Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Ruling Class

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University

The names of social class groups are not standardized and even the criteria for membership in groups is vague.  The simple three-tier model of lower, middle, and upper works, and the five-tier model of upper, upper middle, middle, lower middle, and lower helps us all to recognize the variance among people.  Schemes for identifying social class membership vary.  Social class is often measured by occupational prestige and educational attainment, and social class is also defined by culture, language, and social role.

The idea of the ruling class here is about using people's social role to define a social class group.

The Ruling Class

This is the group of people who make and/or enforce the rules.  The creation and maintenance of social order through rules ensures the reproduction of a cherished way of life.  At least that is what some people think.  Who's way of life gets reproduced and who's way of life gets marginalized is part of the ongoing discussion.

Ruling Class Privilege

Members of the ruling class believe in the rules.  They think that the rules are for everyone's benefit.  Unfortunately, the rules privilege some and oppress others.  Typically the people who get privileged by the rules are the people who make the rules.  By privilege here I mean having something or an advantage that others don't have; not having that something or advantage is oppression.  Sometimes the rules are formal and legal and sometimes the rules are social and interpersonal.  Rules are the personal preferences of people in the ruling class made into systems of laws, systems of social norms, systems of schools, systems of finance and taxes, and all the systems that make up a society.  For an expanded idea of privilege read Unpacking Social Class Privilege.

Who is in the ruling class and how do you join?  Simple.  Get an education and find a job in which you can make or enforce rules.  Teachers and professors are central to the reproduction of social class.  Teachers and professors make and enforce a lot of rules.  Rules of conduct (sit up straight), rules of language (prescriptive grammar), rules of learning performance (APA format) are the purview of teachers and professors.  Sometimes these rules are explicit, in a student handbook, college catalog, or campus discipline code.  Sometimes these rules are implicit, like in-class performance and social interactions.  The concepts of civility and politeness are most often implicit in a classroom, but as the teachers and professors feel upset with student behaviors the teachers and professors make explicit behavior rules.

The Ruling Class and the Upper-Middle Class

For the most part members of the Ruling Class are well educated.  In the US 32% of people over 25 have a Bachelor's degree and 12% have an advanced degree.  This is similar to many nations, see Chart 1.1.  I am proposing the idea that people with education tend to achieve higher status positions which put them in the rule making and rule enforcing class.  However, the upper-middle class idea doesn't work well when looking at the spectrum of who makes and enforces rules.  A good example are Police Officers.

Among Officers of the Court police are the front line of enforcing the rules of behavior for the general public.  Police are not, in general, as well educated as teachers and professors.  Using the two criteria of occupational prestige and educational attainment, then members of the police force are not upper-middle class.  Police officers are clearly in the rule enforcing business.  This Ruling Class model contradicts the occupation and education measure of class by including police.  Using multiple, and sometimes contradictory, models of social class is a good thing.

Members of the special public get policed by members of the Securities and Exchange CommissionFederal Deposit Insurance CorporationFood and Drug Administration, and people in other regulatory (read rule making and rule enforcing) groups.

In any formal organization or corporation there are hierarchies of authority.  Anyone with authority, anyone who supervises others, is a member of the ruling class.  From CEO to loading dock.  Just enforcing rules is enough to make you part of the ruling class.  Yes there is a hierarchy in the ruling class.  Making and enforcing loading dock rules is different than making and enforcing rules for Vice Presidents.

The obvious conclusion here is that there is a hierarchy of the ruling class.  Making rules is higher on the hierarchy than enforcing rules.  Legislators outrank Police in this system.  The obvious lesson is that this is complicated.

At what point in the rule making and enforcing hierarchy should we draw a line for membership in the ruling class?

The Fashion Police

The legitimate ruling class, those people have legal authority like teachers, professors, police, and legislators, is supplemented by the social ruling class, those people like the fashion police who have social authority.  A moment's thought will make the distinctions between legitimate and social authority blur because legitimate authority is the result of social action through government.  So, yes the ruling class does control a lot of things.

Yes, there are people who are the fashion police.  These people, bought and paid for by members of the fashion industry, make and enforce the rules of fashion.  The Mugatu character in Zoolander is a great example of the fashion police.

Beyond the fashion police there are the etiquette police, the food police (food magazines are their specialty), and even the movie police and the music police.  These are organized groups of people who have taken authority unto themselves.

Less organized in any formal way are the personal identity police.  The gender police, the ethnic police, the religious police (though some religious groups have actual people in those roles), and others who seek to make rules about who is in and who is out of the club.  Membership is a big part of the rules.

The popular high school student can be seen as top of the student ruling class hierarchy in high school.  He or she sets the standards (rules) for lots of things from fashion to speech patterns.  Looking at multiple groups in schools, courtesy of Grace in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, lists "sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads" who all thought Ferris was a righteous dude.  Ferris Bueller was a star, a member of the ruling class.  Depending on the reader's age and location I am sure more high school movies will come to mind.

If you are reading this then you probably are, or will be, in the ruling class!

Most people, I find, don't like to admit their role in the reproduction of our social class systems.  Too bad.  If you are in a position to make or enforce rules, then you are a member of the ruling class and are an active participant in re-creating our system every day.  If you supervise others, on a factory floor, picking onions, or in an operating theater, then you are part of the ruling class.

How you rule matters.


I agree with C. Wright Mills that the ruling class is different than the power elite.

This blog is different than the wonderful Wikipedia entry on Ruling Class in a few important ways.  First, membership is seen here as personal and participatory, not as theoretical and abstract.  In my view social class is something we all carry with us and all participate in every day.  Social class is co-created and co-evolved.  People in the ruling class are a real group of people interacting daily.  Second, I wish to provide some specifics in who is a member of this group as a way to help the reader understand their place in reproducing social class so that readers can make more well informed behavioral choices.  Third, the idea of ruling class membership should be extended to include those traditionally seen in the underclasses.

tl;dr - people in the ruling class make and enforce the rules, and that probably is, or will be, you, the reader.

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