The interplay between Elon Musk and the social democratic government in Brandenburg, where Tesla recently opened a Giga factory, illustrates what Charles Lindblom termed in 1977 the privileged position of business. To make sense of this relationship, academics, politicians and citizens had an interpretive framework before the 1980s. After that, however, this largely disappeared from the public and political consciousness. The latter clarifies the hegemony of the ideas of the main actors in a private market economy and helps explain the decline of social democratic parties, trade unions and institutions in Europe and America.

Elon Musk, owner of Tesla and the richest man in the world with an estimated fortune of 300 billion, has built a Gigafactory for electric cars in Grünheide, Brandenburg. With this factory, Tesla’s largest outside the US and the first in Europe, he will compete with his West German competitors, in their own backyard.

The factory is estimated to have required five billion Euros in investments so far, will have 12,000 employees to begin with, and will produce half a million cars per year. There will also be a battery factory, obviously the largest in the world, with 2,000 employees. In the latter factory, Tesla is also investing about five billion Euros. Twenty percent of this amount, 1.14 billion, consists of a subsidy from the German government, which is mainly tapping into funds from the European Union.[1]  Ultimately, when the factories are fully developed, around 40,000 jobs can be created, plus a similar number of jobs at supply companies, which are already establishing themselves in the vicinity of Grünheide. It is estimated that at least a third of the workers will have to come from Poland, who will commute daily from Poland to the Tesla factory[2], along with thousands of other Poles working in the logistics companies on the southern outskirts of Berlin.

Brandenburg is one of the least captivating federal states. It has no more than about two and a half million inhabitants, a million less than before the merger with West Germany. As soon as they had the opportunity, many moved away (Blokland 2016). In Germany, Brandenburg stands for slowness, emptiness, boredom, and silliness.[3] It is so sluggish that its administration and judiciary are still to a significant extent populated by representatives of a dictatorship that ceased to exist thirty years ago (Blokland 2020). It is flat, there are some wolves running around and its biggest attraction is Berlin, which lies like a landing ship from another world in the middle of Brandenburg. Berliners are therefore more likely to take a plane to Majorca than a trip in Brandenburg.

Elon Musk is a dynamic, hyper-intelligent and extravagant entrepreneur on the autistic spectrum. In December 2021, Time Magazine named him “Person of the year,” which recognizes the person “who had the most influence on the events of the year, for good or for ill.” Time described him as a “clown, genius, edge lord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad”, pointed to the successes of his firms SpaceX, SolarCity and Tesla, but also to his curious aversions to unions and paying taxes (his tax payments are estimated at no more than 3. 27%), his visions of establishing human settlements on the Moon and Mars (“it’s just exciting”), his sometimes heartless actions against employees, and the curious tweets that he regularly sends, seated on his “porcelain throne”, to his 74 million followers, tweets that, before he was forced by the courts to submit them first to lawyers, could cause gigantic swings in the stock market. Musk has such a presence in the public domain that Tesla, argued the chairman of his company’s board in Time Magazine, does not need to spend much, if any, on advertising. His friend Bill Lee stated in the same magazine, “He’s probably the most viral social influencer ever.”

Not surprisingly, Musk took a 9.2% stake in Twitter in April 2022. This made him the largest shareholder in this media company. He also became a member of the board. Musk stated at his entry that he had many ideas about how Twitter could be improved (New York Times, April 5, 2022).

Time Magazine explains the fascination many have with Musk as follows: “The man from the future where technology makes all things possible is a throwback to our glorious industrial past, before America stagnated and stopped producing anything but rules, restrictions, limits, obstacles and Facebook.” Nevertheless, Musk is regularly viewed with suspicion, especially by the left. But, wrote Douglas Coupland recently in The Guardian, “here’s the thing: Musk has a huge IQ. He is measurably, scientifically, clinically and demonstrably the smartest person in any room anywhere” (29.08.2021). Musk (1971) has at least “three more high-functioning decades to go,” so we’d better enjoy it, Coupland argued.

Today, Tesla has a market capitalization of more than a trillion Euros, putting traditional car manufacturers, who by the way usually produce significantly larger numbers of cars, far in the shade. Despite the problems caused by the Corona pandemic, sales in 2021 were around 32 billion Euros, tendency very much upward. Brandenburg has a Gross National Product of about 74 billion generated by about 1.1 million working people between the ages of 15 and 65 (out of a population of 2.53 million).

The settlement of Tesla is obviously of enormous significance for Brandenburg. The director of the state institution “Wirtschaftsförderung Land Brandenburg” (WFBB), Steffen Kammradt, told the Märkische Allgemeine Zeitung (MAZ; the largest daily newspaper in Brandenburg) that since the agreement with Elon Musk was concluded in the Adler hotel in Berlin (November 12, 2019), he had not flipped his paper calendar any further. As a result of this deal, which was concluded in the deepest secrecy, Brandenburg had gained in a short time a reputation as “place to be”. The Brandenburg brand has taken off “in die Top-Liga der Automobilstandorte in Europa” (MAZ 23.11.2021). To the same newspaper, the Minister of Economy, Jörg Steinbach stated: “Brandenburg habe jetzt die einmalige Chance, wirtschaftlich zu Bayern oder Baden-Württemberg aufzuschließen.” (MAZ 28.10.2021 – Bayern, by the way, has six times as many inhabitants as Brandenburg, and Baden-Würtenberg five times as many).

Needless to say, other German states would also have liked to welcome Tesla. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern missed the boat and now the blame game has begun. The prime minister, Manuele Schwesig (SPD), claims not to have been involved in the failed talks with Tesla, which the former CDU minister of economic affairs vehemently denies. Leaked documents seem to prove him partly right.[4]

A person with so much decision-making power is a welcome guest among political leaders. It’s not just that Elon Musk’s charisma and power rub off on them, through his decisions on location, investment and employment, he can make and break political careers. In Berlin, Elon Musk therefore has access to the highest circles. The weekly Der Spiegel reported in September 2, 2020 that Musk had come to Berlin and spoken successively with “eine ganze Reihe von Regierungsmitgliedern und Spitzenpolitikern der [Christendemokratische] Union: Bundeswirtschaftsminister Peter Altmaier, Gesundheitsminister Jens Spahn, Forschungsministerin Anja Karliczek und Fraktionschef Ralph Brinkhaus.”

In Brandenburg, his popularity among administrators is obviously no less. During the same visit to Germany, Musk spoke with the Prime Minister of Brandenburg, Dietmar Woidke (SPD – Social Democratic Party of Germany) and the already cited Minister of Economic Affairs of this state, Jörg Steinbach (SPD). This conversation was “sehr angenehm und konzentriert gewesen,” the two Social Democrats later explained to Der Spiegel. “Vor uns steht noch viel Arbeit”, however, Woidke had also stated. After all, zoning plans had to be changed, permits had to be granted, infrastructure had to be developed: a 300-hectare forest had to be cleared, access roads built, the train station moved two kilometers[5], the water supply had to be arranged (a gigantic car plant consumes gigantic amounts of water, water that in Brandenburg, Germany’s hottest and driest region, is becoming scarcer every year)[6], the future workers had to have somewhere to live[7], their children needed nurseries and schools, et cetera. Also, many local residents who did not always welcome the drastic changes in their environment and had started all sorts of legal and political procedures to modify or even torpedo the plans, had to be convinced of the necessity or inevitability of the Gigafactory.

Elon Musk. Photo by Jörg Steinbach.

Fortunately, the talks with Brandenburg’s top politicians took place in a very good atmosphere. On Aug. 11, 2021, Musk, Woidke and Steinbach meet in the presence of Musk’s family. Proudly, Minister Steinbach tweeted a photo of Elon and reported in German[8] and English: “Very relaxed evening meeting with @elonmusk, D. Woidke, co-workers on both sides and myself. In an atmosphere of mutual trust we discussed the remaining tasks. Thanks to you and your great family for this visit, Elon!” This tweet got 2103 likes and 175 retweets. Incidentally, one commenter expressed surprise that Steinbach had stated in an interview that Elon had promised him to respect German labor law. Wasn’t this obvious since Brandenburg is a part of Germany?

Jörg Steinbach is thrilled with the project. On October 15, 2021, he enthusiastically tweets in German and English: “Today I was lucky. Upon my return from a business trip todays’s approach to @berlinairport allowed me to take these photos of @Giga_Berlin.”

Giga factory Tesla in Brandenburg. Photo by Jörg Steinbach.

