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What is the Ruling Class? by Sean Gabb

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  • Dr Sean Gabb
    Free Life Commentary, A Personal View from The Director of the Libertarian Alliance Issue Number 183 28th May 2009 Linking url:
    Message 1 of 1 , May 28, 2009
      Free Life Commentary,
      A Personal View from
      The Director of the Libertarian Alliance
      Issue Number 183
      28th May 2009
      Linking url: http://www.seangabb.co.uk/flcomm/flc183.htm
      Available for debate on LA Blog at
      Comments| Trackback

      What is the Ruling Class?
      By Sean Gabb
      A Paper Given on Sunday the 24th May 2009
      to the Fourth Annual Conference
      of the Property and Freedom Society
      in the Hotel Karia Princess in Bodrum, Turkey

      In giving this paper, I make no pretence to originality of thought.
      Everything I am saying today has been said already – usually better, and
      always in greater detail – by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, by Roderick Long, by
      Kevin Carson, by Christian Michel, and by many others. If I can
      contribute anything to the libertarian analysis of class, it is brevity

      Libertarians often define a ruling class as that group of politicians,
      bureaucrats, lawyers, businessmen, therapists, educators and media people
      who derive income and position from the State. By definition, so far as
      such people operate as members of a ruling class, they are parasitic on
      the efforts of ordinary people. Their position comes from forcing others
      to act as they would not freely choose, or by excluding them from
      activities they might freely choose. Their income is based on forced
      transfers of wealth.

      The size and activities of a ruling class will be determined by the
      physical resources it can extract from the people, by the amount of force
      it can use against them, and by the nature and acceptance of the ideology
      that legitimises its existence. None of these determinants by itself will
      be decisive, but each is a necessary factor. Change any one, and the
      working of the other two will be limited or wholly checked.

      Of these determinants, the ideological are the most open to control and
      change. In the short term, resources are fixed in quantity. At any time,
      the amount of force available will be limited. What will always interest
      ruling classes, therefore, is the nature and acceptance of its
      legitimising ideology. This will vary according to circumstances that are
      not fully within the control of any ruling class. It may involve averting
      the Divine Wrath, or promoting acceptance of the True Faith, or
      protecting the nation from external or external enemies, or raising the
      condition of the poor, or making us healthier, or saving the planet from
      us. The claims of the ideology may, in other times and places, seem
      unfounded or insane. What they generally have in common is the need for
      an active state directed by the right sort of people.

      Since the function of these ideologies is to justify theft or murder or
      both, they need to be promoted by endless repetition – which is a valid
      form of argument if truth is less important than winning – and by at
      least the discouragement of dissent. Efficient promotion will produce a
      discourse – this being the acceptance of a language and of habits of
      thought in which dissent cannot be expressed without also conceding its
      immorality. Efficient promotion will also produce a state of almost
      universal false consciousness – in which ordinary people are brought to
      accept ideological claims as true that are opposed to their own interests
      as these might be reasonably considered.

      Now, to speak of ruling classes, and in these terms, will often produce a
      strongly hostile reaction from libertarians and from conservatives. In
      the first place, it sounds like Marxism. Indeed, in summarising my own
      beliefs about a ruling class, I have deliberately borrowed terms from the
      Marxist theory of class – “discourse”, “false consciousness”, “class
      consciousness”. This is sure to disturb many – and perhaps many in this
      room. For at least three generations, our movement was at ideological war
      with Marxism. We did all we could to refute its claims and to spread the
      truth about its consequences wherever it was tried. To use its language
      to express broadly similar concepts will appear to be making concessions
      that amount to intellectual surrender.

      In the second place, many libertarians deny that the concept of a ruling
      class has any meaning in our own world. In 1605, for example, Guy Fawks
      and his fellow conspirators tried to blow up Parliament while it was
      being opened by the King. If they had succeeded, they would have killed
      the King and the whole of the senior aristocracy and the leaders of the
      Established Church and – give or take a few nominees – the leading men of
      every shire and town in England. At one stroke, they would have killed
      around seven hundred men, and this would have snuffed out the whole of
      the English ruling class.

      And this was a ruling class. Its members were largely there by virtue of
      birth. They were often related to each other. They shared a common
      education. They dressed differently and spoke differently from those over
      whom they ruled. Generally, they were cleaner. They were committed to the
      Protestant faith and to the land settlement of Henry VIII. Their class
      consciousness was expressed in countless ways, and was reflected in their
      language. They spoke of “persons of quality” or “persons of gentle birth”
      or of “gentlemen”.

      In England or America today, whatever I call the ruling class is far
      larger and has far less apparent unity. I have defined it as a group of
      politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, businessmen, therapists, educators and
      media and business people. Perhaps I should just call these a gathering
      of groups, united only in their competition for power and income via the
      State, and each with a different legitimising ideology. Perhaps they are
      best compared not to the undoubted ruling class of Jacobean England, but
      to the members of a French bus queue. The common defining characteristic
      of these latter is that they all want to get on the bus. But it plainly
      serves no analytical or propagandistic purpose to define them on these
      grounds as a class.

