Every so often some political commentator will confidently pronounce that those critical of, or angry at, the established order are not only misinformed, but paranoid and tantamount to conspiracy theorists. Amid the collapse of the political center ground, and all the anxiety about “post-truth” and “fake news,” this seems an increasingly widespread argument.
The dismissive allusions to “conspiracy theory” are well suited to the commentariat’s trademark condescension and political deflection. In fact, many of these same guardians of our public sphere seem as prone to conspiratorial thinking as any adolescent dabbling in memes.
In the United States, large sections of the liberal intelligentsia have become obsessed with the Russian subversion of American democracy, whilst in UK there is a similar sort of paranoid obsession with the hidden political forces behind Brexit. What else could possibly explain the dramatic implosion of a rational and prosperous political order?
People everywhere believe all manner of strange, interesting, and wrong things about the world. Our intention here, is not just to mock these liberal conspiracists or to defend some of the more speculative or outlandish ideas that may circulate on the Left.
But it is nonetheless important to defend the concept of “elites” and the distinct but related concept of “the ruling class,” as necessary components of left theory and strategy. If these elements are often lost in the abstractions of political economy and social theory, they are crucial to an understanding of how political choices are made and how we can change them.
One panel at the The World Transformed event held alongside the British Labour Party’s conference last month was called “A Movement in Government?”. It discussed the obstacles Corbynism would likely face once Labour is in office, and featured researcher Christine Berry, whose forthcoming book with Joe Guinan addresses these pressing strategic questions. The left-wing journalist Paul Mason, who was also among the panelists, discussed not only the opposition a Corbyn-led Labour government would face from the “ruling elite,” but also the opportunities that would come with state power.
These, he noted, would include wide ranging powers of appointments, not least to the Bank of England. The left-wing appointments to, and new remit at, the Bank of England would, Mason argued, be a game changer worldwide. “I have been able to meet one or two of the key six central bankers in the world,” he said, “and what they do is they meet every six weeks and decide everything in the world.” In discussing these “ultra-powerful” central bankers, Mason stressed that “there’s no conspiracy theory here.”
It was a just passing remark, but it raises an interesting question: what distinguishes conspiracy theory from the analysis of concentrated social power? Analyzing and indeed confronting the latter is central to the Left, and fundamentally separates it from liberalism. Yet there remains some unease among left-wing intellectuals with the language of “elites,” which can seem to sit uneasily with the class analysis so central to the Marxist tradition.
This usually latent discomfort was given an unusually forthright expression in an article in the New Statesman earlier this year. Discussing the never-ending allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party, two Marxist academics, Matt Bolton and Harry Pitts, took issue with the populist, anti-elite thrust of Corbynism. For these authors, there should be less rhetoric about the 1 percent and the “rigged system,” and more “understand[ing of] how fundamentally capitalist social relations shape the way in which we live.” The duo has now produced a book which, the publicity states, will further analyse the “conspiracist understanding of capitalism” they believe characterises “the Corbyn worldview.”
Bolton and Pitts are hardly typical of the Left. Both endorsed Owen Smith, the candidate of the right of the party when it attempted to oust Corbyn in 2016. But there is a wider tendency to see any discussion of elites as at best an unsophisticated distraction from structural analysis, and at worst conspiratorial. That this tendency exists is not surprising given the Left’s foundational rejection of individualized, moralistic critique in favor of an analysis of political economy, classes, and social structures.
The latter is, indeed, indispensable if we are to grasp the complexities of capitalist societies. But if taken to extremes the structuralist impulse — which resists any discussion of specific ruling class ideas and action — does exactly the opposite, leading us towards an abstract theorizing that is unable to pin down specific social interests or institutions.
Putting Capital Back Into Capitalism
A good place to start is to remind ourselves that what Marxists call “the ruling class” is not a figment of a paranoid political imagination; it describes actually existing human beings operating in actually existing institutions. The notion of ruling-class agency — or at least capitalist agency — was rather lost in a lot of mid-twentieth century Western Marxist theory when the Left sought to make sense of societies in which the capitalist class seemed weakened, yet culture was increasingly commercialized and class consciousness seemed in decline.
There are echoes of these agentless theories of capitalism in Bolton and Pitts’s aforementioned essay, in which they recommend the writings of the late Canadian Marxist theorist Moishe Postone. Postone, who is best known for his Marxist analysis of Nazi antisemitism, developed a revisionist formulation of the labor theory of value based around the idea that the key feature of capitalism is not the exploitation of workers by capitalists, but the fact that workers contribute through their labor to the very structures that exploit them. Capital, he therefore reasoned, could exist without capitalists.
Like many of his contemporaries, Postone took inspiration from Marx’s theory of alienation. He reinterpreted this by reference to a supposed later, “mature” Marx, a reference point which also inspired the theoretical apparatus of structuralist Marxism. In the writings of Althusser and Foucault, who strongly influenced the post-Marxist currents of the late twentieth century, not just the capitalist class, but human agency in general, all but disappeared amid the focus on agentless social structures.
