Has America a Ruling Class?
Strategy for Liberals: The Politics of the Mixed Economy.
by Irwin Ross.
Harper. 211 Pp. $3.00.
It is a singular commentary on the state of American political thinking that in almost two decades no new “names” have come to the fore among left-wing and liberal thinkers. The political intelligentsia that writes the books and stirs discussion is still composed almost exclusively of men who became established in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, at relatively young ages, and who today are in their middle or late forties. Seemingly, a generation has been lost. This picture is even more striking, considering the revolution that has taken place in economic thought in the last ten years, and with it, the development of a host of young and talented, albeit technical, economists.
A number of explanations can be advanced for the failure of first-rate political minds to emerge: many of the young men were drawn into New Deal administrative work; a number were rendered impotent by the Communists; the predictions of the Left, warning of native fascism, were sour; the fear by liberals of the loss of civil liberties during the war proved, on the whole, groundless, and thus their theoretical base was rendered insecure. Except for the brilliant but warped Managerial Revolution of James Burnham, the neo-Paretoian analysis of Lasswell, and the abortive revival of Randolph Bourne on the eve of the war, the major works reflective of “the revolution of our times” were the glassy tracts of Max Lemer and Harold J. Laski. In a sense, the real political response to the age was the revival of interest in the “élite theorists,” the re-reading of Machiavelli and Hobbes, and the acceptance of the oblique political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, with its strictures against utopianism.
These, then, have been fallow years. But a new crop of publicists is beginning to emerge. It is more than a coincidence of publishing that in recent months there appeared books by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Peter Viereck, and Irwin Ross, all of which treat of the same central problem of welfare and freedom. Each of these men is just over thirty; they are the harbingers of a new political generation.
Taken as a phenomenon, perhaps the most authentic representative of the group is Irwin Ross. Ross is a product of the “youth movement,” that doll’s house of revolution, where young Socialists, Communists, and liberals locked in mimetic combat, debating ferociously the road to power. His book reflects the education of a generation that went to college in the days of the Popular Front, learned the organizational logic of Communist control in the American Student Union and the American Youth Congress, was disillusioned ideologically and morally by the Stal-in-Hitler pact, cast its first vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, accepted quite soberly its tasks in the war, and is today “liberal without tears.” What are the fruits of this education?
Ross writes a “strategy for liberals,” and his arguments can be compressed without logical violence into simple schematic form:
The labor and liberal movements (e.g. Americans for Democratic Action) are not setting their sights high enough. The short-range goals of housing, medical care, etc., are important, but these do not meet the major challenge, the inherent instability of our economic system. When the blow comes, the liberals must be prepared with a program which can offer a thoroughgoing solution and is dramatic enough to appeal to the restless masses.
Such a program is the “mixed economy.” The mixed economy means the socialization only of the giant corporations whose monopolistic practices restrict production and whose investment decisions affect the level of economic activity. Other sectors of the economy, particularly service and distribution, would be left “free.” The moral case for such a program is that it provides for a flexible “welfare state” with a minimum of governmental bureaucracy; the economic case is that government control of key decisions can guarantee full employment; the political case rests upon the proposition that the power of big business or entrenched wealth to dominate Congress and sabotage the economy would be broken.
Such far-reaching social change, however, may provoke a reaction on the part of big business. The European debacle indicates that the “conservative business group” will engage in various forms of sabotage ranging from a sit-down strike of capital to the fostering of “an indigenously fascist system . . . [or] the ultimate sanction which reaction can invoke against a popularly elected radical administration: a military coup.” Ramsay MacDonald, Manuel Azaña, and Léon Blum were not prepared. Liberals must learn from their mistakes.
The tone throughout emphasizes the mood—tough-minded, realistic, hard-headed. The emphasis is on the concrete steps that have to be taken and the concrete measures that have to be advanced. Mr. Ross has read well among the younger economists and his chapters on the economic case for a mixed economy is an excellently popularized (but not vulgarized) rendering of Keynesian thinking.
The crucial question is, however: What is the social theory implicit in the book? What has Ross himself learned over the decade?
If any word has been learned well, it is power. Because the human appetite is for power, power must be curbed, hence the stress on the mixed economy rather than socialism; in this respect the lesson of Russia has been assimilated. But the absorption with the concept of naked power has its drawbacks as well. All significant political motives become reduced to power drives, a slippery term which is as rubbery as “pleasure and pain,” and which leads to too easy formulation. Since power is so tempting, human beings will not give it up. When their power is threatened, they will not give it up easily. Hence, almost like Newton’s law of motion, an energetic action will necessarily bring a vigorous reaction.
While such generalizations on power may be true regarding individuals, it is another matter to describe an intricate and complex social process, in which many interests clash and jockey for strategic position, in terms of these psychological motives. It can only be done by personifying political concepts and talking of “big business” or “Wall Street” as single, real entities. And that is, unfortunately, what Ross does.
In this respect Ross still bears, like the mark of Cain, the intellectual curse of a generation—a vulgarized Marxism (Marx himself challenged it in his annihilation of Bentham’s hedonism) which reduces social action to a mechanical economic determinism, and in which the most significant contribution of Marx’s thought, his analysis of the nature of ideology, is lost.
