Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Review: Who Rules America, by G. William Domhoff

Who Rules America: Challenges to Corporate and Class Dominance is the sixth edition of Domhoff's book, rewritten especially for our 2009 American political environment. It advances a class- and power-based framework to describe our society, goes into some details on how the networks the powerful form and how they operate in our society, and dismisses some of the more conventional interpretations of political science. I suppose I have to call it a necessary book, not precisely because it's some occasionally useful alternate viewpoint--although that might describe it's place in a saner political atmosphere--but more that the last decade or so has encompassed such spectacular failures of both the usual pluralist (the high school Civics version of representative democracies and the will of the people and so forth) and what Domhoff calls institutional absolutist (those who consider government as the only important power agency--throw a dart at the intertubes, and you're sure to hit in the eye some scold going on about the "state" or the "legitimate monopoly of force"--talking about those guys), that their inadequacy is hard to ignore. Neither political theory (I cringe a little to pair those words) has represented very well, for example, how we've managed to defend a handful of industries and insiders at any and all costs while our leaders hedge endlessly and ignore obvious favorable evidence when it comes to throwing the masses a bone or two. To put the financial bailout, say, or existing tax and regulatory structures, or the century-old categorical aversion to labor (I hate unions as much as the next salaried wanker, but I do try to apply my criticisms consistently) into a pluralist framework requires such a tremendous dose of ad hoc fallacious bullshitting--at least a whole blogosphere's worth--to make old Irv Langmuir weep. Somehow the answer is always to benefit a group that contains the deciders and to keep the rest of the unwashed out of the decision-making process (even if they occasionally benefit too).

In my more jaded moments, I suspect a pluralist model has been cynically advanced by a secretive power elite as a diversion. More accurately it has evolved to serve some sort of institutionalized obfuscatory function in the policy and opinion networks that Domhoff describes. But I think the persistence of the pluralism argument, or of the idea of distinct separation of government and citizen, is based on our individual experiences. The general way to formulate an argument on these grounds is to try and extend philosophies about human nature to human institutions. It's a sort of first-principles approach, which is fine, but I think we tend to overstate the rationality of our nature, and I think the societal descriptions that come from these points of view tend to be more like a narrative, more anecdotal, with a sneaky tendency to proceed toward preferred conclusions. And I think these views are used more often to justify human institutions, at least lately. (God knows class theory has been used as justification too, but I wish some better blogger than me would take it on him or herself to pick on the Enlightenment thinkers now and again. I like the ideas to a large extent, but I am fairly sure that much of this business of the nature of property and the universality of rights also had something to do with a new class of wealthy people trying to explain why they deserved to be.) But it's also worth the effort to look at the empirical macro effects and try to think about how our behavioral tendencies might have informed them, and I'll be honest here: one reason I'm liking these class and power theories right now is that they support my bias that we are less philosophical deliberators than we are a bunch of self-congratulating pack-apes. I mean we do operate on principles to an extent, but I think ideologies fall far short in predicting the way we continue to organize ourselves. It seems more reliable to observe that we tend to look out for our section of the herd; we organize hierarchies on whatever scale, we seek to define our subgroup and are impressed with its contribution, even if we're fond of other groups. The reason politics looks like high school (or a fraternity of jackasses) is because they're both manifestations of typical human activity.

Now we may be able to create external conditions that restrain that, or fail to, and the collective knowledge and experience matters (the subject of about a million other posts of mine, written and procrastinated), and situations of greater real prosperity (1950-1970, say) appears to correlate with some democratization of power, but I deeply distrust either claim of causation on that one. While I'm at it, let me dismiss my own generational myopia too. I see a lot of willing suspension of disbelief in the past ten years only because I was living them and trying to pay half-attention. Not only was the American power distribution more unequal 100 or 150 years ago, it more blatant, more obvious, better understood by the public, and more vigorously resisted. Noted.

Okay, so Domhoff's thesis is that the dominant power network in the U.S. isn't military or theological, but economic. The first contentious part is that a class-based power structure exists here in the first place, and he gets to it by defining class and power with semi-statistical data: cross-referencing influential memberships (who knew graph theory was useful), analyzing wealth and income distributions, and describing power indicators (as Domhoff summarizes them: Who benefits? Who governs? and Who wins?). I like thinking of power as some kind of statistical variable, measuring, to the extent stuff in this field is quantitative, how power and wealth can be more concentrated or less concentrated in society. It's not a matter of arguing people must behave this way, it's a matter of observing that statistically, they do. Domhoff writes nothing to dispute these observations, really. The power people and the upper class people, as Domhoff variously (and I think uncontroversially) says, overlap to comprise a common group, and I guess what makes this a theory rather than just an observation is the argument that power indicators aren't chiefly achieved by otherwise neutral, unconnected means. It's hard to get status in the herd without plugging in to the powerful networks. That those networks will support the shared values of the people in them and the people underwriting them isn't a shocker either. (I spent some time thinking of the networks I'm plugged into too, a future post if its boringness can be somehow contained.)

A barrier is that it feels very strange to talk about a "class" of people comprised of individuals I might know or meet, that are basically like me. Not aliens at all, even if they (we?) aspire to some shared experiences. And some people who win, even with the networks, fought to get there. The upper class isn't some cadre of moustache-twirling archvillains promoting a pluralist viewpoint because it disguises their true goals. They probably believe in the pluralist model too. And there's a trace of validity that when corporations succeed, they're helping their employees too. (A lot depends on the corporations, what they do, how they distribute revenues, and whom they employ!) Looking at the distribution of power indicators as a property of a given society, then the extent to which typical people (let's not say "you") are in charge of their destiny through effort and training (or whatever other narrative) can be thought of as a measurement the power structure.

Although the book radically opposes the usual descriptions of our economic hierarchy (and uses a lot of liberal PoliSci jargon to do it), and although Dohmoff's judgements can be discerned in there, the viewpoint can still be read as remaining fairly neutral on the broad questions of "is it good." If there weren't a loosely defined group of corporate and upperclass interests running things, then it'd be pro bureaucrats, or labor representatives, or soldiers, or priests. Not exactly uncommon in other places and times. The corporate community owns more than its share of evil, but I can't convince myself it's more inherently nasty than the other avenues though. The biggest problem Domhoff implies, and I tend to agree with him, is that power is currently overly concentrated in one small sector that doesn't like to give it up, and it'd be better to have an environment where status was less a foregone conclusion. (Or which was more attendant to our long-term survival, but that's another hobby horse.)

Right, so obviously it took me three weeks to read a couple hundred pages. How does Who Rules pass as a book? It's an undergrad text, and typically, it's simultaneously audacious, dull, and didactic by design. Mostly I got some useful terms defined, and my prejudices were confirmed in a richer depth than usual. Domhoff has a good supply of supplemental info and a companion web site (I think all textbooks do this now--what a pain in the ass), and I found the supporting material more informative and to provide the depth and convincing information that the text sometimes lacks. Since we're only talking 50 or 60 pages added to a relatively short book, I wish they were supplied as written appendices, it would have worked more nicely by my bed.

This edition of the book was written shortly after Barack Obama was elected to office, and Domhoff took pains to leave an open-ended critique of the new administration, noting that there are slightly fewer board members in the president's cabinet than in preceding ones. He offers a checklist of signs for hope, which, in 2009, were speculative: how will Barry handle the financial bailout, the promises on healthcare, corporate lawsuits, and the other things mentioned up there in the first paragraph. A year later, and it's not very encouraging.

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