Menu Close

Theories of Power

Power theories explain who exercises power, what are the means of power and how power is exercised. It is said that ‘real ruler’ are undiscoverable. Power theories can be broadly categorized into conventional and unconventionl theories.

A] Conventional Theories

1] Liberal theory
According to liberal theory, in a society power lies with people.
Against liberal came Marxist theory.
2] Marxist theory

In liberal society, power lies with propertied class. In socialist countries, power lies with people.
3] Elitist opposed Marxist
According them either here or there, people never have power. Power lies with elite. In democracy, power lies with pol parties and its leaders.
4] Pluralist – it suggests power lies with pressure groups or interest groups in democracy.

B] Unconventional Theories of Power

1] Gramsci’s hegemony
2] Hannah Arendt’s – acting with consent.


Politics is considered as the study of ‘shaping and sharing of power’. Though power is a core concept, yet remained a contested concept. Steven Lukes categorized theories of power into 3 groups.

1] Power as decision making.
These theories focus on formal structure in the society making decisions. e.g. Hobbes – according to Hobbes power lies with the sovereign/state.

2] Power as agenda setting.
e.g. Karl Marx – Power may be exercised by the state but the agenda is determined by the propertied class.

3] Power as though controlled through ideology.
e.g. Gramsci’s hegemony, Althusser’s interpellation, Foucault’s concept of discourse.

Elitist Theory of Power & Democracy.

The theme of elitist theory is that power lies with the small section known as elites. Marxist challenged that in class divided society, power does not lie with the masses. Power lies with propertied class. According to Marxist, so called bourgeoise democracies are dictatorship of minority over majority. They claimed that socialist state are more democratic because power lies with the people, dictatorship of proletariat or people’s democracy.

Elitist scholars primarily western scholars, using empirical approach have concluded that power never lies with people. Power always lie with the elite. The nature of money and power is same, it always get concentrated, there is no trickle down effect. Power with the masses is a myth. Power with masses is neither possible nor desirable. Hence the democracies are actually oligarchies. Robert Michels in his book POLITICAL PARTIES gave ‘the iron law of oligarchy’. The only law which is considered as ‘law’ in political science.

Who are elites and what makes them elites?

1] Traditional approach: It is natural characteristic. Some are born to be the masters. e.g. According to Plato, we can categorize people into 3 classes. Men of Gold, Silver and Copper.
2] Modern approach:
In democracies, political parties have become ‘power houses’. (Max Weber). Those who have strong organizational skills emerge as elite.

The concept of elite and democracy

According to the elitist scholars, democracy is not incompatible with the idea of elite. Elite can be understood as leaders. Democracy is not incompatible with the idea of leadership.

Exponents of elitist theory: Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli.
Modern scholars: Pareto, Mosca, Robert Michels and C Wright Mills

Elitist theory of democracy

Power with the masses is a myth. Power with the masses is neither possible, nor desirable.
Concept of elites is not incompatible with the theory of democracy. Elitist scholars believe that free and fair election are enough to treat a country as a democracy. The elitist scholars do not give importance to the substantive aspect of democracy, only focus on the procedural aspect.
Elitist theory of democracy is also known as market model of democracy. Market model is given by Max Weber and Schumpeter. According to this theory democracy is all about election. Democracy is like a market, politicians are the entrepreneurs, voters are the consumers. The manifesto of whichever party gives them maximum satisfaction, they will vote for it
Similar views have been represented by Anthony Downs. He has given ‘economic model of democracy’.

1] Pareto, MIND AND SOCIETY, 1916p.

Pareto has given the theory of ‘circulation of elites’ According to him, in every society there are two types of elites. 1] Lion and 2] Fox. Power circulates in a closed loop between foxes and lion. There is no trickle down effect of power. Foxes cannot rule alone, foxes need lion.
According to him, the history of mankind is ‘graveyard of aristocracy’. Democracy is just circulation of power among the elites.

The concept of circulation of elites with reference to Indian politics.

British transferred power to the leaders of congress. Congress remained hegemony till 4th general election. In 1960s, there is breakdown of congress and the rise of regional parties. In 60s till 80s OBCs emerged as the dominant class and the leaders of these parties the new elites. The phenomenon is explained as ‘democratic upsurge’ by Yogendra Yadav. In 90s BSP came to power in the largest state of India. The power shifted into the hand of a new elite (Mayavati). Mayavati represents the new elite and the second democratic upsurge. The elite of OBC leaders or Dalit leaders does not imply that the power has trickled down at the grass root.

2] Mosca, THE RULING CLASS, 1896p.

He classifies population into two groups.  1) Governing class  2) Governed class. Mosca held that in our times, the basis to become elite is ‘organizational skill.’

3] Robert Michels,  POLITICAL PARTIES, 1911p.

