The Ruling Class

The words “ruling class” conjure a group of older, rich, typically white, men sitting in overstuffed chairs in their private club discussing and deciding the future of US domestic and foreign policies. Better yet, images of an annual gathering in a private wooded area spring to mind, with the same wealthy codgers prancing around bonfires and indulging their fantasies before retiring to cigars and cognac and deliberation.

To augment these representations, film directors like Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game), Luis Bunuel (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), and Peter Medak (The Ruling Class) have sought to provide vivid, often comical narrative flesh to the manners and fashions of those who are said to decide our fate—the ruling class.

But this is not what Marxists mean by “ruling class.” They do not deny that wealth and power come together from time to time, both socially and to do business, but Marxists would be hard pressed to name all the names and locate the seats of power.

For Marxists, the idea of the ruling class is the answer to an enigma: How does a relatively small segment of the population impose its will over everyone else? How could a tiny minority advance its interests ahead of the interests of the majority? And how could that minority do it not once, not occasionally, but systematically?

By asking these questions, we open the door to envisioning an alternative arrangement, an arrangement that would place the will and interests of the majority first. But first we must provide an answer.

Behind the words “ruling class,” Marxists find the secret of elite rule in a complex system of social relations and processes that compel, control, confuse, or secure consent, while frustrating any attempt to rebel. Ingenious mechanisms– electoral pageantry, entertainments, competitions, contrived identities, insatiable consumption, and a host of other distractions– deflect the majority from the question of who should rule. And should some get the bold idea of rejecting this machinery of consent, there are instruments of repression: the police and the judiciary.

These systems of contrived consent and coercion are posed as elements and guardians of “civil society,” when, in fact, they protect the interests of a minority of the super rich and protect them, their minions, and servants from any challenges from the many. Money and its influence fuel these mechanisms; from elections to movies, from lifestyles to consumption, the hand of an unseen class shapes the direction.

Like an electron, the ruling class is studied from its traces. While we cannot see or touch electrons, we know they exist from their relationship and influence upon other particles and processes. That is, their footprint is evidence for their existence. Similarly, the ruling class footprint is all over the social, political, and economic world.

History teaches that nothing beneficial to the great majority comes without a struggle. Why would this be? Who stands in the way of the majority will?

The answer should be apparent: the class that rules by virtue of its accumulated wealth and the power that it buys.

Bourgeois Democracy

“Bourgeois democracy” and “capitalist democracy” are terms that pose the fundamental question of “democracy for whom?” The terms remind us that the belief that there is some kind of pure democracy, a democracy that affords everyone an equal voice in decisions is only attainable when all the advantages of wealth and power are removed from decision-making processes.

Thus, in capitalist society– what Marx meant by “bourgeois society”– the wealthy are able to multiply the influence of their sole votes in the democratic process by “buying” elections. They use their ownership of the media, their influence over legislation, their command over political parties, and their vetting of candidates to ensure democracy for the few. The mechanisms for capturing electoral power are, of course, money and ownership.

Despite boastful claims of delivering democracy, the electoral systems of Europe and the US present outcomes that consistently favor the wealthy and their wealth-producing corporations. And when something resembling the popular will arises, it is quickly smothered with an outpouring of media demagoguery and the enticement to compromise. The rare electoral ascent of popular rule invariably faces naked, unabashed repression by the wealthy through their organs of coercion. One only has to review the fascist takeovers and military coups of the twentieth century to understand the limits of bourgeois democracy.

The deception of bourgeois democracy is not that the rules are not fair; in principle, anyone could be elected to an office. Rather, the deception is that everyone has the same possibility of winning an election. Trusted candidates supported by great corporations have an infinitely greater chance of winning against a candidate armed only with integrity and a commitment to social justice.

And throughout the capitalist world, corporations support only candidates who are loyal to the bourgeois system. Today, the labor movement alone could marshal resources that even remotely challenge a corporate-sponsored campaign; sadly, most of the labor leadership is content to cast those resources before the corporate candidate who is less offensive to working people. And corporate candidates have the incentive to only marginally appear closer to representing the working class.

It is irresponsibly cynical to believe that nothing good can be accomplished within a regime of bourgeois democracy; and it is delusional to believe that fundamental change can be accomplished with bourgeois democracy intact. Reforms– important reforms– are possible with a bourgeois democratic government. But fundamental change in the balance of forces between the rich and the rest of us is impossible without fighting to replace it with working class democracy.

Moreover, the transitional period between bourgeois democracy and proletarian or working class democracy is inherently unstable. Only one class can rule until classes are finally abolished.

