"Will the real oligarchs please stand up," by Nicholas Strakon, part four.
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Oligarchs or creatures?

The two parties are indispensable enemies, but Karp shows that the Democracy — the traditional ruling party since 1933, despite some semi-interregnums — also maintained a system of collusion between false enemies within their party. Dummy liberals under the thumb of Northern big-city bosses — Karp calls them "Tammany liberals" — masqueraded as intraparty opponents but actually colluded systematically with the reactionary "Bourbons" of the one-party South to protect the overall organization against maverick populist outsiders.


The Bourbons.   Two prominent Bourbons, in Karp's account, were Sen. Robert Kerr of Oklahoma and Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia. Kerr "was called the 'uncrowned king' of the Senate in 1962," Karp writes, "despite being a domineering bully and one of the most avaricious boodlers in Senate history." (p. 55) Some readers of Karp might find it odd that the author nowhere mentions that the "uncrowned king" from Oklahoma was none other than Kerr of Kerr-McGee, the big oil, chemical, and uranium producer. But in Karp's scheme, an officeholder's "extra-regime" affiliations and economic base are relatively trivial matters. Power creates great wealth; great wealth does not capture power.

Russell was "leader of the Senate Bourbons" and "wielded enormous power until his death in 1971 regardless of how many non-Bourbon Democrats held seats." (p. 55) That last comment is significant. Karp shows that the purportedly entrenched seniority system actually depended on uninterrupted collusion because the Bourbons were always outnumbered by non-Bourbons, often massively so; and, moreover, that the purportedly sacrosanct seniority rules were routinely violated whenever it served oligarchical interests. Thus, Bourbon Senators Russell, Richard C. Byrd of West Virginia, and A. Willis Robertson of Virginia were awarded seats on the key Appropriations Committee in their freshman year, while the relative maverick Ralph Yarborough of Texas was long excluded "even though he was the senior Senator bidding for a seat." (p. 56) [3]

It gets worse. The Bourbon William Colmer, representative from Mississippi, lost his seat on the Rules Committee when the Republicans took over the House in 1947, and in 1948 he deserted the Democrats to campaign for Dixiecrat presidential candidate Strom Thurmond. Yet when the Democracy resumed control in 1949, Speaker Sam Rayburn gave Colmer's old seat on Rules back to him. In 1960, Colmer "openly campaigned against John Kennedy" in the presidential race, but "retained all his privileges" and became Rules chairman in 1967. (p. 55)

Note one thing. Kerr, Russell, Colmer, and the rest possessed the exact same quantum of official state power as their back-bench colleagues: one vote each, on the floor or in committee. They wielded additional power thanks to the collusion — that is, the self-interested acquiescence — of most of their colleagues, particularly the Tammany liberals. We see, then, that Karp's whole structure of congressional collusion is a matter of political clout, not formal government per se. At the risk of stating the obvious, I must point out that more than just officeholders can play at politics and exercise clout.


The bosses.   Most notorious among Karp's big-city bosses who controlled the fake Democrat liberals was Chicago's original Mayor Richard Daley. But unlike Daley, many of the bosses held no positions with a polity at any level, and that immediately gives rise to a problem, under Karp's conception of power. The author himself stipulates:

Party organizations ... have no binding authority over their members; party bosses have no legal power to command and party members no compulsion to obey.... What renders party members submissive to party oligarchs in the end is the expectation of reward for loyalty and the fear of reprisal for independence. [4]

That even forces us to take a closer look at Daley. His power as a strongman resided locally; on what, then, did his clout in the national party rest? An urban boss, even if he did hold actual, official power in Chicago, would possess absolutely no "power to command" a Democrat in Philadelphia. Daley possessed only the power to bargain, by promising to deliver or threatening to withhold the Chicago cemetery vote.

Karp's general thesis is that one must actually be a part of the official state to wield power; but surely what applies to "helpless" corporate titans must apply as well to party bosses who either hold no office with the state or hold only local office. How, then, can such local bosses qualify as true national oligarchs when major Wall Street figures cannot? This must lead us to suspect that, contra Karp, extra-regime figures can, somehow, wield the power of the regime.


Presidents and other wigs.   Confusingly, the mere holding of high office does not necessarily convey true power in Karp's scheme. Rayburn seems — in Karp's account — to have been a true oligarch, but not Speaker John McCormack. McCormack (D.-Mass.), who served as majority leader before taking over from Rayburn as speaker, was "a lifetime servant of the Democratic machine," according to Karp. (p. 113) Only a servant? Not the master of his domain? Not, at the very least, a senior colleague in the congressional machine or the Boston machine? In showing how McCormack sabotaged John Kennedy's aid-to-education bill (which Karp considers a reform measure), Karp writes: "If McCormack were acting independently, it was the first and last act of independence in a half century of undeviating party servility." (p. 114) Acting collegially is one thing; acting servilely is quite another.

The import of Karp's discussion of the education bill is that Kennedy intended the measure only as a "show of action" (in the old phrase favored by Tammany) and underhandedly orchestrated its defeat in Congress. So it seems that in Karp's view, Kennedy was senior to McCormack in the party oligarchy. Personally, I cannot take seriously the picture of little John Kennedy as a senior oligarch. Elsewhere in his book, it seems that Karp can't, either: as late as 1960, when Kennedy was running for president, Karp portrays him as completely dependent on — even a recent creature of — the oligarchs, not a senior oligarch himself. (pp. 73-74)

That brings us to the question of the status that Karp accords presidents. Surprisingly, it is not clear in Karp to what extent presidents qualify as true party oligarchs, despite the fact that they hold what Karp would surely agree is the world's most powerful official post.

