period of time, followed by another,”

which might mean that some groups have power at one point in time, and that is followed by another group in another time period. This time element is missing from their set-up to the issue of political equality and does not appear in the other “Power distributed by…” items. It is hard to know what an expert is to make of the sudden introduction of time.

Third, they introduce the term, “significant group,” as in: “all significant groups have a turn at the seat of power.” Since time is now an element, when is a group significant? When they have the power? Can a group be significant and not hold power before? Again, I do not know how the experts can make sense of the item.

Finally, point (4) is a social group political equality utopia, where “Social group characteristics are not relevant to politics.” There has never been a society where there are social groups and also where (and when) this utopia exists.

Political Equality as Measured by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem)

If we want to measure the power structure of society, we can examine the extent of political equality. For a quantitative measure, one can use the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem, as it is commonly referred to) dataset’s “political equality” measure (see also Cole 2018).

In this post, I examine and critique the “political equality” measure of V-Dem, with a focus on how they contend with the issue of intersectionality.

What is V-Dem?

V-Dem is a democracy-measuring project that created “a multidimensional and disaggregated dataset” that is designed to capture the many different strands of democracy. V-Dem is based on expert surveys. They argue that democracy has seven principles: electoral, liberal, majoritarian, consensual, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian.

The “egalitarian” dimension is where they situate the “political equality” measure. According to Coppedge et al (2015), the egalitarian dimension:


“…holds that material and immaterial inequalities inhibit the actual use formal political (electoral) rights and liberties. It therefore addresses the goal of political equality across social groups – as defined by income, wealth, education, ethnicity, religion, caste, race, language, region, gender, sexual identity, or other ascriptive characteristics. Ideally, all groups should enjoy equal de jure and de facto capabilities to participate; to serve in positions of political power; to put issues on the agenda; and to influence policymaking. (This does not entail equality of power between leaders and citizens, as leaders in all polities are by definition more powerful.) Following the literature in this tradition, gross inequalities of health, education, or income are understood to inhibit the exercise of political power and the de facto enjoyment of political rights. Hence, a more equal distribution of these resources across social groups may be needed in order to achieve political equality” (23).

V-Dem defines political equality in terms of capabilities and do not define it in terms of opportunities (they do not even mention outcomes). In the dictionary, “capable” can be defined as “having the ability, fitness, or quality necessary to do or achieve a specified thing.” Opportunity can be defined a set of circumstances that makes the thing possible. In opportunity, the focus is on the larger structures (including political regimes, policies and laws, institutions) that surround the group. Opportunities interact with capabilities in a similar way that a social structure influences a social group.

Thus, V-Dem’s focus is on the requisite characteristics that groups must possess – they must have within them the requisite characteristics to “participate,” to be in powerful positions, and to influence the agenda and policy.

The difference between capabilities and opportunities matters because, for V-Dem, the structures of power are found within the characteristics of groups rather than in the set of institutions and other circumstances where those social groups operate.

Defining Political Equality according to V-Dem

The project manager for the “political equality” measure is John Gerring who specializes in social science methodology and comparative politics. Gerring (V-Dem 2022 codebook v.12) does define political equality as “the extent to which members of a polity possess equal political power” (207). Gerring also argues that political equality is distributional: “It is … about the distribution of political power among identifiable groups within the population” (207). They make the well-known argument that political power cannot be directly observed.

Thus, power must be inferred from groups’ possession of power. According to V-Dem, the possession of power can be observed in: (a) Active participation, such as voting; (b) involvement in civil society organizations; (c) representation in government, which they say must be “secure”; (d) can set the agenda; (e) influence the decisions made by political decision-makers; and (f) influence how the decisions are implemented.

The V-Dem codebook v.12 defines the measure, “Political Equality” (pp. 207 – 209). V-Dem guides the experts attention to particular groups’ political equality: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation.

Let’s take them one at a time.

V-Dem: “Power distributed by socioeconomic position”

V-Dem tells the expert that all countries have economic inequality, whether wealth or income, to at least some degree. V-Dem is concerned here with the link, as Manza (2015) does, between economic inequality and the distribution of political power, or what they call the “political effects” of unequal economic distribution.

V-Dem posits three hypothetical groups – the wealthy, the average person, and the poor.

There are four possible responses: (0) Wealthy have a monopoly on power; (1) Wealthy are dominant, the average have little power, the poor none at all; (2) the wealthy have a “strong hold on power,” and the average and the poor have a little bit of power but only over the things that the wealthy do not bother to contest; (3) The wealthy and the average have about equal influence, and the poor has significant influence; (4) complete political equality between the three groups.

Links to the next measures:

Political Inequality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by social groups”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by gender”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by sexual orientation”

The Many Definitions of Political Inequality

Statue of Liberty Reading about political equality

What is the definition of political inequality?

Political inequality is worrisome for the future of democracy. Unequal access to political decision-makers means that the political voice of the few is louder than the political voice of the many.

But how can we define political inequality?

In my book published by Routledge, I defined political inequality as structured differences in influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions.

That’s the short answer. But you should know that there are many definitions of political inequality. In this post, I discuss these many definitions.

I examine several definitions of political inequality that are in the literature. I end the section with an interdisciplinary definition that can be applied across a variety of social and political systems.

Table of Contents

  1. What is the definition of political inequality?
    1. Political Equality of Opportunities vs. Political Equality of Outcomes
    2. The Distributional Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality
      1. Problems with the Distributional Approach
    3. The Interdependency Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality
      1. Problems with the Interdependency Approach
    4. Sorokin’s Authority Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality
      1. Problems with Sorokin’s Approach
    5. The Dahl and Lindblom Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality
    6. The Outcomes Only Approach to the Definition of Inequality
    7. Problems with Dahl and Lindblom and the Outcomes Only Approaches
    8. A Better Definition of Political Inequality
      1. We can combine the Dahl and Lindblom with the Outcomes Only approach to create a better definition of political inequality: political inequality refers to structured differences in influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions.
    9. Conclusion: Is Political Equality Real?

Political Equality of Opportunities vs. Political Equality of Outcomes

Most definitions can be traced to the distinction made in the classic social stratification literature on equality of opportunities versus equality of outcomes (Kerbo 2003: Chapter One; see also the philosophical literature, e.g. Ware 1981: 393; Baynes 2008: 15; and Roemer 1998: 1-2).

