Elites / General

Domhoff, G.William. The Higher Circles: The Governing Class in America. New York: Vintage Books, 1971. 367 pages.

Domhoff, G.William. Who Rules America? Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967. 184 pages.

While most American sociologists spend their time writing about social stratification and delinquent behavior, there are a handful of scholars who deal seriously with upper-class social and economic power as a phenomenon of contemporary American politics. University of California at Santa Cruz professor G.William Domhoff is one of the more prominent.

Higher Circles makes a convincing case that elites run foreign policy and shape social legislation through various devices from think tanks to interlocking directorates, while the CIA molds the public consciousness by financing institutions, infiltrating labor unions, and buying opinion- makers. The book is name-intensive and full of concrete examples and statistics. The final chapter presents a solid critique of the pluralists -- the academic mandarins whose job it was to justify the status quo during the 1960s. Twenty years later, when it became their job to justify increasing poverty and homelessness, they gave up on pluralism and started debating "trickle-down" economics. Meanwhile, professors got tenure and the rich got richer.

"Who Rules America?" was Domhoff's first attempt to show that a ruling class dominates American political life. The chapter titles include "The American Upper Class," "The Control of the Corporate Economy," The Shaping of the American Polity," "The Control of the Federal Government," "The Military, the CIA, and the FBI," "Control of State and Local Governments," and "Is the American Upper Class a Governing Class?" One method he uses to make his case is to cross Social Register listings with those of elite foundations, lobby groups, big business, and government policy-makers. This and "Higher Circles" are his two best books.


Dye, Thomas R. Who's Running America? -- The Reagan Years. 3rd edition. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1983. 285 pages.

One of the debates in American sociology is between the "pluralist" and "elitist" schools of thought. While both agree that America is not ruled by the masses, the pluralists see this as benign in a society that is more open than most. For the pluralist, the elites maintain an equilibrium of competing interests, and the little guy can make himself felt when he wants to by joining an interest group. Thomas Dye, on the other hand, feels that this competition is more apparent than real.

In 1972 Dye's graduate students at Florida State University began collecting data on some 5,000 elite positions, which by this third edition had expanded to 7,000. His technique, which depends on a definition of "elite" as a person with institutional affiliations, is to study these positions at the upper end of the corporate sector (industrial, utilities, banks, insurance, investments), the public interest sector (media, education, foundations, law, civic and cultural organizations), and the governmental sector (legislative, executive, judicial, military). The persons occupying these positions are noted, and the fact that they frequently hold several of these positions simultaneously is further evidence of a concentration of power at the top. In the course of making his argument, Dye names certain individuals and lists their affiliations.


Hanahoe, Tom. America Rules: US Foreign Policy, Globalization and Corporate USA. Kerry, Ireland: Brandon, 2003. 293 pages.

This book is a broadside against U.S. hegemony since the beginning of the Cold War, and it paints with a wide brush. It covers covert and military interventions, Bilderberg, Trilateralism, the Council on Foreign Relations, Rockefeller interests, corporations, hijacking the United Nations, the World Bank and IMF, the influence of big money in U.S. elections, NAFTA and free trade, globalization, and flirting with dictators. Of all of these, the Rockefeller connection enjoys the most coverage, but even that amounts to only a few dozen pages. There are extensive chapter notes and an excellent index. One benefit of books such as this is that they might inspire more detailed research into specific topics.

Anyone who is too young to have experienced the anti-Vietnam War movement would benefit from this book. Those were the years when the role of U.S. power became visible to many who had been oblivious, after which these new perspectives were confirmed by official revelations during the 1970s. Then Reagan was elected, and there were no more revelations (the Iran-Contra scandal was too specific in its focus). Nothing much happened with Clinton. That led the way for Bush and 9/11, and all collective memory of U.S. history was erased in an orgy of mindless media reaction. Today we need books like this to remind us of what we once learned.


Hersh, Burton. The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992. 536 pages.

Ten years of work, hundreds of interviews, and access to numerous library collections have produced this narrative of CIA history, from its emergence out of William Donovan's OSS to its first publicized failure at the Bay of Pigs. While this book is name-intensive and rich in anecdotal detail, several figures reappear frequently as they weave in and out of this somewhat scattered narrative. These include Donovan, the Dulles brothers with their Nazi connections, William C. Bullitt, Reinhard Gehlen, Frank Wisner, and Carmel Offie.

