The key to understanding our ruling elites

In the United States, Congress passes laws but exempts its members from the law's reach.  Presidents sign "executive orders" that are nowhere mentioned in the Constitution.  Courts often make policy and change or obstruct laws by "interpreting" the Constitution to fit the policy preferences of judges.  The laws are often applied unequally depending on the person violating them.  The families of our governing elites often enrich themselves and acquire wealth and privileges on that basis alone.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, governors, mayors, and other members of the ruling class imposed restrictions that they arrogantly ignored.

Whenever I observe the ruling elites in this country and around the world acting in their own self-interest rather than in the interests of the people they claim to represent, I reflect on James Burnham's timeless analysis of ruling classes in his book The Machiavellians (1943).

Burnham wrote the book in the midst of World War II, when the world's ruling elites were fighting the most destructive war in human history.  During that war, Burnham served as an analyst for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency.  In the 1930s, Burnham had flirted with Marxism of the Trotskyite variety, but in the late 1930s, he discarded ideology and embraced empiricism, which led him to write The Managerial Revolution, a book that combined sociopolitical analysis and geopolitics.

Burnham observed a worldwide movement toward statist regimes, including the Roosevelt administration's New Deal.  All of the regimes — no matter what the ostensible "form" of government — were run by elites.  Burnham sensed the rise of an international managerial class that combined economic, governmental, and social power to advance their own interests.  And in the 1940s, those regimes were struggling against one another for global hegemony — a struggle that Burnham accurately predicted would result in the rise of geopolitical "super-states."

In The Machiavellians, Burnham used the sociopolitical theories and observations of Niccolò Machiavelli, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels, and Georges Sorel to describe how all ruling classes, at all times, in all countries, exercised political power.  Burnham's analysis  divorced politics from ethics, sentiment, emotion, and high-sounding ideals to lay bare the true nature of politics as a struggle for power.  And he praised Machiavelli, Mosca, Pareto, Michels, and Sorel for having the courage to tell us the truth about political power and those elites that wield it to further their own interests.

Machiavelli taught, wrote Burnham, that political elites have a "limitless human appetite for power" and they rule by a combination of "force and fraud."  Elites in every country want to rule over others and manifest what Burnham called a "will to power."  Mosca held that in "all societies," there are two classes of people — "a class that rules and a class that is ruled."  This is a universal political phenomenon, regardless of whether the form of government is a democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, or a dictatorship.  "[D]ominion of an organized minority, obeying a single impulse, over the unorganized majority is inevitable," Mosca wrote.  Each ruling class, according to Sorel, uses a "political formula" — often a myth — to rationalize and justify its rule.  Michels advanced the concept of an "iron law of oligarchy," which holds that all governments are oligarchic in nature — rule by the few primarily for the benefit of the rulers.  Finally, Pareto, too, believed in universal elite rule but observed that elites "circulate" in and out of power.

From his study of these political scientists and his observation of ruling elites in his own time, Burnham derived what he called "principles of Machiavellism" that are common to all governments: (1) politics is the "struggle for social power"; (2) political elites disguise their real goals behind pleasant-sounding and high-minded rhetoric; (3) all societies are divided between a ruling elite and the population they rule; (4) every ruling class has as its primary goal the preservation and expansion of its own power and privileges; (5) elites rule by force and fraud and use political formulas or "myths" to justify their rule; (6) periodically, the structure and composition of the elite class change.

We see evidence of Burnham's elite rule in this country and elsewhere around the world.  Whether it's the international elites of the World Economic Forum, who seek to impose international norms on the world, or the elites of the European Union, who seek to erase the sovereignty of its member countries, or the totalitarian oligarchs of the Chinese Communist Party or the autocrats of Vladimir Putin's regime or the religious despots of Iran or the administrative state in Washington, D.C. (what Donald Trump called "the swamp"), our modern ruling elites act in ways that would be familiar to Machiavelli, Mocsa, Sorel, Michels, and Pareto.

Burnham concluded The Machiavellians with a literary flourish about how liberty and freedom may survive the actions and desires of a ruling class:

[T]he primary object . . . of all rulers is to serve their own interest, to maintain their own power and privilege. There are no exceptions. No theory, no promises, no morality, no amount of good will, no religion will restrain power. Neither priests nor soldiers, neither labor leaders nor businessmen, neither bureaucrats nor feudal lords will differ from each other in the basic use which they will seek to make of power. ... Only power restrains power. ...

There is no one force, no group, and no class that is the preserver of liberty. Liberty is preserved by those who are against the existing chief power.

The more Americans who understand this about our ruling class, the better chance we have to preserve our liberties that are increasingly under attack by our elites.

Image via Max Pixel.

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