Over the last century and a half, the American state has at times been swayed by popular movements and cowed by the threat of uprisings, and parts of it have been captured intermittently by reformers. But as shown by the recent election of a billionaire president and his appointment of a corporate cabinet which has ruthlessly pursued a pro-capitalist agenda, the state remains dominated by the ruling class.
The Trump administration may be egregiously corporate, but it’s not exactly unique. A new paper by Timothy Gill called “The Persistence of the Power Elite: Presidential Cabinets and Corporate Interlocks, 1968–2018” looks at state-corporate relations through presidential cabinet appointments. He finds that the door between big business and the White House has been revolving for a very long time.
Gill’s study follows on the research of Peter Freitag, who in the journal Social Problems analyzed corporate-political interlocks from 1897 through 1973. He did this by looking into the biography of presidential cabinet appointments to see how many of those individuals came from and re-entered the corporate sphere. Freitag found that 76 percent of cabinet members were interlocked with business. Republican administrations’ interlock rates were higher than Democrats’, but only slightly — 78 percent compared to 73 percent respectively.
Gill compiled data from the final period of Freitag’s research to present and found that the interlocks — which just mean that the cabinet member has “worked in the elite corporate sphere at any point in their life” — have only further cemented in the last half-century. From 1974, the year after Freitag’s study ended, to present, the rate of corporate interlock in presidential cabinets has risen to 82 percent.
Republican administrations have boasted an average interlock rate of 84 percent; Democrats, 78. But the partisan average doesn’t tell the whole story. All administrations have become more interlocked with business over the last few decades.
When all was said and done, 100 percent of those appointed to George W. Bush’s cabinet boasted corporate connections, either before or after their terms (or both). But post-Reagan Democrats aren’t off the hook. Bill Clinton’s cabinet was 80 percent interlocked. Obama’s is 81 percent interlocked so far, and there’s still plenty of time for people who served in his administration to find lucrative jobs in the private sector.
“The Obama administration might emerge as one of the most interlocked administrations in the last few decades,” observes Gill.
And then of course there’s Trump, who has taken the pattern to a new extreme, appointing not merely people with solid corporate connections to his cabinet but quasi-random capitalist super-elites with little to no knowledge of their departments and shameless allegiances to their class peers.
For example, according to Gill’s research, the secretary of education position boasts by far the lowest rate of interlocks among the cabinet positions. Trump’s secretary of education, though, is multi-billionaire Betsy DeVos who has long invested in for-profit daycares, charter schools, and colleges. She was forced to divest from 102 financial holdings before taking office, but her Department of Education has awarded contracts to her former business partners, and filled regulatory positions with employees of the firms. When her tenure is up, she’ll no doubt be a hot commodity in the for-profit education sector.
Socialists call the working class the “universal class” because its interests are the interests of the general public. Capitalists believe (or at least justify themselves by publicly arguing) the opposite: the interests of the ruling elite are the interests of the rest of society, and the conditions that allow the rich to get richer also guarantee prosperity for everyone else.
Like many before him, Trump is a spokesman for this universalization of the capitalist class’ interests, his operating maxim being that what’s good for business is good for America. If that’s what you believe, then it only makes sense to have successful business leaders installed in the government. The main difference between Trump and the others is that he’s shameless, and has therefore appointed CEOs and millionaires to his cabinet with no pretense to separation between business and the state whatsoever. The distinction is not so much substantive as stylistic.
The Subtleties of Domination
In the 1960s and 70s, Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas traded polemics on the state’s degree of autonomy from the capitalist elite. Miliband first argued that serious consideration of the class origin of the state’s personnel was required for understanding the way the state functioned vis-a-vis the capitalist class.
Poulantzas pushed back, arguing that it was not state personnel’s class origin or individual relationships with the capitalist elite that mattered, but the pressures exerted on the state by capitalists outside of it. That is, no matter what class they come from, individuals who enter the state take on the interests of the state itself. The state’s interests are theoretically separate from those of the ruling class, Poulantzas argued, but the state must respond to pressures from the ruling class in order to preserve those interests.
Miliband accepted Poulantzas’ critique of his focus on the class origin of personnel, but rejected the idea that state interests merely “coincided” with ruling-class interests whenever pressure was exerted. Miliband argued that both personnel and external economic pressure were important for understanding the class character of the state, but so was a third dimension.
The state doesn’t just respond to pressure from capitalist elites who threaten, say, capital strikes. Everything the state is able to do under capitalism, Miliband argued, is structured and constrained by the capitalist mode of production. Thus Miliband squared the circle:
The state is indeed a class state, the state of the “ruling class.” But it enjoys a high degree of autonomy and independence in the manner of its operation as a class state, and indeed must have that high degree of autonomy and independence if it is to act as a class state.
Most people aren’t exactly captivated by niche academic debates like these, but the questions they raise are important to revisit at a time when the American capitalist class’s infiltration of the state is so brazen — and when we also see socialists seriously contending for and in some cases winning elected positions within the state for the first time in generations. Today’s socialists have to develop realistic expectations for what left challengers can do through their elected positions within the state, and how capitalists discipline and constrain them.
But Gill’s research also serves as a kind of warning not to lose track of Miliband’s original observations about the class character of state personnel. In the United States in 2018, we literally have millionaires and billionaires administering our government. The question for now is whether we’ll continue to let them.