Saturday, September 11, 2010

Two Cheers for Conspiracy Theories

I don’t have much of a dog in this race. But I confess that I’m put off by blanket attempts to distance anti-authoritarian politics from “conspiracy theories.”

In practical terms, whatever the literal meaning of the words, a conspiracy theory is an account of an event that differs significantly from the account of the event endorsed by the mainstream media and the political establishment—characteristically in a way that can be seen as injurious to the establishment’s interests, and often involving the attribution of responsibility for mischief to the establishment or its agents.

If those C. Wright Mills called “the power elite” are essentially thugs and bandits—as a sensible class analysis suggests that they are—then there is surely good reason to expect them to engage in theft and violence. If political leaders are selected for their ambition—and so their willingness to put principle to one side—and their inclination to serve the interests of the power elite, there is surely good reason to expect them, too, to engage in theft and violence. Thus, there’s an argument to be made that a story suggesting that members of the power elite or their retainers in the political class are up to no good is more likely to be true than a similar story about an ordinary member of the population.

Similarly, if the members of “the power elite” play a significant role in shaping both state policy and the stances of media companies, there is good reason to assume that the stories injurious to the interests of the power elite are less likely to receive support from the mainstream media and government officials than stories beneficial to their interests. So it is sensible to expect that true stories of misdeeds by the power elite will not be endorsed or publicized by the mainstream media.

That the members of the power elite and the political class are more likely than ordinary people to be involved in plunder and murder and that the mainstream media are unlikely to give much attention to stories of their involvement in such activities does not, of course, show that any particular story about elite misconduct that is ridiculed in the mainstream media is correct—each such story should be gauged on its own merits. However, it does provide good reason to suspect that some conspiracy theories might be correct and to refuse to dismiss such theories simply because they are treated as silly by the mainstream media.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Class Struggle, Conservative Style

Codevilla, Anthony. The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do about It. New York: Beaufort 2010. Pp. xxvi, 150. Index. 978-0825305580. $12.99. Paper.


Class is a libertarian issue.

When today’s believers in free markets hear someone mention “class struggle,” they may be tempted to think of Karl Marx. The rhetoric of class conflict has been largely Marxist during the past century. But students of libertarian history know that classical liberals Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer pioneered class analysis before Marx (he gave them credit for doing so). Class was a central feature of the work of such libertarian stalwarts as Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Jay Nock, and Frank Chodorov. Class theory formed the heart of libertarian and one-time SDS leader Carl Oglesby’s neglected classic, The Yankee and Cowboy War. An article on class theory was featured in the very first issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies. And class analysis has continued to be an aspect of the work of such otherwise very different libertarian scholars as Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Roderick T. Long.

A simple way of getting at the difference between Marxist and libertarian versions of class analysis is this: for orthodox Marxist class theory, the problem is private property; for libertarian class theory, the problem is aggression.

Orthodox Marxism has tended to see class stratification as rooted in the institution of private property. Random differences in circumstances and endowments will lead to disparities in property. The existence of property rights will enable the wealthy to consolidate their holdings, transmit their property inter-generationally, and create an entrenched ruling class, which dominates political and economic life. Thus, the only way—according to orthodox Marxists—to deal with problem of poverty and oppression that results from class stratification is to dispossess the wealthy of the capital goods they’ve been able to acquire because of the property system and to eliminate the institution of private property in capital goods entirely.

Libertarian class theory, by contrast, sees the institution of private property as a bulwark of freedom, as long as it protects property that has been justly acquired—acquired by what Oppenheimer famously termed the economic means: characteristically, by homesteading unowned land or physical objects or receiving property through voluntary transfer from others. However, libertarian class theory maintains, from the very beginning of organized human society, some people have preferred to use force (or fraud) to obtain property—to employ the political means of obtaining wealth. For their mutual protection, and to make extracting wealth from others easier, some of the thugs engaged in the use of the political means created governments; a combination of propaganda, memory loss, and the tendency to treat existing arrangements as beyond question covered these governments with a patina of legitimacy.

Not all the thugs occupied government positions themselves, of course. Many simply welcomed the protection the government provided for their ill-gotten gains and concentrated on making more wealth. Without directly participating in politics, they improved their economic positions by ensuring that their existing property holdings were treated as legitimate, by stealing land and other resources (in partnership with the government or with its blessing), and by extracting privileges from the government—often lubricating its machinery with their wealth—that enabled them to increase their possessions. Others joined them as beneficiaries of state privilege. Some people who might have become wealthy initially through voluntary exchange could also use their wealth to secure privileges from the state. And some people who acquired governmental power because of their skills at electioneering or bureaucratic infighting used their positions not only to do the bidding of the wealthy but also to gain wealth and enter the economic elite themselves.

