Chapter 34 from: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974


By John Ray

ONE OF THE ritual phrases used by Left-wing intellectuals whenever a demon is necessary to explain the occurrence of some disliked state of affairs is 'The power elite'. 'The power elite' is a demon to which all the ills of society can he traced. It is a slightly sophisticated intellectuals' version of the workers' "Them".

Among academics the discussion of the role of elites in society is a very old and very ramified one. There is no doubt that we do have elites. The only question is the degree of influence that they do or should have. What I want to do here, is to present simply how power is distributed and exercised, and in so doing, to show that the radical's image of a small, cohesive, conspiratorial and self-seeking group as being the ones who exercise between them all or most of the power in our society is quite distorted and false.

Both the extreme Right and the extreme Left tend to have conspiracy theories about how society is run. For the extreme Right it is 'The Jews' who run society to their own advantage and to the disadvantage of the rest of us. To the Leftist it is 'The Bosses' if you are a worker, or 'the power elite' if you yourself are in danger of appearing to be in 'the Bosses" class. In fact, all of the mentioned theories about the distribution and location of power are very much alike and are mistaken in approximately equal degrees. Given the education, affluence and positions of influence that are characteristic of Jews, they are quite as plausible as the holders of power as anyone else. Once you think society is run by a small collusive minority, you have all the ingredients necessary for a pogrom. 'The Jews', 'The Bosses', and 'The power elite' are very nearly interchangeable terms. However you define who belongs in each of these three classes of people, you will still end up by naming many of the same people. It is this that explains what must be very painful to many of those who are proud to bear the label 'socialist' -- the fact that Hitler too thought himself to be a 'socialist'. The name 'Nazi' is of course the German abbreviation of 'Nationalsozialistische deutsche Arbeiter Partei' ( NSDAP ) or 'National socialist German workers' party'. When Gough Whitlam describes himself as both a nationalist and a socialist, one is duty bound to point out what went wrong with the last lot of National Socialists we suffered from. What went wrong was that they worked with a conspiracy theory of power. Who they thought held that power was really quite secondary, and was in any case not greatly different from what our socialists think. When things were going wrong they looked for a group of evil men to blame rather than trying to understand the real complexities of societal functioning. Just as it fell to that arch-Conservative Churchill to lead the opposition to our last most serious outbreak of paranoid socialism, so to conservatives today must fall the role of challenging our modern forms of paranoid socialism.

Why are conspiracy theories of power so common? One obvious attraction is that they help people to avoid coming to terms with the fact that their values are deviant from the values of the rest of their fellow citizens. If you do not like the motor car, it helps to propose that people buy them only because the power elite have created an artificial demand for them by way of advertising. In fact this proposal casts the deviant in the role of hero. He alone has been smart enough to see through and resist the forces the power elite use to manipulate society to their own advantage. By postulating the existence of a collusive power elite, one can defer recognition of the fact that the existing social order represents by and large a compromise between the various things that most people want. It is easier to attack and find fault with a small elite than to find fault with and attack practically the whole of one's fellow men. That your more satisfactory enemy is imaginary matters very little, except perhaps to the majority of the people who would be oppressed if you ever got your way. It is no accident that the world's two most vicious recent dictatorships, Hitler's and Stalin's, were perpetrated in the name of socialism and were accompanied by the mass slaughter of elites. The conspiracy theory allows the paranoid to tell himself that he is acting in the name of the people (socialism) and is freeing them from the oppressors who have hoodwinked them. No better formula for enabling one to ignore in all good conscience the actual wishes of the people could be imagined. If people disagree with one, they must have been 'manipulated'. Whether it is the power elite or the Jews who do the hoodwinking and corrupting is of little moment.

What then is the reality of power distribution? The reality is that in a Western society no person has much power. Power is fractionated. Some have more than others, but no person has a significant portion of it by himself. For great power to be exercised, many people, perhaps not even knowing one another, must act together (or permit others to act) .

This fact that no person has much power by himself is amply illustrated by our Australian Prime Minister himself. Gough Whitlam bears much of the credit for the 1972 and 1974 ALP electoral victories and at the time of writing is head of the government -- nominally the most powerful man in the land. Yet he is constantly being overruled. And who overrules him? Nobody individually, but rather the majority of his colleagues acting collectively. Yet any of his ministers by themselves would have even less power than he does. Who then has power? Is it Bob Hawke, our much-exposed union boss? Scarcely. He could not even get union support for his quite benevolent housing scheme. Of all his proposed innovations, only a faltering department store and a travel scheme being run in partnership with big business remain. Even his outspoken Zionism -- backed as it was by many ALP politicians -- did not succeed in getting Australia to take a pro-Israel stance during or after the Yom Kippur war. If the head of the political system, the Unions and the Zionists do not have the power, who is left to constitute "the power elite"? "Big Business"! I can hear the Leftists cry triumphantly.

