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Does America have a ruling class?

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted August 2, 2010

Angelo M. Codevilla has written an insightful article for the American Spectator, in which he claims America has a ruling class. He avoids falling into the trap that most ruler-watchers manqué fall into: confounding the old upper class with the current political elite. "I thought, when I gained admittance into Harvard, that it was all full of country-club types and a poor kid like me wouldn't fit in..." This narrative is little more than a trope nowadays. The self-identified "poor kid" is fairly close to the norm, although the true norm is upper-middle class. Playing off against the ghosts of half a century ago is part of the glue that holds Prof. Codevilla's ruling class together.

Look at Bill and Hillary Clinton. He's almost the eponym amongst liberals for the poor boy who made it through government. Hillary hailed from an ordinary middle-class home. Yet, their daughter rates a privilege for her wedding that's close to something accorded to royalty. Even Bill Gates wouldn't rate an FAA order banning airplanes from flying over the airspace of his daughter Melinda's. I don't even think that asking for such a privilege would even occur to him as being in the realm of the possible. The same thing goes for other billionaires; I would be surprised if it had even occurred to any of them to ask for such a privilege. The same thing goes for the old-money circuit that left-wing boilerplate mistakenly indentifies as America's ruling class. What's notable about the privilege Chelsea Clinton will enjoy is it can't be bought. Money alone really is no good at that rarefied level.

"Mere Money"

I may be twitted by a red-blooded American for comparing the Clintons to privileged aristocrats, but Chelsea's "no-fly wedding" is very much in line with privileges accorded to hereditary aristocracy. Had an unidentified British couple secured exactly the same privilege, the common guess wouldn't be Tony Blair's daughter. It would be one of the relatives of a personage who has the privilege of the law treating a serious physical attack on her as high treason. I note that the same privilege could be largely duplicated in the U.S. by an executive order giving the Secret Service immunity from prosecution and civil liability for even murder, when corralling any identified assassin or assassin-in-attempt…and with no statute of limitations attached to such immunity. A license to kill, to be blunt about it.

The money-minded (whether on the Right or Left) tends to associate wealth with privilege, and assumes that the former leads to the latter. That notion is a conceit of a businesslike age with stable representative governments. "Money power" comes into play primarily because it takes a lot of money to win an election. Had there been no elections, "money power" would be more akin to "money pleading." It may be cynical and brutish of me to point this out, but when the chips are fully down government wins and "money" loses. If enough members of Congress wanted to, they could pass a bill that would bankrupt the coal industry. There's no way that the coal industry could do the same to the U.S. government, or even to the Congresspeople who voted in favor of it. The same thing goes for any industry, or even an entire class of people like the shadowy "rich." The main reasons why Congress doesn't are two: the U.S. economy would be damaged, which Congresspeople would be held responsible for; and, the "rich" haven't been effectively demonized, so any such measure would frighten or anger too many people. Just because Congress members won't, though, does not imply that they can't. They can – the U.S. government has that de facto plenary power now - and "business" can't do it to them. No, I'm not kidding; I'm not kidding.

Unsurprisingly, Prof. Codevella identifies his ruling class as having deep interconnections with government. Any would-be ruling class without those ties is just too easy to swat, through new laws when public opinion demands or even permits it. The reason why it's rarely been done in the U.S. is normal public opinion would not be complaisant with it, net of the anger that would be roused by the resultant damage to the economy.

"Mere money" indeed. One sign that would add to Prof. Codevilla's case: politicians, and even senior government functionaries, bragging that "lobbyist" is a polite term meaning "pleader" – and the lobbyists acceding to it.

The Secret To A Ruling Class: Violence Imbalances

More than a decade ago, James Dale Davidson and William Lord Rees-Moggcame up with a theory called "megapolitics." It postulates that the shape of polities, their sizes, their compositions and their constitutions (whether written or unwritten) are determined at bottom by the ability to muster, deploy and shape violence. Democracy flows from a peculiar megapolitical condition: a rough balance of violence between person and person. The advance in military technology that made modern democracy possible was the mass-produced gun, which could be bought cheaply and mastered without much training. The gun means ordinary people can defend themselves if need be. Consequently, there's no need to enter into servility to be protected from predatory violence. With the gun, there's a chance that a homeowner can defend against a home invasion.

