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Eras of Power

Frances Fox Piven and Richard A.Cloward are co-authors of The Breaking of the American Social Compact (1997)

During the past few years a strong challenge has been mounted in the pages of Monthly Review to the argument—prevalent on the left as well as the right—that globalization and technological change have combined to bring us into a new era. Ellen Meiksins Wood captured the gist of the emerging MR position in an essay entitled “Modernity, Postmodernity, or Capitalism” in which she asserts that there has been no historic rupture, no epochal shift, to usher in globalization or postfordism or postmodernism. All these concepts have “the effect of obscuring the historical specificity of capitalism” which “by definition means constant change and development….” What we are witnessing is the diversification and extension of the old logic of the mass production economy.1 “This is capitalism.”2

We agree with much of the empirical basis for the MR challenge to the new catechisms about globalization and technological change. We agree, for example, with the arguments, made variously by Wood, Tabb, and Henwood in the pages of Monthly Review, and by Gordon, Zevin, Hirst, and Thompson, and others elsewhere, that the competitive pressures in domestic markets attributed to increased global trade and capital movement have been vastly overstated, especially with regard to the United States, which remains less exposed to international trade and capital flight than most other rich industrial countries.3 And we also agree that much of this is not really new in any case, that international integration characterized earlier periods of capitalist development, particularly the years before the First World War.

But if the system is basically the same, why is so much changing? In particular, why are class power relations changing? The evidence is considerable. Unions, once the bedrock of working-class power, are on the defensive, losing members in most capitalist countries, and in Britain and the United States, losing battles as well—at least when they dare to fight them.4 Meanwhile, historic left parties are refashioning themselves as the champions of neoliberal policies, and turning their backs on the organized working class that was once their base. Welfare state protections, the main political achievement of the industrial working class, are being whittled back in the interest of labor market “flexibility;” cutbacks in social benefits intensify worker insecurity, smoothing the way for lower wages and less secure conditions of employment. And inequalities are widening, especially in Britain and the Untied States, where income and wealth inequalities are spiraling to nineteenth-century levels.

To be sure, it still is capitalism. But we think the innovation and development characteristic of capitalism is interacting with shifts in class power to produce convulsive changes not only in patterns of production and exchange, but in patterns of culture and politics. And, contrary to Wood, we think these developments are usefully characterized as ruptures with the past, the continuities of capitalist social relations notwithstanding. Indeed, we think such ruptures have studded the history of capitalism, sometimes affecting particular industries, but sometimes transforming entire societies. Capitalism develops not only through gradual and incremental changes propelled by the logic of accumulation, but also through wrenching upheavals forged by momentous class power conflicts, as when the organization of steel production was transformed by smashing the craft workers in the nineteenth-century United States, or when public sector unionism was crushed in the post First World War period. And, again contrary to Wood, we think such upheavals are sometimes so broad in scope and consequence that they usefully demarcate distinctive eras or epochs. The events which culminated in the termination of English poor relief in favor of an “unregulated” market in labor in the 1830s marked such an epochal change, which the intense protests of the Chartist movement could not reverse. It may be that the interplay of contemporary economic restructuring and power shifts in the advanced capitalist countries, and especially in the United States, is also epochal in its significance. In any case, it is a class power struggle which has to be understood in power terms, a predatory mobilization by capitalists made possible by working-class weakness and disarray, although justified in economic terms as the result of new market imperatives.


We make our argument about power upheavals in two parts. First, we discuss the theoretical basis for the longstanding left conviction that labor power is rooted in capitalist production relations, and in the organization of workers for political power that production relations facilitate. MR authors share this conviction, and so do we. Second, and this is our more distinctive argument, we think that actualization of the power is by no means automatic or inevitable, but is realized only over time and with difficulty, as ordinary people penetrate dominant ideologies, build the solidarities that make the actualization of power possible, and challenge the rules which guarantee their quiescent co-operation. The disturbances which ensue as people discover and act on the power capacities yielded them by specific forms of economic and political organization lead to new institutional arrangements: the creation of a social compact to conciliate popular forces, while also regulating and caging them. Economic change may shatter these achievements, not because capital no longer depends on labor in the abstract, or because state rulers no longer depend on mass publics, but because the painfully constructed forms of popular understanding and organization, which made possible the realization of some power from the bottom, weaken. The erosion of popular power capacities in turn smooths the way for new assertions of power from the top. Capital breaks the social compact which working-class power made necessary. By doing so, however, it may also unleash new possibilities for popular struggle.

