Conspiracies of the Ruling Class CHAPTER 1 A History of Ruling in the Absence of Liberty
For most of human history, mankind has lived under the command of the Ruling Class. Sometimes those in charge did a good job, sometimes not, but the ever-present temptation for those with power to seek even more has always been there. As a result, most people who have ever lived have had very little control of even the most rudimentary aspects of their lives. Their occupations have been determined largely by what their parents did. Their marriages have either been arranged, or their choice in partners has been limited severely by their unchangeable social standing. Their day-to-day activities have not been a matter of choice but have instead been driven by necessity, custom, and the dictates of their overlords. More than 90 percent of the roughly hundred billion people who have ever been born1
have lived out their lives in fear: fear of dying from starvation, illness, accident, war, or as helpless victims of a totalitarian ruler. Even today, only about a third of the world’s population live in democratic countries, and, for most of these, the freedoms they experience are only a heavily watered-down version of what many take for granted in America.
History provides a few short-lived examples where mankind has experimented with individual freedom. More commonly, there has been a ruler or a ruling class that seizes power by offering citizens a better life, through free food, health care, or other services their government can supply, or a solution to real or imagined problems of the moment. These problems usually are manufactured issues involving either a vague, potential threat that can’t really be detailed and solved easily (for example, “The crops may fail,” or global warming), or issues of conflict with other groups (such as tribalism or racism). The reason the ruler needs to manufacture these problems is that the society needs to be focused only on what the ruler wants and not distracted by their lack of freedoms or individuality. This keeps the “great unwashed masses” in line, peaceful, and accepting of the current ruling class. These rulers’ ascension depends ultimately on the assumed superiority of the ruling class to make all the rules the people must follow and on their subjects’ acceptance of a society without freedoms.
This book is about a very real battle that will result in either the continuance of the United States as a global beacon of freedom and individual liberty for our children or the end of the American experiment that began almost 250 years ago. To begin, we look back to consider how civilization’s early ruling classes rose to a position of prominence, and how they were able to maintain this standing, ruling for their own benefit at the expense of their people.
The Ruler Knows Best (or At Least He Thinks So)
Historically, giving up control of one’s life to an all-powerful ruler began as a matter of necessity. Life was dangerous. Starvation was a constant threat. Defeat, death, and capture by another tribe or group were always possibilities. Humans learned early on that they had to stick together to survive. When the tribe went hunting large game, their success was based on teamwork. There might have been some discussion, but ultimately one person called the shots, and the others followed. Those who didn’t fall in line risked endangering the entire group. This logic continued when one group came into contact with another: battles were fought—and won—with teamwork under the direction of a few. So, in terms of the effective use of force by the tribe—for food or for battle—it became useful for a few to emerge who gave orders to others.
With the agricultural revolution, the survival of the entire tribe became a matter of planting crops at the right time and hoping that the weather cooperated. “Specialists” emerged who improved the odds of success through early scientific advances, like tracking the movement of the moon and stars. Evidence suggests that large megalithic structures such as Stonehenge functioned to enable these enhanced powers of observation. Though their actual scientific knowledge was likely very basic by today’s standards, these specialists were elevated within society because of their importance to the tribe’s well-being and often became the religious leaders of the community. After all, no one knew why the seasons happened, just that they did, year after year, and it was left to the specialists, who could specify more accurately when spring would begin, to come up with an explanation.
Useful fictions such as “Who are we to question the will of the gods?” fit the need of the emerging Ruling Class very well. They could say that they possessed a specialized “skill set” not accessible to the common man, and thus held an exclusive position as the gods’ mouthpiece to the people. This made them absolutely critical to the group’s survival, at least in the narrative they promoted. Conveniently, the Ruling Class continued to refine their marketing message to the masses. If a spring brought unseasonably cold weather and lower crop yields, the story was always some variation of “You have angered the gods because . . .” Or even better, “You can appease the gods again by . . .” But never “I’ve made a mistake.”
Now, pretend you’re a member of the community that relies on this specialist to determine when to plant. He’s been right most of the time. If you go against his dictates, you risk ruining the crop and starving to death. So, for lack of other options, you follow this specialist and his policies, because the downside is so catastrophic. Coincidence becomes causation, and over time, you and your family grow even more attentive to what the specialist says the gods want in the future, to the point that you’re hanging on his every word. In Mesoamerica and many other early cultures, ritual human sacrifice was a regular practice mandated by high priests, the specialists of that time, to appease the gods society worshipped. Though extreme acts like this were barbaric, they were deemed necessary in order for society to continue, and thus became a way of life.