Hersh's writing style is different -- a bit haughty (or even elitist), but seldom boring. His view of the CIA's self-anointed Ivy Leaguers playing in their international sandbox, while the effects of their work are best described with Cold War body counts, is basically critical. However, one cannot shake the suspicion that Hersh's objections are based more on closet envy than on ethical considerations. This book is well- received among Hersh's colleagues in the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, most of whom would like nothing better than to return to the glory days before all of the embarrassing revelations and congressional oversight. If a book can be judged by its fans, then perhaps Hersh's critical style ought to be a bit more direct.


Hitchens, Christopher. Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990. 398 pages.

Oxford-educated Christopher Hitchens still has his British accent, but he lives in Washington DC, and doesn't get a chance to use it while writing columns for The Nation and Vanity Fair. It's just as well; he seems a bit uncomfortable with it. In this book he shows how, ever since U.S. imperialism began in 1898, it has been the British tail wagging the American dogs of war. In their scholarship, language, manners, ethnicity, and taste, privileged Americans frequently aspire to be British. This identity problem has placed American economic and military power in the service of British efforts to maintain some semblance of empire.

Half of this book belongs back at Oxford, as Hitchens' literary allusions are poor grist for the NameBase mill. It gets better starting with chapter ten: there's one on the special relationship between British and U.S. intelligence, another on U.S. foreign policy and the British connection since World War II, and then a chapter that briefly traces the Rhodes-Chatham House-Ditchley Park-Council on Foreign Relations tradition of elitist salon think-tanking with its dense Anglo-American cross-connects. What's missing is a discussion of Anglophobic conspiracy theory in America that would help us decide whether right-wing American patriots are just crazy, or could they be trying to tell us something?


Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007. 558 pages. Website at www.nologo.org

Naomi Klein's "shock doctrine" is an ad-hoc theory of how capitalism advances its agenda by using social disruption as an excuse to further disenfranchise the middle and lower classes. The primary example of this is Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys -- economists who specialize in rationalizing the free market at the expense of the masses. The effects of such mesmerizing ruling-class ideologies are akin to the CIA's mind-blanking experiments on individuals, except that they are used globally on entire populations. There are several excellent pages in this book that criticize organizations such as Ford Foundation and even Amnesty International, for their failure to address the deeper issues.

The main advantage of Klein's analysis is that she sees through the hypocrisy of American liberalism, and the duplicity of American economic theory. And the main disadvantage of this book is that Klein shows no interest in Marxist philosophy and critical theory. The "shock doctrine" angle is a convenient journalistic hook that allows her to cover a wide range of free-market transgressions over the last 50 years, but it's not a viable theory for committed activists. In the end, her scattergun observations are properly on-target and revealing, but not intellectually satisfying.


Odendahl, Teresa. Charity Begins at Home: Generosity and Self-Interest Among the Philanthropic Elite. New York: Basic Books, 1990. 299 pages.

Professor Teresa Odendahl is an anthropologist and a consultant to nonprofit organizations, who has contributed to two other scholarly books on private foundations. For this book she interviewed 140 millionaire philanthropists, and surveyed 100 foundation staff members and 70 personal advisors to the wealthy. Her conclusion is that "contemporary American philanthropy is a system of 'generosity' by which the wealthy exercise social control and help themselves more than they do others" (p.245). Odendahl recommends a restructuring of the philanthropic and tax systems, and greater accountability in the nonprofit sector.

Perhaps due to her ease of access, Odendahl devotes more space to liberal, feminist, and progressive funders than to the conservatives who bankrolled the ideological right during the Reagan years. Her conclusions are all the more stunning because of this, for she cannot be accused of hiding a partisan political bias behind her detached academic methodology. This is a sober, mature, skeptical look at the ethnography of isolated, upper-class elites, both liberal and conservative, who use philanthropy to extend their personal control and protect their wealth, and have convinced the rest of us that we should be grateful.


Quigley, Carroll. The Anglo-American Establishment. New York: Books in Focus, 1981. 354 pages.

