In “Austrian and Marxist Theories of Monopoly Capital: A Mutualist Synthesis“, Kevin Carson laments that speaking in terms of a “Power Elite” from a leftist, non-Marxist standpoint tends to brand one a conspiracy theorist.
In making use of the “Power Elite” model of Mills and Domhoff, one must be prepared to counter the inevitable “tinfoil hat” charges from certain quarters. Power Elite theory, despite a superficial resemblance to some right-wing conspiracy theories, has key differences from them. The latter take, as the primary motive force of history, personal cabals united by some esoteric or gratuitously evil ideology. Now, the concentration of political and economic power in the control of small, interlocking elites, is indeed likely to result in informal personal ties, and therefore to have as its side-effect sporadic conspiracies (Stinnett’s Day of Deceit theory of Pearl Harbor is a leading example). But such conspiracy is not necessary to the working of the system–it simply occurs as a secondary phenomenon, and occasionally speeds up or intensifies processes that happen for the most part automatically. Although the CFR is an excellent proxy for the foreign policy elite, and some informal networking and coordination of policy no doubt get done through it, it is essentially a secondary organization, whose membership are ex officio representatives of the major institutions regulating national life. The primary phenomenon is the institutional concentration of power that brings such people into contact with each other in their official capacities.
I would say that “right-wing conspiracy theories” serve as a sort of poor man’s class conflict analysis, and I would defend them as having an advantage over Marxist in that they make history the realm of human action, where individuals and groups have goals and pursue them, rather than the realm of impersonal, abstract, and deterministic historical forces. The weakness of such theories is their moralizing, and tendency to ascribe far too much power of groups to control events (not to mention sloppy induction from historical research, however meticulous, riddled with logical fallacies). Like Marxism, they give little weight to forces of contingency, chaos, entropy, and simple human error, but unlike Marxism they also ignore what we might call “structuralism”, or the influence of institutional forces (which is the advantage of the more sociologically sophisticated “power elite” school of thought).