Book Review - G. William Domhoff, The Powers That Be: Processes of Ruling Class Domination in America.

Bruce Edwards, September 6, 2018

G. William Domhoff, The Powers That Be: Processes of Ruling Class Domination in America. (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

This is a must-read book for every revolutionary and activist because it details exactly how the class enemy – the capitalist class – rules the United States. It’s dated – and an update would be wonderful – but the detailed analysis remains completely valid. Domhoff describes with crystal clarity the inner operations of bourgeois democracy. 

The book is straight forward. In the first chapter Domhoff lays out four processes by which the ruling class rules. The remaining four chapters are each on one of the processes. There is no filler. The book is direct and detailed, laying out how the ruled are ruled and the actual organizations and connections that carry out that rule. The four processes are 1) the special-interest process, 2) the policy-formation process, 3) the candidate-selection process, and 4) the ideology process. The processes are separate, but intertwined and interconnected in myriad ways; they support each other.

The key players in the drama are the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the Committee for Economic Development (CED), the Business Council, the Conference Board, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). It is notable that while Domhoff wrote in 1979, all these organizations are still the major players in ruling America. These organizations and others are tied through a thousand threads to federal, state and local governments, to the businesses that comprise their membership, to academia, and to myriad other organizations that carry out their policies and recommendations. While Domhoff’s list is long, newer organizations, such as the Koch Brothers’ ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) must be added to bring the list up to date.

At the head of the list is the Council on Foreign Relations. This think tank debates and develops the basic positions of the ruling class on a broad range of issues important to the ruling class. The CFR publishes Foreign Affairs, a journal which studies and disseminates the main positions of the ruling class. CFR members range from CEOs of major corporations, to politicians central to the running of the United States, to academics and other experts brought in specifically to develop positions of the Council. It affects each of the processes and is a kind of headquarters for the capitalist class. For example, the Trilateral Commission is basically a subset of the CFR. CFR is not without its challengers; Domhoff details particularly ultraconservative organizations, like the National Association of Manufacturers, that challenge its hegemony.

The special-interest process works mainly through the government penetration by business. It is acknowledged by all that the departments of the government are dominated by personnel selected from the very interests that they are supposed to regulate. For example, the Secretary of the Treasury is Steven Mnuchin who was with Goldman Sachs. Mnuchin is also a CFR Corporate Member. But the process is much more complete than that. Business spends billions of dollars (in Domhoff’s day it was millions) lobbying members of Congress and Congressional Committees. Those with corporate experience are selected to staff those committees. Additionally, there are over 1000 governmental advisory committees (it was hundreds when Domhoff wrote) made up of experts and representatives of business. These committees inform the governmental process and recommend both policy and legislation at every level. Of course, there is also the government bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is self-perpetuating, resisting outside change, particularly when that change jeopardizes their jobs. Domhoff is clear that there are challenges; the process is not perfect (for the ruling class). But the shear volume of resources and the power of the corporations and ruling class in general overwhelms opposition in most cases.

The second  process is the policy-formation process. While special-interests are important, they tend to be narrow in scope. The question this process answers is “How are the broader domestic and foreign relations policies determined?” This is where the CFR comes into its own. While its members dominate the special-interest process, they all but own the policy-formation process. The CFR meets regularly in posh forums that are interspersed with entertainment, golf and other perks for the attendees. It forms committees that study the various areas of interest and propose courses of action. Specific experts are brought in to conduct these studies, and, of course, are paid handsomely and promoted up the CFR ladder. CFR members like Henry Kissinger and Paul Krugman are current examples. These policies are then implemented though the government, carried out by the numerous CFR members and supporters that are in the executive department with its committees and staff, in the legislature with its committees and staff, and on the advisory committees. Domhoff details case studies. Let it suffice to say that even when the end results represent compromise, the CFR policies are nearly always carried out.

The next process is the candidate-selection process. Domhoff clearly explains the ramifications of the “all or nothing” electoral system in the United States and how it has led directly to the two-party system we experience and how that limits democracy. The fact that in elections at every level the majority vote gets the only seat – one President, one Governor, one Congressional Representative per District, etc. – all but demands a system where there are only two parties so a majority can be formed. He compares this to a parliamentary system where multiple parties are represented by the proportion of the vote they receive. 

The parties, of course, select the candidates. Money is crucial in the American electoral system and while he cites examples of millions of dollars going to campaigns, today hundreds of millions are spent. One of the most interesting aspects of candidate selection is that most candidates that are successful do not have strong political opinions. Those who do are weeded out relatively early in the process. As a result, the majority of those who are elected are particularly susceptible to the special-interest and policy-formation processes.

Domhoff reviews both electoral and financial campaign reform, but, of course, he could not know about Citizens United, which allows virtually unlimited corporate funding of campaigns and further solidifies ruling class control over the electoral process. Similarly, there are present-day actions by ALEC and other ultraconservative organizations that are attacking the right to vote and pushing other reactionary issues on a state-by-state basis.

The final process is the ideology process. This is the process through which members of the ruling class and their supporters attempt to shape the beliefs, attitudes and opinions of the general populace. He states immediately that this is too pervasive a process to fully define. Nevertheless, this is the section that seems to me to be the most underdeveloped. In all fairness, a multi-volume work could be written on this process alone. Domhoff raises the questions of advertising and the use of public service announcements to influence ideology. But it is clear that the capitalist class spends billions on the corporate-controlled media. Programs and movies extolling the police, the military, the FBI and other intelligence and security agencies are everywhere and among the most popular on television. These existed when the book was written and while I have only circumstantial evidence that they are pre-planned, everything Domhoff writes suggests they are. We do know that the militarization of society we are experiencing now is a conscious plan; even the playing of the Star Spangled Banner at NFL football games is sponsored and paid for by the Department of Defense. Similarly, the pervasive atmosphere of fear seems a conscious move to challenge the security of the American people in order to allow the state security apparatus greater latitude in oppression.

This brings me to what I consider the greatest shortcoming of the book. Domhoff does not have a process that might be called the state-control process. He refers to the violence used by capitalists, but does not detail the role of the police and military in maintaining day-to-day order and working class subservience. At times where the police cannot exert control, for example blizzards or periods of uprisings, the people redistribute the goods on the basis of need rather than profit. The police – their motto is “to serve and protect” – ensure that their service is to the capitalist order and that they protect private property above all else. This doesn’t even include the obvious role of enforcing terror by killing not-so random people and ensuring that violence is front-page news. There is no mention of the role of active combat troops (such as the 82nd Airborne Division) in maintaining “peace” in various cities where such uprisings have occurred. The police function is far from benign and it is not just a “last resort” of the capitalist class; it is a daily experience for many.

These shortcomings do not detract from the importance of this work. While he states in the conclusion that he is challenging the Marxist view of the state, it is unclear what he means. This reviewer thought throughout the book that Domhoff was a Marxist. His analysis certainly is; it is a clear analysis of bourgeois democracy. He exposes the underpinnings of class rule. He takes our obvious daily experiences and allows the us to develop a deeper and more profound understanding of what is behind the events, ranging from the specific (a tax cut for this or that company) to the more general (the development of foreign policy). To win, those interested in developing political power independent of the ruling class – in challenging capitalism – must recognize not only who the class enemy is, but how capital actually rules. Domhoff’s book is a huge step forward in that struggle.