Idealists and utopians constantly imagine a smooth exchange of the reins of rule through the bourgeois democratic electoral process. They see the wealthy and powerful recognize defeat and pass the keys of governance on to the representatives of working people. History knows of no such event.

That doesn’t mean that working class democracy can’t be approached through the bourgeois democratic process. It only means that working people must be prepared to meet every challenge, every reaction mounted to workers’ power. Invariably the foes of change will react– that’s why they’re called “reactionaries.”

Games of chance, like the institutions of bourgeois democracy– representative elections, formal legal systems, decentralization of power, etc– are not inherently unfair. In theory, they give everyone a reasonable opportunity for success. That is their appeal. But in practice, the poker player with far greater stakes will inevitably win. Similarly, bourgeois democracy guarantees that those with the great bankrolls will dominate the game of politics unless they are forced to play a different game.

State-Monopoly Capitalism

“State-monopoly capitalism” is one of the least-well understood ideas of Marxism; yet it is one of the most important.

Marxists understand that for most of the last century capitalism has become more and more monopolized with a shrinking number of enterprises in all of the key industries. This process has resulted in fewer and fewer giant enterprises absorbing or dissolving smaller, less competitive rivals– the process of merger and acquisition. Old industries like mining, steel, auto, and other manufacturing have grown more concentrated, as have newer technology-based industries like telecommunications and computers.

Some have mistakenly asserted that the Marxist theory of monopoly capital implies that only one or a few enterprises will dominate every industry in time. It does not.

It does predict that the process of greater and greater concentration of capital in the leading enterprises located within an industry will continually be a feature of capitalism. It also implies that the cost of entry– the amount of capital needed to start up an enterprise– will grow greater and more prohibitive over time in those industries that have achieved maturity. Thus, it is the process of concentration that is revealed by the theory and not the status of individual enterprises in the capitalist hierarchy. Marx’s colleague Frederick Engels put this point well when he exposed the logic behind this process: “Competition is based on self-interest, and self-interest in turn breeds monopoly. In short, competition passes over into monopoly.” Engels affirms that competition will continue, further leading to even greater concentration.

But along with the concentration of capital, another process is at work: the continual merging of monopoly capital with the bourgeois state. The state will play a larger and larger role in the destiny of monopoly capital and, conversely, monopoly capital will obtain a greater and greater role in the operation and direction of the state.

This process– the underlying expression of state-monopoly capitalism– is exemplified every day and in every way. The bail-out of financial institutions while mortgagees are thrown under the bus illustrates well the “ownership” of the state by big capital and the disdain of the state for the people. The regulatory agencies of the state grease the operations of monopoly capital while paying little head to the people’s interest. The coercive arms of the state function to protect and expand the corporate horizon abroad and protect property and bourgeois values at home. The state establishes secretive and undemocratic trade agreements and global institutions that protect and promote monopoly corporations from the restraints of regional and national interests. The doors of big capital and government swing both ways as their respective leaders change places.

The political Right rails against big government, laying every social and economic ill at government’s doorstep. This is, of course, absurd, but not because government is a benign or neutral arbiter of the people’s interests, as liberals want to suggest. The idea that government “bureaucrats” possess some deep-seated evil intent to cause mischief on individuals, businesses, and the economy strains the last thread of credibility. They have no common interest to buttress such a conspiratorial view. The rightist anti-government position is simply the disguise for shilling for monopoly capital.

On the other hand, the liberal position that government stands as a neutral arbiter and guardian of the rights of man is an equal absurdity. Moreover, opinion polls of confidence in government institutions– notably Congress– show that the US population knows that it is absurd. The responses of “a great deal” and “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress together barely reach double digits in recent Gallup polls, a showing even below that of the banks.

Election reform, term limits, and the other panaceas will fail to break the solid weld of monopoly capital to the state; only the evisceration of monopoly capital will break that connection.

The Interplay of the Three Ideas

The three Marxist ideas discussed above share many features and interact profoundly with one another. Bourgeois democracy is an instrument of class rule in the era of capitalism, an instrument of the capitalist ruling class. In other eras, ruling classes sustained their rule with other mechanisms.

State-monopoly capitalism is the expression of the most recent, mature stage of capitalist development, a stage that brings with it the most corrupted, crisis-ridden expression of bourgeois democracy.

While the ruling class maintains a stranglehold on governance in this era, its democratic veneer is constantly eroded; more and more of the governed recognize bourgeois democracy as thinly disguised, but naked rule by the wealthy and powerful. At the same time, state-monopoly capitalism exhausts its means to avoid or moderate economic decline or stagnation.

The maturation of these political and economic contradictions generates a revolutionary crossroads, a moment when working people must choose between veritable slavery or taking the reins of power.