Capitalist societies organize production and exchange through networks of specialized and interdependent activities. These networks of co-operation are also networks of contention. They help to shape the interests and values which give rise to conflict. More important for our argument, networks of interdependency also generate dispersed power capacities. Agricultural workers depend on landowners, but landowners also depend on agricultural workers, as industrial capitalist depend on workers’, the prince depends in some measure on the urban crowd, and governing elites in the modern state depend on the acquiescence if not the approval of enfranchised publics.

Actual power relations are of course tangled and intricate, since urban, democratic, and capitalist societies generate multiple and cross-cutting forms of interdependence. We take for granted, however, that some relationships are much more important than others. The dominant interdependencies—and the power constellations they make possible—develop within economic relationships, and within the relations which anchor state elites to the societies they rule. Thus dominant interdependencies, and dominant forms of power, reflect the co-operative activities that generate the material bases for social life, and that sustain the force and authority of the state. If workers withhold their labor, production stops; if they withhold their votes, regimes fall. And, of course, the one set of relations is deeply intertwined with the other. States define and enforce property rights, regulate money and credit, and regulate the relations between employer and employees, for example.5 The relations between class-based interest groups and state authorities inevitably focus importantly on these economic policies. And the broadly parallel evolution of industrial capitalism and electoral-representative institutions in the twentieth-century means that working-class economic challenges are systematically transported into the relations between voting publics and the state.

This emphasis on power capacities shaped by the interdependent relations which constitute economy and polity is clearly consistent with the Marxist view of working-class power as rooted in the role of the proletariat as a force in capitalist production. It is, we should note, also consistent with other important theoretical traditions, including, for example, Norbert Elias’ depiction of the development of European central states as propelled by the dynamics generated by the networks of interdependency which developed among the warrior rulers of these societies.6 And it fits Schumpeter’s model characterizing the capitalist state as the “tax state” which, because it depends on economic resources it does not control, ties state authorities in close interdependence with the owners of private property who do control those resources.7

The left confidence in working-class power was also expressed in the belief that working-class power would grow. Marx had rooted the growth of proletarian power in the development of industrial capitalism; Bernstein saw roughly parallel possibilities for working-class power in the development of electoral-representative arrangements. Social democratic perspectives later melded the power yielded workers by industrial capitalism with the power generated by electoral representative arrangements, so that working-class power resources were said to grow in tandem with both industrial capitalism and electoral democracy.8 In the happiest variants, these power resources resulted in a welfare state compact which promoted the “decommodification” of labor, and therefore a fundamental empowerment of labor in market relations.9

A broadly compatible view of the growth of working-class power is incorporated in the work of historians dedicated to recovering the history of “protest from below” in preindustrial Europe, such as Eric J. Hobsbawm, George Rudé, and Charles Tilly. Even pluralist analysts point to the interdependencies of voters and political elites generated by liberal democracy itself, arguing that periodic elections and an enfranchised mass public forces elites to defer to the popular will. One variant or another of this optimistic perspective has nourished the left for at least a century and a half.

