Hegemony and invisible power

Art work Raul Leon Lukes’ ‘third face’ of power (‘invisible power’ in the powercube) is much inspired by Gramsci’s ideas about ‘hegemony’ and ‘manufacture of consent’ as the means by which the willing compliance of workers is secured in capitalist societies. But there are differences in how Gramsci is interpreted. In the second edition of Power: A Radical View (2005) Lukes contrasts two meanings of hegemony: the first as an unconscious psychological process that is cultural and internalised, and the second a more conscious, wilful and coordinated strategy of domination. This distinction causes some confusion and tensions about what ‘invisible power’ is: whether it is a form of structure, of agency or some interplay of both.

Steven Lukes admits he is essentially an analyst of ‘power over’ within a particular debate about who wins and who loses in political decision making, and why. In the ‘third dimension’ of power he recognises both ways that hegemony operates, but his main concern is with deliberate and wilful intent of the powerful to manipulate the thoughts and wants of the powerless. The ‘third face’ of power remains, for Lukes’ particular purposes, a form of agency and domination – power held and wielded by those who have it over those who don’t, albeit within norms that uphold this conduct. Lukes did not intend to produce a comprehensive theory of societal power, but this emphasis on agency and will has been the source of much criticism by those looking for a more comprehensive theory.

John Gaventa takes ‘invisible power’ somewhat further than Lukes with the idea of ‘a third form of power, in which conflict is more invisible, through internalisation of powerlessness, or through dominating ideologies, values and forms of behaviour’ (2006). In the powercube, ‘invisible power’ need not be limited to intentional acts of ‘thought control’ by the powerful, but can also be seen as self-reproducing social processes in which the thinking and behaviour of the powerful and powerless alike are conditioned by pervasive norms. ‘Invisible power’ in the powercube can therefore embrace both meanings of hegemony – its structure and agency – and points to the need for appropriate strategies for engaging with both forms of invisible or internalised power.

This third face of power is likewise treated by VeneKlasen and Miller (2002) as a multidimensional barrier to effective citizen participation, requiring well-designed tactics for building self-awareness, self-esteem and ‘power within’ to challenge dominant norms such as gender and racial discrimination. Their practical methods are grounded in experiences of women’s organising and empowerment, and recognises the direct links between gendered norms in society and the fragile condition of women’s ‘power within’. Invisible power in this sense bridges agency and structure.

References for further reading

Gaventa, John (2006) ‘Finding the spaces for change; a power analysis’, IDS Bulletin 37(5): 23-33.

Lukes, Stephen (2005) Power: A Radical View, London, Mcmillian (first published in 1974).

VeneKlasen, Lisa and Miller, Valerie (2002) A New Weave of Power, People and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation, Oklahoma City, World Neighbors.

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