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In Modern Societies, All Power Is Ultimately Economic Power

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There is no agreement over the question of what people mean by social power. Different understandings of this term, different concepts, have a major impact upon subsequent research and consequently produce different theories about the distribution of power. The study of social power has always been central to the sociological perspective. Different sociological theories advance different arguments about both the way in which particular forms of social power – political, economic, cultural, technological – shape the distinctive characteristics of modern societies and the consequent changes in previous forms of such power. We usually talk that some people have power while others do not. Power is talked of as if it is something inherent in people! For example, teachers have power over pupils, parents over children and so on. Yet as we shall see power is many things to many people. Once we have come to some understanding of what power is, or what Marxists believe it to be, we will look at the more important question of how power is distributed and the mechanisms of power. Before we go any further some features of the common sense definition of power must be taken to task.

We are apt to think of power as something that some people have, just like some people have physical strength or a bad temper. This is not the most useful way to think of power. Power should be thought of as existing in social relationships, that is, within the realm of social interaction. To put it simply, Robinson Crusoe did not have power until he met Friday, then he became a powerful man, at least with regard to his newly found “friend”. Therefore, power exists within social relationships not outside of them. Power does not reside within people nor does it float about landing on the unsuspecting. Thus, when we speak of people or classes having power what we mean is power within a social relationship. A question about whether all power in modern societies is only economic power is going to be discussed in this essay. Marxism, for example, views modern societies as being driven by successive transformations of capitalism as a particular form of productive system, a system in which social power is generated by the system and rests in the hands of those who own the means of production.

In contrast, Max Weber’s social theory advances a more complex conceptual position and proposes that power is central to all social relationships. For Weber, social power can be found in the different positions people have in markets, in the relationships between status groups who have different lifestyles, including patterns of consumption, and in political parties competing for a share of state power. A key issue in the sociological study of power is the question of how we can best understand the nature of power. In order to assist us in discussing that question, sociologists distinguish between: power as domination – a social relationship in which one social actor, whether an individual, a group, an organisation or an institution is seen as having total control over the actions of another individual, power as coercion – a social relationship in which one social actor relies upon various kinds of sanctions, such as physical force or the threat of economic deprivation, to achieve the compliance of another.

Some sociologists argue that to the degree that compliance is achieved solely by the use of force, the relationship ceases to be a social one power as influence – a social relationship in which one social actor seeks to achieve a desired social outcome through argument or through the promise of various material or symbolic rewards. Many power relationships involve a combination of these various forms of power. When considering the contribution of Marxism to the study of power in modern societies, it is important to remember that Marxism is a vast body of social analysis which contains a number of different perspectives on society and social change. Scientific Marxism proposes that modern societies can be understood as the product of scientific laws, above all the operation of laws governing the operation of capital. Scientific Marxism is expressed in Marxist political economy (MPE). The central concept in MPE is that of a mode of production. A mode of production consists of two parts: forces of production and relations of production. Power within this framework is economic power, above all the power over others possessed by those who own or control the means of production.

It is important to remember that this power is both produced and limited by the process of capitalist development. Therefore, we can see that, according to this concept, all power in modern societies is predominantly economic power. However, Marxist political economy has two major limitations for the analysis of modern societies. First of all, power is seen as fundamentally deriving from the capitalist system and therefore all questions regarding how plural, diverse societies produce conflict and seek ways to coexist together are transformed into questions about economic relations. This is the problem of economic reductionism. Secondly, because power is seen as above all economic power, all politics is seen as class politics. We usually think of the governments of most states in the world as having power of their own: the power to propose, enact and enforce laws for the benefit of everyone regardless of their economic position, their ethnic background, religious beliefs and so on. MPE sees all these different bases of politics as being secondary to the critical question of the relationship between policies, their enforcement and different positions people have within the system of production.

States do not have power of their own but express more fundamental interests under the control of ruling classes. Marxist political sociology focuses on a critical analysis of the reasons why modern societies fail to realize the democratic values to which they subscribe, and the ways in which different groups of social actors struggle to maintain or to change particular kinds of institutional arrangements. In this political sociology framework, power and politics in modern societies are therefore identified with three problems: the division between public and private freedoms, the fragmentation of civil society, the actions of a state which, although claiming inclusiveness, in practice privileges some interests over others. The importance of the Marxist analysis lies in its recognition of the centrality of capitalism to any understanding of the distribution and operation of power in the modern world.

Marxist political sociology retains this awareness of the crucial importance of capitalism but attempts a greater openness to a much wider range of factors which are important to the analysis of power in modern societies. To sum up, according to scientific Marxism, we may conclude that the ultimate source of all power in any society is the ownership and control of the means of economic production. Power is used to further the interests of the powerful at the expense of the powerless. The class which has means of material production at its disposal has also control over means of mental production. Therefore, we may conclude from this that economic power is really predominant and fundamental form of power in modern societies, on which power in other aspects of life is based. However, we should not forget that this power is both produced and limited by the process of capitalist development.

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