“There is the multitude, and there are the natural leaders. Wealth, birth and culture mark out the man to whom a community looks to undertake its government. These men have the leisure and the fortune... They are the aristocracy, and the rulers of a country should be taken from among them.”
--Lord Salisbury, 1894.
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When Lord Salisbury uttered this tribute to the ruling class in Britain, he was the Prime Minister of a government almost entirely composed of MPs who enjoyed inherited wealth, land, and titles. They were all men, of course, and all opposed to women’s suffrage.
Historian Barbara Tuchman, in The Proud Tower, her brilliant book about the late Victorian era, graphically describes the rigid class structure that prevailed in the British Isles at the time—and which remains more or less intact today.
“The ruling families,” she writes, “had no doubts of their inborn right to govern and, on the whole, neither did the rest of the country.”
Eventually, the British aristocrats were forced to moderate their more blatantly élitist ways. They had to extend the right to vote to women and to men without property. They had to allow ordinary people from “the multitude” to run for office and even sit beside them in the House of Commons. But they never considered such commoners to be “gentlemen” like themselves. They maintained most of their power and privilege, even though they did not display them quite so openly. And the squalor and misery to which they consigned the “lower classes” continued to blight the lives of millions who had the misfortune to be born outside the ruling families.
Ruling classes, of course, have not been confined to Britain. They have emerged in almost all countries, in all ages. Sometimes, as in Britain, they comprise the nobility, but more often they are the entrepreneurs and landowners, sometimes the military, occasionally the priesthood. Whatever their status, however, they are always the holders of the greatest wealth.
In the past, such rulers--whether kings or dictators or warlords or high priests--governed with an iron fist. They ruled by fear and force, deploying their police and military to crush dissent. But invariably, sooner or later, their harsh rule seeded violent revolutions that sent them to the gallows or the guillotine.
The ruling classes learned from these sobering lessons that, to preserve their domination, they had to share at least a bit of their wealth and give the masses some measure of freedom. And so “democracy” in its various forms replaced absolute rule by the rich and powerful.
But make no mistake: the aristocracy continued to flourish in most countries, and still ruthlessly held and extended their economic sway. Not as openly and brutally, of course, but just as effectively. Today it is almost entirely a corporate aristocracy. The world’s 500 or so billionaires don’t have titles; there is no King Gates or Grand Duke Buffett in the United States, no Baron Thomson or Count Weston in Canada. But the power wielded by the world’s most affluent remains virtually unabridged. It masquerades as “democracy,” but is really plutocracy: government by the wealthy.
Such power cannot be exercised without inflicting immense harm on the powerless, on their communities, on the environment. Poverty, hunger, income disparities, homelessness, illiteracy, slave labour, air and water pollution—these and other grave social and economic malignancies multiply as the corporations that serve the plutocrats continue to plunder the planet’s finite resources on their behalf.
As in the past, however, more and more people are starting to rebel against their opulent oppressors. They are protesting at summit meetings; they are campaigning against industrial pollution, deforestation and strip-mining; they are boycotting companies whose sweatshop products are made by overworked, underpaid women and children. They are calling for a truly democratic form of government.
It’s an uphill struggle, to be sure, but there’s much more at stake today than there was in any previous revolution—perhaps even the very survival of life on Earth. The British aristocrats, for all their pride and arrogance, had natural constraints imposed on their greed. So did all the monarchs, czars, emperors, and dictators. Their depredations were limited by geography. They couldn’t conquer and pillage the entire world.
But the transnational corporations can—and do. Freed from legislative as well as geographic limits on their power, answerable only to their acquisitive major shareholders, equipped with the financial and technological weapons of global conquest, armed with the sweeping rights conferred on them by international trade agreements, their hordes of executives, bankers, lawyers, and administrators overrun country after country. Servile politicians do their bidding. Media toadies praise their iniquitous “free market” and ridicule its critics.
Despite their awesome power, however, the plutocrats are not invulnerable. As their unconstrained pursuit of profit becomes more visibly disruptive, as they hurt more people and communities, as they befoul more of the ecosphere we all share, growing numbers of people will join the uprising against them. And eventually—let’s hope before it’s too late—their business and political and military and media bulwarks that now seem impregnable will be shattered.
Remember: there was a time, not so long ago, when people thought the Berlin Wall would never come down. When it did fall, the hammers were not swung by the billionaires or free-marketers, but by average citizens who saw the wall and all it stood for as an abomination they were no longer willing to tolerate.
(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)