Despite the enthusiasm of Brandenburg’s SPD Minister of Economy, at the start of 2022 Tesla had still not received a final building permit for the factories. All permits were provisional, pending all kinds of environmental tests and public participation and appeal procedures by civil society organizations. Production, originally scheduled to start in July 2021, therefore could not begin, much to Musk’s annoyance. Already on May 17, 2021 he let Der Spiegel know: “Wenn es immer mehr Regeln gibt, kann man am Ende gar nichts mehr machen.”[9] A month earlier, Tesla had stated in a position paper addressed to the Oberverwaltungsgericht Berlin-Brandenburg: “Der deutsche Genehmigungsrahmen für Industrie- und Infrastrukturprojekte sowie für die Raumplanung steht in direktem Gegensatz zu der für die Bekämpfung des Klimawandels notwendigen Dringlichkeit der Planung und Realisierung solcher Projekte” (Der Spiegel 08.04.2020).[10] It particularly irritates Tesla that projects that cause climate change are treated by the bureaucracy in the same way as projects that counteract this change. Tesla certainly has a point here, but whether electric cars can immediately be counted among the latter projects remains to be seen, of course, since the production of these means of transport and the export of prematurely discarded combustion engine cars to less developed countries (such as Poland) will entail an enormous environmental burden for years to come. Electric cars are not bicycles.

Nonetheless, the intrepidity with which Musk has been raising the factory from the ground impresses. Thus the “Mittelstandsbeauftragten der Bundesregierung,” (Federal Government Commissioner for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses) Thomas Bareiß (CDU), let the financial newspaper Handelsblatt know: „Tesla zeigt, was möglich ist, wenn politischer Wille sowie effiziente und schnelle Bearbeitungsabläufe bei Verwaltung und Gerichten auf Umsetzungswillen in Wirtschaft und Industrie treffen” (19.08.2020).[11] Tesla has an exemplary role here, stated Bareiß, for the entire German economy and society.

The plant was finally grandly opened on March 22, 2022. Everyone was there. Elon Musk had already landed his private jet at Berlin-Brandenburg airport on March 21, the MAZ reported excitedly on the same day.  The Prime Ministers of Brandenburg, Dietmar Woidke (SPD) and of Germany, Olaf Schulz (SPD), were there, as well as the German Minister of Economy, Robert Habeck (die Grünen) and of course Minister Jörg Steinbach who also took some photos. The MAZ wrote in a commentary, “Er hat es – wieder einmal – allen gezeigt. Mitten im Autoland Deutschland eine Fabrik dieser Größenordnung in Rekordzeit zu errichten, das ist schon eine Ansage. Oder, um in Musk-Dimensionen zu formulieren: eine kleine Marslandung.”[12] From now on, Brandenburg would only speak of the time before and the time after Tesla. Tesla put Brandenburg, previously known mainly for mass unemployment and the mass exodus of residents, on the map as a modern industrial country.

From all over Germany, Tesla fans had traveled to Grünheide hoping to catch a glimpse of Elon Musk. “Die Markentreue der Musk-Gemeinde ist höchstens mit der religiösen Verehrung der frühen Apple-Kundschaft für Steve Jobs vergleichbar” observed the MAZ (April 22, 2022).[13] “Wir sind mega aufgeregt… es ist krank, es ist Wahnsinn, absolut Wahnsinn! Wir sind sehr gespannt!” stated some admirers.[14]  Elon had personally handed over the keys of the first thirty Tesla Model Y produced in Grünheide to their overjoyed new owners, who were allowed to add lustre to the occasion with a piece of music of their own choosing. The Brandenburg resident had chosen “What a Wunderful World” by Louis Armstrong.

Understanding Elon Musk and Tesla: the long eighties

Some remain uneasy about the power that entrepreneurs like Elon Musk represent. In a democracy, how can a single person generate so much power, influence and decision-making power? A core idea of democracy is that where power is exercised, there must be accountability. However, where is the accountability here?

Until about the end of the 1970s, politics, academia, media, and citizens had had less trouble interpreting Musk and Tesla. The 1980s concluded a long postwar period in which, compared to today, there was a great deal of thought on political, administrative, and economic arrangements. There were, especially in the 1950s, significant differences of opinion that were the subject of often vigorous, academic, public and political debates and elections. All of this contributed to a relatively broad vocabulary, which allowed people to form their own opinions about regulation issues. Starting in the 1980s, this changed. At first this happened slowly, but after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc it accelerated rapidly. During this collapse, with the “Fall of the Wall” as its symbolic, mediagenic high point, any discussion of alternative social techniques or arrangements was suspect in advance. Surely “it” had been tried and “it” had failed? The euphoria in the West that was created over its supposed own rightness laid a cozy blanket over academia, media and politics under which any critical, unbiased thinking was stifled.

Many confused the mindless unanimity that thus emerged with an end to ideologies, an end to Grand Narratives, an end to politics, and even an end to history. History from now on would consist of nothing more than a boring, endless series of minor adjustments to the status quo, Francis Fukuyama argued in his The End of History and the Last Man (1992). To be sure, an ever-longer procession of columnists, journalists and other “media personalities” came into motion, voicing all sorts of opinions with great vehemence. But in accordance with the postmodernist zeitgeist, these were usually, as the reader and viewer understood, only trivial, mainly humorously formulated attempts to liven up the dullness of the end of history. Postmodernism and populism are closely linked (Blokland 2017). But few noticed thus that there was not so much an end of ideologies as an end of the presence of competing visions, an end of a serious battle of ideas. There was only one ideology left, and it was so ubiquitous and self-evident that no one noticed it. The long 1980s are thus among the most ideological eras in human history. They did not close a period characterized by ideology, they marked the beginning of it.

In the following I will illustrate, on the basis of a theme of one book, as well as its reception at the time of its publication, what was considered a plausible framework of thought for ordering issues on the eve of the 1980s. Using the same book, I then briefly address the question of why this framework of thought became unthinkable as the 1980s progressed. And finally I will dwell on the question whether the 1980s can be brought to a close: can we together still think in a different way than has become inviolably commonplace during these years?

Politics and Markets

In 1977, Charles E. Lindblom published Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems. Lindblom (1917 – 2017), who was affiliated with Yale University, is considered one of the most prominent post-war thinkers among political scientists, public administration experts and political economists in these years (Blokland, Premfors & Zucker 2018). Together with his colleague Robert A. Dahl, he is among the founders of the political theory of pluralism, a theory that has dominated American political science for decades (Blokland 2011, 2017).  At its core is the empirically and normatively grounded thesis that public decisions come about in a never-ending process of negotiation between interest groups. The presence of a plurality of competing groups inside and outside government promotes both the distribution of power and the quality of public decision-making. The latter because each interest group enriches the decision-making process with its own knowledge, values and purposes. In an open democratic society, if insufficient attention is paid to certain insights and values, it will not take long for a new interest group to be set up to defend them. So there is no question of an elected democratic majority implementing a clear, well thought-out and coherent political programme via the government. Instead, government policy comes about in a constant competition between a plurality of groups with partly overlapping and partly conflicting interests. What is commonly called a democracy is in reality a “polyarchy.”

The title of Lindblom’s book reveals his central premise: social systems are primarily distinguished from each other by the degree to which the market has been replaced by politics, or politics by the market. This is not, incidentally, about a hard division between market- and centrally-led systems, Lindblom (1977: 11-13) emphasizes. After all, all economic systems make use of the market – of money, wages and prices – for the allocation of funds, labor and goods, and in all systems production is co-organized through hierarchical bureaucracies, whether of a private (General Motors, Microsoft, Tesla) or a public nature.[15] In his book Lindblom investigates in a very exhaustive way the advantages and disadvantages of the two fundamental mechanisms and techniques of coordination and control mentioned, as well as the many possible intermediate forms. It is precisely these intermediate forms, which in his opinion we are examining completely inadequately, which have his special attention.  The leitmotif in Politics and Markets, he states in his foreword, is “(…) a reconsideration of the validity of both classical liberal and pluralist thought. Both are found to be grossly defective, yet some core elements of them seem to remain firm” (1977: xi). In this context, Lindblom particularly addresses, what he calls, “the privileged position of business.” This position, he argues, is completely misconceived in liberal thinking (1977: 5).

The discretionary powers of business

The role that business plays in today’s polyarchies differs from that of other interest groups in essential respects, Lindblom argues. It threatens societal pluralism and with it the democratic quality of public decision-making. To make this clear, he first addresses the regularly posited thesis that in a market-system, companies are completely controlled and steered by the wishes of the consumers and thus constitute a powerless institution.

