Labeling the bulk of American society as “middle class” is a not-so-subtle way of denying the existence of class conflict. In this context, “working class” and “upper class” become cultural rather than economic labels. So “class war” becomes a leftist fantasy, Madison’s and Marx’ assumptions notwithstanding.
But to socialists, class conflict is not only a reality, but an engine of historical change. The question then arises: What exactly is “class”? Unfortunately, especially among Marxist academics, that question often leads to tiresome, jargon-loaded, hairsplitting theoretical dissertations that clarify nothing.
My plan for this blog is to keep it short and simple, even at the risk of superficiality. So I won’t get bogged down in detailed discussions of the nature of and relations between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Is there a less anachronistic and more politically useful and relevant way of talking about class from a socialist point of view?
Towards that end, I prefer to talk about a “ruling class”–i.e., the global powers that generally work together to control and direct the world’s economy, its politics, its institutions of communication and education, and its social development. It does not have total control, it does not win all its battles, and it is often internally divided. But nonetheless, the ruling class rules–it makes the decisions that establish the framework for our daily lives.
Specifically who that class might include is a difficult question. C. Wright Mills, in his classic book The Power Elite (1956), saw that group in America as a more or less cohesive and self-perpetuating group of people who occupy the top positions in politics, the corporate world, and the military. Marxists, of course, focus primarily on those who own and control the means of production.
I confess to the inability or unwillingness to establish a hard and fast definition. But let me give it a try. I conceive it as including the primary political and economic decision-makers in the G-20 nations, the owners and managers of the largest corporations, financial institutions, and media conglomerates, the top leaders of significant social and civic organizations (especially “think tanks”) and all those directly associated with and responsible to them.
(Incidentally, I reject any and all conspiracy theories, and I strongly believe all socialists should. The levers of power and the hands that move them are there for all to see if we look closely enough. Long live Occam’s Razor!)
There is also a middle class and a working class, which I would define respectively although again not concretely in terms of their social, economic, and political position relative to the ruling class and to each other. The interest of the ruling class, notwithstanding differences over political strategy and specific policy directions, is absolutely clear and consistent, namely to maintain and increase its wealth and power. That singleness of purpose gives them strength, and is achieved at the cost of the other classes, who are far more disunited and factionalized. So the result is a zero-sum game: Over the long run, one side wins, the other loses.
Capitalism is the system that keeps the ruling class on top. In the political realm, liberal democracy may be preferable, but authoritarian regimes are not out of the question if the masses get too rowdy. A unified struggle against the ruling class by the other classes is to be prevented at all costs. Towards that end, the ruling class struggles to control the means: military and police power, the political machinery, economic policies, and the flow of information, among other things. Co-opting potential troublemakers is also a time-tested remedy for social unrest.
So there we are. All we have to do is to weaken and ultimately eliminate the power of the ruling class, hopefully–at least from my perspective–in a non-violent fashion. “Oh, is that all? Good luck with that,” you’re probably thinking. And if so I can’t say I blame you if you throw up your hands and say the hell with it (assuming you’re comfortably middle class as I am). But unfortunately, once your eyes are open to the sheer injustice of a class society, you recognize what is probably your own relatively privileged position in it, and you remember that the ruling class is actually scared of us, it’s hard to just walk away from the struggle. That gives us a responsibility to do what we can, however limited, towards the goal of a world free of their power to run it. I’ve done a few things in my lifetime, although not nearly enough. And I am fully aware that blogging is the very least of them.