Power and Authority: Definition, Nature and Theory

Definition of Power:

Power and authority are perhaps the most vital aspects of all organisations in general and political organisations in particular. Power is related to taking of decisions and for the implementation of those decisions. No organisation, whatever may its nature be, can do its duty or achieve objectives without power.

Robert Dahl in many of his works has defined power and analysed its various aspects. In his A Preface to Democratic Theory Dahl calls power a type of relationship in respect of capability and control. Take a very simple example. There are two men—A and B. If A possesses the capability to control B then it will be assumed that A has the power. So power involves a successful attempt to do something which he could not do otherwise.

In any society there are diverse interests and all are alike. When there are conflicts among them one interest proceeds to dominate over the other and the interest which prevails upon the other the former may be called powerful interest.

Karl Deutsch says that power means the ability to be involved in conflict, to resolve it and to remove the obstacles. Though Deutsch defines the concept in the background of international politics, its relevance to national politics is, however, undeniable. In domestic politics or pluralistic societies there are many competing groups and all struggle to capture power or to influence. The group which succeeds finally will be called powerful.

D. D. Raphael (Problems of Political Philosophy) has analysed power from various aspects. He believes that generally power means the ability. Raphael says that in French there is a word “Pouvoir”. In Latin “Potestas” is commonly used. Both these words (these are verbs) mean “to be able”.

Raphael is of opinion that the English word power is derived from these two words and naturally power may be used to mean ability and hence his definition of power is specific kind of ability. Why specific kind? Let us quote him: “The ability to make other people do what one wants them to do”.

Some political scientists want to mean that there is a special type of power which may be designated as political power. For example, Alan Ball feels that power may generally be used in political sense. Hence political power may broadly be defined as the capacity to affect another’s behaviour by some form of sanction. Leslie Lipson (The Great Issues of Politics) thinks that power is nothing but the ability to achieve results through concerted action.

Hague, Harrop and Breslin’s definition is slightly different: “In a broad sense the power is the production of intended effects”. A sociologist’s definition of power is: the possibility of having one’s own decision, select alternatives or reduce complexities for others. Thus, power means the capacity to make decisions binding and ability to discharge responsibilities and perform certain functions.

Nature of Power:

From the definitions of power noted above we can get certain features and the first such feature is it is used in relational sense. When there is only one actor or element the issue of power does not arise. It is because power implies ability to influence or control others or to get things done by others. Naturally power relates to the relationship or interaction between two or among more than two elements or actors. So power is always viewed in the background of relationship.

In the second place, “power is disaggregated and non-cumulative it is shared and bartered by numerous groups spread throughout society and representing diverse interests”. In any pluralist society there are numerous groups and they all compete among themselves at various levels to capture political power or to influence the agencies who exercise their influence.

Hence it is observed that power is not concentrated at any particular centre. Again, all the centres of power do claim to have equal or almost equal amount of power. In other words, there is an unequal distribution of power like an unequal distribution of wealth.

Thirdly, in a class-society there are diverse interests and each power centre represents a particular interest. This point may further be explained. In any capitalist society there are several classes, both major and minor, and each class strives for the realisation of its own interests which are generally economic.

But there may be political interests. However, the conflicts among the classes sometimes lead to the other conflicts and this is the general characteristic of capitalist society. But the advocates of the capitalist system argue that this conflict does not create an atmosphere of class struggle. There are processes of peaceful resolution of all conflicts. At least Talcott Parsons and many sociologists think so. According to these persons the capitalist system is so structured that the conflicts do not create any impasse.

Fourthly, Maclver is of opinion that power is a conditional concept. Power, Maclver says, is an ability to command service from others. But this ability, he continues, depends in some measure upon certain conditions and if the conditions are not fulfilled properly power cannot function. Power is not something which is permanently fixed. It is subject to change and it has source.

If the source dries up power generation or enhancement will stop. Again, mere existence of sources cannot cause the rise of power. The holder of power must have the ability to use or utilise the sources of power. All these conditions establish the fact that power is conditional.

Fifthly, power (used in political science) is a very complex notion. How it is used, what consequences it produces, how it is to be achieved-all are in real sense complex. No simple analysis can unearth the various aspects of power. Different people use different terms to denote power. For example, Dahl uses the term ‘influence’ to mean power.

