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(DV) Sherman: A Progressive Out-of-Power-Elite?







A Progressive Out-of-Power-Elite?
by Steven Sherman
March 6, 2006

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One need only glance at the major left/liberal websites to realize that the left spends a lot more time complaining about what it would like to change than reflecting on itself. Jarol Manheim’s Biz War and the Out-of-Power Elite is a welcome effort to paint a picture of the progressive movement of the last twenty years, and is heartening in its claims that the left is gaining strength. Ironically, Manheim himself is a centrist who distances himself from the ideology he examines. Nevertheless, his argument should be taken seriously and is a useful starting point for exploring what needs to be done for the left to play a more potent role. This does not mean, however, that it should be accepted uncritically. 

Manheim takes as his starting point power elite theory, which, as developed by C. Wright Mills and elaborated by G. William Domhoff and Thomas R. Dye, claims that the most important decisions in the US are made by a few thousand people working through a handful of institutions such as think tanks, foundations, periodicals and political groupings. Electoral democracy is largely window dressing in this view. Mills, Domhoff and Dye described a power elite inclined towards the political center. According to Manheim, the right wing developed its own network of power elite institutions in response. The right was able to move from the margins to the center of American life by demonizing “liberals” in ways that resonated with many Americans. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, it was clear that the right wing was revitalized. 

In response, much of the left regrouped. Without developing formal decision-making procedures, a consensus developed around building a group of left wing power elite institutions. Manheim lays particular emphasis on the “SDS alumni association” in creating these institutions. Although Students for a Democratic Society imploded and left no organizational legacy, numerous members went on to play prominent roles in the new institutions. The left rebranded itself as “progressive” (appropriately, as, like the progressives of a hundred years ago, it seeks to regulate capitalist enterprises) and found in “the corporation” an enemy many Americans could grasp.  

The left reworked the “corporate campaign” tactic developed by the labor movement in the '70s. In order to press for better contracts, labor unions shifted from simply striking at the workplace to pressuring multiple vulnerable spots of corporations -- customers, vendors, public opinion, investors, etc. Labor unions typically wanted the corporations they were prodding in these ways to survive and flourish once the dispute was over, and thereby continue to employ the union members. By contrast, the “anti-corporate campaigns” developed by progressives, while using identical methods, typically seek not only to win limited reforms, but to discredit corporate power in general. Whether the goal is to force Coke to stop murdering union activists in Colombia or to get Victoria’s Secret to print fewer paper catalogues, “the issue is not the issue” (to quote a slogan of the '60s). The broader goal is to use such issues to demonstrate the moral failings of corporations in general. Manheim sees this as a potent strategy that may well strengthen the progressive movement in the future. Ironically, however, his power elite perspective leads him to dismiss the claims to “participatory democracy” made by many on the left. Just as electoral democracy disguises the power of centrist or right wing elites, so participatory democracy is little more than window dressing for the left power elite, or the “out-of-power” elite, as he describes them. 

This is a fascinating narrative. It gains partial vindication in Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book, Bait and Switch. Hunting for a corporate PR job, Ehrenreich discovered that corporations are panicked by the sense that they are constantly under attack from activists. However, there is a serious conceptual flaw in Manheim’s framework that leads him to exaggerate the power of the new progressive movement. The problem is that Manheim conflates power elites with what we’ll call, for want of a better term, networked political formations. The power elite is the group of people who reside at the top of the major institutions of American life -- in Mills’ view, the corporations, the military, the government, for Domhoff the big income-generating enterprises, banks, large landowners. Networked political formations are the combination of think tanks, periodicals, foundations, and organizations used to advance a political program. In the US, and perhaps in most countries, they have displaced the political party as the most effective means to act politically.  

Between 1950 and 1970, one networked political formation, the center, held sway over most (never all) of the power elite. The center called for some regulation, but no state control, of capital, for the containment, but not the rollback, of communism, for progress, but not unruly activism, on civil rights. The power elite diagnosis is particularly potent because the ideologues of the center were vehemently anti-populist, vilifying those who sought, through democratic action, to challenge the status quo as “true believers,” “paranoid” advocates of “conspiracy theories.”  

Then the center led the US into Vietnam, and failed to contain the aspirations of the civil rights movement through moderate reforms (and the radical groups which flourished instead also inspired unruly movements for women’s rights, gay rights, etc). By 1970, the center’s control lay in ruins. Some institutions -- academia, Hollywood, the art world, mainline religious denominations, to an extent the Democratic party -- made room for activists moving from the street into more comfortable careers (and in the process, inevitably, softening their politics, although some academics to this day retain the appellation “Marxist”). And the right wing used the center’s collapse to regroup -- at the elite level, rallying corporate heads to resist any regulation and compromises with unions, and at the grassroots level, campaigning against the culture of abortion rights, gay rights, sex education, etc. and the supposed failure of the center to adequately support the military effort in Vietnam. The right succeeded (note to progressives -- through a lot of hard work) in pulling together a coalition that could consistently win elections and increasingly dominate US political life. Economic libertarianism was linked to macho militarism and Christian conservatism. At the same time, the right has not succeeded in altogether marginalizing radical liberal voices in the cultural institutions (it was more successful at scaring the Democratic party into muzzling the left) and so the country has a deeply polarized quality.  

By contrast with the right, the progressive network political formation Manheim describes is isolated from any potential mass base. It has not overcome the racial segregation that has marked most progressive political movements in the US. It is telling in this respect that the “SNCC alumni network” (various community based organizations started up by civil rights veterans ) is outside of Manheim’s field of vision. The decimation of unions may in the long term open up the space for more political, democratic forms of working class action, but in the short term this has destroyed another potential base of support. And, need it be said, that neo-progressive ideas have little currency among the corporate power elite? That enough rich kids share progressive ideals to fund the Tides Foundation (and Tides, in turn, can fund Global Exchange, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, and the Rainforest Action Network, among many others) is certainly interesting, and even important, but it is not the same as having serious influence among the power elite (it is certainly not inconceivable that, if the progressive movement becomes more powerful, a portion of the power elite will rally to it, as they determine ways to incorporate some demands while retaining some of their power and privileges). Lacking a connection to a mass base or a substantial portion of the power elite, the progressive network is likely to spend considerable time in the political wilderness. That many Americans sympathize with its vision of rapacious corporations is surely heartening, but it is not the same as organizations that can act to project power and shape the national debate. 

Manheim’s cynicism about democracy is not altogether warranted. The right won power through a form of mass political mobilization -- mobilization based on sex panic hysteria, racism, and militaristic woundedness, but a form of mass politics nevertheless. If a progressive political network is to one day displace them, it will need to attend to those questions of participatory politics -- not simply as window dressing on its network, but as the means to deepen and intensify its ability to project power from a mass base. The progressive network will have to develop ties to communities it has isolated itself from, and to do so it will have to develop the means to listen to them and understand their priorities. Furthermore, the progressive movement will have to decide whether it wants to put a gloss on existing power arrangements in the US, or whether it genuinely wishes to undo those structures. Because it is largely composed at this point of organizations dominated by highly educated whites (the most privileged group in the present-day United States), it is inevitable that it is conflicted about whether to fight power or simply find a way to take a place at the table. Ultimately radical democratic forms of organizations hold the promise of undoing the concentration of political and economic power that facilitates corporate domination in the first place.

Steven Sherman is a sociologist who lives in Chapel Hill, NC. He maintains the blog
Left Eye on Books. He can be reached at: threehegemons@hotmail.com