Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

From Canadian Corporate Elite to Transnational Capitalist Class: Transitions in the Organization of Corporate Power *

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

From Canadian Corporate Elite to Transnational Capitalist Class: Transitions in the Organization of Corporate Power *

Article excerpt

INVESTIGATION OF THE SOCIAL ORGANIZATION of corporate power has deep roots in Canada. Well before John Porter published The Vertical Mosaic (1965), activists and journalists were documenting and criticizing the enormous concentration of economic power that issued from the formation of corporations such as the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 19th century (e.g., Myers, 1972) and that expanded further with the merger movement of the early 20th century (McLennan, 1929; McCollum, 1935). The guiding motif in these analyses, and in the Parks' Anatomy of Big Business (1973 [1962]), which preceded Porter's book by three years as the first systematic network analysis of interlocking directorates in Canada, was not sociology but socialism.

Porter's work, along with that of C. Wright Mills (1956), was path-breaking in creating the paradigm for sociological research. Equally key was their contribution as public sociologists: their accessible books attracted considerable attention, as the truths they revealed about power concentrated in old boys' networks clashed with the received postwar rhetoric of social citizenship. Mills and Porter, of course, presented somewhat different interpretations of corporate power, with Porter adopting, in James Heap's (1974: 109-12) view, a writing strategy of "liberal respectability" that reduced classes to nominal, statistical categories and drew more upon functionalist and elite theory than upon Marx.

Interest in the social organization of corporate power has subsequently waxed and waned. In the 1970s, American and European researchers brought the emerging tools of network analysis into service, creating what came to be called "power structure analysis" (Domhoff, 1980), while in Canada the revival of political economy led Porter's outstanding student Wallace Clement (1975; 1977) to a dependentist interpretation of Canada's corporate elite. Debates about the structure of the Canadian capitalist class raged throughout the 1980s, with much of the work informed by network-analytic approaches and Marxist class analysis (Brym, 1985; Carroll, 1982; 1984; 1986; Carroll, Fox and Ornstein, 1982; Fox and Ornstein, 1986; Kellogg, 1989; Niosi, 1981; Richardson, 1982; 1988). However, by the 1990s the question of corporate power had been displaced from the higher reaches of the research agenda, as sociology made its cultural turn, which for many meant reconceptualizing power along Foucauldian lines (e.g., Valverde, 1991).

Recently, however, there has been a revival of interest, as indicated for instance by the publication of Jamie Brownlee's Ruling Canada (2005), a useful synthesis of Canadian research, and by workshops on "Reviving Elites Research" at the University of Manchester in March 2006, on "Finance, Industry and Power: The Capitalist Corporation in the 21st Century" at York University a month later, and on "Politics and Interlocking Directorates" at the University of Barcelona in September 2006. At Manchester, four prominent members of the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) called for "a new kind of research programme on the privileged beneficiaries and agents of our form of neo-liberal capitalism," a program that sees "elites as existing in the context of post 1979 economic reform and permanent restructuring of the public and private sector" (Froud, Savage, Tampubolon and Williams, 2006: 16). Since the advent of neo-liberal capitalism, corporate power has indeed been transformed, but the issue of how elites are articulated to and implicated in practices of capital accumulation, class formation and cultural hegemony remains an important one for sociology.

Here, I recount my own intellectual journey across the changing landscape of corporate power, reflecting on the shifting realities and the frameworks within which they have been interpreted. My work in this field, now beginning its fourth decade, has combined the sociology of elites with the political economy of class. …

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