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The Long History of Elite Rule: What Will It Take To End It?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Elites have ruled over people and commanded the surplus produced by their labor for many millennia. It is this long history we have to contend with in today’s crisis of capitalism that has produced endless wars and environmental catastrophes as corporate billionaire rulers continue to promote business as usual while preparing to fight each other with armed forces and nuclear weapons. This has all been “normalized.” Concentrated elite power ends up massively distorting people’s understanding of the nature of big business rule. Their highly paid spokes people even shamelessly deploy concepts like “freedom” and “liberty” to rationalize the enslaving and killing of millions for profits in resource wars. But we also need to understand that despite this long reign of (t)error, human beings lived for most of their evolutionary history (a much longer period of time than that during which elites have ruled) in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies where life conditions produced a rough equality among the Paleolithic family groups. If there was anything that could be called freedom here, it was a consequence of a primitive subsistence level that demanded participation from all in obtaining the means of survival while providing minimal incentives for large-scale social conflicts. Cooperation was primary; it is what made human societies — not competition. These conditions also kept the human populations low and in balance with available resources, while as some anthropologists speculate (see Marshall Sahlins), providing significant amounts of free time for cultivating social ties.

This began to change with the agricultural revolution, during which some people found themselves in better positions to extract a greater portion of the newly available surpluses that allowed them to specialize in such key elite activities as that of warrior and priest, two elite categories that generally cooperated but were sometimes in conflict. Both of these functions demanded time for training and education that basic producers did not have, though they fed and clothed the elite and thus paid with their labor for the leisure afforded aristocracies to learn how to rule. The latter certainly commanded the resources and time that can be seen as one aspect of freedom, but their opportunity for leisure, learning, and the pursuit of pleasure, self-interest and aggrandizement was paid for by the lack of freedom of the laboring classes whose work had to support both themselves and their rulers.

Those who did the work were everywhere in the majority while their overlords almost always made up a minority – often a very tiny minority – of the societies that they dominated. For millennia, elites ruled over large numbers by using a combination of coercion and persuasion, and in a few instances, even inclusion of the lower orders in their decision-making processes. This could usually (but not always) be done with a minimum expenditure of blood and treasure. Elites were instrumental in founding the societies in areas over which they ruled by getting a hold on the best lands, establishing the institutions and monopolizing the means and techniques of coercion, and by producing and disseminating the dominant discourse. They set up or took over and adapted the major belief systems of their societies (from late Antiquity through the medieval period, and well into our own times primarily religion), and utilized these to rationalize their rule and reinforce acceptance of social hierarchies with them at the pinnacle.

For most of Antiquity, ruling elites lived and prospered from the labor of large numbers of people: primarily slaves, but also indebted peasants, and those people subjugated by conquest. During this epoch, the Greek and Roman experiences also produced decisive developments for elite rule, including the use of democracy in some of the Greek city-states that allowed continued aristocratic leadership while giving a voice to the self-armed peasants who fought in the infantry, and even landless laborers (the thetes) who rowed in the fleet. Greek democracy and Greek science and philosophy were the legacies left by the ruling Greek elite that have been historical reference points in play up to our own times. Plato’s work, for example, includes extended discussions of the need for rule by an elite of “philosopher kings,” to be supported of course by the labor of the lower orders. As for the Romans, their Republic left its mark on history as an example of republican governments in which the aristocracy selected a small number of their peers as decision makers to serve in the Senate. In early Rome, the plebeian commoners also had their own representative assemblies acceptable to the patrician elite because the peasants and commoners (as in Greece) filled the ranks of Rome’s army and were taxed to support its operations. Thus, their views could appear to be taken into account, though their influence on policy was seldom decisive. The Roman Republic was replaced by imperial rule as Rome’s empire grew. Strong executive leadership became necessary to control the factionalism of the aristocracy and manage the military power upon which the empire rested. But, eventually, Rome’s armies helped to create the conditions that would lead to Rome’s fall. Many Roman citizens no longer wished to risk their lives in the Roman military. Professional soldiers, including large numbers of “barbarians” paid and equipped by the state and later used as auxiliaries under their own leaders, replaced the earlier peasant levies. Rome’s later emperors used these barbarian soldiers while treating them and their families with suspicion and hostility, even murdering them on occasion.