He gave the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ (the only proven law in politics).
Essence of law: Whatever is the political system, oligarchy is the iron law. He investigated whether the socialist political parties differ from bourgeoise parties. He observed that if power is concentrated in the hands of the elite in liberal parties, situation is not different in case of  socialist parties. Irrespective of an ideology, power is concentrated in the hands of elite.

4] C Wright Mills

He has given the concept of ‘power elites.’ He wanted to understand the nature of democracy in USA. He observed that USA is ruled by power elites which means USA is also an oligarchy. Who are power elites? In every society, there are some key institutions. People holding top positions in these key institutions are power elites.
Who are power elites in USA?
Federal politicians, Top leaders in military, The corporate class (Defense industries). Eisenhower (Former US president) calls USA as military industrial complex. According to C Wright Mills, USA was not always led by power elites, only after civil war in USA and increasing role of USA in global affairs, power has got concentrated in the hands of the elites. According to him, the decision to use nuclear weapon was taken by power elites in USA.

When socialist as well as western countries are ruled by elites, what is the basic difference between the two?

Socialist countries are not considered as democratic. They do not have competitive electoral system. They have ‘monolithic elites’. (One party which is hegemony). On the other hand, western democracies have ‘fractured elite’ (competitive party system). In socialist countries, people do not have choice but at least in western countries they can choose among the elites.

Pluralist Theory of Power & Democracy.

Pluralist theory is given by Robert Dahl. He wanted to examine  C Wright Mills view about democracy in USA. Mills has suggested that USA is a oligarchy and decision making is concentrated in the hands of the power elites.
Dahl conducted field survey in a place called ‘New Heaven’ in ‘Connecticut’ state in USA. His study was published under the title WHO GOVERNS?. He found that it is wrong to believe that entire power in USA is concentrated in the hands of elite. There are powerful interest groups and associations of people. As a individual people do not exercise power, but as a member of a group they exercise considerable power. These interest groups are fairly successful in protecting the interest of these people. Thus in USA pressure groups holds considerable power.

He does not reject C Wright Mills view that power elites do not exist. However power elites do not take decisions affecting day to day life of the people. The decision to drop atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Nagasaki was taken by power elites. However it was not a routine decision, it was an exceptional situation. Thus according to Robert Dahl, the distribution of power in USA is not as narrow as suggested b C Wright Mills, rather it is widely distributed amongst different pressure groups. Thus for Robert Dahl, USA is ‘polyarchy’.
Democracy is the rule of masses. It is based on the assumption that people as an individual are participating in the decision making. However democracy never exist in practice.

In oligarchy power is concentrated in the hands of few. Both oligarchy and democracy are two extremes. Western liberal democracies are polyarchy. Polyarchy can be described as ‘the best practicable form of democracy’. It is a approximate democracy because ideal democracy never exists in practice. (Thus from Dahl’s point of view, it is wrong to call USA democracy or oligarchy.) It is more correct to use the term ‘polyarchy’.

Thus for pluralists, democracy as a rule of all is not the correct word. It is not the rule of all rather the rule of many. Democracy denotes as if masses are empowered as an individual. Polyarchy suggests that masses have power only as a member of a group. They can have the decisions in their interest if they can form associations which can effectively lobby for their interest. Thus for pluralists, power is fairly distributed (not equally) among different associations.


Features of polyarchy (Same as democracy)

Rule of law, Separation of powers, Independence of judiciary, FRs, Freedom to form association, Freedom of press, Right to dissent, Official recognition of opposition…

Deformed polyarchy

Robert Dahl in his later work has revised his earlier view of polyarchy. Initially he believed that power is evenly distributed amongst major various interest groups, but later on he acknowledged that in USA, all pressure groups do not have equal powers. Corporate groups have more power. Thus polyarchy in USA is deformed, it is tilted in favour of the business class. Hence he comes near to the Marxist argument that corporate class is most powerful in USA. He also comes near to C Wright Mills’ view that corporate class has more powers.

Difference in pluralists and Marxists

According to the Marxists, capitalist class controls the entire superstructure. Whereas for pluralists business class controls only economic decision making and not the entire structure.

Gramsci’s theory of power
Refer Hegemony notes of Gramsci.

Hannah Arendt’s theory of power
Refer notes on Hannah Arendt in topic 10.

Comparison between Gramsci and Hannah Arendt’s concept of power.

For Gramsci, power is a domination though he talks about ideological domination. For Hannah Arendt power is empowerment. For Gramsci the source of power is economic power. Ultimate source of power is economic. However for Hannah Arendt, power is sui generis. According to Gramsci, civil society generates hegemony and hence he suggests the war of position to build counter hegemony. Hannah Arendt is not against civil society, she rather promotes civil society. According to her, power is when people act in concert with each other. Thus Gramsci and Hannah Arendt take different views on civil society.

Post modernist conception of power.

