Most Americans have no trouble believing that God exists, but they are uncertain about whether an American ruling class exists. They seem to think the idea of a ruling class is restricted to European aristocracies of yore and assorted eastern potentates of today. InThe American Ruling Class Lewis Lapham takes a wry trip across America, ostensibly to educate two fresh-faced graduates about the ways of power and privilege. Some of their interlocutors express puzzlement about the very idea of a ruling class in America, while others seize on the phrase with palpable disdain for anyone who has doubts about the concept. The result of these conversations is instructive and sobering; I was particularly struck by the sheer difficulty of living in America on a standard working wage—the kind a waiter might expect to earn. Clearly, some people earn too little, while others “earn” too much. Surely there can be no serious doubt that a minority of the population commands more power per capita than the majority: some people own disproportionately large amounts and have access to political power that is commensurate to their wealth. If that is what we mean by a ruling class, then there indubitably exists one in America.
But the matter is a bit more complicated than the filmmakers allow. First, the American ruling class, unlike old aristocracies, is not hereditary: you can become a member of it without being born into it. As many commentators in this film observe, it is possible to join the class from outside of it: an education at a prestigious university, along with some charm and ability, can earn you entry to, say, a Wall Street brokerage. This is very different from the British ruling class, say, which cannot invite you to join it (not that it would want to). So there is an element of meritocracy in the American version, which
mitigates the charge of injustice that is rightly brought against hereditary wealth and power (though having rich parents in America is definitely a step in the right direction).
Secondly, and the point is entirely ignored in this otherwise excellent film, the wealth and power of the minority in America depends very largely on pleasing the relatively underprivileged majority. If you are the CEO of a corporation that makes stuff, you have to make stuff that the majority wants to buy—even if that majority is poorly off. You can’t afford not to care what the majority feels like buying and doing. This holds for all consumer goods and services except the luxury end of the market. The demands of the multitude therefore set the parameters for the prosperity of the elite. And the multitude also determines the kind of general culture that prevails in America—food, entertainment, etc. The masses may not have much power on a per capita basis, but they certainly have enormous power as a totality, through sheer force of numbers. Accordingly, the ruling class of America might with some justice be identified as the relatively poor majority, since they determine who among the oligarchs succeeds in the marketplace (Bill Gates couldn’t have done it unless people wanted what he had to sell). In other words, the working class is really the ruling class, while the upper class is pathetically subservient to their interests and preferences.
My point is not that working people are better off than people who earn a lot more; on a per capita basis there lives are nowhere near as good. But the sheer number of them, combined with a democratic form of capitalism, gives them more power as a class than any other class. True, they have no lobbyists in Washington pushing their agenda, but their combined purchasing power is what ultimately makes the rich richer. The preferences of the majority have decisive power in determining the content of the culture. (This is why the business class is so intent on manipulating the majority: they know they depend on the majority to maintain their privilege.)
The right thing to say, absent a political ax to grind, is that America has many ruling classes, depending upon what we mean by the term and what the power in question is the power to do. In some respects, even the humble teacher or academic constitutes the ruling class, since she has the power to determine how people shall be educated. The people who run the media also rule the dissemination of information, so have more power in that respect than anyone else. And so on. The simple binary opposition of The American Ruling Class fails to capture this complexity—however right it is about the unjust concentration of wealth in the hands of some at the expense of others. The film contrives to give the impression that what is wrong with America is that too much power lies in the hands of a privileged minority; but from another perspective the problem is rather that culture and policy are too tied to what the majority likes and values (food, television, music, etc). I’d say that the problem is the symbiosis between these two groups: the elite is beholden to the masses to maintain its power, because of the omnipresence of the market, while the masses are deprived of a decent share of the wealth created by their work and market behavior. The ruling class of America is really the elite-proletarian complex—the interdependence of business oligarchs and the consuming masses.