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Critical Sociology
The online version of this article can be found at:

DOI: 10.1177/08969205990250021101

1999 25: 224Crit Sociol
Göran Therborn

On Different Approaches To the Study of Power in Society
What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules? Some Reflections

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Göran Therborn

What is the place of power in society? What is the relationship
between class and power? Answers diVer, as is to be expected, given
the obvious signi� cance of class and power to the evaluation of a given
society. The question itself, however, appears simple and straightfor-
ward enough. Ideological biases apart, what seems to be at issue is the
famous question of scienti� c method, of what is the most adequate
method to answer the question.1 But is the question really so clear and
simple? From what we know about “paradigms” (Kuhn) and “prob-
lematics” (Althusser) of science is it very likely that, for example, a pro-
letarian revolutionary and critic of political economy (Marx), a German
academic historian and sociological follower of Austrian marginalism
(Weber), a descendant of JeVersonian democracy (Mills), an admirer of
contemporary liberal economics (Buchanan-Tullock, Parsons), or an
adherent of some of the ruling political ideas of present-day USA (Dahl,
Giddens[2]), would be concerned with the same problem and ask the
same question—even when they use the same words?

Leaving subtler points and distinctions aside we can distinguish at
least three diVerent major approaches to the study of power in society.
The � rst and most common one we might call the subjectivist approach.
With Robert Dahl it asks: Who governs?,3 or with William DomhoV:
Who rules America?,4 or in the words of a British theorist of strati� ca-
tion, W.G. Runciman: “who rules and who is ruled?”,5 or in the mil-
itant pluralist variant of Nelson Polsby: “Does anyone at all run this

This is a subjectivist approach to the problem of power in society
not in the same sense as “subjective” in the so-called subjective con-
ceptions of strati� cation, which refer to strati� cation in terms of sub-
jective evaluation and esteem, in contrast to strati� cation in terms of,
say, income or education. It is a subjectivist approach in the sense that
it is looking for the subject of power. It is looking, above all, for an answer
to the question, Who has power? A few, many, a uni� ed class of fam-
ilies, an institutional elite of top decision-makers, competing groups,

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232 göran therborn


The limited aim of this paper is to distinguish between diVerent
approaches to the problem of class and power, particularly between the
dialectical-materialist (Marxist) approach and the variants of the sub-
jectivist approach. Such a distinction seems important in order to open
up possibilities for the application of the speci� c Marxist approach, given
the fatal � aws of the prevailing subjectivist one. The distinction is par-
ticularly important at the present juncture in the social sciences, where,
in spite of a renewed interest in and acknowledgement of Marx, an
evaluation of the truth and fertility of Marxist theory tends to be made
impossible by the amalgams currently fashionable in post-1968 sociol-
ogy. In such eclectic constructions—which appear to be made accord-
ing to a recipe like, one part Marx, two parts Weber, and two parts
more recent sociology (including ingredients supplied by the cook him-
self ), seasoned with diVering amounts of hot (radical) and mild (liberal)
spices—the distinctly Marxist analysis is drowned.

With such an aim, the present paper is not a direct contribution to
the study of class and power. But within this limitation I will � nally
try to indicate a few guiding threads for a Marxist type of empirical
investigation of the problem of class and power. That only rather gen-
eral and tentative guiding threads will be oVered re� ects, I think, not
only the limitations of the present paper and of its author, but also the
fact that Marx opened up a radically new scienti� c path, to be con-
stantly cleared of the lush vegetation of dominant ideologies, and on
which only the very � rst steps in the direction of systematic theory have
been taken.

The primary object of empirical study, for a grasp of the relations
of class, state, and power, should be neither interpersonal relations
between diVerent elites (for instance, the government and the business
elites), nor their social backgrounds, nor issues and decisions and non-
decisions—although all this is important. The primary object should be
the eVects of the state on the (re)production of a given (whether found
or hypothesized) mode (or modes) of production. The relations of dom-
ination entailed by the relations of production are concentrated in the
state. Through the state the rule of the ruling class is exercised. The
character of this rule has to be grasped from the eVects of the state.
There are two aspects to these eVects: what is done (and not done) through
the state, and how things are done that are done through the state. We
need a typology of state interventions and a typology of state structures.