For libertarian class theory, the ruling class comprises those people who control the state and those whose wealth and social influence depend primarily on state-secured privilege (who are generally, in turn, either members of the first group or behind-the-scenes manipulators of those in the first group). Following C. Wright Mills, we can refer to those at the top of the twin political and financial pyramids as “the power elite.”

For libertarians, as Jeremy Weiland has put it, “the free market [would] eat the rich”: in a market genuinely liberated from politically secured privilege—including patents and copyrights, tariffs, land engrossment by the state, and state control of the money supply—it would be much harder for people to sediment great wealth and even harder for them to keep it. Competitive pressure would make it difficult for people to hang on to great fortunes. Contra the Marxists, the free market is the enemy, not the friend, of economic and social stratification. The rigged markets that obtain in today’s corporatist economies, by contrast, do indeed help those who already have wealth and power to retain it.

The libertarian enthusiasm for revisionist history—championed especially by Murray Rothbard—is inexplicable without an understanding of the centrality of class analysis to libertarian thought. Libertarian revisionism emphasizes that civics textbook explanations of economic-cum-political events, which take politicians’ high-flown rhetoric about philosophical ideals and military necessities at face value, frequently mask the self-interested pursuit of power by economic elites. The revisionist approach possesses more explanatory power if, as libertarian class theory holds, there really are distinguishable common interests and socio-cultural characteristics that link influential people and both encourage and enable them to manipulate the political process to their benefit.


Given the importance of non-Marxist class analysis for libertarians, it might seem like good news that Boston University’s Angelo Codevilla has made a contribution to the genre. In The Ruling Class, Codevilla argues that America has a ruling class—consisting of the people who “hold[] the commanding heights of government” (xv), those, “whether in government power directly or as officers in companies,” whose “careers and fortunes depend on government” (11). The Ruling Class is made up of “relatively few people supported by no more than one-third of Americans” (7). That third of Americans is, roughly speaking, socio-culturally liberal and, at the same time (and not coincidentally from Codevilla’s point of view) enthusiastic about expert management. While Democrats tend to support the Ruling Class, “[t]he Republican Party” hasn’t “disparage[d] the Ruling Class, because most of its officials are or would like to be part of it” (5).

The interests and concerns of the Ruling Class, Codevilla maintains, are sharply at odds with those of the rest of us. Well, about two-thirds of the rest of us—socially conservative people Codevilla calls “the Country Class” or the “Country Party.” The Country Party’s defining characteristics are its conservative attitudes regarding “marriage, children, and religious practice.” It favors civil society over the state as a means of solving problems, and prefers home schools to government schools. Politically, it “can be defined in terms of its lack of connection with government, and above all by attitudes opposite to those of the ruling class” (53). (Since the Ruling Class is said to valorize science, it is perhaps not surprising that Darwin is blamed for promoting elitism [16-7] and belief in evolution is identified as a sign of being “bitter about America” [19].)

The Country Class believes in human equality (57). And we can see what Codevilla’s getting at when he says this as a version of what Roderick Long has labeled equality of authority: no one is by nature anyone else’s boss; and attempts by experts paternalistically to manage others’ lives are rightly causes of anger. Thus, Codevilla opposes top-down planning, and notes that the Country Class “views the way people live their lives as the result of countless private choices rather than as the consequence of someone else’s master plan.” But he simultaneously assures the reader that “[t]he Country Class is not anti-government, just non-governmental” (53). Apparently members of the Country Class can be “government officials or officers of major corporations whose decisions will have far-reaching effects” (54). It is unclear how to square this possibility with the claim that the Ruling Class consists of everyone associated with the state, as all government officials and most officers of most major corporations certainly are.

“The Country Class,” Codevilla asserts, “thinks that individuals, and in special circumstances local elected officials—not federal or state bureaucrats—have the right to decide what kind of light bulbs a home should have, how much water should flow from a shower nozzle, what kind of toilet you should install” (56). (One might think local elected officials were officious meddlers just like federal or state politicians and bureaucrats. Perhaps they know more about local conditions. But this on its own doesn’t give them any more justified authority over other people’s lives.)

On its face, Codevilla’s proposed division sounds very much like that of standard libertarian class analysis—especially when he argues against corporate bailouts (1-2), notes the ruling class’s penchant for non-defensive, imperial warfare (23), assails “crony capitalism” (xx, 30-1), complains about the elite’s penchant for “picking [economic] winners and losers” (33), notes that the ruling class is bipartisan (3), fingers organized medicine as a politically privileged group (39), and objects to rule by paternalistic, managerial experts. When he writes that “[t]he Country Class is convinced that big business, big government, and big finance are linked as never before and that ordinary people are more unequal than ever” (55), populists and left-libertarians alike can be expected to cheer.