So, early in human history, individuals relinquished significant control of their lives as a matter of survival to the Ruling Class, who were cunning enough to take advantage of their helplessness. The early rulers flourished not because they were exceptionally knowledgeable or skilled but because, even when outnumbered, they were able to rule with elaborately crafted narratives that explained why they deserved a position of such prominence. Of course, they were crafty and capable, and did contribute to the refinement of early society, but they were focused mostly on advancing their own agenda of seizing and wielding power. This has always been the strategy of the Ruling Class, whether as the chief of a small tribe or an emperor ruling millions of people.
Common to all of these rulers are the three basic tenants of the Ruling Class. First, most people are incapable of managing their own lives. Second, only a government can succeed in maintaining order in society. Finally, the members of the Ruling Class possess an innate superiority that makes them worthy of their position and the power they hold over everyone else.
As society became more complex, the real leadership the ruler showed on the hunt or in battle was no longer crucial. So his narrative evolved as to why individual liberty had to be sacrificed. Opposition to the ruler’s ways, the thinking goes, could weaken the group as a whole—just as it could on the hunt or in battle, even though the immediate threat was far more remote. So for example, if you don’t marry according to society’s standards as imposed by the Ruling Class, you risk disrupting the status quo and the well-being of the group. If you don’t follow in your father’s footsteps, then your town might not have a trained blacksmith or baker, and would thus be unable to meet its population’s needs. If you act in a way that the ruler claims angered the gods, then the tribe might starve as punishment. The narrative maintained that if people didn’t give up their resources or acquiesce to the rules, the order of the group would unravel, enemies would invade and pillage, or the gods would grow angry at their behavior and punish them with devastating natural disasters. The Ruling Class, time and again, promoted this structure under the guise of forming a well-balanced and successful society, when in reality, theirs was a system designed to keep lower subjects in line and easy to control, the way it had always been.
And if all else failed, hideous punishment awaited those who defied the narrative of the Ruling Class. Ancient rulers roasted whole families alive in metal ovens shaped like a bull. Crucifixion was developed as a slow, torturous death. Treason was so heinous a crime that painful death was not enough: the traitor was hanged, cut down alive, drawn and quartered, and forced to watch his own bowels burn in front of him as he bled to death. Heretics were burned at the stake, for it was believed that the flames would expunge not only their lives but also their evil thoughts.
Public Works Require a Strong Ruler
Just as the Ruling Class took advantage of their community’s need for safety in a dangerous world, they created other areas of exploitation as society advanced and became more developed. By manning the helm of massive public works projects, the Ruling Class gained another rationale for increasing the power at their disposal. These involved both a pressing need for defense and also for control of water and food. Most of these endeavors were of mind-numbing size, especially considering the technological and logistical constraints of their time.
In Mesopotamia (a region containing modern Iraq), seasonal changes in the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers posed a significant problem for early civilization. To meet the food production needs of a rapidly expanding population, water had to be managed in order to maximize the amount of arable land.2
The Ruling Class of the third millennium BC, seizing the opportunity to extend their influence, constructed extensive irrigation canals. Similarly, the massive reach of the Nile River and its regular flooding necessitated the implementation of similar systems in Egypt. These projects, while important to the development of the community, offered the Ruling Class an opportunity to solidify their positions.
In analyzing the essential feature of water in the building of these early civilizations, the German American historian Karl Wittfogel coined the term “hydraulic despotism.”3
Building and maintaining the irrigation system that sustained society required an immensely powerful ruler capable of marshaling most of the population into contributing their labor toward that collective goal. A large and powerful bureaucracy then emerged to make sure that this highly centralized rule was carried out. Other historians have refined Wittfogel’s hypothesis since the time he wrote in the 1950s. The current view is that the control of water was not so much the origin of despotism (which existed in any case), but the key to the evolution of a bureaucratic state under the despot, because it created issues that could not be adjudicated by a single individual. As such, these water tyrannies were fundamental in moving from a single ruler toward an entire Ruling Class.
A similar bureaucracy formed to execute an even more massive project in China in the seventh century, although work had begun several hundred years before. The Grand Canal is the largest man-made waterway the world has ever seen.4
It is 1,100 miles long and links Beijing with the two great river systems of China: the Yangtze River and the Yellow River. The commitment of men and national output to build this project was massive and involved a mobilization of resources that could be completed only by a great ruler with far-reaching power. To put the commitment into perspective, the Erie Canal of the 1820s was less than one-fifth as long but cost $7 million to complete at a time when the total federal budget was $19 million. Given the much lower gross domestic product (GDP) and poorer technology 2,500 years earlier, it is not hard to imagine that most of the surplus production of China was dedicated to building the canal.
