Our society is routinely described in terms that camouflage the reality of exploitation and class rule.
The story goes like this. Everyone is basically equal. There is no ruling class as we are all citizens in a “democracy.” We live not in capitalism (that outmoded concept) but in a classless “market economy” where we are all consumers, taxpayers and investors (if only through our pension schemes). In some countries the camouflage is taken one step further: the social system is officially defined to be not just democratic but actually socialist. Those who insist on pointing out the reality behind the camouflage are labelled “extremists,” denied access to the mass media, and banished from respectable society.
This camouflage is so familiar to us that it is easy to assume it has always existed. In fact, it is quite a recent development in historical terms. Pre-industrial ruling classes never thought of pretending that they did not exist. On the contrary, they glorified or even deified themselves as intrinsically superior beings. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who for many centuries was considered the fount of all wisdom, wrote that some people are slaves and others masters in accordance with their natures. Feudal law highlighted class by specifying in detail the dress appropriate to each class and making it illegal for people to wear clothes inappropriate to their station in life.
The situation started to change when the thinkers of the Enlightenment (such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu) questioned the doctrine of natural inequality as well as other received ideas. In 1789 revolutionaries overthrew the French monarchy and aristocracy in the name of the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. But some of them (Babeuf and his followers), disappointed that the revolution had failed to achieve these ideals, wanted to go further and strike at the roots of property itself. For the first time a ruling class felt the need for some camouflage.
In Britain, where the transition from feudalism to capitalism was accompanied by less political upheaval, the need for concealment did not become urgent until later. Democracy was condemned as a dangerous extremist notion, while the class structure continued to be sanctified by religion and custom. Nineteenth-century British economists like Ricardo and Adam Smith talked quite openly about the division of society into classes. They were closer in this respect to Marx than to their twentieth-century successors (see the article on Smith in January’s Socialist Standard). You may also recall a verse in the nineteenth-century hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful that goes:
“The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, He made them high and lowly, And ordered their estate.”
British ruling class attitudes shifted in face of the growing movement for universal male suffrage represented by the working class Chartists. The capitalists began to wonder whether they had exaggerated the threat inherent in political democracy. Perhaps it would not endanger class privilege all that much, provided that at the same time they made greater efforts to indoctrinate the workers. That is why the 1867 Reform Act, which first extended the franchise to part of the working class (male householders), was followed by the 1870 Education Act, which first made provision for general elementary education. “We must educate our masters,” Chancellor of the Exchequer Robert Lowe cynically remarked.
By the early twentieth century the ideological transformation was complete. Capitalist society could now be defined as “democracy” and its demands imposed in the name of democracy, as when US president Woodrow Wilson christened World War One “a war to make the world safe for democracy.” The class structure was henceforth to be camouflaged rather than openly justified. It was also about this time that there appeared new economic theories – in particular, the marginalist school – in which class was no longer a central concept.
With the rise of the so-called “communist” regimes in Russia and elsewhere, a similar fate befell the word “socialism.” The new class system in these countries was defined as “socialism,” just as the old class system in the West was defined as “democracy.” But the essence of the matter was the same: in both cases, in mainstream or official discourse the real class structure of the society simply did not exist. In the countries under Communist Party rule, just to say that there was a ruling class was grounds for condemnation as a “Trotskyite” or “counterrevolutionary.” (For an example from the Chinese “cultural revolution” see http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1969/06/intro.htm)
The camouflaging of class rule generates endless hypocrisy, and hypocrisy is not one of the more appealing character traits. But, as poet Matthew Arnold remarked, “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” The prevalence of hypocrisy is a sign that it is no longer possible openly to justify certain evils, showing that there has after all been some progress in human thinking. Class society is now on the defensive, and there is no way to defend the indefensible.