Entrepreneurs, Lindblom argues, have significant “discretionary” power: they can (and should) make numerous decisions that are not imposed on them by the market (1977: 152-7). In the first place, consumers are not entirely competent and can be manipulated through advertising and the like. Therefore, the decision power of producers increases proportionally to the incompetence of buyers. Second, at all times a consumer has no more than a right of veto: he or she can only decide not to purchase a product. The initiative to produce a specific good always lies with the manufacturer. Third, entrepreneurs must make numerous choices about investments and production processes, which they cannot base on unambiguous market data, on expressed consumer preferences. For example, the developments of the business cycle and of consumer preferences are too open for this. Similarly, the market provides no answers to questions such as whether one should maximize one’s profits or turnover and whether this should be done in the short or long term. Fourthly, the decision space of entrepreneurs or managers is extraordinarily large when it comes to the extremely important “instrumental” choices regarding the production process. This concerns matters such as the technology to be used, the place of establishment, the organization of work, and the wages, bonuses and other rewards of the entrepreneurs. According to Lindblom, the choices made in these areas largely determine the structure of the economy. And fifth, entrepreneurs can make decisions on their own authority about the extent and character of their ‘public relations’, advertising campaigns and lobbying activities, about the occupation of top positions, the extent of support for education and research, and support for political parties and their election campaigns.

Particularly as corporations grow in size, all of the aforementioned powers constitute, in Lindblom’s opinion, a major restraint and also a threat to popular sovereignty. None of the existing polyarchies has really recognized this deficit in democracy, according to him (1977: 156). The business community has also so far successfully repelled any attempt to increase democratic control. The operation of the free market would require entrepreneurs to have complete control over their costs. But they make, as we saw, a large number of decisions that they cannot possibly base on cost considerations. Therefore, the introduction of polyarchic or democratic structures of decision making on behalf of the subjects in question does not necessarily lead to uncertain or higher costs (1977: 157). Hence, without consequences for the rationality of the market, new, ‘hybrid’ forms of decision-making can be introduced into the economic sector. Although Lindblom considers these highly desirable, he notes that the obstacles to doing so are immense. This brings us to the privileged position of business.

The hostage of politics by business

Businessmen, it turned out, have been assigned important public functions in the existing polyarchies. The issues on which they decide have been removed from the public agenda and their decisions come about without democratic control. However, according to Lindblom, this is far from an exhaustive description of the public role of entrepreneurs: they exert an influence on government policy that is not matched by any other interest group. Their privileged position in this, writes Lindblom, is due to the fact that a national government cannot be indifferent to the jobs, prices, national products, growth rates, standards of living which are largely in the hands of entrepreneurs (1977: 172-3). High unemployment or inflation, an economic depression, declining or too slow rising prosperity can bring down a government. Every government therefore sets itself the task of promoting the optimal performance of the public functions of business. Its own legitimacy depends on this. In everything it does, it takes into account the effects on business – be it fiscal, monetary, social, environmental or foreign policy. In addition, it provides, on request or otherwise, subsidies, special tax breaks and other assistance, it provides an infrastructure, economic legislation and an education system, it promotes exports, it obstructs imports through tariff walls, if necessary, it supports research into and development of new products, and so on. The relationship between government and industry in a free-market economy has a very specific feature in this respect: the government cannot force or order anything, it can at most encourage or induce companies to do something. To this end it must grant favors and advantages to enterprises. All the measures mentioned above are examples of this: they are not orders, commands or instructions, but stimuli, lures and incentives.[16]

One of the great misunderstandings within traditional economic theory, writes Lindblom, is that a market system consists only of the relations between suppliers and demanders and that the purchase of their goods and services is sufficient to induce producers to perform their functions (1977: 173). On such a foundation, however, no full-fledged economic production can get off the ground. Governments in market-oriented systems have therefore always intervened extensively in the market, with legal, economic and social measures, in order to stir up economic life and also to make it possible (cf. Polanyi 1944: 140ff; Blokland 2008: 155-76, 239-51).  And the more they became linked to the economic sector, the greater their public legitimacy became dependent on the performance of this sector.

Entrepreneurs, therefore, in the eyes of representatives of the political system, are not advocates of arbitrary interests. They are functionaries who perform indispensable public functions, and those involved are well aware of this: if necessary, they will remind politicians and civil servants of this fact. He summarizes the privileged position of entrepreneurs thus: “Any government official who understands the requirements of his position and the responsibilities that market-oriented systems throw at businessmen will … grant them a privileged position. He does not have to be bribed, duped, or pressured to do so. Nor does he have to be an uncritical admirer of businessmen to do so. He simply understands, as is plain to see, that public affairs in market-oriented systems are in the hands of two groups of leaders, government and business, who must collaborate and that to make the system work government leadership must often defer to business leadership” (1977: 175). Thus, to see this special position of business, and the mainstream of traditional political science has failed to do so according to Lindblom, one does not need a conspiracy theory. “Business,” he writes, “simply needs inducements, hence a privileged position in government and politics, if it is to do its job” (1977: 175).

Thus, according to Lindblom, business and government are intertwined in an intimate symbiosis. Together they create an extreme form of mutual adjustment, despite the presence of a polyarchic system (1977: 179-80). The mutual adaptation takes place through bilateral negotiations and consultations, which are not accessible to citizens, and, more importantly, indirectly through the anticipation of each other’s interests. In addition, representatives of the business community are also given seats in business and trade bodies equipped with decision-making powers (1977: 185-7). Differences of opinion and conflicts of interest are, Lindblom acknowledges, certainly possible between the two parties. However, they will always remain within the confines of the understanding that they necessarily play the leading roles within the existing system. Each other’s position and fundamental issues such as private property and the free market will not really be addressed. Nevertheless, Lindblom’s impression in 1977 was that the relationship between the two parties had been changing extremely slowly, but steadily, in favor of the government during the previous decades: business was losing privileges and government was gaining authority (1977: 180).

It needs no explanation that around the time Lindblom wrote this, this trend was drastically reversed in the other direction. In the long 1980s, deregulation and privatization strengthened the position of business.

The consequences of the power position of entrepreneurs for democracy

What are the political consequences of the privileged position of business? The most important, of course, is that polyarchies are de facto ruled or controlled by two different groups of leaders and that only one of these, the politicians, is somewhat subject to polyarchic control. In addition, the exclusive position of the entrepreneurs undermines the already relatively limited possibilities of the citizens to influence the governance of the country through democratic rules and procedures. After all, politicians and civil servants are not only the burden bearers of the citizens, but also of the business community (1977: 189-90).

It is characteristic of the demands that the business community makes on the government that they are not formulated through electoral processes. Moreover, they are not dependent on, and regularly conflict with, the preferences of the electorate. Empirical and historical research cited by Lindblom shows that many legislative measures in all kinds of areas were not taken in response to the desires of the electorate, but to those of specific groups of entrepreneurs. Similarly, research shows that many electoral preferences remained untranslated into policy as they conflicted with the interests of business (1977: 190-1). Nevertheless, according to Lindblom, there should be a contradiction between the desires of the business community and those of the electorate in an even greater number of situations than is currently the case. Much less than might be expected, however, are voters demanding, for example, income redistribution, the control of monopolies, democratic control in and of companies, let alone central planning. Part of the explanation for this, in Lindblom’s view, is that entrepreneurs not only influence the government, but also the polyarchic processes through which citizens seek to control the same government (1977: 192, 200). They do the latter through activities in interest groups, political parties and election campaigns.

Lindblom insists that the effectiveness with which business asserts its influence in polyarchic processes is unmatched by any other grouping (1977: 194). This is because entrepreneurs are able to deploy the resources at their disposal in their capacity as ‘public servants’ (compare Blokland 2016: 263 – 271; 2008: 199-210). First, they have extraordinarily large funds at their disposal (1977: 194-6). These are used for political parties and election campaigns, lobbying the government, political and ‘institutional’ advertisements in the mass media, teaching materials for public educational institutions and legal processes intended to influence government policy. The scale at which all this occurs completely dwarfs the activities of virtually all other interest groups.

What entrepreneurs, secondly, greatly benefit from is that they can make use of already existing organizations, namely their companies. Citizens can also organize themselves, but this takes time, energy and money. Their activities will often remain in the realm of well-intentioned amateurism. Companies, however, are professional institutions with funds and professionals that can also be used for other activities, in casu lobbying.

Third, entrepreneurs are advantaged over other citizens by their easy access to government officials. Elon, Jörg, Dietmar, Jens, Peter, Anja, Ralph, Robert and Olaf, all tutor each other. Entrepreneurs obviously owe this to their privileged position. They are known to, are benevolently approached by, and are already ‘in conversation’ with officials and politicians. If, Lindblom writes, they then approach these administrators as ordinary citizens, as citizens who are engaged in politics, no one will notice the difference. Not even they themselves (1977: 197-8).

In each of these three areas, Lindblom argues, other interest and pressure groups are at a strong disadvantage. This is therefore also true for trade unions. These, moreover, generally suffer from having less social prestige, respectability and authority, than their counterparts.[17] Indeed, the values that employers propagate – private property, order and authority, harmony – are similar to the values of the politically dominant middle classes.

In short, in the systems Lindblom refers to as polyarchies, there is a simultaneous struggle for power on several fronts. Obviously, there is the struggle between authorities among themselves and between leaders and their challengers. This characterizes every political system. Then there is the struggle between political parties. This struggle is best observed empirically. Furthermore, there is a conflict between the business community and the political system. The business community, thanks to its privileged position, can make demands on the government, while the citizens, via the same government, try to translate their wishes into policy. And, finally, there is the desire of entrepreneurs to directly control polyarchic politics – through lobbying, donations and the like.

The influence of public opinion by the business community

With regard to the attempt of entrepreneurs to exercise direct influence on politics, Lindblom considers it possible, moreover, that entrepreneurs, consciously and unconsciously, succeed in influencing the political preferences of citizens to such an extent that these naturally confirm their position and their interests. Consequently, there could be a closed circle, whereby business would be “controlled” by citizens on the basis of values, attitudes and preferences generated by the same business community. In Lindblom’s opinion, this possible vicious circle needs serious further investigation.

A possible case of indoctrination, according to Lindblom, concerns first of all the way in which business legitimizes its privileged position. The entrepreneurs try to convince citizens that the power and influence they exercise over the government and public decision-making are a normal, everyday part of polyarchy. For example, by playing the polyarchic game of participation and consultation with enthusiasm, they suggest that decisions which are primarily made under their pressure are the legitimate result of a true democratic process and that they together constitute only one of the many interest groups active in the decision-making process. Likewise, they try to legitimize their position by spreading the message through the media that private enterprise and political democracy are closely connected and that every attack on the first institution implies an attack on the second.

The second and most far-reaching form of indoctrination, according to Lindblom, occurs when fundamental issues that are unwelcome to entrepreneurs are excluded from the public agenda (1977: 205). This happens when subjects such as the institution of private enterprise, the high degree of business autonomy, the extremely unequal distribution of income and wealth, and the close cooperation between government and business are prevented from being put on the agenda. The chances of this are increased when an image of reality is created in which these subjects do not in any way constitute possible problems for which alternative solutions are conceivable.

In what ways does the message of business reach the public and to what extent is it effective? Lindblom points out that business itself is not always the source of the information concerned and that the source is rarely directly traceable: “The message usually reaches the citizens indirectly in a news story or broadcast, a magazine article, a film, an editorial, a political speech, or a conversation. Only a small part of it comes explicitly from a business source” (1977: 206). Another characteristic of the message is that it rarely has to change the minds of citizens. It mainly confirms the status quo. It is made clear to the citizen that the view he has of the political-economic order, a view that has been instilled in him from childhood and that, certainly in the United States, is rarely challenged, is still correct and proper.[18]  The result is that the existing political-economic institutions “come to be taken for granted. Many people grow up to regard them not as institutions to be tested but as standards against which the correctness of new policies and institutions can be tested” (1977: 207). In their attempts to influence the political desires of the electorate, the business community often has to do no more than respond to deeply felt, barely rational sentiments.

If the message of business is indeed achieving its goal, then the electoral desires of citizens should be rather limited and leave the foundations of the existing political-economic order untouched. This is also, Lindblom argues, exactly the case. Conformism to the status quo is widespread in all polyarchies, although to a higher degree in the United States than in European countries. Nowhere, for example, do voters call for more central planning or greater equality in income and wealth. It is, writes Lindblom, “one of the world’s most extraordinary social phenomena that masses of voters vote very much like their elites. They demand very little for themselves” (1977: 209). The conformism in these areas is all the more remarkable since values and attitudes in the areas of sexuality, marriage, manners or dress have seen great changes.

Not only in communist or other authoritarian countries, but also in polyarchies, Lindblom stresses, public and political discussion is severely restricted. In polyarchies, he writes, “core beliefs are the product of a rigged, lopsided competition of ideas” (1977: 212). The way authoritarian systems determine public opinion is, of course, considerably less gentle. But in the light of the democratic ideal, this limitation of discussion in existing polyarchies is indeed a problem. These systems have brought their citizens a (negative) freedom perhaps incomparable in history. But it is apparently, Lindblom writes, difficult for the citizens concerned “to remind themselves of how unequal the competition of ideas is and how far governments still fall short of achieving a greater liberation of man’s minds to accomplish the degree of popular control that only then might be possible” (1977: 213).

The civilization of the electorate

A related obstacle to the proper functioning of the political democracy that Lindblom examines in conclusion is the highest socio-economic class and the dominance of its values. He formulates his views in the form of propositions (1977: 222-8).

Lindblom loosely defines a social class as a group of people with a common culture and similar socioeconomic status. In all polyarchies, he says, classes exist, even though Americans in particular think they live in a classless society. The highest includes the most affluent, a large number of top officials and politicians, many entrepreneurs and managers, numerous university graduates, academics and professionals, and many a journalist and other public figure. The members of this class are privileged in many different ways: they are wealthier and more influential, possess more prestige and standing, grow up in a more pleasant and stimulating environment, enjoy more schooling, receive more subsidies, are treated with more compassion by the judiciary, et cetera. Because they have a specific social position and a value pattern in common, these people also share a sense of belonging.

A further proposition of Lindblom is crucial: since it benefits people to be considered a member of the highest class, there are powerful incentives to conform to its external characteristics. People who, in other words, want to climb the social ladder, tend to adopt the political-economic views, attitudes and desires of the preferred social stratum, and more specifically, “of those members of that class who have the most benefits to offer” (1977: 226). In particular, these are “beliefs in private enterprise, private property, corporate autonomy, and opportunities for great wealth” (1977: 226). Adopting these articles of faith also has the tactical advantage that one will find considerably fewer obstacles in one’s way than those who wish to hold on to their previous values and beliefs (cf. Bourdieu 1979).

The result of all this, Lindblom writes in his final thesis, is that leaders in government and business can look forward to many kindred spirits outside their own class (1977: 227). This is the large number of people who seek to climb the social ladder or wish this rise for their children. The phenomenon of social class, in short, reinforces the tendency for citizens not to exercise control over their leaders because they possess identical wishes and desires.

The tendency of the lower strata to conform to the values, attitudes, and articles of faith of the leading class is an aspect of their civilization. According to Lindblom, this process has developed further in the United States than in Western European countries. He considers this to be one of the reasons why Americans, in 1977, are aware of a narrower spectrum of political opinions, why they vote for political parties that differ much less from each other, are less active in trade unions and make fewer demands in the area of social security and other collective provisions.

Lindblom vigorously contests the view that value patterns come about spontaneously (1977: 231). He considers it no coincidence that prevailing values and attitudes support the position of the privileged class. It is thus no accident that wealth is generally respected and no one questions how it was acquired; that personal responsibility for one’s own well-being and success in life is constantly emphasized rather than social cooperation to shape the common future; that obedience to authority is emphasized rather than skeptical, conditional and selective acceptance of it. These kinds of values, Lindblom emphasizes, have been endlessly preached to people by churches, media, schools, parents, business and politics. As a result, today almost no one can imagine the manufactured nature of these values. The chances of breaking through this reproduction of values and opinions are therefore slim, and so are the possibilities for citizens to be masters of their own lives through polyarchic politics.

In short, the privileged class and business successfully indoctrinate the electorate on the foundations of the existing political-economic order. For this reason, the citizens will never (be able to) question these foundations. “It is a less than happy ending to a long story”, Lindblom writes, “Clearly polyarchy is no more than an extremely rough approximation to any idealized models of liberal democracy or to any other kind of democracy” (1977: 233).

The political impotence of the existing democratic system

The privileged position of business does not merely limit the ability of citizens to democratically control their leaders. Linked to this, it complicates the solution of important social issues. It is the most important of the veto powers that are already excessively present in the present polyarchy. Business owes this power of veto primarily to its privileged position: “its privileged position permits it to obstruct policies such as those on environmental pollution and decay, energy shortage, inflation and unemployment, and distribution of income and wealth” (1977: 347).[19]  All that entrepreneurs have to do to achieve this is to point out to politicians that any reforms to deal with these problems will harm business life. This is not to say, Lindblom emphasizes, that entrepreneurs will always get their way. But, he continues, “they get a great deal. And when they do not get enough, recession or stagnation is a consequence” (1977: 187). Aaron Wildavsky thus compares Lindblom’s description of the privileged position of business to Catch-22: when businesses get their way, it harms democracy; when they don’t get it, it harms the economy (1978: 225).

It is evident to Lindblom that this situation needs to be fundamentally changed. He considers it curious that within democratic theory there is hardly any attention to the special position of business: it exercises an uncontrolled and extraordinarily disproportional power in society that hardly seems to be able to be democratically justified. Indeed, Lindblom concludes in the most quoted last sentence of Politics and Markets, “The large private corporation fits oddly into democratic theory and vision. Indeed, it does not fit” (1977: 356).

The crucial question, therefore, is whether it is possible to dissolve the privileged position without affecting the autonomy of companies desired for the proper functioning of business. This is a question to which there are no simple answers. One could, of course, curb the disproportionate political influence of business by bringing companies completely under public control. Lindblom, however, has always been very dismissive of central coordination and planning: planners have too little knowledge, information, time, resources, and cognitive capacities to be able to make the enormous number of trade-offs and decisions that must be made in a centrally managed economy (see Lindblom 1958, 1965; Blokland 2008: 155-89). Spontaneous mutual adjustment, of which the market system is an example, is superior in this area.

Instead of these kinds of one-sided choices for total planning or total market, Lindblom has spent his entire career looking for, and arguing for, field-specific combinations of the many political-economic techniques available to us, combinations that also need to be constantly rethought and adjusted. An example of a strategy that indicates the direction in which Lindblom believes answers can possibly be sought is a hybrid form of market and polyarchic control. He notes that governments around the world buy all kinds of goods and services directly from private parties, without hierarchically planning the production of these parties. One thinks of space rockets, defense equipment, roads, bridges, parks, medical facilities, schools and training, housing, et cetera (1977: 98). Thus, government purchases can control production just as much as consumer purchases. It is conceivable, says Lindblom, but this also applies to numerous other orders whose pros and cons he discusses, to coordinate much larger parts of the economy via this ‘planner sovereignty market system’ than is the case today. One could even organize the entire economy in this way. Companies (private or public) would then sell all their goods and services to governments or to other companies. The government would control the allocation of the means of production by buying end products in larger or smaller quantities, or by refraining from buying them at all.

The goods and services in question can then be rationed to consumers, as is regularly done during a war, or sold to consumers. In the latter case, why shouldn’t consumers be able to buy their goods directly from the producer? ‘Because officials want outputs different from those which consumers would buy if left to themselves,’ Lindblom (1977: 99) answers. Thus, the government might buy fewer SUVs, and more healthy and organic food, than consumers would if there were no government market intervention. Consequently, two markets would coexist: one to control production and one for distribution. The differences between the prices for a given good in the two markets reflect political views about desirable productions and consumption. There is little unique about this: in all market-oriented economic systems, governments buy final goods and distribute them to consumers for free or at lower prices. Similarly, governments provide subsidies to firms to reduce cost prices and thus stimulate production, and tax certain goods to discourage consumers from purchasing them.

Lindblom by no means considers this arrangement to be sanctified. He only mentions it as an option within specific sectors, without mentioning the disadvantages. Charles Anderson rightly argues that Lindblom “seems to write as the policy adviser preparing a staff paper for a civilization. He is giving industrial society its options… In the end, the analysis culminates not as an argument for a preferred solution but as a statement of trade-offs”.  Like the great political economists of the past, Lindblom sees the economy as an order that can be deliberately organized to achieve optimal social outcomes. From this perspective, Anderson writes, “political economic structure is seen as a problem of deliberate and reasoned public appraisal and choice rather than as a phenomenon to be explained” (1978: 1012; cf. Premfors 1981: 218-19). In an age where the economy is constantly presented to us as something that happens to us, this is a confusing approach for many.

The reception of Politics and Markets: from ‘instant classic’ to oblivion

Lindblom’s analysis of the position of business within a democracy, as well as his considerations of alternatives, will quickly be dismissed today as other-worldly and unworkable. On the eve of the 1980s, this was different. For example, The American Political Science Association, no stronghold of radical left-wing do-gooders, awarded Politics and Markets the Woodrow Wilson Book Award. The judges called the book “a profound contribution not only to democratic theory but also to the future of democracy itself.” “Politics and Markets is bound to become a classic,” Rune Premfors similarly stated in the British Journal of Political Science (1978: 224). Michael Mandelbaum, in The Political Science Quarterly (vol. 93, No.3), referred to the book as “genuinely original” because the author brings together political science and economics, based on the knowledge that every economic system possesses an economic as well as a political dimension (1978: 508). The public administration expert Aaron Wildavsky, no political supporter of Lindblom, was also very appreciative of Lindblom. What he considered an enormous merit above all was that Lindblom freed radical thinking from its traditional aversion to the market: “Lindblom’s seminal contribution is to achieve a more radical conceptual separation of markets from private enterprise… than has heretofore been thought possible. This separation, fraught with consequences, is a milestone in the history of social thought. Raising radical social thought from the mire of wrong-headed opposition to markets for any and all purposes, Lindblom encourages use of their marvelous calculating power in a radically new way” (1978: 219).[20]

The above reviews do not stand alone. In the late 1990s, in an analysis of the most cited publications and individuals within political science, Goodin and Klingemann call Politics and Markets an “instant classic”, a book that upon publication is immediately recognized as a future classic, a book, read or not, that everyone talks about and refers to (1998: 15). Some of these books nevertheless soon disappear into oblivion. The authors consider the Politics and Markets and The Political Control of the Economy (1978), written by Yale colleague Edward Tufte, two clear examples of this. Goodin and Klingemann offer no explanation for this. It does not seem to be the case that the academic forum realizes after a second reading that the book is less special than initially thought. It is not the case that several years later all kinds of publications appeared in which it was explained that the book was based on a misunderstanding after all.

A more plausible explanation seems to be the changing political climate: as the 1980s began, fewer and fewer people were interested in an analysis of the possible trade-offs between market and government, a discourse on the public character of companies, a critique of the dominant position of business, or in ‘political control of the economy’. This is also true for scholars. In their research agenda, they mainly just follow the political mood (Blokland 2018). Research on social inequality in general and on power and power inequality in particular are also good examples of this. These subjects largely disappeared from the social and academic agendas from the 1980s onwards, even though it was difficult to claim that the problems involved had been satisfactorily resolved, academically speaking.

It is only at the beginning of the millennium that interest in the subjects mentioned above reluctantly returns. The social inequalities in income, wealth and power have by then grown to such improbable proportions that, for example, the American Political Science Association finds itself compelled to set up special working groups, for the first time in half a century, which, in this case, attempt to investigate the consequences of the dramatic inequalities in income, wealth and power for democracy.[21] The working groups are explicitly concerned with the possibility that the socially privileged who have gathered around the business community exert such a powerful influence on the formation of opinion within American society that there is no longer any real democratic battle of ideas.

How did it come to this? How did the long 1980s come about? Some of the answers are already contained in Lindblom’s 1977 analysis. These answers have a structural and a, related, cultural component.

Systemic constraints by Capitalism

We can deal with the structural component of the explanation of the ebbing of critical thinking about the power relationship between private enterprise and democracy by looking at criticisms that came to Politics and Markets already after publication. The criticism in question, we shall see, has been overtaken by time.

In the academic journal Economica (Vol.46, No.183, cf. Anderson 1978: 1015), Cedric Sandford called Politics and Markets “an important book of majestic sweep.” His main objection, however, concerned Lindblom’s view that private companies enjoy a privileged position that is completely incomparable to that of labor unions. In the United States and other polyarchies this may be correct, but “[t]o the contemporary Briton this judgement may seem odd”, he wrote (1979: 320). Through the institution of the ‘closed shop’, the many laws on dismissal and their collective bargaining over income, unions in Britain “seem to exercise as much control over output and employment as business. They exercise disproportionate influence on party and electoral politics. There is a predominant union representation on the official organs of the Labour Party” (1979: 320).

A similar objection was formulated by Alan Wolfe. Although business is no ordinary interest group, Wolfe admitted, it must be noted that “its power to manipulate the state is limited to some degree by the organized power of the working class, even in a ‘bourgeois’ democracy.” Lindblom’s vision lacks a theory of legitimacy, Wolfe argued, “a sense that if potential business power over the state were actually used, working-class and labor unrest would disrupt the system.” In the existence of strikes and communist parties in Italy and France, Wolfe further saw evidence that there is a limit to “the ability of capital to do anything it wants” (1978: 112).[22]  Lindblom’s analysis of the power of capital therefore, he argued, may have been valid in the United States, but not in those countries where the working class is highly organized (1978: 113).

In his book, Lindblom dealt beforehand at length with objections such as those of Sandford and Wolfe. He recognizes that there have been more and more attempts to intervene in the freedom of companies to make decisions in all kinds of areas, including those of a public nature, unhindered by third parties. But he argues that these interventions cannot go too far as otherwise the functioning of the existing economic system would be endangered. Because of the privileged position of business in its relationship with government, the interventions will not go too far either: the political leaders cannot afford this for the sake of their own electoral position. Properly considered, this explains why after the 1970s, which were the peak of post-war government interventions in the market, a massive neoliberal countermovement emerged: in their attempts to influence employers’ market decisions, the unions eventually found not only employers but also politicians in their path.

Specifically with respect to Britain, Lindblom acknowledges in 1977 that British unions are able to exert more influence than is the case in most other polyarchies. He also notes that some believe this is the cause of the so-called “English disease”: prolonged economic stagnation. Whether this is correct, he says, is difficult to determine. But if this connection does indeed exist, it only proves the necessity of an extraordinarily disproportionate influence of business for the economic stability and growth of polyarchies. Lindblom writes: “a market-oriented system may require for its success so great a disproportion of business influence, both through the privileged position of business and through business disproportion in electoral and interest-group activity, that even modest challenges to it are disruptive to economic stability and growth” (1977: 199). His rightness in this is demonstrated by the development in England afterwards.

In the late 1970s, the time when Sandford and Wolfe formulated their critique, Britain was crippled by a long series of strikes. The Labour governments of Harold Wilson 1974 – 76) and James Callaghan (1976 – 79) were unable to satisfy the trade unions within the existing socio-economic structures and increasingly lapsed into indecision. Partly because of this, the Conservative Party was able to come to power. As is well known, the position of the trade unions was then profoundly eroded by Margaret Thatcher’s long government (1979 – 90). New Labour did not restore this position after that either. Tony Blair (1997 – 2007) largely detached the Labour Party from the trade unions, formed instead close ties with business[23], liberalized the labor market in an unprecedented way and did nothing against the already sharply increasing social inequality under Thatcher.

Trade union membership fell in the UK from 13 million in 1979 to about 7.3 million in 2000. By 2021, 6.4 million workers were still union members, 23.5% of the total working population. Tellingly, most members (3.8 million) are found in the public sector. In the three times larger market sector, where workers could exert influence solely through union organization, the rate of organization is only 13%.[24]  Benjamin Davies (2021) summarizes, “Since 1979, trade union membership in Britain has more than halved, with secure, unionized work largely replaced by the euphemistic ‘flexible labour market’ – resulting in millions working in the ‘gig economy’ in insecure, low-waged jobs, the vast majority in the private sector.”

Related to this, social inequality in Britain increased enormously. Measured by the Gini coefficient, the country now has one of the most unequal income distributions in Europe (the coefficient rose from 25.5 in 1977 to 35 in 1991 and today stands at 36.6%).[25] The increase in wealth inequality has been even more dramatic since the 1980s. In 2020, the richest 10% of households owned 43% of all wealth in the UK. The bottom 50% of the population boasted 9% of all wealth (Financial Times, Jan. 7, 2022).

Britain, like so many Western countries[26], thus became increasingly like the United States, undercutting the criticism that Lindblom’s thesis is false because the UK is a counter-example. Developments in European countries since then only underscore the accuracy of his analyses.

Intellectual constraints by capitalism

Private market economies not only impose systemic constraints on public decision-making. They also limit democracy directly by exerting a determining influence on the ideas, values, attitudes that are in circulation. First, business does this directly and deliberately. In addition, the values, ideas and attitudes that justify and underpin its position exert an enormous pull on all those who hope to join the privileged. Because many of these people also occupy positions where they have comparatively large opportunities to disseminate their views, these views receive excessive attention.[27]

A small but striking illustration of direct influence are two responses from the business community to Lindblom’s Politics and Markets. After its publication, a large ad by the oil company Mobil appeared on the opinion page of The New York Times (February 9, 1978) explicitly distancing the company from Lindblom.[28] The scribes did not address his ideas: they merely stated that it was worrying that they were espoused by a Yale professor. Lindblom asked the editors of The New York Times to let him respond to Mobil’s piece. He was allowed to, but like Mobil, he had to buy an ad. The latter was unfortunately beyond Lindblom’s financial means.[29]

The oil company Exxon also made an effort to demonstrate Lindblom’s case. In his position as director of the Institution for Social and Political Studies at Yale University, he had long been in talks with representatives of this company about financial research support. Not research on the privileged position of business, but on environmental policy. After the publication of Politics and Markets, they cut off all connections without further explanation.[30]

Corporations spend enormous amounts of money on lobbying activities and attempts to influence political decision-making and public opinion (cf. Blokland 2008: 199-210, 2016: 263-71).  For example, in 2021 Washington was besieged by an estimated 12,000 registered lobbyists with an annual budget of about $3.7 billion.[31] Today, according to Lobby Control, more than 7,000 lobbyists have gathered in Berlin, and more than 25,000 in Brussels. The total budget of the latter is estimated at 1.5 billion. All these lobbies are paid for mainly by companies and business organizations that, among other things, try to limit the freedom of the market by getting the government and the European Union to change or create laws and regulations. And they are paid for by interest groups mainly from the higher social strata. Interest groups, in fact, are less and less reflecting the population. In the past, thanks to their socially pluralistic constituencies, they often promoted widely held values. Today they mainly represent specific, usually professionally related interests, especially those of the higher educated and better paid (Berry 1999; Skocpol 2003). Those involved no longer participate in politics themselves, but hire professionals, i.e. lobbyists, to represent their interests.

Especially the wealthy groups have thus acquired megaphones to make their voices heard. Interest groups that still represent the lower strata, such as trade unions, have at the same time lost a great deal of strength, as we saw above, or have considerably fewer resources at their disposal to hire lobbyists. Jacobs and Skocpol conclude in their previously cited Inequality and American Democracy: “U.S. government today is responsive mainly to the privileged and well-organized, and is often not a powerful instrument to correct social disparities or look out for the needs of the majority. If disparities of participation and influence become further entrenched, and if average citizens give up on democratic government as a tool to enhance security and opportunity for all, unequal citizenship could take on a life of its own, weakening American democracy for a long time to come” (2005: 232). Trump, by the way, had yet to be elected in 2005.

There is little doubt that the sharp rise in social inequality in almost all Western polyarchies since the 1970s is partly explained by this still growing unequal access to public decision-making. Likewise, there is little doubt that individuals, groups and institutions that can be counted among the social elite are increasingly able to influence public opinion-making thanks to this unequal access.[32] Many prevailing opinions therefore justify and confirm the privileged position of the upper strata, further deepening social inequality. Examples of this are the opinions that broad welfare states and social equality are bad for the economy, that people only make full use of their talents and capacities when substantial social inequality is permitted, that government institutions are by definition more inefficient and customer unfriendly than private institutions, and that everyone is fully responsible for their own success and failure on the job market and in life. These are all opinions for which there is no unequivocal scientific evidence. But almost everyone seems to believe it.

In conclusion: clowns and populism

How can we end the long 1980s? This seems extraordinarily difficult. The electoral reactions in much of the Western world to the greatest economic crises since the 1930s, the credit crisis and then the Corona epidemic, demonstrate how deeply entrenched the ideas of the 1980s are. The fact that the credit crisis was partly caused by self-enrichment reminiscent of the days of the robber barons Rockefeller and Carnegie did not change this. The same goes for the inequality in livelihood and health exposed once again by Corona. Fundamental political discussions about social order have not actually taken place anywhere. People seem to be able to imagine nothing more than the status quo. Elections in the Netherlands I have previously referred to as ‘A long void’ (2008: 19-40). The subsequent four Rutte Cabinets (2010 – 2024) were notable, in line with this, mainly for their lack of vision and content and for literally laughing away problems. Elections and politics in Germany during the Merkel era (2005 – 2021) deserve no other label. “Es fehlt ein Project, eine Grundsatzidee. Das Große, das alles Kleine bündelt. Es fehlt das Positive… Kleine Ziele, matte Begriffe… Wer immer nur Kleines hört, wird irgendwann kleingeistig,”[33] concluded Peter Dausend and Henning Sussebach who made a tour along the German ‘Stammtische’ on the eve of the 2009 elections (Die Zeit 6.08.2009). Politics in faraway Berlin had lost its appeal. In a nationwide survey one month before the elections, 84% of those interviewed said they were completely indifferent to the election campaign. Eighteen percent could imagine voting for the fictitious Horst-Schlämmer Partei of comedian Hape Kerkeling. Politics is becoming a less and less serious and sincere event, Tillmann Prüfer argued in connection with this. He cited the French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard according to whom parties are now merely simulations of parties. The Social Democratic Party pretends to be a social democratic party. She plays a social democratic party. “Demnach wären die Spassparteien die Simulation der Simulation… Wo Politik zur Clownerie wird, sind Clowns die besten Politiker”[34] (Die Zeit 27.08.2009).

Indeed, in the last decades we have had more and more clowns in politics. The business Tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, Italian Prime Minister for a total of ten years between 1994 and 2011, was one of the first who did not seem to take anything really seriously, including democracy and the rule of law, and who seemed to fit in perfectly at a time when politics seems to matter nothing. So why won’t we have a little fun? At the beginning of the Millennium, therefore, some suspected a great future for autocratic populism à la Berlusconi, even though the person in question was constantly haunted by corruption scandals, accusations of abuse of power and excesses in every possible area.

Subsequently, among many others, Matteo Salvini, Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte and Boris Johnson came on the scene. Like other populists, these “Killer Clowns” (The Guardian 30.07.2019) present themselves as friends and representatives of the ordinary man and woman, but, under a cloak of almost daily goofiness and excess, stand up almost exclusively for vested economic interests. They lower taxes for the top earners and the wealthy, liberate the enterprising man from all kinds of oppressive laws and regulations, declare the government and the welfare state as the enemy of the people, and undeviatingly go to war against migrants, refugees, Muslims, Jews, the European Union, trade unions, the supposedly left-wing free press and public broadcasters, scientists and other boring, moralizing and arrogant experts. The social media are a godsend to these pals. The presentation and dissemination of a serious analysis of the problems of our time and their possible solutions are hardly possible via a tweet on Twitter, a post on Facebook, a photo on Instagram or a video on TikTok. Social media serve entertainment and distraction, and that is what these politicians provide.[35] They can address their supporters directly and no longer have to fear an independent, mediating and editing press. For the lack of analysis, depth, coherence and sincerity, they are also excused in advance – “The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan already wrote in 1964.

It is thus striking that in all the political noise that has come to dominate our democracies in the last two decades, the current economic order, the privileged position of business and the existing distribution of income, wealth and power have not played a significant role on the public and political agenda. This is consistent with what Lindblom foresaw in 1977. Trade unions and social democratic parties have been marginalized almost everywhere. The Dutch Labour Party has become a splinter party. Labour in the United Kingdom achieved its worst result since 1935 in the December 2019 election and, apart from the social liberal decade of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, has not been in power since 1979. The SPD’s unexpected victory in Germany in 2021 owed more to chaos within the Christian Democratic Union than to a thoughtful social democratic political program successfully communicated to the electorate.[36] President Joe Biden courageously tried, partly using the urgency of the Corona epidemic, to introduce elements of the European welfare state, but has since found that there is too little support left for this even in his own Democratic party. With sweat in their powerless hands, Democrats like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders can only wait for the next election, possibly again dominated by Donald Trump. In the French elections of April 2022, right-wing populists like Marine Le Pen und Éric Zemmour are in the running, and the hopelessly divided Social Democrats are ultimately be forced to support the market-liberal Emanuel Macron to ensure at least a minimum of political decency and rationality.

An important explanation of the decline of social democratic parties and related organizations is that their voters felt cheated time and again when these parties were in power. They turned out to be unable to do much more than disguise the bitter pills forced upon them by the economic system and the privileged position of business. One thinks of Blair’s ‘Third Way’ or ‘New Labor’ in England, Gerhard’s Schröder’s Agenda 2010 in Germany, and the participation of the Dutch Labour Party and the German SPD in so-called grand coalitions with former political opposites. If the liberal, conservative and market liberal parties do not want to change the existing structures and the social democratic parties are powerless to do so, why not vote for populist parties that do not take the political system seriously either, and divert attention to the European Union, the public sector, migrants, refugees, Muslims, homosexuals or feminists. The state in general, as well as the European Union, instruments par excellence of the economically powerless to collectively resist unbridled economic actors, processes and structures, are successfully presented unabatedly by populists as authoritarian, even totalitarian institutions that crush the puny, free individual. How did people come up with this idea?

In late January 2022, about a thousand trucks blocked the government center of Canada’s capital, Ottawa. It began as a not entirely unreasonable protest against the Covid measure that required an unvaccinated truck driver who had been in the United States to spend two weeks in quarantine after returning to Canada. However, the protest was soon taken over by a motley collection of radicalized, enraged citizens who had one thing in common: a hatred of the state that was seen as the source of all possible evil (The Guardian 11.02.2022; New York Times 13.02.2022). We have witnessed this phenomenon time and again in the protests against the Covid measures. The protesters paralyzed the government center and border crossings (one commentator compared this blockade to the storming of the Capitol in January 2021, but in slow-motion), and led the government of Justin Trudeau to declare a state of emergency. Canada has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and Trudeau called the protesters “a fringe minority” also for this reason.

Along with prominent Republicans like Donald Trump (“Trudeau is a far-left lunatic”), Ron DeSantis and Ted Cruz, Elon Musk declared solidarity with the protesters. On January 30, 2022, he tweeted: “It would appear that the so-called ‘fringe minority’ is actually the government” and “If the government had the mandate of the people, there would be a significant counter-protest. There is not, therefore they do not.”

If one follows this reasoning of Musk, the smartest person in any room anywhere, then we can draw a few more conclusions. Totalitarian states such as China, North Korea and Russia enjoy broad social support. Indeed, if this were not the case, citizens would revolt. Nowhere is there a fundamental opposition to the situation where 1% of the world’s population owns 46% of all wealth and bottom 55% own a total of 1.3% (Shorrocks et al 2021), so this distribution must be equitable. In 2018, 26 billionaires, including Musk, Arnault, Bezos, Gates, Buffett and Page, owned as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the world’s population (Lawson et al 2018). The explanation and justification for this inequality can only be that these people are infinitely more intelligent, industrious and productive, than almost everyone else on the planet. Democratically elected politicians in market liberal systems everywhere are vying for the favors of top entrepreneurs. The power of these billionaires is thus democratically legitimized.


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[1] This is a 2.9 billion heavy program (Important Project of Common European Interest – IPCEI) to boost the European production of car batteries. Tesla, Der Tagesspiegel reported in 2021 (September 5), will thus receive a third of this.

[2] Märkische Allgemeine Zeitung (MAZ). 23 November 2021.


[4] (

[5] The cost of this was 50 million Euros. According to an independent expert, this was a disguised subsidy to Tesla that should have been reported to the European Union (MAZ 06.09.2021). The government of Brandenburg denies this. Whether the EU will still take steps is unclear.

[6] The plant will be built right in a water supply area. Annually, in the first phase, the factory will use about one and a half million cubic meters of water, about the same as a city of 40,000 inhabitants. This amount is provided for, but where the water is to come from when the plant grows to 40,000 employees and when these employees and those of the supply companies settle in the vicinity is unclear, the Brandenburg government also admits (MAZ 19.10.2021; 28.10.2021).

[7] Several problems arise in this regard. There are too few skilled workers available in Brandenburg, also because in the next five years 20% of the workforce will retire. Very large numbers of people will therefore have to come from elsewhere and, if they did not drive back and forth to Poland every day, would need new housing. On top of that, all these people have to drive to work and to the supermarket. Oder-Spree-Landrat Ralf Lindemann (SPD) stated in the MAZ: “Wir werden eine Infrastruktur aufbauen müssen für die Menschen, die hier arbeiten – das ahnen wir noch gar nicht … Und zwar in einer Region, die darauf nicht vorbereitet ist.” (1.11.2021)

[8] „Sehr entspanntes abendliches Treffen mit @elonmusk, #DWoidke und mir, sowie Mitarbeitern auf beiden Seiten. Wir haben uns vertrauensvoll über die noch anstehenden Aufgaben ausgetauscht. Danke für den Besuch der ganzen Familie, Elon! @Stk_Brandenburg.“

[9] “If there are more and more rules, in the end you can’t do anything at all.”

[10] “Germany’s licensing framework for industrial and infrastructure projects, as well as for land use planning, is in direct contradiction to the urgency needed to plan and implement such projects to combat climate change”

[11] “Tesla shows what is possible when political will and efficient and fast processing procedures in administration and courts meet the will to transform in business and industry.”

[12] “He has shown everyone – once again. To build a factory of this size in record time in the middle of Germany, the country of cars, is quite something. Or, to put it in Musk terms: a small landing on Mars.”

[13] “The brand loyalty of Musk’s community is at best comparable to the religious devotion of early Apple customers to Steve Jobs.”

[14] “We are mega excited…. it’s sick, it’s insane, absolutely insane! We’re very excited!”

[15] The last point has also been addressed at length by Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter: bureaucratization is occurring everywhere, not just within government (cf. Blokland 2006: 71-2, 183-4). Privatization is therefore not necessarily a solution to bureaucratization and the inflexibility that regularly accompanies it.

[16] As the market becomes more global or entrepreneurs successfully suggest that this is the case, national governments are also increasingly played off against each other. In such a case the business community asks governments for special settlement conditions and tax breaks. Because virtually all governments pursue such policies, a downward spiral is created in which more and more rules and laws intended to regulate the behavior of entrepreneurs are abolished worldwide. Social security and labor law systems are thus coming under increasing pressure. One example is Slovakia’s location policy. Large German (Volkswagen), Korean (KIA) and French (PSA) car manufacturers were snatched up for other countries by providing land and infrastructure free of charge and waiving corporate taxes for a large number of years. Slovakia has a population of 5 million, but now produces over a million cars a year, 202 cars per capita. A quarter of its export revenues come from the automotive industry (Kafkadesk 2020). At the same time, Slovakia has one of the least developed welfare states in the European Union.

[17] It is striking that representatives of trade unions or other civil society organizations, research in Germany shows, are also rarely invited by the media to participate in public discussions on issues affecting the public interest (see Blokland 2021a).

[18] This socialization or enculturation into the prevailing values, feelings and attitudes obviously takes place in every society. But societies differ in the degree to which they are ‘open’, in the degree to which citizens have access to and are confronted with alternative visions of reality. Lindblom, incidentally, observes in this regard that the willingness that exists in America and other polyarchies to always let “the two” sides have their say in order to guarantee a ‘balance’ in the debate hardly guarantees any pluriformity in the opinions discussed (1977: 210). This is because the two sides or parties in question often differ barely in their values and goals and in their respect for the status quo (compare here again Blokland 2021a).

[19] I mention the collective problems Lindblom recognized in 1977 because, with the exception of inflation and perhaps employment, they have only grown in urgency over the last four decades. One could interpret this development as an indication of the presence of veto powers.

[20] Lindblom was not the first here: the market socialism of economists such as Abba Lerner and Oskar Lange, of whom Lindblom and Dahl have always been very much in favor, made this separation as early as the 1930s. The conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter also considered this separation very defensible (see his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy from 1942).

[21] The end report, Inequality and American Democracy was edited by Lawrence R. Jacobs and Theda Skocpol. They conclude among other things: “Citizens with lower or moderate incomes speak with a whisper that is lost on the ears of inattentive government officials, while the advantaged roar with a clarity and consistency that policymakers readily hear and routinely follow” (2005: 1).

[22] Incidentally, Wolfe narrowed Lindblom’s discussion to the direct and conscious exercise of power by “organized business” and “the organized working class. We saw above that this is wrong.

[23] Even the market liberal magazine The Economist was very concerned about this at the time (Aug. 14, 1999, vol.352, no.8132). It decried ‘A New Corporatism’ which consisted of strong, unprecedented links between the Blair government and business: “Now that Mr. Blair is in power, big business and New Labour are closely entwined in a clammy embrace. There might not be much passion in this relationship … but the connections are strong and likely to prove long-lasting” (1999: 32). Blair donated a large number of Labour seats in the House of Lords to top businessmen and appointed numerous captains of industry to chair the many advisory groups and task forces (around 300) that Labour had set up since the beginning of his government: “28 of Britain’s 100 biggest public companies … have donated either their chairman or their chief executive, in one capacity or another. This is a departure not just for the Labour Party, but from British government as a whole.” These task-forces were a new phenomenon in British politics. One of the unofficial goals behind their institution was to reduce the influence of traditional policy makers. The Economist also recognized that the entanglement of entrepreneurs and government could lead to conflicts of interest. For instance, it could make it more difficult to develop policies that businesses did not like….

[24] In Germany, the level of organization has now fallen to 17%, in France to 11%. Again, most members are found in the public sector and in industry, and workers in the rapidly growing private service sector are the least organized ( In the United States, the organization rate fell from 20.1% in 1983 to 10.3% in 2021. By far the most members here are also found in the public sector: the organization rate is nearly 40% in this sector and only 6% in the private sector ((


[26] In 2015, the OECD observed: “Since the 1980s, income inequality has risen in most OECD countries. A quarter of a century ago, disposable income of 10% of earners was on average around 7 times higher than that of bottom 10%; by 2010, it was around 9,5 times higher… In the United States, between 1975 and 2012 around 47% of total growth in pre-tax incomes went to the top 1%. The share was also high in a number of other (mostly) English-speaking countries: 37% in Canada and over 20% in Australia and the United Kingdom” (2015: 33). In the last decennium the growth in inequality accelerated, with the Corona epidemic as an ensuing catalyst.

[27] Lindblom subsequently developed these theses in depth in Inquiry and Change: The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Society (1990) and in The Market System (2000). See also the interview which the author had with Lindblom in 2000: Charles Lindblom on the Market, Elites, Inequality and our Inability to Think Clear.

[28] To this day, by the way, companies and their organizations enjoy the opportunity to make their views on the most diverse issues known to a wide audience on this page. Newspapers such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine and weeklies such as Die Zeit also offer this possibility. That these are paid advertisements is hardly noticeable from the layout and the announcement. Geoffrey Supran en Noami Oreskes (2020) researched the “advertorials” published by Mobil between 1977 and 2014 in The New York Times. These “overwhelmingly expressed doubt about climate change as real and human-caused, serious, and solvable, whereas peer-reviewed papers and internal reports authored by company employees by and large did not”. Mobil and Exxon, with which it merged in 1999, deliberately “misled the public” about climate change and its causes.

[29] Interview by the author with Lindblom on March 19, 1998.

[30] Interview by the author with Lindblom on March 19, 1998.

[31] Some of the organizations spending the most money on lobbies from 1998 through 2021 were, in millions of dollars: National Association of Realtors (715), US Chamber of Commerce (1731), Business Roundtable (350), the American Medical association (462), American Hospital Association (468), Blue Cross Blue Shied (Health Insurance) (422), Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America (450), American Hospital Association (468), General electric (376), Boeing (315), Northrop Grumman (309), Lockheed Martin (296), AT&T (284), Verizon (279), Comcast (238), Facebook (70), Amazon (70), Exxon Mobil (280). The figures are from The Center for Responsive Politics and The National Institute on Money in Politics (OpenSecrets). In vain, one searches this list for organizations that stand up for the interests of workers, the less fortunate, renters or nature.

[32] “Scholars are beginning to document”, Jacobs and Skocpol wrote, “the exact degree to which skewed political demands and support are converted by the governing process into policies and activities that disproportionately respond to business, the wealthy, and the organized and vocal” (2005: 11). A comparable discussion started in Germany after the credit-crisis. See for instance: Müller 2009, Leif 2006, Leyendecker 2007, König 2007, Adamek and Otto 2008, Friedrichs 2008, Wieczorek 2009. In the following years, however, this discussion disappeared from the agenda again. Migration, refugees, integration, radicalization, extremism became the chief topics.

[33] “A project is missing, a basic idea. The big thing that bundles everything small. The bright side is lacking … Small goals, dull concepts… If you always hear small things, you will eventually become small-minded,”

[34] “According to this, the fun parties would be the simulation of the simulation… Where politics becomes clowning, clowns are the best politicians.”

[35] The influence that a few social media corporations exert on public information and opinion formation is so great that it is no longer justifiable, that these media are “private.” See the in-depth historical and legal analysis by Nicolas Carr (2021): ): “The public interest standard is more than just a legal principle. It is an ethical principle. It assures the people’s right to have a say in the workings of the institutions and systems that shape their lives — a right fundamental to a true democracy and a just society.”

[36] Nevertheless, despite the prominence of a shrill radical right-wing party, the German political landscape anno 2022 is a beacon of rationality and balance compared to that of many other democracies.

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