Corporatist Theory of Power:

Definition of Corporatist Theory:

In recent years political scientists are taking and showing added interest about corporatist character of power. A corporatist theory denotes that in a capitalist society there are many classes and groups and an organic unity and class harmony among them are essential among them all and this is essential for the proper functioning of society as well as for its betterment.

On experience it has been found that up to the Second World War (1939-1945) pluralism was enormously encouraged because it was thought that through the competition society will get the scope of rapid development. But in the seventies of the last century the feeling traversed along a different path. Harmony and unity were stressed as key to power as well as to progress.

Corporatist theory thus stresses that the diverse elements of society are to be unified into one body. This will form one corpus or the word Corporatism. Corporatism is nothing but the unification of various diverse elements of pluralist society into one body or corpus. The main purpose is to make a powerful organisation.

Corporatist theory of power does not take pluralism as harmful for social progress, because pluralism invites competition and division and this finally weakens the society. Pluralism envisages division in interests and, at the, same time, keen competition among them. It also admits of independent existence of the interests.

Corporatism Defined:

A recent analyst (Schmitter) defines corporatism in the following language: Corporatism is the specific political structure which typically performs the post-liberal advanced capitalist, organised democratic welfare state. Contemporary corporatism is generally “Conceived as a system of interest representation in which the constituent units are organised into limited number of singular, compulsory hierarchically ordered and functionally differentiated categories recognised by the state and granted a deliberate representational monopoly”.

The fact is that during the last few decades corporatism has advanced rapidly and it has become a salient feature of a capitalist society. The origin of corporatism can conveniently be traced to the strong urge for survival. The different business organisations and industries were fighting among themselves to keep their physical existence intact. But the unhealthy competition ultimately foiled their attempts.

So the organisations decided to form a harmonious and unified corporation so that they can fight unitedly against all odds and evils. The organisation of the corporate body created a power centre in society. The corporate body began to influence the policy making and policy implementing functions of the state authority.

Thus, in a capitalist society there are at least two (and in many cases more than two) centres of power—one is state and the other is corporate. Thus the most important aspect of corporatism is the existence of different centres of power should lead to any perceptible damage of capitalist system.

Corporate Body: Role:

Ralph Miliband has given us a very beautiful and vivid account of corporation or corporate body in advanced capitalist countries. With the advancement of capitalism the powers and importance of corporate bodies have increased at an unprecedented rate. The small and medium sized industries have failed to cope with the growing problems of economy. Miliband says, the advanced capitalism is synonymous with giant enterprise.

It has been estimated by experts that in employment, investment, research, development, military activities, policy making the corporatism has been able to establish its overwhelmingly disproportionate importance. In fact, the corporate bodies are the chief or potential sources of power and authority and the situation has reached such a pass that the corporatism is in unrivalled position. Miliband concludes that there is every reason to believe that the giant enterprise or corporatism will accumulate more and more power and importance in the coming years and there is no agency in advanced capitalist country to halt its growth.

Corporatism is controlling all the key centres of power in advanced capitalist states. Miliband is of opinion that this tendency—gargantuan nature of corporate body—is inevitable. In capitalist society the domestic economy and politics cannot be thought of corporatism.

Corporatism in International Field:

The growing importance and increasing role of the corporate body are not confined within the national area of the state. Simultaneously the internationalization is on the advanced stage. The multinational corporations have intensified their functions in numerous forms in various developing countries of the Third World.

This is quite unavoidable because the developing states require both investment and sophisticated technologies for rapid development and for these they are to depend on MNCs. The MNCs are not only controlling the economy and other elements of development but also the politics.

The governments of the Third World states are practically forced to accept the terms and conditions of the corporate bodies and if they refuse that will result in the withdrawal of help. This tendency has become more and more pronounced in the age of globalisation. Many Third World states are inviting the big corporations of the industrialised nations to take the task of rapid economic development.

The nation states of the earlier epochs are being cornered by this advancement of large corporate bodies. Ralph Miliband rightly says that the power equations of the present generation are to be understood and analysed in the background of corporate bodys’ growing influence. This is the central idea of corporatist theory of power. The corporatist theory is, however, not free from weakness. It is faced with challenge posed by domestic policies and Industrial Corporation of developing nations.

