Kalecki on full employment

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Sat Oct 10 13:52:48 PDT 1998

rayrena wrote:

>One more thing: The phrase "ruling class" has been appearing in this
>thread. I just finished reading C. Wright Mills' "The Power Elite," where
>he talks about that term. I don't bring this up to invalidate the way the
>phrase has been used in this thread--the discussion has been about the
>economic elite after all--but because it is an interesting distinction, at
>least semantically. Mills wrote the book over forty years ago, and I think
>since that time the power of the economic elite has increased--to the
>detriment of the political elite-- at least enough to destroy some of his
>theories. Nonetheless, the book as a whole illuminates the relationship
>between the economic and political, and how the two combine and overlap to
>create the power elite. Anyway, this is what he wrote about the phrase
>"ruling class:"
>"'Ruling class' is a badly loaded phrase. 'Class' is an economic term;
>'rule' a political one. The phrase, 'ruling class,' thus contains the
>theory that an economic class rules politically. That short-cut theory may
>or may not at times be true....[T]he phrase 'ruling class,' in its common
>political connotations, does not allow enough autonomy to the political
>order and its agents, and it says nothing about the military as
>such....[W]e do not accept as adequate the simple view that high economic
>men unilaterally make all decisions of national consequence. We hold that
>such a simple view of 'economic determinism' must be elaborated by
>'political determinism' and 'military determinism'; that the higher agents
>of each of these three domains now often have a noticeable degree of
>autonomy; and that only in the often intricate ways of coalition do they
>make up and carry through the important decisions. Those are the major
>reasons we prefer 'power elite' to 'ruling class' as a characterizing
>phrase for the higher circles when we consider them in terms of power."

I'm certainly no expert in the sociology of class, but I think Mills is wrong to say that class is a strictly economic term, and he's also wrong to argue that it doesn't allow enough autonomy to the political realm. An institution like the Federal Reserve properly thinks of itself as doing the long-term thinking for the ruling class; people like Chris Rude who used to work there said they look at politicians and financiers as petty, short-sighted, and transient characters who need the Fed to do the long-term thinking and strategizing for them. Nor is there any simple equivalence between wealth and political power, otherwise the U.S. would be ruled by Bill Gates and the heirs of Sam Walton. Note how the hotshots of the 1980s failed to make it into the ruling class; most were rebuffed in their storming of the gates, with the interesting exception of Henry Kravis, who got onto the Metropolitan Museum of Art board (an inner sanctum of the NYC ruling class). Kravis came from wealth, and established himself in New York before he became an LBO hotshot. Not so Saul Steinberg or Carl Icahn. I'd say a ruling class is formed in part through money, but in part through education, social ties, cultural pursuits, media, elite foundations, etc. Inheritance still counts too. All these institutions and rituals are what make the ruling class so much stronger than the working class, which is much larger and almost infinitely diverse.


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