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.
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Strategy for Liberals, by Irwin Ross
Must-Reads from Magazine
Not a departure but a return to the status quo.
President Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday stuck to the core themes that have defined his foreign policy since he took office. The ideological cocktail was two or three parts John Bolton, one part Steve Bannon. From his national-security adviser, Trump absorbs the traditional GOP hawkishness and sovereigntism that forms the cocktail’s base. Meanwhile, distinct traces remain of the ex-Breitbart chief’s harder-edged populist nationalism. Call that the modifier.
The main elements of the cocktail blend smoothly in some areas but not in others. Boltonians are wary of liberal, transnational institutions that seek to restrain U.S. power, and they aren’t shy about sidestepping or blowing past those institutions when national interest demand it. Bannonites detest the transnationalist dream even more intensely, though their hatred extends to mutual defense treaties and trade agreements that GOP foreign policy has historically welcomed.
Both camps, moreover, claim to have shed the illusions that they think got Washington into trouble after 9/11. They don’t believe that all of human history tends toward liberal democracy. “We are this,” they say to non-Western civilizations, “and you are that. You needn’t become like us, but don’t try to remake us in your image, either.” The Boltonians might pay some lip service to Reaganite ideals here and there, but as Bolton famously wrote in these pages: “Praise democracy, pass the ammunition.”
That’s where the similarities end. The Bannonites don’t share the Boltonian threat assessment: Vladimir Putin’s encroachments into Eastern Europe don’t exercise them, and they positively welcome Bashar Assad’s role in Syria. Boltonism favors expansion, Bannonism prefers retrenchment, if not isolation. Boltonism in its various iterations is the default worldview of the key national-security principals; not just Bolton himself but also the likes of Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo. Bannonism is where I suspect the president’s own instincts lie.
It is hard to assess fully how these tensions are playing out in American foreign policy in the age of Trump. But one intellectual temptation to guard against is the tendency to view every move and every piece of rhetoric as a crazy Trumpian violation of the Eternal and Immutable Laws of American Strategy. In the main, Trump’s foreign policy appears alarming and discontinuous only to those who forget how far Barack Obama departed from mainstream, bipartisan foreign-policy traditions.
Bashing or withdrawing from UNESCO and the Human Rights Council because anti-Semitic, anti-Western “jackals” have taken these bodies hostage? That’s straight out of the Reagan-Bush-Daniel Patrick Moynihan playbook.
Ditto for rejecting the universal jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court because it would mean ceding American sovereignty to “an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy,” as Trump put it Tuesday. Successive American administrations, including President Bill Clinton’s at various points, have opposed the creation of a world court that could be used by the “jackals” and their transnationalist allies to legally harass U.S. policymakers and soldiers alike.
Nor was there anything uniquely Trumpian, or uniquely sinister, about the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Legislation enacted by Congress more than two decades ago had required the State Department to recognize Jerusalem and move the American Embassy, and as the president noted in his speech, peace is “is advanced, not harmed, by acknowledging the obvious facts.” The move also reinforces the sovereigntist idea that a nation’s decision about the location of its embassy is not open to scrutiny by foreign busybodies.
Nor, finally, does praising imperfect but valuable allies somehow take Trump beyond the pale of respectable American policy. Trump’s support for Riyadh, Warsaw, and Jerusalem is a course correction. For years under Obama, Washington neglected these powers in favor of the likes of Tehran.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some wild elements to Trump’s foreign policy. For those who came of age in the shadow of certain postwar certainties, it will never be easy to hear the commander in chief threaten tariffs against various rivals and partners from the podium at Turtle Bay. And if Obama disrespected allies with his policies, Trump does so with his rhetorical outbursts against allied leaders, especially in Western Europe, and his bizarre refusal to directly criticize Vladimir Putin.
That’s that irrepressible Bannonite modifier in the cocktail, though the color and flavoring are all Trump’s own.
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A blow for sanity.
At some point earlier this year, America’s sources inside the Kremlin went dark. U.S. officials who spoke to the New York Times about their dangerous new blindness said they didn’t believe that their formerly reliable sources had been neutralized. Instead, their spies went into hiding amid a newly aggressive counter-espionage campaign from Moscow. The Times sources offered a variety of theories to explain what could have spooked their assets, but the most disturbing among them was the fact that the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee had exposed a Kremlin-connected FBI and CIA source as part of a campaign of unprecedented disclosures regarding America’s intelligence gathering process.
The disclosure that compromised a U.S. informant is only one in a seemingly endless cascade of classified information that Republicans claim must be revealed to the public if we are ever going to get to the bottom of the sprawling conspiracy that was put together to prevent Donald Trump from becoming president. The president’s allies in Congress have appealed to previously unused methods to reveal confidential House Intelligence Committee memos and even highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants, but none of it has satisfied Donald Trump or his defenders. There is always another document to release.
Last week, President Trump publicly ordered his Justice Department to declassify the redacted portions of a FISA warrant targeting Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, related FBI interviews, and text message sent by former FBI Director James Comey. These documents were supposedly related to the special counsel’s investigation into his campaign, even though he confessed that he had “not reviewed them.” Of the investigation, the president said, “This is a witch hunt.” The move satisfied many in Congress who insist that the president’s own Justice Department is persecuting him, but Trump confessed that he had ordered the declassification at the behest of his ardent supporters in conservative media such as Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro.
Trump’s order triggered a brief review of the most sensitive aspects of the intelligence he was prepared to declassify, and it seems that this information was sensitive enough that Trump’s advisers were able to convince him of the need to reverse course. And so, he did. On Friday, Trump announced that he would not allow the release of documents that “could have a negative impact on the Russia probe” and would jeopardize American relations with its key allies. And though he reserved the right to disclose these documents in the future, they would not be forthcoming anytime soon.
