Marc Bloch’s history


One of the historians whom I most admire is Marc Bloch. He was one of France’s most important medieval historians in the first half of the twentieth century, and he died at the hands of the Gestapo while serving in the Resistance in Paris in 1944. (Carole Fink’s biography is an outstanding treatment of his thought and life; Marc Bloch: A Life in History; also important is Marc Bloch, l’historien et la cite.)

Here I am primarily interested in the substantive contributions Bloch brought to the writing of history. Bloch was one of the founders of the Annales school of history, along with Lucien Febvre, and he left a deep impression on subsequent historical imagination later in the twentieth century. In particular, he gave a strong impetus to social and sociological history, and he brought a non-Marxist materialism into the writing of history that represented a very important angle of view. The largest impact of the Annales school — Febvre, Bloch, Ladurie, Braudel, Le Goff — is the set of perspectives it forged for the understanding of social and cultural history — looking at the structures and experiences of ordinary people as one foundation for the formation of history. This required the invention of new historical vocabulary and new sources of data. And Bloch was central in each area.

A couple of Bloch’s books are most significant. Feudal Society is a very important contribution to our understanding of the institutions and social relations of feudalism — the manorial system, vassalage, and kingship. And his writings about French agricultural history are of special interest (French Rural History: An Essay on Its Basic Characteristics). These books document quite a few important aspects of French rural social life — both high and low. But even more importantly, Bloch brought several distinctive ideas into historical writing that continue to serve as illuminating models about how to understand the past. One is a version of materialist historical investigation — Bloch provides great insight into the forces and relations of production in rural medieval France and the material culture of the middle ages. A second is an adept ability to single out and scrutinize some of the forms of political structure and power that defined French feudal society. And a third is a subtle way of characterizing the social whole of medieval society and mentality that owed much to Durkheim. In a curious way, then, Bloch’s work picked up some of the themes that constituted modern social theory in Marx, Weber, and Durkheim.

Bloch’s materialism is most evident in French Rural History. Here Bloch gives a detailed and scholarly treatment of the social and community consequences of the diffusion of the heavy wheeled plough. He provides a careful technical analysis of the advantages and exigencies of the heavy plough, which was most suited to the heavy soil of northern France. And he works out the social prerequisites of this technology — basically, a degree of community organization that could successfully coordinate land use consistent with ownership and the turning radius of the heavy implement and its team of horses. The technical requirements of the plough required certain social arrangements. And the social structure of the northern French village satisfied these conditions — in striking contrast to the looser coordination found in southern French villages. “Only a society of great compactness, composed of men who thought instinctively in terms of the community, could have created such a regime. The land itself was the fruit of collective labour” (French Rural History, 45).

This is materialism; but it is not especially Marxist materialism. It doesn’t give primacy to class relations. And it doesn’t support any kind of teleology in historical development. But the central point was clear. Bloch sought to demonstrate that a major technology — for example, cultivation with the heavy plough — incorporates and implicates a whole complex social and cultural system. And a major part of social history is to discover the sequence of adjustments through which the technology system is incorporated.

The Durkheim part of the story is also an important one. Durkheim was a major influence on French social thought in the teens and twenties, and the vector to Bloch was particularly direct. The journal Annales d’Histoire Economique et Sociale was created by Bloch and Febvre as a vehicle for inviting a more sociological approach to economic history and to encourage interdisciplinary research in this field, and Bloch and Febvre were deeply influenced by the debate that surrounded history and Durkheimian sociology in the period 1890-1910.  R. Colbert Rhodes has written a good essay on Durkheim’s influence on Bloch. Rhodes writes: “Bloch’s essentially sociological approach to historical writing is responsible for some of the most distinctive and useful features of his work. Bloch reflects the Durkheimian social realist metaphysic by reaching behind individuals to the social group considered in its broadest aspect, the collective mentality. Bloch acknowledges in the Historian’s Craft his dominant interest in the study of man integrated into the social group. In the Craft, Bloch borrows a citation from Lucien Febvre to state his own interest as ‘not man, again, never man.’ We are interested in “human societies, organized groups” (47).