Equality of opportunities is about access to the political decision. Equality of outcomes refers to the law, symbols, policy or other output that is the result of the political process. Most definitions are based on the idea of equality of opportunities, but they could be modified to include outcomes, as well.

The Distributional Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality

A popular definition usually posited in terms of equality of opportunities is what I call the “distributional approach:” political inequality is structured differences in the distribution of political resources. According to this definition, one group has greater or lesser access to or acquisition of political resources than another group (Ware 1981: 393-4; Wall 2007: 416 ).

Many years ago, Max Weber (1946) argued that the tripartite scheme of class, status and party is but “phenomena of the distribution of power within a community” (181). The distributional approach is reflected in the 1996 American Political Science Association presidential address, in which Lijphart warned that “the inequality in representation and influence are not randomly distributed but systematically biased in favor of more privileged citizens” (1997: 1).

Problems with the Distributional Approach

The notion of “political resources” is an appealing analogy to economic resources, yet it presents dilemmas for concept and measurement.

A primary issue is that political resources are anything one can use to influence a political decision. Moreover, the means of wielding these resources varies by level – individual, group, organization or country – and by context. Some simplify by equating material resources in modern democracies – money, most of all – with political power (Winters and Page 2009; Brady 2009: 98 – 99). This is problematic, as social scientists have long argued that political resources are context-dependent and therefore can be more than just economic.

Weber (1946) viewed power resources of political organizations as almost anything , while Dahl (1996) defines political resources as, literally, “almost anything” – including money, reputation, legal status, social capital and knowledge, to name a few – that has value and can be used to achieve political ends.

Political resources can be drawn from social or psychological factors – material, ideational, a personal attribute, a group level attribute, an authority position, a network connection – or an action, such as political participation (Dahl 1996; Yamokoski and Dubrow 2008; Wall 2007: 418; for an exhaustive review of the political resources literature, see Piven and Cloward 2005: 38 – 40).

Identifying the mechanism by which political resources are distributed poses further dilemmas. Who distributes these resources? Is distribution done in the same manner across all political interactions and if not, by what rules does it vary? And, if political resources can be distributed, does the “distributor” hoard all of the resources that are important for the political interaction, or are there some resources that are beyond the hoarder’s control? We face these dilemmas when we strictly define political inequality as a matter of distribution.

The Interdependency Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality

An interdependency approach, as inspired by Piven and Cloward (2005), poses a way out of the dilemma by regarding political inequality as outcome of a relational process — and not merely distributional one — between opposing political actors. Key to the interdependency approach, political influence is found in the range of actions an actor can take within a political interaction.

Piven and Cloward (2005) argue that even apparently powerless actors actually have great potential for political influence, which turns the drawback of the distributional approach into a strength: “from this perspective, power resources are the attributes or things that one actor can use to coerce or induce another actor… almost everyone has something that can be used to influence somebody” (37).

In the interdependency approach, political power is inherently relational and resources are replaced with potential actions. Still, similarly to the distributional approach, actions used to influence governments and other political decision-makers are context-dependent: they must be appropriate to the task at hand; characteristics of the relationship between the interacting groups reveal possible (political power) actions.

The interdependency approach circumvents the problematic assumptions of (a) a hypothetical cache of ready-for-use political resources, and (b) a mechanism of resource distribution that is external to the interaction.

Problems with the Interdependency Approach

The interdependency approach has its own shortcomings.

For one, it does not account well for the use of physical force, a powerful resource that the state wields in any political interaction. This leads to the other troublesome assumption that all sides in a political skirmish have equal potential for political gain. The interdependency approach assumes equality of political opportunities. Yet, when the state wields physical force, or at least threatens it, the interactions appear to be imbalanced.

Sorokin’s Authority Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality

Sorokin’s sociological definition is similar but simpler, in that its main criterion focuses solely on the structure of the political process (1959 [1927]): Political inequality is the existence of authority divisions. Here, we speak of political inequality when groups have unequal political input into the decisions that affect them. Sorokin’s definition implies that the hierarchical structure of authority matters for the magnitude of political inequality, in that the more layers of authority between the citizen and the decision, the greater the political inequality. Growth in political complexity exacerbates this inequality: More people mean more diverse interests, demands and services and thus greater complexity of state organization (echoing Weber’s theory of inexorable bureaucratization).

Problems with Sorokin’s Approach

Sorokin’s political stratification may be simple but its implication for eliminating political inequality is troublesome: Only in a landscape without authority divisions whatsoever would all groups would have equal say in legislation and policy. As Sorokin himself admits, not even in hunter-gatherer societies do we find that political world is flat, let alone in modern ones (69).

The Dahl and Lindblom Approach to the Definition of Political Inequality

Let us consider another definition rooted in the idea of equality of opportunities that is popular in political science and philosophy. Paraphrased from Dahl and Lindblom (1953: 4), political equality is when everybody’s preferences are equally weighted in political decisions (see also Verba 2003: 663; Ware 1981: 393; Agne 2006: 433-4; and Baynes 2008:9 ).

In this definition, political inequality is unequal weight in influence over political decisions. The definition of “everybody” matters, of course: Everybody could mean all citizens, or it could mean all who are potentially impacted by the decision. As Agne (2006) put it, “it is often assumed that democracy requires that the people affected by a decision should be able to participate in making it” (433). Agne (2006) makes a strong case that this standard is hard to implement at higher levels of aggregation, such as regional or global governance, and should be replaced with different formulations of autonomy and freedom from dominance (for a summary, see p. 453; on rights to political equality at different levels of administrative aggregation, see also Bohman (1999: 500 – 503)).

The Outcomes Only Approach to the Definition of Inequality

Other definitions shift the focus from opportunities to benefits, such that political equality is when outcomes are equal (Griffin and Newman 2008: 6-7, Chapter Two). Ware (1981: 401 – 406) makes the case for considering political outcomes when evaluating the extent to which a democracy is politically unequal. Democracy theorists and philosophers argue whether we need to distribute these benefits equally, or whether some should get more than others because of their historically marginalized status (in discussing the American experience, Griffin and Newman (2008) call this the race-conscious egalitarian standard). What this means for the study of political inequality is that the response side of the political process is as important to think about as the voice side. In this case, political inequality is the extent of structured differences in the outcomes of government decisions.

