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Some nuance on the term "oligarchy" from Martin Gilen (of the Gilen and Page study)

At TPM, of all places! A fine interview:

Let's talk about the study. If you had 30 seconds to sum up the main conclusion of your study for the average person, how would you do so?

I'd say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups -- of economic elites and of organized interests.

Shocker, I know, but it's nice to hear a scholar come to that conclusion backed by hard data (you know, data other than my whole life).

You say the United States is more like a system of "Economic Elite Domination" and "Biased Pluralism" as opposed to a majoritarian democracy. What do those terms mean? Is that not just a scholarly way of saying it's closer to oligarchy than democracy if not literally an oligarchy?

People mean different things by the term oligarchy. One reason why I shy away from ["oligarchy"] is it brings to mind this image of a very small number of very wealthy people who are pulling strings behind the scenes to determine what government does. And I think it's more complicated than that. It's not only Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers or Bill Gates or George Soros who are shaping government policy-making. So that's my concern with what at least many people would understand oligarchy to mean. What "Economic Elite Domination" and "Biased Pluralism" mean is that rather than average citizens of moderate means having an important role in determining policy, ability to shape outcomes is restricted to people at the top of the income distribution and to organized groups that represent primarily -- although not exclusively -- business.

Would you say the government is most responsive to income earners at the top 10 percent, the top 1 percent or the top 0.1 percent?

This is a great question and it's not one we can answer with the data that we used in the study. Because we really don't have good info about what the top 1 percent or 10 percent want or what issues they're engaged with. As you can imagine, this is not really a group that's eager to talk with researchers.

Another way of saying "this is not really a group that's eager to talk with researchers" is that the intent of the classes of people who run the country is opaque to the rest of us. (Another shocker, I know!)

So, onto that opacity, that, er, "blank screen," we project, or model, or imagine.

"[P]ulling strings" is CT.

I think it makes more sense to think of individuals in the ownership classes maintaining portfolios of options, and exercising options when the right opportunity occurs. Since all money flows through capital they own, and/or through institutions they control, they don't make much of a distinction between the "political" and the "economy" part of "political economy." (Different aspects, the political, and the economic will be emphasized as money sloshes about, and I bet we could track that emphasis by following Flexians as they morph from "public servants" into "the dreaded private sector.") For example, we might imagine a squillionaire with a portfolio of options in "conflict investment." Which war around the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Basin got going wouldn't matter very much to this squillionaire, because at some point the war money will flow through capital he (it would be a he) controls, whether arms dealing, or mercenaries, or intelligence, or whatever. And we might imagine each option as being a step in a play in a larger playbook, with each step forwarding the ulimate objective of the play (moar money. In other words, the reason all the events in the Middle East seem familiar is that they are familiar.)

Now, if we take the idea of the ruling class owning portfolios of options where playbooks take advantage of opportunities, we can see at once that there is the possibly of factional infighting in the ruling class. Not only will they have taken different positions, they also have different playbooks (and by playbooks I mean something a lot sloppier than NFL playbooks; something more like the sheets of paper drunken frat boys pass around on "How to get girls." These guys are probably also unwilling to talk to researchers because their reasoning process is unbelievably squalid and stupid.)

So, if we have factional infighting in the ruling class, that means that a "pillars of the regime" strategy has a good chance of success, if the right wedges are positioned at the right cracks. Which is one reason CT is so destructive. Not only does it take an immense investment of time, and divert attention from the real enemy, it offers no way forward in terms of tactics or strategy. It's profoundly disempowering.

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V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

I guess there's a benefit to reiterating a long standing reality.
But there is a long standing inertia of doing nothing; that will be hard to overcome...
As long as there is a two party system (which is actually a one party system), we're sunk/fucked.