Men act, and in a sense need to act (a significant fact in its own terms), on a moral plane. And they seek to justify their action (often without hypocrisy) in terms of some moral purpose. Such interplay of particular interests and general ideas makes up an ideology. The real problem of materialistic analysis, as Sidney Hook once pointed out, is to show “the specific mechanisms by which economic conditions influence habits and motives of classes, granted that individuals are actuated by motives that are not always a function of individual self-interest.” And conversely, since classes are composed of individuals, to show “how class interests are furthered by the non-economic motives of individuals.”
Within the frame of his analysis, Ross has failed to attempt the answer. Even if he did, however, it is still questionable whether his type of analysis, even if it used Marxian categories in their fullest and richest sense, can provide more than a partial (and hence, if taken for the whole, a distorted) view of American society.
In concrete terms, is the action he predicts of the American capitalist an integral response to his class role as capitalist, or is the response likely to be diverse, with some men acquiescing to the democratic process and others resorting to force to retain their own power? What degree of real predictability is possible? Can we say that the American capitalist, without the social cement of a past, without a set of distinctive manners and morals, or a distinctive ideology (which is only now being fashioned), operates in the deliberate manner that traditional Marxist theory ascribes to the capitalist class?
The issue can be joined by raising three questions, and, within the limits of space, sketching the outline of a tentative answer. In the process, I may at times be forcing Ross’s position to the extreme, but one has to explore the limits of a theory in order to understand it. The three problems are: (1) Is America made in Europe’s image? (2) Is there a ruling class in the United States? (3) Who is the enemy?
It is quite significant that the major evidence Ross offers for the crucial thesis of the book, the inevitable hard-jawed attitude of “big business,” is the European experience. Why, however, no detailed examination of the American past? Why the assumption that American society must recapitulate the European drama?
The most obvious fact about America is the tremendous range and diversity of its people and their interests. Political power in America has always been based on the shifting sands of coalition in which interests are rarely explicitly defined. The unique and central figure of the American scene is not the ideologue but the politician, and in modern political life there have been only two national political “bosses,” in the explicit sense of the term, who have been able to put across a coherent slate of proposals or unmistakably wield an iron hand—one was Mark Hanna, the other Franklin D. Roosevelt; and in both cases it was not for long.
Could a demagogue like Hitler weld together these diverse forces, and impose an arbitrary rule on America? Such a prospect seems unlikely. Morever, it implies that American businessmen, themselves restless for fifteen years with the whittling away of their managerial authority, would welcome some over-all force which would have power over themselves as well. Some individuals probably would gamble for a seat of governmental power and might finance such fascist movements. But the lure in such cases is no longer the preservation of the capitalist system as a system but their own individual power, power which can be lost quite easily in the bureaucratic intrigues of court politics. But how, then, can one talk of “business” as a whole?
Is there a ruling class in America? Such a question implies that there is a coherent community of interest among defined groups, and further implies a continuity of interest. Of course there are strong interest groups in the United States, the strongest of which are business combinations which seek to influence policy by lobbying, by propaganda, and other devices. But this is a far cry from a cohesive class tied together by status, or family ties, or common manners, or legal property ties, which acts to sustain a mode of power.
From a historical point of view the American social structure, paradoxically, has become increasingly amorphous, while corporate control has become increasingly bureaucratized or “managerialized.” There is a multiplication of élites but within each group decisions are made increasingly in the more limited terms of the immediate needs of the group. There are always temporary and partial coalitions of power, but to derive from this a theory of the increasingly congealed nature of class power is to misread the drift of a technological and managerial society. This is not to imply that American class structure is growing freer; in many respects it seems to be growing more rigid. What is true is that the area of manipulation is becoming so vast and the sources of authority so diverse that a uniform pattern of action becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.
Why then the idea of a “ruling class”? As David Riesman has pointed out, “There is an almost animistic feeling that since things run, somebody runs them.” In the immediate sense somebody does run things, but this somebody himself is part of a larger system of action. It was one of the major contributions of Marx to demonstrate how a social system operates independently of the will of individuals, and in some sense molds them; it is the contribution of his vulgarizers to create bogeymen.
Who, then, is the Enemy? The problem of the American economy is the power of monopolistic enterprises to create drags on economic development. The problem of American culture is the standardization of mind and taste induced by massconsumption markets. The problem of American politics is (metaphorically) the small-town mentality.
Curiously, this last is a subject which receives no attention from Ross, or from other recent writers on the problem of liberal politics. Given the type of “army game” which is characteristic of American life, the frustrations and insecurities of living press most severely on the small-town person. (And usually every large American city is no more than a collection of small towns.) The pressures of conformity squeeze harder on the lower-middle class than any other social group, and leave it no area of release, neither the explosive behavior possible for lower-class individuals, nor the relaxed hedonism for upper-class individuals. Crabbed, frightened by change, suspicious of ideas, these men, like Wherry and Rankin, create a new species of know-nothingism. Narrowness, anti-intellectualism, and prejudice find their greatest articulation in the small-town mind and particularly his broker, the small-town lawyer. If, as I think will happen, American society grows increasingly amorphous and undifferentiated, his sense of panic will rise, his readiness to violence grow all the greater.