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Nonviolence and Power. A study about the importance of power relations for nonviolent action and resistance: Summary 

When a repressive regime is challenged by a nonviolent opponent, power relations play a central part. In this article I analyse how they are important for the choice of nonviolent methods.

In the classical Weberian view power is the possibility to impose one’s will. This is called “power over”. Against this Arendt put her idea of power as concerted action for pursuing a common aim: “power to”. It is the idea that underlies nonviolent action and resistance. However, these concepts of power give only a partial understanding of the dynamics between a repressive regime and nonviolent resisters. Moreover, they give hardly any insight when to choose which nonviolent methods and why.  What we need is a concept of power that distinguishes between different political situations in order to understand better which nonviolent methods are most effective. Such a concept has been developed by Lukes.

The approaches just mentioned, so Lukes, describe only the overt dimension of power, namely power as it is exercised openly. Following Bachrach and Baratz, he explains that many people are excluded from the arena where the power play takes place so that they cannot legally defend their interests. Then power is used in order to deny others entrance to the power arena: the covert dimension. Moreover, as Lukes shows, power has also a third dimension. Many people just do not see that they have interests that they might defend in the power arena. They are culturally and linguistically manipulated in the way that they consider their powerless position as normal. So power is also the possibility to manipulate culture, language and other relevant factors that way that people do not realize that they ever might have entrance to the power arena. This is the latent dimension of power.

Returning to the possibility of nonviolent resistance, I explain that the way power is exercised is important for the way a regime has to be opposed. A democratic regime that exercises power overtly has to be approached differently than a regime that excludes people openly from defending their interests and that excludes people fundamentally from power positions, not to speak of a regime that keeps people unconscious of their rights. In the last part of my article I give a first analysis of what kind of nonviolent methods are to be used against different regime types.

Nonviolence and Power. A study about the importance of power relations for nonviolent action and resistance. 

Henk bij de Weg

0. Introduction

When two parties clash, power and power relations play a central part. This is also the case when a repressive regime that is fundamentally prepared to use violence is challenged by a nonviolent opponent. In this article I want to analyse how power is used in this clash and how the exercise of power and power relations are important for the choice of nonviolent methods in a struggle between these seemingly unequal parties. In part 1 I discuss two concepts of power: the classical Weberian concept that sees power basically as coercion – power over – (1.1) and the concept presented by Arendt, who sees power as concerted action – power to –. With this concept, Arendt formulates the idea of power that guides nonviolent action and resistance (1.2). Especially nonviolent resistance is a clash between the two concepts of power. However, power seen as action in concert is not fine-tuned enough for understanding how nonviolence works in real situations and for choosing the right methods. I formulate some limitations against this idea of power in 1.3.

A concept of power that is very useful for meeting my objections to the Arendtian view is the one developed by Lukes (part 2). Lukes distinguishes three dimensions of power, which he calls the overt, covert and latent dimensions (2.1). Within each dimension power is exercised in a different way which makes that each dimension has its own mechanisms (2.2). In 2.3 I summarize the main points of Lukes’s theory in a preliminary scheme.

In my “Non-violent resistance and political regimes”[1] I related types of nonviolent resistance to the types of political regimes against which this resistance is offered. In part 3 I show the relevance of the three-dimensional view of power for understanding how nonviolence works under different regime types and how the idea can be applied for choosing the right type of nonviolent method. In 3.1 I give an outline of the relation between the kind of power exercised, regime type and type of nonviolent method. First I relate the distinction between power over and power to to the three dimensions of power. Then I show that such a refined power concept can serve as a guide for choosing nonviolent methods, depending on the political situation. In 3.2 I present a scheme with a preliminary interpretation of the results of section 3.1 in terms of political institutions and nonviolent methods. Part (4) gives a short conclusion.

When searching for literature on nonviolence, its generally low theoretical level is striking. Most works in the field treat concrete cases of nonviolence and present concrete methods of action and resistance on a descriptive level. Although this literature is very valuable and useful, I think that we also need more theoretical analyses of the cases and the circumstances in which nonviolent methods are applied, abstracting from concrete situations and practices. Once we have theories, we can use them for analysing relevant situations and for choosing the methods to be employed. The present article and my “Non-violent resistance and political regimes” must be read in this way in the first place: as attempts to bring the debate on nonviolence on a higher theoretical level. I do not doubt that these articles can be criticized in many ways and that the ideas presented can be can be improved and developed. What I hope, however, is that they will be read and criticized as such attempts and not as final answers. I also hope that they show that theoretical analyses of nonviolence action and resistance are not only intellectually satisfying but help to develop and choose the right nonviolent strategies and methods. In other words, that theoretical analysis is important if not necessary for improving the effectiveness of nonviolence. If this means that further theoretical analysis in the field of nonviolence will be stimulated by these attempts of mine, I’ll have reached my aim.


1. Weber’s and Arendt’s concepts of power and their relevance to nonviolence 

1.1. Weber: power as coercion

Although I do not want to analyse power in general but only insofar it is relevant for understanding better what is going on when fundamentally violent and nonviolent parties clash, the first question must be: what is power? Much has been written about this and many definitions have been given (cf. Ball 1995, 548-549). In view of this, one can say that there is no single idea or unitary concept of power, or, alternatively, that different concepts of power emphasize different aspects. Be this as it is, I think that without any further analysis I can assume that there is a common core in all these concepts and that this core is well expressed by Max Weber’s famous definition in his Economy and Society: “Power means every chance within a social relationship to carry out one’s will even against opposition, regardless of the basis on which this chance rests“.[2] Implicit in this definition is that power is based on strength, coercion and in the end on violence. Power models that use a Weberian definition view see it, as Teske formulates it, “as control, as the ability to dominate, to prevail and to win. Thinking is dichotomous – you win or you lose.” (2000, 108). This type of power is generally called “power over”.