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what does the ruling class do? 233

The typology of state structures should distinguish among the diVerential
eVects (of legislative, administrative, and judiciary arrangements and pro-
cedures, of mechanisms of governmental designation, of organization of
army and police, etc.) upon the extent to which the state can be used
by diVerent classes—that is, their eVects on whether and to what extent
the rule of a given class of people (with certain characteristics and
quali� cations as de� ned by their position in society) can operate through
the state structure under investigation.35 In this way broad types of state
structures can be identi� ed and distinguished in terms of their class
character, for example feudal states, bourgeois states and proletarian
states (in which the principle of “politics in command”, as realized in
soviets, workers’ parties, mass movements of cultural revolution, etc.,
seems to be a central characteristic). Various speci� c state apparatuses,
such as legislative bodies, the judiciary, or the army, could also be stud-
ied from this point of view. It should of course not be assumed that a
concrete state at a speci� c point in time necessarily has a homogeneous
class character in all its institutions—which raises the problem then of
how to establish its dominant class character.

To study the process by which the state actually operates we also
have to have a typology of state interventions (including non-interven-
tions signi� cant to the (re)production of given relations of production).
Such a typology could be almost endlessly re� ned. Basically, however,
it should comprise two dimensions. One concerns what is done, and
the other how it is done. In other words, one refers to the external
eVects of state intervention on other structures of society, above all on
the relations of production, (but also on the ideological system), and the
other refers to the internal eVects upon the state itself. State interven-
tion can either further, merely allow, or go against, and at the limit
break, given relations of production.

And they can either increase, maintain, or go against, and at the
limit break, given relations of political domination as embodied in the
character of apparatuses of administration (and government) and repres-
sion. (The possibilities of successfully breaking given relations of pro-
duction are fundamentally determined by the particular stage of the
relations and forces of production, and the stage of the relations of force
between classes which this implies.) The following table illustrates the
types of state intervention possible along these two dimensions.

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242 göran therborn

26. This is a weak spot in the otherwise well-substantiated critique of pluralist these
by Miliband (op. cit.). Miliband basically shrinks from really analysing governments whose
personnel is not recruited from the economic elite, and where the higher echelons of
the administration may also be recruited otherwise. In such cases he merely refers to
the ideology of the political leaders as part of a bourgeois consensus (see ch. 4, part IV).
He does provide some empirical material and suggestions for a study of the problem,
but it is fundamentally outside his model of control. For the analysis of advanced bour-
geois democracies, of reformism fascism, and military governments, a more complex
model seems crucial. Similarly, the important works of William DomhoV, on the haute-
bourgeois backgrounds and connections of American politicians and administrators, and
on the cohesiveness of the top-most stratum of the US bourgeoisie, would bene� t from
being located in a much more elaborate conceptualization and analysis of the US power
structure and of the contradictory development of US society.

27. Bachrach-Baratz, op. cit. (1962, 1963, 1970).
28. S. Lukes, Power: A Radical View (London: Macmillan, 1974).
29. A nondecision means “a decision that results in suppression or thwarting of a

latent or manifest challenge to the values or interests of the decision-maker,” Bachrach-
Baratz, op. cit. (1970), p. 44.

30. Lukes, op. cit., chs. 4, 7. Lukes draws upon the work of Crenson, op. cit.
31. Bachrach-Baratz, op. cit. (1970), ch. 2.
32. Lukes, op. cit., pp. 55–56. Cf. Marx: “I paint the capitalist and the landlord in

no sense coleur de rose. But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the
personi� cations of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and
class interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation is
viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual
responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may sub-
jectively raise himself above them.” Das Kapital, I, p. viii; Capital (London: Lawrence &
Wishart, 1970), vol. 1, p. 10. Marx’s view certainly did not mean that the power of the
capitalist was a fate to submit to, but something that could be combatted and abolished.
It does mean, however, that it is rather pointless to accuse the capitalists of not behav-
ing like non-capitalists. The Marxian standpoint implies, of course, that the arm of crit-
icism is replaced by the criticism of arms (i.e., the class struggle in all its forms).

