Francis Fox Piven: Interdependent Power

Downloaded from at UNIV CALIFORNIA BERKELEY LIB on April 18, 2012 


I propose that there is another kind of power based not on resources, things, or attributes, but rooted in the social and cooperative relations in which people are enmeshed by virtue of group life. Think of societies as composed of networks of cooperative relations, more or less institutionalized, through which mating and reproduction is organized, or production and distribution, the socialization of the young, or the allocation and enforcement of state author- ity.10 Social life is cooperative life, and in prin- ciple, all people who make contributions to these systems of cooperation have potential power over others who depend on them. This kind of interdependent power is not concen- trated at the top but is potentially widespread. Even people with none of the assets or attributes we usually associate with power do things on which others depend.11 They clean the toilets or mine the coal or tend the babies. Even when they are unemployed and idle, others depend on them to comply with the norms of civic life.

Stable networks of cooperation inevitably come to be governed by the rules and ideas we call institutions. And institutions also become sites of contention and the exercise of interde- pendent power. Yet this is not obvious if we take too deterministic a view of social life. Institutions are Janus-faced: they help to shape the identities and purposes of people, and they socialize people to conform with the institutional rules on which daily life depends. However, as Dennis Wrong (1979) argued some time ago, people continue to pursue other ends than those promoted by the regimens of insti- tutional life, whether because they are prompt- ed by facets of human desire that escape socialization, or because they are exposed to diverse institutional environments that cultivate other ends.12 All this is, I think, uncontroversial. My crucial assumption, however, is that because people have diverse (and contentious) ends, and because they are at the same time social and cooperative creatures, they will inevitably try to use their relations with others in pursuit of those ends, even against opposition. More to the point, institutional life socializes people to conform- ity, while at the same time, institutions yield the participants in social and cooperative activ- ities the power to act on diverse and conflict- ing purposes, even in defiance of the rules. 

Thus, while conflict theorists emphasize that capitalists have power over workers because they control investment and the opportunities for employment that investment generates (and they can call out the goons, the troops, the press, or the courts), a focus on interdependent power lets us see that workers also have potential power over capitalists because they staff the assembly lines on which production depends. In the same vein, landlords have power over their tenants because they own the fields the tenants till, but tenants have power over landlords because with- out their labor the fields are idle. State elites can invoke the authority of the law and the force of the troops, but they also depend on voting publics. Husbands and wives, priests and their parishioners, masters and slaves, all face this dynamic. Both sides of all these relations have the potential for exercising interdependent power, and at least in principle, the ability to exert power over others by withdrawing or threatening to withdraw from social cooperation.

In fact, interdependent power is implicit in much of what we usually think about power from below. In the contemporary era, we have generally relied on two suggestive theories to explain the periodic exercise of popular power; theories that are variously elaborated in the arguments of intellectuals and also deeply imprinted in popular belief. One is simply the theory of political democracy as it has developed since the seventeenth century. Ordinary people have power over state elites through electoral representative institutions that mediate between the citizenry and the state. People, or at least many of them, have votes, and periodic elections, at which those votes are tallied, make political off icials dependent on popular majorities to remain in positions of state authority. Elections thus anchor state leaders to the voters on whom they must rely to remain in com- mand of government. The vote means that people have power, some power, because polit- ical elites depend on them.

The other big theory, expressed in both intellectual and folk versions, is a theory of labor power, most eloquently argued by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto. The development of capitalism, the argument goes, gave rise to mass production industries and to the vast number of factory workers on whose labor power those industries rely. Because factory production depends on them, workers can exercise leverage by striking, by “shutting it down.” Moreover, the growth of mass production indus- tries steadily increases the number of workers who have this kind of power. This growth creates solidarities among the workers, even while the experience of mass production generates ever deeper divisions between capital and labor, singling out capital as the target for worker anger. Labor power also has an institutionalized expression in the formation of unions and a panoply of labor rights incorporated into law and regulation.13


The episodic and complex history of the expansion of political and labor rights in Europe, the United States, Latin America, and elsewhere can be told as the history of state responses to the mobilization of both the popular power yielded by the development of electoral representative institutions and the power yielded by the industrial workplace. Each kind of power can affect the other. Workplace strikes are far more likely to be met with a degree of conciliation if state elites restrain from using force to sup- press the strikers because they worry about the electoral repercussions among sympathetic vot- ing constituencies. The reverse is of course also true. When elites feel free to summon the troops, strikes are far less likely to be successful, as the history of defeated nineteenth and early-twen- tieth century strikes in the United States demon- strates (Piven and Cloward 1977).

It is not only the state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of violence that can make labor power conditional on electoral power. The mass strikes of the 1930s forced the concessions to organized labor embodied in the Wagner Act, but in the succeeding decades, it was the influence of organized labor in electoral politics that helped protect at least some of these gains. The extraordinary electoral and lobbying mobilizations attempted by American unions in recent years are obviously an effort to regain the influence yielded by electoral power at a time when labor power has declined.

Similarly, the history of the welfare state can be told as a history of successive concessions made necessary by eruptions of both labor power and electoral power. In fact, I think the story is unreasonably simplified when more unruly expressions of popular power are ignored. Nevertheless, there is truth in the big picture that characterizes the economic security afforded working and poor people by public income supports and service programs as the price paid by political and economic elites for the integration and cooperation of large swaths of the population, a price made necessary by periodic eruptions of democratic and labor power.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s