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The Structure Itself Must Change

Political authority and the economic bureaucracy

Karl Marx, German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, revolutionary socialist

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. Circa 1875.

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In 1959, little over a year after graduating from law school, I went to work in the Senate office of John F. Kennedy, from which, the next fall, 49.7% of the American voters unwittingly sent me to the White House as assistant special counsel to the president. A few hours after the Inaugural Parade, while exploring our new quarters in the now notorious West Wing of the White House, my employer called to me through the open door of the Oval Office.

“Did you see the Coast Guard Academy in the parade?”

I tried to remember. Were they in blue? Or was that the Navy? But he did not wait for an answer.

“There wasn’t one black face. Call Dillon [the new secretary of the treasury, the department with jurisdiction over the Coast Guard]. Have him do something.”

I took the stairs to my West Wing office three at a time. It was real. The controls were in our hands, liberal and still tough-minded; we could now proceed to build a better, freer country, starting with the Coast Guard Academy.


On Friday, December 14th, 1963, along with Arthur Schlesinger, I sat in the attorney general’s spacious office, whose walls had drawings by his young children Scotch taped to the wood paneling, while we discussed some difficulties which Governor Averill Harriman was having with the State Department.

“I don’t want to see Averill Harriman get hurt, or anyone else,” said Robert Kennedy. “Harriman’s got his faults. I’ve got my faults. We’ve all got faults. The secret is collective action. I haven’t thought through how to go about it. But the secret is collective action. There are hundreds of guys around here in positions of influence. We’re important to Johnson. I’m the most important because my name happens to be Kennedy. But we’re all important. I haven’t thought it through yet, but we are.”

He stood rigidly next to his desk, beside the special telephone connected to the White House, his hands tensely at his side, head down, working to suppress a show of emotion.

“Sure I’ve lost a brother. Other people lose wives,” his voice trailed off. “I’ve lost a brother. But that’s not what’s important. What’s important is what we were trying to do for this country. We got a good start.

“We had a committee working on poverty. A juvenile delinquency study. You can’t do a lot in three years, but we’d gotten started. We could have done a lot in five more years. There are a lot of people in this town. They didn’t come here just to work for John Kennedy, an individual, but for ideas, things we wanted to do.

“It’s one thing if you’ve got personal reasons for leaving, like you may want to leave, Arthur. But I don’t think people should run off. We’re very important to Johnson now. After November 5th we’ll all be dead. We won’t matter a damn. A lot of people could scramble around now, get themselves positions of power and influence. I could do that. But that’s not important. What’s important is what we can get done. Remember, after November 5th we’re all done. We won’t be wanted or needed.”

As we got up to go, I pointed out a column in the afternoon paper in which public-opinion analyst, Samuel Lubel, reported that Southerners violently opposed Kennedy for vice president but that Negroes were for him. Kennedy, still standing, studied the paper and, without raising his head, mused flatly, “Well Johnson’s already got the Negroes . . . but he’s already got the Negroes.”


Late one evening in the spring of 1968, just a few days before his victory in the Indiana primary, Robert Kennedy sat talking in an Indianapolis restaurant after a 12-hour campaign day of that continual movement which reduces towns and neighborhoods to an almost indistinguishable series of platforms, crowds and outstretched hands. “Even if I get to be president,” he said to me, “how can you do everything you want to do with Congress, and the newspapers, and the establishment pressing down on you all the time? How can you accomplish anything important?”

Within four months, my passage from the confident ambitions of 1960 was complete. The events of one day in a Los Angeles hospital and a week in a maddened Chicago catalyzed a steadily growing awareness that we had misconceived the nature of America’s afflictions, failed to understand fully the sources of that oppressive power which was now visibly constricting the fair expectations and the freedom of the citizen.

Surely the declining conditions of a colossal society could not be ascribed to misjudgments, flawed character, accident or conspiracy. And if we had not been America’s “best and brightest,” still we were as good and intelligent as any likely to inhabit the government. If one could expect better only from a government staffed by men of improbable and unprecedented nobility, then perhaps we were asking of politics what it could not give; perhaps, at our best moments, we had been battling imaginary enemies for an illusory prize.