33. Marx, op. cit., I. p. 541; Lawrence & Wishart editions, I. p. 578.
34. Ibid., p. 549 and p. 586, respectively.
35. This seems to indicate a way out of the dilemma posed by Claus OVe in his very

penetrating essay, ‘Klassenherrschaft und politisches System. Zur Selektivitat politischer
Institutionen’, in his Strukturprobleme des kapitalistischen Staates (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1972).
This is an “objectivist” approach to the problem of the selectivity of the state, but it is
not based on any de� nitions of the objective interests of the revolutionary class, which
OVe rejects (p. 86). Neither does it mean that an empirical inquiry into the class char-
acter of the state only can be made post festum, as OVe concludes (p. 90), when the class
struggle has developed to the point where the limits of a given state appear.

36. Fascism is also distinguished by its furthering of monopoly capitalist relations of
production, which points to still another distinction in terms of fractions of classes fur-
thered or disadvantaged by the state interventions. Cf. N. Poulantzas, Fascism and Dictatorship
(London: NLB, 1974).

37. N. Poulantzas, ‘On Social Classes’, New Left Review 78 (1973), p. 49.
38. Parsons treats the problem of reproduction or “pattern-maintenance” solely in

terms of transmission of values. For a relatively recent formulation see T. Parsons. The
System of Modern Societies (Englewood CliVs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 10–15. Similarly
all “social sources of stability” singled out by Parkin (op. cit., 1971, ch. 2) refer to ideo-
logical mechanisms: mobility, the educational system, religion, gambling, and the fos-
tering of beliefs in luck. A noteworthy exception is H.F. Moorhouse’s interesting account
of the political and economic constraints imposed upon the British working class up to

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what does the ruling class do? 243

1918 and their role in shaping later working class “deference”, in his “The Political
Incorporation of the British Working Class: An Interpretation,” Sociology 7 (1973), pp.
341–59. See also the discussion by R. Gray, “The Political Incorporation of the Working
Class,” Sociology 9 (1975), pp. 101–04; H.F. Moorhouse, “On the Political Incorporation
of the Working Class: Reply to Gray.” Ibid., pp. 105–10. See footnote 72, on the con-
centration (in the discussion of social reproduction) on legitimation, a preoccupation com-
ing out of the Weberian tradition.

39. To identify the ideological mechanisms of reproduction with the processes of legit-
imation would imply that people do not revolt against the given rule under which they
live because they regard it as legitimate. This seems hardly warranted. People may not
revolt, political and economic constraints aside, because they do not know the kind of
domination they are subjected to. That is, they may be hold ignorant not only of its
negative features but of its positive claims and achievements as well. They may be igno-
rant of alternatives, or they may feel themselves incapable of doing anything about it,
even if they know of other possible types of societies. But this ignorance, disinterest, and
lack of con� dence are not simply there, as characteristics of certain individuals and
groups, they are produced by de� nite social processes. See the important distinction
between pragmatic and normative acceptance made by Michael Mann, “The Social
Cohesion of Liberal Democracy.” American Sociological Review 35 (1970), pp. 423–39. The
one-eyed concentration on legitimation is often related to a normative conception: that
every rule should be based on the true and knowing consensus of the ruled, thereby
holding it legitimate. See, for instance, J. Habermas, Legitimationsprobleme im Spatkapitallismus
(Frankfurt: Suhrkapm, 1973), esp. pp. 162V. But that is another question. Interestingly
enough, Habermas and OVe both accept Weber’s ideal type of competitive capitalism,
against which they contrast modern capitalism with its enormously increased amount of
state interventions, supposedly making more ideological legitimation necessary (Habermas,
op. cit., Ch. II.; OVe, “Tauschverhaltnis und politische Steuerung. Zur Aktualitat des
Legitimationsproblems,” in OVe, op. cit., pp. 27–63). This view tends to veil the impor-
tant role of ideology in the era of competitive capitalism—the era of human rights dec-
larations, of the ascendance of bourgeois nationalism, and of still-strong established and
dissenting religions—and to veil as well the economic and Political mechanisms of cri-
sis and revolution in the present period, a period which has witnessed the shattering of
the economic foundations of the British Empire and is witnessing the shaking of the
supremacy of the United States.

40. See the very important essay by Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State
Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation),” in his Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays
(London: NLB, 1971), pp. 121–273. For unconvincing reasons, however, Althusser talks
of ideological state apparatuses.

41. Marx, Das Kapital, III: 2, p. 140; Bottomore-Rubel, op. cit., p. 190.

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