The origin and evolution of classes and class warfare

Bellum omnium contra omnes: The war of all against all.

 – Thomas Hobbes

There has never been but one question in all civilization – how to keep a few men from saying to many men: you work and earn bread and we will eat it.

 – Abraham Lincoln

Democracy is still on trial, but so far as it has not disgraced itself; it is true that its full force has not yet come into operation …the defective organisation of the newly enfranchised classes has prevented any overwhelming alternation in the pre-existing balance of power.

 – John Maynard Keynes, 1904

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.

 – Mahatma (Mohandas) Gandhi

But as the progress of democracy is the result of general social development, an advanced society, while commanding a greater share of political power, will, at the same time, protect the State from democratic excesses [too many people having the right to vote]. If the latter should anywhere prevail, for a time, they will be promptly repressed.

 – Sir T. Erskine May, 1877

The idea that there are classes within society which struggle against one another once seemed to me like it couldn’t possibly be true. As I saw it, for class consciousness to develop and maintain it would need to be either continually discussed or very obvious, neither of which I’d personally experienced. Further, for that consciousness (which I wasn’t convinced existed) to become class warfare, it struck me that there would need to be a great deal of discontent arising due to wealthy, powerful classes dominating, repressing and perhaps exploiting lower classes of the vulnerable poor. This too didn’t cohere with my understanding of the world for two basic reasons.

First, from what I knew of democracy, its fundamental principle is that everyone is equal by nature and by law, and that, accordingly, everyone shares the same rights. I therefore believed that if rich classes dominated poorer ones it’d be a direct violation of democracy, since one group would be stifling the rights to which they and their victims are equally entitled. I also understood that there are far fewer rich people than poor and ordinary people, which to me was a central problem with the idea of class warfare, since if it was indeed occurring in what I understood to be a democracy, surely the repressed majority would use its democratic rights to prevent the actions of the ruling minority, thus protecting itself from the domination and exploitation which class warfare involves. For me, then, as I perceived the world, what I believed was true about democracy was incompatible with what I understood class warfare to entail, which was the first basic reason why I rejected the idea that class warfare existed.

Second, and also I think more important, I did and still do believe that all people share a common human nature and that people by this nature are essentially good. Though I certainly knew that people can do bad things, I thought these were exceptions, not the rule, and that even people who did bad things were good by nature, but had been impelled to act immorally by prevailing circumstances, contrary to their inherently sanguine nature. I still believe that, because it was as clear to me then as it is now that the world itself, unlike human nature, isn’t inherently good or propitious. Rather, it’s a monetized world in which people have to work and are automatically pitted against each other in competition simply to survive. Some people’s work will be unrelated to, consistent with or even beneficial for one’s own, while other people’s work will compete with or even undermine one’s own, the first group of people being much easier to get along with than the second. Thus, while of course we are not bound to compete with everyone, we’re inevitably forced to compete with some proportion of the world’s many billions of people. Indeed, even if we never know the majority of our competitors, we’re still aware that they exist beyond our immediate horizons, which means that our sense of urgency and the pressure to succeed to survive aren’t limited to the adversaries with whom we are familiar.

Bearing in mind that the instinct to survive is perhaps our most powerful, and recognizing the direct link in a monetized world between one’s work and their ability to survive, it’s unsurprising, I think, that people in such conditions can be capable of immoral behavior, including violating other people’s rights to defend or advance your own livelihood. Hence, the monetized, capitalistic world in which people currently live is, in my view, unavoidably inconsistent with human nature, compelling many of us to behave in ways which run contrary to our intrinsic ethics. Moreover, this isn’t our only incentive to behave immorally toward others, since our survival instinct, though potent, is only one of our fundamental impulses, among such company as the instinct to procreate and the need to belong. These too, I think, in the same way as our survival instinct, can compel between people either great felicity and friendship, or indifference and hostility. Factored together, the sum of these compulsions (and the many others too lengthy to consider at present) provides resounding inducement to behave in the many unethical ways to which history now plays, and has heretofore played, host. In my opinion, this explains why intrinsically good people can perpetrate, and have perpetrated, all of humankind’s many wrongdoings, from the lies and infidelities which ruin relationships to the wars and atrocities which most besmirch our history. Setting aside the people I haven’t included, the heinous and psychopathic individuals who enjoy sadism, in the scheme of things are extremely rare, and don’t appear to reflect human nature, but a subversion of it, my reasoning seems to explain why good people do bad things and why misfortunes befall the just and unjust alike.

