The All-Seeing Eye

Musings from the central tower…

Organized Labor: A Power Analysis

One place where the question of power has had a great effect on society is the relationship between employer and employee. Marx portrayed this as a class struggle, between the proletariat – those laborers whose physical activities produced value in the economy – and capitalists, whose role is to organize the activities of those laborers. Marxism generally holds that the capitalists do not produce value through their activities, and instead exploit the laborers by making profits (that is, unfair monetary gain) from the work of the laborers, who receive wages worth less than the value of their work.

The question Marxism must answer, then, is: how do the capitalists maintain this exploitation, if they are indeed adding nothing of value? Why do the laborers allow the capitalists to exploit them? Clearly, the capitalists must have some power over the laborers.

What is the nature of this power? To begin, the capitalists own the means of production. They may own land, tools, supplies, or other property that the laborers cannot obtain due to political or economic factors. Modern ownership of land goes back to feudalism, where all property rights flowed from the king, down through the nobility, and usually stopping there but occasionally ending in yeoman farmers. And of course colonial American plantations are a perfect example of workers laboring to make profits for a plantation owner who was granted the land by a monarch or the monarch’s representative. And plantation workers – often indentured servants or slaves – are a perfect example of the exploited worker who does not and cannot own property and, as a result, whose work benefits another. Furthermore, the system of property rights at the time of colonial America was so extensive that one person could own another, in the form of indenture, or slavery.

Aside from simply condemning this system as evil, it is worthwhile to analyze it further. The system of property rights is a way of organizing some or all of the things in the world (people, places, objects) so that each thing is accounted for in some way. This can be viewed from a functionalist perspective – in other words, the function of fertile land is to be farmed, and so it is up to the nobility to make sure that it is farmed so the people do not starve, and it is similarly up to the peasants to do the actual farming, for the same reason. In this way, power is not simply a tool of privilege, but a tool of productivity. As society advanced, the economy evolved, and the nobility was replaced by a more efficient system of administration. People who were better at organizing the means of production were allowed to be in charge, and to grow rich from their success, and these people are Marx’s capitalists. Capitalism proved more efficient at organizing productive power than its predecessors (mercantilism and feudalism) , but the power relationship that existed under feudalism was never really abolished. Instead, it is simply better organized.

One of the ways that the system is better organized is that it is better at sorting people based on their productive capacities. It is by no means perfect – the system is still marred by things like gender, class, and race discrimination – but it is certainly better than a system where a son of a farmer is automatically also a farmer. The system provides people with a range of options and then rewards those who choose the options that enable them to be more productive.

The individualism that comes with a system in which individuals feel that their lives are created by their choices provides a certain amount of resistance to metonymic power. Metonymic power involves a displacement of agency and an abdication of personal or individual responsibility. Individualism encourages people to take individual responsibility for their lives, and a broader range of choices provides people with a sense of agency. So in a sense, capitalism can be seen as a substitution of productive power for metonymic power – individuals become more productive (producing productive power) and also gain a sense of their own agency (reducing metonymic power). Another way of saying this is to say that the economic sphere has gained power while the political sphere has lost power.

The fact remains that under capitalism, laborers still find themselves the subjects of a form of power. The difference is that while metonymic power is explicitly linguistic (or at least semiotic) – the acting agent thinks of an action as having originated from a symbolic agent – productive power is more phenomenological: it is felt, experienced, performed, and quite difficult to express linguistically. In other words, while a peasant can express any number of symbolic agents (God, the King, his feudal lord, duty) to explain why he continues farming, and thus make it very clear that he is under the effects of a power relationship, the worker is denied these symbolic agents, and is left only with the idea that his labor is a personal choice, that he could choose to do something else, or nothing at all, that nobody is forcing him to work, and thus is told that he is the one with the power. And so we come across arguments that say that the laborer and the capitalist both have power – the capitalist offers wages, the laborer offers work, and thus an equitable bargain is struck, with no force, threat, or coercion – and the productive power that organizes the labor by organizing the laborer is obscured and hidden.

I have spoken a great deal about this productive power, but I have not yet described what productive power is. My answer, which I will elaborate upon later, is that productive power is disciplinary power, which is panoptic power, which in turn is inverted, or reflexive, metonymic power. I have teased you all a great deal with this answer, which opens up more questions than it answers. I believe my meaning will soon become clear.

First, lest I be accused of forgetting the traditional meaning of the phrase “organized labor” I turn my attention now to labor unions and collective bargaining. The idea behind collective bargaining is that individual workers will have more negotiating power as a whole than they will singly. The theory is that, where if one person says “Give me a raise or I won’t work” that person gets fired, if an entire workforce says “Give us a raise or we won’t work” the workforce gets the raise. If, as I say, the productive power that the workers are subject to is in fact panoptic power, then the solution of breaking the isolation to break the panoptic model fits with the action of organizing as a labor union to break the power the capitalists have over the workers. In fact, the position of workers in a labor union cooperating to receive higher wages can be compared to the position of prisoners in the prisoner’s dilemma – if one or a few workers cooperate, by striking, but other workers defect, by being scabs, the striking workers get fired and the scabs get “rewarded” with their jobs (but no raise); if everyone defects the status quo is maintained, which is bad, but if enough people cooperate everyone is better off because the company grants the raises.

