Pluralist Conceptions of Political Power
Pluralism studies political power by examining the individuals involved in the decision making process. Pluralist scholars research specific political issues to determine who prevails in community decision making (Polsby 1960). By tracing the concrete decision making process, pluralists examine the extent to which a power structure exists.
Confronting mounting evidence of the political power of corporate elites, pluralism II attempts to account for the disproportionate influence of corporations. According to pluralism II, corporate political domination still fits within the pluralist model because the corporate enterprise is a social collective (Manley 1983). While acknowledging the political system needs significant reform due to the power of corporations, pluralists still minimize the importance of class in determining who has political power.
Class Conceptions of Political Power
From the perspective of elite theory, political domination is achieved by an inner circle of ruling elite who maintain positions of control in major social institutions including those of political, economic and military significance (Mills 1956). As modern bureaucracies have developed, power has become increasingly centralized and concentrated. As a result, the structural possibilities for collusion between the major spheres of society significantly increases. Members of the inner circle of the upper class share positions of power in major social institutions. Corporate elites share social networks and are able to use their social networks to shape public opinion and political outcomes (Domhoff 2006). The ruling class is able to dominate the political process because even though individuals within the elite may have competing interests regarding a particular outcome, the capitalist class shares class-consciousness and acts as a cohesive group (Useem 1982).
According to elite theory, the dominant class is able to control political outcomes due to shared class consciousness (i.e., shared understanding of common economic interests). Class consciousness is achieved through the dominant ideology (Abercrombie and Turner 1978). However, the dominant ideology is not the ideology of the working class. Instead, the dominant ideology is maintained by the capitalist class and serves the function of unifying capitalists.
Class theory differs from elite theory in two respects: (1) Whereas elite theory focuses on class cohesion, class theory focuses on political outcomes, and (2) Whereas elite theory focuses on a ruling inner circle of the capitalist class, class theory focuses on the entire class structure.
Elite theorists examine who has power; they analyze the social network which make up the inner circle of the power elite. On the other hand, class theory examines how the ruling class is able to use political power to reproduce class relations (Thernborn 1976). From this perspective, the state is a superstructure related to the economic structure of society (Marx 1982). Capitalist class factions with competing interests are able to mobilize to form a power bloc necessary to push forward pro-capitalist policy (Poulantzas 1973). In short, according to class theory, the capitalist class does not need to be unified in order to achieve political domination.
Elite theorists focus on the inner circle of the power elite. On the other hand, class theory focuses on the entire capitalist class. From this perspective, the state is related to the entire capitalist structure (i.e., the patterns of relations of class factions) rather than the cohesive interests of the ruling arm of the capitalist class. In short, elite theory examines the structure of an elite group of the capitalist class, and class theory examines the structure of entire capitalist class.
The Class/Pluralism Debate
Pluralist theorists claim elite theory is problematic because it is not falsifiable. According to Dahl (1957:463):"If the overt leaders of a community do not appear to constitute a ruling elite, then the theory can be saved by arguing that behind the overt leaders there is a set of covert leaders who do." However, this critique is problematic because contemporary elite theory research on the U.S. power structure provides empirical evidence that a social networks of economic actors have a major influence on policies that significantly influence the daily lives of a large amount of people (Domhoff 2013; Domhoff and Dye 1987; Dreiling 2000; Griffin and Wallace 1982; Jenkins and Shumate 1985; Mintz and Schwartz 1985; Mizruchi 2010).
Pluralists focus on the exercise of power and ignore how power structures influence individual information processing. As a result, pluralist theory is limited. Action is not required for a group to achieve power (Lukes 1974). By controlling information processes, conflict is able to be avoided while achieving group interests over the interests of others. Ideology influences the way individuals understand the world in which they live and ideology is related to capitalist reproduction (Marx 1982). By focusing on actions and ignoring the influence of capitalist ideology, pluralism fails to recognize the complexity and depth of power.
Class conceptions of political power challenge pluralist assumptions of the impartial state. Class conceptions assume the state is representative of the interests of the capitalist class. According to elite theory, the inner circle of power elites in dominant political, economic and cultural institutions are able to control the policy formation process. According to class theory, even if elites are not directly involved in the decision making process, the state serves the function of reproducing the capitalist system, as its legitimacy is dependent upon economic growth (Thernborn 1976; Lipset 2994). In short, class conceptions of political power contradict pluralist assumptions of the impartial state by showing how the state is representative of economic interests.
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