Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Political Science

First Advisor

Julia Lynch


Over the past decades, capitalist democracies across the OECD have transitioned from manufacturing to models for growth based on dynamic services. In many countries, the transition to the knowledge economy has been accompanied by a process of liberalization, whereby market forces are disembedded from institutions for social protection. As a result, inequality has risen and insecurity has spread. While some scholars suggest that liberalization is an unavoidable structural characteristic of the knowledge economy, this dissertation offers an alternative.

I argue that rising inequality and spreading insecurity are the result of a shift in the discourse surrounding production, and that this shift has restructured the balance of power between employers and workers. This discursive approach captures the threat that workers face in the knowledge economy by illustrating the connection between employers’ orientation to shareholder value and their adoption of new strategies to control the workplace. Focusing on discursive contests in the workplace sheds light on the strategies that workers can develop to protect their rights despite their distance from labor’s traditional power resources, particularly unions.

I trace workers’ responses to downsizing at four sites of multinational technology firms in the US and Germany in order to uncover the causal mechanisms that explain why workers acquiesce to dismissals in some cases but resist in others. In the knowledge economy, managers justify dismissals in a primarily financial discourse that disposes workers to believe that downsizing is the unavoidable consequence of global market forces. Workers can redeploy this discourse to critique management’s justification and motivate workers to pressure management into considering alternatives to downsizing. I find that workers mobilize against downsizing when they develop counterhegemonic strategies that credibly demonstrate that collective action can be effective. National institutions do not automatically protect workers from employer discretion, but with enough creativity, workers can find ways to activate them.

By illustrating the causal mechanisms that shape power relations in the knowledge economy, this dissertation develops a theoretical framework for explaining variation in workers’ rights in twenty-first century liberalism.