One could look at the organization of a labor union as a collective entity as a deployment of metonymic power on the workers’ behalf. Since, under individualism, their metonymic power was unassigned, they can easily assign it to the labor union as a symbolic agent, on whose behalf they act and in whom they vest the power to direct their activities. The deployment of metonymic power disrupts the productive power, and, indeed, we have certainly heard capitalists complaining about how unionized labor negatively impacts productivity.

So let’s talk a little about this productive power. Productive power does not so much produce things as it produces individuals, or subjects. As a simple example, under feudalism, the peasants are the King’s subjects. They have well-defined roles. One could say that the power that the King has is what causes this situation – what makes people subjects, what assigns their roles, and thus what determines what they do, who they are, what their function is. Of course, I’ve said before that the power that the King has is simply metonymic power, which constitutes the King as a symbolic agent as a result of the power the peasants vest in him. (We can see here that the specificity of these types of power begins to blur, and that these relations of power, which Foucault refers to as the “micro-physics of power,” are one way or another what constitutes and identifies individuals, and that we are all subjects of this kind of power.) In the King we see a rudimentary panoptic observer – the King makes claims to divine right, has the power to reward or to punish – but the King’s systems have not mastered many aspects of panoptic power, have not mastered isolation and self-surveillance, and the productivity that we see is likewise rudimentary.

Under capitalism, the panopticon becomes much more relevant as a model and productivity likewise increases. In another post I will argue that the free market follows a more or less panoptic model. Also, workers are much more likely to be supervised in factories than in the individual shops they had as skilled laborers in ages past; factories begin to resemble panopticons, with workers isolated and continually under threat of surveillance and punishment. Other social institutions begin to resemble panopticons as well, all with the goal of producing disciplined, productive individuals who will keep the capitalist system going.

The job of the capitalist in this system is simple: to find out what people demand, and supply it. If the capitalist does a good job he is rewarded, if not, he is punished. The capitalist has choices and options – many choices and options, because the capitalist has capital – but ultimately the capitalist must also fulfill his role in society just as the nobility had to fulfill their roles. The greater productive power as opposed to metonymic power means that the capitalist need not be a symbolic agent – the capitalist can be nameless and faceless, and thus can be anyone. The capitalist is constrained by, and serves, the same system as the laborer, with the caveat that the capitalist has more options and is thus often considered better off, or less constrained by power. The capitalist also tries to overcome power, to beat the system, by organizing – this is why we see corporations, cartelization, lobbying, price-fixing, insider trading.

I want to say a few more things about labor and power. Earlier I said that modern labor, under capitalism, is denied a symbolic agent. The modern worker can’t say “I’m a laborer because my lord told me to labor;” he must instead take responsibility for his choice to work as a laborer (instead of, for instance, doing some other job, or being unemployed). In this case, the acting agent can be said to have no symbolic agent, since the acting agent claims agency himself. However, one could also say that this is reflexive metonymy – that the “self” is the symbolic agent of the action. Can a “self” be a symbolic agent? Of course. Especially if we don’t accept an essentialist or modernist theory of the self. One could go so far as to say that the “self” is the symbolic agent of last recourse, that when we can’t figure out where the agency comes from, we simply invent a concept of “self” as a placeholder for that agency.

(In The Illusion of Conscious Will, D.M. Wegner argues that conscious will itself is simply an illusion designed by our brains to keep track of who is doing our actions. In other words, in order to remember and track what it is that we are doing, we need to develop a strong sense of self, agency, and self-agency, but in reality, our brains perform our actions without any conscious willing of those actions.)

With the panoptic model of power, the panoptic central observer becomes the symbolic agent. We act the way we do because the observer might be watching; we watch ourselves and discipline our own actions, imagining that we are being watched. This imagined observer, the observer that is a constructed response to circumstances, is the symbolic agent in the metonymic power relationship; at the same time, this observer is ourselves, since it is only in our minds. In this way we can see panoptic power as an inversion of metonymic power, or a reflexive deployment of such.

To make clear, the laborer under capitalism is denied a symbolic agent, thus makes the “self” the symbolic agent; the panoptic effects of isolation and self-surveillance cause him to work, and work in a certain way; the panoptic observer that the worker imagines is watching him, who is really just the worker himself, gets the symbolic agency; thus the productive power produces effects that the worker experiences as being imposed by an outside force; the force is imagined (symbolic) but has real effects. I’m not sure if that really was clear, but this post is now very long and has gone quite far off topic.

To conclude, there is power at work in the relationship between employer and employee – however, this power is much more complicated than simple domination, as it involves the interplay of panoptic and metonymic power. As I explore these models of power further, I shall be attempting to derive generalized strategies for working within and/or against these systems of power, and I hope to be able to say more about this issue, as well as to use the work that’s already been done by the organized labor movement towards that end.


February 24, 2008 - Posted by | Economics, Power | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Tina Russell

    Comment by Tina Russell | February 24, 2008 | Reply

  2. […] and Membership In Organized Labor: A Power Analysis, I examined the power relationships involved in the formation of a labor union. In one sense, the […]

    Pingback by Cooperation and Membership « The All-Seeing Eye | March 16, 2008 | Reply

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