Problems with Dahl and Lindblom and the Outcomes Only Approaches

These definitions lead us to a critical question: What is equal in political equality? Is it equal voice or equal response? Is it equal opportunities or equal outcomes? If it is equal opportunities for voice, then political philosophers such as Rawls (1971), Ware (1981), Sen (1999) and Baynes (2008) point to an important element of the distribution of political resources. Being that political equality is tied not only to political rights, but also to political liberties, i.e. the freedom to engage in political processes, and we need to consider (a) those who, through brute luck (Baynes 2008: 2) or social misfortunes are not equally endowed with the resources to influence politics in the same way as others, and (b) those who simply choose not to engage politically (see also Verba’s 1999: 247-248 distinction between “they can’t,” “they don’t want to,” and “nobody asked”).

A Better Definition of Political Inequality

We can fashion an alternative definition rooted in inequality of opportunities if we merge Dahl and Lindblom’s and Piven and Cloward’s insights with Sorokin’s: Political inequality is the extent of structured differences in influence over government decisions. Here, individuals, groups and organizations are defined by how much political influence they can exert (i.e. their potential of political influence). This view does not preclude the distribution of political resources; nor does it depend on it. It is the distance between actors and the characteristics of their interaction that shape political influence. Most importantly, this definition explicitly recognizes that political power and influence is rooted in the stratification structure.

We can combine the Dahl and Lindblom with the Outcomes Only approach to create a better definition of political inequality: political inequality refers to structured differences in influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions.

Conclusion: Is Political Equality Real?

There is also another question, more philosophical in nature, worth considering: Is political equality “real”, can we achieve it, or is it rather the ideal, theoretical endpoint of the continuum of political influence?

The definitions I presented lead to different answers. From a Sorokin perspective, government is part of the overall political stratification structure. Since government makes decisions, the structure itself is unequal. Therefore, political equality is strictly theoretical.

From a distributional perspective, political power is often thought of as something that the government distributes. If so, both perfect political equality and inequality could be achieved in totalitarian systems where all power concentrates with the elite. Put simply, if the government distributes zero political power to the masses, then everyone outside of government has the same level of political power: Zero. Perfect equality among the masses is achieved and perfect political inequality between masses and elites is also achieved.

The interdependence approach turns this question on its head, as it assumes political equality rather than political inequality. In the interdependence approach, all actors inside and outside of the decision-making body potentially have the same level of influence over the final decision. Political equality can be achieved because in all power situations each actor has potentially equal power to influence the outcome. What looks like political inequality is just wasted potential. We can call this the “liberation narrative:” If political inequality is built through these interactions, it can be un-built through them, thereby liberating the politically weak.

Liberating interactions do not square with most people’s political experience. The mainstay of political life is inequality of influence; reminders that the losers in political interactions have potential for influence, too, do not change the scoreboard. Yet, it is the promise of democracy that the scoreboard can be changed. This promise leads to the idea that political equality and political inequality are dimensions of democracy.

Further Reading

APSA Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy. 2004. American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality. http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/taskforcereport.pdf. (accessed July 4, 2007)

Bachrach, Peter and Morton S. Baratz. 1962. “Two Faces of Power.” American Political Science Review 56(4): 947-952.

Bartels, Larry M. 2010. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Baynes, Kenneth. 2008. “Democratic Equality and Respect.” Theoria 55 (117): 1-25.

Dahl, R. A. 1996. “Equality versus Inequality.” PS: Political Science and Politics 29(4): 639-648.

Dahl, R. A. 2006. On Political Equality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dahl, Robert A. and Charles E. Lindblom. 1953. Politics, Economics and Welfare. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Gilens, Martin . 2012. Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Griffin, John D. and Brian Newman. 2008. Minority Report: Evaluating Political Equality in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Liphart, Arend. 1997. “Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma.” American Political Science Review 91(1): 1-14.

Piven, F. F. and R. A. Cloward.  2005.  ‘Rule Making, Rule Breaking, and Power’ pp. 33 – 53 in The Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization edited by Thomas J., R. Alford, A. Hicks, and M. A. Schwartz.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Solt, F.  2008.  ‘Economic Inequality and Democratic Political Engagement.’  American Journal of Political Science 52(1): 48-60. 

Sorokin, P.  1957.  Social and Cultural Mobility.  New York: Free Press. [originally published in 1927]

Vera, Sidney. 2003. “What If the Dream of Participation Turned Out to be a Nightmare?” Perspectives on Politics 1(4): 663-678.

Verba, S, N.H. Nie and J. Kim. 1978. Participation and Political Equality: A Seven-Nation Comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Verba, S.  2006.  “Fairness, Equality and Democracy: Three Big Words.”  Social Research 73(2)499-540.

Wall, Steven. 2007. “Democracy and Equality.” The Philosophical Quarterly 57(228): 416-438.

Ware, A.  1981.  “The Concept of Political Equality: A Post-Dahl Analysis.”  Political Studies 29(3): 393-406. 

Weber, M. 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

Winters, J. A. and B. I. Page.  2009.  “Oligarchy in the United States?”  Perspectives on Politics 7(4): 731 – 751.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow Politicalinequality.org 2022

Democracy and Economic Inequality

Why does economic inequality rise in democracies?

Economic inequality is rising, and the United Nations reports that economic inequality impacts 70 percent of the world, even when we include democracies such as the US, UK, France, and Germany.

Why does democracy not reduce economic inequality? According to democratic theories, giving everyone the vote and allowing them to participate in democracy through protest should make policy-makers responsive to the public and reduce harm to them. Yet, this does not happen. Inequality rises in democracies.

Inequality may be the undoing of democracy.

This post explains why democracy has not reduced economic inequality. I rely on the innovative arguments of Dena Freeman in her seminal work, “De-Democratisation and Rising Inequality: The Underlying Cause of a Worrying Trend.”

Rising Inequality in Democracy: Elite Distribution and Voting Suffrage

Why has economic inequality increased alongside the rise in democratization? This is an old problem. Elites in the 19th century feared that the “universal suffrage” part of democracy would lead to the redistribution of wealth.

