It was a sly national legislature that hit upon the idea of flattering the majority with a holiday in their honor. Politicians, with their indifferent work habits, huge staffs and long vacations, live far above the toiling masses. Nevertheless, they need those masses at re-election time. And what better way to secure the common man’s good will than proclaiming the celebration of Labor Day?

Today the ruling class pays spare homage to the non-ruling class majority.

Is it shocking to think of our country as divided between rulers and ruled? Is it somehow un-American to poke a hole in democratic fables, to contradict the existence of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”?

After presenting, last Thursday, Joseph Schumpeter’s views on the positive role played by aristocracy in Western history, one reader – a solid member of the non-ruling class – wrote to ask: “who are the aristocrats whose boots you yearn to lick?”

I suppose it would come as a surprise to this “smart” fellow that although we don’t live in under an aristocracy, we nonetheless live under an oligarchy. This being the case, I might respond by asking: whose boots do you lick today?

Gaetano Mosca, whose “Elementi di scienza politica” is one of the great works of political science, wrote: “In all societies two classes of people appear – a class that rules and a class that is ruled.”

In America this fact is often obscured by the myth of democracy, which says that the majority governs.

But this is impossible.

The idea of “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” is one of those useful fictions, like the divine right of kings, which smooths the way for the ruling class while striking awe into those are ruled. To a mature sensibility there is nothing amiss here. All is well. The “iron law of oligarchy” is not a scandal. It suggests no grand conspiracy, no deep and abiding evil. Oligarchy has been the way of the world since the beginning of civilization, and it will remain until the end.

In the old days the ruling class had aristocratic ideals. Today the rulers have bureaucratic notions. When voting took place in 1788 we brought to high office the likes of George Washington – an aristocrat. More than two hundred years later, after the “managerial revolution,” we elected George W. Bush – a manager.

Whose boots would you rather lick, if licking is what the non-ruling class is obligated to do?

I sometimes think that all this talk about a grand “conspiracy” in high places is nothing more than the shocked reaction of people who are scandalized by oligarchy. Conspiracy books are filled with horrifying tales of coordination and collaboration in high places. Conspiracy books express moral outrage at the fact that a small minority sits at the top of society, deciding all questions – regardless of popular attitudes.

“When we say that the voters ‘chose’ their representative,” wrote Mosca, “we are using a language that is very inexact. The truth is that the representative has himself elected by the voters.”

The United States is a society like any other. Quite simply, the majority is ruled by a minority. As Mosca points out, there is no other way to organize society. Robert Michels – another political scientist – once noted that organization implies oligarchy. Unless you advocate anarchism, your political philosophy must boil down (in practice) to minority rule. “In reality,” wrote Mosca, “the dominion of an organized minority … over the unorganized majority is inevitable.”

Soothe yourself with democratic fictions as you like, but every state system is oligarchic and every country needs a state system. Despite what the extreme libertarians maintain, anarchy is not a safe option. We need an army to protect us, we need rulers to guide us, and we need a set of rules or
laws to make the process fair and orderly (i.e., we need a constitution).

Does the rule of law do away with oligarchy?

Not at all. Minority rule is not obviated by the Constitution. “A hundred men acting uniformly in concert,” wrote Mosca, “with a common understanding, will triumph over a thousand men who are not in accord and can therefore be dealt with one by one.”

This is true when the rule of law has collapsed, and it is true when the rule of law is fully operating.

With few exceptions, the only persons who have a chance to win elected office are those supported by organized minorities. The toiling masses, despite numerical predominance and a holiday all their own, do not really choose their rulers. They are flattered, bribed, cajoled and tricked into voting for Column A or Column B.

It is not a bad system. It is not a totalitarian system. But it is a far cry from “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” as mythologized by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address.

A nation-state, according to Mosca, is the creature of its ruling class. What America is today and what it becomes tomorrow, depends entirely on the character of the political leaders. As you celebrate Labor Day, take a moment to consider the character of those now in office. Above all other indicators, this tells us where we are headed as a nation.

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