- Does the Ruling Class Rule?
In Kindred Strangers, David Vogel dances with the central dilemmas of the modern American political economy: Why, in a notoriously business-dominated political system, are business interests so persistently frustrated by and distrustful of the state? How, in a political system which both invites the direct influence of private wealth and provides uncommon popular access to politics and the courts, do business interests exercise their political power? In what ways, in the pantheon of democratic capitalism, is American democratic capitalism both exceptional and ordinary? First, some caveats. This is not a monograph, although the twelve essays (originally published between 1978 and 1992) are organized around three broad themes: the distinctiveness of American business-government relations, the nature of business power, and the recent history of “public interest” consumer and environmental movements. The argument (as in any collection of this kind) is occasionally contradictory and often repetitive. And while Vogel lays claim to a historical, comparative, and interdisciplinary perspective, most of the heavy lifting in the argument is done by patterns of American economic regulation in the 1960s and 1970s. For the purposes of this review, I will focus on Vogel’s arguments about American exceptionalism and the nature of business power—in part because these are of greater historical and theoretical interest, and in part because (in the light of our recent political history) the ability of consumer or environmental movements to constrain corporate power seems less like the culmination of American political development than (like bellbottoms and macramé) a curiosity of the 1970s.
Vogel begins with business “distrust” of the American state: “compared to other capitalist nations, there has been relatively less cooperation and more mistrust between economic and political elites” (p. 10). This, of course, is one of the enduring riddles of American political culture; nowhere is the political threat to private capital weaker, yet nowhere is the antistatist rhetoric more ferocious. In some respects, Vogel is not consistently sure what to make of this [End Page 288] “adversary culture” (in a later essay on industrial policy, he suggests that the strength of the “adversary relationship” has been exaggerated), but the thrust of his argument is that business distrust of the state is sincere and substantial, indeed it is one of the key markers of American exceptionalism.
For Vogel, American business-government relations are rooted in the resource-rich, private-interest growth of the nineteenth century. Business interests did not need the state in the crucial decades between the establishment of basic infrastructure in the 1840s and 1850s and the emergence of the modern corporate economy in the 1890s. In turn, limited federal policy (confined to tariffs and railroads) did not impinge on managerial authority. In the United States, the modern corporation existed for a generation before the emergence of the modern bureaucratic state. Again, Vogel is not entirely consistent on this point, arguing later that “laissez-faire capitalism, far from establishing the future course of business government relations in America, may instead come to be seen as a historical anomaly” (p. 134). And the historical sketch employed here underplays an important point that Vogel later concedes: business reliance on the state has changed less in degree than in kind since the early nineteenth century. Business rhetoric, in this sense, obscures the fact that American business interests have routinely turned to politics for solutions to their problems. Vogel may be right with respect to the politics of regulation: One need only look to the antitrust politics of the late nineteenth century or the debacle of the National Recovery Act in the 1930s to find business interests struggling with the contrast between a history of benign state promotion and the prospect of coercive and costly state regulation. But here and elsewhere, Vogel uses the politics of regulation as a surrogate for business-government relations—often ignoring the fact that business’s political power and political attitudes also reflect other issues (consider the repression of organized labor in the late nineteenth century) on which private...