The radical historian Howard Zinn once said: “What matters is not who’s sitting in the White House. What matters is who’s sitting in!”

He was pointing to how progressive change is won. It has little to do with the political stripes of the party in government, but much to do with what happens outside parliament.

If it isn’t the parliamentarians, who does run society? Most of the time the decisions about what happens are made by the tiny minority who run corporations (directly or indirectly). They call the shots in both the daily lives of workers and the decisions of their parliamentary representatives.

They dictate what people will do during the most significant period of the day – their working hours. They determine how, when and what sort of work you perform. Everything from bathroom breaks to getting sacked is their call.

Their decisions also impact on whether you can afford to own a house, what suburb it will be in, what kind of health care you can afford, where your children will go to school. None of this changes when there is a change of government.

Company executives rely on the state to provide conditions conducive to doing business. They require favourable labour laws, taxation policies and trade deals. A police force must be at the ready for those occasions when people step out of line. And the army does their bidding beyond domestic markets.

The enormous wealth of corporate heads enables them to discipline governments and buy MPs’ loyalty.

Although they wield enormous power over society, the bosses are not elected. They are answerable only to the cronies on their company’s board. Their performance is measured in the company’s bottom line. In all their decisions, one simple thing is uppermost in their minds: maximising profit.

Profit is extracted by exploiting workers. Therefore, the major divide in society is not between Labor and the Liberals; the major battle lines are between bosses and workers. This is where the fight for change is really played out.

The key is the relative strength of both sides in the class struggle. When working class combativity was on the rise during the postwar boom, many gains were won under Liberal PM Robert Menzies. The campaigns to win recognition for Aboriginal people in 1967 and to force desegregation show how a determined minority of Aboriginal activists and students who tore around the country on their Freedom Rides could impose their agenda, regardless of the ideology of the government of the day.

More recently, both Labor and Liberal governments have continued the theft of Aboriginal land demanded by mining companies.

The fight against the penal powers – which imposed hefty fines on unauthorised industrial activity throughout the 1950s and 1960s – is another example. When Tramways Union Secretary Clarrie O’Shea was jailed for refusing to pay a fine, workers mobilised to bring the economy to a standstill until he was released. The penal powers became a dead letter.

However, in the last 30 years the bosses have waged a one-sided class offensive that has eroded many of the gains won in the 1960s. The single biggest factor in these defeats has not been who was in government, but the weakness of our side.

If we want progressive change, we should take Zinn’s words to heart. Our side needs to get organised and rebuild a rank and file socialist current in the unions and an activist tradition on the campuses.