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us study illustrates the basic marxian concept of base/superstructure relations

April 17, 2014

An interesting study on the political-economic makeup of the US, which notes, among other things, that, “In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose”:

Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens

Two paragraphs from the study in particular that caught my eye were:

Analyses of U.S. politics centered on economic elites go back at least to Charles Beard, who maintained that a chief aim of the framers of the U.S. Constitution was to protect private property, favoring the economic interests of wealthy merchants and plantation owners rather than the interests of the then-majority small farmers, laborers, and craft workers. A landmark work in this tradition is G. William Domhoff’s detailed account of how elites (working through foundations, think-tanks, and an “opinion-shaping apparatus,” as well as through the lobbyists and politicians they finance) may dominate key issues in U.S. policy making despite the existence of democratic elections. Philip A. Burch has exhaustively chronicled the economic backgrounds of federal government officials through American history. Thomas Ferguson’s analysis of the political importance of “major investors” might be seen as a theory of economic elites. Most recently, Jeffrey Winters has posited a comparative theory of “Oligarchy,” in which the wealthiest citizens – even in a “civil oligarchy” like the United States – dominate policy concerning crucial issues of wealth- and income-protection.

And:

What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our Gilens and Page Testing Theories of American Politics findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

Reminds me of this famous passage from The German Ideology:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.

All you really have to do is replace the word ‘ideas’ with ‘policies’ to illustrate the basic Marxian concept of base/superstructure relations, i.e., the idea that a state and its ruling class (political superstructure) are a manifestation or reflection of underlying economic social relations (economic base). In other words, this study offers an empirical example of political inequality as it manifests itself in the US, arising, in the final analysis, out of inherently unequal social relations of production.

For the US to truly move away from its oligarchical political-economic makeup and towards real democracy, it has to fundamentally alter the makeup of its mode of production through a radical economic transformation in which the exploitation, alienation, and commodity fetishism of the present system are gradually eliminated via a more socialized mode of production.

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