Trump’s allies in Congress were crestfallen. Three members told Fox News Channel’s Catherine Herridge that they were “blindsided” and “demoralized” by Trump’s about-face, but the president made a sober and rational decision. Not only has the withholding of these documents avoided the appearance of interference with Robert Mueller’s probe, but the president has also preserved America’s intelligence-sharing relationship with what he described as “two very good allies” that objected to the declassification.
Trump’s defenders in Congress who are inclined to flog the “deep-state” conspiracy theory should not be so disconsolate. According to ABC News’ sources, the documents Trump was prepared to disclose—just like documents before them—contained no smoking gun. Their sources insist that the documents and communications at issue would not have confirmed the suspicion among some observers that the FBI’s probe into the Trump campaign was based on the intelligence provided by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Instead, they would have confirmed that the investigation into Trump’s campaign began well before the FBI’s receipt of the “Steele dossier.” And when these disclosures failed to satisfy those who are most invested in nursing Trump’s persecution complex, there would be demands for more declassifications and more disclosures.
Conservatives with a healthy mistrust of federal agencies and the prevailing political culture within them may scoff at skeptics who are not eager to see U.S. intelligence documents sloppily released to the public. There are, after all, valid questions about the FISA Court’s oversight and the extent to which Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights are protected in counter-intelligence investigations that long predate Carter Page’s travails. But the interagency process and the oversight of appropriate redactions are designed to protect American intelligence assets and the assets of U.S. allies. It is all intended to preserve the integrity of U.S. sources and the methods they use to keep Americans safe.
If the Democratic Party was demanding these unprecedented disclosures with no regard for the geopolitical fallout and national-security risks they could incur, Republicans, you could be certain, would be raising hell. And they would be absolutely right to do so.
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RIP Paulina Płaksej.
It’s only Monday evening, which means Americans face another full week of political and cultural squalor. For an antidote, consider Paulina Płaksej, who died Sunday, aged 93. Our former COMMENTARY colleague Daniella Greenbaum broke news of Płaksej’s death on Twitter, which alerted me (and many others) to her inspiring life and that of her family, Polish Catholics who fed, hid, and rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Zachariasz and Bronisława Płaksej, Paulina’s parents, moved from Lviv, Ukraine, to Kałusz before the outbreak of the war. There, Zachariasz worked as an accountant at a local mine and developed warm relations with the area’s Jews. Toward the end of 1941, when the Nazis forced the Jews of Kałusz into a newly created ghetto with an eye toward their extermination, Zachariasz and his family “acted as couriers, smuggling notes in and out of the ghetto,” according to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. Soon, assisting persecuted Jews became the family’s main business.
It helped that they resided on the outskirts of town. As Paulina later recounted, “we lived in seclusion and not in the center of the town, so it was very convenient for us. We were surrounded by gardens, orchards, the river was flowing nearby, and there was a slaughterhouse not far away. The Germans rarely visited this place, so our life was peaceful…” Even before the creation of the ghetto, Jewish children would stop by the Płaksej home for a bowl of hot soup and a brief respite from the cruelty of daily life under occupation.
Her father, Paulina recalled, “was a very religious person, and he believed that you should always help a man, your fellow creature, as our religion has it. The Jewish victim was not simply a Jew, but your fellow, a human being, wasn’t he?”
The Płaksejs took extraordinary risks to that end, creating an underground pipeline from the Kałusz ghetto to safety for Jews targeted for liquidation:
The first family to escape [the ghetto] was Sara, Solomon, and their son, Imek. They temporarily hid at Paulina’s house. When it became too dangerous for them to stay there, Zacharias found a safer place for them to hide. He brought Sara, Solomon, and Imek to a trusted friend who was already hiding Jews in a bunker beneath his barn. Later, another Jewish woman, Rozia, escaped from the ghetto and sought out the Plaksej family. They also brought her to the farmer’s bunker. Paulina regularly brought whatever food and supplies were needed. Sara, Solomon, Imek, and Rozia, along with thirteen other Jews, stayed in this bunker for over a year. To this day, the identity of the farmer is not known.
In 1944 Miriam, another inhabitant of the ghetto, learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto and deport or murder the inhabitants. Miriam asked Zacharias to save her two-year-old daughter, Maja. Zacharias contacted Miriam’s former maid and arranged for her to come rescue Maja. The maid brought a horse and cart, and the Jewish police helped smuggle the little girl out of the ghetto. The maid told her neighbors that this little girl was her daughter who had just returned from living with her grandparents.
Miriam was in one of the last groups of Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. As her group was marched to the train, Miriam quickly took off her armband and joined the crowds in the street. She went straight to the Plaksej house asking for help. They hid her in their wardrobe for a number of months. Zacharias obtained forged papers for her and took her to another village where she would not be recognized as a Jew. There she was picked up as a Pole and sent to a German farm as a forced laborer. After the war, she returned to the maid’s house, picked up her daughter, and reunited with her husband. Due to the efforts of Paulina and her family, all of the Jews they helped survived the war.
The State of Israel in 1987 recognized Paulina and her parents as Righteous Among the Nations. May we never forget these stories, and may we all strive to follow in their footsteps, even and especially amid our contemporary squalor.
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Podcast: Kavanaugh and Rosenstein.
Can you take what we say about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh seriously considering we’re conservatives and he’s a conservative? Are we defending him because we are genuinely discomfited by how insubstantial the allegations against him are, or are we doing so because we agree with him ideologically? We explore this on today’s podcast. Give a listen.