Studying the Power Elite

In: Daniel In The News

20 Oct 2017

My Financial Times review of William Domhoff’s Studying the Power Elite looks at the historical discussion of political power in America.

Should wealthy individuals have a greater say in the running of modern democratic societies than other citizens? The official answer nowadays is, arguably, no. In the early days of the US, however, voting was generally limited to property owners. But this restriction has long since gone with the gradual shift to universal adult suffrage.

In contemporary America, the richest individual and the poorest pauper have, at least on paper, an equal say in the electoral process. Bill Gates may be the world’s wealthiest person but, like everyone else, he only has one vote. In relation to voting, the principle of equality is generally accepted.

However, it is also clear that the rich have much greater means at their disposal to influence politics. They can use their considerable wealth to lobby for whatever sort of society they see fit.

This disconnect between formal equality and material inequality has long been a backdrop to political debates. Often these take the form of disagreements on whether democratic politics can be truly fair or representative in a society with stark social inequalities.

Some 50 years ago, a young member of the psychology faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz, touched on these questions in the bestselling Who Rules America? The Triumph of the Corporate Rich. The thrust of G William Domhoff’s argument was that the empirical evidence suggested there was indeed a close-knit upper class in the US. An analysis of the data on the social composition of leading institutions showed a distinct elite was dominant. Since then he has extended and refined his thesis in several books on the same theme.

This year, Domhoff and 11 other experts have provided a series of essays giving a useful overview of the debate. Studying the Power Elite: Fifty Years of Who Rules America? is essentially an opportunity to revisit the discussion in circumstances far removed from the 1960s. In particular, economic inequality has become a more pervasive topic of concern than it was back then. As a slim volume covering a voluminous exchange, its arguments are inevitably skimpy, but it does offer a guide to the key schools of thought.

In broad terms, there are two traditional camps at either end of the spectrum in the debate on class power. At one end are self-proclaimed Marxists who see the state as an instrument of class domination. From their perspective, the ownership of the means of production enables a wealthy class of business owners to rule the rest of society. At the other end is the pluralist school. In its view, there are many social mechanisms that ensure power in the US is diffused. These include competing interest groups, voluntary associations and the influence of public opinion.

However, when Domhoff was first writing, new theories of power had recently emerged. C Wright Mills, an influential leftist sociologist, criticised both traditional camps in The Power Elite (1956). In his view the pluralists underestimated the extent to which a combination of elites — corporate, government and military — had come to play a dominant social role. Politics and politicians were, he said, under pressure to do the bidding of these elites. At the same time, he disagreed with the Marxist claim that only the corporate elite was necessarily dominant. Domhoff says his own work is “Millsian” in spirit but is enhanced by empirical studies of claims made by Marxists, pluralists and Millsians.

Another new school of thought emerging at the time was historical institutionalism. Its emphasis was on institutions as sets of social relationships that endure. There is a particular focus on formal rules and regulations, such as constitutions. Such institutions place limits on the scope for private actors, such as corporations, to influence the path of government. This school emphasises how institutions develop in different ways in different countries at different times

Although many writers contribute insights to the discussion about power, the book ultimately frustrates. Too often there is a circularity in the claims made. The thrust of many empirical studies seems to be the banal observation that individuals from elite backgrounds are overrepresented in elite institutions. Often the theorising is arid, too. There seems to be a desperate need to break out of this intellectual logjam.

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