How would this redistribution happen? The democracy-reduces-inequality argument is the following:

In theory, the disadvantaged have greater voice in democracy, and therefore have greater impact on government response. This is an electoral politics argument about an agreement between the elite and the masses, otherwise known as “the class compromise of the post-war period.” It’s an exchange: The elite agree to redistribute economic resources through social welfare spending to the disadvantaged because the elite need the votes of the disadvantaged. The sheer size of the voting citizenry ensures that political parties operating within democracies must listen to a large and heterogeneous population. Thus, spending should be more universal than merely targeted to particular groups.

This is based, in part, on the median voter theory. This theory says that people are rational actors seeking to maximize benefits: parties want to win elections and thus end up proposing economic redistribution policies that benefit the median voter.

Democracies allow substantial bargaining power of labor — unions— that they can use to extract wages and other resources that reduce economic inequality.

DALL-E: “Photograph of Vote and Money”

Economic Redistribution Stopped Reducing Economic Inequality in the 1970s

Inequality did fall during the initial period of universal suffrage. But things changed dramatically during the 20th Century. As Piketty’s U-shaped graphs of economic inequality show, inequality declined, and then, in the 1970s, it rose.

Why the U turn? Unionization had helped to reduce economic inequality in the US, until the 1970s, when there was a great shift and a strong downturn in unionization. Some argue that the early 20th Century reduction in inequality was due to unusual circumstances. Once those circumstances ended, inequality resumed its normal upward path.

What were those circumstances? After the 1970s, there were major technological and economic changes:

Freeman’s Thesis: Vox Populi Lost Control over the Economy

Dena Freeman offers a different argument. She argues that the vox populi, the people in democracy, have lost control over the economic process. “Decisions regarding the organisation and functioning of economic matters,” Freeman writes, “have become less subject to democratic influence.”

In essence, democracy itself has changed, and not for the better.

Within the democratic process, people ceded control over the economy to private interests and the market, and thus lost political control over how the economy functions. This loss of control limits the policies that elected representatives can create and get through the legislative system.

The result, Freeman argues, is that “economic policies have increasingly been made in the interests of capital and the class compromise of the post-war period has been undermined.”

Neoliberalism and Democracy

Freeman blames neoliberalism. The economic crises of the 1970s introduced a change in economic ideology toward what would be called, “neoliberalism.” In neoliberalism, the economy is self-regulating, and thus the state should leave it alone. According to Freeman, Hayek’s “ideas about constitutional limits to democracy were effectively ways to ensure that the economic sphere would be carefully insulated from the demos and thus that democracy’s redistributive threat would be neutralized.” The economy should be lightly managed by experts and technocrats whose prime directive is to let the market dictate its own future.

Neoliberalism demands free markets that spread across the world. The free movement of capital around the world accelerated after the 1970s. The rich got richer and hid their wealth in tax havens.

Monetary Policy, Trade Agreements, and Democracy

Independent central banks that set monetary policy are out of the control of vox populi.  “Monetary policy is instead increasingly governed by the financial markets and the interests of financial capital,” writes Freeman. Policy is a tug of war between the interests of capital and the interests of labor, and capital is winning.

International trade agreements can create enduring and hard-to-revoke rights of capital in terms of strengthening property rights; these rights are designed to outlast the government that signed on to them, to endure as democratic elections produce new governments. Trade agreements can impose harsh penalties on governments that try to reverse the policy.

International Financial Institutions and Democracy

International Financial Institutions (IFIs) – G7 and G20, World Economic Forum, etc. – are global organizations that are not representative of all of the countries that they impact. Membership is based on invitation only, and the wealthy elite are the ones who control the invitations. These institutions define the space in which policies are discussed and decisions are made.

This restricts the policy options available to individual nations for a few reasons: The elite nations:

  • are deeply committed to neoliberalism and the global trade agreements that restrict national policies that could deal with within-nation income inequality;
  • promote international competition for international corporations to locate their businesses there (e.g. low corporate tax rates);
  • favor policies that promote economic growth instead of social welfare.

“In the post-1970s” Freeman writes, “firms and their interest associations have lobbied governments for rollbacks and efficiency-oriented reforms in national systems of social protection. They have argued that social programmes negatively affect profits, investment, and job creation and they have also used the threat of relocation to more favourable environments in order to put pressure on domestic policymakers.”

Rich countries have tools to resist these changes. Poor countries do not. As a result, the developing poor countries reduce public spending and take loans from the IMF and others to pay for what public spending they do.

The consequence is a spiral of debt and loans and more debt that reduces what little political leverage these countries have to change the policies of global finance. In addition, this debt is increasingly financialized, “packaged and repackaged in different forms of securities and traded on the bond market.” Thus, poor developing countries have a difficult time renegotiating and managing their debt with the rich countries.

In the mid-1970s, rich democracies decided to limit vox populi on their democratic control over the economic system and the distribution of economic resources, especially over social welfare.

“Two new approaches were developed at this time – New Public Management Theory (NPM) and Governance theory. Both promoted their changes in the name of costcutting and efficiency. NPM can be seen as an extension of neoliberal theory as applied to the public sector. It calls for governments to embrace private sector management strategies.”

While the de-centralization of decision making within governments over economic matters can be seen as, on paper, more democratic, it ignores the basic problem of political inequality:

“While some have argued that this new form of policy-making is in fact more democratic than top-down government – because a wider range of stakeholders are involved, including also NGOs, consumer groups and other elements of civil society – it must be remembered that the resources available to large companies, TNCs and business associations to engage in these processes is far, far greater than that available to civil society groups, many of which are poorly funded and under-resourced. As one commentator noted, it is like lining up rowing boats against battle ships. Rather the shift to decision-making in multi-stakeholder policy networks has led to an increased representation of the private sector, and thus of capital, in the policy making process.”

Summary and Conclusion

Democracy was supposed to reduce economic inequality through economic redistribution to the masses. As the masses allow the elite to become representatives, the representatives were supposed to allow political control over the economic policies that make sure redistribution works.

