How Do Digital Technologies Impact Political Inequality?

A robot drawing with a pen on a piece of paper, signifying the connection between robots and human technology, i.e. digital technology

This post discusses the relationship between digital technologies — the internet and its hardware — and political inequality. This is part of the POLINQ project. In this project, we have understood that political inequality has many definitions.

Thesis: Digital technologies have enabled a dystopic political inequality where politics is possible for the few and impossible for the many.

Read also:

Table of Contents

  1. Thesis: Digital technologies have enabled a dystopic political inequality where politics is possible for the few and impossible for the many.
  2. Let’s First define politics as both political voice and political response
  3. Next, let’s understand that we are politically unequal
  4. Our Digital Dawn Is Our Political Dusk
  5. Politics Exists in an Era of Endless Information
  6. Big Data is a Big Part of Political Inequality and Endless Information
  7. Intersectionality and Inequality in Politics is a Reflection of Endless Segmentation
  8. Political Inequality is a Consequence of Digital Technologies
  9. The Way Forward

Let’s First define politics as both political voice and political response

Politics is a tool used to gain power over important decisions that impact our lives. This tool has two parts: Voice and Response.

Political voice is how we express our political complaints, desires, demands, and interests to our fellow human beings across nations, to our fellow citizens within nations, and to government. Voice activates directly through what social scientists call “political participation,” such as public marches, writing letters to our representatives or to the media, boycotting products, and voluntarily organizing the political interests of particular groups, to name a few.

We also activate our political voice through representation, that is, indirectly via people and organizations that claim to carry our voice into government, such as parliamentarians, political parties, non-governmental organizations in civil society, and special independent arms of the government (the ombudsperson or special envoy, for example).

Response via representation is what the decision-makers do with our voice. They can respond with mere symbols, such as declaring Black History Month to address institutional racism. They can respond with formal and informal policy initiatives.

Next, let’s understand that we are politically unequal

Political inequality characterizes modern societies. Political equality is the assumed foundation of modern democracy. Yet, everywhere there is democracy – indeed, everywhere there is politics – there is political inequality. Political inequality is structured differences in influence over government decisions and the outcomes of those decisions. It is inequality of voice and it is inequality of response.

Inequality always emerges, and will use all available tools to do so. In hunter gatherer societies, even with communal ownership of the means of production (weapons and other tools) that lowered economic inequality, the best hunters were awarded greater status (much more than the gatherers, whose contribution to daily caloric intake is greater and more stable than that of the hunters).

When Communism in Eastern Europe tried to reduce economic inequality by the government lowering everyone’s incomes and controlling the labor market, political connections to the regime became the new currency, and a special and pernicious form of political inequality was born.

Inequality is an ever-adapting cockroach.

Our Digital Dawn Is Our Political Dusk

Digital technologies are tools for the storing and sharing of information. Since the dawn of the digital age (ca. 1950s), these technologies are of two main parts: computers (software and hardware) as the storage bin and the internet as the sharer-in-chief. To understand the interaction chains that bind us to computers, there are three possible: human-to-human, human-to-computer, and computer-to-computer.

Only human-to-human is without computer intrusion. Digital technology can allow humans to talk more efficiently to other humans, or computers to talk to one another: “Take the professor in the back and plug him into the hyperdrive,” Han Solo snarled.

Digital technologies enabled globalization by being the most efficient way to store and share information; it moves money and makes people money; it transfers knowledge and culture (Tweets are worthless, in and of themselves; but tweets from the right persona can cause havoc).

The ubiquitous and portable availability of digital hardware make strong the bonds between human-to-computer, and computer-to-computer interaction, at the expense of human-to-human interaction.

Spying with computers – that humans are unaware that a computer intervenes into the relationship – robs humans of genuine human-to-human interaction. Bots are everywhere.

The unnatural environment that gave rise to digital technologies unleashed two infinite forces that brought out humanity’s worst: endless information and endless segmentation.

Politics Exists in an Era of Endless Information

Our desire for information is rooted in our desire to reduce choice complexity. We prefer simple: when faced with a too-large array, we aggregate and categorize; we segment. When faced with new information, we look for how it fits into old segmentation. Then, we look for ways to house this information.

When faced with accumulating important knowledge too big for any one person to remember, we created libraries to house the information and we created schools to pass the information on to the next generation.