In a certain sense, also Gene Sharp can be seen as proposing a Weberian power concept. Sharp, one of the most important theoreticians in the field of nonviolent action today, defines political power – which he sees as a sub-type of social power – as “the totality of means, influences, and pressures – including authority, rewards, and sanctions – available for use to achieve the objectives of the power-holder, especially the institutions of government, the State, and groups opposing either of them” (1980, 27). This definition is Weberian to the extent that it stresses as the essence of power the possession of means of control that makes it possible for the power-holder to push through his objectives. It is you or it is the other (cf Teske). This is even clearer in the definition of power used by Sharp a few years before: “the total authority, influence, pressure and coercion which may be applied to achieve or prevent the implementation of the wishes of the power-holder” (1973, 7-8). It is power based on force and that is why Schell (2005, 227) calls                                                                                                                                          it coercive power.

However, Sharp himself gives two interpretations of these definitions. Just after the latter definition he says: “Basically, there appear to be two views of the nature of power. One can see people as dependent on the good will, the decisions and the support of their government or of any other hierarchical system to which they belong. Or, conversely, one can see that government or system dependent on the people’s good will, decisions and support” (1973, 8). The second type of political power “can be viewed as fragile, always dependent for its strength and existence upon a replenishment of its sources by the cooperation of a multitude of institutions and people – cooperation which may or may not continue.” (ibid.) Just after the former definition Sharp says it this way: “Political power may be measured by the ability to control the situation, people, or institutions, or to mobilize people and institutions for some activity” (1980, 27). Sharp sees the second interpretation of power as typical for nonviolent action (1973, 8; 1980, 24-27).

Although Sharp considers both interpretations of power as two sides of the same concept, others, like Schell, think that these interpretations refer to two fundamentally different kinds of power: power based on force and power based on cooperation. While the first kind of power is in essence Weber’s definition, the second one has been best formulated by Hannah Arendt.


1.2. Arendt: power as concerted action

Arendt criticizes the Weberian concept of power because it involves violence as the ultimate manifestation of power. However, this “makes sense only if one follows Marx’s estimate of the state as an instrument of oppression in the hands of the ruling class” (1969, 36). Although something can be said for the Weberian concept that equates power with “the organization of violence” (ibid.), Arendt thinks that it is better to relate power to another tradition, which goes back to the days of the Athenian city-state and the classical Roman republic. These forms of government did not rely on power as a command-obedience relationship, but they were characterized by a rule of law and obedience to law instead of man. “It is the people’s support that lends power to the institutions of a country, and this support is but the continuation of the consent that brought the laws into existence to begin with. Under conditions of representative government the people are supposed to rule those who govern them” (41). Indeed, a tyrant needs helpers in order to exercise violence but “one of the most obvious distinctions between power and violence is that power always stands in need of numbers, whereas violence up to a point can manage without them because it relies on implements. … The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All.” (41-42).

It is these considerations that make Arendt reject a Weberian definition of power and separate power and violence. Power, Arendt argues, “is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together” (44). Power is action in concert. It must be distinguished from strength, which is an individual property and belongs to the character of a person, and from violence, which is typified by its instrumental character (44-45). [3]

Seeing power in this way has some important consequences. One is that power and violence exclude each other. As Arendt formulates it: “…it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance. This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as nonviolence; to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant.” (56)

A second consequence is that power is based on cooperation and support. Usually this implies that for power we need organization. That is why Schell called this kind of power cooperative power (2005, 227). Other authors, for instance Lukes (2005, 69), Ball (1995, 551), speak of power to do something or in short “power to”, which I’ll prefer when talking of an Arendtian type of power, in contrast to the Weberian “power over”.

However, thirdly, that power to is based on cooperation and support implies also that power fades away as soon as the participants in this kind of power withdraw or disappear. Nonviolent action can be effective just because it is based on the concerted action of as many people as possible. But this is also the weak point of power as conceived by Arendt: it vanishes when it is not exercised, openly or latently, in the sense that the power holders no longer can be called up in case of need. For power to, it is necessary to keep the people mobilized or to keep them ready to be quickly mobilized in some way.

A fourth consequence of Arendt’s distinction between power and violence is that violence can destroy power but it cannot replace it. Basically it is so: the more violence the less power, and the other way around.

In fact, Arendt formulates in essence the idea of power that is basic for nonviolent action and resistance and that implicitly or explicitly guides the activists and resisters. As she notes in On violence: “In a contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always been absolute; but this superiority lasts only as long as the power structure of the government is intact – that is, as long as commands are obeyed and the army or police forces are prepared to use their weapons” (1969, 48). At the moment that this is no longer the case, the situation changes completely and turns into a violent or nonviolent revolt. When orders are no longer obeyed, the violent means that had to enforce them, have become useless. Compliance depends on who or what is behind the violence and civil obedience is only the outward manifestation of support and consent. If people do no longer have the will to obey, it is only one step to revolt. The more people have this feeling the better it is, since power is not based on violence but on number. Actually it is the same idea as developed by Étienne de La Boétie in his Discourse of voluntary servitude[4] more than 400 years ago. In this treatise La Boétie defended the thesis that we behave like slaves of our rulers and he wondered how it is possible that so many people endure the whims and oppression of a tyrant and that hardly anybody opposes. La Boétie mentioned many reasons why people do what the ruler desires, but in the end it is because of this: it is simply easier not to oppose and to behave oneself voluntarily like a slave. In short, the easiest way is to obey and to live in voluntary servitude.

This idea of power is also used by Sharp when he develops his theory of nonviolent action, which he explicitly admits in his review of Arendt’s On violence: “The technique of nonviolent action is, in fact, based upon the very theory of power which Dr. Arendt presented” (1980, 158). It is striking, however, that Sharp does not mention Arendt in his 1973, his magnum opus where he expounded his theory. On the other hand, he makes there several references to La Boétie, whose question “Why men obey?” is taken by him as the starting point for his further analyses after having explained what power is.


