Notebook: The Politics Of Oil

Notebook: The Politics Of Oil

For over a decade American social scientists have been developing a theory of political pluralism which claims that real political power is parcelled out, more or less equally, among the various groups and classes of American society. At the same time a sort of underground movement, led by Robert S. Lynd and the late C. Wright Mills, has attempted to revive the now old-fashioned critique of power in a capitalist society, while avoiding the more obviously dated cliches of 1930’s Marxism. Such critics, however, have always found extremely difficult the problem of empirical verification, and with it the task of persuading the politically uncommitted. By its nature, social power does not operate openly in a society which swears by the myth of popular democracy. Those who assert the primacy of a particular class or group often seem to be open to the charge (made by Robert Dahl with regard to Lynd and Mills, for instance) of going beyond their own evidence to make up hidden bogeymen of power, whose existence can be neither confirmed nor denied scientifically.

By comparison, those engaged in the kind of studies which are associated with pluralist theory—studies of small towns, interest-groups, etc.—are using material which is more amenable to study and experimental manipulation, and which often leads to optimistic findings about the problem of power. I do not think a convincing case has yet been made that these findings are useful when brought to bear on the more complex area of national institutions. On the other hand, judged according to strict standards of evidence the critics have until now been at least equally unconvincing.

In this context, therefore, the publication of Robert Engler’s The Politics of Oil represents a major breakthrough for the critics of liberal ideology. The oil industry has been the subject of intensive study before, especially by E. V. Rostow and Harvey O’Connor, but Engler has gone beyond both of these previous works. His major—and original—contribution, is his richly empirical and impeccably documented presentation of the thesis that the great oil corporations exercise private and centralized power which is unchecked—out of “balance,” to use a favorite phrase of pluralists —with respect to American society as a whole. In thus studying corporate power as it is actually exercised in the United States, he has met the pluralists on their own “scientific” ground, and has succeeded in casting serious doubt on the value of pluralist theory as a description of the American political system. The publication of his work is therefore a significant event.


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