Codevilla argues that the ruling class’s power continues to grow as people are encouraged to accept the authority of culturally sanctified experts. And his brief against managerialist paternalism will ring true not only to libertarians but to decentralists across the political spectrum: we don’t need experts to run our lives, and trust in professionals, combined with a dismissive attitude toward ordinary people’s capacity for good judgment, can easily be seen as laying the groundwork for friendly fascism.


But the fact that Rush Limbaugh is credited as the author of the book’s preface will alert even the not-too-careful reader that this is not a libertarian book. The problem is that Codevilla often seems to lose sight of the difference between cultural and political-economic divisions.

For instance, the Country Class as intensely patriotic (59), despite the ease with which patriotism can be associated with just the sort of abuse of power against which members of the Country Class are supposed to—somewhat inconsistently—protest. Codevilla also seems to miss the degree to which the state is thoroughly involved in supporting the preferences of the Country Class. Contrasting the preferences of the Ruling Class and the Country Party, Codevilla maintains that, “left to themselves, Americans use land inefficiently in suburbs and exurbs” (33). Similarly—also, presumably, when left to themselves—“Americans drive big cars, eat lots of meat and other unhealthy things, and go to the doctor whenever they feel like it” (34). He seems blissfully unaware here of the impact of land-use policy, tax policy, and road construction policy on people’s living, driving, eating, and health-care consumption patterns.

The pro-family agenda he attributes to members of the Country Class challenges “emptying marriage of legal sanction, promoting abortion, and progressively excluding parents from their children’s education” (72). Codevilla articulates a disconnected set of attitudes that link the members of his Country Party: opposition to “higher taxes and expanding government, subsidizing political favorites, social engineering, approval of abortion, etc.” (52). It might be thought that opposition to abortion could be implemented legally only through “expanding government” and that involving the government in reducing or eliminating abortion was precisely a matter of “subsidizing political favorites”—of enabling some people to see their preferences implemented without having to pay the full cost of doing so. Obviously, this will not be the case if one judges that abortion is murder; but Codevilla certainly offers no argument for thinking this, or even much in the way of an elaboration of the details of a worldview within which it would make sense.

Codevilla is frustrated by the evacuation of religion from the public square, and he suggests that members of the Country Class are as well. Obviously, again, it’s hard to see how this has much to do with the desire not to be bossed around that clearly animates members of the country Class. But set that to one side for a moment: I fear sometimes that people who say things like this are simply tone-deaf to the ways in which members of religious minorities—adherents of religious traditions other than Christianity, moderate and liberal Christians, and non-religious people—experience the deployment of Christian symbols and language in the public sphere. The problem is not that people should be silenced when they want to give voice to their religious identities. The problem, instead, is that the state must either be neutral in ways that many people will find exclusionary, or else it must take stands that others will find exclusionary. There is no problem with religion in the public square if that means on the editorial pages of newspapers, on movie screens, in vigorous conversations between neighbors. The problem arises, instead, because when people say they want religion in the public square, what they often really mean is that they want religious convictions and communities to shape the policies of the state—or at least to have the opportunity to do so. If the state were a purely voluntary association which its members were free to abandon, there would be no problem with the presence of religion in its decision making. But the state is not voluntary: it is coercive. It claims territory and then demands that anyone in that territory submit to its demands and fund its activities. For this kind of organization to be shaped by religious principles is to open the door to religious tyranny. The only real solution to the problem of religion in public life is to ensure that all public life is state-free, organized on the basis of fully voluntary cooperation.

Codevilla bizarrely denies Ronald Reagan, an immensely successful and powerful politician with intimate connections with the wealthy and powerful, membership in the Ruling Class (75). Why? Because Codevilla asserts, without evidence, that Reagan shared the agenda of the Country Class. Since he did not in fact do much of anything to reduce state management of people’s lives, since he actually grew the federal government substantially, it seems far simpler to maintain either that Reagan deliberately deceived the members of the Country Class or that he shared their views but didn’t care much about them. To blame Ruling Class advisors for Reagan’s failure to adhere to Country Class values is as na├»ve as blaming establishmentarians a generation younger for keeping Barack Obama from ending war, torture, domestic surveillance, and corporate bailouts. In each case, it’s hard not to be reminded of the Russian serfs who really believed that, if the tsar actually understood what they were undergoing, he would be only too happy to liberate them—why, oh, why, they wondered, did his corrupt and wicked courtiers keep him from knowing the truth.