1.3. The limitations of Arendt’s view of power for nonviolence

Despite the insights gained by Arendt’s and Sharp’s approaches of power, they give us only a partial understanding of how nonviolent action works. Therefore it is no surprise that both authors, and especially Sharp, have been criticized from several angles. April Carter says that “Arendt’s and Sharp’s shared view that popular consent and cooperation create political power makes them both vulnerable to the criticism that they have no concept of structural power and domination” (2005, 51). As for Sharp, this criticism has been elaborated by Brian Martin. Martin criticizes Sharp’s power theory of being individualistic and voluntaristic and not having an eye for the complexities of daily life and the structure of society that make withdrawing one’s consent to a ruler in practice so difficult. Society is structured, i.e. it exists of repeating patterns of interactions with a dynamics of their own. There is no simple dichotomy between a ruler at the top and the subjects below, but there is a hierarchy, and many people have also someone just above him or her and someone just below. People are divided along the lines of status, skill, wages, gender and ethnicity. There are also many people who benefit by the existing situation. In theory it is possible that people withdraw their consent to a ruler, but in practice it does not work that way. People who strike can be replaced by people who are willing to work. Police will be called in to end an action against a ruler. Media give distorted views of what is going on. Relations of hegemony and patriarchal relations make even the idea difficult to accept that withdrawing consent is an option. These and other factors mentioned by Martin are only a few examples of structurally related relations that make it difficult in practice to really withdraw consent. There is no fundamental objection to include the idea of structure in Sharp’s theory of power, but as it stands with its dichotomy between ruler and subject and its idea of simply withdrawing consent it is absent. This means that Sharps theory works only in situations where there is a clear oppressor. In short:  “From the point of view of structural approaches to the analysis of society, Sharp's picture leaves out much of the complexity of political life …which do[es] not fit well with the ruler-subject picture.” (Martin 1989).

Also Roland Bleiker criticizes Sharp’s theory of power for being too simple. Bleiker reproaches Sharp that he leans too much on La Boétie with his consent theory of power. Stressing the aspect of obedience and submission and dependence of the subjects on the rulers in a one-sided way, so Bleiker, Sharps relies on the autonomy and individual possibilities to act in order to show how resistance is possible. According to Bleiker, such an approach of power relations is inadequate to understand nonviolent popular resistance. In view of the way power relations are structured in present reality resistance is not a matter of autonomously acting individuals and a simplistically, ahistorically and spatially conceived contradistinction between rulers and ruled as we see in Sharp’s conception. For, so Bleiker with reference to Foucault, power is not bipolar but multiple, complex, interwoven and stratified. People are part of and involved in fine, well developed social power networks that are open to many influences, not only local influences but influences from a wide regional and global environment. Moreover, power relations develop in time. Sharp’s approach does neither have an eye for the interaction between the individual and the groups to which the individual belongs on the one hand and the environment on the other hand, nor for underground processes of resistance consisting of living one’s own life despite the existing repression and adaptation, which form according to Bleiker the main part of resistance. But in order to see that, one needs a network vision of power in which there is a strong overlap between ruler and ruled. (Bleiker 2000)

Although Foucault sees himself as an anti-structuralist, Bleiker sees in fact power (and as a consequence nonviolent action) founded in the structure of society. Carter, on the other hand, does not see the advantage of a Foucauldian approach. It is true, “many theorists of nonviolent action [like Gandhi or King] do in fact recognize the existence of some version of structural domination”, but “the meaning and scope of resistance from a Foucauldian perspective remains contestable” (Carter 2005, 53, 55). “[A] focus on micro-politics, and the claim that ‘where there is power, there is resistance’, has encouraged study of subtle protest and cooptation”, she says, but referring to Bayat she argues that actually such forms of resistance are mere survival strategies. Implicitly this is an attack on Bleiker. “[M]ajor movements of resistance and direct action, especially in repressive regimes, appear to fit better an Arendtian or Gandhian model of empowerment through cooperative action against dominating institutions”, so Carter (id., 55).

As I have shown elsewhere, matters are not as simple as that. Just in certain types of repressive regimes where open protest is too dangerous there can be room for certain forms of underground resistance of the type analysed by Bleiker. Often this is the only way to express one’s opposition and such “survival strategies” are certainly important nonviolent methods for toppling repressive regimes when resolutely deployed (see bij de Weg sine datum). Considering the criticism by Martin one can add that the consent theory of power does not sufficiently allow for the social processes and mechanisms founded in the structure of society that impede that consent will be withdrawn and it does not explain how withdrawing consent works (see also bij de Weg 1982). On the other hand, nonviolent resistance sometimes works in the way as described by Sharp and in other cases in the way as described by Bleiker.

All this points to the fact that a power clash cannot simply be seen as a clash between two ideas what power is, either power over or power to, and the right one wins. It is more complicated than that. Power is not a unitary or at least not a one-dimensional concept. From the perspective of power and the possibility of nonviolent action or resistance, the characteristics of the political situation and how power works there are important for the decision how to oppose.[5] Actually this was already implicit in the distinction between power over and power to (or what Schell calls coercive and cooperative power) where the former is used for understanding what a repressive ruler does and the latter  for understanding how such a repressive ruler can be opposed nonviolently. What we need then is an analysis of power that takes account of and can explain the use of different types of nonviolence in different kinds of political situations. What we especially need is an analysis of power that can make understood the difference between the open use of nonviolence action in democratic regimes and moderately repressive regimes as described by Sharp and underground forms of resistance as described by Bleiker in severely repressive regimes like totalitarian and post-totalitarian regimes. I think that the theory of power developed by Steven Lukes provides such an analysis. In addition to the analysis of regime types in my article just mentioned, I want to make clear with the help of Lukes’s categorization of dimensions of power why some types of nonviolent action are better fit to some situations and regime types while other types of nonviolence are better in other situations. Moreover, I want to show that it follows from Lukes’s categorization of power that we need a third type of nonviolence, in addition to Sharp’s open actions and Bleiker’s underground resistance, namely nonviolence as conscientization: making people aware that a situation that is in need of action or resistance exists.