Tying this back now to class warfare, it therefore seemed plausible to me that some people might be induced to repress others in order to benefit themselves. But it also seemed implausible that this inducement would hold sway for the amount of people required to incite and sustain class warfare. Indeed, I still believe that immoral paths are walked by a great many people, but only a short way before natural remorse returns them to their better selves, precluding many people from enacting the type of repressive ruling class domination of which class warfare consists. If this is true, it should be a terribly marginal collection of the world’s people which treads the whole path toward profligacy, which I believe is indeed substantiated by the past and present course of human events. This was therefore the second basic reason why class warfare struck me for some time as too ludicrous to accept, and, in addition to the apparent impasse represented by democracy, why I chose to reject it as an indefensible notion.

Gradually, however, it’s become clear to me from exposure to people like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Eric Hobsbawm and Ha-Joon Chang that class warfare not only exists, but that it pervades the entire world and has done since, long ago in our past, people first formed societies which were too large, inwardly complex and outwardly vulnerable to long endure without the guidance of some form of leadership. In my view, on which I will expand shortly, this irresistible need for leadership vested with authority was the critical watershed from which social classes became entrenched and began quarrelling with one another right up to the present day. The sequence of events in the process I propose are, I think, logical and hence reasonable to accept, but of course you can decide that for yourself.

First, however, before discussing how I see the origin and evolution of classes and class warfare, there’s something which I think ought to be considered and would like you to bear in mind. I’ve come to believe, from considering the evidence, that all societies of which I know are, and have always been, comprised of social classes which have long struggled against one another – the powerful against the weak, the rich against the poor, the few against the many. Most of history has advanced from little more, if more at all, than one tyranny to the next, which means that class warfare along similar lines to those I describe is no surprise until we arrive in the 20th century, when our first genuine democracies were supposedly born and since which we have been and are still often told that our democracies have continued to expand and improve. If, however, class warfare still exists and if, as I attempted to show, it’s incompatible with democracy, there must be something gravely wrong with the pictures of 20th and 21st century democracy which are commonly presented. Quite plainly, either I and the evidence by which I have been convinced are wrong, and the typical contemporary view of the world is correct, or the opposite is true, which would then raise a number of uncomfortable questions whose answers might shock and disturb many people. Of course, my view on the matter is obvious, and while I naturally think it’s correct, people with opposing views likewise believe that they are equally justified. Thus, the truth of the matter can’t resort to any one person’s or group of people’s opinions or aspersions, no matter who they are. The only gauge we can rely on, as any good scientist would agree, is whether what we believe is consistent with the evidence.

Unfortunately, though, with the present constraints, the evidence is much too broad to even adumbrate. However, we’re nonetheless left with three possible solutions. First, we have an immediate and somewhat decent measure by which to adjudge the likely fact of the matter: to decide whether my proposal for the origin and evolution of classes and class warfare makes sense and use that outcome as a preliminary estimate of what is probably the case with the wider questions I’ve raised. Second, you could instead defer directly to the writers by whom I myself have been convinced, which I’d certainly encourage everyone to do. Or third, as a matter of self-interest, if you have kept with me for this long, then perchance you could do both and endure my post before you move on. In any of these cases, though, you are weighing evidence and judging what makes sense to you, which is necessarily constructive. If, however, someone arbitrarily dismisses what I’m saying without observing the arguments for themselves, content, perhaps, that they’re too far flung from what they are accustomed to, and that my argument therefore must be false, I can only caution, without trying to pontificate, that such thinking is and has long been one of the greatest sources of human ignorance and backwardness throughout all of history. Nevertheless, hopeful that some may have stuck with me so far, I’ll now discuss how I see the origin and evolution of classes and class warfare, and leave it to you to decide what seems right and to confront the consequences that follow.