Carroll Quigley (1910-1977) taught history at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service since 1941. This book was written in 1949 and covers the Rhodes-Milner Round Table Groups, a secret Oxford-related cabal that had tremendous influence in British foreign policy from the time that Cecil Rhodes began funding it at the turn of the century. In 1919 the Council on Foreign Relations became the American branch of the Round Table. Quigley is better known for "Tragedy and Hope" (1966), which reaffirms his earlier suspicions (he says he had access to the Round Table's secret archives), but lacks the rich detail of the earlier work. Quigley basically agreed with the goals of these high-minded internationalists, but disliked their inherited wealth and power, their methods, and particularly their secrecy.

Quigley became a darling of the anti-internationalist Right in the U.S., from Cleon Skousen (The Naked Capitalist, 1970) through Pat Robertson (The New World Order, 1991). Then to top it off, Bill Clinton mentioned Quigley as his mentor in his nomination acceptance speech on July 16, 1992. Clinton studied under Quigley at Georgetown in the middle 1960s, and then became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Now he's a member of CFR, Trilateral Commission, and Bilderberg, and many of his appointees are from the same Rhodes-CFR-Trilateral circles. We don't know what this means, if anything.


Quigley, Carroll. Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time. New York: MacMillan Company, 1966. 1348 pages.

Tragedy and Hope is a diplomatic, military, economic, and cultural history of the world, dealing mainly with the years from about 1900 to 1950. Quigley was professor of history at the Foreign Service School of Georgetown University, where he was best known for his rigorous undergraduate teaching. His credentials as a historian were excellent, and he was well-connected with the Washington elite. But Quigley is something of an embarrassment to those elites, because he called it the way he saw it. Since they cannot match his breadth and depth, nor duplicate his archival research, Quigley is usually criticized for not using footnotes. It won't wash -- the quality of his scholarship is evident on every one of these 1300 pages.

The embarrassment has to do with the fact that Quigley believed in the relevance of secret history -- the machinations of powerful personalities, the role of international finance and banking (following the money), the importance of covert action and diplomacy, and the collusion of Anglo- American elites. Although his prose is too subdued and well-crafted to label him a conspiracy theorist, Quigley has admirers on both the Right and Left who study him for this very reason. His appeal is universal: a rare combination of range, competence, and integrity in a tricky profession.


Sargent, Porter. Getting U S Into War. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1941. 635 pages.

Porter Sargent (1872-1951) published a series of 100 mimeographed bulletins in 1939-1941 that he sent out to his mailing list of 10,000 private school people, college presidents and school superintendents. These are reprinted in this book, after a 96-page introduction. The style of each bulletin consists of several paragraphs or pages of commentary on recent items from the world press, followed by extensive end notes that are more detailed and informative than the commentary itself. Sargent was primarily worried about the drumbeat toward world war, and by Britain's skillful propaganda and maneuvering to make sure the U.S. became involved.

From pages 245-6: "No periodical will print the material put forth in these Bulletins... The making of these Bulletins has taken practically my whole time for months so that I have neglected my personal and business affairs... It requires the full time assistance of two secretaries and part time of five or six others. Personally I take, read, mark and clip with assistance more than a hundred periodicals, -- see, read, annotate hundreds of the new books each year. There is no secret stuff here. Much of it is on the inside page of the N.Y.Times and Tribune, more comes from obscure periodicals and news letters... The interpretations in these Bulletins are not paid for except by voluntary contributions."


Sargent, Porter. What Makes Lives. From "A Handbook of Private Schools," 24th edition. Boston: self-published, 1940. 230 pages.

This item was reprinted by Dale Wharton, who found a microfilm copy in the New York Public Library after an 18-month search. His interest was sparked by a three-page quotation from Sargent in a 1947 book by George Seldes. These pages recounted the repression of independent American journalism by corporate interests, in particular by the House of Morgan.

