American workers can say what they want and do what they want within very broad limits, and their children can study hard in school and college so they can graduate and join the well-off professional class as doctors, lawyers or engineers, but when it comes to social power most Americans have very little if they are not a part of the elite.
Who has predominant power in the United States? The short answer is those who have the money - or more specifically, who own income-producing land and businesses - have the power i.e., corporations, banks, and agri-businesses. But they have plenty of help from the managers and experts they hire.
How do they rule? Again, the short answer is through open and direct involvement in policy planning, through participation in political campaigns and elections, and through appointments to key decision-making positions in government.
The simple answer that money rules has to be qualified. Domination by the few does not mean complete control. Wage and salary workers, when they are organised, sometimes have been able to gain concessions on wages, hours, and working conditions. Most of all, there is free speech and the right to vote. While voting does not necessarily make government responsive to the will of the majority, under certain circumstances the electorate has been able to place restraints on the actions of the wealthy elites, or to decide which elites will have the greatest influence on policy. This is especially a possibility when there are disagreements within the higher circles of wealth and influence. Contrary to what many believe, then, American political parties are not very responsive to voter preferences. Their candidates are fairly free to say one thing to get elected and to do another once in office. This contributes to confusion and apathy in the electorate. It leads to campaigns where there are no "issues" except "images" and "personalities" even when polls show that voters are extremely concerned about certain policy issues.
"Class" is a term that make Americans a little uneasy, and concepts such as "ruling class" immediately put people on guard. It is felt that there can be no fixed power group because power is constitutionally lodged in all the people, when there is democratic participation through elections and lobbying. So, it is usually erroneously concluded that elected officials, along with interest groups like organised labor and consumers have enough countervailing power to say that there is a more open distribution of power rather than one with rich people and corporations at the top and in charge.
The powerless rich?
Yet to hear the capitalists tell it, Congress is more responsive to the unions, environmentalists, and consumers. They also claim to be harassed by willful and arrogant bureaucrats. Many corporate leaders feel that they are relatively powerless in the face of government. Complaining about government is a useful political strategy. It puts government officials on the defensive and forces them to keep proving that they are friendly to business. There is a fear of the populist, democratic ideology that underlies American government. Since power is in theory in the hands of all the people, there always is the possibility that someday "the people," in the sense of the majority, will make the government into the reflection of pluralist democracy that it is supposed to be. The great power of the upper class are considered illegitimate, and the existence of such power is therefore vigorously denied. It is okay to be rich, and even to brag about wealth a little bit, but not to be powerful or, worse, to flaunt that power. It is the upper class as a whole that have power, not individuals apart over their own institutions. As individuals, they are not always listened to, and they have to convince their peers of the reasonableness of their arguments before anything happens.It is therefore not surprising that specific individual capitalists might feel powerless.
The domination by the ruling elite does not mean control on each and every issue, or lack of opposition, and it does not rest upon government involvement alone. Involvement in government is only the final and most visible aspect of ruling class domination, which has its roots in the class structure, the nature of the economy, and the functioning of the policy-planning network. If government officials did not have to wait on corporate leaders to decide where and when they will invest, and if government officials were not further limited by the acceptance of the current economic arrangements by the large majority of the population, then power elite involvement in elections and government would count for a lot less than it does under present conditions.
Divide and Rule
How is it possible that the American working class could be relatively powerless in a country that prides itself on its long-standing history of pluralism and elections? First, the divisions was between whites and African-Americans. In the beginning the African-Americans had no social power because of their enslavement, which meant that there was no way to organize workers in the South. But even after African-Americans gained their freedom, prejudices in the white working class kept the two groups apart. Later reinforced by splits and conflicts between craft workers -- also called "skilled" workers -- and industrial workers -- also called mass-production or "unskilled" workers. Craft workers usually tried to keep their wages high by excluding industrial workers. This resulted in the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World and then later the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Workers had been unable to develop their own political party because the electoral system greatly disadvantages third parties. Workers were stuck. They had no place to go but the Republicans or Democrats. Nor did the workers have much luck organizing themselves through unions. The employers were able to call upon the government to crush organizing drives and strikes through both court injunctions and police arrests. This was not only because employers had great influence with politicians then, just as they do now, but because the American tradition of law, based in laissez faire (free market) liberalism, was so fiercely opposed to any "restraint of trade" or "interference" with private property.
Despite the ambiguity of their goals, the Occupy Movements have made one point abundantly clear: The mainstream Democratic programme as an alternative is paltry stuff. For the most part, Democrats disagree with the Republicans that tax cuts and deregulation are the solution, and instead argue that the state should be used to guarantee equal opportunity. For instance, cheap, publicly available education, job training and affirmative action are all justified on the grounds that each American should have the skills to compete and the labor market should treat everyone equally. Yet, the two parties differ only on means, not ends. While Republicans profess a more abiding faith in a self-regulating economy, Democrats believe carefully tailored state interventions are needed. For both parties, opportunity basically means a market-oriented ideal where individuals are given the chance to fight over a limited supply of high-status jobs. As it turns out, the end that each party agrees on is largely same: the equal opportunity to become unequal! Both parties agree that equal opportunity means the equal opportunity to rise into the few positions of social power. However, the reality is rather than individuals easily entering and exiting the upper classes based on personal skill, professional status has become an inherited privilege – reproduced from one generation to the next.
Abraham Lincoln claimed that for economic improvement it would require “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while…This is free labor.”
Lincoln’s vision of social mobility haunts us with the dream of self-employment or workers cooperatives. Yet if we care about is economic independence at all, then we have to think not just about the level of wages but above all about social power. Making such power broadly available rests on two key elements. First, individuals have to possess enough material and cultural resources to be secure from potential destitution. And second, they must have opportunities to make decisions about the most important economic and political issues. It means going beyond the politics of social welfare and reformism in order to ensure that workers have real control over their own activities.
Adapted from here