Sociology via Attack The System


According to sociologist Michael Mann’s theory — in my opinion, the theory that best suits power structure research — the power structures within Western civilization, and probably other civilizations, too, are best understood by determining the intertwinings and relative importance at any given time of the organizations based in four “overlapping and intersecting sociospatial networks of power” (Mann, 1986, p. 1). These networks are ideological, economic, military, and political — “The IEMP model” for short.

First, the pre-revolutionary history of the United States as a set of separate colonial territories outside the context of the European multi-state system led to a federal form of government with many government functions located at the state as compared to the national level. The state level in turn ceded some of its power to the city level, where landed elites — “place entrepreneurs” — have been able to form growth coalitions that persuade local governments to protect and enhance their interest in intensifying land use (Logan & Molotch, 1987; Molotch, 1976; Molotch, 1979; Molotch, 1999).
The rivalries among the economic elites of the various states within the new United States were a second major factor in keeping the American national government limited in its scope until the 1930s at the earliest. The Founding Fathers created a system of checks and balances at the national level that has made the powerful legislative branch of the American government very accessible to elite economic groups. In particular, the rural agricultural party of Jefferson (the Democrats), which won out politically over the urban industrial party of Hamilton (roughly speaking, the Federalists/Whigs/Republicans) until the Civil War, worked very hard to keep the federal government small. It is my claim that the plantation capitalists of the South, after finding a few allies in the North, played an enormous role in restraining the growth of a strong centralized state that might challenge their domination of their African-American workforce, first through slavery, then through Jim Crow laws and the share-cropping system.
Even under these circumstances, the federal government has forced changes in power arrangements in the South twice, first through the Civil War in the 1860s, then through its support for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. These defeats at the hands of Washington reinforced the anti-government ideology of white Southerners, who refuse to forget what they see as a humiliation. Even today, the fiercely anti-government stance that pervades Southern white culture is a major barrier for those who would like to have the federal government take more responsibility for many social, educational, health, and science programs. This does not mean that wealthy white Southerners reject the many subsidies they have extracted from the federal government since the 1870s, but it does mean they have created an ideology that allows them to keep that government from helping ordinary citizens to any great extent.
The small size of the 19th-century American state meant there were powerful corporations before there was a large national government, another contrast of major importance with Europe (Mills, 1956, p. 272). The corporate elites that arose after the Civil War thus had a big impact on how the national government grew, contrary to what the pluralists and state autonomy theorists claim (Domhoff, 1970, Chapter 6; Domhoff, 1990, Chapters 4-6; Domhoff, 1996, Chapters 3-5). With the coming of World War II, and the Cold War, of course, there was no choice but to expand the state dramatically, but that expansion was completely controlled by the corporate capitalists (Domhoff, 1996, Chapter 6).
Finally, the lack of any dangerous rival states on American borders, along with the protection from European states provided by the British navy throughout most of the 19th century, meant that the capitalist class in the United States did not have to contend with a “permanent military establishment” until World War II ( see Mills, 1956, Chapter 8, for an excellent account of these matters). The American government most certainly had an army that played a large role historically in taking territory from Native Americans, Spain, and Mexico. However, it was never big enough for long enough until the second World War to be considered a serious contender for power. By that time civilian traditions were long established.
As for the many wars in which the United States has been involved since 1949, they were decided upon by elected officials and by corporate leaders appointed to important positions in the state and defense departments, not by military leaders itching for a fight. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is a perfect example. It was the product of assertive nationalists like Vice President Richard Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, both former corporate CEOs, and the neoconservative ideologues they brought with them to government from right-wing think tanks. Most, if not all, of these pro-war civilians had carefully avoided military service in Vietnam after their graduation from college. President George W. Bush found refuge in the Texas Air National Guard, from which he took an extended leave of absence (Schweizer & Schweizer, 2004, pp. 191-195).
The United States Army was so small after the Civil War that the increasingly ascendant corporations often created their own organizations of violence to break strikes or resist unions, or else hired private specialists in such work. The largest of the private armies in that era, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, “had more men than the U.S. Army” (Mann, 1993, p. 646). The American government did not even try to stop organized corporate violence until the 1930s. That’s because most of the unionization efforts by workers were defined by judges as violations of property rights and/or of the right to freedom of contract. Employers thus had a legitimate right to “defend” their property and hire replacement workers. When it came to using organized violence to enforce the law, though, the corporate leaders had to hire private armies (Mann, 1993, pp. 645-48).
So, when we turn to the current power structure in the United States, and look into the details of class domination by the corporate community and its power elite, we have to remember that the absence of feudal economic elites, the fragmented nature of the ideology network, the weakness of the decentralized government, and the small size of the military — each explainable in historical terms — all contributed to this outcome. It’s not that the capitalists were somehow stronger or better in the United States. Instead, they found themselves in ideal circumstances in terms of the relationships among the four major power networks.


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