Porter Sargent (1872-1951) was an eclectic scholar and educator who published a survey of private schools beginning in 1914. He used the preface to his "Handbook" to comment on topics of the day. Sargent was shaken by the ease with which the U.S. became entangled in the first world war, and in 1940 saw the same thing happening again. (Before Pearl Harbor, isolationism was a respectable opinion in America.) Moreover, some social critics were tracking the emerging science of propaganda, and noticed how its techniques were increasingly used by governments (in this case, the British-Morgan nexus) to shape popular opinion. Sargent's interest began after Senator Gerald Nye read portions of a book by Sidney Rogerson, "Propaganda in the Next War," into the Congressional Record, "telling how Britain might seduce the U.S. into the coming war against Germany.... Porter Sargent had 10,000 reprints made, [and] sent them, with a one-page mimeograph of his own observations, to his mailing list of educators." (Time magazine, 1939-12-25)


Seldes, George. One Thousand Americans. New York: Boni & Gaer, 1947. 312 pages.

George Seldes (1890-1995) covered the Spanish Civil War from Madrid for the New York Post, and from 1940 to 1950 he edited the weekly newsletter "In Fact." A free-lance muckraker for most of his career, Seldes retired in 1950 but was rediscovered in the 1980s; his autobiography "Witness to a Century" was published in 1987 and became a bestseller. With more than a dozen books to his credit, Seldes is considered by progressives as one of the century's leading anti-fascists. In addition to tracking the extreme Right, Seldes also tracked corporations and big money, and their power and influence in the American press. (Regrettably, this aspect of his research is no longer important to the Left, which for the past two decades has concentrated more on identity politics and multiculturalism.)

This 1947 book is dense with the names of major American power brokers, including interests such as J.P. Morgan and groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers. One 80-page section on the magazine press deals with both the Henry Luce and Morgan empires. Throughout this book, Seldes connects the interlocking dots between owners, directors, and their handmaidens within the political process. "These one thousand Americans are interested in property rights, rather than the general welfare," and have the power to "maintain the status quo system or to move backward."


Silk, Leonard and Silk, Mark. The American Establishment. New York: Avon Books (Discus), 1981. 351 pages.

Leonard Silk is a member of the establishment: editorial board of the New York Times, former Business Week editor, Brookings Institution senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations member, former presidential advisor, former Salzburg Seminar visiting professor, etc. When he teams up with his son Mark (a teaching fellow at Harvard) and confesses that there is indeed an American Establishment, it's not easy to dismiss them as conspiracy buffs. "We see the American Establishment as a churchlike institution which seeks to play a mediating role between the competing forces in our society. As such, it is mildly reformist and ultimately conservative."

Those looking for hard research will be disappointed. The authors prefer a loose commentary interspersed with anecdotes, and deal only with institutions familiar to them: Harvard (pages 21-65), New York Times (pages 66-103), Ford Foundation (pages 125-152), Brookings Institution (pages 153-182), Council on Foreign Relations (pages 183-225), and some big business organizations. In the final analysis, father and son are glad the Establishment exists, but "we think that it works best as a truly secret organization, secret even from its own membership." To paraphrase: "Yes, there's a priesthood that calls the shots, but it hasn't gone to their heads so we should all be grateful and wish them well."


Van der Pijl, Kees. The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class. London: Verso, 1997. 331 pages.

This book emerged out of the author's 1983 doctoral dissertation at the University of Amsterdam; his neo-Marxist emphasis is on economic trends in the U.S. and Europe since World War I. An internationalist bourgeoisie, associated with money capital, integrated the American and Western European ruling classes. The New Deal, and then the Marshall Plan, formed a new corporate liberalism, with its own tendency toward international expansion. Then statism emerged as a sphere-of-interest struggle against the Soviet Union eclipsed the class struggle that once characterized labor movements.

One shortcoming of this book is that abstract macroeconomic and political analysis leaves no room for the role played by the secret state. The author briefly mentions that in 1966 Walter Reuther accused the AFL-CIO of working with the CIA, but since the Kennedy era is seen as the high point of Atlanticism, and Vietnam its downfall, little room is left for more recent revelations. Most academic historians still haven't fully recognized the massive role played by CIA covert operations. The Marshall Plan itself, for example, was directed by the secret state. When choosing a dissertation topic, neo-Marxist categories work fine. But if you want to aim for deeper understanding, then it becomes necessary to leave academia behind so that conspiracism can be given its rightful place in recent history.


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