Nature of a Ruling Class
We tend to think of the “ruling class” as a Marxist concept; but the notion has a long history before Marx, particularly in the ancient Greek and Roman historians, and class analysis played a central role in 18th and 19th century classical liberalism as well. Whenever the decisions and actions of the political machinery are largely controlled by a particular group, and serve to advance the interests and reinforce the power of that group, such a group is properly called a ruling class. A ruling class is, obviously, a bad thing to have. This raises two questions:
- How does a ruling class operate and maintain its power?
- Is it possible to construct a political system that will not fall prey to a ruling class?
With regard to the first question: I do not believe that a ruling class needs to exercise its will or advance its interests consciously. That does often happen, of course. But what more usually happens, I think, is that as various policies are proposed or adopted in the governmental arena, those that adversely affect powerful, influential, and concentrated interests will get noticed and vigorously attacked, while those that affect the average person — too busy to keep track of what the government is doing, to poor to hire lawyers and lobbyists, too dispersed to have an effective voice — will be largely unopposed. This creates a kind of filter mechanism, that strains out legislation that harms the powerful, while allowing legislation that harms the weak to pass unhindered. The result, whether intended or unintended, is that government power tends to be turned more and more, by a kind of malign invisible hand, in the direction of advancing the interests of the powerful at the expense of the interests of the weak.
Bureaucrats and Plutocrats
A ruling class need not be monolithic, however. In fact, most ruling classes are divided into two broad factions, which we may call the political class and the corporate class. The political class comprises those who are in direct control of running the state — politicians, civil servants, and the like; the corporate class, on the other hand, comprises the wealthy quasi-private beneficiaries of state power — the collectors of subsidies, government contracts, and grants of monopoly privilege. These two groups might be called the Bureaucrats and the Plutocrats.
These two wings of the ruling class have similar interests, and they work together. But their interests are not identical, and each side strives to become the dominant partner in the relationship. When the political class gains the upper hand, the polity tends toward socialism; when the corporate class gets the upper hand, it tends toward fascism. In the United States today, each of the two major political parties works (mostly unintentionally, through the invisible hand process discussed above) to advance the interests of both wings of the ruling class — but the Democrats tend to lean more toward the Bureaucrats, while the Republicans lean more to the Plutocrats.
This model serves as a remarkably good predictor of Republican and Democratic policies. High taxes on the poor are in the interest of both ruling parties, and so both parties in practice enact these, whatever their rhetoric. But high taxes on the rich benefit the political class at the expense of the corporate class, so Republicans support and Democrats oppose a capital gains tax cut. On the health care issue, Democrats favor socialized medicine — giving the political class control over health care — while Republicans favor the status quo — keeping health care largely in the hands of quasi-private beneficiaries of state privilege, like insurance companies and the AMA. (A genuine free market in health care is the last thing either faction wants to see.) Both sides have an interest in gun control, in order to keep the subject population disarmed and docile, but for the corporate class this interest is partly offset by the interest that weapons manufacturers have in keeping guns available; thus Democrats are strongly for, and Republicans are weakly against, gun control. And so on. Thus most of the major political debates in this country are merely squabbles within the ruling class.
Once again, let me stress that very few Republicans or Democrats are consciously scheming to advance class interests; most, I imagine, are sincere and well-meaning. But consider that, according to polls (see Maddox and Lilie’s book Beyond Liberal and Conservative, published by the Cato Institute), only about half of the American voters share either the Republican or the Democratic ideologies. However sincere this half may be in its views, its views get heard, its proponents win political advancement, only because the interests of the ruling class are served thereby. (And again, by the ruling class I do not have in mind a conscious conspiracy — though such conspiracies do sometimes occur, being made easier by concentrations of power — but rather a coincidence of interests that tends almost automatically to perpetuate itself.)
Reasons for Optimism
If we abolish the state, will the ruling class vanish along with it? Or will the ruling class survive (or a new ruling class emerge) and succeed in reestablishing the power of the state?
The political class would certainly perish together with the state; but what of the corporate class?
It is generally agreed that a ruling class and a powerful state are mutually reinforcing influences; a powerful state bolsters the power of the ruling class, while the ruling class uses its power and influence to maintain the state. But are these causal connections ironclad laws of natural sociology, ones that we can do nothing about, or are they mere tendencies that can be kept in check by sufficient vigilance?
Class analysis has traditionally taken two forms. The socialist version, pioneered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henri de Saint-Simon, and Karl Marx, holds that the ruling class is the dominant factor; the ruling class does not need a powerful state in order to arise, but will arise spontaneously from free competition; once it has arisen, it creates or captures the state apparatus in order to pursue its goals. Once socialist radicals get their hands on the state apparatus and use it to abolish free competition, the ruling class will vanish, and the state will have no tendency to breed a new ruling class, but can instead be used for enlightened ends.
The classical liberal version of class analysis, pioneered by Adam Smith, Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer, Augustin Thierry, Benjamin Tucker, and Lysander Spooner, holds a diametrically opposed position. A ruling class does not arise through free competition; it is created by state power. So long as a powerful state remains in place, abolishing the ruling class will do no good, since it will simply be replaced by another. Thus the socialists attempt to resolve the problem by focusing their attack on private economic power, while the classical liberals tend to focus their attack instead on centralized political power. For the socialists, we do not need to worry too much about the state, so long as we eliminate socioeconomic stratification; for the classical liberals, we do not need to worry too much about socioeconomic stratification, so long as we severely curtail the power of the state.
On the model below, a thick dark arrow between A and B suggests a strong causal correlation (i.e., A makes B overwhelmingly likely, and B is heavily dependent on A), while a thin dotted arrow suggests a weak correlation. (A more optimistic analysis would make both arrows weak, suggesting that the feedback between socioeconomic stratification and political power is not much of a problem at all; a more pessimistic analysis would make both arrows strong, suggesting that the problem is basically insoluble.)
I think there are good reasons to accept the classical liberal model. Political power magnifies the influence of the wealthy, thus turning them into a powerful élite (see my “Who’s the Scrooge,” Formulations, Vol. I, No. 2, and “The Decline and Fall of Private Law in Iceland,” Formulations, Vol. I, No. 3); but in the absence of a state, competition would serve to keep such power in check. I would thus draw a strong arrow from political power to socioeconomic stratification, but only a weak arrow from socioeconomic stratification to political power.
Now a weak arrow is not the same thing as no arrow at all; the tendency is there, and needs to be guarded against. Still, economic analysis suggests that the ruling class is primarily a creation of the state and not vice versa.
Reasons for Pessimism
Yet there is a fly in the ointment. The city-states of the ancient world — I am thinking of Greek cities like Athens, Sparta, and Corinth, as well as Rome during the early Republican period — had surprisingly weak and decentralized governments, with nothing we would recognize as a police force. (A regular police force was not introduced in Rome until the time of Augustus, the first Emperor.) Yet these city-states were class societies, with a powerful and effective ruling class. Where did the power of the ruling class come from, if not from a powerful state?
The historian M. I. Finley has studied this question, and come to the conclusion that the ruling classes maintained their power through the device of patronage:
“The ancient city-state had no police other than a relatively small number of publicly owned slaves at he disposal of the different magistrates [and] the army was not available for large-scale police duties until the city-state was replaced by a monarchy. … The ancient city-state was a citizen militia, in existence as an army only when called up for action against the external world. [Yet] a Greek city-state or Rome was normally able to enforce governmental decisions …. If Greek and Roman aristocrats were neither tribal chieftains nor feudal war lords, then their power must have rested on something else … their wealth and the ways in which they could disburse it.” (M. I. Finley, Politics in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 18-24, 45.)
In effect, the wealthy classes kept control by buying off the poor. Each wealthy family had a large following of commoners who served their patrons’ interests (e.g., supporting aristocratic policies in the public assembly) in exchange for the family’s largess.
Finley offers the following example from Athens:
“[Solon established] the right given to a third party to intervene in a lawsuit on behalf of someone who had been wronged. … No classical state ever established a sufficient governmental machinery by which to secure the appearance of a defendant in court or the execution of a judgment in private suits. Reliance on self-help was therefore compulsory and it is obvious that such a situation created unfair advantages whenever the opponents were unequal in the resources they could command. The Solonic measure and [similar] Roman institutions … were designed to reduce the grosser disparities, characteristically by a patronage device rather than by state machinery.” (Finley, p. 107.)
This aristocratic device of offering to defend the suits of the poor and weak has been used in more recent societies too as a means of consolidating power. Consider the case of mediæval England:
“Two factors prepared the stage [for political centralization]. First, the constant threat of foreign invasion, particularly the Danes, had concentrated power in the hands of England’s defenders. Second, the influence of Christianity imbued the throne with a godly quality, allowing kings to claim a divine mandate. Onto this stage strode Alfred, king of Wessex, during the last quarter of the ninth century. [Alfred] volunteered to champion the cause of the weak — for a fee. Weak victims sometimes found it difficult to convince their much stronger offenders to appear before the court. Kings balanced the scales by backing the claims of such plaintiffs. This forced brazen defendants to face the court, where they faced the usual fines plus a surcharge that went to the king for his services. [This] made enforcing the law a profitable business. King Alfred, strengthened by threat of invasion and emboldened by his holy title, assumed the duty of preventing all fighting within his kingdom. He did this by extending the special jurisdiction which the king had always exercised over his own household to cover the old Roman highways and eventually the entire kingdom.” (Tom Bell, “Polycentric Law,” Humane Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1991/92, p.
By beginning the process of political centralization in England, King Aelfred (or Alfred) paved the way for the loss of English liberty; for when the Norman invaders conquered England two centuries later, they found an embryonic centralized structure already in place for them to take over — a skeleton to which they quickly added flesh.
The passage quoted above mentions the threat of Viking invasions from Denmark as a contributor to Aelfred’s power. The threat of war played a similar role in Republican Rome. Whenever the plebeians seemed on the verge of winning too many political concessions, the patricians would endeavor to involve Rome in a war. This gave the patricians an excuse to put off the plebeians’ demands in the name of national unity. The Roman historian Livy describes a typical instance:
“[The tribunes advanced] a bill by which the people should be empowered to elect to the consulship such men as they thought fit …. The senatorial party felt that if such a bill were to become law, it could mean not only that the highest office of state would have to be shared with the dregs of society but that it would, in effect, be lost to the nobility and transferred to the commons. It was with great satisfaction, therefore, that the Senate received a report … that troops from Veii had raided the Roman frontier …. the Senate ordered an immediate raising of troops and a general mobilization on the largest possible scale … in the hope that the revolutionary proposals which the tribunes were ringing forward might be forgotten …. Canuleius [the tribune] replied … that it was useless for the consuls to try to scare the commons from taking an interest in the new proposals, and [declared] that they should never, while he lived, hold a levy [for military service] until the commons had voted on the reforms ….” (Livy, The Early History of Rome, Aubrey de Sélincourt (London: Penguin, 1988), p. 269.)
As Livy indicates, involving Rome in a war also gave the plebeians some leverage; for they could refuse to march to war until their demands were satisfied. Such situations often deteriorated into chicken games between the patricians and the plebeians: the patricians would refuse to yield, and the plebeians would refuse to arm, while the enemy marched closer and closer. Eventually one side or the other would lose nerve first; the patricians would give in and accept the tribunes’ reforms, or else the plebeians would agree to fight off the enemy without having gained the desired concessions. But the patricians must presumably have won these chicken games more often than they lost them — because it was almost always the patricians who initiated them. (Even the patricians’ losses were seldom serious. For example, the plebeians eventually won the concession to which Livy refers — the right to elect plebeians to the consulship — but thanks to an effective patronage system, the plebeians almost always elected patricians to the office anyway.)
States fight wars because those who make the decision to go to war (or create the climate that makes other nations likely to go to war against them) are distinct from those who bear the costs of the war. (The internal class structure of states thus makes it a mistake to treat potentially adversarial states as if they faced incentives to cooperate analogous to those faced by potentially adversarial individuals.) We’ve seen in the Roman case that the ruling class can use war to advance its agenda even in the absence of strong centralized power.
Even in the modern nation-state, which does not suffer from a lack of centralized power, the influence of the ruling class depends at least as much on old-style patronage as on the direct use of force. As the sixteenth-century classical liberal Étienne de la Boétie, in his classic Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, pointed out, no government can wield enough force to subdue an unwilling populace; thus even the absolutist monarchy of Renaissance France rested in the end on patronage:
“It is not the troops on horseback, it is not the companies afoot, it is not arms that defend the tyrant. This does not seem credible on first thought, but it is nevertheless true that there are only four or five who maintain the dictator, four or five who keep the country in bondage to him. Five or six have always had access to his ear, and have either gone to him of their own accord, or else have been summoned by him, to be accomplices in his cruelties, companions in his pleasures, panders to his lusts, and harers in his plunders. … The six have six hundred who profit under them …. The six hundred maintain under them six thousand, whom they promote in rank, upon whom they confer the government of provinces or the direction of finances …. And whoever is pleased to unwind the skein will observe that not the six thousand but a hundred thousand, and even millions, cling to the tyrant by this cord to which they are tied.” (Étienne de la Boétie, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, trans. Harry Kurz (New York: Free Life Editions, 1975), pp. 77-78.)
The question, then, is this: Since economic inequalities would no doubt arise under libertarian anarchy — and since patronage appears to be an effective tool for maintaining class privilege even in the absence of a powerful state — would the rich not be able, in a market anarchist society, to attain the status of a ruling class by buying off the poor, thus enabling the rich to reestablish a powerful state?<
I do not feel that I have reached a completely satisfactory solution to this problem; and I welcome suggestions and debate on this topic. But it strikes me that patronage might pose less of a threat to a stateless legal order in a modern, industrialized, commercial society than in ancient Rome or mediæval England. Perhaps such earlier stateless or nearly-stateless societies failed to develop in a libertarian direction because there was only a fixed pie of resources to fight over. My hope is that the release of creative energy made possible by the Industrial Revolution, together with the rapid increase in standard of living which resulted for the working classes, and the accompanying social mobility that upset traditional hierarchies, has made a ruling class impossible without the aid of a centralized state.
The increasing pluralization of society may be a positive factor as well. In the passage on King Aelfred quoted earlier, Tom Bell noted that religious ideas about royal authority helped the English kings to centralize their power. Religion was a similar factor in Rome, where the patricians were also the priestly class, being the only ones permitted to take the auspices. We find a similar development in mediæval Iceland, where the godhar who ruled by patronage were also priests — first pagan and later Christian. In a society characterized by religious uniformity, it is much easier for a single group to claim a religious (or other traditional) sanction for its authority. By contrast, in modern society, with its religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity, it would be much harder for any single group to demand allegiance — except for the state, which remains the one universally accepted god. Once faith in the state falls, perhaps a would-be ruling class will be unable to find a cultural base on which to reestablish monocentric law.