2. Lukes: Three dimensions of power 

2.1. Overt, covert and latent power

Although the theory of power that I’ll present now has been developed by Lukes, I’ll use also John Gaventa’s version in his Power and Powerlessness (1980). Gaventa uses Lukes’s theory in his study of quiescence and rebellion in the Appalachian Valley in the USA, a theme related to the subject of my article. For this reason, his formulation of Lukes’s power theory serves my purpose in some respects better than the more theoretical and abstract description by Lukes himself.

As Gaventa makes clear, power has everything to do with participation. “[I]n situations of inequality, the political response of the deprived group or class may be seen as a function of power relationships, such that power serves for the development and maintenance of the quiescence of the non-élite. The emergence of rebellion, as a corollary, may be understood as the process by which the relationships of power are altered” (1980, 4). Once one knows how power works, one has a handle to understand and to try to change a situation and one can adapt the way to change the power relations to the way power is exercised. For nonviolent activists and people who oppose repression nonviolently this means that the way they oppose can be adapted to the characteristics of the power situation. Just this is an insight that we can get from Lukes’s theory of power. Fundamental for this theory is namely that power has three dimensions that characterize the way power is exercised on different levels of society.

Typical for a pure Weberian approach is that power has only one dimension. Both Lukes and Gaventa take Dahl’s idea of power as a case in point. Dahl defines power “intuitively” this way: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (1957, 202-3). As Polsby added, according to Gaventa, “power may be studied by examining ‘who participates, who gains and loses, and who prevails in decision-making’ ” (1980, 5). “The key to [this] definition”, so Gaventa, “is a focus on behaviour – doing, participating – about which several assumptions are made. … First, grievances are assumed to be recognized and acted upon. … Secondly, participation is assumed to occur within decision-making arenas, which are in turn assumed to be open to virtually any organized group. … Thirdly, because of the openness of the decision-making process, leaders may be studied, not as élites but as representative spokesmen for a mass “(id., 5-6). And Gaventa continues, “Within the one-dimensional approach, because a) people act upon recognized grievances, b) in an open system, c) for themselves or through leaders, then non-participation or inaction is not a political problem” (id., 6; italics Gaventa). As Lukes summarizes the one dimensional view of power: it “involves a focus on behaviour in the making of decisions on issues over which there is an observable conflict of (subjective) interests, seen as express policy preferences, revealed by political participation” (2005, 19; italics Lukes).

In this view, political silence, inaction and non-participation are not a problem. If people do not participate in the power arena this implies that there is consensus and that people agree with what is happening in the political field. Factors that withhold people from participating in the political field, either directly or through their leaders, are ignored. The non-participator is blamed for his or her non-participation (Gavenat 1980., 7-8). However, this one-dimensional view of power is inadequate, even within its own assumptions, as Gaventa and Lukes stress following Bachrach and Baratz.

As Schattschneider made clear, so Gaventa and Lukes, and as has been further developed by Bachrach and Baratz (1962) “power is exercised not just upon participants within the decision-process but also towards the exclusion of certain participants and issues altogether” (Gaventa 1980, 9; italics added). In other words, who has power or the group that has power decides not only what other persons or groups have to do, they decide also which issues are allowed to be discussed and which persons are allowed to take part in the power process. Influenced by the ideas of Schattschneider, Bachrach and Baratz explain that power is also used for preventing persons taking part in the power process and for preventing certain themes being discussed: “All forms of political organization have a bias in favor of the exploitation of some kinds of conflict and the suppression of others because organization is the mobilization of bias. Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out” (1962, 949; quoting Schattschneider). And this is not only the case for issues but also for persons. Historically a good instance of the latter is the question of the right to vote for men with a low income and for women. Moreover, who has been elected determines what is on the agenda. Therefore Bachrach and Baratz say that power has two faces, namely on the one hand the power processes that determines who take the decisions and which decisions are taken and on the other hand the non-decision-making processes by which persons and issues are kept outside the decision-making processes by those in the arena where the power game is openly played. Instead of faces of power, Lukes, and Gaventa following him, speaks of dimensions of power: A dimension where the power processes and the decision-making processes are overt and a dimension where they are covert. I’ll use Lukes’s terminology here.

As Gaventa notes, the second-dimensional approach “stops short of considering the full range of the possibilities by which power may intervene in the issue-raising process” (1980, 10). Bachrach and Baratz consider conflict only insofar as it is observable and finds its expression in grievances, but, as Lukes and Gaventa observe, the absence of observable conflict or openly voiced grievances does not involve that they do not exist and that there is consensus on the points that are not an issue of observable conflict in some way: “To assume that the absence of grievance equals genuine consensus is simply to rule out the possibility of false or manipulated consensus by definitional fiat” (Lukes 2005, 28). Moreover, “it is highly unsatisfactory to suppose that power is only exercised in situations of [observable] conflict. … A may exercise power over B by getting him to do what he does not want to do, but he also exercises power over him by influencing, shaping or determining his very wants” (27): A can also exercise power by making B to think what is a relevant conflict issue. This can occur in the absence of an actual, observable conflict, although there may be a latent potential conflict, “which consists in a contradiction between the interests of those exercising power and the real interests of those they exclude. These latter may not express or even be conscious of their interests, … [although] the identification of those interests ultimately always rests on empirically supportable and refutable hypotheses” (28-29; italics Lukes). It does not need to be so that this absence of actual, observable conflict is the consequence of individual or group manipulation or decisions. It can also occur “through the operation of social forces and institutional practices” (28). For these reasons, Lukes has added a third dimension of power that refers to the latent power processes just mentioned, for the three-dimensional view that one gets in this way “offers … the prospect of a serious sociological and not merely personalized explanation of how political systems prevent demands from becoming political issues or even from being made” (40), and, as I want to add, a better insight in how power processes work.