In 1969 I moved to a farm overlooked by the mountains of west central Maine, thus concluding a decadelong engagement with public life. The isolated study and writing of the nearly five years which followed gradually enlarged my understanding of society, and of the relationship between politics and the economic structures which dominate society.

This did not, however, constitute a belated acquiescence in the anti-liberalism which was proclaimed by every infant Lenin of the televised Sixties. For New Left politics, lacking any roots in economic radicalism, can be placed alongside the politics of Richard Nixon as a demonstration that liberalism is the most benign form of public power possible within the present structure of American society. But it is also true that no form of truly liberating politics is possible within that structure. It is the structure itself which must be changed. And that task is beyond the reach of politics.

Politics – the acquisition and use of power – is an institutional process created by the civil society, the nation, to reconcile the competing claims of the varied interests, human and material, which constitute that society. Since politics is the agent of the civil society, those interests which dominate the life of the nation also dominate its politics. Even though government can make reforms, it cannot change, in any important way, the social structure, the distribution of power within society, on which it is based. Of course, economic relationships, the patterns of economic power, can themselves be changed, and, if they are, then the political, always anxious to please, will submit.

This is a relationship which is as inescapable as it is fundamental. Nor are politicians cynics, who secretly believe themselves the agents of private power. Most of them share the assumptions which dominate social thought; that, for example, it is possible for government to serve “all the people” – to guard with equal vigilance the welfare of businessman and farmer, rich and poor, banker and worker. Yet if this means anything at all, it is that no one is to be damaged or reduced in order to benefit another. Thus existing relationships, the distribution of social power and rewards, will be preserved.

Many in public life are American utopians who share the ideological fantasy that there are no mortal and irreconcilable differences of interest and desire; that social conflict is the product of misunderstanding or changeable public attitudes, that our problems and difficulties can be resolved simply by perfecting the techniques of our present social structure.

During the heyday of the Great Society, in 1964 and 1965, when Lyndon Johnson’s mastery over Congress made almost anything seem possible, high officials sat around the White House conference table to draft sweeping new measures to improve the quality of American life – to remodel cities and restore the physical requirements for community, to clean up the environment, to complete the civil rights revolution by enlarging black economic opportunity. Yet, despite White House intentions, somehow the boldest departures were flattened, altered. into conformity with established patterns of government regulation. It did not occur to me then, as it has since, that the inability to exercise power is an almost infallible demonstration that the power doesn’t exist.

This helps explain why none of the significant modern movements for social change were begun by that enlightened and moral political leadership we continually pursue. They began with Martin Luther King in Birmingham, Ralph Nader and irate consumers, antiwar students and community groups anxious to save their towns and purify their rivers.

The political structure responded after these groups had acquired power and support within the private society, and this response began to diminish once these movements collided with the superior strength of dominant economic relationships. This is not a demonstration of correctable flaws in the contemporary political process. It evidences an enduring relationship. Important social change never begins with politics. Lincoln did not invent the anti-slavery movement, nor did the government persuade workers to organize.

This argument is deeply repellent to the American character, a heretical contradiction of that secular faith which evoked Lord Bryce’s observation that “the federal Constitution is, to their eyes, an almost sacred thing, an Ark of the Covenant.” This belief explains why, even though we see that public authority is being used to serve the interests of large economic institutions, we believe such behavior to be the consequence of a conspiracy which might be shattered or corruption which should be punished.

Last month I completed a book-promotion tour of major cities. In dozens of interviews I discussed the subordination of politics to the civil society, and then went on to detail some of the oppressive consequences of large-scale industry and finance, after which the interviewer would ask me, “Do you think Teddy Kennedy would change that if he were elected president?” Since most of these interviewers were intelligent, had clearly understood the point I was making and had frequently nodded agreement, I soon became aware that I was in the presence, not of ideas, but of a “faith that surpasseth all understanding.”

Before examining some of the evidence, however, let us dispose of that misleading phrase – the “public interest.” The term “public interest” is not a harmlessly convenient label. Like all sloppy and deceptive language it tends to cripple thought, hindering us from asking of every political act: “Who wins and who loses?”

The “public” is neither Hamilton’s “great beast” nor the “sovereign people.” It is an abstraction, a creation of that mysticism which, in our secular age, is called ideology. There is no “public,” only individuals, alone or in groups: you and me, Bob Dylan, Billy Graham and Harold Geneen; each different in ambition, need and possession. It is not the “public” but private individuals who attend schools, walk in parks, drive the highways and vote for presidents.

Thus, there can be no “public interest,” only citizens with common private interests. What convention calls the “public interest” consists primarily of those private interests which can be enforced by government, a category which cannot be defined in terms of numbers and which extends from the interest of almost everyone in protection against foreign invasion to the interest of a single individual in casting his ideas against the hostility of the entire population.

A recent law requires that whenever goods are purchased on the installment plan the buyer must be given a clear statement of the total interest to be paid. This means we prefer to protect debtors against the consequence of their ignorance or arithmetical ineptitude, rather than to reward the agile entrepreneur who might benefit from those incapacities. For a long time the “public interest,” as expressed in the legal maxim caveat emptor (let the buyer beware), was thought to require the opposite judgment. A more subtle analysis of this change in our concept of the “public interest” might reveal a modern awareness that production is maximized when consumers are on the edge of bankruptcy, not over it.

Use of the term “public interest” in order to stimulate or explain particular acts of government is only an expression of preference among competing private interests. This is true of the most benign and irreproachable policies, even those which seem to benefit almost everyone, such as the financing of cancer research. Every allocation of resources is an expression of priority; that which is spent for one purpose is not available for other purposes. It is ordinarily the most affluent who rank cancer among their highest concerns, being exempt from the malnutrition or the ravages of slum living which preoccupy others.

This conclusion does not constitute moral censure. It is the function of politics to enforce private interests. The issue is which interests and to what end. The standards which determine that resolution are not those of morality, the Constitution’s “general welfare” or the Declaration’s “pursuit of happiness,” but of power within the society.

A complete description of the private interests which dominate American society would require a large treatise. But mere identification is no more difficult than finding Wilt Chamberlain among a delegation of visiting Pygmies. There are more than one-and-a-half million American corporations. One hundred of them possess nearly 50% of the country’s corporate assets – well over a quarter of a trillion dollars. Add the next hundred and, together, they have more than 60% of the assets.

And these figures modestly understate the economic importance of the super-corps, for the fortunes of many smaller units – car dealers, TV repairmen, suppliers of plumbing – are linked to their behavior. The longterm policies and recent actions of large oil companies, for example, have damaged a multitude of “independent businesses,” from record manufacturers dependent upon vinyl, to the small farmer who must use chemical fertilizer. Similarly the policies of steel companies influence the cost and type of new construction. If these companies are inefficient – if their equipment is obsolete – if they are successful in blocking imports by foreign competitors, then the costs of the steel industry’s deficiencies must be paid for by every business which uses their product.

The statistics of concentration by themselves would have been startling when we were still a capitalist country; today they only hint at the extent to which economic power has been consolidated.

The ideology of capitalism, although often corrupted and ignored, opposed a unitary control over important economic activities. The source of this principle was not hostility to bigness, but the expectation that corporate warfare – called the free market – would stimulate economic progress and benefit the general public. Competitive success would go to those who offered a better product at a better price; the conditions of struggle would encourage the most productive use of resources: greater efficiency, innovation and enterprise. The anti-trust laws were designed, not to punish size, but to combat the natural tendency of the capitalist to evade the rigors of competitive capitalism.

If we analyze corporations from the standpoint of their actual operation within the society, we cannot regard them as distinct and autonomous simply because they have different names, shareholders and managers, but only to the extent they compete in a free market. It makes little difference if there are one, three or seven automobile companies, if they produce essentially the same product in the same way at the same price. In the world of the megacorporations there is little practical distinction between monopoly and domination by a handful of companies, i.e., oligopoly. Seven oil companies and three automobile companies have the same power over the market – the ability to prevent serious price and product competition – as do IBM and the telephone company. Functionally, they are one.

At one time it was thought that vigorous enforcement of the anti-trust laws could guarantee a competitive marketplace. And we still retain some of this faith. Were a militant attorney general to break up General Motors into three companies, it would be greeted as a major turning point in our economic life. Yet the behavior of the automobile industry would be unchanged, and we would still not be able to buy better or cheaper cars. (A hundred automobile companies would be a different story, but that cannot be accomplished by a lawsuit, only by dismantling the present economic structure.) The anti-trust laws have gone the way of the law of supply and demand, whose present decrepitude was recently disclosed by the president of Chrysler Corporation when he announced, without a hint of irony, that sales had dropped and prices must rise.

To uncover the extent of concentration in today’s economy, one would have to examine the actual behavior of corporations, the extent to which they compete, not simply to seduce consumers, but in terms of price, product, increased efficiency, lower cost and technological innovation. Such a functional analysis of the economy would reveal that the hundred corporations, with more than half of the assets, operate as an even smaller number of gigantic bureaucracies. We would find an immense and accelerating concentration spreading into fields, from growing tomatoes to selling hamburgers, previously exempt from such control, and rapidly overflowing national boundaries. Through devices such as the “franchise” and the “chain” the domination of large enterprise is extended over activities once reserved for the small and independent businessman.

These institutions and the economic relationships which sustain them rule the American economy; their increasing ascendancy has been the most important phenomenon of post World War II America. The power of its repositories has increased through all the tumults and divisions of politics: during liberal administrations and conservative ones, under strong political leadership and weak, while McCarthyism preoccupied the country, during the glory days of the New Left and in the era of Watergate. These are the interests – the institutions and the way in which they conduct business – which the political structure often serves, sometimes modifies or “reforms,” and never attacks.

Unless one, blinded to the changing conditions of American life, should assume this growth in control to be wholly beneficent, in the “public interest,” this history alone should dispel the illusion that some new leader, the advent of some ideal government, will reverse the process and dismantle the sources of our afflictions.

Nevertheless, the yellow brick road of politics does not lead to some hapless, almost pitiable, creature secreted within the towers of sovereignty. For government is immense and important, its power increasingly vital to the well-being of private economic relationships. It would require a dispiriting volume to depict the manifold ways, small and large, in which government serves the large economic bureaucracies; but a few fragmentary sketches are adequate to show the unmistakable shape of this relationship.

Most federal money, like most other money, goes to benefit the large institutions of the private economy. In 1971, as an illustration, the federal government spent about $150 billion (omitting the trust funds like Social Security, which are forms of public insurance and which, for the most part, take in more than they pay out). About $90 billion of this went to defense, “international affairs,” space and veterans programs. About $20 billion was divided between interest payments to financial institutions on the national debt and the financing of transportation to move goods or expand the horizons of the automobile.

About $5 billion went to agriculture, much of it ultimately assisting the growth of that corporate agriculture which labors heroically to reduce the quality of food while raising the price. Indeed, government-sponsored research has helped America’s burgeoning tomato magnates develop a fruit tough enough to travel to every corner of the land without bruise or scar, a peerless tomato whose only defect is an almost complete absence of flavor. Over $4 billion was spent to run the government; about $3 billion for water resources and power. We allocated $8 billion to education and manpower training, which has important human benefits, but is also consistent with the need for a supply of skilled workers and educated consumers.

It can be seen that the pattern of federal spending supports the economic objectives of large enterprise – primarily through direct subsidies or purchases, but also by investments in activities necessary to the wellbeing of enterprise, but which are inherently unprofitable or which cannot be owned by particular industries, e.g., various forms of transportation, power, shipping, etc.

This fact alone does not condemn such expenditures. Some of them serve the general welfare and some would be necessary in any form of economy. But, whatever the merit of particular expenditures, the federal budget is an effective instrument for transferring wealth from the middle class to large private enterprise. This task, a little –Continued Continued more difficult in a democratic society than elsewhere, is eased by a network of tax breaks and “incentives,” all the more valued for being virtually incomprehensible. “Tax incentive” is simply a polite word for subsidy. The result is the same as if the government had taxed everyone on the same basis and then returned money to those it favored. One man’s break is another man’s burden.