Big Data is a Big Part of Political Inequality and Endless Information

Big Data is an unusually large dataset drawn from diverse sources of information. Some Big Data contain customer data, based on where they are, what internet portal they opened, what they clicked in that portal, when they clicked on it, and where they went afterwards. The Big Data sets can be millions of cases long. They can be few cases and millions of variables wide.

Big Data is built on you, and it uses you to get more people inside it, and will follow you wherever you go.

Photo by Voice + Video on Unsplash Digital Technology and Political Inequality
Who is recording you?

Intersectionality and Inequality in Politics is a Reflection of Endless Segmentation

Endless segmentation is the logical conclusion of endless information.

This is how the chain begins and ends: The new internet companies – Google, Facebook, Twitter — depend on advertisers, and advertisers need data on their potential customers, and advertising agencies need data on the potential customers. Digital technology corporations that specialize in such data sell data to media-buying and advertising agencies. Let’s call all of them, “the marketeers.” The marketeers harness the power of endless information they collect on customers to create Big Data on those customers. To make sense of this endless information, they segment.

Within Big Data, endless information became endless segmentation.

Intersections of race, class, and gender are not enough; the marketeers need what they like.

Endless segmentation feeds the algorithms. Algorithms are ways of making sense via clarifying & simplifying of data. It does so by creating a series of rules:

If, Then.

The algorithms deliver what advertisers want and what they think customers want: they think customers want more of the same things they clicked, tapped, pressed, and swiped on. Liked Fox News on Facebook? You’ll like Gun Shows in Your Area. Liked Cannabis? You’ll like a t-shirt with a pot-leaf on it. Like both? You’ll get ads for Napoleon Dynamite.

Political Inequality is a Consequence of Digital Technologies

Digital technologies have led us to the uncanny valley of politics: there is the recognizable outline of the political process, but the details are disturbingly off.

The new digital political divide is not a gap in access or skills; there is inequality whether you opt in or opt out of our digital dystopia.

The divide is because there is universal access and skills to a digital world that is run by Silicon Valley corporations whose promote efficiency of computer-to-computer interaction and information sharing and demote human-to-human interaction and emotion sharing.

Autocrats take advantage of digital technologies to spread misinformation, hack opponents and share secrets online, find and eliminate protest and protesters, sow discord. It’s what Morozov called, The Net Delusion.

The Way Forward

The way out is a variant on Timothy Leary’s life advice with a Luddite twist: Turn off the machines, tune out the information noise, and drop in to the homes of family and friends. The way forward is to pop the information bubble, re-connect with human beings, boycott the segmenters, and dare to be brave.

This work was funded in part by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916).

Copyright Joshua Dubrow 2017

The dawn of digital inequality

Neoliberalism and Democracy

The planet earth swimming in an unreal sea of money

This is a guest post by Alex Afouxenidis, Professor at the National Centre for Social Research, Athens, Greece. It is based on his chapter in, Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy (Routledge).

What is neoliberalism and how does it impact democracy?

Neoliberalism is based on the idea of ignoring fundamental human needs.

The success of neoliberal political strategies rests on a mixture of rhetoric and control of democracy’s major local and global institutions. It is also based on the erosion of the key actors and institutions that are the main underpinnings of contemporary democracies, such as pressure groups, civic organizations, and educational institutes.

In neoliberalism’s economic sphere, economic growth does not need to translate into growth of equality. Considering rising social, economic, and political inequalities, we are looking at abuse being taken for granted.

Table of Contents

  1. What is neoliberalism and how does it impact democracy?
    1. Understanding Democracies’ Political Shift toward Neoliberalism
      1. Market idealization is not working: it has generated profound constraints on people’s liberty and self-determination.
    2. Neoliberalism and Four Dimensions of Democratic Organization
      1. Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Economic Sphere
      2. Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Social and Political Spheres
      3. Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Cultural Sphere
        1. In global terms ‘neoliberalism’ itself has become part of popular culture packed with iconic figure heads such as Thatcher or Reagan and reactionary representational references to anti-statism, individuality, and consumerism.
    3. Neoliberalism, Democracy, and Crisis

Understanding Democracies’ Political Shift toward Neoliberalism

The pervasive counter-democratic ideological force of neoliberalism has had a deep impact on people’s lives, identities and beliefs despite its obvious failure to sustain any meaningful sense of ‘economic growth’. This is evident in many regions across the world where economies are being re-structured and reformed generating greater forms of inequality and limiting political freedom. Political crises have become everyday occurrence for many nations. Governments are in a continuous state of instability and many turn to (semi?) authoritarian rule in order to retain power.