In this sense, Postone was part of a broader intellectual tradition on the radical left that, as Wolfgang Streeck has noted, “treated [capital] as an apparatus rather than an agency, as means of production rather than a class.” This, Streeck argues, was an error. Capital is not just some social machinery, but “a self-willed and self-interested collective actor, strategic and capable of communication.”
The worry, also expressed by Bolton and Pitts, is that a supposedly “personalized critique” of this kind will inevitably slip into nationalism and antisemitism. And Streeck has been criticized in broadly these terms by Adam Tooze, who apprehensively notes his invocation of the nation-state against the “people of the market.”
Yet even if we accept Tooze’s critique of Streeck, it is not at all clear why this need be the case provided capitalists and associated elites are not invoked in racialized terms, and/or posited against “the nation.” Antisemitic ideology seeks to identify finance capital with Jews, but the problem lies not in opposition to finance capital, but the (morally and empirically) wrong idea that it should be associated with Jewish people.
A closely related argument here, is the claim that an anti-finance politics equally lends itself to reactionary concerns. But again, it is unclear why this should be the case provided such a position is rooted in a more general anticapitalism. In fact, to turn our political attention away from finance capital would be a bizarre move given that the centrality of finance to contemporary capitalism has been very clearly shown by a range of studies, not least Adam Tooze’s own recent book.
Indeed, in analyzing the “logics of power” at the heart of the global financial system, Tooze always maintains a clear conception of political agency when describing how financiers and policy elites responded to the global financial crisis.
He sees his approach as complementing others that seek to “[trace] the inner workings of the Davos mindset” (meaning the World Economic Forum held in the Swiss city of that name) and “the conformist and contradictory market-orientated culture they molded.” Are such studies, which turn our attention to the institutions and decision-makers at the heart of the capitalist system, to be dismissed as conspiracy theory?
Class Formation From Above
You’ve probably seen or heard some members of the ruling class on TV. If you have an important job perhaps you’ve even met a few in person. But most of us don’t rub shoulders with the masters of the universe. Nevertheless, we should try to consider these people — and they are people — in broadly the same analytical terms as we would others. This means recognizing that they do not have some automatic understanding of what their interests are, or how they are best served; in fact, they may strongly disagree with each other about both.
In his most celebrated work, the English Marxist historian E.P. Thompson described the process of class formation that led the English working class ultimately to become, in the Marxist jargon, a “class for itself,” i.e. a class become aware of its own interests. Thompson’s book largely lets the historical record speak for itself.
But implicit in his study, and more explicit in the preface, was the argument that class should be understood as a relational phenomenon arising out of common experiences and interests, and articulated and “embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms.” Class and class consciousness, Thompson argued, are not simply determined by structure, but are something made by conscious human beings.
Thompson was a key figure in the movement for a socialist “history from below,” which highlighted workers’ own agency. But his empirical conception of class formation can be as readily applied to the more established tradition of “history from above.” In this respect, a fitting companion to Thompson’s classic is John Scott’s 1991 book, Who Rules Britain?, which includes a chapter on “the making of the ruling class” in Britain over the course of the two centuries leading up to World War I. Another is Kees van der Pijl’s The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class, which examines capitalist class formation in Europe and North America after World War I and up to the economic crisis of the 1970s.
Van der Pijl draws closely on Marxist theory, while Scott follows Ralph Miliband in combining Marxist analysis with Weber and the elite theory of C. Wright Mills and Bill Domhoff. Scott conceives of elites in terms of decision-making power in institutions, and classes in terms of property relations, meaning that there will often be some crossover between the two.
Drawing on Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, he sees capitalists as key components of broader “power blocs” consisting of “divergent and partially conflicting groups … united through a common focus on the exercise of state power.” Such power blocs, he argues, are sustained by broader electoral coalitions and include within them a dominant “power elite” — the hegemonic faction if you like.
These social coalitions, Scott notes, cannot be taken for granted. Like the subordinate classes, a power bloc “must achieve some awareness of common interests and concerns, it must achieve some degree of solidarity and cohesion, and its leading members must be capable of pursuing some kind of coordinated policy of action to further those interests.”
Scott goes on to consider whether there was still a capitalist class in late twentieth century Britain — a question which presumably sounded less silly at the time of writing — and if, moreover, there was still a ruling class. He concludes that the UK had both a capitalist class and a ruling class, and more specifically an inner circle of finance capitalists that predominated in the formulation of policy.
There are a huge number of other empirical studies in addition to those already mentioned that similarly examine the development of twentieth and twenty-first century capitalism with a close attention to capitalists, associated elites, and their institutions, and which don’t fall into the trap of assuming their interests can be taken for granted. What they show is that ruling classes, as much as the working classes, do not, to paraphrase E.P. Thompson, rise like the sun at an appointed time. They too “are present at their own making.”
