Capitalists against Markets: The Making of Labor Markets and Welfare States in the United States and Sweden

By Peter A. Swenson | Go to book overview

to what labor and liberals have accomplished in the United States. It also shows that the ebbing of capitalists' relative power cannot adequately account for when and why these societies imposed some measure of equity and security on the arbitrariness and uncertainty of markets.

The economic, historical, and political analysis indicates that some of the error in conventional thinking arises not just from ideology but from our difficulties as outside observers in seeing through the deceptive game of politics. In that game, capitalists' strategic positions may obscure their real wants. Their wants or preferences may not quickly and faithfully adjust to the complex workings of real, underlying, and changing interests over time. Thus, economic theory about capitalists' varying interests and in-depth comparative historical research on their evolving wants and strategies are the means used here to develop an alternative and, I hope, more penetrating understanding of capitalists and reform.

Private sector employers and their organizations are the analytical and research focus. I chose to study them not because I believe they are the only important agents of social policy reform. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most initiative takers come from outside the ranks of capitalists and many of the most vocal opponents step forth from among them. I selected this focus because most literature neglects employers in the investigation of other agents of change: party politicians, for example, who appeal to popular, especially working-class interests, or policy intellectuals and bureaucrats with their potentially “autonomous” agendas. Therefore, I make no claim that impersonal capitalist mechanisms frictionlessly or even clankingly drive political systems. Nor do I claim that capitalist elites pull all the strings attached to puppet-like actors on the political stage. Instead, the politics of reform, I argue, is usually the result of a pragmatic and strategic search by noncapitalists for policy founded on cross-class alliances of interest. In this building of bridges, the interests of neither capitalists nor of other groups exclusively determine who gets what from the two-way traffic in benefits.

Some readers may be disappointed to find no formal elaborations and quantitative testing of theory. Here I follow a tradition of qualitative work in comparative political economy, hoping to achieve another kind of rigor through the gathering and analysis of historical evidence. In this tradition, slippery metaphors like “the balance of power between labor and capital” appear with frustrating frequency, without clear definition, and never face the criticism that similar notions about power among nation-states endlessly suffer in the international relations literature. My notion of cross-class alliances may not be an enormous improvement in precision. I do not even think it can account for all reform. Indeed, “class compromise” resulting from changing power balances between social classes—or better, shared recognition that the costs of continued conflict exceed the costs of compromise—no doubt accounts for some progressive change at the margin. I believe, however, that the crossclass alliance analysis has more traction for pulling together the facts about the labor and social politics of capitalist democracies into a realistic argument.

-viii-

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