In Rome’s armies the troops increasingly looked to their superior officers and commanding generals for a share in the spoils of war. They were loyal to the most successful, which meant that the army now made and unmade emperors. Emperors who frequently had to fight civil wars against rivals now protected the aristocracy’s interests; these wars eventually overstretched and weakened the empire. Even the remnants of representative institutions would be displaced by autocratic imperial power that came to rest on the recruitment of soldiers from Rome’s barbarian enemies while ruthlessly taxing the empire’s peasant population. These policies, given barbarian pressure on Rome’s overextended western frontier, may have appeared necessary. Overall, however, they were a recipe for disaster that left little or no room for freedom, undermined support for Roman rule, and would end in fragmentation and chaos. Too many people, inside and outside of the empire and its armies had little incentive to continue supporting it. Thus, as history’s first large and successful “world” empire, Rome showed that conquest could be the road to elite power and wealth and could be maintained for centuries – but not indefinitely. Rome became a major reference point for later imperial rule, and, of course, for the failures and decline of empires.

Through the Middle Ages, the peasantry was the main productive class, working both for their landlord masters and themselves. The most powerful of the medieval nobility and the holders of the largest land areas, kings and magnates, tied the lesser nobility to them by grants of land in exchange for loyalty and military service. From their estates and manors, this elite hierarchy ruled over the agricultural producers residing in village lands that were a part of the lord’s manor but had been customarily used by the peasants for centuries. For the most part, peasants accepted their landlord’s rule as long as the dues demanded of them remained constrained by the long usage of custom. But peasants could become rebellious if landlords’ demands were seen going beyond what had been usual. Peasants, however, never really threatened elite power, at least not during the Middle Ages or for several centuries beyond. It does not seem that, given the isolation of their villages, their lack of leadership experience, and their general acceptance of their rulers’ ideology, that the European peasantry of this period could ever have successfully mounted a challenge to elite rule. Later peasant-based revolutions (French, Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese) would tell a different story, though capitalist imperialism would eventually overwhelm the 20th century revolutions, which tried and failed to build long term worldwide revolutionary movements.

The medieval period was also marked by power struggles among the elite themselves for control of areas and, eventually, states that would emerge around certain dynasties, and by the 16th century become the European state systems among which the struggles would continue via ever-shifting alliances and antagonisms. The rivalries of these composite states extended the feudal-based conflicts over land, exacerbated by the increased resources needed to field large armies, and produced seemingly endless conflict that has indeed continued into our own times, with those powers that first developed the capitalist mode of production coming out on top. In the medieval West, the Christianity of the Roman Church was predominant and would act as a unifying force, at least ideologically, though not without developing its own institutional structures and interests that would sometimes clash with states in which the Church was a parallel authority. The Protestant Reformation would, of course, disrupt this “catholic” unity and add another major source of conflict, while still rationalizing elite rule via the idea of predestination – God’s “providence” favoring those in power with success.

The nobility, trained for warfare, monopolized the upper levels of both Church and state and shaped them to serve their interests while in some states (England for example, and eventually any state that wanted to compete) increasingly blending with and driven by the emerging capitalist class. These people established educational systems (through both Church and state) to ensure their ideological hegemony. During the early Middle Ages, the legacies of Greek science and philosophy were lost or deliberately suppressed by the Christian authorities. The later medieval period and Renaissance saw a revival of Greek learning, though for most of the Middle Ages (and beyond, well into the early modern period) the Church continued to monopolize the discourse and use physical torture to repress any views deemed heretical. And, of course, the Church preached a doctrine that encouraged members of society to recognize and remain in their places where they would continue to do what they had always done. For the peasants, this meant to work and support their masters, as they had been doing for a thousand years or more in a feudal system where there were many peasant revolts, but never a robust, widespread and unified challenge to elite rule from below.

By the end of the 15th century, particularly in England, the long-prevailing feudal mode of production began to crack open from within due to changing balances among the contending classes that allowed for the development of a capitalistic mode of production that would eventually prevail throughout the world. Capitalism developed in a number of places in the early modern period as merchants accumulated capital from trade, and developed markets. But in England these developments combined with changes in agriculture that gave rise to a new capitalist economy. By this time the English nobility controlled the bulk of the land, owning much of it outright, though they were parasitic upon the tenant farmers to whom they rented their lands, and, of course, ultimately upon the labor of hired agricultural workers, former peasants whose rights to common lands had been removed, along with themselves, by a lengthy “enclosure” movement whereby landlords who controlled Parliament and police power took over what had been common lands and forced peasants from their holdings as they saw their lands become increasingly profitable. These displaced peasants were to become the new working class, owning no means of livelihood and with only their ability to work left to them.