This however is the most absurd answer of all. Far from being collusive, businessmen love nothing better than to cut one another's throat. Their jealousy. their competitiveness and just the fact that they are so numerous make them even less likely than the groups mentioned above as candidates for forming a Power Elite. Even 'multinationals' -- that modern day refinement of the 'Big Business' shibboleth -- will not do. If multinationals are so powerful, how did the multinational oil companies fail to prevent the Arabs from turning off the oil and then raising its price? By any definition. Standard Oil of New Jersey (Esso, Exxon) is probably ten or more times the size of Kuwait and the other tiny Arab Sheikhdoms, yet America still could not get any oil from them. Where did all this Power that the multinationals are supposed to have disappear to? Getting back to Australia, how was it that the combined efforts and opposition of practically the whole of our manufacturing industry still did not prevent the ALP government from introducing its twenty-five per cent tariff cuts? What about our largest company, BHP? Are they or their top management part of the power elite? Well, how come they are so unsuccessful in getting approval for price rises? If big businessmen have all the power, someone ought to tell Lang Hancock, our iron ore millionaire with a large share in the Pilbara deposits. He is so dissatisfied with the deal that our Federal government forces on him that he advocates his home state (Western Australia) should secede from the Commonwealth! If his position as one of the biggest of our big businessmen gives him all the power that our Leftists think it must, then he certainly does not seem to have noticed it. He makes no bones about saying what he would do if he did have any power.

No: no one group constitutes 'The Power Elite'. There is only a multitude of competing interests, each with their own very small quantity of influence. All of us have some power, some have more than others. The only power many of its have is power over our own actions. The only power our politicians have is that power they can persuade us to collectively approve. The only power our big businessmen have is the power to hire or not, to buy from one supplier or another. They once also had the power to fire or not, but this now is a right exercised only by courtesy of the unions.

What about 'The Military--Industrial Complex' and the 'Old Boy network'? Do these constitute the Power Elite? Certainly in naming these, one is naming real frameworks for collusion. No one surely has ever imagined that collusion never takes place or has tried to deny that some people have more power than others. One should note, however, that this collusion is informal and unsystematic. It is, into the bargain, in no way immune from the competing interests and attitudes that so bedevil co-operation by other people in other spheres. By contrast, the business of government and of political parties generally is a formal and systematic attempt by people with common interests to act in concert with one another. If the Old Boy network is a framework for informal collusion, them political parties could be called a framework for formal collusion. Yet we all know how circumscribed are the ways in which political parties succeed in attaining their ends. How much less successful must the much less strongly organised and more sporadic efforts of the Old Boy network be?

For all that, however, the only way we can really judge the power of a group is by looking at what success it actually has in getting what it aims for. Let us therefore take one instance of an Old Boy network -- the American 'military industrial Establishment'. This group has, for our purposes, the advantage that its supposed aims are fairly clearly specified -- getting the U.S. government to spend up big on defence procurement. What success have they had in attaining these aims? We have the American Army running down in numbers with conscription recently abolished, and with already only a fraction of the fighting troops of the Soviet Union; the once mighty U.S. navy now appears on most criteria to be inferior to the Soviet Navy and the U.S. airforce has nothing that can come near to matching the MiG 23, Russia's front-line fighter aircraft. Russia has long overtaken the U.S. in number and size of intercontinental missiles and now appears to have mastered or nearly mastered the American trick of giving each of them multiple warheads. Moscow is protected by anti-missile missiles, Washington is not. And all this has taken place with what must be seen as a fairly sympathetic President in the White House. Truly the military industrial complex must be one of the world's most colossal failures as a power elite.

The military industrial complex was simply another one of the fake bogeymen of which the Left is so fond. Faced with the monumentally unpalatable Vietnam war and the even more unpalatable fact that the initiation of the American involvement there was the work of such a Leftishly righteous person as John F. Kennedy, some explanation had to be found for America's supposed error in being there. That the involvement might have been due to the deep idealism of the American people in being unwilling to see another country taken over by an immovable and pervasive totalitarianism just would not do. That would have made the Leftist intellectuals seem the odd ones out. It would bring their judgment into conflict with too much of what they loved as America. So the conspiracy theory made its inevitable and convenient reappearance. 'The people and their government disagree with me so they must have been manipulated'. was the predictable, but so dangerous and so arrogant line of reasoning. The 'military industrial complex' thus rose to unprecedented popularity as the scapegoat. If it could not be admitted that the people were so foolish as to want or approve of the great military expenditures, then, someone had to be engineering them. That the power of this 'complex' was a myth was shown by the fact that as soon as public support for foreign military adventures waned, so apparently did the success of the 'complex' in securing continued military expenditures. There was no need to inject such a 'complex' into the explanation of American military expenditures at all.

In summary, exercises of great amounts of power are secured only when a wide spectrum of sources of power coincide or co-operate. This roughly means when there is extensive public support for a particular principle or line of action. Any source of great power that can run against public sentiment for any length of time is a myth. Even Hitler's great almost absolute power was the direct result of the fact that he was able to persuade huge numbers of Germans in all walks of life that his obsessions were right and correct. In the last elections held under the Weimar republic, the Nazis received far more votes than any other political party.

In Western society, then, and to a lesser extent in other societies, the ultimate source of power is plausibility. If you can get many people to agree with you, you then have power. Even if you get a majority of people to agree with you, however, you still will not have absolute power. It is by way of plausibility that political pressure groups generally work. The Associated Chamber of Manufacturers is generally thought to be one of Australia's more powerful political lobbies yet its operations consist of little else than issuing public statements, sending interested people propaganda and ensuring that politicians and senior public servants are given the occasional lavish dinner in appropriate company. Persuasion is the name of the game. It is a game that large organisations probably have a head start at, but the successes of the various ecology and consumerism lobbies show clearly that if people are really concerned, persuasion is an art that almost anyone can effectively apply. Elites are powerful only insofar as they are persuasive. The way in which all sorts of established elites have been taking a tumble in the battle with the ecology movement shows that elite power is certainly not something to be feared.

{There is a later article on elites HERE}

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