The ruling class is real, and it dominates our culture. It is also embedded in the modern, intrusive, all-powerful state. The current COVID scare provides a perfect case study of the sources and consequences of our democratic dilemma. The people have seemingly handed over their sovereignty to the State, without noticing what this surrender means.
Of Ruling Classes, Old and New
Two old Aussie lefty academics, Bob (now Raewyn) Connell and Terry Irving, came up with a wonderful title for an academic article back in the 1970s. The article was called “Yes Virginia, There is a Ruling Class”. (This was a take-off of the much older, delightful story (from 1897) which inspired a New York Sun editorial, “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”, and much later, a children’s book, a 1970s TV show, and eventually a 1990s film. The Virginia was Virginia O’Hanlon, who had written to the Sun because her father, a Dr Philip O’Hanlon, had advised her – “if it’s in the Sun, it must be true”).
Must the ruling class thesis be true as well?
Well, nearly half a century on from Connell and Irving, I can confidently report that there is, indeed, still a ruling class, deep into the twenty-first century. Bob (now Raewyn) Connell and Terry Irving were right. Yet a lot has changed since the 1970s, in politics, in culture and in thinking about politics and culture. Today’s world, even before the bizarre new version of it we are now experiencing in “COVID times”, would be virtually unrecognisable to a citizen of 1974.
It is just a different ruling class now. Or, perhaps, it could be argued that it is the same ruling class with new members, new values and new forms of control. I favour the view that it is a new class entirely, and far worse than the old one. And now, perhaps most surprisingly and ironically of all, the lefties are part of the ruling class.
Recognising that there was a ruling class, and that democratic forms of government were a sham, were favoured tropes of the 1970s academic and industrial left. Yet the idea of a ruling class in modern democracies is an older idea, and its genesis belongs more properly to some long forgotten but very important European thinkers. These are the “elite” theorists of democracy Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels and Gaetano Mosca.
The Wikipedia version of elite theory is pretty reasonable as a definition:
The theory posits that a small minority, consisting of members of the economic elite and policy-planning networks, holds the most power—and that this power is independent of democratic elections.
Elite theory met the theory of the “new class” in the 1940s. The latter explained how an entirely different elite had formed and was emerging as a new ruling class in Western countries. The best and most recognised theorist of the emergence of this new class was an American marxist-turned-conservative, James Burnham, author of the highly influential work, The Managerial Revolution (1943). (Burnham had written another book, equally perceptive and influential, called The New Machiavellians, and this, indeed was about the elite theorists’ work and its significance for democracy).
The old ruling class consisted, especially in the past world of Europe, of the landed aristocracy and more recently, of industrialists, media barons and their political representatives. This was the world of “old money”, inherited wealth, elite public schools and very restricted democracy. It was also a world of traditional values – of believed-in and practised religion, chivalry, hard work for delayed gratification, family, local community and limited government. In short, they were, ultimately, “bourgeois” values, as the American neo-classical economist Deirdre (formally Donald) McCloskey has argued. (Yes, I know, there is an outsized representation of the trans community in this article).
Outside the ruling class, we were all reasonably poor, but the old (reasonably rich) ruling class pretty much left the rest of us alone. The politicians of the old ruling class ruled in the interests of their class, certainly, but they allowed the rest of us to live our own lives as best we could. They didn’t tell us what to do – or what to think. They were not instinctively totalitarian. To use the now fashionable term favoured by those concerned about cultural appropriation, they “stayed in their own lane”.
The new ruling class consists of inside-the-beltway politicians and bureaucrats, their armies of minders, media operatives in both the public and private sectors, deeply embedded lobbyists, academia, professionals, the arts, tech entrepreneurs and corporate managers. It is a “credentialled class”, the product of the utterly false idea that meritocracy is necessarily and always a good thing, and that we should be ruled by experts. And the product of the modern, utilitarian university. It is a super-networked class. It is the woke, uber rich world of Davos and of Silicon Valley. The American economic development scholar Richard Florida called this new ruling class “the creative class”. Like the old ruling class, they own and control wealth and they own, or at least massively influence, politicians.
Moreover, the State that the new class co-manages is a very different, and a far more alarming beast, than that controlled by the old ruling class. The latter was a minimal state, with limited government, limited reach into the private lives of its citizens, and which largely observed constitutional rules and principles of governance. Whatever corruption there was, was limited since government just didn’t do that much. They “stayed in their own lane”. And the old ruling class “ruled” a working class that was itself largely committed to the protection of private spheres, to traditional values and to democracy.
