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Is There a Ruling Class?

In response to:

What Rules America? from the May 1, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

Andrew Hacker’s nonreview of The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats [NYR, May 1, 1975] has the merit of raising several key issues concerning class and power in the United States even though it does not handle these issues as clearly as it might.

Hacker’s fuzziness on class and power goes back at least to his 1964 essay in honor of C. Wright Mills, “Power to Do What?” wherein he rejects Mills’s tripartite power elite and replaces it with the notion that “the men who run America’s large corporations stand at the center of the topmost circle.” But he refuses to call this “topmost circle” a ruling class, or part of a ruling class, because members come from “every stratum of the middle class,” because “birth and breeding” are of “negligible importance,” and because promotions are based more on “talent” than “manners” or “connections.”1

Aside from the fact that birth, breeding, and connections are still more important than Hacker claims, he misses the point that “class affiliation is not a question of social origins,” although common social origins are “important to the thinking and cohesiveness of a class.” Rather, class has to do with “the position which individuals occupy in society, that is to say, their relations to others, and to society as a whole.”2

In making the above statements about class, Paul M. Sweezy is speaking of “economic classes,” but in another context he goes on to say that the “social classes which we observe about us are not identical with the economic classes of capitalist society. They are modifications of it.” He further notes that the core of the ruling class (as a social class) is “big property owners….”3

Now, the whole point of my research efforts on power in America, as was made clear in Who Rules America? in 1967, is to see if Sweezy and other Marxists are right in their claims about a “ruling class,” or whether we should adopt the views of a Hacker, a Mills, or one or another garden variety of “pluralist.” The strategy I have used for my investigations has been to begin with the “social upper class,” as first described systematically by the conservative sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, and to study it in terms of wealth-holdings, corporate connections, ideology, and links to government.

Given this approach, Hacker’s first claim about my research, that I can be “rather casual” about the “facts” of who belongs to the ruling class, is not only false and unfair, but irrelevant. I never started with lists of top wealth-holders, but with the social upper class as operationally defined by social registers, club membership, and private school attendance. I then tried to show that this social upper class contained the top wealth-holders, and to use this finding as one indicator—among several—that the social upper class was a ruling class with large property owners at its core.

In trying to make light of my work, Hacker is fairly casual about his use of sources: (1) he uses the most recent estimates on wealth concentration, which I have not had a chance to incorporate into my work, instead of the earlier estimates I had to rely on; (2) he quotes me as saying the upper class includes “one percent of the population,” when I said “at most one percent of the population”; that little difference makes quite a difference when you realize the wealth concentration drops considerably with each tenth of a percent; (3) he implies that the Appendix of Heavies to be found in the hardcover edition represents a ruling class that has shrunk from several million to 2,000 members; he manages this feat by omitting my prefatory statement that the appendix “is merely a good cross-section of the higher circles and their academic experts.”

In short, Hacker has played fast and loose with numbers and statements in claiming that I am “rather casual” about “who belongs” to the ruling class. The fact is I have consistently said, based on estimates from a variety of methods, that the upper class makes up .5 percent to 1 percent of the population, at most, and that it owns about 25-30 percent of the nation’s privately held wealth. However, Hacker is correct in implying that I have never tried to be more specific than that about the exact size or exact wealth-holdings of the ruling class, but that is for the good and honest reason that the estimates available are only rough ones, and no one has ever pretended otherwise. And while I would agree that it would be nice to have more precise figures, I have decided that the relatively small amount of research effort I can contribute to issues of class and power should be directed toward problems of policy formation, ideology, and governmental dominance because they are more important than whether the ruling class is .2 percent or .5 percent or 1 percent of the population and has 20 percent or 30 percent or 40 percent of everything of value.

In relation to the point about who belongs to the ruling class, I also want to point out that Hacker makes a plain misstatement when he says that I make “corporate executives” the “central members” of the ruling class. I always have stressed that owners and managers of large corporations and banks are the core of the ruling class (e.g., page 82 of The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats, page 12 of Fat Cats and Democrats), and I usually add, because pluralistic social scientists are so unaware of it, that corporate lawyers, investment bankers, and ruling-class members without business or legal ties are essential to any understanding of how America is ruled.

Statistical hatchet jobs and conceptual confusions aside, Hacker goes on to state a number of empirical reasons for rejecting the idea that the wealthy few are a ruling class. For one thing, they don’t share a common culture and life style. In other words, The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats has failed to convince him of what he doesn’t tell the reader it was trying to do—demonstrate the innumerable social, economic, and policy bonds among the corporate rich from all over the country.