Market idealization is not working: it has generated profound constraints on people’s liberty and self-determination.

As one reflects upon the countless analyses and informed criticisms on the impact of neoliberal ideology and strategy, it becomes increasingly clear that the main constitutive element of this sort of ‘philosophy’ is related to the idea of ignoring fundamental human needs. This conceptualization has generated a rupture with respect to western classical liberal discourses such as those, for example, put forward by J. Locke, J.S. Mill or J. Rawls. For, even though they strongly suggested personal autonomy, they equally forcefully reflected upon the idea that if the needs of individuals are not adequately met then liberty will be limited.

This radical shift in the liberal ideological agenda that emerged during the early 1980s used the language of freedom and individuality to promote a basically dehumanizing and oppressive status quo. Humanity thus was re-defined vertically and horizontally along and across the usual bi-polarities: poor/wealthy, in/out of work, males/females, gay/straight, western/non-western, north/south, black/white, moral/immoral, productive/un-productive, private/public and so forth. The question, in this respect, is not so much whether these categories actually exist or not, but rather how and in which ways they are used to generate and reproduce a vocabulary and a subsequent series of political practices and agendas.

In fact these are populist images of societal structures based on rather simplistic belief systems. In cultural terms, they advocate exclusivity of the ‘West’ over all others, intentionally promoting ideas which view the ‘West’ as a single all embracing cultural unit. In political terms, the market and economic ‘freedom’ are dissociated from the inner workings of democracy. Hence, if democratic procedures and/or processes contradict neoliberal thinking, then they may be overlooked.

Success of neoliberal political strategies rests on a mixture of rhetoric, force and, more importantly, control of the major local and global institutions such as the state and/or international financial organizations. In addition, it is also very much based on the slow or rapid fragmentation and, ultimately, severe erosion if not destruction of diverse agents such as public actors, pressure groups, civic organizations, think tanks, educational institutes and a variety of other structures which have formed the main underpinnings of contemporary democracies.

Neoliberalism and Four Dimensions of Democratic Organization

Over the past 35 years, a very powerful fable has been used to legitimize economic and social intervention operating across the four major areas of democratic organization, namely the economic, political, social and cultural spheres.

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Economic Sphere

In the economic sphere, the main neoliberal idea is that societies and countries have to shift away from policies related to integration and replace them with policies – and the corresponding ideologies – of divergence. Economic growth therefore does not need to translate into growth of equality.

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Social and Political Spheres

Divergence and accompanying growing gaps in political inequality and social inequality have become accepted as systemic norms.

Accordingly, the nature of political systems has to be altered to accommodate for increased inequality, inequity and exploitation coupled by a reduced public sphere and an enlarged, dominating private sector through the diminution of all sorts of political participation and a reduction of the state’s capacity to organize civil life.

Neoliberalism and Democracy: The Cultural Sphere

In simpler terms, in an enforced alteration of political culture, the façade of a well organized democracy is only required to counter-balance the harsh re-constitution of society: to make it somewhat more respectable to the eyes of people. In total, neoliberal strategies have played a significant role in the realignment of the cultural sphere and cultural politics.

DALL-E “Gustav Klimt painting of democracy and money”

Neoliberalism, Democracy, and Crisis

Although some writers seem to be rather optimistic on the reversal of the neoliberal political project, mostly because of the effects of the current crisis, we should be more cautious.

For a long time the system has gone through various crises, and has nevertheless flourished despite massive reactions from a variety of people and organizations across the world. Neoliberal ideology has not been fundamentally challenged and if anything it seems that neoliberalism has gained, for example via the post-2008 crisis, influence and as a consequence a whole new range of economic, political, social and cultural strategies have been deployed.

The political process has been ‘de-legitimized’ to a large extent and liberal democracy appears deficient, and yet for the neoliberal political agenda this is probably good news. When one looks at the rising figures of social and political inequality, the widening gap between rich and poor and instances of extreme poverty within and across nations and regions, one looks at the same time at abuse being taken for granted. And much more research is required precisely on that last point.

Prof. Alex Afouxenidis is a Researcher at the National Centre for Social Research, Athens, Greece and specializes in Political Sociology. He is the editor of The Greek Review of Social Research, and recently edited a special issue on social media and politics. He can be reached at www.ekke.gr and afouxenidis@ekke.gr

This piece is based on the chapter “Neoliberalism and Democracy”, in Dubrow, J. (ed), Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives, London: Routledge, pp. 40-48.

Elites care about inequality, but probably not in the way that you think

This is a guest post by Matias Lopez, Universidad Católica, Chile.

Do the elite care about inequality?

A survey of over 800 elites in six Latin American countries reveals that they acknowledge economic inequality as a problem, but see little incentive to reduce inequality. The elite from stronger and more stable democracies tend to be more aware of inequality as a political problem. Yet they do not view equitable income re-distribution as the answer.

The Problem of an Elite in Democracy

Latin America has some of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world, and it also has many democracies.

That a tiny elite accumulates excessive wealth and power prompts concern about the future of democracy. We know from several studies that this inequality may generate conflict and support for non-democratic leadership — a perilous situation recognized by citizens of the United States and Europe.

Questions:

  • What do elites themselves think about the risks of inequality?
  • Do they feel comfortable living with these risks, or do they feel worried about them?
  • And if they feel worried, what are they willing to do about it?

Exploring Elites and Democracy in Latin America

To answer these questions, Latin America provides a very useful set of cases.

Many large and durable democracies in the region, such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, have high levels of economic inequality even though this inequality creates urban violence and social unrest. Extreme inequality in a democracy is a problem for average citizens because it puts in doubt Lincoln’s principle of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Meanwhile, elites also have good reasons to fear inequality as they are clearly impacted by the political turmoil and the social violence that can follow.

I looked at the University of São Paulo survey conducted in six Latin American countries of over 800 members of the elite in the realms of politics, business, and civil society.

I found out that most of the elite share the usual concerns about inequality and democratic stability.

But the relationship between concern and action has not to do with inequality itself, but with the strength and stability of democracy.

Stronger and more stable democracies tend to have more members of the elite concerned about inequality. This seems intuitive, since stronger democracies may have more to lose from the sort of social menaces that accompany extreme inequality.

But if concern over the perils of high inequality would, rationally speaking, lead the elite to act to reduce inequality, then my second finding is counter-intuitive:

I also found out that, by and large, the Latin American elite have little desire to lower the level of economic inequality.

Inequality, over the past decade, has decreased significantly in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Chile. I found that countries whose inequality dropped also have elite who show the highest levels of concern. Brazil is a very interesting case in this regard. The country’s inequality has recently fallen but remains among the highest in the world. As in other Latin American countries, Brazilian elites share concern over the problem of inequality, but do not feel that they should be part of the solution. For example, they are strongly averse to paying more taxes, as shown in the figure below.

Figure 1. Brazilian Elite Agreement with Further Social Investment and with Further Taxation

matias-lopez-elite-figure-1

Source: USP 2008

Except for union leaders, all elite sectors in Brazil scored much higher for welfare spending than for taxation. Union leaders may believe that they will not be the ones paying extra taxes, as they often picture themselves as part of the working class, not the elite. Business elites seem to be aware that they would be preferential targets of taxation. On average, the elite do like the idea of increasing social welfare, as long as they are not asked to contribute more to it.

Summary

In sum, the elite often worry a lot about inequality. But they also feel that they get away with doing nothing substantive about it, and feel no need to sacrifice their own resources to end it.

This article is based on the chapter, “Elite Perception of Inequality as a Threat to Democracy in Six Latin American Countries,” in the book, Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives.

Matias Lopez is a PhD candidate in political science at the Universidad Católica, Chile. His research is on democratic stability in contexts of high inequality. He can be reached at matiaslopez.uy[at]gmail.com

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

What Is Political Inequality and How Unequal Are We?

We Know a lot about Economic Inequality

When the Occupy Wall Street movement reached its heyday in the Autumn of 2011, spreading to cities all over the world, the protesters’ rallying cry was, “We are the 99 percent.” They hoped for political change, among other things, but “99” was mainly understood as a statement about economic inequality.

If you want to know how much economic inequality there is in your country, and whether this inequality been rising, falling, or staying the same, you can turn to the terabytes worth of publicly available economic data and grind them through the many inequality equations to derive a multitude of statistics. With decades of innovations in the study of economics and inequality, led by the disciplines of sociology and economics, we can, at least, have a debate over economic inequality and its dynamics over time.

We know less about Political Inequality

Political inequality is a distinct form of inequality but has yet to attract sustained, systematic scholarly attention in the same way as its sibling inequalities. Although political equality is a foundation of modern democracy, we do not know how far from equality we are. Even the news media rarely addresses political inequality. We need more eyes on the problem.