The new class believes in very different things, and has new and very different values and pre-occupations.
The values of the new ruling class – left-liberal, woke, green, technocratic and globalist – little resemble either the values of the old ruling class or of the new ruled. The new ruling class despises the values of the working class – the Brexit-voting, racist, Trump-loving deplorables and xenophobes – while also (still) economically exploiting this working class, whether the workers are the much hated older, white, male version or the much loved, poor migrants of colour who do the outsourced chores of the new rich, and live all the while in squalor.
One of the main differences between the old and new ruling classes is that the old rulers and the old ruled actually shared many values. Traditional values. They just had very different amounts of wealth and power.
Dumbed Down Culture and the Uber State
As the American political scientist, Johnathan O’Neill, has pointed out, post-war conservatives, at least those in the USA, focused their attention and concern on two modern trends – the recent emergence of the intrusive State, and popular moral and cultural decline. O’Neill rightly singled out the conservative thinkers Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet and (again) James Burnham for particular mention. As O’Neill notes:
… both Kirk and Nisbet saw the administrative state as a new social form sustained by a “new class” of intellectual-technocratic “managers,” a bureaucratic elite with a vested interest in statist expansion.
O’Neill, quoting the work of another conservative thinker, Paul Gottfried, might well have been anticipating our current alienated predicament when he observed:
Gottfried further deepened the managerial concept by arguing that the administrative state had moved into its therapeutic and coercive phase. In the age of relativism and multiculturalism, “[p]ublic administration will decide which group receives which benefit or is forced to suffer which liability, for the sake of general self-esteem and maximal healing.” Citizens become “patients” as managerial rule presents “itself as collectively administered assistance . . . concealing its operation in the language of caring.” Additionally, dissent from the new order was being pathologized. Opposition to progressive liberal politics was construed as a form of deviance in need of government-administered re-education, behavior modification, and possibly the indemnification of designated victim groups. “Liberal democratic pluralism has come to denote a process of sensitization. And the behavior modification required by this conditioning is something that demands the intervention of social experts.”
See under wokeness, and see under COVID rule.
Here the State becomes the protector of all, the provider of health and happiness, the champion of designated “victims”, but also the coercer of all. In the COVID era, the latter includes issuing internal passports, blocked internal borders, having the police check what we have in our car boots, police striding around supermarkets, the arrest of people sunbaking on the beach (and thereby accumulating vitamin D and probable COVID immunity), and the ushering of people munching on KFC away from food courts in otherwise non-socially-distanced shopping malls.
The victory of the new class and the decline of freedom has had two twin drivers.
On the one hand, the new Deep State with its extensive, counter-constitutional controls over the masses had been the vehicle for a new clamp down on freedom, on private living and on local communities. On the other, the embrace of a debased pop culture by the punters – see, for example, under tattoos, reality TV, the pornification of everything, talking in clichés, addiction to social media and other drugs, and the contemporary Aussie tabloid – has been both the cause and the effect of a sharp decline in traditional standards, principles, practices and virtues. In Joseph Ratzinger’s phrase, there is now embedded in our culture a “dictatorship of relativism”, accepted knowingly by both the rulers and unknowingly by the ruled. And the debasement of culture, our amoral myopia, has at the same time de-fanged our cultural capacity to think-with-spine and to resist the over-weening State.
This is Gogglebox culture.
People watching people on television who are watching people on television. Reading tabloids which spend their time talking about people on television who watch people on television. Or talking about the sex lives of the nobodies who infest reality television, or the uninteresting and mostly sordid off-field activities of overpaid footballers. The victory of the celebrity, or as the Australian writer Shelley Gare termed it, “the triumph of the airheads”. Mark Bauerlein’s acerbic conclusion was that our age’s young adults, the leaders of the very near future, are, in fact, “the dumbest generation”. Not a nation of thinkers.
Dumbed down culture unused to thinking big meets a new ruling class weaponised by access to, and the control of, technology and by an intrusive and pervasive Deep State. A turbo-charged State.
