Inequality is generally understood as long-standing structured differences in social, economic, legal, and political resources. Inequalities intersect, such that power inequality is associated with economic, legal, social, and political inequality.
What is power inequality?
Power inequality is defined as structured differences in the capacity of principals to realize their will against the interests and efforts of subalterns. (See What is Power? What is a Power Structure?).
Everyday citizens receive the brunt of power inequality. Representation and participation should empower those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Yet, across nations and time, an individual’s position in the social structure interacts with the economic and political environment to repress the mass actions that could, potentially, push the elites toward fair economic redistribution.
How does power inequality endure? There are two mechanisms (see Lopez and Dubrow 2020). One mechanism is how elites reproduce inequalities, or “elite coordination.” A second mechanism is how social inequalities structure participation and contestation. We call this second mechanism, “mass discoordination.” The two key mechanisms of elite coordination and mass discoordination feed off of each other. The uneven distribution of power resources encourages the elite — who head the democratic institutions and set the rules — to pursue greater concentration; meanwhile, the elite-led institutions that allow such disparities to occur promote roadblocks that either prevent groups from participating, such as in the case of disenfranchised citizens, or discourages collective coordination around shared interests. The masses remain aggrieved yet disorganized.
I examine power inequality in its two main forms: political voice and economic control.
Political voice is (a) participation – verbal, physical, symbolic, monetary, or otherwise – in the political sphere by individuals, organizations, social groups, interest groups, or entire populations in electoral and non-electoral situations. Voice refers also to (b) representation by movements, organizations, legislative representatives, or political leaders and other public figures. Representation has many dimensions (e.g. Pitkin 1967; Mansbridge 2003). From a voice perspective, representation is someone or something engaged in the expression of interests in the political sphere on behalf of others or to promote an idea.
Economic control refers to the degree of freedom individuals and groups have to access and acquire the material resources necessary to thrive in capitalist society. Power inequality is directly related to economic control. In societies with high power equality, individuals and social groups have greater economic control. In societies with high power inequality, individuals and social groups have lesser economic control.
Relationship between Political Voice and Economic Control
Political voice and economic control intersect. Political participation is a core aspect of political voice and it is a foundation of European democracies. Of the social forces that act in tandem to influence political participation, economic inequality, social spending, and clientelism loom large. Whereas economic inequality in modern capitalist societies is associated with the maldistribution of political power and unequal political engagement, institutional contexts of the political economy can amplify or dampen the impact of economic inequality. In theory, social spending should mitigate the negative externalities of economic inequality through the provision of the social and economic resources to individuals and social groups that they need to participate in politics. Equitable social spending across socioeconomic strata should relieve social and economic burdens that make it difficult for disadvantaged groups to participate in democratic life, and thus buoy the participatory environment. Yet, social spending is not necessarily equally distributed; clientelism intervenes to push resources towards already politically and economically advantaged groups, thus lowering the level of political participation. (See POLINQ Project).
Political voice inequality is the inequality in influence – directly via political participation and indirectly through party representation – over the government decisions that impact society. Exacerbating voice inequality are economic conditions, including economic inequality. Whereas macro-level economic inequality matters under some conditions, what matters more is how structural inequalities, economic ones included, impact vulnerable disadvantaged social groups. Grievances of the masses are multi-dimensional – economic, as well as social and political – such that low income and low political opportunities leads to political dissatisfaction with external institutions.
Theoretical model of power inequality
In Figure 1, I summarize the theoretical framework. It is a multivalent structure in which power inequality attacks society at all levels. The macro-level’s economic, political, legal, and social factors are national and Europe-wide contexts that influence the meso-level organizations and institutions. The macro and meso layers influence the thoughts, behaviors, and experiences of social groups and individuals. The macro, meso, and micro-levels combine to both create society and form the deleterious inequalities that destabilize democratic institutions and lower democratic quality. Positive and negative events within the macro-meso-micro structures can alter the form, speed, duration, and magnitude of this recursive cycle.
Through this model, we can view how inequalities travel through the macro-meso-micro dimensions to impact society’s power inequalities. Power inequalities throughout the system destabilize social institutions and degrade the quality of democracy and social well-being.
