Yes, Virginia, there is a ruling class
Source Louis Proyect
Date 05/03/29/11:55

The Chronicle of Higher Education Review
From the issue dated April 1, 2005
The Neglect of the American Elite


A paradox has baffled historians and citizens generally for as long as
there has been a United States of America: How can a nation consecrated to
freedom and equality nonetheless give rise to great hierarchies of power
and wealth that undermine the very foundations of that extraordinary
promise? The paradox is more pointed than that. The country is a democracy.
The people rule. And yet the people do not rule; elites, patriciates,
castes, classes have ruled in their stead. Sometimes they seem to rule with
the people's interests in mind; sometimes not.

Phrases like "ruling class" or "ruling elite" sound a discordant note. They
do not feel as though they belong in the vocabulary of American politics
and its history. After all, the very openness, fluidity, and social
heterogeneity of American society defy anything as exclusive, ongoing, and
inaccessible as a "ruling class." There is something ineffably alien about
such notions, stepchildren imported from the lingua franca of the Old World
and its sedimentary layers of titled aristocrats, landed gentry, military
castes, and dynastic families. It is a cherished American folk belief,
after all, that classes do not exist or, if they do, are always going out
of existence.

Democratic political institutions, whatever their defects, will not
tolerate a continuous monopoly of power by a tiny clique of self-anointed
overlords. And even if such usurpation might be attempted, the sheer
overwhelming tidal force of the American economy would wash it away in an
onrushing flood of new enterprise, new technology, and new sources of
wealth that would inundate the old ruling groups and either force them open
to rising elements of the middle classes or dissolve them entirely. So,
too, the ethnic promiscuity of American society, its open invitation to
people from every country and culture to come aboard and grab a share of
the American dream, inexorably wears away at the internal cohesion, that
vital complex of shared traditions, beliefs, and customs that any ruling
milieu depends on for its élan and its sense of entitlement.

Over the last quarter-century, historians have by and large ceased writing
about the role of ruling elites in the country's evolution. Or if they have
taken up the subject, they have done so to argue against its salience for
grasping the essentials of American political history. Yet there is
something peculiar about this recent intellectual aversion, even if we
accept as true the beliefs that democracy, social mobility, and economic
dynamism have long inhibited the congealing of a ruling stratum. This
aversion has coincided, after all, with one of the largest and
fastest-growing disparities in the division of income and wealth in
American history. We have all grown used to characterizing the 1980s and
1990s as the second coming of the Gilded Age. "Crony capitalism" has
re-entered our everyday political vocabulary, a term carrying unsavory
associations, suggesting the cross-fertilization of privileged economic and
political circles in open defiance of the normal protocols of democratic
politics. Since historians, like everybody else, are hardly immune to the
subtle influence of the pressing issues of their own day, even as they
burrow deep into the distant past, it is noteworthy that so few have felt
the urge of late to explore the class dimensions of power in years gone by.

That this recent neglect of the way ruling groups formed, exercised their
power, and came to an end has followed the "social-history revolution" of
the 1960s also seems peculiar. That revolution generated a remarkably
fertile outpouring of historical research and writing that focused on the
experience of oppression going all the way back to the colonial origins of
the New World and beyond. But the meticulous examination of the lives of
slaves, immigrants, industrial workers, Native Americans, impoverished
underclasses, women, disenfranchised minorities, and others has, for the
most part, not concerned itself with the social and political history of
those presumably responsible for their oppression.

However valuable and innovative such historical detective work on the
experiences of the subordinate often was (and is), it drained intellectual
attention away from the collective lives of the superordinate. Of course,
these histories treated as axiomatic the power and exploitation exercised
by upper classes, master races, and patriarchs. Beyond that, any more
intimate examination of how ruling groups coalesced, how they exercised
their authority in an ostensibly democratic political environment, how they
formulated the ideological justifications for their empowerment, how they
faced up to crises and challenges to their supremacy -- those and a dozen
other similarly intriguing questions often fell from view.

