Originally a sixteenth-century French term referring to the body of urban freemen, which gradually became interchangeable with the term capitalist class, especially amongst Marxists. Current usage refers to the owners of the means of production in capitalist societies-although, because of the decomposition of capital , the term now has doctrinaire connotations and appears slightly dated.
Among non-Marxists, the applicability of the term in more advanced capitalist countries has been regularly questioned, especially since the 1930s. For example, Adolf A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means (The Modern Corporation and Private Property, 1932) argued that because of the separation between ownership and control which became apparent in larger American corporations during the 1930s, economic power was beginning to pass from the owner-entrepreneurs (capitalists) to the managers. Similar and again highly influential arguments appeared in the 1950s (see, for example, Daniel Bell's article on the decline of family capitalism which is reprinted in his The End of Ideology, 1960), and again in the 1960s, when in his book The New Industrial State (1967) John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term ‘technostructure’ to refer to the institutional rather than personal nature of power in modern economies. According to Galbraith, the rise of the modern corporation has replaced the entrepreneur , as an identifiable individual and as a directing force in the enterprise, by a collective ‘guiding intelligence’ embracing all those functionaries located between the levels of senior management and junior staff (the technocracy), who contribute to group decision-making for and on behalf of the organization which they form.
More recently, this change in analytical focus has gained still greater momentum with the development of the subdiscipline of business history, and in particular the appearance of Alfred D. Chandler's studies of organizational change in large American companies (see, for example, his The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, 1977). The summation of this whole line of argument probably came with the publication of Bell's The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), with its claim that the new centrality of knowledge in the production process had changed not only the distribution of economic power, but also its very nature.
Concerning the issue of ownership more specifically, scholars (and of course some politicians) have claimed that the ever-wider dispersion of shares and the accompanying increase in the proportion of shares owned by pension funds and other financial intermediaries, have both transformed and made more democratic the structure of ownership in advanced capitalist societies (see, for example,’s The Unseen Revolution, 1976).
The response of Marxists, and those that agree with them on this issue, has been twofold. On the one hand, it has been argued that empirical studies demonstrate that the powers of individual owners have not declined much, and certainly not as radically as has been claimed. On the contrary, according to these researchers, the more widespread share ownership only means that it is now often possible to have a very significant impact on the manner in which the still very considerable powers of boards of directors are exercised (for example with regard to investment decisions), whilst owning only a single-figure percentage of the shares. Moreover, as has been argued more recently by those interested in ownership networks, because of the power that comes with the ownership of relatively small parcels of shares, and especially if these shares are in large, market-dominating companies, it is possible that their owners may come to exercise power far beyond the confines of their base company, either through that company's holdings, or as owners on their own account. (See, for example, the article by in , Structures of Capital, 1990, or J. Scott's Who Rules Britain?, 1990.)
The second thrust of the Marxist response to arguments about ownership and control has been more theoretical, and comprises a claim that the issue of personal versus institutional ownership only presents problems because of a residual humanism in much Marxist thinking, a tendency which requires one to give theoretical priority to the identification of the concrete bearers of property relations (that is, specific individuals), rather than (following Marx's sixth thesis on Feuerbach) to the identification of the social relations of possession, control, and title that constitute these bearers themselves. If the latter are given theoretical priority, then because the bearers so constituted may be either humans or institutions one may talk of the existence of something called a capitalist class, if not necessarily of a clearly defined body of people recognizable as a bourgeoisie, regardless of the concrete nature of, or relations between, its bearers (see, for example,, Social Theory after Postmodernism, 1990). See also managerial revolution ; middle class.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

(especially such as depend on trade), ,

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