I was first introduced to Richard Lachmann’s work as a graduate student. I then had the privilege of calling him a colleague when I joined the faculty at the University at Albany in 2008. His sudden passing was a great personal loss to me and so many others, but it also meant the loss of one of the left’s great intellectuals. Richard was not, strictly speaking, a Marxist. But he was a committed leftist, an anti-imperialist, and a true activist-scholar. His research advanced our understanding of the issues that are central to Marxism’s theoretical and political agenda: growing extremes of wealth at the expense of the poor and working class, militarism and imperialism, and the relationship between nationalism and totalitarianism. He challenged us other scholars and intellectuals on the left to face the world as it was with an empirical rigor and theoretical clarity that is too often hard to find.
A comparative-historical sociologist primarily interested in the rise and fall of hegemonic powers, he crafted the lens through which he observed these developments in his 2000 book Capitalists In Spite of Themselves: Elite Conflict and European Transitions in Early Modern Europe. The book presented a novel thesis to answer an old question: why did capitalist social relations develop earlier in some parts of Western Europe than in others? Conventional Marxist theory posited that the motor force of capitalist development was class conflict between nascent capitalist producers and wage labor: capitalism developed first where capitalists were able to enforce the exploitation of labor power and rationalize the labor process to facilitate that exploitation.
Though he did not disagree with the premise that capitalism develops through the exploitation of labor, Richard suggested that a different force drove that exploitation: the pattern of social conflict among competing elites in a region. All elites, Lachmann argues, depend on exploiting the labor of direct producers. Religious elites demand tithes, feudal elites take it in the form of taxation or direct labor, and capitalist elites exploit the value-creating power of wage labor. In order for capitalism to develop it was not enough for capitalists to exploit labor, they also had to defeat their other, elite rivals who were also squeezing the same mass of peasants, small holders and emerging middle-class producers and traders.
Capitalists in Spite of Themselves emerged out of more than a decade of study into the origins of modern capitalism but, like others who have tackled this question–Robert Brenner, Michael Mann and Beverly Silver to name but a few–Richard understood that answering questions about the transition to capitalism in Western Europe was not only important for uncovering the forces that shaped capitalisms’ early development; it was equally important for helping us understand transitions to capitalism in places like the former Soviet Union and China, and for tracing capitalism’s development today.
Elite conflict theory offered a different way of understanding the organization of power in modern society and, through its lens, suggested a different story of the decline of US hegemonic power, the erosion of democratic norms and the rise of totalitarian and nationalist, racist political leaders. Classic elite theories, like those of C. Wright Mills and William Domhoff describe a cohesive, unified group of elites across the economic, political and military spheres that dictate the policy agenda. The only thing that stands in their way is mass organizations and their political representatives. From this perspective, the “great U-turn” of Western capitalism –whether we call that neoliberalism, or the right-wing assault on labor— is the result of the weakening of this countervailing force against the elites.
Marxist theory–largely through the work of Nicos Poulantzas but also reflected in the work of Giovanni Arrighi, Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers–has challenged this image of elite unity by suggesting that the elites, specifically capitalist elites, are always divided into into various “class factions” each with their own distinct set of claims on accumulated surplus value. Thus Arrighi’s famous argument that the decline of U.S. hegemony since the 1970s is due to the weakening of the position of productive capital and the rise of financial capital.
Richard’s elite conflict model overlaps with elements of each of these perspectives while presenting a new take on the forces shaping our social, political and economic order over the last forty years. The empirical foundation of his analysis is spelled out in the title of his 2012 article in Political Power and Social Theory: “From Consensus to Paralysis in the United States, 1960-2010.” He begins by arguing that if you want to understand the structure of power in a society you have to look at what the state actually does–the policies it adopts, the wars it enters, the things it spends money on–and, from this perspective, he observes that the defining, distinctive feature of the U.S. political-economic order since the early 1970s is the complete inability of the state to establish any kind of consistent policy agenda or accomplish anything of real significance.
As he writes, the 40 years between the New Deal and the Great Society brought us a raft of social policy programs, an arrangement between businesses and organized labor, and a coherent (if expensive and doomsdayish) military posture. In the forty years since there has been almost no meaningful social legislation passed (he notes the recent exception of the Affordable Care Act), the state’s ability to discipline capital has evaporated, and our military posture seems to embrace endless wars of questionable strategic value.
The U.S. social order had not become captured by a right-wing agenda, nor had it been re-established under the principles of finance capital. Instead, Richard argued, it had become completely disorganized as a result of new, and unresolved, conflicts among elites whose capacities and interests had been reshaped by structural transformations in the U.S. economy in the 1970s.
Two related developments were key. First, the merger and acquisitions movement of the 1970s and 1980s had the effect of taking what had been somewhat dispersed corporate power and consolidating it in fewer hands. This might seem to allow for easier coordination among capitalists, but Richard understood that in the U.S. that coordination had historically been performed by the banking industry centered in New York. The second key transformation, the creation of new, regional financial centers through mergers and acquisitions in the finance industry combined with government deregulation of the financial sector disrupted these traditional structures of corporate control. As corporate power grew individual firms were able to effectively capture state agencies, further undermining the government’s ability to discipline the business sector as a whole.
Here, Richard takes a cue from the research on the developmental state: absent a coordinating, disciplining force, most often a coherent, autonomous state, business elites do not automatically fall into some pattern of rational accumulation. They plunder as much as they can, as quickly as they can, before a rival elite can do the same. In a recent essay Richard argued that the Trump administration was not an aberration, but the apotheosis of these dynamics: the failure of the “respectable” capitalist class and the establishment Republican Party to reign him in was a mark of their weakness and disorganization.
Anyone reviewing Richard’s body of work over the last twenty years will be struck by two things: his keen ability to uncover a set of deeper forces out of the maelstrom of current events and his complete lack of theoretical pretense. There are no attempts to theorize “the state” as such, to intervene in the current debates of what moniker we should give to what Ernest Mandel once called “late capitalism,” no essays attempting to refine the conceptual distinctions between classes and elites and the sources of their power.
That kind of work, though he embraced it and drew from it liberally, was not what interested him. He understood that while relations of domination and exploitation may be inscribed in deep-seated structural forces, the degree of suffering experienced by people around the world was the direct result of actions by social elites. Is your social insurance check cut in half? Is your kid’s school closed? Is your country bombed? Richard’s scholarship was aimed at what theoreticians might call the “historical conjuncture” and what he would call the politics of today.
Our current historical moment takes on a particularly frightening hue when viewed through his theoretical lens. The rise of rent-seeking autocrats, authoritarians trading in nationalism and racism, and other strongman dictators are symptoms of a world in disarray. The real danger that the global masses face is not, he would argue, an especially ruthless capitalist class squeezing every drop of value it can out of labor. That scenario implies too much coordination, too much logic. No, the real danger is that self-interested elites strip the copper out of the walls and leave us with a mangled, hollow shell too derelict to be salvaged.
Faced with this prospect, what did Richard think that the left needed to do? First and foremost, as he wrote in the preface to his latest book, the just-published First-Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship, there is no hope in trying to restore U.S. hegemony and the elite consensus that underpinned it in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Like the Dutch and the British, the U.S. hegemonic era has passed. The fate of the future, he argued, will be settled in the global arena where there is still the possibility that elites will get organized and, in so doing, organize global capitalism. It is a conclusion, he readily admitted, that was pessimistic but realistic.
And, really, what else can we do but face the world as it is, to seek change where change is plausible, and confront the barriers to human dignity and emancipation as they are.
Aaron Major is associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany – SUNY.
Image: Richard Lachmann speaking at The Fourth Chinese Political Sociology Workshop at the University of Chicago