George Orwell would be either spinning in his grave or shaking his head in sheer disbelief. The irony of these high level developments is that the State controls just about everything – especially now in lockdown world – and yet most of the critical changes in culture have occurred outside the formal activities of the State. It is the new ruling class, and not the State itself, which invented political correctness and spawned relativism, which has taken over the universities, workplaces and media, which created and then infected the HR industry which in turn powers the woke corporation, and which has all but destroyed traditional values of family, faith and flag. After all, someone had to engineer the long march through the institutions of the new ruling class.
The worst thing about a dumb culture – and an especially dumb culture is one that doesn’t know that it is dumb – is that it comes to be a supine culture, in thrall of Big Brother and willing to hand over freedoms and rights to the unelected, credentialled class, and lacking the capacity or the willingness to question. Core skills are gone now. Sadly, ours is culture that has little self-awareness and no sense of history or context, and which believes that spending a lot of years in school equals education, that the ability to work gadgets and communicate in bubbles are signs of broad and deep knowledge. This is a non-learned and an unlearning culture, populated by the blithely ignorant who cower beneath a State which they naively believe will solve their problems and keep them safe, while simultaneously printing all the money the world needs while no one actually runs businesses or works. A population ready to cop a COVID scare, without thought or any willingness to set our decision-makers the policy “smell test”. Now that really is dumb.
And right at this moment in history is decidedly NOT the time to be dumb.
COVID Mania, an All Powerful State and a Dumb Culture
A recent and extremely perceptive article by Jack Kerwick in American Greatness, titled The Imperative to Think in the Covid Era, argued that ours is a culture that has largely lost the will to think as we all willingly observe in real time an absolute policy train wreck. He drew upon the well- known philosopher Hannah Arendt’s observations of the architect of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, at the Nuremberg trials. She concluded that Eichmann presented not as either evil or stupid, but rather as someone with a “curious but authentic inability to think”.
Eichmann couldn’t think beyond “clichés,” “stock phrases,” and “conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct.” Because of this, his testimony was littered with “inconsistencies and flagrant contradictions,” illogic that didn’t in the least faze him.
In other words, Eichmann couldn’t think beyond the memes, bumper sticker slogans, and hashtags of his day.
It wasn’t that Eichmann was stupid. Nor was it that he lacked the ability to think critically or logically. Rather, he lacked the will to do so.
Kerwick relates Arendt’s observations of Eichmann to our current, post-reality predicament, and in particular, the masses’ apparent inability and unwillingness to think.
What else explains the utter contempt with which elected governments across the West have shown their people by giving themselves dictatorial powers that are, to use a much over-used 2020 word, “unprecedented”, at least outside times of war? And the utter devotion of the masses to the unconstitutional, authoritarian State?
While there has been a strong correlation within the US system between the thirst for COVID lockdown and willingness to supress freedoms and Democrat run states, and between a willingness to end lockdowns and Republican run states, there is little evidence elsewhere in the world that the willingness to shutter economies and deprive people of their liberty is ideologically driven. After all, all governments, or almost all, are doing it. Boris Johnson is a lock-downer, perhaps not by instinct but he certainly caved when pressured. Macron needed almost no pressure, even persuasion. The leftist Swedes have been erring on the side of freedom, not clampdown, on the side of voluntarism and not police stating. Yes, the leftist Victorian Premier, that wolf in wolf’s clothing, has shown a particular aptitude for dictatorship. As has Anna Stasi in Queensland. And while there have been murmurings about freedom and the need to revive the economy in New South Wales, it couldn’t be argued that the sole Liberal-run Eastern State has been any less prone to be a freedom-killer than any of the other states.
No, governments of all persuasions have taken to their new, more intense exercise of extreme powers with alacrity and relish. The things governments do best – hyper-regulation, spending other people’s money that has already run out, nanny stating, ordering people about, choking the airwaves with self-serving propaganda, rigging statistics, censoring or bullying the (few) opponents that have dared to raise their voices, and politicising the whole thing – have readily been on show during this manufactured crisis.
What of the dumb, supine electorate, for which the State has shown such contempt?
Instead of resistance by the freedom-deprived and the newly unemployed, there is only a herd mentality, a tendency blindly to obey orders and the chanting of what Kerwick terms “stock phrases”.
