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. Continue reading

February 24, 2008 Posted by | Economics, Power | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments