On Ruling Class and Ideology...

Frank Stilwell

Journal of Australian Political Economy 59, June 2007, p. 148-9

Georgina Murray, Capitalist Networks and Social Power in Australia and New Zealand, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2006, 252 pp.
Sharon Beder, Free Market Missionaries: the Corporate Manipulation of Community Values , Earthscan, London, 2006, 260pp

Georgina Murray has written a comprehensive analysis of the who’s who of the ruling class in Australia and New Zealand. She dismisses the
neoliberal claim that the new ‘elite’ in our society comprises ‘left-leaning intellectuals and their sympathisers in the media; and shows the shaky foundations the more general belief in a ‘classless society’. Her painstaking research into ‘who really holds power over us’ reveals a quite different picture, more in the tradition of the Marxian analysis, showing the characteristics of the dominant capitalist class, and the interconnections between capitalist and state interests.

Sequential chapters deal with the concept of a ruling class, the history of the ruling classes in Australia and New Zealand, the networks of power building on her earlier article on interlocking directorates that was published in this journal in 2001), the role of ‘think tanks’ in the reproduction of ruling ideas, gender and the ruling class, and future prospects. Her research materials include 284 taped interviews of directors in leading companies, undertaken over two decades, as well as extensive use of information from Who’s Who in Business and Business Review Weekly. The result is a wealth of data on companies, their directors, their earnings, their social networks and their attitudes – even, in the chapter on gender, some Veblenesque comments on the clothing of women executives. ‘Break out boxes’ describing key individuals are also used in some chapters to try to add ‘the personal touch’. The result is a useful collage of analysis and information that will be a reference point for political economic researchers for years to come.

Sharon Beder’s book provides a more detailed examination of the ideological offensive by corporate interests. This concern is not absent from Murray’s book, one chapter of which looks at how ‘think tanks’ act as vehicles for propagating neoliberal ideology, including consideration of why bodies such as the Centre for Independent Studies – and the New Zealand Business Roundtable have been so influential. Beder provides a more comprehensive analysis of the corporate propaganda process, with a primary focus on the USA – where it is most thoroughly developed – but also including a chapter on ‘think tanks down under’. She builds on her previous book Suiting Themselves to show how the global corporations that have restructured the economy in their own interests have simultaneously sought to convince us that ‘their interests are our interests’. Mass propaganda campaigns, funded by the corporations and drawing ideas from economic liberalism, have relentlessly promoted ‘free enterprise’ and business-friendly policies.

Beder argues that ‘the revolutionary shift .. from democracy to corporate rule is an significant as the shift from monarchy to democracy which ushered in the modern age of nation states’ (p. 229). The irony is that the current shift is done in the name of ‘individuality’ and ‘freedom’, with the notion of the impersonal market acting as a legitimising mechanism. More than that, as Robert Heilbroner argued, orthodox economic theory gives the ruling class ‘a moral self-assurance without which it could not carry on its historic mission with such dedicated conviction’ (cited in Beder p. 230). Every social group needs its own self-justification, of course, but in this case the result is a dramatic process of socioeconomic and ideological reconstruction.

These books by Georgina Murray and Sharon Beder make valuable contributions to understanding the concentration of economic power and the means by which the powerful establish their hegemony. The challenge now is build oppositional movements well informed by political economic analysis. Murray’s book has a few pages on what principles might inform such political involvement, whereas Beder has just one final paragraph noting that not all people have been persuaded by corporate ideology. Faced with such a powerful set of interests and such a well-funded propaganda machine, it is certainly a big challenge to get alternative voices heard. But it is not all over …

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