With these points made, it is clear that the globalization thesis cuts to the core of left political conviction. The effective exercise of labor power has always been premised on the limited ability of capital to exit or threaten to exit from economic relations. Globalization, together with postfordist production methods, seems to open unlimited opportunities for exit, whether through the relocation of production, accelerated trade, worker replacement, or capital flight, all of which seems to radically reduce the dependence of capital on labor. Workers, for their part, tied as they are by their merely human fear of change and rupture, can never match these exit options. And while working-class voters may still be able to make regimes topple, the significance of voting power depends on the significance of state power. But, so the argument goes, states whose sovereignty is confined to fixed territories also must knuckle under to the whims of a mobile capital. Economic globalization thus presumably eviscerates both economic and political forms of working-class power. As a result, workers and voters in the mother countries of capitalism are now pitted against low-wage workers and feeble governments everywhere, and pitted against technological advances as well. So, if the globalization thesis is true, it is devastating to the left as we have known it.

No wonder the determination with which MR authors (and we as well) scrutinize and challenge the argument. But scrutinizing and disputing the extent of global trade or capital movement does not quite grapple with the realities of class power under new conditions. What is at issue is not simply whether it is still capitalism, or whether capital is still dependent on labor in the abstract, or whether nation states still matter, but whether economic changes have undermined the conditions which once made at least the partial actualization of economic and political power from the bottom possible.


Over the broad sweep of Western and capitalist development, the old idea that working-class power will grow as capitalism develops may yet prove to be correct. There are some strong theoretical reasons for thinking so. If power is rooted in interdependent relations, then the increasingly elaborate division of labor that characterizes capitalist societies, as well as the continued penetration of the core into the periphery with the consequent absorption of previously marginal groups into the capitalist division of labor, would diffuse power capacities more and more widely. (Our reading of the political implication of Durkheim’s idea of the growth of organic solidarity is similar: a tighter grid of interdependencies means that everyone in the grid has some leverage, at least under some conditions.) This line of reasoning reverses the conventional wisdom: it is not decentralization but centralization and the integration that it implies that enlarges at least the abstract possibility of popular power. The remote village may be shielded by its remoteness from a predatory state or a predatory capital, but neither can it have influence on the state or capital until it is brought into some kind of relationship with them.

But while capitalist development increases the potential power of working class and previously marginal groups, it can also work to impede the actualization of that power potential. Whatever is true in principle of the advancing division of labor, the power capacity of lower strata groups has certainly not advanced smoothly. At the very least, there have been periodic sharp reversals, and we appear to be witnessing such a reversal now.

In principle, economic and political organization yields power to all parties who make necessary contributions to economic or political processes. In principle, workers in a capitalist economy always have potential power over capitalists, whether they labor as agricultural tenants, or as industrial workers, or as technicians in a postindustrial economy. In principle, they have power because their contributions are necessary to ongoing processes of production and exchange. But the actualization of those power capacities is conditional on their ability to withhold or threaten to withhold their co-operation, and this capacity depends on other features of worker-employer relationships beyond the fact of interdependency. To understand class power dynamics, and especially to understand the impact of postindustrial changes on worker economic and political power, we have to pay attention to the ways that economic change affects the ideas and capacities for organization of working-class groups, and their ability to withstand threats of capital exit or deploy threats of exit themselves.

The first condition for the assertion of power from below is that people recognize their contribution to economic and political life. Economic and political interdependencies are real in the sense that they have real consequences. But they are also cultural constructions. To be sure, if people do in fact have agency, which we take to mean at a minimum some ability to penetrate a dominant ideology, and some capacity to act outside the rules which strip them of power, then the very fact of participation in interdependent activities would incline them to recognize their contributions, and therefore their power capacities. Perhaps so, or at least to some extent, or at least under some conditions.10 But such recognition must always overcome inherited and deeply imprinted interpretations which privilege the contributions of dominant groups,11 and must also overcome the continuing ability of dominant groups to project new and obscuring interpretations.

Second, since the relevant contributions to ongoing economic and political activities typically involve numerous individuals, people must develop a sense of solidarity and some capacity for concerted action so that their collective leverage can be deployed against those who depend on them, for work, votes, or acquiescence in the rules of civic life. This is the classical problem of organizing, whether workers, or voters, or community residents. And finally, the threat of exit, including the threat that employers will turn to replacement workers or that politicians will court alternative voter blocs must be limited, or at least the prospect of exit must not be so frightening that people cannot imagine enduring it.