This worked, until the 1970s. After then, there were large scale changes to the economy. There was a technological change that rewarded a small group of workers. Growing automation will only accelerate this trend. CEO compensation went through the roof. And the rules of global finance, accelerated through neoliberalism, made it easier to move money around the world, incentivizing the wealthy to hide their wealth (Panama Papers) and create tax havens (Pandora Papers).

Freeman argues that the people mentioned in “We the people” — vox populi — have lost political control over the economy. Democracy outsourced knowledge on financialization to the market and to political appointees who believe in the power of markets.

The result is the inequality grows, and democracy does little to stop it.

Further Reading

Acemoglu, Daron and James Robinson. 2008. Persistence of Power, Elites and Institutions. American Economic Review, 98: 267-291.

Boix, Carles. 2003. Democracy and Redistribution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brady, David, Beckfield, Jason & Wei Zhao. 2007. The Consequences of Economic Globalization for Affluent Democracies. Annual Review of Sociology, 33: 313-334.

Freeman, John, and Dennis Quinn. 2012. The Economic Origins of Democracy Reconsidered. American Political Science Review, 106: 58–80

Gradstein, Mark and Milanovic Branko. 2004. Does Liberte = Egalite? A Survey of the Empirical Links between Democracy and Inequality with some evidence on the Transition Economies. Journal of Economic Surveys, 18,4: 515-537

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty First Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (trans: Arthur Goldhammer)

Timmons, Jeffrey. 2010. Does Democracy Reduce Economic Inequality? British Journal of Political Science, 40, 4: 741-757.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow Politicalinequality.org 2022

  1. Why does economic inequality rise in democracies?
    1. Rising Inequality in Democracy: Elite Distribution and Voting Suffrage
    2. Economic Redistribution Stopped Reducing Economic Inequality in the 1970s
    3. Freeman’s Thesis: Vox Populi Lost Control over the Economy
      1. Neoliberalism and Democracy
      2. Monetary Policy, Trade Agreements, and Democracy
      3. International Financial Institutions and Democracy
    4. Summary and Conclusion

Interview with Jan Falkowski on Political Power and Land Inequality in Poland

Jan Falkowski, of the University of Warsaw, Poland, recently presented a paper, “Do Political and Economic Inequalities Go Together? Mayors’ Turnover, Elite Families and the Distribution of Agricultural Land” at the Politics and Inequality conference held in Warsaw, Poland.

Jan Falkowski is an Assistant Professor with the University of Warsaw, Faculty of Economic Sciences, Chair of Political Economy. His primary research interests are in the impact of institutions and politics on economic processes, and the reciprocal influence of economic conditions on institutional environment and political life. His paper, “Promoting Change or Preserving the Status Quo? The Consequences of Dominating Local Politics By Agricultural Interests” was published in Land Use Policy (2017), and his paper with Grażyna Bukowska  and Piotr Wójcik, “The Political Power of Large‐Scale Farmers and Land Inequality: Some Evidence from Poland,” was just published by Sociologia Ruralis (2018).

Interview with Jan Falkowski

The research you presented at the Politics and Inequality conference was on the economic impact of the distribution of political power. How did you get interested in this topic? And how is this topic connected to other research that you are doing?

The interlinkage between  political and economic power has always been of interest to me. Looking at the connection between political and economic inequalities seemed to me as a natural consequence of studying the former relationship since the distribution of power and the distribution of resources (be it political or economic) are closely related.

In this paper, you use an original dataset. Please briefly describe these data and why they are well-suited for your research.

Measuring economic inequality poses some difficulties as people are typically not so willing to share with others detailed information on how much wealth they have. We needed therefore to overcome this problem or, at least, to try to do so. We discovered that it should be possible to achieve this goal by looking at a specific, but coherent, part of the population, namely farmers. What we do in the paper is we take advantage of the fact that in Poland the information on those who received agricultural subsidies is public. So it is possible to gather, at the individual level, the information on how much money a given person received in the form of the so-called direct payments. In the system that Poland uses to subsidize farmers, direct payments are granted to farmers based on a national flat rate per eligible hectare, and – contrary to what we observe in many other EU Member States – they do not depend on the historical reference period. Thus, the distribution of direct payments at the municipality level can serve as a good approximation of land use distribution. This, in turn, can be used to measure the distribution of wealth.  Obviously, the shortcoming is that it can serve as a good approximation of wealth distribution only in rural areas, in which the dependence on agriculture as a source of living is high. In the paper we collate these data with the data on mayors’ turnover which we use as an approximation of political inequality.

 What surprised you most about your research on political power distribution?

The first surprise was to observe that, even though we have good theories describing potential determinants of the distribution of political power or the theories predicting various consequences that the distribution of political power may bring about, actual evidence (especially the quantitative one) on these issues is sparse. The second surprise was that the distribution of political power can have many different impacts also in areas which we typically do not associate so much with the way in which political resources are distributed.

Imagine that you only have a minute or two to tell someone about your paper. What is the main message of your paper that you want people to remember?

With the caveat that this is still ‘work in progress’, the main message would be as follows: in municipalities characterized by a higher levels of political inequality we observe that the most influential families are able to amass disproportionately large amount of land.

What’s the next step for your research on this topic?

The next step is to better understand the origins of political inequality and in particular to link it to the functioning of informal institutions as measured by (the changes in) religious behavior.

Please list two of your recent favorite articles or books in the field of politics and inequality, and why you chose them.

One could be Pablo Querubin’s work on political dynasties in Philippines and the other one the work by Michael Albertus on land reforms and land inequality. Both of them use fantastic datasets and very sound empirical methods to uncover new things about the way in which politics and economics interact with each other.

What’s an older article or book in the field of politics and inequality that you like, and why?

I think one can find a lot of inspirations from reading Albert O Hirschman. The relatively recently edited book by Princeton University Press entitled “The Essential Hirschman” could be a good reading I believe.

The interview was conducted via email by Joshua K. Dubrow, who also edited this piece, including the embedding of web links. This work was funded in part by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916).

Political Inequality and the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine

This is a guest post by Olga Zelinska, Polish Academy of Sciences, based on an early article (2015) on local Maidans.

The Start of Euromaidan in Ukraine

It was the summer of 2013 and the people of Ukraine felt helpless. 

