The Ruling Class

Two years ago, at the blog Freedom Democrats, I argued that TARP and the bailouts were going to infuse the popular political dialogue with “class consciousness.” By class consciousness, I didn’t mean the standard tripe of income classification or the color of one’s shirt collar at work, but one rather one rooted in the ruling class vs the ruled class. This was contra to the wisdom being spouted off by much of the mainstream political punditry at the time that viewed the government intervention as signaling a new accepted ascendancy of an elite political class. In other words, a new era of “Progressive Corporatism,” to borrow a phrase from David Brooks.

While in practice we are indeed experiencing a new era of this “progressive corporatism,” it is also true that language of “class theory” has taken firm root in the political critique. And it’s a critique that spans the political spectrum, whether conservative, progressive/liberal, or libertarian. It’s a trivial exercise to reference the growing class critique in libertarianism. Rather I will note two recent class critiques: one from a conservative side, the other from a progressive side.

The American Spectator:
America’s Ruling Class — And the Perils of Revolution

Salon(Glenn Greewald):
The Real U.S. Government

Let’s examine the American Spectator version. The author, Angelo M. Codevilla, correctly notes that the passage of TARP gave prominence to the language of the “political class,” and the ad hoc bailouts lent prominence to the language of the “ruling class”(which is the nexus of political and corporate interests). Codevilla correctly observes that both Republicans and Democrats “show a similar presumption to dominate and fewer differences in tastes, habits, opinions, and sources of income among one another than between both and the rest of the country. They think, look, and act as a class.” I’m somewhat in agreement with Codevilla’s critique of the meritocracy of the political class. However, Codevilla’s critique of meritocracy is a hardly a conservative insight. I list a progressive blog, Stop Me before I Vote Again, that makes a living mocking the meritocracy class of corporate liberalism.

But Codevilla’s analysis soon begins to go astray when he nonetheless begins casting class conflict in terms of communitarian politics. I should remind Codevilla that progressivism originally arose out the Republican Party and to cast the class conflict as being between the Democratic Party and the “Country Class” is nonsense for many reasons. From communitarian politics, it should be noted that yes, the Democratic Party has entrenched identity elite politics, but all the elitists go to church and prayer breakfasts and revere the military. The government has waged continual war on Drugs, pornography, and even video games. Many of the underclasses of the Democratic identity groups are in jail or at risk of being imprisoned. The Republican underclasses, the so-called country class, hasn’t had to bear the same burden of elite rule. In other words, it can be argued the Dem Party screws over it’s own constituencies much worse than the so-called “country class.”

In many ways the Karl Rove strategy for permanent GOP rule was dependent on maximizing turnout of this “country class.” When the reign of Bush discredited the GOP, many conservatives, with the election of Obama, feared that the brunt of elite rule would begin to fall on this very “country class.” Thus, I think this essay, which attempts to expound on class theory, in the end, fails, and can be labeled as reactionary.

At Freedom Democrats I argued that in order to have a resurgence of radical politics, a radicalism based on “class consciousness,” we would need a transcendence of communitarian politics. The likes of Codevilla trying to cast class politics into those who stand proud at the playing of The Star Spangled Banner versus those who wince is Exhibit A of the point I was trying to make.

Let’s turn to Glenn Greenwald’s recent essay. Greenwald is a former lawyer who made a name for himself criticizing the civil libertarian abuses of the Bush Administration. However, when it became clear that the Obama Admin was more or less the third term of Bush, or worse, the second term of Dick Cheney, Greenwald’s rhetoric began to take on the more radical tone of class theory. Thusly, unlike the likes of Kos, Greenwald’s concern with civil liberties was not a partisan wedge issue, but, in fact, genuine. Unlike Kos’ phony “libertarian Democrat” manifesto, Greenwald’s interactions with libertarian outlets, such as, or the now defunct blog, The Art of the Possible, were genuine. Although there are progressive and liberals at the margin who are critics of Obama and the Democrats, it’s safe to say that Greenwald’s writings, particularly as they have shifted to a rhetoric of class theory, have had a major impact on the progressive crack-up.

Greenwald’s latest piece, commenting on the Washington Post’s series on the “sprawling, unaccountable, inexorably growing secret U.S. Government” under the National Security State is a gem of a radical writing. Before Bush, I was a typical Cato-type libertarian with a strong civil libertarian streak. It was the Patriot Act, even more than the Iraq War, that turned me into a radical libertarian and an anarchist. The establishment of a formal stasi internal security bureaucracy that enwraps domestic law enforcement isn’t going to end well. Any idiot should be able to see this. You are going from mere “Public Choice” to outright radical class theory. In the end, what is the function of a vast internal security apparatus? It is to protect power; it is to enforce obedience to power by fear.

TARP and the Bailouts should have given some clues. The fact is under Bush and Obama, the US Government is in the process of consolidating the 4 monopolies described by Benjamin Tucker. And now there is a vast internal security bureaucratic apparatus to enforce it. Get a clue, people. You can’t reform this.

In a sense, then, I agree with the conclusion of Codevilla at the end of his essay, although for different reasons. You can’t reform the ruling class. It would take a dictator, and, in such a case, the cure would be worse than the disease. It requires a revolution without imposition; that is, a revolution at the bottom; that is, an evolution. That is to say, an evolution of new institutions out the failure of political institutions. But put away the battle hymns, the flags and the salutes. The evolution is of a “free class,” not of a “country class.”