2.2. The power mechanisms within the three dimensions

Within the different dimensions the power game is played in different ways. For the first dimension the power mechanisms are relatively straightforward. They include processes like bargaining, managing political resources (votes, jobs, influence), personal characteristics and experience, efficacy and the like. Organizational strength is especially important. And I want to add also money, which surprisingly is not mentioned by Gaventa (1980: 13-14).

The power mechanisms in the second dimension are often more indirect. Referring to Bachrach and Baratz, Gaventa mentions four such mechanisms. The first one is the mobilization of bias (see above): Influencing the values, beliefs, rituals and institutional procedures of the power game that way that some persons and groups are always in the advantageous positions while other ones are systematically and continuously left out. This can be done openly by decisions in the power arena, but primarily it is done by non-decisions, which means that it is not explicitly decided that people are excluded from the benefits and privileges in the power system and what kind of exclusion there is, but that the exclusion is the result of other decisions. A form of such non-decision-making may be force.

A second power mechanism in the second dimension may be the threat of positive or negative sanctions like intimidation or co-optation and a third mechanism is what Gaventa calls with Bachrach and Baratz “the ‘invocation of an existing bias of the political system – a norm, precedent, rule or procedure – to squelch a threatening demand or incipient issue’. This may include the manipulation of symbols, such as, in certain political cultures, ‘communist’ or ‘troublemaker’ ” (id. 14; quoting Bachrach and Baratz 1970). A fourth power mechanism involves according to Gaventa, quoting Bachrach and Baratz again, “ ‘… reshaping or strengthening the mobilization of bias’ through the establishment of new barriers or new symbols ‘against the challengers’ efforts to widen the scope of the conflict’ ” (id. 14-15).

Besides these power mechanisms that “involve identifiable actions which prevent issues from entering the decision-making arenas”, Gaventa mentions two power mechanism that are forms of inaction, “non-event[s] rather than observable non-decision[s]”. They are “decisionless decisions” that grow “from institutional inaction, or the unforeseen sum effect of incremental decisions”, and a process that “has to do with the ‘rule of anticipated reactions’, ‘situations where B, confronted by  A who has greater power resources, decides not to make a demand upon A, for fear that the latter will invoke sanctions against him’ ” (id. 15; again quoting Bachrach and Baratz 1970).

The power mechanisms in the third dimensions are also mainly indirect. Much about these mechanisms is not yet well understood, so Gaventa, and much study will need to be done in order to find out which they are and how they work. However, he thinks of the way information is communicated, the way social myths, language and symbols influence the conceptions of necessities, possibilities and strategies of challenge in situations of latent conflict and how they are shaped and manipulated in power processes, the development of social legitimations and other mechanisms of that kind. In short, we have to do here with processes of information control, socialization and culture. Besides, Gaventa mentions “psychological adaptations to the state of being without power” as a power mechanism in this dimension (id. 16). And he adds “They may be viewed as third-dimensional effects of power, growing from the powerlessness experienced in the first two dimensions” (ibid.), which make that the dominated accept their situation of being dominated and often see it as the natural order[6] (id. 15-19).


2.3. A preliminary scheme of power

I end this sketch of the theory of power of Lukes and Gaventa by summarizing its main points in table 1. For the sake of presentation, and ignoring the structuralist critique by Martin and Bleiker, I want to simplify matters, just like Lukes and Gaventa do, and say that we have two parties in a power conflict in a situation of nonviolent action and resistance: the ruler A and the ruled B. Then the relationships between A and B in view of the dimensions of power can be schematized as follows:




First dimension


Second dimension





Power of A over B


Prevalence of A (through superior resources)



Construction of barriers against participation of B (like non-decisions, mobilization of bias, sanctions, practical and symbolic barriers)


Influencing or shaping of consciousness of B about inequalities (through myths, information control, ideologies, etc.)








Powerlessness of B to A


B in opposition through failure of its resources



Non-participation of B due to barriers and to being in opposition



Susceptibility to myths, ideologies, legitimations; sense of powerlessness; uncritical or multiple consciousness about issues and actions of B due to influencing or shaping by A and due to maintenance of non-participation by A    

                                                           Table 1. The three dimensions of power and how they work. A preliminary scheme

Actually table 1 is a part of Gaventa’s figure 1.1 (1980, 21) adjusted to my purpose, which is different from Gaventa’s. While Gaventa’s purpose is to explain why B does or does not resist, mine is, as we have seen, to explain which types of nonviolent methods are best to resist A in view of the type of power exercised by A. Then the first dimension is the dimension where the conflict between A and B resulting from the power processes and the decision-making processes is overt. The second dimension is the dimension where this conflict is covert. The third dimension is the dimension where this conflict is latent (see above). Therefore I want to call these dimensions the overt, covert and latent dimension respectively, although the descriptions overt, covert and latent actually refer to the conflicts and not to the dimensions in their proper sense. What all these dimensions have in common is that they express the way A and B participate in the power process: the dimensions indicate ways of participation (and exclusion, which is the reverse side of participation). In the overt dimension, both parties, A and B, participate openly in the power conflict. The main difference between the parties is that one of them ends at the wrong side of the power border because its resources are not good enough. In the covert dimension B is not allowed to participate in the power process or thinks that it has no sense. In the latent dimension participation B doesn’t even get the idea that participation in the power process might be possible, even if he or she would be allowed to; it doesn’t belong to the view B has of how things go that a person like him or her might be good enough to participate. In a metaphorical simplification we can say it this way: In dimension 1 there is an arena where the power game is played openly according to certain institutional rules. Everybody admitted to the arena is allowed to take part in the power game. However, not everybody is admitted to the arena. That is what the power game in dimension 2 is about, namely whether those outside the arena are allowed to enter it and be more than just a part of the public watching the game, so that they can take the relevant decisions and do not need to wait what others decide for them. In dimension 3 those outside the arena are not aware of what is taking place in the arena and in case they are they simply do not get the idea that they might play their part in the power game there. In a certain sense, the power game is an elite sport with ballotage that decides who participates and who doesn’t. Once one knows how power works, it can help to advance one’s own goals and help to choose the right means to reach these goals. In the following section I’ll analyse the implications of this three-dimensional theory of power relationships when one has to choose methods for nonviolent action and resistance.