The final feature of Bloch’s thought I want to highlight is his vocabulary of structure and power in his treatment of French feudalism. There is a parallel with Weber in this body of thinking. Bloch spent a year studying in Germany and was presumably aware of Weber’s thought, but there is no clear evidence of direct influence. But there are several ways in which some of Bloch’s thought parallels Weber’s. One is in his use of ideas about historical concepts that are similar to Weber’s concept of ideal types. And the other is his careful analysis of the historical realities of relations of power and social structures that embody power.

Bloch’s writings repay a careful reading — both for their importance as first-rate historical scholarship and for the light they shed on the problem of historical knowledge and conceptualization. And it is highly relevant to find that all the strands of classical sociological theory find a counterpart in his thought.

New forms of collective behavior?


Personal electronic communication and the Internet — have these new technologies changed the game for collective action? Here I am thinking of email and instant messaging, but also cell phones and other personal communications devices, as well as the powerful capacity for dissemination of ideas over the web — has this dense new network of communication and coordination fundamentally changed the ability of groups to pursue their political or social goals?

There is no doubt that these technologies are relevant to collective action. Communication, coordination, and assurance are crucial features of successful collective action — and these are precisely the qualities that current technologies offer. Moreover, the ability for a party or movement to disseminate its programs, ideas, and promises to potential followers is crucial for its ability to gather support; and this is what the Web offers better than any prior form of communications technology.

A couple of data points are relevant.

  • The City of New York has recently subpoenaed the software and records of TXTmob from an MIT graduate student (story). TXTmob is a software tool created more or less on the fly before the party conventions in 2004 to permit demonstrators to use text messages to assemble and disperse quickly and effectively.
  • Will.i.am’s music video of Barak Obama’s “Yes We Can” speeches has been viewed by eight million people since posting on YouTube — generating funds, votes, and passion for the candidate.
  • Cell phone photos and videos have made their way out of Tibet and Burma documenting the crackdowns that have occurred in those places — allowing passionate groups of people outside the area to bring their protests to bear.

So what is genuinely new in this list? Covert cameras and travelers have existed for a long time. Cell phones were available in Gdansk and Teheran during street protests there in the 1970s. And newspapers, magazines, and television and radio have disseminated ideas widely. So, again, is there any reason to think that current communications technologies have changed anything fundamental — either the nature of popular mobilization or the balance of power between the powerful and the numerous?

Two factors are important enough to significantly change the nature of struggles between the powerful and the popular. First is the capacity for coordination among a large group that is created by cell phones and IM devices. A “flash mob” can form and dissolve in minutes. This can make their actions and demonstrations more effective and more difficult to repress. And there is a secondary benefit for the organization — rapid multi-sided communication can help to maintain solidarity and commitment within the group.

Second, the low cost and broad distribution of web-based communication gives a new advantage to the numerous but poor. Swift Boaters required hundreds of thousands of dollars to disseminate their attack ads against candidate Kerry — whereas a six-minute video can reach millions of people on YouTube for free. This tips the balance of power away from the deep pockets towards the creative activist group.

So it seems reasonable to judge that these communications technologies are indeed a significant new element in the field of play of collective action. Groups can self-organize more effectively; they can coordinate their actions; and they can share and reinforce the urgency of their commitments through the use of cell phones, text messages, web pages, and dissemination points such as YouTube.

All this has implications for popular politics within a law-governed democracy. It is less clear that these technologies offer as much leverage for the powerless within an authoritarian state. Combine a powerful authoritarian state’s ability to monitor communications with a perfect readiness to repress activists and dissidents and to control the technology — and you get a situation in which these tools of communication are much less useful for an opposition.

A normative aspect to power

It sometimes seems as though there is a normative dimension to our concept of power. What if we defined “power” in these terms: an agent exercises power when he/she undertakes to compel individuals or groups to act in ways they prefer not to act, against their interests and without the justification of a legitimate state underwriting the compulsion. Notice that the last qualification entails that the exercise of power is by definition “illegitimate”; legitimate authority compels behavior but does not exercise power. So on this definition, there is a behavioral element and a normative element in the proposition that “A exercises power over B”: A compels behavior by B and A does not have a legitimate political or moral right to do so.

This might appear to be largely a semantic question: what do we mean by “power”? Is the exercise of the enforcement of law within a procedurally and substantively just polity an exercise of “power”? Or is it rather the exercise of rightful authority?

