"Will the real oligarchs please stand up," by
Nicholas Strakon, part three.
Our Walter Karp table
TOC for Strakon's article
Plague of locuses
Given my extremely high regard for Karp in general and this book in particular, it is unfortunate that the longest part of this article must deal with my differences with him. But it always takes longer to debate than to concur. And this is, after all, a review-essay, not merely a review: some sustained grappling with Karp's ideas will help my own theory of the ruling class prove its mettle.
Karp was a populist who believed that true democracy could exist, if only the people could somehow sweep away the oligarchs and their parties; and that a truly democratic state of affairs would be desirable. I am an anarchist who believes no such things. For purposes of ruling-class analysis, the author and I have one big disagreement. Karp finds the locus of ultimate decision making in his party oligarchs. I find that locus in those whom I regard as the true oligarchs: the Dark Suits who control the great banks and corporations that benefit from state capitalism.
Libertarians and free-marketeers eager to discuss subsidies, monopoly privilege, and other unjust political-economic phenomena with leftists and populists are often frustrated when their interlocutors insist on describing even purely voluntary social interactions using the violent vocabulary of "robber barons," "predatory capitalists," and "ruthless buccaneers" operating in the "dog-eat-dog" marketplace. Typical leftists and populists blind themselves to crucial distinctions among social relationships, and really there is just no talking to them about such issues. In their strange universe of "economic power," it seems that anyone who has a dollar more than someone else is able to "forcibly" impose his will on the poorer person.
Accordingly, a lover of free markets and justly held property will want to cheer the fundamental distinction Karp makes in chapter 8, where he presents his central arguments about the locus of the ruling class. Karp declares, in effect, that power is not wealth nor social influence nor so-called economic power. Rather, power by definition depends on the exercise of physical force and the threat of force.
Imagine my chagrin, then, when I find that my biggest disagreement with Karp is centered in none other than chapter 8!
The fact that political power flows from the barrel of a gun, Karp argues, lays bare the true dynamic between the party oligarchs and the wealthy beneficiaries of political privilege. The great banks and corporations cannot be seen as owning or renting the state apparatus. On the contrary, since they enjoy no intrinsic power to compel, the magnates must approach the regime and its operators, the party oligarchs in the role of supplicants begging favors. "Special interests ... vested with corrupt privilege," he writes, "are the clients, not the masters, the protégés, not the patrons of those who wield irresponsible power." (p. 171) And: "Financially speaking, the relation [between the state and privileged businesses] is that between an exacter of tribute and those forced to pay, whether in money or services or both." (p. 173)
Karp is correct in distinguishing power from all other means of social interaction. But immediately he proceeds to a fundamental theoretical error. He confuses the nature of power with the wielding of power. It is an error that any non-anarchist might fall into: even if the state is ruled by a corrupt gang of partyarchs (as a matter of historical contingency), the non-anarchist must still envision it as being surrounded with a unique penumbra of Authority and Legitimacy. It is easy, then, for a non-anarchist to slip into assuming that only those draped in the purple robes of Authority and Legitimacy could ever wield the power of the state.
Before laying out more explicitly the distinction I make between power per se and its wielding, I will "try cases" with Karp in an attempt to suggest that his misunderstanding of power wielding blurs his otherwise acute vision.
To the next part: "Oligarchs or creatures?"
Posted June 8, 2002
Posted in 2002 by WTM Enterprises.
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