Popular Definitions of Political Inequality

The work of social scientists, philosophers and other scholars offer many definitions of political inequality. Political inequality’s conceptual roots are temporally deep and spread-out in many disciplines. Read together, they point to the idea that political inequality is at once a dimension of democracy and a dimension of stratification.

Built on the classics, modern definitions of political inequality depend on whether one is concerned about equality of opportunities or equality of outcomes. In short, 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, too.

Let’s look at some popular definitions from my book on political inequality:

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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.

Political equality is when everybody’s preferences are equally weighted in 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.

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. The more layers of authority between the citizen and the decision, the greater the political inequality.

We can usefully combine these approaches with a definition that both simple and flexible:

Political inequality refers to structured differences in influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions.

How Much Political Inequality Is There?

Short answer: nobody knows.

Why? Because there are no cross-national comprehensive measures of it. Nobody’s ever done it. And that’s because we need to ask, “for whom” and “of what.” Who is unequal? And are they unequal in terms of voice or government response? Those questions are hard to quantify.

This video explains why we don’t know:

Political Inequality Is the Shadow of Democracy

Democratic institutions set the rules of the political process and guarantee formal rights of political participation to a wide variety of citizens, but not to all of them. Many discussions of political inequality are debates about whether and how equality in democratic governance can be achieved. The coexistence of democracy with political inequality leads to the question of how realistic the idea is that all interested participants can enjoy equal influence on the governance decision or in its outcomes. A common thought is that we should seriously consider acceptable limits in who should be unequal and how to manage this inequality while still raising high the banner of democracy. This leads to a conclusion that political inequality is the shadow of democracy.

A recent article on inequality and policy outcomes by Gilens and Page (2014) highlights the promise and the difficulties in measuring political inequality. Their unique data consists of 1779 policies taken up by the U.S. Congress from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Each policy is matched to a public opinion survey research question asked during the time the policy was introduced (“this policy says X, to what extent do you agree with it?”) and to a set of interest groups who have taken a position on the policy. With these data, they gauged the extent to which the policy outcome reflects (a) the will of the median voter – identified within the surveys and (b) types of interest groups, such as economic elites, business interests, and mass public interest groups. They found that policy outcomes tend to favor the will of economic elites, not the median voter.

Their study provides solid, further evidence of the paucity of pluralism in American democracy, but their measure of political inequality has shortcomings. First, they chose policies based on whether they were asked in public opinion surveys, and that means the many, not-so-famous policy debates that also shape key economic distribution policies were excluded. Nor can it account for the policies that are off the Congressional agenda, the type of power that Bacharach and Baratz (1967) warned that is most pernicious: the power to compel voters to not even ask for the policy in the first place. It is also specific to the American experience; though it can be replicated elsewhere, so far there is no cross-national equivalent to these data. Gilens and Page (2014) conducted what is likely one of the most unique studies on American political inequality, and it’s just a start.

Future Research in Political Inequality

Political inequality is an important topic for our times. We must be aware that the objective and subjective realities of political inequality rouses people to action.  That political inequality lives in democracies across the world is a troubling fact of life, and if we want to move closer to political equality, we can do better to understand it.

First, let’s study it more. While doing that, let’s see if we can measure it comprehensively across nations. And then, let’s see what can be done about it.

And, so we did. Please read our report on POLINQ: Political Inequality and Political Voice across Nations and Time.

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Copyright Joshua K. Dubrow 2022

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

Defining and Measuring Political Resources

What is the definition of political resources?

The definition and measurement of political inequality requires a definition of political resources.  Let’s start with a definition of political inequality. Political inequality is structured differences in political influence over government decisions, and the outcomes of those decisions.

There are two main points about political resources:

  • In the study of political inequality, political resources are viewed as a dimension of social stratification, including the ability to influence both governance processes and public policy.
  • Like economic goods and services, political resources are scarce, valued, and fought for.

Are political resources different from power resources

Let’s be a bit simple at first and say there are two perspectives from Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (2005). Click here for a more in-depth discussion of Piven and Cloward (2005).

(a) Distributional

Political resources are anything that can be used to influence a political outcome.  Resources are distributed unequally.  Political resources are resources used in political decision-making, or for all areas of social-life that are make claims toward a legislative/decision-making body (from school-boards to national government). In this definition, political inequality refers to structured differences in the distribution and acquisition of political resources.

“Power resources” is a much broader term: it is used to describe any resources used in the exercise of power. The term “power resources” is misleading, as it suggests that power itself can be distributed. Most distributional theorists argue that power is relational.  For example, one actor’s political resource is only a resource if it is perceived as a resource by the other actor. People use resources, but resources are not power itself. Power is an attribute of people, organizations, and other social things and is a relationship.