3. The three dimensions of power and the choice of nonviolent methods 

3.1. Power, regime types, and nonviolent action and resistance

In my “Non-violent resistance and political regimes”[7] I related types of nonviolent resistance to types of political regimes against which this resistance is offered. I distinguished two main types of nonviolent resistance: Laboetian resistance and underground resistance. The former type comprises most of the 198 methods of open resistance described by Sharp 1973. Nonviolent underground resistance is a kind of hidden networking and a way of evading the official life as prescribed by the authorities as much as possible by doing the things the way one wishes and by forming unofficial organisations and cultural and social groups next to the official organisations and groups (see for instance Bleiker 2000). I want to relate these main types of resistance now to the types of power discussed above.

In section 1, I distinguished two types of power. Power over or coercive power refers to control and domination. In the end it is based on violence. Power to or cooperative power refers to doing things together, or as Arendt sees it to “action in concert”. It is based on cooperation and support. In the present context we can say that power over is the kind of power exercised by rulers in repressive regimes or wherever goals and law and order are enforced by violence. On the other hand, power to is the kind of power exercised by nonviolent activists and resisters.[8]

Although this dichotomy gives us already some insight how power works[9], we get a better understanding by relating it to the three dimensions of power developed by Lukes and Gaventa.  Let me first put the two kinds of power and its three dimensions in a table (see Table 2).



First dimension:

Overt power

Second dimension:

Covert power

Third dimension:

Latent power


Power over

(Coercive power)














Power to

(Cooperative power)













                                                                 Table 2. Power over and power to versus the three dimensions of lower


Before filling in Table 2, I want to discuss its boxes and what they mean for nonviolent action and resistance. The first dimension stands for open competition between the participants of the power game, of course insofar as they are admitted to the power arena where the decisions are taken. These participants can play the power game openly, for themselves or for the groups they represent. This should imply that they do not need to resort to nonviolent action, since those who want to play the power game, i.e. those who want to advance and support their wishes, grievances, or whatever they think that is important for them in the overt arena, or those who simply want to play their part in the power game can follow the usual legal way, like becoming a member of a political party, participating in elections, lobbying, filing petitions, and so on. Nevertheless, participation in the power arena is often not as simple as that and it is not without reason that we have to distinguish between situations where power over is the norm or where power to is. Restricting myself to the subject of this article, the use of power in politics in more or less repressive regimes (and its relation to nonviolence), we can see that box (1) in Table 2 is typical for parliamentary and presidential democracies with authoritarian traits and for repressive regimes where there is some play for independent political parties. Without analysing here whether these countries are more of the former or the latter type, we can think of countries as different as Russia, Pakistan and maybe also Zimbabwe.[10] It may be that, as Gaventa states, “As [the dominant] A develops power, A prevails over [the non-dominant] B in decision-making arenas in the allocation of resources and values within the political system. … If A prevails consistently, then A may accumulate surplus resources and values which may be allocated towards the construction of barriers around the decision-making arenas… The consistent prevalence of A in the decision-making arenas plus the thwarting of challenges to that prevalence may allow A further power to invest in the development of dominant images, legitimations, or beliefs about A’s power to control” (1980, 22). In other words, the parliamentary majority and the legal government use their legal power for sidetracking the opposition if not for discrediting it and for taking over the political arena. This can go as far as obstructing the opposition to execute its legal tasks. In more repressive regimes, where the parliament is often not more than an instrument in the hands of the political leaders, it can happen that the as such legal opposition is physically intimidated and impeded, if not obstructed, in the exercise of their legal activities and parliamentary work in a far stronger degree than in “authoritarian democracies”, that elections are falsified or that opposition parties do not have a fair chance to propagate their views, that oppositional party meetings are disturbed, that potential voters for opposition parties are intimidated, that voters are bribed, and so on. In view of this, nonviolent action if not resistance, especially in its Laboetian forms, is often the only nonviolent way to play the power game and to try to enforce one’s rights and make that grievances and complaints are heard and taken seriously.

Box (4) in Table 2, the intersection of the first dimension of power and power to, is represented by what Arendt thought of when she introduced the power-to-concept: the Athenian city-state and the classical Roman republic. Modern cases are the western democracies. Characteristic for western democracies is that the opposition against those in power is basically loyal, that those in power do not try to sidetrack the opposition but that they simply try to execute their own decisions rather than to block the opposition. It is not exceptional that those in power and the opposition constructively cooperate and share power in some way. Change of power takes places according to institutional regulations and in principle all admitted participants have a fair access to the power arena. Nevertheless, there can be reason to reach for nonviolent action, so for nonviolent means that do not belong to the institutionally accepted means of the power game. Such a reason can be the necessity felt to support representatives in the body where the decisions are taken in order to show that they have a backing. Or it can be that people feel themselves excluded from the decision-making body or feel themselves not represented by their delegates. Those that consider themselves, rightly or wrongly, misrepresented or excluded can resort then to nonviolent action in one of its Laboetian forms in order to make themselves heard and in order to exert pressure on those who take the decisions. Underground forms of action are not relevant here, for what would they involve in a situation where the power arena is fundamentally open (although not always so in practice) and where one does not have to fear oppression for the simple act of being in opposition? In western democracies this kind of nonviolent opposition is a widely accepted practice.