Stanley Surrey, in charge of tax matters for the Treasury Department under President Johnson, has calculated that loopholes, credits and incentives represent a direct yearly federal payment of $51.5 billion to business and wealthy individuals. By contrast, federal public-assistance payments to the poor are around $10 billion. The method of payment is different – the poor receive checks while the rich and powerful are excused from writing them – but it all comes from the same place, the pockets of the good, gray middle class.

The more blatant inequities of government getting and spending are more visible and easier to debate than are the voluminous assortment of laws, agencies and commissions through which government “regulates” the private economy. Many of these laws were drafted by men filled with zeal for the public welfare, supported by those indignant at the reckless greed of business, enacted over the bitter protests of the affected enterprise. But passion is not power. And, as one would expect, regulation has become an instrument to strengthen, not just the regulated industry, but all the institutions and relationships which dominate the economic structure.

One of the first acts of the New Frontier, in 1961, was to appoint a distinguished scholar and law-school dean, James Landis, to evaluate the regulatory agencies. His long friendship with the Kennedy family guaranteed him White House support and attention, and his final report to the president concluded that the agencies were more anxious to serve the interest of business than that of the public interest and recommended radical changes. The report was carefully read at high levels of government, released to an admiring press, thoughtfully discussed in editorials, and tenderly immured in the government archives.

Our mistake was to think we were dealing with a regulatory system that had failed. In fact, it was performing, and performing well, a very important function – that of protecting businesses from the public and from each other. The beneficiaries of this “regulatory” purpose, and their congressional allies, formed a constituency powerful enough to resist all assaults. Even now, when the same conclusions have become clear to the most casual observer, there is no serious movement for change.

In the era of free-market capitalism, government intrusion could, for the most part, only interfere with the ambitions of large enterprise. But the economic forces which govern today’s society need the assistance of government. Industries where concentration is not far enough advanced to eliminate the rigors of the marketplace are shielded by government subsidies and rules designed to ward off the hazards of competition. General Motors sets automobile prices, and a federal agency fixes airline fares, while the Federal Communications Commission guarantees exclusive control over the national airwaves to three networks.

Economic enterprises which are necessary to the well-being of many other businesses – enterprises such as telephone, airlines, banking and financial structures – are protected against economic adversity and, at the same time, prohibited from using their control over vital services to benefit particular industries at the expense of competitors. As once, for example, the railroads gave special rates to favored customers.

The regulatory structure also helps to insulate the economic process from the hazards of public fashion or the vagaries of misguided politicians. Protests against poisoned air, ineffective drugs or unsafe products result in government regulations, boards and speeches which manage to calm the turbulence of the moment while ultimately imposing the minimum burden consistent with public order. A caricature of this function was the establishment, in April 1970, of the National Industrial Pollution Control Council, composed of 63 executives of major polluting companies, without any representatives of consumers, conservation groups or the general public.

This description is not intended to deny that the public also receives benefits from government regulation, nor does it support an unregulated economy. It shows a pattern of behavior in government’s relationship to business – behavior which also extends to those policies by which government influences the national economy. It is no longer possible to debate the wisdom of government interference with the private economy; its intervention is inescapable.

Federal spending amounts to about one-fifth of the gross national product, while government financial institutions control the supply and cost of money. These activities, combined with a host of others, such as control over the tax structure or public guarantees of collective bargaining, help determine the distribution of national wealth and income. They decide the extent to which various groups will share the rewards of the fat years and the burdens of the lean. Therefore, to oppose new economic policies on the grounds that they constitute unwarranted interference by government is simply to express support for the existing patterns of interference. It is the demagogic form through which beneficiaries of present policies express their opposition to change. 