In the course of distinguishing the Ruling Class from the Country Class, Codevilla dismisses official apologies for such clusters of events as the use of nuclear weapons against noncombatants in World War II, the slave trade, and the institution of slavery (which he trivializes by writing: “some Americans held African slaves until 1865 and others were mean to Negroes thereafter” [25]) as apologies offered by elites on behalf of their inferiors, from whom they implicitly distance themselves in the act of apologizing.

The temptation to self-righteous condemnation of others is real and persistent. And if Codevilla had simply observed that no one has the right to apologize on behalf of anyone else, his argument would carry more weight. Of course, to acknowledge that would be to acknowledge that the United States as a going concern is a fiction, that people are responsible for their own actions, and that an entity that claims to act on behalf of others without their express consent lacks legitimacy. That hardly seems like the sort of argument he wants to defend, however.


The basic problem with Codevilla’s characterization of the Country Class’s putative agenda and identity is that the various elements don’t fit well with each other. Commitments to equality of authority, appreciation for civil society, and opposition to managerialism can be shared by a wide range of people, many of whom may value abortion rights, find marriage uninteresting, and loathe Christian radio. It is easy to see why someone who shared Codevilla’s family agenda would object to progressive managerialism; but there is no particular reason why someone who opposed progressive managerialism should be inclined to share Codevilla’s family agenda. There is not much, really, that links the Country Class’s social conservatism with its opposition to managerialist authority, unless opposition to managerialism is defined as an aspect of social conservatism. But the question would still be: what connects the various aspects of social conservatism thus defined?

I think this is because Codevilla’s work calls attention to two distinct problems, which he does not always clearly distinguish: the role of expert authority in our society and the role of the power elite in our society. It stands to reason that the power elite will employ experts to do its bidding. And experts may attempt self-aggrandizingly to increase their own social power. But it is crucial to distinguish between the managerial class and the ruling class.

He seems to maintain, with a straight face, that identity—embracing the values of educated, socio-cultural liberals—has more to do with membership in, and the agenda of, the ruling class than political and economic power. And this seems simply wrongheaded. The mistake is in supposing that what matters most about the Ruling Class is its members’ cultural identity or that its members’ primary goal is to force cultural change on the members of the Country Party. People often enjoy remaking others in their own images; but the principal objectives of America’s rulers seem to be much more prosaic than Codevilla’s narrative of culture war might seem to suggest: they want money and power, at home and abroad, with privileges for favored corporations, the various organs of the national security state to keep order domestically, and a global military presence to ensure access to resources and compliant cooperation with corporate interests around the world.

It may be—I offer no opinion on the matter—that a third of Americans (Codevilla’s figure) embrace generally liberal, cosmopolitan cultural values and that two-thirds are, in some important respects, more traditional in orientation. It may also be the case that many members of the power elite tend to be culturally liberal. But it obviously doesn’t follow that members of the power elite are unwilling to implement the culturally conservative preferences of “the Country Class” (they certainly seem to be when it’s politically beneficial to do so) or that no members of the power elite are culturally conservative.

Codevilla might be read as implying that statist leftists interested in the environment, for instance, were part of the ruling class; it would be more reflective of his argumentative approach, and far more consistent with a libertarian class analysis, to see environmentalists and advocates of human rights, say, as manipulated sources of rhetorical cover for corporatist politicians on the Democratic side of the political aisle, just as sincere proponents of free markets are consistently co-opted by Republicans. While there are surely exceptions, it is safe to assume that very, very little in the way of legislation or policy that doesn’t serve the interests of one segment or more of the power elite is ever adopted or implemented. In general and over the long-term, the rules aren’t made over the objections of politicians; and, in general, and over the long-term, politicians either are, or serve the interests of, members of the power elite. And it’s the economic and political manipulation engaged in by the power elite—think vast industry bailouts, subsidies disguised as consumer protection regulations, imperial warfare, the growth of the national security state, the legitimation of torture—that really ought to be troubling to coastals and heartlanders, the socio-culturally conservative and the socio-culturally liberal alike.

A similar problem with Codevilla’s narrative is that it seems to imply that government served the interests of ordinary people at some point before the rise of Progressive-era managerialism. While the power of the state over ordinary people’s lives was certainly less in 1800 than it is in 2010, and while politicians doubtless didn’t have quite the same sense of themselves as capable of managing the minute details of other people’s affairs, politicians didn’t serve the people. The Puritan strand of American intellectual and cultural life—which ultimately helped to birth Progressivism—was certainly far from inert. And politicians served the interests of the economic elite—as its lackeys or as its members—quite as much in earlier eras of American history as they do now, given the tools the political system made available to them.