During this time of ‘soft authoritarianism,’ they saw rampant corruption while corporations and other business interests enjoyed a privileged place in the center of Ukrainian politics. The highly centralized state apparatus, controlled by one political and business ‘family’, made public influence over policy-making ineffective. Frustrated with meaningless mechanisms to participate in political decision-making and suffering from economic hardships, those unhappy with the status quo demanded social change with the contentious means.

While the right to political participation is guaranteed by the Constitution, Ukrainian democracy’s various mechanisms, such as public hearings or public councils, remained weak and did not bring the desired results.

The government’s order to reverse the foreign policy course on European integration was a last straw. Ukrainians marched onto public squares in Kyiv and in towns and villages throughout the nation.

It was the Maidan protest movement, and what was called the Revolution of Dignity.

From Euromaidan to Local Maidans

To understand the many local Maidans that had sprung from Euromaidan, I asked three main questions:

  1. How did the claimants identify themselves and their actions?
  2. How did they justify their actions?
  3. What did the claimants want?

Data and Methods of the Study

I analyzed 94 resolutions issued by local Maidans in the 57 cities and towns of the country. My analysis suggests that the Revolution of Dignity was not only about European integration or the impeachment of Ukrainian President Yanukovych.

Results of the Study

I found that:

• Protestors, or “claimants” in the language of Contentious Politics (Tilly and Tarrow 2007) primarily identified with their right to direct democracy, including influence over national and local policies. Activists associated themselves with the popular assemblies, or ‘viches.’ The viches proclaimed their legitimate right to exist and promoted the decisions they adopted.

• The claimants framed their actions as a legitimate non-violent civic resistance campaign. They perceived themselves as “civil society in action,” guarding the country’s democracy by monitoring the government’s conduct of foreign policy and European integration, implementation of human rights, and protection of constitutional rights for peaceful assembly.

• National-level factors played a key role in leading people to the streets. Outrageous human rights violations, a deepening political crisis, and major institutional failures were, to the claimants, the key triggers of contention.

To address these problems, protesters demanded resignations of top national officials and snap elections of the president and the parliament. The desired changes included change in the ranks of the political elite and a significant transformation of political structures. Protesters issued further specific demands of increased public oversight and more meaningful and effective institutions of political participation. This included direct democracy, designed to enhance everyday citizen impact on political decisions.

This is based on the article “Who Were the Protestors and What Did They Want? Contentious Politics of Local Maidans across Ukraine, 2013-2014”, published in Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, issue 23 (4) Fall 2015: 379-400.

Olga Zelinska obtained her PhD at the Polish Academy of Sciences after completing her doctoral training at the Graduate School for Social Research. She was a Petro Jacyk Visiting International Graduate Student at the Center of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto. She is currently a researcher, project PI. Institute of Social Sciences, SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Poland. “The Relationship between Social Movements and Political Parties for the Democratic Representation of Social Groups in Europe” project funded by Poland’s National Science Centre (UMO-2021/40/C/HS6/00229).

Further Reading

Zelinska, Olga. 2017. “Ukrainian Euromaidan protest: Dynamics, causes, and aftermath.” Sociology Compass. 1–12

Zelinska, Olga. 2020. “How Protesters and the State Learn From One Another: Spiraling Repertoires of Contention and Repression in Ukraine, 1990-2014.” American Behavioral Scientist, 64(9),

Zelinska, Olga. 2021. “How Social Movement Actors Assess Social Change: An Exploration of the Consequences of Ukraine’s Local Maidan Protests.” International Journal of Sociology, doi: 10.1080/00207659.2021.1910429

Cover photo by Volodymyr Tokar on Unsplash

Five Problems with Measuring Political Inequality

Political equality is a foundation of democracy, but in every democracy citizens are politically unequal. Some voices are louder than others, whether it has to do with their political participation or the level of economic inequality. As a consequence, there is democratic backsliding, and other political problems.

If we want to know, Is political inequality rising, falling, or staying the same? We would have to measure the concept of “political inequality.”

Measuring political inequality has multiple challenges.

In this post, I pose five main problems in measuring political inequality:  

1. Political power and influence is difficult to observe.  

Political power and influence is notoriously difficult to measure because it is an interaction between power wielders that is more inferred than directly observed.  We tend to “see” power after the decision is made, not during the decision process.

Read: What is Power? What is a Power Structure?

2. The range of potential political resources is extremely diverse and heavily context dependent.  

We discussed how political resources are anything one can use to influence a political decision: social or psychological factors – material, ideational, a personal attribute, a group level attribute, an authority position, a network connection – or an action, such as political participation. In international perspective, this is further complicated by seeking a measure that is functionally equivalent across nations.  

Read: Defining and Measuring Political Resources

3. Political outcomes is difficult to measure.

To answer the question, “does political inequality matter?”, we would have to empirically demonstrate that governmental decisions systematically favor some groups over others. Some recent work in the U.S. is exemplary. Similar work outside the American context is rare.

Read: Gilens and Page

4. Political equality never existed.

Political equality has never existed in any democracy or any other political system ever. Is political equality a real, empirically visible end of the continuum? If political equality is an ideal then does a theoretical endpoint belong in an empirical measure?

Read: The Many Definitions of Political Inequality

5. We need to specify the particular type of political inequality.

Political inequality can be found anywhere within the political process. Let’s simplify the political process to two parts – voice and response.   Voice refers to how constituencies express their interests to decision-makers directly or through representatives.  Response refers to how decision-makers act and react to their constituencies and is expressed via policy and symbols.

If we are to measure political inequality, we need to know how to define it. There are many definitions of political inequality. Start with a definition, and then build the measure.

Read: The Many Definitions of Political Inequality

Notes on Winters and Page’s “Oligarchy in the U.S.?”

 In this post, I summarize the article “Oligarchy in the U.S.,” by Winters and Page (2009).

Winters and Page: Oligarchy in the USA

Winters and Page (Hereafter, WP) argue that all modern democracies, regardless of level of democracy, can be oligarchies.   Oligarchy and democracy can, and do, “coexist comfortably” (731).  WP ask whether the U.S. is an oligarchy.

WP want to “advance the research agenda” of the APSA Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, and goad political scientists to “treat power… more seriously” (732).

