ownership and control

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There has been much debate about whether, in advanced Western capitalist societies, ownership and control of the means of production has come historically to be dispersed throughout a greater proportion of the population. In the classic statement of this thesis (R. Dahrendorf's Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society, 1959), there is an increasing separation of ownership and control. Subsequent sociological studies investigated, and debated, the empirical relationship between the two.

Adolf A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means (The Modern Corporation and Private Property, 1932) argued that a separation of ownership from control in larger American corporations during the 1930s, was transferring economic power from ownerentrepreneurs (capitalists) to managers. The growth in scale of industrial enterprise has meant that the number of individuals holding shares has increased to such an extent that no individual, or even group of individuals, can have a significant controlling interest. This long-term process of dispersal creates a power vacuum which can be filled only by a professional salaried management without significant property.

Marxists have taken a different view. Rudolf Hilferding, for example, maintained that the characteristic form of advanced capitalism is a fusion of monopoly capital in banking and manufacturing into ‘finance capital’, or capital not restricted to one sphere of industry. Banks, insurance companies, pension funds, investment trusts, manufacturing, and other commercial corporations all own shares in each other. Large industrial enterprises are controlled not by managers but by bankers. Cross-shareholdings are reinforced by a complex web of interlocking directorships—and sometimes by kinship and friendship ties—which restricts ‘effective ownership’ to a financial oligarchy, comprising only a few hundred or few thousand individuals, organized into financial groups or knots of financial power. The capitalist class consists of finance capitalists.

Considerable research effort has been expended in the attempt to decide between these views. How much, and which parts, of a corporation need to be organized into a co-ordinated financial grouping before strategic control of a particular corporation can be secured? The most convincing answer to these questions will be found in the works of John Scott (Corporate Business and Capitalist Classes, 1997). Control in large enterprises, he argues, corresponds neither to management control nor to minority bank control but to ‘control through a constellation of interests’. This is found in enterprises where financial intermediaries are the dominant shareholders, but none is able, individually, to exercise minority control. Where the largest twenty voting shareholders collectively hold sufficient shares for minority control, these comprise a diverse constellation of controlling interests, and no stable coalition can exercise full powers of minority control. In this situation, the members of the Board of Directors can achieve some degree of autonomy from any particular interest, and the nature of the capitalist class is much more complex than either of the earlier interpretations would suggest. An important and influential argument is that of Maurice Zeitlin, The Large Corporation and The Capitalist Class (1989). See also bourgeoisie; interlocking directorship.

http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.so.17.080191.001145 A review of comparative studies of contemporary forms of ownership, by John Scott: ‘Networks of Corporate Power: A Comparative Assessment.’ (Subscription)


Subjects: Sociology.

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