8 thoughts on “The Ruling Class

  1. Hey Kal/dL,

    This post (specifically, the Greenwald stuff) inspired a little rambling post on my own blog, connecting the National Security State to the recent hype about “cyberwar”.

    As for Codevilla, I read about half of his article and had to put it down before I got sick of his subtly but constantly shifting definition of “the ruling class”. I see this rhetorical strategy a lot from conservative propagandists (it is probably more widespread, but they are just so blatant about it). They shift back and forth between a broad definition of their enemy (e.g. “liberals”, “the ruling class”) and a narrow definition. The broad definition makes it seem like the enemy is everywhere and controls everything, while the narrow definition makes them seem more extremist or foreign. Codevilla somehow pretends that the “country elite” (e.g. oilmen and big farmers) are somehow separate from the political elite, with their fancy degrees and big cities. He unconvincingly tries to dismiss the role of money in the making of the ruling class. I sometimes think that all we need to do is get people like Codevilla talking with the people who advocate for campaign finance limitations, and if could see each other’s points, then they’d have a full picture of the ruling class.

    There’s one more statement by Codevilla that I have to comment on: the humanities do not rule the university. If anything, they are the poor step-brother of the sciences. At least at the level of PhD students, science students get to live off of research grants while doing their dissertations (which are research), while the humanities students have to scrounge for support, often having to spend a lot of time teaching undergrads, distracting from their dissertation research. As with undergrads, after graduating, science students have much better job opportunities than humanities students.

    The only reason that the humanities might have more influence than the sciences is that many members of the ruling class — lawyers, politicians, businessmen, princes — tend to take more humanities classes than science classes.

    1. hey, man, good to hear from you…

      You know my opinion of “cyber-security;” when the government is talking about it, it’s largely a code word for copyright and digital piracy.

      One of things I bitched about(well, everyone, really) at Freedom Democrats was this burgeoning National Security apparatus being used as a security arm for politically connected corporations: the corporate national security state. Over here, I have attached a name to it: National Corporatism. And I think, and you would probably agree, that this form of political governance has an underlying conservative cultural basis to it; this culture, in many ways, is the culture of the “country class.” What Codevilla neglected to mention is that this “country class” is thoroughly nationalistic…

    2. Ricketson,
      You said almost exactly what I wanted to say about the Codevilla article, except the last time I tried, I degenerated into sputtering incoherence. I’m an even tempered man but he really did press all my buttons.
      I’d like to make one very minor quibble: while the sciences are better off than the humanities, the pure sciences are very much second fiddle to engineering. That’s where the really big research grants tend to be. I suppose these days though that everything comes second to the institution’s business school, except perhaps the football team.

      1. “pure sciences are very much second fiddle to engineering. That’s where the really big research grants tend to be.”

        True. Three cheers for the DoD!

        After my previous comment, I noticed that Codevila is a Professor emeritus of International Relations. So, he must have some experience with this issue, but I still can’t fathom what he means.

        I mentioned his claim to a friend, who’se snide remark is better than anything that I can think of: scientists and engineers have better things to do than sit on faculty senate.

        If I try to translate that thought so that it isn’t disparaging, I come to suspect that the faculty of the humanities and social sciences tend to have more political/social influence simply because that is their area of expertise. They care about it and they have well-articulated opinions about it.

        But at the end of the day, all that time spent politicking doesn’t necessarily compensate for their lack of funds.

  2. I should note that there have been quite a few libertarians/libertarian economists who have, since the original publication of this post, come out with effusive praise of Codevilla’s essay. For example, Robert Higgs called Codevilla’s essay the best characterization of American Political class conflict that he has ever read. In fact, other than Arnold Kling, who agreed with my assessment that the piece was largely reactionary, I haven’t seen any criticism of it. It’s all been effusive praise.

    The fact is, Codevilla’s essay is easily debunked. There is a simple empirical problem that “Red States,” the primary home of this country class, are net tax feeders on the Federal Government. The “Blue States” are net federal tax losers. The Country Class is thoroughly nationalistic, and it is this conservative, nationalistic culture which culturally underlies the National Security State, or the Permanent War Economy. Anyone who is familiar with the origins of class theory, from the radical french liberal tradition, knows that it originated out the critique of the Napoleonic Permanent War Economy.

    While I expect conservatives to despise left-wing communitarianism, it’s somewhat clear that quite a few libertarians despise it as well, to the point of incoherence. Does anyone actually think left-wing political correctness drives class conflict. As I pointed out, the ruling class, at least publicly, is very conservative. Everyone goes to church, everyone attends prayer breakfasts, everyone condemns sex and violence in popular culture, everyone reveres the military and anyone in uniform. It is one aspect of the “pink police State” that I refer to from time to time. This one aspect is a culture that is officially very conservative, but unofficially not so conservative.

    I plan to write one more follow-up to my posts on the “Ruling Class.” The Communitarian Divide. The left-wing, right-wing communitarian diversion will result in a pink police state overlaying the political corporatism of a permanent war, compliance economy.

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