Certainly it is correct to observe that the behavioral aspect of involuntary compulsion is present in both types of cases. The criminal who is imprisoned for his crimes is treated coercively, in that he is confined against his will; so the state has the ability to “compel individuals to act contrary to their will”. If we took the element of compulsion and coercion as uniquely central, then both the lawful state and the extortion gang are exercising power — over criminals and innocent citizens respectively. If, on the other hand, we think that coercively backed authority is something different from “power”, then a democratically established legal authority cannot be said to be exercising power over its citizens (though it may do so over its international adversaries).

If we go down this road in analyzing power, then there is a close relationship between power, social justice, and democracy.

How would we decide this question? And does it have any importance for the purposes of social and political explanation, or for the design of social policies?

Structure, psychology, power

Political and social power involves the exercise of social resources to compel various kinds of unwilling behavior by others. What creates power in society? What are the sorts of social and structural factors that permit individuals to exercise power? And what features of personality lead a given individual to choose to use the instruments of power to achieve his/her will? In short — how does power pertain to “structure” and “agency”?

This is one of the categories in social analysis that requires that we bring together both agency and structure. Individuals wield power; but they only do so on the basis of resources and advantages that are conferred upon them by existing social relations. The enduring social relations that exist in a society — for example, property relations, administrative and political relations, or the legal system — constitute a structure within which agents act, and they determine the distribution of crucial social resources that become the raw materials on the basis of which agents exercise power over other individuals and groups. So the particular details of a social structure are crucial in determining the forms of power that exist in the society. For example, a privileged position within the property system — the possession of significant income and wealth — confers a resource advantage on people in that position. They can use their wealth to solicit powerful allies; they can purchase media outlets; they can influence politicians — all with an eye to achieving their goals in spite of the contrary wishes or interests of others.

Likewise, a privileged position in the communications system — a television news producer or newspaper publisher, for example — can use his/her position to alter the way in which stories are presented in such a way as to change the way the public thinks about the issues; and these changes in thought can lead to changes in behavior. And an elected official can exercise power by setting the agenda for others — by including or excluding various options from consideration.

So one’s position within these various social structures — systems of social relations — determines the volume of social resources upon which one can call in the effort to constrain or compel the actions of others. Position determines one’s capacity for power. But it does not determine the exercise of power. To be said to exercise power, it is necessary to have the goal of compelling people to do things they don’t want to do. This is where agency or the “will to power” comes in. It is possible for a person with access to great power resources to nonetheless behave in ways that do not make use of power but rather depend on building consent and consensus. We might contrast Churchill with Stalin in mobilizing society for war; Churchill persuaded the British people to sacrifice in support of the war effort, whereas Stalin used the coercive power of the state to achieve his war mobilization goals.

This fact suggests that we need to consider something of the psychology of power. This is a topic that Adorno and other critical theorists invoked through the concept of the “authoritarian personality” — an idea invoked largely in an effort to understand fascism. Others might attempt to assimilate the willingness to use power under the category of “opportunistic” or “instrumentalist” decision-making: coercion is considered as simply one out a menu of feasible strategies for achieving one’s will. (This is perhaps the foundation of Hobbes’s understanding of the pursuit and use of power.) And here we might speculate that the “democratic personality” is a set of dispositions to behavior that lead the agent to seek out persuasion and consensus rather than force, deception, and coercion as instruments through which to achieve one’s goals. (Taken to the limit, we might say that a proper democracy creates an environment in which there is neither opportunity nor impulse towards the exercise of power.)

On this way of laying out the landscape of power, there are several dimensions to be considered: the social arrangements that make it possible for some individuals to pressure, coerce, and compel other individuals to do their bidding; the social arrangements that create profound conflicts of interest in the context of which the incentive to wield power naturally arises; and the circumstances of social psychology and personality that lead some individuals to choose to make use of resources of power to coerce, while others choose strategies that depend on willing consent to achieve collective purposes.

Power and violence in China

Several recent postings on this blog have focused on power. Ultimately power depends upon a threat of violence. And recent reports from China have thrown the spotlight on the use of violence against innocent citizens who are challenging one aspect of power or another. The photo at left is taken from a news story reporting the results of homeowners’ protests in a Beijing neighborhood against unplanned buildings on the greenspace of their neighborhood. (Reportage and more photos are available here.)

