The Left has long dominated the basic idea of two classes in society — the common people and the power elite — each with its own, usually conflicting, interests. When the Left speaks that way, the Right tends to accuse it of “class warfare,” even though conservatives have recently adopted such rhetoric. To reconcile the two groups’ different versions of class analysis, and to see why neither grasps the full picture, we can refer to the classical-liberal tradition that first employed the class analysis that has survived to this day, albeit in altered forms.
Libertarian historian Ralph Raico identifies the origins of class analysis within old-school liberalism, not Marxism or modern leftism. In his talk “Classical-Liberal Roots of Marxist Class Analysis,” delivered at an event sponsored by the Ludwig von Mises Institute in October 1988, Raico said,
We can have a theory of class conflict but one that has nothing to do with Marx, one that in fact antedated Marx. Because the fact of the matter is that there was a theory of class conflict developed by classical liberals before Marxism and on which Marx himself drew.
As Raico explains in his important work “The Conflict of Classes: Liberal vs. Marxist Theories,” Marx himself appears a little confused on the definition of class, gravitating between one based on economic production and another based on legal caste. “The history of all hitherto existing society,” Marx famously wrote, “is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another.” As Raico observes, those distinctions all rely on legalities. At times, however, Marx ridiculed the very idea that class was grounded in power.
Marx did not claim to invent class theory. “No credit is due to me,” he said, “for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economics the economic anatomy of the classes.”
Marx was probably referring to the ideas prominent among such 19th-century French scholars as Augustin Thierry and Charles Dunoyer, as well as Jean-Baptiste Say and his followers Charles Comte and Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui. Say loved commerce and saw government privilege handed out to favored economic interests as a great sin: “If one individual, or one class, can call in the aid of authority to ward off the effects of competition, it acquires a privilege at the cost of the whole community.” An important component in this liberal class theory is the emphasis on opposing war and standing armies. Professional armies were seen as part of the ruling class.
Blanqui, in Raico’s words, wrote “what is probably the first history of economic thought, published in 1837,” in which the French classical 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. [Emphasis in original.]
In “Libertarian Class Analysis,” appearing in Freedom Daily (2006, now Future of Freedom: https://bit.ly/1j9QtAH), Sheldon Richman noted that the Manchester School’s classical-liberal rhetoric adopted class analysis, as seen in Richard Cobden and John Bright’s fight against the Corn Laws. Bright viewed the 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.”
Other 19th-century stalwarts of classical liberalism carried on this tradition. In the 1830s, American editor William Leggett, who favored separation of banking and government, identified the corporate state, and foreshadowed the most astute of today’s Wall Street Occupiers two centuries later:
Have we not, too, our privileged orders? our scrip nobility? aristocrats, clothed with special immunities, who control, indirectly, but certainly, the power of the state, monopolise the most copious source of pecuniary profit, and wring the very crust from the hard hand of toil? Have we not, in short, like the wretched serfs of Europe, our lordly master? … If any man doubts how these questions should be answered, let him walk through Wall-street.
John C. Calhoun believed that government divided society “into tax-payers and tax-consumers.” And French theorist Frédéric Bastiat saw legal plunder as the basis of class division:
Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are victims. Thus, when plunder is organized by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter — by peaceful or revolutionary means — into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.
According to libertarians, Marx transformed class analysis to focus on the economic exploitation of workers. At times he saw the state itself as the ruling class — a “parasite feeding upon, and clogging, the free movement of society” — and its executive as an “appalling parasitic body, which enmeshes the body of French society like a net and chokes all its pores.” At other times, he regarded the state as the capitalists’ tool — the true ruling class being the capitalists. Under mercantilism and proto-corporatist systems, wealthy merchants held political power, and so Marx easily adapted analysis from a theory based on legally defined categories to one based on one’s status in the process of economic production. His focus on the capitalists who use the state to exploit workers rather than on the state itself has allowed class analysis to become a rationale for expanding state power rather than dismantling it.
Modern libertarians have carried the torch in identifying class analysis as an important part of educating the people about their plight and fomenting intellectual revolution. Murray Rothbard’s work was full of libertarian class analysis, as seen in his strategic writings and such writings as “Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy” and “Anatomy of the State.” In 1977, guided by libertarian class consciousness, he wrote that the mark of a radical libertarian was that he demonstrates “a deep and pervasive hatred of the State and all of its works, based on the conviction that the State is the enemy of mankind.”