      Then there is the problem of collective action. Members of a supposed
      ruling class, for example – just as of a cartel – have personal interests
      as well as group interests. The former will often be more pressing than
      the latter; and the tendency over time will be for the rich and powerful
      to preach class solidarity while undermining it in their behaviour.

      I will deal with the second of these objections in a moment. The first is
      easily answered. There is nothing specifically Marxist about the analysis
      of class and of class conflict. The Wealth of Nations is largely an
      exercise in class analysis. In France, J.B. Say was the father of a whole
      school of classical liberal class theory that was developed by, among
      others, Charles Compte, Charles Dunoyer and Augustin Thierry. In England,
      Cobden and Bright conceived their struggles against the corn laws and
      against war in terms of a class struggle. Marxian class theory, when it
      emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century, was one theory among
      many, and not at all the most prominent or most widely accepted.

      This being said, Marxian class theory has, since then, received by far
      the most attention, and has been most fully developed. It is natural for
      many of us to feel uncomfortable about accepting any parts of this
      theory. But, if understandable, this is to be regretted. Marxism is false
      as a theory of human behaviour. But it has been developed by men of
      sometimes considerable talent and insight. To reject the incidental
      truths found by these men is rather like denouncing motorways because the
      first person to build them was Hitler. Astrology and alchemy were false
      sciences. Their claims about prediction and transformation were long ago
      falsified. Even so, the real sciences of astronomy and chemistry owe many
      incidental debts that no chemist or astronomer is ashamed to admit.

      It should be the same with libertarians and conservatives in their view
      of Marxian class theory. Marx himself, together with Marxists like
      Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser and even Michel Foucoult, have much
      to tell us, and I am not ashamed to use Marxist terminology when I think
      it suits the needs of a libertarian class theory.

      The main difference between Marxist and libertarian theories of class is
      in where each side locates the source of class power. For the Marxists,
      class power derives from ownership of the means of production. Standing
      in the tradition of Rousseau, Marx and his followers believe that mankind
      lived at first in a state of primitive communism, in which the means of
      production were held in common. This ended with the rise of a class that
      was able to take the means of production into its own possession. This
      class then set up the State as an executive committee to assist in its
      domination of everyone else. Since then, there have been successive
      revolutions as changes in the means of production have raised other
      classes to wealth, and these classes have then consolidated their own
      leading position by taking over the State.

      According to this theory, therefore, the source of class power lies in
      wealth, and political power follows from wealth. This explains the
      Marxist belief that a communist revolution, by abolishing class
      domination, will rid the State of its oppressive nature. The State may
      then be dispensed from the liberal requirements of limitation and due
      process, and can be safely used as an instrument for ending such class
      power as remained. It will then, of itself, wither away.

      This theory is manifestly false. Even without the thirty or fifty million
      corpses piled up by Marxist tyrannies in the twentieth century, it shows
      a terrible ignorance of human nature. Whether we dismiss the Marxists, in
      their main theory, as idiots or as villains depends on who is being
      discussed. But this is not to deny the incidental truths uncovered by
      Marx and his followers.

      And these can be fitted into a libertarian class theory that locates the
      source of ruling class power in the State. For us, the State is not
      something created by the already powerful. It is, instead, something
      captured by those who want to become powerful – and who cannot become
      powerful by any other means. Without a state, there can be no
      exploitation. Without a state, the only transactions would be exchanges
      of value between free individuals from which all parties benefit
      according to their own conceptions of their interests. It is the State
      that can steal and kill. It is the State that raises up or calls into
      being groups that hope to benefit from the use of these powers, and that
      then constitute a ruling class. Abolish the State – or severely limit its
      size and power – and class domination will fall to the ground. The groups
      that comprise the ruling class will either die like tapeworms in a dead
      rat, or will be forced to offer their services on terms attractive to
      willing buyers.

      I will now deal with the second libertarian objection to the concept of a
      ruling class. I accept that there is a problem of collective action. But
      this does not make an absolute refutation. For some purposes, group
      solidarity may be weaker than the pursuit of individual interests – but
      not always. Anyone who doubts this has only to look at the large number
      of young men in every generation who allow themselves – or volunteer – to
      be put into uniform and sent out to die for their country. Cartels are
      generally accepted to be conspiracies against the public interest. Class
      solidarity – so long as based on a legitimising ideology that is as
      firmly accepted by rulers as by ruled – can generally underpin collective
      action for many purposes and over long periods. Indeed, one of the sure
      signs that a ruling class has lost its will to rule is when significant
      numbers of those within it make fun of their legitimising ideology, or
      merely cease in private to believe in its truth. It is then that class
      solidarity becomes a sham, and the rulers begin to act like members of a

      I also accept that ruling classes are, in our societies, much larger and
      more diverse than in the past. But accepting its size and diversity does
      not refute the claim that there is a ruling class. It is not necessary
      for the various groups I have mentioned to agree with each other in all
      respects. There is no reason for the ruling class to be monolithic. The
      medical establishment and tax gathering bureaucrats do not agree about
      state policy on smoking. Big business may disagree with the education
      establishment about what and how children are taught. Just a few years
      ago in England, the Government and the state-owned BBC fell out very
      bitterly over the Iraq War. During such disputes, different groups within
      the ruling class may even turn for physical or moral support to groups
      far outside the ruling class. They may even, from time to time, recast
      themselves – by accepting newly attractive groups, or expelling groups
      that no longer contribute to the class as a whole, or that endanger the
      continued existence of the class as a whole.

