The Origins of Modern-Day Power Structures in Europe
To understand the American power structure, we first have to consider briefly the power structures in the European civilizations that created colonies in what is now the United States.

The modern era of state and class relations in Europe had its origins in the first few centuries after the disintegration of the Roman Empire between 337 and 476 A.D. The institution of private property developed in the context of a system of numerous small, weak states that struggled along in the territory previously dominated by the militarized Roman state. This economic development was made possible by the "normative pacification" provided by the Catholic Church, which increased greatly in its power, and by the predominance of military techniques that rendered armored knights on horseback ascendant over serfs and peasants (Mann, 1986, pp. 376-378, 390-391).

In this context, it is important to note, feudal lords did not need "states" to protect their private property and increase the exploitation of producing classes. They dominated the peasantry through their own military capabilities in a context where religion played a role in sustaining and justifying hierarchy. Moreover, the weakness of the many small states was one factor that allowed the system of private property to take deeper root without the danger of state appropriation, and for an independent merchant class to develop. The result was a growing independence for the economic network in general: "By the time trade was really buoyant (1150 to 1250 A.D.)," claims Mann (1986, p. 397), "it was accompanied by merchant and artisan institutions with an autonomy unparalleled in other civilizations."

Put more strongly, weak states and a common religious ideology made it possible for economic networks in Europe to obtain a degree of independence that is not found elsewhere. The history of China, for example, is a history of states fighting back and forth to gain the upper hand. First, there were many small states, then one big state that eventually overextended itself, followed by hundreds of years of many smaller states, and then the cycle repeated itself into the 20th century, when the Chinese Communist Party created an extremely strong state after its 1949 triumph. The ideology network is always at the service of the state -- no independent religious organizations developed in China. And the means of organized violence are controlled by states, except when militarized outsiders march in and conquer the Chinese state or states. Then these warlords monopolize violence for themselves as the new state rulers, and become assimilated into Chinese society.

Where are the economic networks in Chinese history? Well, agricultural surpluses and trading networks were important in making it all possible, but they were always under the thumb of the state. There was no significant period, let alone a 1000-year time span, as during the Middle Ages in Europe, when economic networks had a fair degree of independence. This comparison does not make European history any less hierarchical and brutal for the great mass of people, but it does make it different.

During Europe's Middle Ages, to repeat, the state had very few functions. It consisted primarily of the king and his retainers, and the bulk of its revenues came from the king's own lands and judicial fees. It tried to guard its borders and control armies in its territory, and it had a role in settling some types of disputes within its confines, but it was not a major player. Strikingly, any increases in its budget were directly tied to warfare and war debts. That continued to be the case even after the state began to gain some importance as a regulator of economic activity within its boundaries (Mann, 1986, pp. 486, 511) and to supplant the Church as the primary means of normative pacification. As late as 1505, the powers of the state were minimal:

Paying the expenses of his household, buying the political advice of a few counselors, administering supreme justice, regulating trade across territorial boundaries, issuing a coinage, and waging occasional war with the help of loyal barons -- that was the sum of state functions, which almost certainly involved less than one percent of national wealth and were marginal to the lives of most of the state's subjects. (Mann, 1986, p. 452.)

Although private property and the first stages of capitalism developed without strong states, the situation began to change in the 12th and 13th centuries for a number of reasons. As markets grew within state boundaries, there was more and more need for state regulation. As merchants increased the scope of their trade into larger and larger territories, they needed more protection against bandits and the petty rulers of small territories (Mann, 1986, pp. 423-424, 431-32). Merchants also developed an interest in aggressive wars that would widen the territory in which they could operate: "From now on commercial motivations, the conquest of markets as well as land, were to play a part in wars" (Mann, 1986, p. 432). Merchants thus quietly encouraged the growth of the state, lending it the money necessary to raise a larger army.

Moreover, dramatic -- and, of course, unanticipated -- developments in the military network also triggered changes in the relationship between private property and the state. The sudden emergence of the disciplined military phalanx, that is, spear-armed infantry in close formation, quickly led to the defeat of nobles on horseback in a series of dramatic battles between 1302 and 1315 (Mann, 1986, pp. 18-19, 428). In this new context, the nobility had to turn increasingly to the state to raise a standing army of full-time foot soldiers to protect its lands. Now it started to be the case that the state was an "instrument of domination" in the service of the economic elites in general.