As depicted in Karp's chapter 7, "Johnson Launches a War," Lyndon Johnson is a figure who made his own decisions, disdainfully ignored his advisors, and, generally, operated as an autocrat. But in the same chapter, Karp also describes Johnson as a "faithful party servant" and a "beneficiary and servant of the national Democratic machine." (p. 156) Servant, not master or, at least, senior colleague?

Then there is the mention a few pages later of "the party oligarchs who nominated Johnson in 1964, and whom he had served so faithfully throughout his political career." (p. 159) Even as late as 1964, Johnson still depended on more-senior oligarchs?

In the last sentence of chapter 7, Karp comments on Johnson's fate once the disastrous nature of the Vietnam adventure became inescapable: "Since he had started the war for the good of [the] party machine, he was bowed out of politics in March 1968 in order to save it again." (p. 160; emphasis added) Note the use of the passive voice. Even if Johnson was an oligarch of some rank, it appears his power was not truly irresponsible.

I think Karp would agree with me that the idea of such manikins as Jerry Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Willy Clinton being national oligarchs, "party" or otherwise, is nothing less than risible. [5] But even the gigantic figure of Franklin Roosevelt — whom I always enjoy describing as "bond writer and international investor Franklin Roosevelt" — comes off as little more than a day laborer in Karp. After Roosevelt sabotaged the reformers in Congress with his court-packing scheme, Karp writes, "the party bosses repaid him well for his sacrifice by letting him seek an unprecedented third term and play a very satisfying role, that of a 'wartime leader.'" (p. 141)

Karp's Bourbon/Tammany formulation satisfyingly demolishes the high-school-civics account of how congressional and party power structures traditionally operated, at least when the Democrats were on top (as they usually were). It is therefore invaluable from a historical standpoint, regardless of the fact that, from our perspective in the 1990s, it has long since been overtaken by events. The problem, I think, lies in its implications for presidents and other high officeholders in the Executive Branch. If Democrat presidents were not great Bourbon or Tammany figures (and typically they were not), they come off as relatively secondary figures in Karp's account.

As regards not only presidents but officeholders in general, Karp's misunderstanding of power leads him to miss which distinction is the crucial one, in my view, for comprehending the true ruling class. What I would insist on as most important is not a distinction between Bourbons/Tammanys and non-Bourbons/Tammanys, but rather a distinction between mere hacks and creatures, on the one hand, and those with important extra-regime power bases, on the other. The latter distinction, alas, has not been overtaken by events.


One ruling-class analyst who, like Karp, ridicules the conventional understanding of the major parties is Murray N. Rothbard. Unlike Karp, however, Rothbard finds the shapers of state action outside the official regime. In Banks, Wall Street, and American Foreign Policy, he writes: "The name of the political party in power is far less important than the particular regime's financial and banking connections." [6]

Many readers may not be sufficiently familiar with the stupefying dimensions of the persistent Wall Street presence in the Executive Branch. I refer the curious to Rothbard's eye-opening work. His 62-page essay, written in 1984, makes for an odd sort of reading because so much of it consists of names, names, and more names — hundreds of names — of big bankers, Wall Street lawyers, Wall Street-connected corporate figures, and Wall Street dependents from academe who have infested the various regimes since the 1880s.

True, those men — insofar as they were Cabinet members, sub-Cabinet officials, agency heads, ambassadors, or presidential advisors — retained their posts at the pleasure of the president. Karp would insist that they were little more than "face men," spear carriers, and order takers conscripted into the presidential service. He does seem to concede that they gave genuine advice to presidents, but makes clear his conviction that presidents freely rejected or ignored that advice whenever they saw fit.

However, if Karp's understanding of power wielding is wrong — if the flow of power is reversed — the picture changes completely. I will offer one anecdote, courtesy of G. William Domhoff in The Powers That Be. Under its weight, Karp's interpretative apparatus may creak and groan a bit. [7]

After the little Lothario John Kennedy was elected, he pressed Robert A. Lovett to accept nomination as minister of foreign affairs, or finance, or war — any of the top three Cabinet posts. Domhoff says Lovett was "an unusual advisor for a President-elect who had promised to get the country moving again." [8] Why was that? In The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas list Lovett as one of the chief Establishmentarians of the postwar period. [9] Rothbard notes that Lovett was a partner at the investment house of Brown Brothers, Harriman; a star of considerable magnitude in the old Rockefeller power constellation; and a backer, in the 1960 presidential race, of — Richard Nixon! (pp. 31, 40)

According to Domhoff, Kennedy told Lovett that he, Kennedy, "had spent the last five years ... running for office, and he did not know any real public officials, people to run a government, serious men," and therefore needed Lovett's help as a Cabinet minister. (p. 164) Somehow — despite Karp's assumptions about power — Lovett was able to decline that command performance. But he did recommend three men: for the foreign affairs portfolio, Dean Rusk of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Council on Foreign Relations; for the finance portfolio, C. Douglas Dillon of the CFR and the investment house Dillon, Read; and for the war portfolio, Robert McNamara of the Ford Motor Company. Those names may ring a bell with those old enough to remember the Kennedy regime.

Lovett's participation in the personnel-selection process seems to lend credence to Karp's general theory of interparty collusion — the central insight of Indispensable Enemies. But it would be absurd to regard the mandarin Lovett as primarily a party oligarch; and remarkably absent from the account of the normally percipient Domhoff is any active role for party oligarchs as such. That leads me to wonder: Who is actually responsible for collusive rule? And: Who are the real oligarchs?

To the next part: "Warmongering"

Posted June 8, 2002

Posted in 2002 by WTM Enterprises..

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