      Even so, there is a general solidarity of interest that holds an
      effective ruling class together. No matter how they argue over the
      details of what the State is to do, its constituent groups will extend
      each other a mutual recognition of legitimacy. They agree that the State
      is a force for good, and that they are the right people to direct it.
      Their disputes will not be carried to the point where they knowingly
      undermine their overall legitimacy as a class – or the legitimacy of any
      of the constituent groups. Roderick Long has likened modern ruling
      classes to Church and State in old Europe. For the better part of a
      millennium, these institutions fought – and often bitterly – over which
      should be the predominant force in their societies. They hardly ever lost
      sight of the fact that they had a common interest in keeping the rest of
      the population subject to authority.

      Sot it is now. Anyone who has ever taken money from big business will
      surely have noticed how his paymasters have been willing to use weakened
      forms of libertarian ideology to make specific points – but have never
      shown interest in promoting libertarianism as a full agenda of attack. In
      all cases, libertarian defenders are brought in to argue for concessions
      from the taxing and regulatory groups of the ruling class. They are never
      permitted to argue against the general legitimacy of taxes or
      regulations. That would risk undermining the system from which all groups
      –even if they might lose out in the short term – derive income and
      position in the long term.

      This may be the common defining characteristic of a modern ruling class –
      a belief in the State and in the right and fitness of the groups I have
      described to direct it, and to gain income and status from their
      positions within the State. And, as in the past, class consciousness is
      reinforced by more than commonality of interest. I grant that, in America
      and to a lesser but similar extent in England, individual position is no
      longer rigidly fixed by birth, and it is common for people, wherever they
      start in life, to rise or sink according to their abilities.
      Nevertheless, we can still see families and networks of families that, in
      generation after generation, turn out individuals who occupy positions
      within the ruling class. Remember names like Toynbee and Gore and Kennedy
      and Cecil.

      Otherwise, members of the British and American ruling classes share a
      common outlook on the world that is gained by attending the same schools
      and universities, and that is maintained by small but significant
      movements from one group to another that comprise the ruling class. In
      England, for example, it is common for politicians to begin or to end
      their careers in the more privileged big business corporations or in
      other agencies that look for their existence to the State. And it is
      fairly common for people from these groups to be recruited into senior
      political or administrative positions. There may be cultural differences
      between these groups. But these are not so great as to endanger close
      cooperation between them in the common project of exploiting ordinary

      I agree that this is not an entirely satisfactory account of the ruling
      class. If I were a Marxist, it would be much easier. A member of the
      ruling class is someone who owns the means of production. I cannot supply
      an equally clear common defining characteristic. I cannot even put too
      much emphasis on the parasitic nature of a ruling class. The groups
      comprising a modern ruling class are parasites so far as they act as a
      ruling class. But they will often act both as members of a ruling class
      and as members of the productive class.

      Companies like Wallmart and Tesco, for example, are privileged
      organisations. They benefit from incorporation laws that let them exist
      in the first place, from transport subsidies that externalise their
      diseconomies of scale, from taxes and regulations that disproportionately
      harm their smaller competitors, and in many other ways. At the same time,
      they provide cheaper and better food than their customers might once have
      thought possible. The media may be a producer or and conduit for
      propaganda. At the same time, it provides entertainment that people
      appear to enjoy. The medical establishment wants to coerce us into giving
      up probably harmful things like tobacco and probably beneficial things
      like vitamin pills, and procures laws that limit patient choice. At the
      same time, it does appear to be encouraging rapid medical progress in at
      least some areas.

      Western ruling classes are not like the Soviet Nomenklatura. Many of the
      groups within these ruling classes have double functions inside and
      outside reasonably functioning market systems. Their activities are
      illegitimate only so far as they take place outside the market.

      And so, while I do believe that the concept of a ruling class has meaning
      in our societies, I cannot dispute that it has problems. Nevertheless, in
      spite of all reservations, I do believe that the concept of a ruling
      class is not wholly useless, and I do suggest that those of us who have
      so far paid it little attention might do well to give it some thought.

      NB—Sean Gabb's book, Cultural Revolution, Culture War: How Conservatives
      Lost England, and How to Get It Back, can be downloaded for free from

      Sean Gabb (away from home computer)
      Director, The Libertarian Alliance - Carbon Positive since 1979
      Tel: 07956 472 199
      Skype Username: seangabb


      Wikipedia Entry: http://tinyurl.com/23jvoz
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