Definitions and Nature of Authority:

“The right or the capacity or both to have proposals or prescriptions or instructions accepted without recourse to persuasion, bargaining or force”. Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics- defines the term in the following words: the power or right to give orders and enforce obedience, the power to influence others based on recognised knowledge or expertise.

“Authority can most simply be defined as legitimate power…….. Authority is, therefore, based on an acknowledged duty to obey rather than on any form of coercion or manipulation. In this sense authority is power cloaked in legitimacy or rightfulness”.

R. S. Peters’ definition is: “Authority is derived from the Latin word auctoritas and auctor. … An auctor is he who brings about the existence of any object or promotes the increase or prosperity of it whether he first originates it, or by his efforts gives greater permanence or continuance to it” (Authority. by R. S. Peters, published in Political Philosophy. Edited by Anthony Quinton).

In the opinion of Maclver “By authority we mean the established right within any social order to determine policies, to pronounce judgments or relevant issues and to settle controversies or, more broadly, to act as leader or guide to other men” (The Web of Government).

“Authority is the right to rule. It exists when subordinates acknowledge the right of superiors to give orders. Authority is more than voluntary compliance”.

D. D. Raphael offers a very precise definition of authority. He says: “To have authority to do something is to have the right to do it”. Authority is, therefore, a kind of right to do something. But Raphael explains the term right in the following manner. Here the word right carries a lot of significance and that is why he elaborates it. In his opinion the right has two meanings.

An authority or a man has right implies that he may do something or he is permitted to do something. It may be that the person has been licensed to do the job or take an action. Here the term right is used in the sense of freedom. According to Raphael right has another meaning. This meaning proposes that right means to receive something. Right also means the claim to something. Let us explain it. An individual can claim to have something from another person or source. When right is used in this sense we call it right of recipience.

Hence we find that authority is used in both senses. An individual can do something and when he is challenged by others he will meet the challenge by saying that he has the authority to do the work. He receives this authority either from the established law or from the consent of the people. This consent may be unanimous in character or majority opinion. Here authority is cloaked by legitimacy.

Power and Authority:

The readers, I am sure, have acquired preliminary ideas about two vital concepts— power and authority. It is now high time to go through the relationship between them. Power, in its broadest sense, is the ability to achieve desired results. Power also means the ability to do something.

These are the common interpretations of power. But this ability may not be legitimate. An individual or a military general may by physical force seize political’ power but behind that there may not be sanction of law or constitution. In that case, the person’s ability to force others to do something is also not authorised by law. So it is held that power is not legitimate, the authority is always legitimate. Behind every act or decision of the authority there shall be approval of law. Law and constitution always stand behind an authority.

A person having power may demand obligation from other persons. But if they refuse to act accordingly the holder of power legally or constitutionally cannot force him to show obligation. Behind power there lies coercion or application of coercive measures or physical force. But people show obligation to the authority on the ground that it is legally entitled to claim obligation.

In explaining authority we have seen that the holder of authority is empowered to do something or claim something. It means that authority, whatever may its nature be, is always based on law or legitimacy. So it is said that the authority is not only legal but authorities claim is based on right. In other words, authority has full freedom to demand something. We can say that authority has freedom.

But this conception is not applicable to power. This relation between power and authority has been stated by Leslie Lipson in the following words. “What demarcates authority from power is that the former is power recognised as rightful. Authority is government that all accept as valid. Its exercise is, therefore, sectioned by those who approve the particular act or agent and is tolerated by those who disapprove. … Authority is power clothed in the garments of legitimacy”.

The relationship between the two can be explained still from another angle. Raphael observes that authority can exist without power. This may be illustrated in the following way. A man may be invested with authority of an office in accordance with law or formal rules. Naturally he can take any decision. But he fails to exercise his authority on the ground that majority men do not support or recognise him.

This may be due to the popular mass upsurge. On the other hand, power can exist without authority. This frequently happens in many countries. The military rulers demand obligation from citizens though he has not that authority. But people, out of tear, obey the order of the person who holds and exercises power. This is a very common feature of many Third World states.