When prosperity is increasing and the economy booms, the essential bias of economic policy is obscured by the fact that nearly everyone is doing better. Nonetheless, some do much better than others. The two decades of economic growth from 1950 to 1970, when the gross national product almost tripled, greatly accelerated the concentration of corporate wealth. But the distribution of personal income was unchanged. Today, as at the beginning of the boom, the wealthiest receive 45% of all family income, while the bottom fifth are still alloted their five percent share.

Now we are in more difficult times and it is much harder to conceal the preferences contained in economic policy. Around 1967-68 the postwar boom began to falter. Nevertheless, over the last six years the gross national product increased by more than $160 billion (all these figures are in “real” dollars, i.e., the numbers have been changed to reflect the declining purchasing power of the dollars since 1967). Yet the average weekly earnings of the American worker did not increase at all; he made about $103 a week in 1968 and makes $103 now. And in the same period, the total financial assets of all American consumers actually declined. There can be little doubt what happened to the increased national wealth: Some of it went to rich individuals, most of it returned to the corporate structures whence it came.

The last pretenses to fairness are now being dissolved by an inflation which has brought a serious drop in the income, purchasing power and living standard of most Americans. A closer look at the present “recession” reveals that corporate profits in most sectors of the economy have risen at an almost unprecedented rate over the last year. Most banks have increased profits 20-40%, largely because the government has raised interest rates. Naturally some industries, like automobiles, have not done well, but they will be permitted to raise prices and try to catch up.

Some economists, faithful to a primitive Keynesianism, think inflation and recession are unrelated; nevertheless, like Bonnie and Clyde, they always go together. While Democrats express outrage and Republicans offer the ancient consolation “this too shall pass,” the economic policy of the government is unchanged. But it is not inert. Since the government can never do nothing, the failure to adopt new policies constitutes a decision to continue the old. This decision is a sure sign that economic distress is not universal.

From the standpoint of major enterprise, current economic policies are wise and desirable. The almost unanimous political opposition to economic controls corresponds to the awareness by big business and organized labor that they have the economic power not only to keep ahead of inflation but also to profit from it. It is the rest of us – most of us – who are hurt.

The term “economic policy” itself reveals its function. Its ordinary meaning is restricted to fiscal and monetary policy, whose instruments are taxation, federal spending, interest rates and control over the supply of money. Economic policy is not thought to include modification of the economic structure itself. Yet many of our current difficulties are due to the misuses of national resources by large economic bureaucracies – the inefficiency, stifling of competition, failure to innovate, etc. But these matters are beyond the present power of politics.

The inclination of public authority to support the ruling relationships of private life is not a modern phenomenon, a consequence of technology, the cold war or future shock. It is an attribute of all organized society, comprehended by thoughtful men long before the industrial age.

In the tenth Federalist paper, James Madison explained that society was divided into “factions,” and that “the most common and durable source of faction has been the various and unequal distribution of property. . . . A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation. . . . And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine . . . and . . . the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail.”

Unlike many of us, Madison did not believe this danger to the general well-being could be avoided by strong and benign leadership. “It is vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good.” His remedy was to disperse political power among public institutions and across a large “extent of territory,” so that government would represent a multiplicity of divergent interests.

“A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project,” Madison explained, incidentally betraying his own allegiances, “will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it. . . .”

We are greatly changed from the America whose circumstances gave persuasive force to Madison’s expectation; a country where Southern planters and Northern merchants, manufacturers who wanted protection and shipowners desirous of commerce, Western fur traders and pioneers, impoverished debtors and bankers, were all scattered across a territorial expanse containing disparate economic conditions and lifestyles. Madison could not have foreseen the rise of industrial and financial structures large enough to dominate the economic life of an entire continent. But that change does not invalidate his understanding that government could not suppress private power, “that the causes of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”

Madison’s exposition was a premonition of Marx’s more profound analysis. It is a historical misfortune that much of our public dialogue is conducted as if Marx had never made his important discoveries, as if history or social problems or personal values could be understood apart from the economic forces which shape them. In part this rejection reflects the hostility of the pragmatic American temperament to intellectual systems, a hostility which was strengthened when Marxism became an ideological weapon in the struggle for power both within and between nations. The use of Marx’s ideas to increase our understanding of history and the social process was to risk being thought an advocate of Soviet world rule, international communism or bloody revolution.

However, Marx himself would be the first to deny that hostility to his ideas could be explained by political circumstances or intellectual attitudes alone. Economic relations sustain their authority by imposing a structure of beliefs, an ideology, which helps to insulate them from direct attack by denying the fact of their domination. It is analogous to the way in which that other 19th-century discovery, the unconscious mind, conceals and strengthens its rule through a mechanism of repression.

Until recently many of Marx’s works were not available in English translation. And just a few weeks ago the Harvard Department of Economics rejected the proposal of a faculty committee, headed by Nobel Prize-winner Kenneth Arrow, that some knowledge of Marx’s ideas be required of graduate students in economic theory. The chairman of the department explained that Harvard expected its students to master the standard body of economic knowledge and then, if they wished, they could study other “interesting things,” like Marx. One can well imagine the Department of Psychology at Moscow University saying that once its students had mastered the techniques of Pavlov, there would be no objection if they wanted to read other interesting people, like Freud.

The most common intellectual evasion is to avoid the consequences of Marx’s general principles by demonstrating the flaws in his economic analysis of capitalism and its future. It is like denying the unconscious by asserting that Freud was wrong about women.

Marx wrote a century ago, and whatever the validity of his economic descriptions at that time, they refer to a system of production, to economic relationships which no longer exist. Among the distinguishing features of his “capitalism” was the fact that the owner of capital, the capitalist, bargained with the helpless and isolated worker. That does not describe the relationship between General Motors, which no one owns, and the United Automobile Workers, which has the power to shut down production. The vigorous free-market competition, which was an attribute of 19th-century capitalism, remains only in the most nostalgic memory.

Indeed, Marx was right. The “capitalism” of his day was doomed, although he did not foresee either the manner or the consequences of its demise. In any event, one cannot dispose of Marx’s understanding of the relationships between economic activity, history and the social process by disproving his technical economics or pointing to flaws in his power of prophecy.

There are at least two ways to destroy the vitality of ideas: by ignoring them or by sanctifying them as a ruling ideology. The social thought of Marx has become the political constitution of the Soviet state. It is made to appear that an attack on the state is an attack on Marx, an absurdly self-contradictory use of Marx’s ideas.

If a Marxist critique were made, however, it would reveal a Soviet society dominated by a massive bureaucratic economy not subject to the general or community will and which is, therefore, by Marx’s criteria, oppressive. To paraphrase Marx, the Soviet state is merely the organized power of the bureaucratic class for oppressing the working class.

Because Americans usually see social problems in political terms, even when we are intellectually receptive to Marx, we tend to ignore in practice his discovery that economic relations – the way in which wealth is produced – influence all the circumstances and life of society.

Yet it is clear that those who control the resources of society (not necessarily those who own them – as for example, we all own the Defense Department – but those who direct their use) decide, consciously or not, what we shall receive in exchange for that large portion of our humanity poured out in labor. They determine the structure of our physical environment – of our homes and cities and land – and establish the nature of work. To decide what is to be produced by the resources and knowledge of the entire society, and in what way, is to have control over that external world which begins to form ideas and values from infancy.

Since politics is the creation of civil society, Marx explained, the interests and classes which dominate that society also rule politics. One can no more expect government to attack the sources of economic power than one can anticipate that rock and roll groups will espouse the dissolution of the record industry.

It is not possible, or necessary, to explore Marx’s argument fully. A few quotations will make the point: •

  • “The material life of individuals . . . their mode of production and their form of intercourse . . . are the real basis of the State. These real conditions are not created by the State power; they are rather the power which creates it.” •
  • “Only political superstition believes at the present time that civil life must be held together by the State, when in reality the State is upheld by civil life.”

Since those who control civil life also control the State – •

  • “. . . The State is the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests, and in which the whole civil society of an epoch is epitomized. . . .”

Or, in more polemical terms – •

  • “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.”

And in a caution especially to be heeded by Americans, the most political of people: •

  • “. . . the more political a country is, the less likely it is to seek the basis of social evils and to grasp the general explanation of them . . . in the structure of society, of which the State is the active, conscious and official expression . . . the clearer and more vigorous political thought is, the less it is able to grasp the nature of social evils.”

Of course, political power is not pure illusion, whose every act can be traced to the needs of commanding private interests. The institutions and relationships which dominate society are not the entire society. It is largely the quality of political life which determines whether other interests will also be protected. There are many matters vital to human freedom and well-being – compassion and help for the poor, protection of civil liberties, justice for minorities – whose resolution will not challenge the structure of economic power or the reach of economic bureaucracy. There are a multitude of suffering and oppressed – in the Mississippi Delta or Northern ghettos, incarcerated in prisons or housing projects for the elderly – whose fate will not affect the assets or market control of IBM. These must rely upon that sense of justice which a people express, in part, through their political institutions.

And even though the political structure is the creation of civil society, it is also part of that society, and influences the claims and the behavior of important private interests. There could be, for example, no Ralph Nader or consumer movement in a country like the Soviet Union where political and economic power have been fused.

Moreover, private interests, even the most powerful, have divergent needs and purposes. The skill with which political leadership reconciles such conflicts affects the well-being of society; while failure, as in the 1850s or during the early days of the labor movement, means that force, not politics, will decide the issue.

Despite those reforms which politics does accomplish, we must resist the idea that political authority is superior to the private relationships which govern civil society. To attribute to the government a power to alter the society in any fundamental way is to assume that the City of Washington, like the City of God, hovers somewhere outside or beyond the social process and the forces which rule it. It is thus made transcendent, revealing that we are in the presence of mystic revelation, a belief resistant to the contradictions of experience and logic.

Political faith, which is nowhere stronger than in America, diverts the energies of discontent and the purposes of those anxious for social change into the struggle of parties and candidates, thus reducing the possibilities of serious challenge to private power. Even the most enlightened politics will withdraw its support once movements for social change seriously threaten ruling economic relationships.

The civil rights movement of the Sixties made rapid progress only until it became an economic movement whose goals required large amounts of money, new union policies and changes in the patterns of employment. The collision was fatal, especially as it coincided with a period of relative economic stagnation. More recent forms of protest, such as consumerism or the environment movement, have discovered a willingness to yield only until the sources of dominant social power appear to be threatened. While many of those changes in social behavior which appear to be a successful revolution, sexual or drug, are fully consistent with the ideology of an economic structure which depends upon the readiness of people, i.e., consumers, to gratify their individual desires.

There are times when government seems to be responsible for fundamental social change. In all cases, however, if we examine historical conditions more closely, we will find it is responding to previous shifts in the distribution of social power. Indeed, the greatest virtue of the American political system has been its capacity to ratify and legitimate the outcome of social conflict without prolonged and violent turmoil. The Jacksonian revolution of 1828 was a response to the shift of population and economic activity away from the Eastern domain of the Founding Fathers. For reasons similar to these, the Eastern establishment, the ministers of finance, no longer directs the fortunes of the Republican party. And the Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” decision in 1966 was a belated recognition that we had become an urban society.

Our afflictions require basic changes in the direction of society, and, therefore, new forms of control over our resources and productive capacity; in that pursuit, the ability to respond to changing social power is the most important quality of American politics.

The modern economy depends on the middle class – those of low income as well as the more affluent – on its skills and labor and, more importantly, on its capacity and willingness to consume. The income and savings of the middle class – not the accumulated wealth of owners and managers – are the source of corporate assets and earnings.

This economic reality has not been translated into economic power because the middle class is fragmented, lacking either a common purpose or the understanding of causes and possibilities from which a common purpose might evolve. Yet it is their freedom, the possibilities of their existence, which is being constricted by the process of modern life.

The road to social change, therefore, lies in mobilizing and organizing the discontented majority, not simply to elect a president or reform the nomination process, but to understand and assert their wants and interests against the forces which now rule their lives. It is organized purpose which transforms economic importance into economic power. And that power alone can create the political leadership which history may later enshrine as the bearer of a more liberating time.


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