Power flows throughout the society like the network of capillaries.


Foucault rejects the conventional theories on power given by Hobbes or Marx.

1] Hobbes theory of powe
r can be called as Juridico legal theory of power. According to this view, power lies with the sovereign. The exercise of power is one dimensional. i.e. By sovereign on the subjects. The power exercised by sovereign is coercive.
2] According to Marx,
power lies with the propertied class.  Ownership over the means of production gives power. He also considers power as coercive.

Foucault’s Theory.

His theory is unconventional. Conventional theories suggested that power is with the state or King has a monopoly over power. For Foucault, ‘King has a monopoly over power’ is a discourse. Power is not just one dimensional or unidirectional. King is also under the power. He is under the power of society. Society’s power is in the form of discourses. Discourses are flowing throughout the society like blood in the network of capillaries. Thus ‘power is everywhere’. Power comes from anywhere, power goes anywhere. Individuals not just exercise power, they embody power. Thus individuals themselves are the product of discourses. According to Foucault, power is ‘technique’, ‘strategy’. Power is not stored, power is exercised. Power is not necessarily coercive. Power gives us identity. Individuals are vehicles of power. Power is productive as it gives us identity. Where there is a power, there is a scope for resistance. e.g. Against the power of heterosexuality, there is a scope for resistance by homosexuals. Thus Foucault’s theory of power is sociological rather than Juridico Discursive. Instead of the macro-theory of power, Foucault gives micro-theory of power. He just not look at the institutions, but at micro level how each and every individual exercising power over the other.

Foucault’s theory of power helps us to understand a specific form of power, which is being exercised by the society known as ‘disciplinary power’. Discipline is a power, it is exercised in such a way that the person on whom this power is exercised feels that it is in his interest. However it is in the interest of the society / state. In his book DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH he has discussed the evolution of ‘disciplinary society’.

Initially, the system of punishments used to be extremely harsh. He gives a story where a person accused of regicide, is given punishment in the presence of the public. That persons body had been given cuts with salt sprinkled on it. The purpose was to create fear among the others. However it was realized that such system of punishment is proving counterproductive. It is generating sympathy for the criminals and anger against the state.
Hence the system of punishment changed. Modern prisons established. Modern prisons became the places of reformation rather than torcher. Such system developed sympathy and respect for the state. State understood the technique of power.

Foucault has given the reference of panopticon. Panopticon is a semi circular design of a prison given by Bentham as a part of his suggestion on prison reforms. In panopticon, there is a central tower from where prison authorities can keep watch on the activities of the prisoners. The system of punishment has changed, now prisoners are not kept in the prisons all the time, they are allowed to move within the four walls of prison. Even when policeman is not attached to each prisoner, yet prisoners keep themselves in discipline as they fear that somebody is watching.

Similarly the society in which we live is like panopticon. We are all prisoners, outside the prison or inside. We automatically develop the ability to govern ourselves, ‘governed mentality’, the concept given by Foucault. Those who are unable to develop ‘governed mentality’ are sent to either prisons or asylums. Social institutions like schools, asylums, hospitals, prisons are based on discourses, and represent the discourses. According to Foucault, discourse is institutionalized way of speaking or telling about something. In his book, MADNESS AND CIVILIZATION, DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH, THE HISTORY OF SEXUALITY Foucault has shown how the discourses of madness, criminality, sexuality have been built. As societies became bigger, it was not possible for the state to keep watch on all. Hence state learnt the economy of power. State adopted the technique of ‘bio power’. Bio-power represents state’s ability to discipline human bodies. State has achieved governed mentality and bio-power through discourses. State has homogenized people for the sake of governance. Foucault often linked the discourse of madness with capitalism. Those persons who could discipline their body according to the time requirement of capitalism were considered as normal whereas those who were lazy were termed as mad. Normal and madness is determined by the productive requirement of the society.

Foucault has analyzed the evolution of discourses. He called his methodology as ‘genealogy’ which he has taken from Nietzsche. Later on he preferred to use the term ‘archaeology’ instead of genealogy. (Archaeology and genealogy are defined by Foucault as a specific form of history writing which aims at understanding the evolution of discourses.)


Legitimacy is the power which reflects the consent of the governed. Legitimacy enables state to govern. If state does not get legitimacy or consent, it results into the crisis of ‘governability crisis’. e.g. Indian state is facing governability crisis in states like J&K, Nagaland.
Because of governability crisis, state has to rely more on the coercive apparatuses or greater use of violence. According to Rosseau “even the strongest man is never strong enough.” Difference between legitimacy and legality. Law may be a force of legitimacy but law is not the alone basis of legitimacy. There may be certain laws which are not considered legitimate by the people hence it will be difficult for state to impose law. e.g. Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) is not considered as legitimate by many people in Kashmir or North East where it has been imposed. How people respond to the crisis of legitimacy? People respond in the form of protests or resistance. It can be passive resistance or civil disobedience or it can be violent method. What are the different methods adopted by the state to gain legitimacy? |1| By maintaining the system of rights.  |2| Freedom of press.  |3| Judicial independence.  |4| Free and fair elections.  |5| Social welfare schemes.  |6| Propaganda.  |7| In some states compulsory voting has been introduced to demonstrate legitimacy. e.g. Belgium. Indications of legitimacy. If there is a law and order in the society, people pay taxes, people participate in national festivals, people respect national symbols, people participate in elections.