What this incident reflects is a disturbing and apparently growing incidence of the use of violence by private security companies against groups of citizens in China who are engaging in a variety of efforts to protect their interests or advance their claims. These incidents of violence also occur at the hands of Chinese police — for example, the beating death of a newspaper editor that was reported in an article in the New York Times a few years ago.

These reports are somewhat rare — not because the behavior is rare, but because it is very difficult for journalists to do the sort of investigating and reporting that would be needed in order to uncover these outrages. (Remember Amartya Sen’s theory that a free press in India is the best explanation of the absence of famine since Independence; think how different China’s political scene would be with a practice of unfettered investigative journalism.)

But what these reports suggest is a very sober reality: that under current conditions in China, ordinary groups of Chinese people are subject to the imposition of serious violence if they come together to press their claims. There are reports of violence by paid thugs concerning migrant workers, factory workers, peasants subject to land confiscation, and ordinary poor people who have somehow gotten into conflict with the authorities.

What this also suggests is that the forging of an effective and binding legal order in China — one that clearly articulates and defends the civil and individual rights of citizens that are valid even in circumstances of conflict between the powerful and the powerless — creation of this legal order is a profoundly important goal for Chinese society. Only on the basis of these kinds of legal guarantees can civil society be an arena in which citizens and groups can advocate for their interests in a peaceful and progressive manner.

The power of the authoritarian state


If any collective entity possesses power, surely it is the state in a dictatorship – the Burmese military dictatorship or the single-party states of Cuba or China. So how does an authoritarian state exercise power?

It is common to equate power with the ability to coerce and threaten in order to compel behavior. And certainly force and repression play a crucial role in authoritarian politics. But even within a dictatorship the instruments of coercion are less than total. When the priests and young people of Burma went into the streets of Rangoon a few months ago, the military rulers were able to use a mix of violence and restraint that permitted them to prevail against a budding democracy movement in Burma. But in the past twenty years rulers in the Philippines, Czechoslovakia, and Tbilisi have found that their arsenal of water cannons, secret police, and truncheons have not sufficed to silence the streets. Plainly, then, control of the forces of repression is an important component of the power base of an authoritarian dictatorship; but its scope is not unlimited.

As was true in other postings about power, we have to begin by asking about the relational situation of the relevant actors. What is the will of the state? What is the scope of behavior that the state wishes to control? Who are the agents who are subjects to the state’s power? We might put the geometry of state power into a simple diagram: goals and priorities => levers of influence (repression, persuasion, bribery, cooptation, horse trading) => varied actors (civil servants, military officers, community leaders, bandits, citizens) => behavior. From the dictator’s point of view, there are two sets of actors over whom power needs to be exerted: intra-state actors – persons charged within the government to carry out the dictator’s will; and actors in civil society – the citizens and organizations that make up mass society. Intuitively, the power of a state is measured by its ability to constrain the behavior of a set of actors in ways that permit it to achieve its goals.

Let’s look first at the intra-state actors. A state is a bureaucratic entity with decision-makers at a range of levels. Ministries and organs of the state — the police and military for example — have their own sources of power and domains of influence that are not fully within the control of higher authority. So the highest authority — president or general – has only a limited ability to directly impose his will upon lower levels. In the extreme case the executive can discipline or remove the lower-level director. But this lever is imprecise; it leaves the agency director a certain amount of undetectable freedom of action. So we can readily envision the situation where the executive has announced a certain priority for his government, and where two important ministries come into conflict over what to do. And one or both may be motivated by local interests rather than the priorities of the state. (This seems to be an important clue in explaining some current developments in China. Central policies enacted in Beijing are ignored or reconsidered in regional government offices.) In this instance we need to ask, what levers of power and influence does the executive have within the government itself through which it can compel compliance by both agencies?

At this level we find the familiar processes of cooptation, alliance, inducement — as well as threat — found in all organizations. Perhaps a singular difference is that the use of violence is closer to the surface in dictatorship than in other political organizations. But the task facing the fascist dictator has much in common with that of the executive of other large organizations with multiple agendas. The 20th century confronts us with some extreme cases — Stalin’s terrorism extended within his government as well as towards Soviet society at large, and Stalin used purges and executions to compel bureaucratic compliance. But it is an important question in organizational studies to assess the degree to which force and violence can effectively run a complex organization. And it seems likely that more ordinary mechanisms of persuasion and cooperation must usually be invoked.