There soon followed a series of technological innovations that added up to a "military revolution" (Mann, 1986, pp. 453-454). In particular, large artillery guns made it possible to destroy castles. The arms race among states was on. It didn't begin after World War II ended in 1945. To the contrary, there have been few peaceful interludes between 1300 and the present. Only states with large armies could survive, and only states that could gain the loyalty of lords and merchants could afford large armies.

So, from that point forward capitalism and the nation-state gradually grew powerful together because they needed and aided each other. As the alliance between these two power networks solidified, they subordinated the previously independent ideological and military networks. States now began to fit the usual sociological definition: the organization that controls the military and police within a given geographical area. And when a state extended its regulatory powers over a new territory, so too did capitalism diffuse more fully into that territory. Contrary to the oft-expressed view that classes and states are antagonistic, they became closely intertwined in Western history.

True enough, the class system generated by capitalism was segmented into a small number of "class-nations" of roughly equal power that together formed a multi-state system. And, yes, from the start there was also tension within each state between the top bananas in the two dominant networks of modern Western civilization -- between economic elites and political elites. Feudal lords wanted protection for their lands, and merchants wanted protection and regulation for their goods and markets, but both feared the taxing power of the state elites (Mann, 1986, p. 433). Conversely, state elites tried to gain as much autonomy as they could. Much of Western history from this time forward is about the deadly bickering between economic and political elites, with an occasional time-out to deal with peasants or artisans who tried to take advantage of the divisions in elite circles.

As the power of the market system developed, merchants, lords, and rich peasants gradually merged into a capitalist class in many of these countries. However, there were some differences from country to country. Constitutional regimes fostered the unity of a property-owning class. Absolutist regimes tended to preserve the social structure of feudalism. Either way, these European states were not very powerful in relation to the dominant class or classes:

Thus constitutional and absolutist regimes were subtypes of a single form of state: a weak state in relation to the powerful groups of civil society, but a state that increasingly coordinated those groups' activities to the point where we may begin to talk of an organic class-nation whose central point was either the court or the court/parliament of the state. (Mann, 1986, p. 481.)

Gradually, but only gradually, the relationship between dominant classes and the state became even closer and their interests began to merge. "In the 17th and 18th centuries," concludes Mann (1986, p. 516), "it begins to make sense to describe the state -- paraphrasing Marx -- as an executive committee for managing the common affairs of the capitalist class." This is because the state had no distributive power over the classes of "civil society" and because power flowed "primarily from economic power relations to the state" (Mann, 1986, p. 516). Within this general framework, there were large differences among European countries between 1760 and 1914, as Mann (1993) also documents with unique data sets and many historical comparisons.

Although Mann's Four Networks theory and Marxism come to somewhat similar conclusions for the years after, say, 1790, this does not mean that Marx's analyses of key historical events in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries were necessarily correct. In fact, there is reason to believe from historical studies that they were not. Generally speaking, Marx overstated the importance of industrial capitalists as compared to landed elites within the ruling circles of the 19th century, and of urban workers as compared to other urban dwellers and peasants (Hamilton, 1991).

Based on this history, it's clear to me that questions about the relative power of states and social classes cannot be answered in the abstract for any time period, including the modern era. States may become relatively autonomous by playing nobles off against merchants, or one set of capitalists against another. But they also can be dominated by a coalition of social classes, or by a single dominant class. They can become so powerful militarily that they can extract resources from civil society. And they even can be dominated by a fervent ideological network under the right circumstances (Iran since 1979, for example). None of these possibilities should be precluded beforehand.

And that brings us to a very general overview of the structure and distribution of power in the United States. How does power operate in this particular democratic capitalist country? Does power belong to the people through their elected representatives and their organized interest groups, as the pluralists claim, with the state serving as an impartial umpire that tries to reach compromises among the differing classes and factions?

Or is power lodged in the institutional elites who run the corporate, political, and military institutions of the society, as Mills (1956) claimed? Or is there a dominant capitalist class, as Marxist and non-Marxist class-domination theorists claim? Or do state elites dominate both capitalists and non-capitalists, either in their own interests or in the interests of the capitalist system, as the state autonomy theorists claim?

To a certain extent, these issues are a matter of degree. A class-domination theorist such as myself, for example, certainly agrees that elections can matter, and that workers, environmentalists, or other challengers can win on some issues. It is the more general framework that is being argued about.
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