Neglecting the powerful had not been characteristic of historical work
before World War II. To the contrary, the story of the ruling elites had
preoccupied historians for a very long time. Moreover, to talk about
classes and the struggles between them was common parlance. Indeed, for the
first 150 years of the nation's life, the language of ruling and
subordinate social groups defined the contours of one of the grand
narratives of American history. Measured by the long sweep of that history,
stretching back into the colonial era, it is the recent muting of those
concerns about the concentration and exercise of power that seems odd. That
does not mean that those who once stressed such matters were right. But it
does mean that a whole set of historical metaphors and categories of
analysis once taken for granted have lost much of their legitimacy.

Beginning sometime after World War II, and with increasing force in the
wake of the Reagan "revolution," a gathering consensus concluded that
events, "History," the impersonal forces of the market, or some other
analogous abstractions rule, not classes or elites. Certainly the cultural
cold war helped stigmatize notions of "class struggle" and "ruling classes"
as so much communist verbiage, a purely propagandist rhetoric that failed
to capture the more centerless, polymorphous, and pluralist makeup of
American politics and social organization.

Yet precisely the opposite conviction runs likes a red thread through much
of the nation's past. It is virtually impossible to make sense of any of
the great epochs in American political history or of the grander chronicle
of democracy in America without coming face to face with "Tories,"
"moneycrats," "the Monster Bank," "the slaveocracy," "robber barons,"
"plutocrats," "the money trust," "economic royalists," "the Establishment,"
the "power elite," or the "military-industrial complex." All those colorful
variations echo a single theme: that, the fluid and anarchic character of
the American experience notwithstanding, organized political and social
groupings have arisen at key junctures in the country's history and have
succeeded for more or less extended periods of time in exercising broad
dominion over the nation's political economy and even its cultural and
social life.

One might view that rich imagery of the pursuit of power either as a
reproach or as a vindication of the pursuit of happiness -- a reproach
insofar as it suggests that the American promise of freedom and equality
has been a sham and a delusion, a vindication inasmuch as it implies that
democracy has been a permanent revolution, forever embattled against those
who have tried to abrogate that promise. Either way, America is depicted as
densely populated with an assortment of social groups that all seem to
behave suspiciously like ruling classes or elites.

Survey the landmarks of the national drama. Every president of enduring
reputation up to John F. Kennedy is remembered for some vital crusade
against a usurping or entrenched elite. Washington and Jefferson overthrew
the minions of the British monarchy and then fended off attempts at
aristocratic counterrevolution by homegrown Tories. Andrew Jackson waged
war against a "Monster Bank" that presumed to monopolize the credit
resources of a fledgling nation and turn enterprising citizens into its
vassals. Lincoln purged the nation of its mortal sin by extirpating the
"slaveocracy." Teddy Roosevelt unleashed rhetorical thunderbolts against
those "malefactors of great wealth" whose gargantuan corporate combines
showed no regard for the public welfare and bought and sold senators and
congressmen like so many pigs at a market. Woodrow Wilson promised, if
swept into office, to take on the "money trust," that financial octopus
whose tentacles were strangling to death the economic opportunity and
democratic independence that were every citizen's birthright. In the midst
of the greatest calamity since the Civil War, FDR chased the "money
changers from the temple" and declared that his New Deal would henceforth
police and punish the "economic royalists" who had brought on the Great
Depression. Even the mild-mannered Dwight Eisenhower left office cautioning
the country against the overweening power of the "military-industrial complex."

In the wake of the conservative intellectual ascendancy that accompanied
the rise of Ronald Reagan, however, what had once been a main current of
the country's historiography became little more than a tributary. It is
true that plenty of books have appeared over the last decade or so
revisiting the lives of legendary business titans such as Jay Gould, Edward
H. Harriman, J. Pierpont Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. But nearly
without exception, they steer clear of treating those figures as emblematic
of some ruling elite. Nowadays it may seem old-fashioned, against the
American grain, or even subversive (pace President George W. Bush's warning
that to criticize his tax cuts for the wealthy was to indulge in "class
warfare") to talk about classes, about the struggles between them, about
something as exotic and alien as a ruling elite. But it is not. The corpus
of thinking about hierarchy and democracy that extends all the way back to
the first days of the Republic has left behind a series of questions still
worth pondering.