So much for the problem of exercising power within the state. Now consider the larger and more interesting question of power used against civil society and ordinary citizens. The issue of power arises only when the state wants a certain kind of behavior and citizens don’t want to behave in this way. Take the large issues over which states want to exercise their will over citizens: taxation, conscription, and delivery of agricultural products. There is, first, the use of the threat of punishment to compel conformance. Draft dodgers can be hunted down and punished, villages can be threatened with violent retaliation if villagers avoid taxes, and food can be withheld from non-compliant regions (for example, Stalin’s war on the kulaks; see Lynne Viola, ed. The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside). Moreover, if the state can establish a pervasive network of police and informants, it can make its threats credible — with the result that compliance with law and dictum is reasonably high. So the organs of repression are certainly an important element of power for the authoritarian state.

Beyond violence, beyond effective enforcement, what other levers of behavior modification exist for the state? Two come to mind immediately: propaganda and the market. States often have a substantial degree of control over the instruments of thought formation — schooling, media, and communications technology. And experience has made it clear that there is a substantial degree to which a population’s behavior can be altered through these tools. Markets and other impersonal social mechanisms are another important mechanism for shaping behavior. China’s one-child policy was successful in altering the reproductive behavior of hundreds of millions of Chinese people. And these policies turned on a combination of coercion, enforcement, and financial incentives.

So perhaps the question of how authoritarian states exercise power is somewhat straightforward to answer: through organized repression, through artful command of a bureaucracy capable of acting cohesively, through the development of alliances with actors inside and outside of government, through cooptation of some actors to the disadvantage of other actors, through management of large social structures such as the market, and through the ability to set the terms of political behavior through the media and schooling.

Impersonal social causes?

There is a substantial place in social causation for mechanisms that link the intentions of powerful actors to the specific features of the outcome. “The outcome came about because the powerful actor wanted it to.” Why are there no petroleum refineries in mid-town Manhattan? Because zoning and planning boards have deliberately excluded such activities.

But what about causal mechanisms that are not the result of strategic choices by social actors? Are there impersonal social causes?

There are rare but real instances of social changes that occur without any intermediary of social action — for example, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the extinction of Pompeii. But these events fall outside the scope of the social sciences. And there are important social explanations that begin in impersonal features of the natural environment — for example, the configuration of rivers in China’s early history. But what makes these into social explanations is the analysis of the social behavior through which agents adapt these conditions to their needs. (See Mark Elvin’s truly excellent environmental history of China for more on this; The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China.) But social explanations always involve actors — and that means that intentional social action always comes into the picture in some way. So we might begin by saying that there are no impersonal social explanations, if by that we mean “explanations of social outcomes that do not involve the actions of persons.”

It is important to observe that there are actually two distinctions that are relevant here. There is the “personal-impersonal” distinction, and there is the “intended-unintended” distinction. In an obvious sense all social causation is “personal”, in the sense that social causal mechanisms are always embodied in the constrained actions of socially constituted actors or persons. So the actions of deliberate actors are part of all social causation. But the intentions of the actors are often unrelated to the social outcome we are trying to explain. So in these cases the outcome is not caused by actors’ intention that it should come about. In the refinery example — it may be that there is no regulation prohibiting this kind of activity, but the cost of real estate makes the proposition unattractive from a cost-benefit perspective. On this scenario we would have the result occurring as an unintended consequence of the choices of a large numbers of independent actors.

These are the most interesting social explanations: explanations of social patterns or outcomes that are not the result of design or intention, but that nonetheless emerge through the purposive actions of large numbers of agents. These are “unintended consequences” explanations or “aggregative” explanations. We can quickly identify dozens of such examples: the silting of river deltas as a result of flood-management strategies upstream; the expansion of black-market sales of cigarettes as a result of new taxes on tobacco; the expansion of traffic flows as a result of the opening of the third harbor tunnel in Boston; etc. These explanations are “aggregative” in the sense that they work by “aggregating” the lower-level choices and preferences of individual actors into a higher-level social pattern. (Thomas Schelling offers numerous intriguing examples along these lines in his book, Micromotives and Macrobehavior.)