The difference between boxes (1) en (2) in Table 2 is actually a matter of degree. For is there really much difference between regimes that allow opposition parties to take part in elections but that prevent their representatives being elected by falsifying the elections and regimes that forbid opposition parties to participate in the elections? For this reason some states can with right be placed as much in box (1) as in box (2), like Iran or Zimbabwe. A clear instance of a box (2) regime is South Africa under apartheid, which went as far as to exclude people to participate in the power arena on the basis of their physical characteristics. Other regimes to be placed in these boxes are regimes that exclude groups on political grounds like one-party regimes that forbid not only the organisation of alternative parties but also suppress any form of internal opposition, like the former communist states in Eastern-Europe and the present North-Korea. Any political action that does not fit within the existing order is suppressed by force. Box (2) can then be seen as the box that typifies the most repressive authoritarian regimes, the totalitarian and the post-totalitarian regimes and also the sultanistic regimes[11] from the power point of view. Like authoritarian regimes, also some post-totalitarian regimes may have traits that fit them better in box (1) than (2), like Czechoslovakia in the time of the Prague Spring, but I suppose that the idea is clear: basically any opposition was forbidden in the post-totalitarian regimes in Eastern-Europe; only those people that succeeded to become member of the communist party were allowed to get important positions; organisations not related to the communist party were tolerated at most and had often the characteristics of underground organisations and run the risk to be suppressed as soon as the liberal wind went down, as actually happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968. In accordance with this both Laboetian forms of resistance and underground resistance are the appropriate forms of nonviolent opposition here, depending on the regime type against which the resistance is directed, as I have explained in my “Non-violent resistance and political regimes”.

What to think of democratic regimes with legal restrictions for participation in elections, like the absence of women’s suffrage, as in Switzerland till not so long ago? In case these regimes are really democratic, which means that such restrictions can be changed by normal democratic procedures (as happened in Switzerland), these regimes have to be put in box (5). Just as in box (2), the appropriate form of opposition there outside the democratic institutions is Laboetian action. In fact, it is rather unlikely that a regime has the power characteristics of box (5), since such a regime is founded on some potentially contradictory characteristics: some groups are excluded from participation in the political process, like women or people with a low income or with certain physical characteristics, but everybody agrees and supports fundamentally the power game as it is, including the excluded. It is not impossible but it looks more something of the past, and even then it often happened that people excluded from the power arena protested or even rose in rebellion (see for instance the social movements in the 19th century in the western countries).

From the point of view of nonviolent action and resistance the two boxes of the third dimension, boxes (3) and (6) in Table 2, are very different from the other boxes, just because the power mechanisms here are mainly indirect and have rather the form of manipulation of culture, language, values and norms than forcibly excluding people from taking part in the power game. In the 19th century Netherlands, for instance, laws excluded people with a low income taking part in elections, but there were no laws excluding women. Despite that, till the end of the century no woman got the idea to vote. It was the same for the Dutch universities: no law or rule prohibited women to study at a university. Nevertheless, till the end of the 19th century women simply didn’t go to the university. It was just not according the prevailing values and norms that studying at a university was acceptable for women. Likewise exclusion still rules in large parts of the world. This is often not so because people are excluded from the power arena and the power game by an explicit limitation of their rights, by force or by “law”, like in the other dimensions, but because, as we have seen in part 2, the powerless are, paraphrasing Gaventa, psychologically adapted to the state of being without power. The dominated accept the situation of being dominated and see it as the natural order. This “natural order” can be changed, of course, as we have seen in Brazil and in Bolivia where those once kept outside the power arena by the manipulation of values and norms have chosen their own representatives as their presidents. However, in order to achieve this it has no sense to let the excluded bring their cases forward by means of the traditional means of nonviolent action or resistance, be it in Laboetian forms or underground forms. What we need here first is making them conscious of their manipulated powerlessness, as described and practiced for instance by Paulo Freire (see note 6). In this sense, conscientization can be seen as a third main form of nonviolence, next to the Laboetian and underground forms, a form that is characteristic for the third dimension of power. While the oppression by values, norms and culture can then best be place in box (3) of Table 2, conscientization has to be placed in box (6).


3.2. Power over and power to versus the three dimensions of lower: a preliminary interpretation

On the basis of the foregoing analysis we can fill in the boxes of table 2, which gives table 3. It is only a first suggestion, and more research has to be done – both in the existing literature and in the field –  for a more definitive proposal of what the boxes stand for in the practice of nonviolent resistance. What I want to demonstrate here is how power works and can work and how power is relevant for nonviolent action and resistance.



First dimension:

Overt power

Second dimension:

Covert power

Third dimension:

Latent power


Power over

(Coercive power)

- legal institutional power, for instance in parliament in authoritarian or repressive states repression and
- intimidation of legal opposition

- Laboetian resistance (1)
- blockade of possibility to exercise power

- oppression by values, norms and culture 



Power to

(Cooperative power)

- legal participation in institutions, for instance in parliaments in democratic states
- long march through the institutions
- limited Laboetian action
- overt Laboetian resistance
- underground resistance  

- conscientization 


                                                                Table 3. Power over and power to versus the three dimensions of lower. A preliminary interpretation 

 4. Conclusion 

When nonviolent agents oppose a repressive regime, two kinds of power clash. That is the main theme of my analysis of power and nonviolence. We have seen that power is not an unequivocal phenomenon but that it is multi-faceted. In this article I have discussed some of its faces and I have shown how understanding these faces is relevant for understanding nonviolent action and resistance, especially against repressive regimes. With Schell and others I have shown that it is important to distinguish two, as Schell calls them, aspects of power, or, as I prefer to say, kinds, of power: coercive power or power over and cooperative power or power to. Repressive regimes make use of the former kind of power; nonviolent resisters try to oppose it with the latter kind. Both kinds function in their own way: Power over basically by force and violence, power to by cooperation and by number, so the more people cooperate, the more power they have. Without substantiating the thesis here, I dare to say that one of the biggest mistakes nonviolent resisters can commit is playing the power game as it is played by the repressive rulers and switching from power to to power over. The reason is that both parties are strongest in using their own means. Therefore, in case in a direct confrontation with the rulers (for example in a demonstration) a clash of violence is threatening, it is better doing a step back, than taking the risk to be beaten. For, in the words of Kissinger: “As long as the security troops do not win, they lose. As long as the insurgents do not lose, they win”.[12] Victory and defeat depend on maintaining the will to win or to break the will to win of the opponent (cf. Schell 2005). In a violent confrontation with the ruler the risk is too great that one’s own will be broken, since one is playing the cards of the ruler. For nonviolent resistance this means that the will must remain intact, anyhow, by preventing to be defeated and by preventing that the other side can gain victories, for who loses the will to win looses the fight.[13] This can imply, for instance, that if violence threatens to be used against resistance, the actions have to be stopped or deferred or, if possible, explicitly positive actions have to be started such as cleaning the streets, praying and the like. For a direct confrontation leading to violence is bound to lead to a victory for the other party.