Defining Oligarchy


Citing Aristotle, WP argue that wealth is the primary power resource.  WP define oligarchy as a “type of political system” in which “the wealthiest citizens deploy unique and concentrated power resources to defend their unique minority interests” (731).  WP argue that oligarchy is a form of extreme political and economic inequality: “Oligarchy refers broadly to extreme political inequalities that necessarily accompany extreme material inequalities” (732).  Oligarchs, due to their wealth, are a powerful minority that dominates policy in modern democracy. 

Why wealth? 

Wealth is “a material form of power that is distinct from all other power resources, and which can be readily deployed for political purposes” (732).  (Material, as opposed to other types of) wealth is an individual power resource for three main reasons: (1) It is concentrated in the hands of the few; (2) it is easily used as a means of political influence; and (3) it implies a set of political interests: specifically, the desire to protect the wealth they have and get more of it.  The core political interest is in property and income defense.  Concentrated wealth is both power and a motivation to use power.  WP acknowledge other sources of political power: position within government, full political citizenship, position within organizations, personal capacity to mobilize people, and access to the means of violence.  In their view, wealth is the most consistent major political power source.

WP acknowledge that oligarchs do not control all political life: just the major ones concerning property and income.  Oligarchs do not have to exhibit “explicit coordination or cohesion” (731).  Their common interest in wealth protection is enough to bind them and coordinate their actions.  This common interest also insulates the oligarchal system from radical changes resulting from circulation of elites. 

How do oligarchs use wealth? 

Wealth is a gateway to purchasing the means of control and furthering their political interests.  They command large organizations.  They hire “armies” of skilled professionals.  They are “denizens of foundations, think tanks, politically connected law firms, consultancies, and lobbying organizations” (732). Oligarchs do not have to have extensive engagement in political participation to be oligarchs.  They argue that oligarchs do not have to hold formal government positions to wield power: rather, “indirect influence is sufficient” (731). 

Masses do not rebel against this state of affairs because of a stable “oligarch-mass” settlement.  In exchange for extreme inequality, masses receive universal suffrage.  The masses are divided in terms of their interests.  Oligarchs operate within a — limited — pluralistic environment. 

WP argue that oligarchy became a muddled concept in the hands of the classic elite theorists of Mosca, Pareto and Michels, who included resources other than wealth in their lists of what constitutes power resources for oligarchs.
  

How Winters and Page Measure Individual Political Power?


WP argue that there are many possible political power measures, and they encourage empirical investigation into them.  Their measure of political power is based on indices of income and wealth.  They note (endnote 21) that income and wealth does not necessarily have a 1:1 relationship with political power, such that twice the wealth equals twice the political power.  They argue that such relationships are open for empirical investigation.  Yet, in Table 1, this is exactly how they calculate “individual power index.” 

“The Individual Power Index for each income fractile is a ratio, calculated as the average income for that fractile divided by the average income of the bottom 90%” (735, Table 1).

Individuals in the top 1/100 of 1% with an average income of over 25 million dollars have 882.8 times as much “individual power” as an individual in the bottom 90%.  Due to this form of calculation, the bottom 90% will always have an individual power index score of 1.

WP also measure individual power based on the wealth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans and distributions based on estate tax and data from the Survey of Consumer Finances.

They do not have a threshold at which a certain level of political power (based on income or wealth) is oligarchy: “Any fixed quantitative criterion used to identify oligarchs is bound to be arbitrary… we would argue strongly against any mechanical rule” (737).  Yet, they argue that in the U.S., “a definitional boundary that identifies the top tenth of 1 percent of the wealthiest households as potential oligarchs seems fairly plausible” (738).
  

What Oligarchs Control


Oligarchs do not control all policy.  Rather, they control key policies that offer the best wealth protection.
Policy types that oligarchs exert over-influence are:

  1. International economic policy (important for a globalizing world)
  2. Monetary policy (important during economic crisis)
  3. Tax policy (which influences government spending and other government budgetary matters)
  4. Over-all redistributive impact of all government policies.

How Oligarchs Control

  1. Lobbying (which has got more professional and more expensive)
  2. Elections (campaign contributions influence who gets elected to office)
  3. Opinion shaping (media and more subtle ways that they do not specify)
  4. Constitutional rules (including the appointment of judges)

  

Critiques of Winters and Page


This is an interesting a provocative article.  I especially appreciate their attempt to measure political power.  I have some criticisms of their approach.

They do not consistently distinguish between “power” resources and “political” resources.  They refer mostly to political power, but their vocabulary is not precisely deployed.

Though they reference Aristotle in their claim that wealth is the primary power resource in democracies for oligarchs, they do not explicitly reference the deep roots their ideas have in Marxism and neo-Marxism.  Their thesis of why the masses accept this arrangement is very close to the Marxian theory of state compromise/class compromise.  In exchange for their larger monetary and political control, the ruling class grants concessions to the proletariat, including limited political influence and limited economic redistribution. 

Further, WP argue that masses are “persuaded” as a result of this settlement.  In Marxian terms, the settlement leads to false consciousness (they do not use the term “consciousness”).  Lacking wealth as a motivator for political action, masses are divided over their different interests.  This implies that wealth is the only thing in modern democracy that can successfully bind a group together and motivate each individual to act as if they have a common interest with their fellow group members. 

In their discussion of how wealth is used, they do not separate ownership from control over organizations.  For example, WP states that “the wealthy often control large organizations, such as business corporations, that can act for them” (732).  CEOs and boards of directors are the ones that usually control these organizations; while they are wealthy, it is not their material wealth that is used; rather, it is their position within a heavily resourced organization.  This fact undermines their argument that wealth is the key political force. 

A similar problem is with oligarchs relationship to think tanks, lobbying firms, and the like.  While funded by the wealthy, even the non-wealthy can be influential actors within these organizations.  These problems in their conceptualization are especially problematic because they operationalize political power solely on income and wealth indices.

While WP say that oligarchs do not control all political activities, their last form of control, “Over-all redistributive impact of all government policies” is vague enough to imply a much larger range of control than WP admit.  “Over-all” is far too imprecise to be operationalized.

What happens to WP ‘s theory when placed in a communist regime?  There, position within the state is more of a political power resource than wealth.  Clearly, the “wealth is most important” argument does not work there.  They do not discuss communist societies (which is understandable, if they concentrate only on putative democracies).