So now we can answer our original question. There are no social causes that work entirely independently from social actors, and actors are purposive. So all social causation stems from “intentional” human behavior; persons are always involved in social outcomes. However, there are many social outcomes that are unintended and unrecognized by all the participants. The participants’ intentions are local and parochial; whereas the social outcome is large and unforeseen. These instances are the most interesting problems for social inquiry. We might refer to these as “agency-based explanations of unintended and unforeseen outcomes.”

This suggests a different way of classifying social causes: outcomes that are the intended result of specific powerful actors (conspiracy, leadership, dictatorship); outcomes that are the result of strategic interaction among a small group of purposive agents (bargaining, collusion, cooperation); outcomes that result from concerted collective action by large groups with some sense of collective goals (boycotts, strikes); and outcomes that are the aggregate result of uncoordinated but constrained choices by large numbers of independent agents (markets, habitation patterns).

This classification also makes it more apparent why the concept of power is central in social explanation. The first three categories imply a distribution of powers across specific agents and groups, in order to account for the postulated connection between the agent’s purposes and the eventual outcome. And the fourth category implies the exercise of power by some other agency, to account for the observed constraints on choice that constitute the heart of this type of explanation.

Power: corporations

How do large corporations wield power? What are the kinds of outcomes that corporate leaders want to influence? What are the instruments available to them through which they can influence outcomes? And are there impersonal means through which corporations influence society — i.e., wield power or exert causal influence?

Consider first the outcomes. Corporations are businesses with interests. These include first and foremost profitability — short, medium, and longterm. Profitability is influenced by a number of economic, legal, and political factors: a favorable trading environment; a favorable environment for secure property and contract rights; a favorable regulatory environment; favorable and predictable relationships with the workforce and unions; and favorable attitudes from consumers and the public. So corporate officers are charged to do everything possible to bring about positive results for the company in all these spheres.

Lobbying is a central activity through which the corporation pursues its agenda. The corporation employs professionals at a range of levels whose job it is to persuade and influence political and agency actors — legislators, staffers, agency officials, lower-level agency workers who can influence regulations and findings. Lobbying works through personal relationships, campaign support (including campaign gifts), and other forms of influence. (The subject of corruption and conflict of interest and commitment comes in here, but not all lobbying effort
falls in that category.)

Advertising, communications, and public relations are related efforts by the corporation through which the corporation exercises influence. The corporation expends substantial resources to “get its message out” — and these expenditures have measurable effects. Targeted audiences change their opinions and behavior as a result of these efforts.

So far we have identified instruments of suasion and incentives — persuading various actors to act in ways that are favorable to the corporation. And these efforts are substantially effective because of the weight of the resources the corporation can devote to the effort. Are there also more coercive means available to the corporation? There are. A company can threaten various constituencies through redirection of business activities to compel actions favorable to its agenda. For example, it can threaten to close a factory, or to lay off a group of workers, or to move production to overseas locations. These threats influence the behavior of municipalities, state governments, and unions.

In some historical circumstances corporations can also use violence and the threat of violence as part of its strategy for achieving its agenda. Examples of violence and intimidation can be found in China and Columbia today, and in the British and American business- labor struggles of the past. Violence and intimidation are among the tools through which strategic actors may pursue their goals.

This inventory indicates that businesses behave strategically in pursuit of their interests; that they have means of influencing powerful political and social actors through resources, organization, and intimidation; and that the results of this strategic action over time significantly influence the social space in which business activity, political rule-setting, and labor activism occur. In other words, corporations have significant causal powers in modern societies, and corporations constitute a significant locus of power in the contemporary world.

Power: social movements

Social movements usually have to do with change rather than persistence. And they usually emerge from “under-class” groups who lack meaningful access to other official and institutionalized means of power. They are among the “weapons of the weak”, and their effectiveness usually turns on the ability of a sub-population to mobilize in collective action with determination and courage. Examples include the American Civil Rights movement, the use of strikes and boycotts by coal miners in the Ruhr after World War I, and the Solidarity Movement in Poland in the 1970s.

The question here is, what are the scope, limits, and mechanisms of social power wielded through social movements? Is it possible for a social movement to cause change in basic structures, policies, and distributions of wealth and power in society? (I am not thinking primarily here of revolutionary movements, but rather more prosaic struggles for improvement of some set of conditions for the under-group.)

The question arises because the terms of the problem essentially raise a social contradiction: a numerous but powerless group, advocating for a change of structure or distribution that harms the interests of the powerful, aligned against the most powerful forces in society. It would seem that this contest is inherently determined by the disproportion of powers held by the social actors. And yet we can provide memorable examples of success. So the question is, how does this work?

The first factor that provides an obvious source of potential power for the under-class group, is the size and functional role of the group in society. Several of the most obvious tactics for a social movement depend on this structural fact — the strike, boycott, and mass demonstration. By mobilizing, the group can interfere with the smooth workings of society, compelling other parties to negotiate. And it can demonstrate its broad, mass-based support.

But the obstacles to these mass-based tactics are severe – classic collective action problems, problems of coordination and communication, and the need for competent organizations and leaders. And the tactics available to the powerful (the state, police, mine owners) are imposing: repression and intimidation, divide and conquer, co-optation, control of media, and a greater ability to wait out the struggle.

Besides mass mobilization, there is the tactic of broadening the movement through alliances. This strategy requires “changing consciousness” in the broader society by the actions of the under-class group. The group (primarily through its organizations and leaders) can strive to broaden the base of its movement through alliances with other like-minded groups and with the general public. And this depends upon successful communication — setting the terms of the struggle in such a way that it aligns with the moral values and material interests of other groups.

Once again, the tactical options and advantages residing with the powerful are substantial. The powerful control the media; they have an advantage in setting the agenda; and they have an extensive ability to co-opt potential allies of the popular movement (side deals, special accommodations, playing off divisions within the mass population). But not all the face cards rest with the powerful.

So here we have several kinds of tactics for the social movement — direct mass mobilization, broadening of alliances, and a deliberate campaign to capture the moral discourse for the public. But let’s push forward and consider what comes next. Suppose there is a social constituency for an important structural change. Suppose this group is fairly strongly mobilized (in terms of the engagement of members), that it has competent organization and leadership, and that its members collectively play a significant role in the economy. Let us further suppose that the group has now engaged in all the tactics above — large peaceful demonstrations in several cities, a few successful boycotts, and a successful communications campaign that has strengthened public support for the movement. Now what, in a constitutional democracy? (The analysis will look different within a dictatorship — for example, the situation of labor unions in pre-war Nazi Germany).

It isn’t implausible to conjecture that this scenario results in legislative action in support of the program. The public visibility and popularity of the struggle seem to lead to the inference that voters care about the issue, and legislators listen. So the social movement has won the day and has secured its objective. It has won the battle. But has it won the war — is the change of policy a genuine and enduring change of structure in favor of the under-class? And here we can speculate again: the long, slow “tectonics” of power and privilege will turn back these gains in the future. The popular coalition cannot sustain its vigilance and mobilization forever; whereas the interests and strategic advantages of the powerful persist like great tectonic plates.

So on this line of thought, we can come to a provisional assessment of the causal powers of social movements in democracies: they have a fighting chance of securing tactical victories, but the prospects for achieving enduring structural change seem more remote. Their ability to change the rules of the game in a sustainable way seems limited in the face of entrenched and enduring interests opposed to such a change.

(Perhaps the Civil Rights movement is the rare exception to this statement. The rules of the game have plainly changed since 1953 with respect to race relations in the US — in spite of the pressing need for further transformation.)

(There is of course a huge literature on social movements. A few interesting sources are Charles Tilly, Social Movements, 1768-2004, Gary Marx and Douglas McAdam, Collective Behavior And Social Movements: Process and Structure, Peter Ackerman, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century, and James Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.)

What is "power" in the twenty-first century?

Is “power” different in the twenty-first century?

Is power the same as “ability to influence behavior”?

Do the internet and new forms of communication and social networking create new opportunities for power–for good or bad purposes?

Think about the ways power was created and used in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries: the power of the state to regulate and enforce; the power of the police to arrest and confine; the power of Europe and North America to administer global empires; the power of the press to focus attention on subjects of concern (political corruption, tainted food, child labor).

These forms of power turn on a few more basic ideas: the ability to use force in order to coerce or threaten; the ability to use mechanisms of communication to influence public opinion and action; the ability to deploy a dispersed bureaucracy in order to organize the actions of distant actors.

Has the balance of power shifted between organized states and networked anti-state organizations?

The exercise of power is a crucial mechanism of social causation, and the analysis of the sources and organization of power is an important task for social science and social theory.