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Last summer Angelo Codevilla’s American Spectator essay “America’s Ruling Class and the Perils of Revolution” made waves in conservative circles for its compelling treatment of the minority ruling class (the political elite and its partisans) versus the “country class” (the rest of us). It was a sophisticated exposition but also broke down the class conflict in simple terms: “The rulers want the ruled to shut up and obey. The ruled want self-governance.” Rush Limbaugh praised the article for helping to explain the struggle of the Tea Party’s populists against the political establishment.
The Tea Party’s rhetoric of defending the little guy against the powerful has always seemed discordant to the left, which regards such class consciousness as its own domain. The left has long identified itself with the idea of two classes in society – the common people and the power elite – each with its own, usually conflicting, interests. When left-wingers speak this way, conservatives like Limbaugh accuse them of “class warfare.” But neither side grasps the full picture: in fact, it was the classical liberal tradition that first employed the class analysis that has survived to this day in altered forms.
“There was a theory of class conflict developed by classical liberals before Marxism and on which Marx himself drew,” libertarian historian Ralph Raico has argued. This theory was associated with such 19th-century French scholars as historian Augustin Thierry and economist Charles Dunoyer, as well as Jean-Baptiste Say and his followers Charles Comte and Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui. As Raico noted in a January 1991 essay in Liberty, Blanqui wrote “what is probably the first history of economic thought, published in 1837,” in which the French liberal explained:
In all the revolutions, there have always been but two parties opposing each other; that of the people who wish to live by their own labor, and that of those who would live by the labor of others. … Patricians and plebeians, slaves and freemen, guelphs and ghibellines, red roses and white roses, cavaliers and roundheads, liberals and serviles, are only varieties of the same species.
Class analysis was thoroughly incorporated into classical liberal rhetoric by the time Richard Cobden and John Bright were fighting against Britain’s Corn Laws. Bright saw this struggle as “a war of classes. I believe this to be a movement of the commercial and industrial classes against the Lords and the great proprietors of the soil.” The dichotomy between a plundering political class – the rulers and their favored interests – and the masses victimized by state power is further seen in the 19th-century writings of Frederic Bastiat, Herbert Spencer, and John C. Calhoun, among others.
According to Raico, Marx expropriated class analysis from the classical liberals and transformed it from a libertarian framework into a socialist one: the historically inevitable clash between profiting capitalists and exploited workers. Marx regarded the state as the capitalists’ tool. The most wealthy merchants tended to be in bed with the political class, and so it was not difficult for Marx to adapt class analysis from a theory based on legally defined categories – those who had state privileges and those who did not – to one where class was defined according to status in the process of economic production. Instead of rulers versus their subjects, Marx gave us owners vesrus workers.
This permutation of class analysis seduced many thinkers of a liberal, humanitarian inclination and aided the statist makeover of liberalism, which made peace with the state as a means of elevating the masses. By endorsing the proletarian capture of state power, Marx, his followers, and the entire left side of the spectrum have in a sense inverted the original purpose of class analysis. In seeing the state as the people’s best hope, and viewing the wealthy as being opposed to the interests of the democratic state, left-liberals have turned the anti-statist, anti-taxation, anti-monopoly thrust of class analysis on its head, converting it from a case against the state into a case for it.
Modern libertarians, as heirs to classical liberalism, have attempted to reclaim the original vision – while still, like the Marxists, “following the money” to see how the state provides monopoly benefits and direct subsidies to corporate interests. Radical libertarian class analysis maintains the classical liberal focus on the taxing state as the chief enemy, while agreeing with leftists on many particulars of how big businesses – especially the banking industry and defense contractors – use the state to line their pockets at the expense of the people.
The man most responsible for libertarian attention to this subject was economist and historian Murray N. Rothbard. Likely the most significant theorist of modern libertarianism – he built a system integrating natural-rights ethics, anti-imperialism, Austrian economics, and individualist anarchism all under the rubric of one political theory – Rothbard was a dedicated practitioner of classical-liberal class analysis. In a 1967 critique of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Rothbard drew on the work of sociologist Franz Oppenheimer to describe the distinction between the minority ruling class and the victimized majority: “By seizing revenue by means of coercion and assigning rewards as it disburses the funds, the state creates ruling and ruled ‘classes’ or ‘castes’; for one example, classes of what Calhoun discerned as net ‘taxpayers’ and ‘tax-consumers,’ those who live off taxation.”
In his 1974 essay “The Anatomy of the State,” Rothbard finds the state’s origins in plunder – the state was born when bands of marauders decided to stick around and extract regular tribute from their victims, rather than taking all they could at once and killing their prey. The state is “the systematization of the predatory process over a given territory.” And since the state’s relationship with the people is parasitical, it can only maintain its grip through subterfuge. “[T]he chief task of the rulers is always to secure the active or resigned acceptance of the majority of the citizens” through “the creation of vested economic interests” as well as by “promoting [statist] ideology among the people.”
Hans-Hermann Hoppe, a disciple of Rothbard in economics and political theory, elaborates on these principles in his 1990 paper “Marxist and Austrian Class Analysis,” in which he explains the major disagreements as well as similarities between the two schools:
[T]he basic proposition of the Marxist theory of the state in particular is false. The state is not exploitative because it protects the capitalists’ property rights, but because it itself is exempt from the restriction of having to acquire property productively and contractually.
In spite of this fundamental misconception, however, Marxism, because it correctly interprets the state as exploitative (unlike, for example, the public choice school, which sees it as a normal firm among others), is on to some important insights regarding the logic of state operations. For one thing, it recognizes the strategic function of redistributionist state policies.