Weber’s Classification of Authority:

Max Weber, the doyen of sociology, has classified authority on the basis of legitimacy Authority’s claim to do something and to demand allegiance from the citizens are based on arguments which Weber calls legitimacy. Needless to say that Weber uses the term legitimacy in the light of greater and wider perspective.

There are three types of authority. The first is traditional authority. Second is charismatic authority and the third is legal-rational authority. This classification, though not fool proof one, is still recognised and accepted by majority people.

The above mentioned types of authority are explained below:

1. Traditional Authority:

The first type of authority is called traditional authority because authority is based on customs and traditions which are long established. That is, people of a community show respect to a particular authority on the ground that their forefathers did the same and naturally they cannot violate the tradition.

In earlier epochs authority existed and received obedience from the citizens. The tradition continues. The authority, in this way is sanctioned by the tradition. An aspect of the traditional authority is that there is no legal sanction behind such authority. Simple customs, traditions and conventions have made the authority legitimate.

The records of the activities of the traditional authority are to be found in the pages of history. Weber says that in ancient time and even in middle Ages in many political systems the traditional authority existed. There was also traditional authority in tribal societies of all countries. This was due to the fact that political system in its present form did not develop in the tribal societies. But this did not adversely affect the functioning or management of tribal societies or political systems of earlier epochs.

In hereditary social and political systems the traditional authority exists. In many countries of Africa (or West Asia) there are hereditary systems or dynastic rulers. The son or daughter of a ruler becomes ruler. The rulers of the hereditary system have built up the tradition and that tradition continues.

The governing system of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco provide the examples of traditional authority and hereditary system. In some industrialised countries the hereditary systems still prevail. These states are Britain, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. Britain has no written constitution, but there is a constitutional system or framework based on tradition, customs, convention etc. and British people obey them and give them legal sanction. The British parliament also obeys these customs and conventions. In some countries, customs, conventions and written laws and constitution all are mixed together.

2. Charismatic Authority:

Charismatic authority is Weber’s second type of legitimate authority. People obey the authority or show allegiance mainly due to the charisma possessed by the authority. An individual creates tremendous impact upon the mind of the people by dint of his personality or charisma. Not all individuals or men holding power possess such type of personality or charisma. If we open the pages of history we shall find that few leaders such as Hitler, Mussolini, Nepoleon, Ayatoallah Khomeini, and Fidel Castro possessed he charismatic power.

The charisma is so powerful that people do not go into the legal aspects of the power. With the help of charisma the authority exercises power and people accept it. Charismatic authority is not always supported by law. Charisma is a special quality or gift of God. Sometimes charisma and legality are to be find a single person. For example, de Gaulle of France, Margaret Thatcher of Britain had exceptional qualities to influence people.

Nehru of India had the same qualities. But all these persons came to power through legal and constitutional means. Not in reality it is not always clear who is simply a charismatic authority and legal or constitutional authority. This is specially correct if we consider the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. Hitler, Mussolini and even to some extent de Gaulle forcefully seized political power and they remained in power with the help of charisma.

3. Legal-Rational Authority:

Weber’s final classification is legal-rational authority. In almost all the modern states this type of authority is generally found. It is legal because the formal authority is supported by existing laws of the constitution. It is rational on the ground that the posts and positions are clearly defined by law. Power and duty are also clearly stated Rational-legal authority is the explicit form of a right to give orders and to have been obeyed.

The core idea of the legal-rational authority is the holder of the authority has the right to issue orders or to take decisions and also the authority (sanctioned by law) to implement them. When the authority is challenged by rebellion or recalcitrant elements the authority has the power/ability to take legal action. Everything is cloaked with legality.

An important aspect of legal-rational authority is—it cannot do anything or take any decision on its own accord. Whatever the authority wants to do it must have legal sanction. Legal-rational authority can be called a type of limited form of government. John Locke contemplated such type of government. Later on legal- rational authority laid the foundation of liberal form of government.

The government cannot whimsically interfere with the freedom of citizens. The central theme of the legal-rational authority is law and rationality is the vital points. There is no place of whims and the rationality in such authority.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

Articles: 14402

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *