Atelier N°.0, article 13

(©Monthly Review, January 1998)

                                                             Eras of Power
                                      by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A.Cloward

                          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

                          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

                          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

                          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,

                          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.

(*)FRANCES FOX PIVEN and RICHARD A. CLOWARD are co-authors of The Breaking of the American Social Compact (1997)