Figure 1. Theoretical Model of Power Inequality
The model is inspired by Coleman’s Boat. We can view “power inequality” as the prow of the boat. The arrows indicate association, rather than causality. The arrow from “Micro” to “power inequality” means all of micro, and not just “behaviors.” The definition of “institutions” can vary. I separate them from macro-structures even though some may consider them as macro-structures. The entire model is recursive, meaning that all of the parts intersect and repeat across time based on these redounding and reinforcing relationships.
The point of the model is to explain how power inequality influences society. Indeed, power relations permeate the model. Power in economic, political, and social relationships determine peoples’ acquisition and access to scarce and valued resources, including power itself. Power guides practices, policies, and discourses.
Practices, policies, and discourses occur in the meso-layer. They are what we do, what is codified, and what we talk and write about. They are both the input into, outcomes of, unequal power relations. The list of meso-level organizations and institutions is long and can be longer.
The micro-layer has three parts: values (and attitudes), behaviors, and identities/experiences/demographics. The “behaviors” are what people do, or report that they do, and what we social scientists can observe. We can view their occupations (jobs), political participation, and discriminatory or equality-producing practices (whether they promote discrimination or equality).
The stakeholder environment is the clientelism, favoritism, and other -isms that impact who the power structure benefits. The stakeholders should be named: they are the masses, and that includes the workers in the meso-layer and the people not in the meso-layer; they are also the elite who are outliers in power and resources. The elite hail from various sectors of the meso-layer.
For example, economic structures impact how electoral institutions function (in essence giving preference to candidates from privileged backgrounds and occupations) that create policies to promote pro-inequality norms. This leads to discriminatory behaviors that impact the experiences of disadvantaged groups, e.g. from lower socioeconomic status. A result is that their voices are marginalized, e.g. lesser representation and lower impact of their political participation, and social well being degrades.
Power inequality prevails, and thus policies are not designed for the disadvantaged.
Trends in Power Inequality
Let’s examine trends in power inequality over time, especially the intersection of political voice and economic control. The V-Dem codebook v.12 defines the measure, “Political Equality” (pp. 207 – 209).
See our series on “Power Equality as measured by the Varieties of Democracy Project”
- Political Equality as Measured by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem)
- 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”
V-Dem guides the experts attention to particular groups’ political equality: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation. 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.
In the East, the immediate post-1989 era brought a rise in power inequality between socioeconomic groups (Figure 2). (see Socioeconomic Status: Definition and Measurement). Whereas, around 1989, power was relatively equally distributed across SES groups, by the 2010s, the wealthy had a strong hold on power. In the West, equality was never on the table. However, they managed to maintain less power inequality than the East.
Figure 2. Power Distributed by Socioeconomic Position in Europe, East and West, 1989 – 2020s
Does this situation hold if we change the measure? As a quasi-robustness check, I examine the question, “social class equality in respect for civil liberty” from V-Dem. This V-Dem item was managed by Svend-Erik Skaaning. Here, V-Dem experts were asked, “Do poor people enjoy the same level of civil liberties as rich people do?” They clarify the question:
“This question specifies the extent to which the level of civil liberties is generally the same across socioeconomic groups so that people with a low social status are not treated worse than people with high social status. Here, civil liberties are understood to include access to justice, private property rights, freedom of movement, and freedom from forced labor.”
Thus, it is substantively similar to the “political equality of socioeconomic groups,” as they reduce class to SES. This is a mistake in terms of defining social class, but since I am interested in economic control as defined and measured by SES, it is a valid measure.
The experts could choose between the following responses: “0: Poor people enjoy much fewer civil liberties than rich people; 1: Poor people enjoy substantially fewer civil liberties than rich people; 2: Poor people enjoy moderately fewer civil liberties than rich people; 3: Poor people enjoy slightly fewer civil liberties than rich people; 4: Poor people enjoy the same level of civil liberties as rich people.
Figure 3. Social class equality with respect to civil liberties, East and West, 1989 – 2020s
Figure 3 describes a situation similar to that of power distributed by socioeconomic position. After 1989, the East declined such that, more or less, the economically disadvantaged have lesser civil liberties than that of the economically advantaged. The West fare somewhat better across this time, but the enjoyment of civil liberties is still far from equal.
In sum, from 1989 to the present, citizens in the East and in the West are unequal when it comes to the distribution of power and the enjoyment of civil liberties. Where as the East had declined, they declined toward the level of the West, and surpassed them in power inequality. The West is no paradise when it comes to power equality; they have been consistently unequal even without a political and economic revolution. We should note that the Great Recession of 2008 did not have much of an impact on power inequality.