The emergence of classes and the beginning of class warfare are separate but clearly closely related phenomena. They’re separate in that social classes can conceivably emerge without class warfare ensuing, while they’re also obviously connected in at least two ways. First, for class warfare to occur, social classes must exist, thus the former is necessarily bound to the latter, though, as mentioned above, not the latter to the former. And second, and more interesting, they both emerge from a common origin: economic development and population growth. In my view, they share this origin because every human society which has ever and will ever exist has its foundations in nomadic bands and clans in the far reaches of history which were once too small to contain the number of people required for the formation of the social classes and whatever class warfare which may later ignite. Hence, these bands and clans were incapable of containing classes and the means of conflict between them, because their populations weren’t large enough to support being divided into the discernible sections with competing economic interests that class warfare subsumes and on which its existence therefore depends.

Furthermore, even if the populations had been large enough, their economies were too primitive and undeveloped for imbalances of wealth and diversity of industries to create the basic social groups of domineering rich, intermediate managers and exploited poor of which social classes and their warfare consist, thus precluding both from yet emerging. In other words, these small agglomerations of people in humanity’s distant past lacked the people, the institutions and the resources for classes and their confrontations to arise. Hence, that’s why economic development and population growth are the two requisite components from which, I propose, classes and class warfare sprung. Thus, we can see that while classes and their warfare aren’t always necessary concomitants of one another, they’re nonetheless bound by class warfare’s subsumption of existing classes and by their mutual origin in population growth and economic development.

From this, an important conclusion can be drawn about the origin of classes and class warfare: every society which developed classes, including those which played host to class warfare and any rare exceptions which did not, must have once been too small and economically archaic to have engineered classes and the conditions which incited them against one another. Clearly, only the gradual transition to larger populations and more sophisticated economies could transform this inadequacy and thereby manufacture the more expansive and complex societies with which most people and most recorded history are now familiar. Therefore, as indicated so far, this transition furnished societies with the material, human and institutional means to create classes and class warfare: the fateful step towards the thousands of years of human repression, discrimination and atrocities in which we and the world around us are, and have long been, products, audiences and, for many people, collaborators. However, the important point to draw is that, although this transition provided the basic necessities for classes and class warfare to exist, it can’t explain how classes actually arose and why they fought to exploit and repress each other rather than strive to live in peace and equality. Therefore, to answer these new questions, we must now move from the fundamental necessities provided by the transition to the actual transition itself and the elements of which it consisted, so as to see precisely what forces brought forth social classes and the terrible class rivalries that followed.

In this interest, then, there are three principles which, in my view, completely explain why, how and when, during this great transitional phase of human history, social classes took shape and began to fight between themselves rather than try to cooperate in peace. First, recall my view of human nature and the influences which act upon it. I argue that people are good but are drawn from their better nature by various potent impulses which, from time to time, drive good people to do bad things to ensure their own wellbeing and legacy. This means that because the world is and has always been such that people can never rest assured that they and their legacy are secure, they’re constantly compelled to take steps to better shore up these prospects by whatever means seem available and necessary, including, if need be, violating and repressing others and their rights. Heinous and grotesque as it is, this was the outcome of human expansion in a world where people’s futures were not guaranteed, the ramifications of which still define our societies and demean the people of which they’re composed. This, such as it is, is the first principle which helps to explain why, how and when social classes and their conflicts took place.

