Must Democracy Be Capitalist?

Marxists have always stressed the great political power, the dominating role, of businessmen in capitalist states. But they have generally been too little interested in the actual structures of those states, too little appreciative of their complexity and diversity to analyze that power in detail or to provide a convincing account of how it works. Analysts of “elites,” like C. Wright Mills, have described the overlapping membership of the powerful cadres of government and economy, without suggesting the structural connections between the two. But capital works its way even when the two cadres do not overlap: how is that to be explained?

Liberal political scientists have tended to deny that there is anything to explain. They treat capitalist business as one power among many, assimilating corporations, unions, churches, ethnic organizations, and so on, into the general category of interest groups, as if all of them were equal or potentially equal or (at least) intermittently equal in their influence upon policy. But they are not equal, as Lindblom’s excellent book makes clear. The study of interest groups was once the cutting edge of American political science, and it produced much genuinely important work. Taken as a whole, however, the enterprise can now be seen as an elaborate way of missing the point.

Neither the bare assertion of capitalist hegemony, nor the study of elites, nor the study of interest groups captures the reality of our political and economic arrangements. And none of these sets up the right comparisons with other contemporary societies. What is necessary, Lindblom suggests, is a close examination of the exercise of power in the marketplace and in the state. Commonly, of course, we are invited only to distinguish these two institutions: markets disperse power, politics concentrate it; markets emphasize voluntary exchange, politics justify coercion; markets coordinate without central direction, politics make planning possible. Lindblom shows that each of these distinctions is plausible, partly true, but seriously exaggerated. Instead of sharp and easy contrasts, we find a variety of patterned relationships, governed by two general (empirical) rules: there are no markets except under the protection and patronage of political authority and no form of authority that does not make use of market activity. Politics and markets are two continually connected and interacting forms of social control. So we must study complex wholes—and that study offers some unexpected insights.

Lindblom is committed to a mode of analysis that I should like to call Montesquian. He aims to describe a variety of actual and possible political/economic regimes, to get at the “spirit” of each one, and then to show how that spirit is expressed in all its institutional arrangements. It is a task at which he is only partially, though still remarkably, successful. He does not reach as far as Montesquieu. He has little or nothing to say about the further ramifications of the “spirit” of the regime in education, family life, religion, and morality. He is concerned largely with constitutions, hierarchies, economic life, and ideology. But …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.