We need to focus on the variety of economic elites that have ruled, or
attempted to rule, the nation. We need to look at the different ways in
which elites have constituted their political, ideological, and social
worlds; examine the internal fissures and external challenges that have
threatened and sometimes undermined those worlds; explore the special
problems facing elite pretensions to political power in a democracy. That
requires a focus on instability and change as integral features of elite
rule in America.

One fundamental transformation involves the etiology of power. In the era
of Adams and Jefferson, government seemed the principal incubator of elite
aspirations to overweening authority. By the time of the Industrial
Revolution, however, civil society, in particular the centers of greatest
economic power, had supplanted government as the breeding ground of
aristocratic hubris. Government had become either the servitor of powers
greater than itself or the inspirational hope of those who saw it as the
only mechanism capable of wrestling the country's illicit ruling cliques to
the ground. That great sea change in where power was rooted and on whose
behalf it might be deployed arose in most societies undergoing the
transition from precapitalist to capitalist mechanisms of wealth creation.
Moreover it was itself organically connected to an equally profound change
in the way elites organized and conceived of themselves.

In the late-18th and early-19th centuries, elites configured themselves as
an aristocratic caste whose position rested on lineage, inbreeding, and
various forms of social exclusivity. Even apart from their real and
personal property, their inherited cultural capital commanded deference
from those not so blessed. Over time, those boundaries blurred along with
the explosive expansion and differentiation of the economy. Those occupying
the commanding heights of the economy and the political system began to
look more like a class, open to -- even forced open by -- newcomers of more
plebeian origin. That new social fluidity further complicated attempts to
discern just who ruled and how. That was emphatically the case, moreover,
as rising corporate industrial and finance capital overcame or merged with
more settled and dynastic forms of landed and mercantile wealth.

That proliferation of power centers, in turn, generated internal divisions
that could take on cultural and political as well as economic shape. Most
significant, it produced a fissure within the "leisure class" between those
absorbed by their own self-interest and self-regard, psychologically and
politically deaf and blind to the economic mayhem and social antagonisms
accumulating around them, and a fraction of that same universe -- people
such as the Roosevelts, for example, or those to-the-manner-born
"Establishment" figures of the next generation -- who self-consciously took
up the challenge of ruling on behalf of the whole commonwealth, even if
that meant now and then risking the enmity of their social peers.

Within those circles, a sense of social trusteeship subdued the instinct
for self-indulgence. Here the possibility of collaborating with subordinate
segments of the body politic -- the labor movement, for example -- was
actively explored, leaving the makeup, not to mention the verifiable
existence, of a ruling group even more intriguing to ascertain. Fissures
that profound took on measurable visible form only during mortal crises.
One thinks of the constitutional period, the Civil War, the political
firestorm ignited by populist and antitrust passions at the turn of the
19th century, the Great Depression, and the defeat in Vietnam and the end
of U.S. world economic supremacy in the 1970s.

What is fascinating about those occurrences is that they show how dominant
groups faced up to the challenge and either succumbed in war or public
ignominy or else surmounted it, whether through pure self-assertion or
shrewd political compromise. Whatever the outcome, the life and death of
ruling elites is one of the enduring themes that run through the long
literature of wealth and political power in America. It remains so today as
the country witnesses the tribulations of its latest ruling group, born at
the dawn of Reagan's "morning in America" and now struggling to master what
may be either the high noon or the twilight of the new American Century.

Steve Fraser is a writer and historian living in New York. Gary Gerstle is
a professor of history at the University of Maryland at College Park. This
essay is adapted from the book they edited, Ruling America: A History of
Wealth and Power in a Democracy, published this month by Harvard University
Copyright © 2005 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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