Second, as economies develop and expand, they don’t do so fairly and uniformly so as to produce the greatest equality among the citizens of societies. Rather, they develop somewhat randomly, provided conditions are conducive, and most benefit those who first perceive the available opportunities to nourish incipient industries and reap the, sometimes towering, dividends which follow. To the degree that one is essentially by happenstance exposed to these potentially lucrative enterprises, and also to the degree that one has the ability to make use of them when they present themselves, some people will become wealthier and more stable than others purely by the nature of economic development. Incidentally, as economies grow so do these opportunities to gain, expand or consolidate one’s wealth and the things which wealth provides, chiefly power, status and security. These opportunities are highly prized and sought after by all, including those who have already become rich, since, by our first principle, they are compelled, both the rich and the poor, to pursue wealth whenever they can, as no manner of riches can ever guarantee their present and ongoing financial security. This means that the rich, intermediate and poor alike compete for access to, and usage of, the same resources and opportunities in order to improve their lives, only now with circumstances which dramatically advantage those whose wealth provides exceptional means, far beyond the grasp of most people, with which to pursue and utilize the chances available.

Hence, from an initially random and fortuitous set of circumstances, one small group of people becomes wealthier than others, hoarding and enhancing their fortunes to the greatest extent they can by continuing to pursue and obtain such opportunities for their personal and virtually always unmunificent use. Others will do likewise and overtake competitors, while some will begin well and collapse, by whatever misfortune, into the grips of poverty, mediocrity and exploitation at the hands of the enduring rich. Slowly, then, concentrations of wealth, power and influence emerge, their owners girding themselves and their fortunes by continually swallowing up economic opportunities by actions to which, by this stage of their experience and advantage, they alone are most finely adapted. In this way, distinct classes emerge due to people’s propensity to pursue and nurture their own interests, and due to the blind, unconscious tendency of economies to distribute wealth unequally, enabling some few people to become and stay wealthy, while thereby also necessarily limiting the ability of other people to follow in kind. Although, contrary to my reasoning, some people might be satisfied with a certain fortune and become, perhaps, philanthropic, or at least not rapacious, once their positions seem to be secure, they are, as history shows, fantastically rare individuals. Thus, while these people’s example would run counter to my argument, such people, were they to exist, would be so amazingly unusual as to not bear relevantly on the development of classes and class warfare, since their beginning and evolution would remain undisturbed by anomalies amidst the prevailing trends. Hence, these exceptions to the rule, though they may be interesting, don’t significantly bear on, or contribute to, our discussion and are thus meaningless peculiarities.

Therefore, from my first and second principles it follows that, if things are as I describe, distinct classes of people based on wealth and competition should slowly and, more importantly, naturally emerge as populations grow and economies develop, which further helps us to explain why, how and when social classes and class warfare occur. However, this only explains how social classes are created, not how class warfare is begun, since obviously the mere existence of social classes doesn’t necessarily enjoin class warfare. Indeed, under certain, admittedly idealistic, circumstances, you can easily imagine people recognizing that they stand to gain more security and prosperity by distributing wealth and improving the living standards and technical skills of the entire population, so as to create a highly developed and internally stable society, than by maintaining competing classes whose conflicts are often mutually destructive, retarding the progress of the entire civilization and, if it’s an adequate disaster, possibly even that of other civilizations involved or simply nearby. Hence, it’s left to the third principle, to which we now turn, to explain why, from the evolution of conditions as we’ve tracked them so far, it was class warfare which arose instead of some more sensible and constructive outcome.

The third and final principle is that as the societies grow according to their populations and economies, a new property becomes necessary in order for them to function – formal leadership vested with authority. At a certain point, the complexity of collections of people and their dealings with each other and outsiders becomes so great that some mechanism of leadership is required for their society to be able to operate. For almost the entirety of history, this authority was typically concentrated in either the hands of tyrants, kings and emperors, or presiding oligarchies of warlords and aristocrats. These institutions of power long remained openly oppressive towards the people while managing a precarious balance between making sure, on one hand, that the peasants and slaves on whom they depended for their personal wealth and power were healthy enough to fulfill their duties to the ruling class and content enough not to want to rebel; but, on the other hand, that the masses were also always sufficiently repressed and exploited so that they remained bound and subordinated to their prevailing masters. Much of the history of the rise and decline of leaders can be viewed, in this way, as essentially an ongoing attempt to strike a sustainable way to suppress and fleece the poor majority in order to satisfy a few figures of power and privilege, without crushing people’s living standards to the point that they’re forced to revolt against the domineering power structures by which they’re subjugated.