Contribution of Max Weber

Max Weber was critic of Karl Marx. Karl Marx has challenged the legitimacy of the state, calling state as the instrument of the capitalist class. Max Weber held that revolution as predicted by Marx did not take place in capitalist societies. The reason being that people consider the exercise of power by the state as legitimate. Max Weber made the difference between power and authority. Legitimate power is called authority. The state represents authority. Max Weber has given the three ‘ideal types’ (models) of authority. The nature of authority will be determined by the nature of society.

The three types of authority given by Max Weber are 

1) Traditional authority – The basis of authority is customs and traditions. e.g. The authority of the king in Britain. The traditional basis of authority, though found in all societies but most dominant in traditional society.

2) Charismatic authority – When the authority of the state comes from the personality of the leader e.g. There was charisma of Pandit Nehru, which provided legitimacy to many of his actions in the eyes of the people. Charisma is the most short basis of authority. It cannot continue for long. Though charisma is the basis in all societies, yet it has biggest role in the societies which are facing crisis. e.g. Germany in 30s which gave opportunity to Hitler.

3) Rational Legal basis of authority – It is a feature of modern societies. The basis of authority is the laws which are the product of the rational debate. In modern societies, the authority of bureaucracy is based on these rules.

In practice all the three basis of authority co-exist in different permutations and combinations.

Legitimation Crisis

Scholar – Habermas
Habermas has analyzed the nature of ‘welfare state’. He wanted to understand whether welfare state invented by the capitalist / liberal scholars offers the permanent solution to the contradictions between labour and capital. Habermas is a neo-Marxist who belong to Frankfurt school. Habermas predicted that the welfare state is only a temporary solution. Welfare state is bound to face the crisis which he calls legitimation crisis. Legitimation crisis is reflected in the form of the social movements or the civil society protests experienced by the western countries.

Why legitimation crisis happens? / Why welfare state is only a temporary solution? / Why welfare state cannot resolve the problem permanently?

Welfare state is based on contradictory principles. Socialism in politics. Pro-poor public policy. Capitalism in economy, which means private ownership of the means of production. State fulfills social objectives by progressive taxation. There is a limit to which private sector can support / finance welfare programs. With each elections, politicians have to offer more, as there is a rising graph of expectations.

Point comes when it is no more possible for the industry to finance, rather industry itself start facing problems. Social welfare policies need to be rolled back. When these policies are rolled back, it will increase the hardships of the people, so people will protest. The protests reflect legitimation crisis.

The analysis of Habermas can be explained through the example of the crisis in Greece. The govts. in Greece maintained huge social security program. Greece lost competitiveness, became net importer, govt. has been taking the debt to pay the bills for imports. The subprime lending crisis in USA led to the financial crisis in the banks in Europe. When banks asked govt. to repay the debt, govt. was not in a position. Lending institutions like IMF, EU imposed austerity measures. Imposition of austerity measures led to the people’s protests. It has led to the political instability in Greece.

Posted in PSIR 1A

Related Posts

Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Small Correction : In the Pareto section of Elitist Theory of Power, the theory mentioned is “Circulation of Power” but the correct theory is “Circulation of Elites“.


Arjit shukla

Had enrolled myself in the 200 PYQs course in dec last year, it was really fruitful. Wanted to suggest to you that you may design a similar Q&A course on a similar format so as to fill the void in prep during prelims time. Thanking you in anticipation

Arjit shukla

Actually i was talking about something for the months of April , may , June as it is then when optional prep gets completely sidelined. So some QnA type of course that could maintain the continuity.

Padi Apang

Is there different any topic for Hegemony?

Ajay chouhan

Is these notes are sufficient for completing psir perfectly.

Ajay chouhan

Are u not updating current affairs

Ajay chouhan

The contain which is given is that updated of 1b&2b paper

Ajay chouhan

Is 1b and 2b paper has good and basic content? Is it preferable ?Becoz I don’t have other alternatives of 1b and 2b papers.

Raj Upadhyay

Sir your notes are sin qua nan for becoming ias .can u please update ir portion.please.

Karan Anand

“What are the different methods adopted by the state to end legitimacy?”
There is error in this line. Instead of end it should be ‘gain’. Please rectify.


nice work

Last edited 10 months ago by AshutoshRathore