These conditions for the realization of class power, and the ability of groups to manipulate them, depend on very specific and concrete historical circumstances. To appreciate this, we have to forgo our tendency to speak of classes and systems. For some purposes, these abstractions are of course useful. But the interdependencies which sometimes make assertions of popular power possible don’t exist in general or in the abstract. They exist for particular groups, who are in particular relationships with particular capitalists or particular state authorities, at particular places and particular times.

Economic changes can be significant not because class interdependencies evaporate, but because economic change, especially rapid and uneven change, transforms these concrete particularities. People recognize their leverage over particular employers, not over capital in general, although they are surely influenced by more general ideas about the relationship of employers to employees. They recognize commonalities and capacities for collective action among members of particular concrete groups far more readily than among the working class in general, although here too broader group identities and antagonisms may predispose them one way or the other. And people fear the loss of particular forms of employment to which they have access, and in the particular places where their lives are rooted, although once again they are surely more likely to be alert to these dangers if they think capital exit is a more widespread phenomenon. The decline of hand-loom weaving in nineteenth-century England is an example, for it did not mean that manufacturers no longer depended on labor. But it did mean that the hand-loom weavers and framework-knitters could be starved out as manufacturers turned to women and children to work in the new mills. And as this happened, the understandings, forms of solidarity, and strategies for controlling exit, developed in an earlier era of putting-out manufacturing, eroded.

Thus, while capital still depends on labor in general, ongoing contemporary economic changes are undermining the ideas, the solidarities, and the strategies for curbing exit threats that were developed by concrete groups under the concrete circumstances of industrial capitalism. The old occupational categories—the miners, the steelworkers, the dockers, and so on—that were at the forefront of labor struggles have been depleted. And those who remain no longer have the confidence that they can act to “shut it down,” paralyze an industry, and even make an entire economy falter. Meanwhile, the working-class towns and neighborhoods are emptying out, the particular working-class culture they nourished is fading. The unions that drew on all of this are necessarily enfeebled. They are enfeebled even more by employer strategies that take advantage of the decline of older forms of working-class power to launch new and terrifying exit threats—by hiring contingent workers and strike replacements, by restructuring production, or by threatening to close plants or to shift production elsewhere.

Incessant talk about globalization and downsizing figures indirectly in all of this, as the rise of an ideology that asserts the necessary and inevitable autonomy of markets and therefore of capital, a resurrection of nineteenth-century laissez-faire doctrines about the unregulated market now expanded to world scale. But none of this talk would be especially forceful by itself. The ideology is frighteningly persuasive not only because it is heard on all sides, but because it appears to explain the decline of concrete and particular working-class groups. Globalization talk gains force not from abstract generalities about trade and capital movement, but when jobs are cut or restructured, when trucks labeled “Mexico” pull up to a striking plant, or simply when a business moves across the state line.


Understandably, there is a good deal of nostalgia for the working-class formations of the industrial era. We are all social democrats now, so to speak, and we mourn the passing of the old sureties of the mass strike, of big union and of labor parties which help to produce not only welfare state protections, but the political legitimation of the industrial-era working class. All of this was won not only because the economic and political relations of the industrial era made capital dependent on workers in the abstract, but because people in specific situations could make that dependence work for them. The loss is awesome.

But there is another face to economic change. Economic change weakens old forms of working-class power, and frees capital to smash the compact that power from below made necessary. This means new hardships, especially for more vulnerable groups. But it also means a kind of liberation from the constraints which were a condition of whatever concessions the compact granted. Federal protection for the right to organize was a victory. So was union recognition by the big industrialists a victory. These victories did not come unencumbered, however. They brought with them a new regime of labor regulation which limited the right to strike, encouraged union oligarchy, and allowed employer influence to gradually increase over time. Now, as the old victories are whittled away, the curbs on popular politics imposed with them may lose force. If they do, the possibilities of new surges of disruptive politics from below will increase.

