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Who has power in society?

This article is over 8 years, 9 months old
As the global ruling class continues its clampdown on Greece, Tomáš Tengely-Evans asks where real power lies—and argues that workers can change the world
Issue 2461
Hundreds of thousands rally in Cairos Tahrir Sqaure during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011
Hundreds of thousands rally in Cairo’s Tahrir Sqaure during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 (Pic: Flickr: Gigi Ibrahim)

The attempts of Europe’s rulers to crush the Greek government has exposed the limits of democracy.

No one elected those who run the “institutions”—the European Union (EU), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank. 

Yet they are intent on forcing austerity upon ordinary people in Greece.

In capitalist societies real power doesn’t lie in parliaments but with the obscenely wealthy and unelected ruling class.

But the crisis in Greece has also pointed to the power that workers can wield—and that they have the potential to end class society for good.

Workers have immense power to challenge the bosses and their states because of the way capitalism works.

The capitalists are dependent on workers to make their profits. 

Workers sell their ability to work but bosses pay them only a small proportion of the wealth they create.

This is what the revolutionary and writer Karl Marx meant by the term “exploitation”. 

This puts workers in a social position that gives them a unique power to turn the tap off on bosses’ profits.

Socialists encourage all kinds of resistance to capitalism and the attacks it brings on working class people.

Protests, demonstrations and direct action are an important part of resistance and give others confidence to fight. 

But organised workers taking action can have a bigger impact because they hit profits.

All four unions were set to strike on London Underground this week. This would give a glimpse of this power. 

And we saw it in November 2011, when workers across some 29 unions shut down services across Britain when they struck to defend pensions.

Capitalism has changed enormously since Marx was writing. 

Competition between bosses means there is a drive to constantly find new, more profitable ways to produce things in order to undercut rivals.


These changes mean the working class looks different too. The last two deep coal mines in Britain are currently being shut down. 

More people today work in banking and service sector jobs than did in the past.

Yet these workers are still crucial to enabling bosses to make their profits. And workers’ action can help create a political crisis for the government and their rich friends.

Think of NHS workers for example. When they struck last autumn it acted as a focus for political anger over the Tories’ privatisation of the NHS.

Not every worker can shut down London’s transport network or grind a section of manufacturing to a halt. 

But workers’ action in every part of the economy can have a big impact.

Workers can win real reforms and beat back attacks on them. But they can also mount a fundamental challenge to the system.

The recent Egyptian Revolution showed this potential. Mobilisations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early 2011 were central to the revolution. 

But it was strikes by organised groups of workers in the textile mills and the Suez Canal that tipped the balance and forced hated dictator Hosni Mubarak out.

Big struggles such as this encourage workers to raise wider questions about how 

society is run and challenge long-held assumptions. 

By starting to organise things for themselves workers can realise that they have the power to run society without the bosses. 

This is partly why socialists push for rank and file workers to take charge during strikes instead of simply relying on trade union officials.

When bosses in Greece shut down the ERT state broadcaster in June 2013, workers occupied it and ran it themselves.

As one ERT worker put it some five months later, “ERT is now a tool to support the struggles, broadcasting every strike and demonstration. 

“The government hasn’t dared send in riot police because of the solidarity expressed by the working class.”

Struggle can transform workers’ ideas—but that doesn’t mean they abandon all the old ideas. 

People can still look to trying to reform the system, or hope that oppositional figures from the old order can become new leaders.

The Russian Revolution in 1917 overthrew the hated Tsar and brought in a provisional government. 

Many workers initially looked to this government, made up mainly of industrialists, to bring change.


But change was slow and workers began to set up their own organisations, called Soviets. Their ideas changed as they saw they could run things for themselves.

Revolutionary socialists need to be organised to push the struggle in a revolutionary direction. 

In Russia the Bolshevik party played a key role in making sure workers successfully took power and formed a workers’ state.

They understood that taking over the existing capitalist state apparatus is not an option. 

We are told that the state is neutral. In reality it is a capitalist state that looks after the bosses’ interests.

Marx described it as “nothing but the executive for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.

We can see how this works today. Bosses lobby politicians to push through policies that benefit business. 

This can be privatising the NHS, scrapping regulations on private landlords or making more cuts to corporation tax.

While politicians make important decisions, real power is in the hands of the banks and big corporations that dominate the economy.

They decide what is produced, where investment goes and how resources are allocated. 

This is the naked reality of ruling class rule.

But this isn’t just a question of corporations “controlling” elected governments. 

The majority of politicians and the people who make up the state bureaucracy come from the same background as those in the boardrooms of top companies. 

There’s a revolving door between top politicians and civil servants, and top bankers and chief executives.

Yet simply getting a more left wing government into office doesn’t solve the problem. 

Our rulers’ wealth and power is left intact whenever a government is elected into office. And if governments try to make even the smallest reforms, bosses resort to blackmail. 

They threaten to take their money out of the country if bonuses are capped or regulations are brought in.

They warn that jobs will be cut or workplaces shut down if governments talk of raising the minimum wage.

So left wing governments still end up managing the capitalist system and holding the reins of the bosses’ state.

The real problem isn’t with individuals—it is with the structures of capitalism. 

The institutions of the state have developed to support the bosses. 

For all the talk of capitalism being a “free market”, big business has always had an important relationship with the state.


The state helps protect capitalist operations and support the infrastructure that allowed the system to expand—health services, education, transport systems and so on.

Today states or coalitions of states fight each other for the interests of “their” capitalists. 

They battle to win contracts, better tax breaks or deregulation that can keep wages low.

Some hope that there could be a nicer version of capitalism where workers are treated better. 

But exploitation and competition are part and parcel of the system. They can’t be reformed away.

Firms are forced to maximise profit or face going out of business. 

Marx argued that this meant our rulers’ only goal was “accumulation for accumulation’s sake”.

Bosses use their economic power to keep this system in place and to try and crush any challenge to it—whether from governments or strikes.

And the bosses’ state will use its instruments of repression—the police, security services and army—to try and hold down revolts.

Our rulers hope we will conclude that the bosses are all powerful and nothing can change.

They want us to think that we could never run things and that socialism would be a disaster.

In reality they are the ones presiding over a system that wrecks the environment and creates poverty, war and racism.

The constant pressure on bosses to attack workers means that struggle breaks out time after time.

Revolutions will erupt in the future. The real question is whether they will win.

Workers have the potential power to overthrow the bosses—but getting rid of them for good means being organised.

Revolution in the 21st Century

by Chris Harman, £8.42

State and Revolution

by Vladimir Lenin, £6.95

Ten Days That Shook the World

by John Reed, £9.99

Arguments for revolution—The Case for the Socialist Workers Party

by Joseph Choonara and Charlie Kimber, £3

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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