The Special Interest Process

excerpted from the book

The Powers That Be

by G. William Domhoff

Vintage Books, 1978


Evidence for the "power" of a ruling class can be found in such indicators as:

1. A disproportionate amount of wealth and income as compared to other social classes and groups within the state;

2. A higher standing than other social classes within the state on a variety of well-being statistics ranging from infant mortality rates to educational attainments;

3. Control over the major social and economic institutions of the state;

4. Domination over the governmental processes of the country.

This conception of a ruling class does not differ greatly from the views of other social scientists. For example, Marxian definitions of a ruling class speak in terms of a social class that controls the major means of production in a given society, whatever the legal forms of that control may be. A social class that can pass on privileges to its children, direct investments to areas of its choosing, and divide the social product among the classes of society, giving itself a disproportionately large share, is a "ruling class" in a Marxian view. Non-Marxian definitions differ only in that they do not stress ownership or control of the means production as an integral factor in ruling-class domination For example, Daniel Bell speaks of a ruling class as a power-wielding group with a continuity of interests and a community of interests. E. Digby Baltzell writes in terms of an upper class that contributes members "to the most important, goal-integrating elite positions." For Baltzell, a ruling class is an upper class "which can perpetuate its power " in the world of affairs, whether in the bank, the factory, or in the halls of the legislature."

Generally speaking, then, there is considerable agreement that a ruling class is a social class that subordinates other social classes to its own profit or advantage.

A ruling class is a privileged social class which is able to maintain its top position in the social structure ...


The Special Interest Process

... the special-interest process ... consists of the several means by which individuals, families, corporations and business sectors within the ruling class obtain tax breaks, favors, subsidies and procedural rulings that are beneficial to their short-run interests.

The workings of the special-interest process are familiar to anyone who reads a newspaper regularly or has taken an introductory course in political science. Indeed, the process is so well known and so lucrative to the corporate rich that it is often taken as the sum and substance of governmental decision-making. Moreover, the strife and conflict that often erupts within this arena, occasionally pitting one business sector against another, reinforces a pluralistic image of power in America, including the image of a divided ruling class.

If the process itself is fairly obvious in its general outlines, most of the men and women who operate within it are neither well known nor prominent. They usually are not chairpersons of major corporations, partners in Wall Street law firms, presidents of large foundations or highly regarded research experts from major universities. Instead, they are lesser members of the power elite- corporate managers two or three rungs from the top, lawyers who have risen from middle-level backgrounds on the basis of their experience in specific government agencies and former politicians who have been hired by corporations or trade associations because of their connections. Of 124 registered lobbyists whose social backgrounds were investigated by one of my students in 1965, none were from the ruling class.

The special-interest process can be studied from two different angles. One approach starts with a specific family, corporation, industry or trade association and follows its favor-seeking operations through the particular combination of congressional committees, regulatory agencies and executive bureaucracies that must be wired in order to gain the desired governmental action. The second starts with the functioning of a given regulatory agency, congressional committee, executive department or advisory committee in order to determine how various special interests impinge upon it. Sometimes the investigator has planned the study in advance, but just as often he or she is taking advantage of an accident, scandal or leak that promises to shed new knowledge on machinations which cost the general public tens of billions of dollars each year.

The Powers That Be

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