Conspiracy, or Mobilization?
Capitalism doesn’t just reproduce itself, and those who benefit from and perpetuate it do not exist in some separate realm. Like the rest of us, they make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.
A useful framework for analyzing how this plays out politically is the concept of social movements “from above” and “from below.” My collaborators Narzanin Massoumi, David Miller, and I have used these concepts in our collaborative work, borrowing from the Marxist social movement scholars Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen. These latter argue that we should think about the powerful in broadly the same terms as we would think about what are more conventionally described as “social movements.”
It is in the nature of movements from above that human beings come to experience the world they create as, precisely, structure: as economic system, state institutions, the shape of culture. It is important for social analysis and political practice to understand movements from above and below within a single set of ontological categories and types of explanation, rather than to reproduce the apparent separation of fixed structure and sporadic resistance.
It is necessary, in other words, to preserve some symmetry even when analyzing those with more or less social power. There will, of course, be important differences, and their political actions and strategies will naturally differ based on their social position. But the political agency of elites should not be lost in the apparently impersonal structures most of us encounter, or view at a distance.
To return to E.P. Thompson, we can say that ruling classes are still today “present at their own making” — and remaking. A ruling class is not a finished product; capitalism is a dynamic system and “power blocs” in capitalist societies are not stable entities. We can see this, for example, in changes in the lists of leading companies over time; at present, the top companies by market capitalization are the tech companies and platform giants at the cutting edge of capital accumulation, but this was far from always the case. More importantly for our purposes though, capitalists and associated elites are not merely passive beneficiaries of capitalist social relations. Rather, they mobilize to defend and further their interests.
This brings us back to the question of what distinguishes the analysis of concentrated social power, and more particularly interest mobilization “from above,” from run-of-the-mill conspiracy theory. Doubtless key to explaining this are the excessive levels of knowledge, control, homogeneity, and secrecy that conspiracy theories typically ascribe to elites. In his seminal study of the American “power elite,” C. Wright Mills writes that:
an elite may be conceived as omnipotent, and its powers thought of as a great hidden design. Thus, in vulgar Marxism, events and trends are explained by reference to “the will of the bourgeoisie”; in Nazism, by reference to “the conspiracy of the Jews”; by the petty right in America today, by reference to “the hidden force” of Communist spies. According to such notions of the omnipotent elite as historical cause, the elite is never an entirely visible agency. It is, in fact, a secular substitute for the will of God, being realized in a sort of providential design…
Bill Domhoff, who built on Mills’s work, has addressed this question by pointing out that elites are not hidden; they are publicly known and widely thought to be legitimate (though this is probably less true today). Moreover, they are usually open about their goals, and do not always get their way. Domhoff emphasizes that what he terms “power structure research” involves not uncovering secret conspiracies but studying the institutions and processes through which elites arrive at consensus.
When it comes to practical left-wing politics, though, more important than this elite consensus building is elite political action. This doesn’t usually mean shadowy cabals and dastardly plans (though they may exist), but rather the sort of mundane interest mobilization described in mainstream political science, as well as the sorts of organized campaigning, strategic communications, and “dark arts” used in PR, public affairs, and professional politics.
From Theory to Strategy
What does all this mean for the Left’s strategy? It could be argued that a politics that focuses on the disproportionate power of a small minority can be debilitating since it assumes that such a group will always block any efforts at social change. This is certainly true of the sorts of quasi-religious conspiracy theory C. Wright Mills alludes to, which has in more recent years become especially prevalent online.
But on the contrary, an empirical analysis of ruling-class structures, interests, and ideas allows us not only to identify a political enemy against which to mobilize, but also to recognize the contingency of the “social system” and the fallibility and vulnerabilities of its managers and benefactors.
Capitalists and associated elites have considerable advantages in terms of resources, and a host of institutions that serve their interests, but they do not have unique powers of foresight or strategic aptitude. Nor do they have some automatic understanding of what is in their best interests at any given time. We can see this, for example, in the European economic and political elite’s shambolic response to the post-2008 financial crisis, or the series of crises that have engulfed the British ruling class, not least Brexit.
Seeing social structures and systems as products of human action can mean recognizing not only the contingency of existing arrangements, but also our own agency. It also allows us to better proceed politically by understanding what we are up against; neither overestimating the power or cohesion of the establishment, and being able to identify vulnerabilities, but equally not underestimating the organized interests that will certainly oppose any efforts at fundamental social transformation.
These interests of course include capitalists acting through markets, but also the agents of capital operating in state and quasi-state institutions, think tanks, lobbying firms, media organizations and so on, as well as the less powerful members of electoral coalitions.
As Paul Mason put it in the aforementioned TWT discussion: “Newspaper editors, TV news editors, City people, accountancy people, big consultancies, the big public affairs companies, like Finsbury — that’s the elite.” Recognizing that these people will organize in defence of their interests, or those they represent, is not paranoid conspiracy theory but a basic political reality, and one we need to confront.