Libertarians don’t share Marxism’s view that market freedom is responsible for society-wide injustice. Indeed, for libertarians, the restrictions on market freedom imposed by ruling-class privileges are focal instances of injustice. But libertarians do share with Marxists the recognition that the ruling class sits atop the state, enriching its members at gun-point—at the expense of everyone else. For libertarian class theory, the division between those who deploy or reap massive profits from aggressive force on the one hand and those who are the victims of that force on the other is the division that matters. Codevilla and those who read The Ruling Class appreciatively should focus on that division, at which he gestures, rather than the cultural rift with which he seems sometimes to confuse it. Despite the superficial appeal of Codevilla’s analysis, libertarians, at any rate, have no reason to let themselves be drafted as conservative foot-soldiers in the culture war.


It is interesting to note that there are few, if any, arguments for the inferiority of the political, religious, and cultural positions Codevilla attributes to the Ruling Class. He seethes with resentment at many of these positions but he rarely tries to refute them; he simply assumes that Country Party readers will share his revulsion at the Ruling Class’s misbehavior. Perhaps the fifty-one pages of this 176-page book devoted to the texts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are designed to provide the rationales for his positions. If so, he does not explain how.

While he does not talk philosophy, however, he does talk strategy. The Republican Party is hopeless as a vehicle for Country Class aspirations, Codevilla acknowledges. The Democratic Party is the party of the Ruling Class. So the Country Party needs a political movement of its own. But such a movement, even if successful in ousting the Ruling Class, would face severe challenges. Most importantly: how would it avoid becoming entrenched and oppressive? As long as the penchant for entrenched power is explained simply as a product of progressive managerialism, then it might seem as if people with the right cultural values could simply turn the machinery of state around. We find much the same attitude expressed by leftists frustrated by elite dominance of the Democratic Party.

But if the problem is the state itself, there’s a more serious challenge to confront. If the people who run the state are almost unavoidably going to be members of the power elite, if the power elite can exert pressure on the state that others cannot, if the average public official is going to be more ambitious and thus less principled than the average person, then it seems as if a simple replacement of personnel won’t do the trick. A major cultural shift wouldn’t be sufficient to do so, either. Thus, we return to the basic solution to Codevilla’s problem, the one he keeps ignoring: if you want to get rid of the ruling class, you’ve got to get rid of the state. You’re got to strike the root.

Codevilla calls for cutting the size of government drastically. But he picks on such typical conservative whipping boys as the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts. A stateless society would not tax people to pay for the activities of entities like these, of course; but the impact not only on the public purse but also on people’s freedom and safety would be far, far greater if there were dramatic cuts in the government’s military budget. If foreign bases were closed, if the military were limited to defensive action within some reasonable range beyond US borders and its resources aligned accordingly, or if a standing army were eliminated entirely in favor of the kind of militia envisioned by the Founders, the consequences would be far more revolutionary than anything Codevilla explicitly mentions.

Codevilla seems repeatedly to step close to the brink and then step back. So, for instance, he writes: “to subject the modern administrative state’s administrative agencies to electoral control would require ordinary citizens to take an interest in any number of technical matters” (84). But it is the administrative state itself that it is a crucial aspect of the problem of disempowerment that so troubles Codevilla and the members of the Country Class. Why not eliminate the various administrative and regulatory agencies entirely, rather than asking how they might be managed differently?

Though Codevilla stresses the Country Class’s purported commitment to equality of authority (even if he doesn’t use the phrase), he does not, I think, take the implications of this kind of equality seriously enough. If he did, he would deny the authority of the local government officials as much as that of the federal and state-level ones. He would realize that the political conflicts over family and religion will prove interminable as long as there is a state apparatus for influence on which groups with different cultural agendas can contend. He would see that the real problems with the evisceration of civil society and the elimination of personal freedom can’t be solved unless the state itself is defanged.

Cultural politics serve to distract people from the fact that Mills’s Power Elite is, as Codevilla suggests, engaging in plunder on a grand scale. The managerial technocrats who do the bidding of the Ruling Class may come disproportionately from a particular cultural sub-group (though Codevilla offers no real evidence that they do). But it is the Ruling Class itself that is the problem. And Codevilla’s wrestling in his final chapter with the question of the nature of the political institutions needed to prevent the resurgence of the Ruling Class highlights the reality he seems unwilling to acknowledge: that Ruling Class plunder will persist as long as there is a state for the Ruling Class to control. The only way to eliminate the power of the Ruling Class is to eliminate the state.

A much shorter version of this review will appear in The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty.