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September 1975

Domhoff, “The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats”

“The central thesis [is that] face-to-face relationships between the powerful rich gives them [the] cohesiveness as a group [necessary] to control the society.”

This new book by Domhoff is a somewhat unusual admixture of high-society anecdotes spiced with local color, serious sociological theorizing, and listings of the interconnections of those he is studying. But the content of the book speaks directly to important problems in social theory.

American society is, I would argue, becoming somewhat feudalized. It is organized more and more around status rather than contract and is characterized by economic decisions having more and more of a political rather than a market-oriented nature.

In this situation, the background, attitudes, and degree of unity of those in charge become valuable data for those interested in politics. Domhoff is interested in who was responsible for the development of contemporary American State-monopoly capitalism. This has been the subject of three books Domhoff has written and one he co-edited.

Domhoff argues that there is a caste that rules America. Domhoff’s concept of such castes is very reminiscent of Max Weber’s concept of status groups. In the status order, according to Weber, people are grouped by their prestige and their life-style.

Similarly, in all Domhoff’s books, the emphasis is both on power and on the cohesiveness of the powerful, based on their shared life-styles.

Domhoff’s approach to analyzing who was responsible for the growth of the American Leviathan is a non-Marxist approach.

Neither for Domhoff nor for sociologist C. Wright Mills, Domhoff’s intellectual mentor, is the power of the ruling class based directly and narrowly, as it is in Marxian doctrine, on the decision-making relations resulting from the ownership of property in the realm of production.

The central thesis of Domhoff’s Bohemian Grove is that informal, face-to-face relationships between the powerful rich gives them a cohesiveness as a group that is necessary in working together to control the society.

The thesis is spun out in three steps in his chapter entitled “Do Bohemians, Rancheros and Roundup Riders Rule America?”

First, Domhoff contends that institutions like the Bohemian Grove retreat (a two week gathering of influential men in an encampment along the Russian River in northern California) facilitate social ties among a nation-wide set of powerful individuals. “Once formed, these groups become another avenue by which the cohesiveness of the upper class is maintained.” Domhoff provides some testimonial evidence for the operation of this cohesion effect.

Second, Domhoff contends certain business groups like the Council on Foreign Relations, the Committee for Economic Development, the Business Council, and the National Municipal League perform the important tasks of policy-articulation and consensus-building in corporate-liberal America.

Third, Domhoff contends that there is a large overlapping of membership in government and corporate leadership, in the business policy planning groups, and in the social retreats like the Bohemian Grove. His appendix of over one hundred pages in this book is designed to display that overlap.

But why care at all about the high-society retreats? As Domhoff himself notes, “retreats are held by just about every group you can think of—scouts, ministers, students, athletes, musicians and even cheerleaders.”

What is important is that the retreats of members of the governing caste bind the participants together. Whereas pluralist sociologists and political scientists see dischord and disharmony when they look at political and business elites, eventually these elite groups do seem to unite to back national policy. Domhoff sees the retreats as a sort of social lubrication that helps make such ultimate consensus possible. Reviewed by Bill Evers / Political Philosophy / LR Price $7.95