What is the Ruling Class?

An interesting paper given by Libertarian, Sean Gabb, 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. He is a wordy “wordsmith” but underneath all his words he always has something interesting to say.


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 alone.

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”.

If you want to read the rest of Sean’s paper, it is all on his website here.

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