WP do not engage directly with the problem that oligarch influence is not directly observed.  They should do more to acknowledge that, in all such similar theories, influence is inferred, not explicitly seen.  This invisible hand argument has been troublesome for all elite theories.  Further, while they cite Domhoff and Mills (but not Parenti, surprisingly), they do not engage directly with their very similar theories.  Domhoff’s “upper class as ruling class” elite theory is substantively similar to WP’s oligarchy.

References

Winters, Jeffrey A. and Benjamin I. Page.  2009.  “Oligarchy in the United States?”  Perspectives on Politics 7(4): 731 – 751.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow 2022

Notes on Piven and Cloward’s (2005) Discussion of Power Resources

What are power resources?

Piven and Cloward (2005) discuss power resources

They write: “…it is perhaps the most important dispute in the discussion of power.  What are to be regarded as power resources?” (36)

Distributional approaches


Weber: “all conceivable qualities of a person and all conceivable combinations of circumstances may put him in a position to impose his will in a given situation” (as cited in Wrong 1979:23).

Collins (1975):  “the resources for conflict are complex,” comprising just about everything

Dahl (1961): “anything that can be used to sway the specific choices or strategies of another individual”

Oberschall (1973): “anything from material resources… to nonmaterial resources”

Giddens (1985): allocative vs. authoritative resources

Etzioni (1968): utilitarian/material resources vs. normative/symbolic (see also Gamson 1968)

Tilly (1978): economists’ factors of production

Mills (1956): occupation of key positions/”command posts.”

One kind of resource can be used to gain another.

Piven and Cloward: “from this perspective, power resources are the attributes or things that one actor can use to coerce or induce another actor… almost everyone has something that can be used to influence somebody” (37).

Key resources are not widely distributed, but are concentrated at the top of the social hierarchy (37). 

Yet, those at the lower end do still influence social change.  How?

Interdependent relations, or interdependency approach

Piven and Cloward:  “the effective exercise of power in electoral representative institutions… does not result simply from a general currency of things or traits and the pattern of their distribution but rather depends on the specific relationships that make particular things or traits useful and important.”  (38).

“…in addition [to disembodied attributes, resources for power] are derived from the patterns of interdependence that characterize all social life” (39). 

“People have potential power, the ability to make others do what they want, when those others depend on them for the contributions they make to the interdependent relations that are social life” (39).

Power is embedded in interaction.  Power resources – or, rather, what are considered as power resources – are dependent on the interactional context.  “Control over capital is an effective resource for exercising power over others because those others are already entangled in a system of economic relations that makes them dependent on entrepreneurs for the means of production and subsistence” (39).

The exception is force – either the threat or actual physical force.  This is an important and possibly far-reaching exception, as force is embedded in many social interactions. 

The basic assumption is that actors are equal in the power relationship.

Giddens (1984): “much of day-to-day interaction is routine and is subject only to reflexive monitoring and rationalization” (34).  Piven and Cloward: “most of the time, people only try to make their everyday lives.  They do not try to make history” (41).

These interactional contexts in which power arises are in “the systems of interdependence that constitute societies” (40).  Systems are plural: “A web of complex networks of political, economic, and cultural interdependencies has to be analyzed if the actual potential for power by different participants in these networks is to be deciphered” (41).

The interdependency approach shares intellectual terrain with “exchange theorists.”  Power is “an attribute of relationships,” not of social actors.  They criticize Blau’s theory that power imbalances are the result of asymmetrical contributions to needed things:  employers have more power because they supply the jobs and those with less power have less to contribute to whatever is needed.  “Needed services” contributions… but landowners, do they contribute more than the workers who build the estate?  How is this measured?  P&C accuse Blau of justifying—even morally – power imbalance.

But if equality of contributions is inherent in mutual, interdependent relationships, why is the distribution of economic and status resources unequal?  Why don’t people use the potential power embedded in these interactions?

Value of contributions cannot be measured, and is therefore not the answer.  There are seven reasons why participants do not exercise their potential power:

1.  Consciousness: “people must recognize their potential power before they can act on it.”
2.  Coordination: in circumstances of collectivities, action requires coordination across similarly situated actors (as opposed to husband and wife relationships).
3.  Staying power: “power seekers must be able… to tolerate the costs” of acting.
4.  Control over supply of alternatives: “power seekers” must be able to prevent the other parties from going around them, circumnavigating them, to get what they want (via scabs, etc.).
5.  Exit: “contenders do not respond to challenges by simply exiting… or threatening to exit” (43) the relationship.
6.  Third-party leverage: “power seekers must be “free from constraints” from another, third party, that could intervene (e.g. courts intervening in labor disputes, e.g. Reagan firing the air-traffic controllers.
7.  Force:  power seekers must be free from threat or use of physical force.

“Social rules inhibit the activation of interdependencies and hence restrict the wide exercise of power” (43).

“Rules… [specify] the behaviors that are permissible by different parties in interdependent relations” (44).  Only certain rules are of interest: those that have direct bearing on power exercise.  The system of interdependencies, i.e. the context in which power interactions operate, include “rules” which legitimate “the actions available to some contenders while delimiting the actions available to others” (44).

Key to P&C’s theory is the legitimation of power exercise.  Legitimation is institutionalized, embedded in institutions that organize social life, such as law, policy.  Focus of power struggles is over rules—their legitimacy and their enforcement.  Once rules are legitimized, power interactions are characterized as being one-sided because the power seekers who attempt to break the rules no longer have legitimate means of challenging other parties. 

The role of the state is to formulate, impose and enforce the rules.

Agency in Piven and Cloward’s (2005) approach

They go back and forth on the constraints of social structure and the capacity of people to think and act beyond the constraints of social structure.  Because people are reflexive, they have the capacity to transcend constraints of social structure.  Reflexivity can therefore change the dynamic of power interactions, enabling rule breaking.

Reference:

Piven, Frances Fox and Richard A. Cloward.  2005.  “Rule Making, Rule Breaking, and Power” pp. 33 – 53 in The Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization edited by Thomas Janoski, Robert Alford, Alexander Hicks, and Mildred A. Schwartz.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.