As we have seen it is not necessarily so that the power to of nonviolence is used only against power over. It can also be used against a basically democratic regime that is founded on power to. This has especially become clear in my presentation of Lukes’s idea that power has three dimensions: an overt, a covert and a latent dimension. Applying this tripartition of power in a situation analysis can help judging whether nonviolence is the right means to employ and (in combination with an analysis of the regime type) which form nonviolence needs to take. Is its use to be seen as action or resistance? And in case of the latter, is it better to choose Laboetian forms of resistance or underground forms? By linking nonviolence to Lukes’s three dimensions of power, it became also clear that conscientization can be seen as a third main kind of nonviolent resistance. Power works in different ways and in different situations, something that nonviolent activists and especially nonviolent resisters have to take into consideration.



- Arendt, Hannah (1969), On violence. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

- Ball, Terence (1995), ‘Power’, in Robert N. Goodin and Philip Pettit, A companion to contemporary political philosophy. Malden etc.: Blackwell, pp. 548-567.

- Bachrach, Peter, and Morton S. Baratz (1962), ‘The two faces of power’, The American Political Science Review, 56 (4), pp. 947-952.

- Bachrach, Peter, and Morton S. Baratz (1970), Power and poverty. Theory and practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

- Bleiker, Roland (2000), Popular dissent, Human Agency and Global Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

- Boétie, Étienne de La (1983), Discours de la servitude volontaire. Paris : Flammarion.

- Carter, April (2005), Direct action and democracy today. Cambridge, etc.: Polity Press.

- Dahl, Robert A. (1957), ‘The Concept of Power’, Behavioral Science, 2 (3), pp. 201-215.

- Crefeld, Martin van (2007), De evolutie van de oorlog. Van de Marne tot Irak. Utrecht: Het Spectrum.

- Freire, Paulo (1972), Cultural action for freedom. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.

- Gaventa, John (1980), Power and powerlessness. Quiescence and rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Urbana etc.: University of Illinois Press.

- Lukes, Steven (2005), Power. A radical view. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

- Martin, Brian (1989), ‘Gene Sharp’s Theory of Power’, Journal of Peace Research, 26 (2), pp. 213-222.

- Martin, Brian (2007), Justice Ignited. The dynamics of backfire. Lanham etc.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

- Schell, Jonathan (2005), The unconquerable world. Power, nonviolence, and the will of the people. London etc.: Penguin Books.

- Sharp, Gene (1973), The politics of nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent.

- Sharp, Gene (1980), Social power and political freedom. Boston: Porter Sargent.

- Teske, Robin L., ‘The Butterfly Effect, (2000), in Robin L. Tesk and; Mary Ann Tétreault (eds), Conscious acts and politics of social change. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press,  pp. 107-123.

- Weber, Max (1972), Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck).

- Weg, Henk bij de (1982), Commentaar van drs. H. bij de Weg’ in K. Koch, Sociale verdediging. Een kritische literatuurbeschouwing. ’s-Gravenhage: Begeleidingsgroep inzake het onderzoek op het gebied van de Geweldloze conflictoplossing, pp. 152-156.

- Weg, Henk bij de (sine datum), “Non-violent resistance and repressive regimes”,  http://www.bijdeweg.nl/Nederlands.htm .



[1] http://www.bijdeweg.nl/Nonviolence.htm

[2] “Macht bedeutet jede Chance, innerhalb einer sozialen Beziehung den eigenen Willen auch gegen Widerstreben durchzusetzen, gleichviel worauf diese Chance beruht“ in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, 1972,  28

[3] Moreover Arendt distinguishes force and authority.

[4] There are many editions of La Boétie’s booklet in many languages. I use the French one edited by Flammarion (1983).

[5] Something like this was also implied by Carter when she says that “Foucault’s approach is more illuminating … when directed towards the context that he was addressing, liberal societies” (Carter 2000, 55).

[6] See for instance Freire 1972 and other works by Freire.

[8] Power over and power to can exist in certain degrees and in mixed forms, for most states, even repressive ones, are also based on cooperation by the citizens, at least for a part. Arendt based here idea of power (to) on classical instances (see above) but today we find it back in modern democratic states. Modern democracies are more democratic than Arendt’s examples and they function with the consent of most people, but even here law and order are maintained by force now and then. On the order hand, people in repressive states may wish to get rid of their government as soon as possible, but nevertheless they may value and support certain aspects of the state they happen to live in, such as the relative safety it sometimes gives them (as long as they do not protest) or the social security they receive (for instance in the former communist states). Be that as it is, I’ll discuss here both types of power as if they exclude each other.

[9] Compare the people’s movements during the past 25 years, which can be understood as a confrontation between power over and power to. See for instance the rising against Marcos in the Philippines in 1986, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the people’s revolts in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), the Ukraine (2004) and now (2011) in Tunisia.

[10] Of course, being democratic or authoritarian or repressive is not a matter of either/or but a matter of degree.

[11] See my “Non-violent resistance and political regimes”, http://www.bijdeweg.nl/Nonviolence.htm  for a description of these regime types.

[12] Quoted and translated from Van Crefeld 2007, 260.

[13] However, an apparent defeat that involves much violence by the ruler can also strengthen the will of the loser to win and cause such heavy reactions by third parties that in the end it can make that the ruler has to yield. This is the so-called ‘backlash effect”. See Martin 2007. This does not imply, of course, that one has to provoke bloodshed in order to provoke a backlash effect.

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