Modern radicals, such as “the Levellers, Patrick Henry, Tom Paine, Joseph Priestley, the Jacksonians, Richard Cobden,” and other historical antecedents, saw themselves as actual enemies of the state, “which must be hacked away” wherever possible. While Marxist economics has informed radical leftist class theory, Austrian economics guided Rothbard’s. Finding that his economics mentor, Ludwig von Mises, had touched on class analysis himself, Rothbard, writing the preface to a 1978 publication of Mises’s Clash of Group Interests and Other Essays, wrote,
[We] have to abandon the cozy view that all of us, we and our privileged rulers alike, are in a continuing harmony of interest…. [We] conclude … that the interests of the State privileged and of the rest of society are at loggerheads — and further, that only moral principles beyond utilitarianism can ultimately settle the dispute between them.
In 1977 John Hagel and Walter Grinder wrote in their seminal paper “Toward a Theory of State Capitalism: Ultimate Decision-Making and Class Structure” (Journal of Libertarian Studies),
The idea of economic interest and economic hegemony or exploitation is directly related to a sense of legitimacy and, as such, it is of key importance in determining all socioeconomic and political relationships. Ultimately, the question of how individuals will relate to each other in economic matters and in the broader matrix of social organization (i.e., whether it will be exploitative or not) will be determined in this realm of ideas.
Richman urges his fellow libertarians to “understand liberal class theory. They must not shy away from it because it was hijacked by the Marxists…. [They] should use whatever influence they have to raise the class-consciousness of all honest, productive people. That is, the industrious must be shown that they are daily victims of the ruling political class.” American history teacher Charles Burris has gone so far as to write in his annotated bibliography of the New Deal (LewRockwell.com, August 1, 2007), “An understanding of Libertarian Class Analysis is the ‘litmus test’ separating real libertarians from alternative lifestyle dilettantes dabbling in free market theory.”
The prospects for a new libertarian class consciousness
From a libertarian perspective, the Tea Party movement and Occupy Wall Street are both onto something, but have major, even fatal, flaws. Polls have tended to show that Tea Partiers became much less resentful of Washington as soon as Republicans won the midterm elections in 2010 and in some conservative states were less likely to support the most libertarian Republican candidate in 2012, Ron Paul, than were other Republicans. The social conservatism within the Tea Party was probably part of the reluctance because, even though Paul is culturally conservative, his libertarianism kept him from making social issues prominent in his campaign. Another major factor was the inherent conflict between the militarism of the Right, which Angelo Codevilla identified as a core characteristic of the conservative Country Class, and Ron Paul’s highest priority of ending America’s wars. Liberty and smaller government appear inherently impossible to reconcile with core values that dominate the populist Right.
The Occupiers, for their part, were hostile to corporate statism, but too often saw more central planning as the solution. They seemed to vacillate between unworkable radical leftist economic views that did not resonate well with many Americans or most libertarians, and social democratic ideas that, if anything, would only further empower the entrenched establishment. They also ultimately tended toward a partisanship that meant voting for Democratic politicians to stop Republicans, regardless of how illiberal those Democrats were.
There is hope on the horizon, however. Issues such as NSA spying, proposed military strikes against Syria on which Obama failed to persuade the public, and the failures of the Affordable Care Act have appeared to split both Left and Right. New polls show that a majority of young Americans are dissatisfied with Obama, and that other demographics that tend to vote Democratic, such as Hispanics, are also losing faith in the president. A slight majority of Americans now favor a more noninterventionist foreign policy. Most of the public want to legalize marijuana, and a strong majority distrust Washington generally. Conservatives are losing on social issues, and so-called liberals seem to be once again slowly learning the limits of central planning.
It appears that a political realignment might really be possible, with the more libertarian elements of the Left and Right coming around to opposing wars, corporate welfare, civil-liberties violations, and federal economic meddling across the board. Both the Tea Party and Occupy movement had imperfect but potentially radical conceptions of class analysis, and it is possible they have paved the way for a more libertarian conception of the individual versus the state to take hold. It is the libertarians’ chance to explain to our disaffected friends on both sides of the spectrum what they’ve gotten right and what they’ve failed to understand. Our time is now.
This article was originally published in the July 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.