Noam Chomsky tells us that the essence of anarchism is

to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom. That includes political power, ownership and management, relations among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations…and much else. Naturally this means a challenge to the huge institutions of coercion and control: the state, the unaccountable private tyrannies that control most of the domestic and international economy, and so on. (Chomsky on Anarchism: Anarchism, Marxism and Hope for the Future, 178)

So anarchy is fundamentally a perpetual questioning of authority and power; it asks us to consider the legitimacy of all power. In fact, James C Scott begins his history of anarchism in upland Southeast Asia by pointing out that we have to study the state by also studying statelessness or anarchy:

The huge literature on state-making, contemporary and historic, pays virtually no attention to its obverse: the history of deliberate and reactive statelessness. This is the history of those who got away, and state-making cannot be understood apart from it. This is also what makes this an anarchist history. (The Art of Not Being Governed, x)

To me, the comments from Chomsky and Scott imply an important question, one that I am not sure of the answer, although I hope to find it out some day. The question is this: what exactly is this “power” that anarchists are deliberately trying to run away from?

The question is simply this: what is power? The answer is not obvious. Trying to answer this question is the purpose of my following series of articles. I have decided to use G. William Domhoff’s collection of articles as a springboard for my exploration into the question of “what is power?”

In this article, I am going to use Domhoff’s article called Who Rules America: Alternative Theoretical Views as my starting point of inquiry. I will limit this article to a discussion of pluralism.

Domhoff, who is in the Sociology Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz, begins his discussion of pluralism, one of many rival theories of power, with this rather ominous sentence:

Pluralism is the theory that most closely corresponds to claims made in high school textbooks and the mass media, and to what many Americans believe. (bold emphasis mine)

In other words the pluralist theory seems to be very popular. My gut feeling is that if something is popular, then it is probably wrong. According to Mark Twain, this is a time to reflect:

Now I will summarize Domhoff’s discussion of the nature of pluralism (and neo-pluralism–which is the revised version of pluralism). I hope that you will start to wonder why this is the popular theory of power in the United States, because I certainly did.

  1. There are no hierarchies (so anarchism is useless, because anarchy is about abolishing hierarchical relationships in society). There is no dominant class. Power is disbursed among several groups. Power seems to be situational because different groups have power on different issues.
  2. Pluralism “mirrors” the free market economy. Everything “works” in society because of competition. Just as markets have competition in order to provide “consumer sovereignty,” so too the political arena has competition in order to provide “voter sovereignty.”
  3. The government is seen as a neutral dispute resolution body that will arbitrate among the competing interests in the society. The government is a fair and impartial judge.
  4. Power comes from the bottom up or the grassroots. The people rule! Democratic capitalism is a collection of voluntary groups that attempt to influence public opinion.
  5. These groups can become “institutionalized” into what are called “interest groups.” These interest groups can form coalitions or alliances depending on the situation.
  6. Corporate power is a non-issue. Corporate leaders are too divided among themselves to dominate government.
  7. The basic pluralist assumption about human nature is that people are self-maximizing individuals. In other words, capitalism is in, egalitarianism is out.
  8. When it comes to property rights, pluralism sounds exactly like right wing libertarianism: “The state may be brought in to institutionalize property rights, or it may be viewed as a dangerous threat to them; but the state is not a part of the creation of private property” (bold emphasis mine). It reminds me of all these online discussions from right wing libertarians trying to explain the “non-state” origins of property: such as homesteading or self-ownership.
  9. Major foundation funding of new citizen interest groups is downplayed as a source of nefarious influence by money on these citizen groups. In other words, the independence of these citizen groups has not been compromised even though they are getting a lot of money from corporate foundations.
  10. Evidence supporting the pluralist view is found in the correlation between public opinion and legislative outcome.

My Comments on Pluralism’s Theory of Power:

My initial reaction is that pluralism seems to be a theory of power created by people in power in order to justify their existing power. Domhoff stresses the fact that pluralism likes to dance around and minimize the corporate power issue. In his list of arguments against pluralism, the one that jumps out at me is this one:

At that point it seemed to a growing number of social scientists that corporations did have predominant power and that the government was not responsive to the interests of the general public. (bold emphasis mine)

Domhoff’s argument reminds me of Chomsky’s argument, about how maximizing corporate power results in the minimization of popular power:

Of course, when you minimize the state, you maximize something else–and it isn’t popular control. What gets maximized is private power, domestic and foreign. (How the World Works, 262).

There is also a similarity between Domhoff’s view that public opinion in America is all fake, the product of corporate programming, and Chomsky’s views on manufacturing consent. Domhoff argues, when discussing how public opinion is actually corporate opinion, “the corporate community spends enormous sums of money to influence public opinion through an opinion-shaping network.” Similarly, Chomsky in his book How the World Works says that “one factor is the power of business propaganda in the US, which has succeeded, to an unusual extent, in breaking down the relations among people and their sense of support for one another” (301). Both authors attack the public relations industry for shaping public opinion.

I think what the pluralist theory is trying to accomplish is to argue that power is dispersed throughout the society. Nobody has a little group or class in charge. The people or the masses are in charge through the competitive process of voting. The government–this neutral tool of the people–then works out all the conflicts between groups in society.

I think the fundamental problem with this theory of power is that it ignores the problem of inequality. It is very difficult to speak of a voluntary society when some groups have lots of wealth while other groups have very little wealth. Domhoff stresses the fact that pluralism is based on a justification of inequality: “there are great inequalities in power and wealth, but they are disbursed among several groups.” It is this defense of radical inequality that makes the pluralist system break down, in my opinion.

The next article, Part 2 in this series, will continue with Domhoff’s paper by discussing the State Autonomy Theory of Power.