Supplement for New Internationalist Magazine

Interview: G. William Domhoff

by Chip Berlet, September 2004

New Internationalist: Don't you study how power elites conspire? How can someone tell the difference between conspiracism and criticism of the status quo based on power structure research?

Domhoff: I think I study how elites strive to develop consensus, which is through such publicly observable organizations as corporate boards and the policy-planning network, which can be studied in detail, and which are reported on in the media in at least a halfway accurate manner. I think this is the opposite of a small, secretive, illegitimate conspiracy because this large group called the power elite is known to the public, clearly states its aims (profit, profit, and more profit, and less government), publishes its policy suggestions, and is seen as legitimate by a great majority of the public.

I also study the way in which elites in the United States and other democracies have agreed for a few hundred years now to settle the issues where they can't reach complete consensus, namely, through elections, which are also public and legitimate, and which can be observed by researchers in a fair amount of detail, including on the issue of campaign finance, and which are reported on fairly well in the media.

The interesting thing with elections, in terms of addressing the conspiracy kind of stuff, is that rival elites have in effect agreed not to get into all out violence and war with each other, although Americans elites did so only 144 years ago in the bloody Civil War. Political scientist John Higley talks of elites coming to "settlements" or "pacts" that lead to elections, but this is not through conspiring, historically speaking, but through sitting down to talk in frustration and exhaustion, usually after fighting each other to a draw over decades.

For the U.S., where there was no fight among elites in the 18th century, partly because they had a bigger common enemy in King George, the elite pact is the Constitution, which cuts all the key deals on property and slaves and government structure, and which is well known for the process of its creation, and was put to the people for a vote, which forced a Bill of Rights, so this is a very visible and legitimate elite pact. Within its context they agree to disagree. Once again, this is just about the opposite of a conspiracy.

Within that broad context, we all know that all of us plot and plan to further our interests on specific issues, not just elites, and we sometimes try out ideas in confidentiality. And within government there are discussions and plans that we do not know about, and there is often an attempt to mislead us, but that is not what I would mean by a conspiracy.

One of the great mistakes of conspiracy theorists is to take these everyday machinations as evidence for some grand conspiracy at the societal and historical levels. These theorists ignore all the evidence that such planning is usually discovered, whether in the media or by elite opponents, and sometimes leads to prosecutions.

There is no falsifying a conspiracy theory. Its proponents always find a way to claim the elite really won, even though everyday people stop some things, or win some battles, or have a say so through elections in which factions of the power elite win political power.

How to tell the difference from power structure research? We study visible institutions, take most of what elites say as statements of their values and intentions, and recognize that elites sometimes have to compromise, and sometimes lose. Conspiracists study alleged behind the scenes groups, think everything elites say is a trick, and claim that elites never lose.

New Internationalist: Why should progressive people be sensitized to the issue of conspiracism? Doesn't conspiracism help build a constituency that challenges that status quo? That's what people like Michael Parenti argues.

Domhoff: Conspiracism is a disaster for progressive people because it leads them into cynicism, convoluted thinking, and a tendency to feel it is hopeless even as they denounce the alleged conspirators.

Conspiracism is so contrary to what most everyday people believe and observe that it actually drives people away because they sense the tinge of craziness to it.

What social psychologists who study social movements say is that a social movement definitely needs a clear and visible opponent that embodies the values that are opposed, and which can be vilified and railed against. But in opposition to the conspiracists, these opponents are readily identifiable and working through visible and legitimate institutions.

So, I would say that the opponents are the corporate conservatives and the Republican Party, not the Council on Foreign Relations, Bilderbergers, and Bohemians. It is the same people more or less, but it puts them in their most important roles, as capitalists and political leaders, which are visible and legitimate...If thought of this way, then the role of a CFR as a place to try to hear new ideas and reach consensus is more readily understood, as is the function of a social club as a place that creates social cohesion. Moreover, those understandings of the CFR and the clubs fit with the perceptions of the members of the elite.


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