This paper evaluates the perennial question of whether the urban poor in developing countries are autonomous political actors or co‐opted tools of patronage. I develop a theoretical interpretation of urban politics, arguing that collective action is shaped by changing configurations of state, economy and civil society. Collective action is expressed in struggles over labor, public goods and political rights — issues of varying salience in different periods of development. The theoretical framework generates a set of propositions which I evaluate with reference to a wide range of secondary evidence. At bottom, the data indicate that collective action varies in form and intensity (militance) with specifiable conditions. Illustratively, clientism did predominate during the ‘developmental decades’ (1960–80) that followed earlier (1930–60) experiences of militant labor conflict and yielded in the current period of neoliberalism to struggles for political rights.