This, however, isn’t an easy task, requiring an effective and sophisticated form of domination which no leader could manage by themselves. Hence, leaders were naturally driven to collaborate with those people who, when in cooperation with each other, possessed enough power and influence to make such a system of domination possible – the rich. They would help to support leaders and would in turn be rewarded for their service, an arrangement which developed easily enough since leaders have virtually always been drawn from the same classes of elites upon whom they would eventually depend for support. Plainly, this outcome arose – as opposed to some other plausible scenario wherein leaders perceived and acted upon the potential virtue of equality, justice and social cohesion – because leaders, like everyone else, were compelled by my first principle to pursue their own self-interest above all other concerns. Incidentally, leaders were naturally disposed to oppress the people, because their superior numbers made them an obvious threat to the supremacy of the leader and the comparatively tiny section of powerful elites with whom leaders therefore made common cause. Hence, leaders sought, obtained and mobilized the vast pool of the ruling class’s resources in order to consolidate institutions of authority and the wealthy support base on which they depended, meanwhile symbiotically providing protection for wealthy oligarchs as remuneration for the efforts they made to keep their favoured individuals in power. This provided leaders with the necessary finances, personnel, influence and military strength to conduct their affairs and those of their allies, thus forming the ruling class.

This could thenceforth take the form of tyrannies, monarchies or empires, as well as other formulations, such as oligarchies of senators drawn from the ruling class, each of which worked in different ways and was best suited to different situations, but was overall very effective when properly used and understood, as illustrated, for example, by the eclectic political history of the Roman Empire. In this way, though they alienated themselves from the bulk of their fellow citizens, the ruling classes were protected from internal and external threats, and had little reason to do otherwise. Of course, this necessarily harmed and antagonized the people beneath the rulers’ boots, who, I should concede, fall into many categories beyond the basic working and middle classes to which I, for the sake of simplicity, have so far restricted the discussion. Thus, depending on whom you felt affinity for and where you fell on the spectrum of classes – from the most desperately poor to the most dizzyingly rich – you would be inherent allies with some classes and inherent adversaries with others, thereby automatically creating a complex web of shifting alliances and conflicts far beyond, though still including, the repression of everyone, to one degree of another, by the ruling class. In short, a society built on and defined by class warfare is, as we’ve seen, the natural result which follows from the three principles I propose. Therefore, in my view, this is the origin of social classes and class warfare, excluding such things as pure military expansion, which is not related to social classes and their warfare, but to blunt conquest, subjugation and enslavement.

From here on in, then, all that’s left is to explain the evolution of social classes and class warfare subsequent to their origin, which is a mercifully short discussion. This welcome brevity is because, in my view, even though many people may now suggest that such ruling class dominance is a thing of the past, it is, in fact, still as real and harmful as in the past, and perhaps even worse. The difference, I feel, is that the ostentatious techniques of previous elite supremacy were gradually forced to change once movements for civil liberties and equality began to make progress, particularly in the 20th century. However, as Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and many others would agree, this merely led the same enduring ruling classes to adapt their activities to fit the encroaching zeitgeists, thus transforming their old techniques of domination, but maintaining their purpose, by engineering sophisticated methods and institutions for propagandizing publics and devising economic systems in which the rich and powerful are tremendously advantaged and protected, while everyone else is subjected to failure, competition and exploitation.

