What Rules America?

The Personal Distribution of Income and Wealth

edited by James D. Smith
National Bureau of Economic Research/Columbia University Press, 568 pp., $17.50

The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats: A Study in Ruling-Class Cohesiveness

by G. William Domhoff
Harper & Row, 250 pp., $2.45 (paper)

Why can’t we deal with class? Terms like “upper middle” and “lower middle” refer to style and sophistication, not the deeper divisions of social life. On the whole we prefer to circumvent the question of class. We think of cities as being composed of “ghettos” and “white ethnics” and “the aged.” Discussing families on welfare or crime in the streets, we speak of blacks and Puerto Ricans. Sociologists neutralize the subject by referring to “stratification.” Or they tell us it is “ambiguous” and “complex.” The Census once reported that 70 percent of all Americans show some “inconsistency” between their earnings, education, and occupations. We all know Yale graduates who are driving taxis.

Yet we know America has classes, and that they are more than temporary way stations. No matter how we divide up Americans according to culture, careers, even income, power is at the heart of the question. Some people have more freedom, more independence, than others. Some are buffeted about from birth to death, never in a position to bend events or answer back to authority. Class may confer power over others; but in personal life it affects how you can make the world work on your behalf. Traditionally class has depended on property. In the classical couplings—patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman—one class had holdings of substance. When Marx spoke of the bourgeoisie, he meant people owning a mill with at least 100 workers and living in a town house with servants.

Nowadays one can go a long way in America without property. Indeed, a person can achieve influence and independence without ever accumulating an estate of six figures. Hence all the emphasis, in writing about influence, on officials and administrators whose power derives from office rather than ownership. Hence too the stress on seniority, tenure, and professional certification: securities upheld by law even if not entirely transmissible to one’s heirs. However, the current state of the economy has shown how flimsy some of these underpinnings can be. Seniority isn’t worth much if one’s company goes out of business. Having an architect’s license this year is hardly a guarantee of comfort. After floating through the Sixties on whimsical balance sheets, we are again learning that there is no substitute for wealth. Moreover the desire to accumulate holdings is still strong: witness Spiro Agnew, William Ronan, and Otto Kerner. Doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, as they reach their forties, see the prospect of a cool million they can call their own, notwithstanding neglected wives, disaffected children, and involvements in dubious projects.

Which Americans should we call rich? Peter Singer, in these pages some weeks ago (NYR, March 6), commented that the richest 5 percent of our population holds 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. However, 5 percent of the population is three million families, or anyone earning at least $30,000 a year. G. William Domhoff—of whom more later—concentrates on the top 1 percent, which still …

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Letters

Is There a Ruling Class? July 17, 1975

Is There a Ruling Class? July 17, 1975