Meanwhile, economic change also creates concrete new possibilities for worker power. People work at new and different occupations, they have different skills, and in time they will see the power potential inherent in the interdependencies of a new and fabulously complex and precarious communications-driven economy that is as vulnerable to mass disruption as the manufacturing-driven economy was. In time, maybe only a little time, they will develop the awareness of commonalities and capacities for joint action which will make working-class power possible again. And they are also likely to find the imagination and the daring to break the new rules governing communications which are even now being promulgated to criminalize the exercise of power from below.

It is the end of a power era. It is also the beginning of a power era.


  1. Ellen Meiksins Wood, “Modernity, Postmodernity, or Capitalism?“Monthly Review, vol 48, issue no. 3 (July-August, 1996) p. 34.
  2. Ibid p. 38.
  3. Doug Henwood, “Post What?” Monthly Review,vol 48, issue no. 4 (September, 1996); Doug Henwood, “Talking About Work,” Monthly Review, vol. 49, issue no. 3 (July-August, 1997); William K. Tabb, “Globalization is an Issue, The Power of Capital is the Issue,” Monthly Review, vol. 49, issue no. 2 (June, 1997). See also David Gordon, “The Global Economy: New Edifice or Crumbling Foundations?“ New Left Review, issue no. 168, (March/April, 1988); Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson, Globalization in Question: The International Economy and the Possibilities of Governance (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996); and Robert Zevin, “Our World Financial Market is More Open: If So, Why and with What Effect” Financial Openness and National Autonomy; Opportunity and Constraints, ed. Tarig Banuri and Juliet Schor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 45 and 72. Zevin concludes after a careful examination of trends in world financial markets that “there is no convincing evidence that the policy/political ‘discipline’ of the capital markets is greater than it ever was.” Indeed, he sees no trend toward financial openness not only over the past century, but over the last three centuries. There are disagreements in this emerging school of skeptics, of course. For example, Tabb seems to think technological change is more important than does Henwood, and Zevin also argues persuasively that financial trends have not been influenced by communications technology.
  4. Bruce Western, “Union Decline in Eighteen Advanced Capitalist Countries,” American Sociological Review, vol 60, issue no. 2 (April, 1995).
  5. For a discussion, see Fred Block, “The Roles of the State in the Economy,” The Handbook of Economic Sociology, ed. Neil J. Smelser and Richard Swedberg (Princenton: Princeton University Press, 1994).
  6. Norbert Elias, Power and Civility: vol. II of The Civilizing Process (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982).
  7. Joseph Schumpeter, “The Crisis of the Tax State,” Joseph A. Schumpeter: The Economics and Sociology of Capitalism, ed. R. Swedberg (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
  8. See for example Walter Korpi, The Democratic Class Struggle (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983).
  9. On decommodification, see Gosta Esping-Andersen, Politics Against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988) and The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princenton: Princeton University Press, 1990); and see also Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, The New Class War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985). Other class analysts saw the welfare state as less the expression of working-class interests, and more the instrument for the domination of workers, although this analysis has lost salience as welfare state programs have come under attack.
  10. Barrington Moore, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), and before him Alexis de Tocqueville The Old Regime and the French Revolution (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955). Both seemed to think that the recognition of interdependencies was inevitable when they argued that peasants would come to see the extractions of a predatory landed aristocracy as unjust unless those extractions were balanced by contributions to the peasant community.
  11. This includes of course the interpretations produced by intellectuals which privilege the contributions of dominant groups. A curious example is in the literature on exchange theory, which advances a definition of power as rooted in the exchange of services and benefits, and is thus at the outset similar to our definition. But the drift of this literature, and particularly of the work of Peter Blau, is to define power in relationships as the result of furnishing needed contributions, a tautology that of course works to justify unequal power.
1998, Volume 49, Issue 08 (January)
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