Thus, a better approach for the study of political resources is the interdependency approach.

(b)  Interdependency

In the interdependency approach, resources can take the form of anything actors can do within an interaction.  Thus: Resources are actions available to the participants in the interaction

These resources matter because they are an integral part of the interdependent relationship.  The nature of the interdependent relationship reveals the types of actions (resources) available to each participant. 

This approach correctly treats power as a relationship.

For example, in capitalist economies, ownership of land and wealth is a valid resource.  Employers have power over their employees because the employees are dependent on the employer for their economic livelihood.  Power is an attribute only of relationships, not people themselves.

What are the differences between the distributional and interdependency approaches to political resources?

The interdependency approach is different from the distributional approach because it assumes that each actor in the interaction has equal power resources.  For example, employers can only make employees work because employees agree to work.  If employees decided not to work, such as in a work-strike, then the employees could be said “to have power over” the employers.  However, this approach does not adequately account for “force,” or physical coercion.

Resources are political when they enable claims-making toward a legislative/decision-making body.  For example, romantic relationships have elements of power, where each participant has a range of actions or range of resources at their disposal to get what they want despite the resistance of the other.  But this behavior is not political.

How can we measure political inequality with political resources?

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If political inequality is the unequal distribution of political resources, then the measurement of political inequality is dependent on the measurement of political resources. 

Dahl: Anything Can Be Political Resources

But, how can we measure “anything?”  Dahl (1996) defines political resources as “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.  If we want to answer the question, “how much political inequality is there?” “anything” is too vague a measure of political resources and too context dependent. 

This led Dahl (2006) to doubt that we can actually measure political resources, let alone political inequality:

According to Dahl, in On Political Equality (p. 78)

“Achieving truly well-grounded judgments about the future of political equality in the united states probably exceeds our capacities.  One reason is that, unlike income or wealth, or even health, longevity, and other possible ends, to estimate gains and losses in political equality we lack cardinal measures that would allow us to say, for example, that “political equality is twice as great in country X as in country Y.”  At best we must rely on ordinal measures based on judgments about ‘more,’ ‘less,’ ‘about the same,’ and the like.” 

Dahl goes on to say that we might be able to develop ordinal measures by qualified observers to ascertain measures of more, less, or about the same.

Sorokin: Authority and Prestige are Political Resources

Sorokin (1959 [1927]) defines political stratification this way: 

“If the social ranks within a group are hierarchically superimposed with respect to their authority and prestige, their honors and titles; if there are rulers and the ruled, then whatever are their names (monarchs, executives, masters, bosses), these things mean that the group is politically stratified, regardless of what is written in its constitution or proclaimed in its declarations” (11). 

To Sorokin, authority, prestige, honors and titles are political resources.  Authority position is the main determinant of who has power and who does not.

Political Participation as a Political Resource

Some have measured political inequality in terms of political participation, specifically “voter turnout.”  There is political inequality if there are divisions in who votes and who doesn’t.  Some go broader and define political inequality in terms of the level of democratization.  Measuring political inequality with level of democracy assumes that the introduction of political rights and civil liberties leads directly to reduction of inequalities. 

But, as Verba et al (1978) point out, for democracy to reduce inequality, rights and liberties are not enough; citizens must also be engaged in political participation (see also APSA 2004). 

Thus, it is not democracy alone that matters, but what citizens do with the rights and liberties allowed by democracy.  Democracy cannot be a measure of political inequality or political resources. 

What would be a measure of political resources? 

Is there a core set of “political resources” that can be used in every political situation?  One plausible measure of political resources is experience in political affairs, which is obtained through political participation. 

Democracy as a measure of political inequality does not shed much light on the link between economic and political inequality.  Democracy does have a relationship to economic outcomes, but it is not equivalent to political inequality.

The relationship between participation and redistributive policies is further complicated by within-nation social stratification.  Political participation is stratified, such that the advantaged tend to participate more than the disadvantaged.  Economic distributive policy reflects the interests of the advantaged precisely because the advantaged are more politically active.  Political non-participation of the disadvantaged leads to an increase in economic inequality, or maintains its status quo. 

References

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.

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

What is Power? What is a Power Structure? by Joshua Dubrow, The Sociology Place

The Interactionist View of Power and Inequality by Joshua Dubrow, The Sociology Place

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