The Sociology of Employee Power

Mike Konczal at the Washington writes about the plight of the people with jobs, and all the pitfalls that comes with it. Then Paul Krugman picks up from there on a very important point: that the relationship between employers and employees is a power relationship. That’s exactly what we are supposed to study as Sociologists.

First, Krugman uses this chart to measure the state of that power relationship, in which he argues that those still employed have lost bargaining power:


The theoretical perspective that Krugman points to is basically, without saying it, a Hagelian Dialectic. However, according to Hagel, at some point in time, there is supposed to be synthesis in the conflict between the thesis and antithesis.  There’s no signs of synthesis in our future, and probably never has been. This is something more than just bargaining power, or the lack of it.

Most economists know that there is a fundamental structural problem in the economy, not just with jobs, but with aggregate demand, monetary theory, et al. That should also be an indicator that there is a fundamental social structural problem, especially when looking at the concept of bargaining power.

I agree with Krugman that it’s not so much that the “evil boss” is out to screw the workers. It is however, a case where the “evil boss” simply has no incentive to hire workers, except to replace the few that quit.

I’ll add that with the “quit rate” so low, that people are afraid of quitting their jobs, even if they are abusive, exploitative, or otherwise sucky. That’s a power relationship at its peak, and the greatest indicator of all that there’s a structural issue going on sociologically. Marx posed the idea that the exploited proletariat will rise up against the blood-sucking vampires of capitalism. The problem is that there has to actually be a proletariat in order for that to happen. Very few actually have jobs, and the ones that do are very afraid of losing it.

It may be time to re-visit Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen’s economic ideas on a sociological level. While economists continue to scratch their heads trying to figure out what’s structurally wrong with the economy, Sociologists (including me) can at least start to look at a new way to view the new world, and come up with answers.

There is indeed a very profound power relationship at work, and not just with the employed. And if we fail to see this in terms of real time social facts on the ground, we will fail to learn about ourselves as social creatures.

This entry was posted in Economics, Labor, Political Economy, Sociological Theory. Bookmark the permalink.

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