Ivan Ermakoff and Richard Lachmann: Who Holds Power in the United States

Richard Lachmann

Richard Lachmann

Examining the motivations behind who holds power can deepen our understanding about how leadership is currently being cultivated in the United States. In the following interview with Stephanie Marudas, Ivan Ermakoff and Richard Lachmann break down the power play dynamics of patrimonialism and point to examples of how they increasingly appear in our society from Congress to the military to the academy and in corporations. The two have contributed articles to the July 2011 volume of The Annals, “Patrimonial Power in the Modern World.” Ivan Ermakoff is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, and Richard Lachmann is a professor of sociology at State University of New York in Albany. A podcast and transcript of their interview are below.

Stephanie Marudas:  Both of you have published articles in The Annals volume about patrimonial power in the modern world.  Ivan, you look at what happens when personal use, or patrimony, drives people’s decisions to take office and other positions and, Richard, you explore the ways in which patrimonialism has returned to the United States and is supported more and more.

Ivan, if you could briefly set the scene for us in how patrimony affects people’s incentives and how they do their jobs.

Ivan Ermakoff:  Let me start by saying that one way of defining patrimony is in terms of broad institutional arrangements.  So you define patrimony by contrast with bureaucracy.  On the side of patrimony you have arbitrary power, private rule, fragmentation, and on the side of bureaucracy you have impersonal rules, standardized practices.

The first drawback of this approach is that it is very static.  You end up with broad types that do not really allow you to investigate dynamic processes as they unfold in history.

There is a second drawback to this typological approach: it obfuscates, it overlooks, the extent to which patrimonial relations can develop within bureaucratic structures. Conversely, it obfuscates the extent to which patrimonial structures can have bureaucratic features. If you adopt this typological approach in terms of broad ideal types, not only do you reify historical processes but also you overlook hybrid patterns, hybrid structures.

That’s why I suggest in the paper a more relational approach, a more relational definition of patrimony.  One way to unfold, elaborate this relational definition is to start with the basic vassal and lord relationship as it became very diffuse in the Middle Ages, both in Europe and Japan. The defining characteristics of this type of relation is that it is personal and it is based on stark statutory distinctions.  The lord is entitled to have an agent, the vassal, and the vassal is expected to act on the lord’s behalf.  So this is very personal.  It is based on statutory distinctions and it is very unequal, there is a lot of inequality.  This is the first type—the prototype, a very basic prototype—of a patrimonial relationship.

This is not the only one. As systems of rule become more and more differentiated, what you get is patrimonial rulers that are also office holders and those patrimonial holders hold their office by reference to a principle of legitimacy that is supra-individual.

It is necessary to figure out what is common to those different forms of patrimonial relationships.  I define patrimony from a relational perspective as the political capacity to elude accountability.  What is accountability?  An agent, an actor is accountable when this agent or actor can be sanctioned whenever he or she breaches the terms of an agency relationship. A lack of accountability means either the capacity, or the capacity to shield oneself from external scrutiny, or the capacity to systematically fend off sanctions.

SM:  What are some arenas in the United States where we see this playing out?  In your article you mention Congress, academia, the military – if you can tell us a little bit about how these dynamics play out in these settings.

IE: There is the famous case of Joe Cannon, the Speaker of the House of Representatives between 1903 and 1911. Joe Cannon was described as an autocrat, somebody who had absolute authority to make appointments and who had the ability to sanction whoever would not go along with his decisions.  The relationships established by Cannon were pretty personal.  They were very unequal. He had the ability to sanction people who would not get along and these would not have the same political capacity.  And he, for several years, was able to elude external scrutiny.  This is a pretty striking case of a type of patrimonial relationship that developed within a setting that is extremely formalized and bureaucratic, which is the U.S. Congress.  This type of case illustrates the need to have the analytical tools to identify such relationships.  If you fall back on the purely typological approach, then you are very likely to ignore such relationships.

SM:  Now Richard, in your article in The Annals, you see how patrimonialism is gaining momentum in the United States again.  Do you think it ever disappeared or was it just at play on the back burner?  What factors do we see here that are supporting  this return of patrimonialism at a larger level?

Richard Lachmann: I do not think it ever entirely disappeared but it certainly diminished and on the cultural or ideological level it was seen as not legitimate.  At least the ideal, not the reality, was that people were supposed to make their own way and that there were limits to how much parents ought to be able to do for their children and the United States had quite a high inheritance tax and people who became wealthy by inheritance were looked down upon. They were not seen as admirable people. They were seen as undeserving, lazy, and that has changed in the last few decades.  One of the key debates in U.S. politics is what to do about the inheritance tax. Some decades ago, it would have been unbelievable that there was any possibility of it being abolished and that is what very well may happen now.  Every Republican who runs for national office is committed to abolishing the inheritance tax and there are a number of Democrats who also feel that should be done and it is still up in the air.  And people who have inherited money are not looked down upon in the same way.

I found an article in Fortune magazine, one of the main U.S. business magazines, from 1957 that was like the annual feature that is now in Forbes magazine looking at the wealthiest Americans.  And in Forbes these people are celebrated and even though many of them did not earn the money, they just inherited it, that is not pointed out for the most part in the Forbes articles.  They way underplay the number of people who did not make the money themselves, whereas in Fortune in the 1950s that was the main point of the article.  They had a chart showing the wealthiest Americans and the ones who had inherited the money were highlighted, and they were a majority of the people and the article spoke of them in not kindly ways, saying they were lazy, they were not contributing to the economy.  So in a half-century there has been this huge change; both in terms of political effect that there has been a big reduction and there is a potential for the elimination of the inheritance tax and also the way in which it is presented.

And similarly in politics, when George W. Bush ran for president, even though he really did not have much of a record on his own, he was accorded a great deal of legitimacy. There was not a view that somebody like this should not run for president, that this was an outrage.  He was covered favorably and many people, when they were asked, “Why are you supporting him?”  They said, “Well his father was such a good president,” or “His mother did such a good job raising her children.” This is the sort of outlook that confers legitimacy on patrimonialism, the notion that if parents train and prepare their children to take over their positions, this is something that is good, that somehow the next generation is trained in that way, is qualified for that reason.

So that’s the main way I have found patrimonialism in the United States.  I think it is still to a far lesser degree than many other countries in the world, but it is a big change from thirty, forty, or fifty years ago.

SM: To what degree then does patrimonialism secure a foothold when these bureaucratic controls are weakened?

RL: I think in the United States, there have always been many positions and pools of wealth that are beyond bureaucratic control.  I mean, we do not have bureaucratic systems controlling inheritance.  I think one way that bureaucracy has been weakened is that some decades ago, large U.S. corporations were highly bureaucratic and there were real limits on what the managers at the top levels could do to enrich themselves.  They were not able to hire their children. They were not able to let their children set up their own businesses that then would be given contracts on a favorable basis from the parent’s company. There was a scandal a few years ago at one of the major oil companies, and another one at one of the major banks where the son of the C.E.O. in both cases had set up a company and his father had steered contracts to them.  This is patrimonial. It is also corrupt, and it is the sort of thing that if you have strict bureaucratic controls you are blocked [from doing]; but as the heads of large corporations increasingly are able to run them in their own interests, they are able to carry out these sorts of patrimonial acts.  So I think that would be probably the main area, the weakening of bureaucratic control over large corporations. Obviously this is not the main effect, the main effect is that top executives are looting these companies.  During the nineties, a tenth of the value of all U.S. corporations was passed out to the top officers in the form of stock options and that is an enormous transfer.  Most of this was not patrimonial although it created large fortunes that then are inherited by the children, so it is creating pools of wealth that create a basis for patrimonialism in the coming years.

IE: I would add to what Richard just said that the issue is really whether some people who have the possibility to exercise considerable power are also in the position to almost systematically remove themselves from public scrutiny or have the capacity to avoid being censured.  The challenge here is to figure out what type of institutional settings and what type of institutional resources are necessary to make that very difficult for those actors.  This is not simply a question of bureaucratic control, it is also a question of devising the type of institutional resources that make public scrutiny an institutionalized pattern whenever political and economic interests are at stake. What has been observed in the last three decades is a pretty willful and self-conscious attempt to dismantle those forms of institutional resources and arrangements.  Deregulation can be read as the political attempt to make public scrutiny more and more difficult.

One point which I think could be made regarding the rise of patrimonial patterns and forms of power is the fact that one contemporary form of patrimonial relationships has been the private takeover of state functions.  In the ancien regime, in the political regimes before the French Revolution— tax farming was a typical patrimonial arrangement.  Tax farming meant that private businesses were in a position to take over state functions and they were in position to make a business out of it.  A typical case was tax collection.  One contemporary equivalent of tax farming is the privatization of military functions.  The increasing reliance of contemporary governments, contemporary states, to rely on private military companies can be read as the privatization of a basic state function, which is military security.

SM: Now in terms of the academy, which is an institution in itself, let’s talk about patron dynamics and how they play out in this arena, and perhaps affect the institutional and patron-client rules as Ivan describes in his article.

IE: In the paper I do refer to the cases of the French and Italian academic scenes and I use those cases to underscore the fact that patrimonial relationships develop in settings in which people can constitute a power base grounded in relations of personal allegiance.  Patrimonial relationships develop when academic patrons can recruit their own clients, their own students. This is one key factor.  Both the French and the Italian academic scenes are academic scenes in which indeed it is possible for mentors to recruit their own products, their own students.  What then is happening?  Their students will not challenge them.  Their students are much more likely to reproduce the model that is exemplified by the mentors’ work.  This stultifies intellectual innovation and furthermore it contributes to institutionalize a type of intellectual  collusive practices between mentors and students.  This, I think, can be contrasted with the American academic scene in which departments cannot hire their own students, at least when their own students have just finished their PhDs.  If they do so, then they put their credibility at stake, and for good reasons.  And so in that institutional setting, developing a patron-client relationship is for mentors much more difficult.

Here I have spoken about the ability to be a patron, the ability to institutionalize personal relationships of allegiance with students, to sanction students who, from an intellectual standpoint, do not get along, and to be able to shield oneself from, again, public scrutiny.

The French case is a good case because empirical work has been done on the propensity of departments to hire their own products. What has been shown is that this propensity went up between the 1970s and the 1990s. So things have become worse.  When you speak to French colleagues, it is quite clear that they feel that their system, that is, French academia, is in crisis.  It does not go well.

What I think is very distinctive about the American academic scene— and that should be a model for any other academia in general— is the fact that critical debate is an informal practice that is viewed as fully legitimate.  You become a scholar by developing your own intellectual independence and by demonstrating this intellectual independence by engaging in constant critical debate.  Which means that you will not be sanctioned because you challenged a mentor.  On the contrary, challenging a mentor is also a service rendered to the mentor to the extent that criticism is indeed valuable and productive.

SM: For you both, and Richard if you could respond first, to what extent is patrimonialism elitist or does it play out across all socioeconomic levels?

RL: I think it is elitist and for the most part what is protected in this way are pools of enormous wealth or positions of great power.  And at lower levels certainly parents might want to help their children but they do not have very much to help them with.  And especially now in the modern world where most of us are not farmers and we do not have farms that we can pass on to children for most people in advanced capitalist societies do not have anything that they can really give to or do for their children beyond in very minor ways.  And those are things that are very hard to sustain over a number of generations and they are not, for the most part, backed by political institutions or forms of power that can be sustained.  So, this is something that for the most part is at the very top among people with the greatest stores of wealth or people who have major positions of power.  And I think it is a mistake to mix that sort of privilege with the much more minor sorts of advantage that people with lesser access or less important positions are able to pass on, and if we mix that together then we lose sight of the real polarization of wealth and power that, certainly exists in the U.S. and some other societies.  I mean, that’s certainly a strategy of the right, that their whole focus on so-called cultural elite is an effort to try to conflate these two, so that, they will say, “Well, you have some parent who is able to take their child on a vacation to Paris and that is the same as the Bush family arranging for their son to become president.”  It is not the same.

IE: One point that can be made regarding patrimonialism is that it tends to reproduce itself downwards.  That is, it is very difficult for people who are involved in patrimonial relationships as agents— agents of the principal, people who act on behalf of a principal— it is very difficult for them to challenge the relationship unless there is a collective momentum for that purpose.  It is much more easier for them to carve for themselves a sphere of influence at their own level, at their own scale, and to reproduce at their own level what they undergo with their principal.  They replicate at their level a pattern of domination.  The pattern of domination that ties them to their principal.  So what you observe throughout history is the constant tendency of patrimonial relations to reproduce themselves downwards, down the social ladder, down the social structure.  That leads to a fragmentation downwards of the power structure.  The more patrimonial relationships are pervasive at the top, the more those relationships, I think, will reproduce themselves down the social structure. This is a dynamic argument.  Now this dynamic argument can be complemented with the basic observation that the diffusion of patrimonial relationships can vary significantly from one site to another.  Again, depending on the extent to which regulatory mechanisms have been institutionalized.  There are sites in which regulatory mechanisms have fallen into disrepute, they are no longer operational, and therefore people who would like to hold others accountable do not have the institutional resources to do so.  They cannot dig out collusive practices.  They cannot invoke or mobilize institutional mechanisms to impose sanctions or to initiate that type of sanctioning process.  Not to mention the difficulty to monitor practices if, indeed, the regulatory mechanisms are not in place.

But the broader point is that whatever the formal structure you are dealing with, job patronage, clientelistic hiring, the discretionary use of public resources, are always a possibility if people find or acquire the political capacity to defuse regulatory mechanisms.

SM:  It is interesting, Ivan, how you say that it is symptomatic of decline and Richard, you, in your article, say that patrimonialism is on the upswing in the United States. You think about Ivan’s statement about factors of decline and the uprise of patrimonialism, I don’t know if we can draw a connection there or not.

RL: I think so. I mean patrimonialism is a device that allows families or groups to appropriate resources and to the extent that you have patrimonialism in states it reduces the capacity of the state to do things. We clearly know that in military forces where officer positions are passed out in patrimonial ways that they fight less well than professional armies.  We know that states that have patrimonial tax collectors, tax farmers are less able to collect revenues than ones that are bureaucratic and so to the extent that the U.S. state is in some ways becoming more patrimonial again it is going to be less able to do things.  It will be less able to fight war successfully, be less able to collect taxes, less able to engage in planning, to build infrastructure, to educate children, and the same thing is true in firms.  Going back to the example that I gave before about the oil company and the large bank that gave favorable contracts to small companies that were owned and controlled by the sons of the C.E.O.s to the extent that firms do that, they are paying too much, which cuts into their profits, or getting bad services so that, they are not able to produce the products or services that are the basis for their continued existence.  And of course if positions are given out on the basis of family you are less likely to get qualified people.

I mean this is where the argument in favor of patrimonialism is wrong. The justification for it is parents train their children. They impart in them both knowledge about the family business whether it is politics or financial business or a sports team and they also use them as dedication to do this well; but of course children can be idiots, they can be incompetent, and so to the extent that positions are passed out in a patrimonial way you can end up with a disaster.  You can have a total incompetent being king of a country, a president, a C.E.O. of a firm, and to some extent if, certainly in the contemporary world, when children get the idea that no effort is required and they are going to have a powerful position and a great deal of wealth it does not encourage hard work, it does not encourage really learning how to do the business. We could sit here and give all sorts of examples of incompetence or thugs who take over the parents’ business.

SM:  The implications of your argument here that the United States on the broader scale, we might not be as competent to fight wars and educate our children and collect taxes and get the country on its footing, that suggests perhaps this shift from our once-competent country to –the outlook based on what you are saying, does not suggest a rosy picture for the United States going forward.

RL:   No, it does not.  My article in this volume is not a happy [one] and these are not encouraging conclusions to the extent that patrimonialism is going to deepen its hold, is this going to have a bad effect.  I certainly do not want to argue that this is the only or even the major reason for the decline of the U.S. or the decline of U.S. capacity. And to some extent the causation works the other way, that you get a decline in capacity, you get a weakening of control and that creates an opening for patrimonialism.  It is not that patrimonialism somehow just increases by its own dynamic and that has an effect on the state; rather if you have a reduction in state capacity of concentration of wealth, that creates an opening for patrimonialism that then deepens the problem.

Ivan Ermakoff and Richard Lachmann Podcast