By this, the ruling classes fitted themselves and their actions with a sophisticated disguise of fairness and democracy in order to continue their unjust and immoral supremacy, though now with much less opposition from their victims, since many of them believed, and sadly still believe, the propaganda of the elites, thus blaming their repression and misfortune on, say, the prevailing system by which their ensnared or the supposed inherent unfairness of the world, instead of the presiding masters of mankind, as Adam Smith called them. If this seems outlandish, we’re fortunate that the architects of this design were rather forthright about their intentions and declared them openly and in print, such as Walter Lippmann, whose book, Public Opinion, argues that the public ought to be subjugated and deceived by the elites, which he coined “the manufacture of consent”, so that they, the responsible and worthy individuals of power and privilege, can control society and subvert democracy without the ignorant and meddlesome majority becoming involved or being aware of the ruling class’s ongoing tyranny:

‘That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough. . . . [a]s a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power. . . . Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy’. – Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, Chapter XV

Therefore, from the origin of class warfare to the early 20th century, with some partial exceptions which I won’t go into at present, such as the French and American revolutions, the techniques of the ruling class didn’t significantly change. However, as the movements for democracy, equality and civil liberties slowly began to win serious victories throughout the 20th century, it became necessary for longstanding elites to introduce new techniques of domination which conformed to the shifting circumstances. This was a clever adaptation, enabling ruling classes to maintain their historical control by abandoning their now untenable use of force and resorting instead to shaping and strictly controlling the way people think by inculcating false realities through the systems and institutions of manipulation which elites established and operated – an approach which they now continue to exercise in the manner just described. Thus, although the new forms of domination used by power and privilege is a more complex and extended issue than I have presently sketched in brief, suffice it to nonetheless say that, based on the evidence as I see it, the natures of social classes and class warfare have not fundamentally changed from their origin to the present, lurching from one tyranny to the next until we recently witnessed a change in the style of elite supremacy, but not its content.

Before I conclude, I’d like to return to the two problems, mentioned at the beginning of the post, which I initially had with the idea of classes and class warfare. First, that it seemed to be inconsistent with democracy and didn’t have enough regular currency to be a continuing issue. Second, that I believed, and still believe, that all people are essentially good, which I thought ought to preclude people from forming and then acting as ruling classes at the expense of the vast majority of their fellow humans.

As for the first, I was wrong because I didn’t know that the ruling class’s historically ostentatious tyranny, which I thought was what class warfare would have to be, had very recently been cleverly transformed by propaganda and new institutions of power into a much more subtle and sophisticated system of domination and exploitation. So much so, in fact, that some people today can hardly even recognise how they’re being repressed, who’s responsible and sometimes even that they’re under the boot of the elites at all, even while it’s happening. As a boy, I was never going to be able to figure that out for myself, so what I thought was wrong.

As for the second, I still believe that my view about the natural goodness of human beings, and their resulting disinclination to dominate and exploit other people, is correct. However, I didn’t understand just how precarious the world is. Growing up in an affluent part of a developed country, I wasn’t much exposed to the true conditions in which the majority of people live. As we got older and our simple childhood illusions disappeared when we learned about the world’s realities, it became clear that, although people are good, having to fight to survive in a world as unfair as this makes people capable of virtually anything. Thus, my idea that people were too good to be capable of class warfare vanished as we learned about the deep inducements people face to consider only themselves and to do whatever they think’s necessary to survive. I was wrong because I underestimated how awful the world is:how many problems it contains and how revoltingly unjust they are. Basically, my objections fell beneath the weight of evidence I couldn’t deny, which clearly indicates that class warfare is, and has long been, the key determinant of human affairs.

In conclusion, then, these are my views and how I justify them, the validity of which is yours to judge. Whatever you decide, though, remember the point of my writing this, for if I am right, the common picture of present democracy in the world is, as I’ve hitherto tried to show, necessarily false. This, to recapitulate at the end of our discussion, is the central consideration which I’ve tried to address, and which I think is among the greatest of the world’s many problems. Therefore, think carefully about your views and the consequences they engender, for if enough people tend towards them, we might just shake the strong, despicable foundations of human societies and bring forth the very changes which the bulk of humankind has long desired and which many people now falsely believe they have already obtained due to the insidious machinations of the reigning elite.


3 thoughts on “The origin and evolution of classes and class warfare

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