Jacobin - April 2021

Fish rots from the head, they say, and it’s tempting to think the same about US society. We’ve always had a brutal ruling class — more brutal at certain times (the years of slavery and Jim Crow) than others (the New Deal). But despite the brutality, there was usually a great economic and cultural dynamism. That now seems long past, and I’m not just talking about the era of Trump and the coronavirus. Something has gone badly wrong at the top of this society, and all of us are suffering for it.

Back in the George W. Bush years, I began thinking the US ruling class had entered a serious phase of rot. After a round of tax cuts skewed toward the very rich, Bush and his cronies launched a horribly destructive and expensive war on Iraq that greatly damaged the reputation and finances of the United States on its own imperial terms.

The president and his cronies seemed reckless, vain, and out of control. Bush adviser Karl Rove dismissed the critiques of “the reality-based community,” with its conclusions drawn from “the judicious study of discernible reality.” Instead, Rove asserted, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” One waited in vain for the grown-ups to appear on the scene and right the imperial ship, but, if they existed at all, they were too busy celebrating their tax cuts and pumping up the housing bubble to bother.

... Capitalists have long been driven by shortsightedness and greed. But it feels like we’ve entered what Christian Parenti calls the necrotic phase of American capitalism.

Lest anyone misunderstand, this isn’t an argument for a better elite or a “true” meritocracy; it’s ultimately an argument for a different society, one not dependent on the rule of plutocrats and their hired hands.

A core concept of Marxism is class struggle, but the tradition exhibits a strange dearth of investigation of the ruling class. When I first started getting interested in elite studies, I asked the Marxist political scientist Bertell Ollman whose writing he liked on the issue. He thought a moment and said, “Marxists don’t write about the ruling class.” When I asked why not, he said, “They think it’s obvious.”

You could say the ruling class is the capitalist class, of course, but what does that mean? CEOs of Fortune 500 companies? Their shareholders, to whom they allegedly answer? What about the owner of a chain of franchised auto parts stores in the Midwest? The owner may be able to get his congressperson on the phone — a senator might be harder — to get a tax break slipped unobtrusively into a larger bill, but what influence does he have over larger state policy? Are car dealers part of the ruling class? If so, what about new versus used? And what about someone like Henry Kissinger, a man who started as a clever functionary and ended up shaping US foreign policy in much of the 1970s, and who still has an influence over how diplomats and politicians think? How about less grand politicians and high government officials? Are they employees of the ruling class or its partners — or shapers, even? It’s not at all obvious.

... One way to approach the question of a ruling class is through Italian elite theory, namely the work of Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and Robert Michels. In his four-volume warhorse , Pareto laid out a clear vision of society:

Ignoring exceptions, which are few in number and of short duration, one finds everywhere a governing class of relatively few individuals that keeps itself in power partly by force and partly by the consent of the subject class, which is much more populous.

To preserve its power, that governing class must be “adept in the shrewd use of chicanery, fraud, corruption.”

Individual governing elites do not last: “History is a graveyard of aristocracies,” Pareto declared. Contributing to their passing is a loss in vigor, an effect of the decadence of the well-established and the failure to invigorate the stock by recruiting from below. For Pareto, a healthy governing class is able to absorb the leaders of the “governed” and thereby neutralize them. “Left without leadership, without talent, disorganized, the subject class is almost always powerless to set up any lasting régime.” (Karl Marx said something similar: “The more a ruling class is able to assimilate the foremost minds of a ruled class, the more stable and dangerous becomes its rule.”) But if the governing class is overcome by “humanitarian sentiments” and is unable to absorb the natural leaders of the oppressed, it could be overthrown, especially if “the subject class contains a number of individuals disposed to use force.”...
Read full commentary at Jacobin