In his context, his remark that the Appendix of Heavies lists names “ranging from Kingman Brewster and David Rockefeller to Jacques Barzun and Edgar Bergen” becomes something of a test case, for I assume that Hacker picked a foursome that maximizes the absurdity of seeing these people as part of a common class. So I did some quick checking. I found that Brewster, Barzun, and Rockefeller are in both the Century Association and the Council on Foreign Relations; that Brewster’s first job in 1941 was as a special assistant in the governmental office of Nelson Rockefeller; that the Rockefellers’ senior financial adviser, J. Richardson Dilworth, is on the board of the Yale Corporation, which employs Brewster; that Jacques Barzun is married to a Lowell of Boston; and that David Rockefeller is quite involved, through Morningside Heights, in Columbia University, where Barzun was a provost for many years. In short, there is every reason to believe these three men are part of a social upper class and personally interconnected in several ways.

As to Edgar Bergen, he presents a little bit of a problem, not because he is a former ventriloquist, but because he is quite silent about his activities and affiliations. Nevertheless, we know he is a multi-millionaire, and that there are numerous businessmen and lawyers from all over the country among his campmates at the Bohemian Grove, where he is a member of Dragon Camp. For example, among his fellow Dragons are F.R. Kirkham, general counsel of Standard Oil of California from 1960 to 1970; James O’Brien, a vice president and director of Standard Oil of California since the mid-1960s; and art and real estate impresario Roger L. Stevens, known to David Rockefeller through their work together on the Business Committee for the Arts and to Kingman Brewster through Stevens’s dealings with Yale on urban renewal in New Haven.

Turning to Bergen’s only recently chronicled “public” appearance, we find he was at San Clemente for the climax of the Nixon-Brezhnev meetings in 1973, where he mingled with, among others, such Republican and Democratic fat cats as Leonard K. Firestone, David Packard (Packard is on the board of Standard Oil of California, his partner William Hewlett is on the board of Chase Manhattan Bank), Edwin Pauley, and E.J. Daley, three of whom also are fellow Bohemians (but not fellow Dragons—Firestone is in Mandalay, Packard in Silverado Squatters, and Pauley in Owl’s Nest).

In other words, the example Hacker uses to show what is wrong with one aspect of the ruling-class thesis turns out to fit quite nicely. All four men are wealthy, linked together in common social and economic networks, and part of a private-club culture that is as replete with in-group rituals and rites of passage as a primitive secret society.

Hacker also rejects the ruling-class view because it would be “incorrect” to say that big corporations “run the entire country; they control only those parts of it that bear on their operations.” This is an especially disappointing comment because the evidence in the book suggests that those who play together at the Bohemian Grove and direct together at the large banks and corporations are the same people who shape important policy decisions at the Council on Foreign Relations, Committee for Economic Development, and Business Council.

Since Hacker didn’t bother to examine the case, let me make it even more sharply than I have in the past. The owners and managers of large banks and corporations, with a little bit of help from their hired academics, lawyers, and public relations people, dominate everything in this country that is worth dominating—foreign policy through such organizations as the Council on Foreign Relations, Council of the Americas, and Trilateral Commission; economic policy through the likes of the Conference Board, Committee for Economic Development, and Brookings Institution; population policy through such groups as the Population Council, Population Reference Bureau, and Planned Parenthood; environmental policy through Resources for the Future, Conservation Foundation, and American Conservation Association; legal policies through the American Law Institute and committees of the American Bar Association; and educational policy through such entities as the Ford Foundation, three Carnegie foundations, and the Carnegie Council for Policy Studies in Higher Education. Every one of these organizations is financed and directed by the same few thousand men who run the major banks and corporations, and every one of them is pivotal on governmental policy in its area of specialization.

There are other difficulties with Hacker’s empirical assertions that I could discuss if space permitted—his underestimation of the role of wealthy families in large corporations; his totally undocumented assertion that the corporate rich do not have “the kind of self-confidence that characterizes a bourgeoisie,” a claim I find fantastic when I contemplate the likes of David Packard, John McCone, David Rockefeller, the Bundy brothers, and dozens of other headstrong members of “the best and the brightest”; and his belief that the United States does not have a ruling class because ruling classes “traditionally consisted of persons who can be named and remembered,” a claim I find trivial even if true.

I hope I have said enough to suggest that there is more to the ruling-class thesis than Hacker intimates, even if this exponent of it is “in over his head” in trying to do systematic empirical investigations on weighty topics that some scholars and pundits in the clever circles think they can grasp with little or no effort.

G. William Domhoff

Santa Cruz, California

  1. 1

    Andrew Hacker, “Power To Do What?” in Irving Louis Horowitz, ed., The New Sociology (Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 136, 141, 142.

  2. 2

    Paul M. Sweezy, The Present As History (Monthly Review Press, 1953), p. 57.

  3. 3

    Ibid., pp. 127-128. I criticized Hacker in just this way in Who Rules America? (Prentice-Hall, 1967), pp. 139-140, adding that there is evidence that “persons moving into a social class above their original one tend to take on the values and attitudes of the group they wish to join.”

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