There is only the apparent adulation of Western governments, certainly as revealed in opinion polls from New York to New South Wales. Blunders such as sending infected people into nursing homes – to their almost certain deaths – unexplained shifts in policy, the adoption of ludicrous academic modelling as gospel and as the basis for policy, letting infected people off cruise ships and into the community, locking down domestic populations while allowing porous international borders, shutting down “elective” surgery, have been rewarded with willing compliance, benign behaviour, the absence of protests, and general, bemused acceptance of patently ineffective, counter-intuitive and just plain, bloody stupid directives. Oh, and the reflexive attacks on COVID doubters, the dobbing in of neighbours, putting up signs saying “we are all in this together – get the app”, clapping over-appreciated and under-employed health workers, and the utter silence of the lambs, only underline the gullibility of the public and its complete credulousness in the face of State directives and messaging.
Outside the United States, there is little to suggest that there is even a flicker of protest at the industrial scale erosion of basic freedoms and rights and the destruction of jobs, businesses and whole economies, visited by Western Governments on their peoples. All in the name of controlling a largely benign and minor virus of the kind that inflicts sickness an d death on us every single winter.
All of this suggests that the philosopher Ken Minogue was right to term this modern phenomenon “the servile mind”. We-the-people seem simply to have outsourced our will to think to the State and to the new ruling class.
The lack of vigorous media and academic debates over the “crisis”, the refusal of the so-called thinking classes to call governments to account, certainly in Australia, and the contempt for their flocks shown by the churches in their failure to provide the one thing they are there for – the safeguarding of souls – and in so aiding and abetting the Deep State, have been especially abhorrent.
What do we make, then, of the COVID hysteria, indeed paralysis, and how can we situate it in the recent development of a deeply anti-democratic state run by a new and cloying ruling class?
The analysis here suggests three things – first, that there is nothing new in the existence of a ruling class; second, that there is (Virginia) a ruling class still, but it is a very different ruling class with far greater power than its earlier iterations, and very different values; third, that the dumbing down of culture and society’s associated moral decline has resulted in an utterly supine and unthinking population that is only too willing yielding of our rights to a supreme state and its ruling class.
We have lost the will and the capacity to think independently, critically, morally and originally about our world and its challenges.
How do the ruled fight back in the surreal times that we currently inhabit? Where we have willingly handed over our freedoms and our livelihoods to inept yet all-powerful masters? In short, we must overcome our learned inability and, more importantly, our learned unwillingness to think.
As Kerwick states:
But if we are interested in thinking clearly, of becoming educated, empowered; if we are interested in seeing to it that the powerful, the opportunistic, and the corrupt don’t manipulate us for their own purposes; if we are interested in self-governance; if we are interested in guarding ourselves against being perpetrators of evil—then we must marshal the will to think.
It is imperative that we learn how to think.
It is imperative that we refuse unabashedly to accept the declarations and decrees of experts uncritically.
It is imperative that we resist the tendency of most to just go along with the herd, to blindly obey orders.
Until we-the-people begin to understand our rights and how they have been suffocated, not just by COVID fascism but by far broader and equally crushing destroyers of freedom, we will remain, alas, simply “the ruled”. We have been suffocated, on the one hand, by the enforcement of woke culture, political correctness, identity politics, the cultural hegemony of our masters, government and corporate surveillance and control and, on the other hand, by our own retreat to dumbed down priorities and the pursuit of seedy and ephemeral distractions. The cultural and moral decline referred to above, the abandonment of traditional virtue, isn’t merely offensive of itself. Just as importantly, by weakening our self-knowledge and our moral spine, we surrender our will to think. This plays into the hands of the ruling class.
As acute observers of the human predicament from Charles McKay in the 1800s right down to Douglas Murray today have realised, there is a madness to crowds, which only great courage in pursuit of a recovery of self-determination can turn around. Giving the middle finger to the elites, whether or not in a protest march against COVID totalitarianism or in snubbing the European Union by voting for Brexit, or indeed in donning a MAGA cap and walking down the street, all provide short and perhaps much needed dopamine hits for us deplorables. Much more thinking and purposeful activity is needed, however, if the currently cowed and the locked down are to respond more vigorously, effectively and lastingly to the dictatorship of the Deep State and the corporate elites who govern us.
Alas, until those of us who are not “insiders” of the ruling class, including those who are now hooked on our sadly debased culture and its down-market ways and who seem strangely ready to hand over our freedoms, provided the State provides for all our needs even as it subdues us all, one must reluctantly conclude that the new political and cultural elites and the spineless, docile, unthinking masses simply deserve one another.