Back in medieval times, it took a lot of skill and time to learn how to fight effectively. To become a knight, a boy had to put in fourteen full years as a retainer: seven as a page and seven as a squire. The two terms ended at twenty-one, but the specialized skills in wearing armor, fighting in armor, wielding the sword and the lance, et. al., still needed years to master. Also required was enough land to feed the horse and the master, freeing up the knight to concentrate exclusively on fighting, and enough pelf to pay the servants. Mega-wealth wasn't required, but some wealth – and taxation power - was.

In such conditions, there's an obvious inequality of physical power. The only way to defend against a bad knight was to huddle around a good one. Consequently, the "equality of man" would have been a hard sell theologically and an impossible one politically. What use pitchforks against heavy armor? What blacksmith, beholden as he was to knights and nobility, would dare sell armor to a mere commoner? What swordmaster, beholden to the same group, would dare train any commoner? With such a power imbalance, the equality of man was little more than a fantasy. In its place was noblesse oblige; it required nobles to act nobly and undertake special duties that commoners didn't. Nobles' and royalty's obeisance to God was another substitute. Observe action heroes with knight-like powers: they get away with the kind of property damage a real knight got away with in feudal times. They are the fiction equivalent of the noble knights of yore, up to a sense of noblesse oblige and duty.

With a real ruling class, courtesies mollify; they're not placative.

Does America Have A Real Ruling Class?

By the stricter criteria I've used, the answer is "no" – but there are definite signs the political elites are headed that way. A permanent governing class, whose collective will can veto the will of the people, makes for a pretty fair substitute for the real thing. There are hints of privilege normally accorded to a real ruling class, like using the IRS as an attack dog, but they're not codified in the form of special rights. Prosecutors can prosecute abusively, but they're not granted legal immunity beyond all recourse. Regulators can bankrupt businesses, but they have no explicit rights to do so. Left-wing professors may act like they're above any sedition or treason laws, but they don't have formal immunity. Those de facto privileges are still ad hoc or ancillary in nature. They have to be used under the cover of lip service. Prof. Wakjob still has to claim academic freedom; IRS Commissioner Gitum has to claim tax evasion; Regulator Styfle has to credibly claim a Congressionally-authorized higher purpose.

That's good news for the ordinary Americans in Prof. Codevilla's "country class." Any high functionary who dares claim an abusive act was done "because I am privileged to do so" would be instantly seen as effronterous and would be canned or impeached. Whatever power imbalances there are vis-à-vis government official and citizen, they're not sufficient for Prof. Condevilla's ruling class to act like a real one.

Those elites may never be. Thankfully, the origins of the present governing class are in the elite universities; its members are molded by intellectuals. One long-standing custom amongst intellectuals, as described in The Intellectuals And The Masses, is aversion to the commonfolk. What they call populism is profoundly gauche in their circles, which limits their appeal to the common man or woman. They've never shaken off the set of customs appropriate to the smart kid in the corner of the lunchroom. Out of it comes their adulation of intellectual types who manage to shake off that disdain and successfully bond with the multitude. It's like the hard Left's adulation of Leon Trotsky for going from bookworm to victorious self-made general.

Bill Clinton is their kind of anti-intellectual intellectual. He managed to shine in both worlds by cultivating an excellent memory, allowing him to cram for As. That freed up enough time to master his obviously well-mastered people and political skills. His legendary memory aided immensely in that capacity too. He not only imbibed the values of Prof. Condevilla's ruling class, he transcended them enough to make him a figure of awe in their ranks. But, his transcendence was limited to becoming a President. Thankfully, he lacks the peculiar skills to become an elective monarch. So does President Obama.

So do any of them; they also lack the skills to form a non-hereditary oligarchy. Their main weak point is that same disdain that needs to be cultivated in order to achieve fully human status in their ranks. Any elitist attitude carries with it the risk of underestimating the skills and capacities of the supposed inferiors. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.






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