The working class under capitalism was nominally and juridically free (neither serfs nor slaves, except on the colonial plantations of the New World where African slaves produced the surpluses that made planters some of the wealthiest people in the world). Now, however, they no longer controlled any means of subsistence (land). And the Industrial Revolution would eventually deprive them of their own tools. They were themselves commodities (wage slaves) forced by an economy driven by capital accumulation to sell their labor power in exchange for wages, on labor markets subject to the fluctuating needs of a new ruling class of capitalists. Capitalists paid workers a subsistence wage that represented the value of only a portion of what the worker produced, while owning the entire product of workers’ labor to be sold for profit. As a result of turning the peasants into workers with no way to feed and clothe themselves, English markets were the first to take a step toward mass-market production and consumption by producing for sale the basic staples such as food and clothing. But such markets now at least partially rested on the demand of wageworkers (as they still do today, representing roughly 70%). Yet worldwide, workers’ wages were (are) almost always barely enough for subsistence.

Subsistence farming was left in the dust; production of commodities for the market would become the main goal everywhere. Capitalism for the first time in human history introduced a mode of production based on individual capitalist-operated units such as England’s farms that produced for exchange and consistently demanded the most “efficient” methods (those which produced the greatest amount for the least cost, via machinery that eliminated labor, and/or cuts in wages, the latter being the most “elastic” of the cost-cutting measures) to keep overall production expenses low. This economic system replaced the basic peasant subsistence agriculture prevailing throughout previous human history. The new capitalism introduced a dynamic relentless competitive drive that led to innovation and exponentially expanded production, especially after the Industrial Revolution that could not have happened without this earlier capitalistic development. In terms of population growth and technical innovations, history appeared to speed up.

Capitalism has continued the rule of an elite, arguably the most powerful in history and committed to an economic system that knows no boundaries, depends on endless production and consumption (non-stop growth on a finite planet), and now threatens global environmental destruction. For millennia landed elites everywhere confronted peasants from whose labor they lived and grew relatively wealthy. Today’s big capitalist elites, however, now exploit a global working class whose origins we have just discussed, and whose labor has resulted in the creation of a class of billionaires for the first time in history. The competitive struggles between and among capitalist, over control of trade and market share, natural resources, and access to the cheapest labor, have led to almost constant international conflict, including two colossal world wars in the twentieth century, wars fought for elite wealth and power, but using workers (and peasants) as cannon fodder. In defense of their interests, workers have been on a collision course with individual capitalists (and their states) since the 16th century. In more recent times, they have even confronted the capitalist class with the specter of revolution. The socialists of the 19th century and the communists of the 20th led workers and peasants in defensive struggles and, at times of crisis and war, even aimed to overthrow the rule of capital in the world. They did not succeed in this, though their efforts were met with some success in several countries where peasant exploitation lasted well into modern times. But by the end of the twentieth century, workers’ gains had been reversed, an unprecedented inequality prevails everywhere in the world, especially in the Global South, and working classes have been on the defensive everywhere.

Elite rule thus continues in the monopoly phase of capitalism that has concentrated power into fewer hands worldwide than in all previous history. Elites have now had centuries of ruling experience, and they have the same enemies – the world’s working classes. They are in possession of the instruments of control (such as mass media) through which they deploy a complex of old and new ideologies on every imaginable front, much of which is designed to divide workers by race, gender, age, and any other categories our rulers can come up with to pit one group of working people against another. All of this is, of course, always backed up by their monopoly of state violence, which we can see in action virtually every day. Look to France for just one of many examples.

Nor is class struggle their only war front. Today’s endless wars are waged for control of the world’s increasingly shrinking resources (oil, water, cheap labor, markets) sought after by monopoly capitalist interests led by big finance that has profited most from the production and encouragement of inflated debt bubbles like the real estate market that collapsed in 2007-8. The US has of course been the leader in this process, the “hegemon” whose post-World War II military supremacy allowed it to ride roughshod over the world, with the major exceptions of Russia and China. This has included enormously destructive wars in Korea and Vietnam, where the US wanted to set an example of what can happen to small, peripheral countries who try to control their own resources and destinies. Now, with the momentary defeat of communism, the rise of China to a global state-capitalist rival power, the recovery of a now-capitalist Russia from the US efforts to turn it into a neo-liberal colony after 1989, and the incipient alliance of these two former communist powers, the imperialist prospects of the US have taken a turn for the worst. A new cold war is upon us that portends another major conflict of imperialist powers like what overtook the world in 1914 and 1939. Today’s rulers have available and have consistently used “weapons of mass destruction” unimaginable during the previous timespan of elite rule. Nuclear arms treaties are being ripped up and new nuclear weapons, with hypersonic delivery systems are being devised. If this were not enough to bring into being a world mass movement against capitalism, indeed against any further continuation of elite rule, the prospect of continued man-made global climate change has also stepped with frightening consequences onto the current stage of human history. Climate scientists like Ian Angus are even labeling it a new epoch, the Anthropocene, marked by the increasingly out of control production of carbon by the burning of fossil fuels that is wreaking havoc with the weather, the world’s oceans and supply of fresh water as well as unprecedented mass extinctions that are likely to include that of humanity itself. In the face of this, it is crystal clear that our elites are determined to do nothing about this situation created by their own economic practices, nothing that would cut into their profits. These conditions will add to the pressures for more resource wars up to and including the existential danger of another imperialist war now facing humanity as a whole.

So where does this leave us? Here comes the hard part that nobody seems to want to take in, and indeed it is the toughest nut to be cracked. Lots of people are pointing out the problems, even fingering capitalism as the main source of them. And there has been plenty of fight back everywhere. But few are confronting the political import of Lenin’s timely question: What is to be done? This is not surprising given the power of big capital to shape what people think. Worldwide collective democratic decision-making processes must replace the constant destructive competition of elite rule. The people who actually do the work should control the economy and operate it for the long-term sustainable benefit of everyone, not the profits of a few. And this program needs to be on the agenda everywhere; it needs to be an international movement of the world’s working classes, operated by and for the workers themselves. But it should also be clear that capitalist opposition to this will stop at nothing. Witness the record, just in England and the US, of massacres of workers who were resisting capitalist power, mostly in efforts to win recognition for their unions, not to mention the ferocious opposition to socialist and especially revolutionary communist movements that sought to do away with capitalism in favor of the collective power of the working class. Winston Churchill (no relation) recognized the rise of fascism in the ‘twenties as an antidote to Bolshevism, and today’s rulers have few qualms about reviving this genocidal monstrosity to protect their system. Add to the physical repression the almost constant drumbeat of anti-communism emanating from the top that has been a long and almost completely successful elite effort to demonize, distort, and suppress workers’ opportunities and efforts to even think about overthrowing capitalism and revolutionizing the way we exist. The capitalist-owned media, institutionalized politics and government, police and the army are all major players in protecting and preserving the capitalist status quo, and will continue to be so. Yet we seem to be running out of time to build the kind of mass international movement that can transform the dire situation we find ourselves in.

I came of age as a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time of great intellectual and political ferment; a time of mass actions in the streets in support of civil rights, equality, and an end to the seemingly endless Vietnam War. And, for some of us, it was also a time to consider the sources of inequality and war, and the alternatives to this. The floodgates were open to ideas that were previously out of bounds. Our rulers could not easily contain it, though they eventually reasserted control and have worked overtime to demonize and discredit this formative experience ever since. Nevertheless, I see no shortcuts or easy paths around eliminating the source of our problems, and can only recommend that we re-examine the successes and failures of the revolutionary movements of the past couple of centuries in an effort to see a way forward politically. To do this we must NOT leave judgment in the hands of the capitalists. We need to avoid all of the efforts of capital to mislead, distort, dismiss and slander the efforts of the great revolutionaries of the past: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, V.I. Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and so many unsung others who lived, fought and sacrificed for the good of humanity. We also need to understand that anyone trying to change things for the benefit of the masses of the people – even when they try to play within the rules set by big business — will be the targets of endless media efforts to demonize and disqualify them.

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Chuck Churchill is a retired lecturer in history. He taught at Cal State Chico and Oregon State University.

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