Levels and Spheres of Business Power

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Compare and Contrast Marxist, Elite and Democratic Pluralist Theories of Power.

Classical Elite theories were developed by Pareto and Mosca, to some extent as a critical response to Marxism, but have also been very significantly modified by theorists such as C.W. Mills. Marx’s theory of the ruling class states that, basically, the Bourgeoisie are an economically dominant class in that their ownership of the means of production in capitalist society gives them power over decisions affecting production, investment and employment, but they are also a ruling class in that they indirectly exercise considerable control over the capitalist state which may be seen as an interlocking set of political institutions including.

Many would accept Marx’s theory for the 19th Century, when politics was dominated by the aristocracy and adult suffrage was limited and when trade unions were weak and the Labour Party was non-existent, thus restricting the political influence of the working class. However, it has been claimed that Marx’s theory had lost much of its relevance by the middle to late 20th Century in conditions of universal suffrage and given the growing strength of trade unions and of the Labour Party. Now it was argued that the managerial revolution or the divorce of ownership from control had weakened the economic power of the capitalist class and that the distribution of political power could be more accurately described by the theory of Democratic Pluralism to be discussed later.

Yet by the late 1960s, Marxist ideas experienced something of a revival and writers such as Ralph Miliband aimed to rehabilitate the Marxist theory of the ruling class. According to Miliband, capitalism had not undergone very significant changes since the 19th Century and theories of post-capitalism and democratic pluralism were themselves not accurate. Miliband recognised that the Bourgeoisie or the capitalist class did not have total control over the State but argued that its control was much greater than the influence of any other social grouping or organisation such as the trade unions or the Labour Party.

According to Miliband, the State was run by a series of interconnected state elites, (the political elite, the civil service elite, the judicial elite and the military elite), but these elites were , in turn, extremely likely to be influenced by the Bourgeoisie and to make policy decisions accordingly. The Bourgeoisie according to Miliband remained a ruling class. It exercised its influence through the following mechanisms:

a. because some senior politicians were also senior business persons and might therefore take decisions in the interests of business. However, Miliband recognised that this applied only to a minority of those in state elite positions.

b. because other members of state elites were drawn disproportionately from the upper and upper middle classes and may well have been educated at private schools and Oxbridge universities and this was assumed to bring a pro-capitalist bias to their decisions. Also, although some people were upwardly mobile from the working class into elite positions, this would be possible only if they were prepared to jettison any radical views if they ever had any.

c. pro-capitalist Conservative parties are especially well funded and this increases their chances of winning General Elections.
d. a capitalist socialisation process operates via family, school and media to reduce the likelihood of criticism of the capitalist status quo. The power of the capitalist class can then be demonstrated by the existence of great inequalities of income and wealth. Here, it is argued that such inequalities continue to exist only because the capitalist class has the power to maintain them. “Power”, it is said, “is visible in its consequences”.

While also writing from a Marxist stance, Nicos Poulantzas in the 1970s was rather critical of Miliband’s approach. According to Poulantzas, the capitalist state...
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