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May 04, 1986|Alex Raksin

Who Rules America Now? A View for the '80s, G. William Domhoff (Simon & Schuster: $8.95). The author, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, has been asking this question since 1967, when he published another work arguing that the free citizens following their own desires in the marketplace do not have the final say in the United States. In this 1983 work, G. William Domhoff argues once again that the upper class--the corporate community and the "policy planning network"--has the upper hand.

His argument has grown more sophisticated since the 1960s, however. Rather than claiming that members of the elite are directly manipulating the strings that make us shop, invest and accept, Domhoff now says that "class rule is manifested through the activities of a wide variety of organizations and institutions." Yet, while Domhoff's theories are more clearly focused than they were two decades ago, the evidence of carefully coordinated class rule that he presents is still far from convincing. Contrary to Domhoff's assertions, for instance, the mere presence of elite "prep" schools or leadership groups like the Business Roundtable does not prove the existence of an all-powerful "policy planning network."

Backpacking: One Step at a Time, Harvey Manning; The Well-Fed Backpacker, June Fleming (Vintage: $8.95 and $6.95). Spring--after the storms, before the crowds--is an ideal time to break away from the city. But having a spirit of adventure is not enough. Travelers wishing to commune with nature rather than with recreational vehicles must first negotiate their way through a thicket of new products at the wilderness supply store. Wool or polypro? Goose down, quallofil or Thinsulate? Sunrise spuds or Grasshopper pie? These frequently updated books are trailblazers for those lost amid the merchandise. "Backpacking: One Step at a Time" might be overly detailed--one chapter tells us "How to Walk," another covers "Sleeping"--but by alerting readers to every possible disaster scenario, the book, clear, well-organized and lighthearted, should make it possible for even the most inveterate city dwellers to find happiness in the wilderness. More tips come from "The Well-Fed Backpacker," which collects standard recipes for outdoor cooking but also offers one of the only backpacker's guides to "Gourmet Feasting."

The Other America: Art and the Labour Movement in the United States, Philip S. Foner, Reinhard Schultz (Journeyman: $14.95). Looking through the text that begins this 1983 collection of photographs, paintings and drawings depicting working-class Americans, one might conclude that the editors' artistic vision is limited by their political convictions. The editors, first of all, seem to hold their subjects in less than high esteem. "The Other America" project began in West Germany by artists and labor activists convinced, as a poem quoted in the introduction reads, that Americans "are so indifferent to their past/you have to go to another country to find it." The orthodox Marxist history of America provided by the editors, moreover, often trivializes the conflict between freedom and social welfare.

But the art itself is sensitive and many-layered. True, you won't find Norman Rockwell here, and true, photographs of workers holding placards show up regularly throughout the book ("The upper class are freezing, open factories can give them clothes," reads one), suggesting that sentiments in 1982 mirrored those in 1932. The subjects, however, seem to shun ideology. Theirs is a more generalized struggle against fate, and their efforts are carried out with American verve, from the immigrants flexing their muscles as they move freight, to the wizened shoe-worker looking at the camera knowingly as he takes a moment for lunch in a dusty store.

Information U.S.A., Matthew Lesko (Penguin: $22.95). One of the most original new reference sources to appear in the United States in the '80s, this updated version of a 1983 work shows that the federal bureaucracy, perhaps indifferent and intimidating at tax time, can be a valuable resource during the rest of the year. Matthew Lesko, who is manning a toll-free number (800-USA-0030) throughout this month to give information "on any topic," offers succinct profiles of major government agencies. More important, the book points the way toward obscure services: A free monthly government publication tells consumers which foods will be cheaper or more expensive in the coming months; the President will send birthday greetings to anyone 80 or older or to couples married 50 years or longer; the U.S. Department of Housing sometimes sells abandoned houses to low-income families for $1.

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