This is essential reading for those interested in the dynamics of power relations and, in particular, how power works to either enhance or undermine democratic participation in society. Over the course of the three essays that constitute the second edition of this book, Lukes develops an idea of power in three dimensions. In the first dimension, power is clearly visible in decision-making processes, where A exercises power over B when A's policy preferences, reflecting A's subjective interests, prevail over B's. Here, power is discernible only where a conflict of interests informs open debate over a public issue. This conflict gives rise to divergent policy preferences competing for public acceptance and political validation.
However, if one were to confine the study of power to its effects in the first dimension, that is, to the outcomes of decision-making processes, one misses other aspects of power detected in the biases of non-decision-making. Non-decision-making power is the power to keep certain issues off the table: it is the power to deny certain individuals or groups access to decision-making processes, and thus to prevent certain grievances from being translated into public issues. While decision-making power, as seen in the first dimension, may be widely distributed among various groups and individuals who alternately succeed in promoting their interests, there may be at the same time unity among these otherwise conflicting interests in preventing certain segments of the population from contributing to the discussion. The second dimension of power consists in this ability to control the agenda, to decide what gets decided--and what doesn't. Here, as in power's first dimension, power is again seen in a conflict situation, only the conflict is now covert, rendered invisible by non-decision-making power.
The third dimension of power incorporates and transcends power's first and second faces. Those who study three-dimensional power recognize not only power as it is exercised in the first and second dimensions but also power where it need not be so exercised. This occurs in the apparent absence of conflict, where power can be seen as the capacity to secure compliance to domination and thereby prevent conflicts or grievances from arising in the first place.
The third face of power is not directly visible, because the securing of willing compliance to domination does not require an explicit exercise of power. However, the mechanisms of such power (domination) are empirically accessible. They may involve the furthering of the material interests of the dominated within certain limits, as part of a class compromise, or they may involve the inculcation of ideologies that bring the dominated to accept the power structure of society as the "natural order of things" or as being divinely established. In both cases, which are not mutually exclusive, the "true interests" of the dominated are obscured; and the dominated are misled to act contrary to their real interests, chief among them being, one may argue, an interest in NOT being dominated and in having more freedom to live according to "the dictates of one's own nature and judgment."
Of course, as Lukes admits, "true interests" is a contested term. There doesn't seem to be a rigid set of objective interests with which everyone can readily identify. Rather than supplying a universal answer to the question of true interests, Lukes responds to this difficulty by providing a set of guidelines for identifying people's interests. The answer, Lukes argues, always depends on three things: the purpose of one's inquiry, one's theoretical framework, and the methods used.
Lukes also recognizes another difficulty in discussing the idea of true interests: It almost always leads to the notion of "false consciousness." False consciousness is a controversial idea, because it is often assumed to have condescending, elitist connotations. However, Lukes regards false consciousness as simply the result of being misled, many instances of which throughout history can be easily identified without much controversy. The mechanisms of false consciousness include censorship, disinformation, and "the promotion and sustenance of all kinds of failures of rationality and illusory thinking, among them the `naturalization' of what could be otherwise and the misrecognition of the sources of desire and belief" (p.149).
The third face of power, as developed by Lukes, expands the conceptual territory of power and reorients its study to include instances of power that escape the attention of those who conceive of power too narrowly, thereby limiting their observations to the realm of political participation. With this book, Lukes makes a vital contribution to the sociological study of power by revealing it as "capacity," and by showing how power works most effectively (and insidiously) when it is hidden.