Liberty Matters

Concepts and Vocabulary in Class Theory

David Hart’s enterprising use of the Ngram shows, as he says, just how many terms were used by the early classical liberals to label the thing they were talking about. I agree that this very diversity of terminology hampered the adoption of the theory in academia as that arena became professionalized in the later 19th and early 20th century. However, I think his findings reveal something further and more profound, which is that there was not one CLCA but several, with very different ideas about the nature and origin of the “ruling class” and consequently different analyses and proposals.
One set of terms, such as Cobbett’s “paper aristocracy” and Sumner’s “plutocracy,” stressed the existence of a group of the wealthy that both owe their wealth to some degree to government institutions and policy (such as paper money and credit) and in turn use their wealth to buy politicians and political power, the ability to direct policy or at least to veto it being crucial. In this case, however, they do not need to actually staff the political process or the machinery of government -- that would be the domain of a different social formation.
This might be seen as a particular case of a second theory which is the one captured in Benthamite terms such as “sinister interests.” Here the idea is that at least in theory the political process is (or can be made to be) neutral and disinterested, working for generally agreed and universal interests but prone to being seized or used by specific interests (or “factions” to use another old term) to serve their own sectional interest. (Leave aside the question of who exactly these actors are, which I will look at in another post.)  Both of these are explorations of interest-group conflict -- they do not necessarily imply or contain an objective theory of the nature of state power or social-group formation.
The vocabulary of Turgot, Wade, and Calhoun is more tightly focused on the existence of people or social groups who derive a net benefit from the state through payment out of public revenue. At one time this was a useful way of thinking because these were easily identifiable types of people (basically state pensioners and employees, the clergy, and paupers). At the same time the class of taxpayers, those who directly funded the state, was also relatively small and easily defined. As several of our authors have pointed out however, this doesn’t work in the contemporary world, where the churning of income through the system of state spending and taxation means the categories of taxpayer and tax-eater have become too vague to mean anything. The idea of an oligarchy or ruling elite is also both too precise in some ways and too simple in others. In one sense this is simply the recognition that there is in any political order a minority of people who have real power, the ability to direct or influence the course of state action. They are the political or power elite in the sense that they have more power than anyone else (just as the financial elite has more money, the sporting elite greater sporting talent, and so on for any given category). The crucial extra element is the idea that this group of people has a collective or group interest and therefore a sense of themselves as a group. (Anyone who thinks that political elites do not have this in many cases should try chatting with members of the British “Establishment,” who are quite clear that such a thing exists and that they are part of it).
The version of CLCA that is the most radical and which I would regard as the core notion is the one articulated by the French theorists using the language of plunder or rule. In its simplest or crudest form this means that in a given society, there are some who gain wealth via the institutionalized use of physical force or fraud. The more profound idea developed from this is the objective analysis of government that George Smith describes. In this the existence of institutionalized force itself creates a class or category of people who depend upon it and use it and who are objectively dependent upon that kind of social relation, regardless of what their personal motives and beliefs are. In the other implicit theories the institutionalized force is already there and is then used by or attractive to social formations that may already exist for other reasons. In this way of thinking, it is that kind of social relation (a relation of predation rather than production, we might say) that actually creates the social class and the division between it and the rest of society.
The first point I would make is that this plethora of names reveals the way that several quite distinct perspectives coexisted and were often conflated. However the radical French one (also shared by Spencer, as George points out) was the one that had the greatest purchase intellectually, partly because of its multidisciplinary origins. Unfortunately the term “ruling class,” which best captures what its argument was, was appropriated early on by the Marxists, and once a term of label is claimed in this way it becomes difficult (though not impossible) for other groups to use it.
The second point is that these various perspectives are not exclusive. We can keep them distinct while using them all, since they identify distinct phenomena. The radical French theory is in some sense the foundational, or master, theory, particularly when combined with a historical/anthropological account of how power-based relations arise in the first place. The other theories are then accounts of important secondary phenomena such as the way that the existence of a power center and of a class of people associated with and created by it gives rise to other social pathologies. This would also fit in with the typology or classification David sets out, in which there is a core social category of a distinct ruling class and then other classes defined to a great extent by their relation to that first class.