The most massive public works project of all time, however, was not conducted to control water or food but for defense. Construction on the Great Wall of China began in the seventh century BC as a means of guarding against invasion by northern tribes.5
It was built, rebuilt, and expanded many times. Each revision enlisted a massive number of laborers, all under the direction of the Ruling Class of that day, and many paid the ultimate price during this forced service. Historians estimate that as many as 400,000 people died during the building of the Great Wall. Criminals too were forced to work on the wall, and if they died before completing their sentence, their family had to provide a replacement. In one of the wall’s later revisions during the Ming dynasty, other estimates say that as many as one-third of all adult males in China labored on the wall for the national good. This is a staggering burden on a society operating on barely-above-subsistence agriculture, and an enormous amount of power commanded by a small group of individuals.
Of course, many of the gargantuan projects of history were not only exceptionally costly but also served only to glorify the upper echelon of the Ruling Class. Egypt’s pyramids are a prime example. The Great Pyramid of Giza took the efforts of 30,000 men over a twenty-year period, all for a glorified monument to the Pharaohs. They involved the moving and lifting of some 2.5 million cubic meters of stone.6
In terms of excavation, they moved enough earth to build an irrigation ditch three feet deep, six feet wide, and a mile into the desert the entire length of the Nile River on both sides. Think of that with respect to lost agricultural output. In terms of stone laid, they could have built the equivalent of a Roman road (eighteen inches of stone deep and thirty feet wide) the entire length of the country.
The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in China is similarly renowned.7
Constructed over thirty-six years, this tomb contains an estimated eight thousand terra-cotta soldiers—weighing between three hundred and four hundred pounds each—built to protect the emperor in the afterlife. But all of this speaks to the perceived importance of the ruler compared with the needs of the people. Just the fired clay in those statues could have provided every family in Beijing forty gallon-size pots for cooking or for water. The great societies of the past emerged from the untold sacrifices of ordinary people, yet only the names of the Ruling Class who forced their subjects into such deprivations are remembered. These rulers did deliver some of the essentials of civilization, and that doubtless helped people tolerate the costs of being ruled. This tolerance for suffering was augmented by a narrative that this arrangement was how it was supposed to be; and that narrative was backed up by a combination of superstition and force. The notion of individual liberty rarely ever arose—and was quickly vanquished when it did.
The Best the Ancient World Had to Offer
There were some brief exceptions. The clearest example of the concept of liberty was espoused by the second-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was considered unusual even in his own time and thus received the appellation “philosopher king.” In particular, he advanced the philosophy of Stoicism, which advocated a belief in duty, self-restraint, and respect for others. In Meditations, a collection of his personal writings, he wrote of “a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed.”9
However, this was only a brief glimpse of liberty, and actual practice didn’t always follow his enlightened theories. For example, the traits that Aurelius wrote about didn’t apply to the rising Christian population; their persecution increased during his reign, as recurring military defeats required a scapegoat in order to maintain the narrative that justified his power. Even worse, most important tenets of Aurelius’s philosophy were utterly rejected by his successors. Rome quickly returned to its old ways of totalitarian governing after his departure. Part of this might have been due to his own mistake when it came to planning for his succession. Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance political theorist, described Aurelius as the last of the “five good emperors”;10
those five became emperor after being “adopted” by their predecessors. Hence, the practice of imperial succession was maintained, but the next emperor was selected based on merit rather than blood. This trend ended with Aurelius, who was succeeded by his biological son Commodus.I
Still, the Stoic philosophy provided a clear departure from the practice of most ancient governing structures. It placed a moral obligation on the ruler to create good governance, with at least a modicum of freedom for his subjects. British historian Edward Gibbon, in his epic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, called this “the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.”11
Gibbon was writing in the middle of the eighteenth century and clearly meant that this was a superior outcome up until and including his own time, so this is high praise. But Gibbon’s view was that its prosperity arose because “The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.”
The guidance of virtue and wisdom is undoubtedly better than the guidance of greed and narcissism, but that is a low bar for what government should aspire to be. Absolute power, even given to a well-intentioned ruler, is still quite different from a guarantee of liberty to citizens, even if it mimics some of its virtues in everyday life. And the practicalities of governing even in these less despotic ancient societies meant that the state and Ruling Class still held precedence over the individual.
Nowhere is this clearer than in another example held up as a model of tolerable early governance: ancient Greece. We credit the city-state of Athens as one of the first democracies, and indeed it was. Starting in the sixth century BC, reforms were initiated to expand political participation. By the fourth century, when there were perhaps 250,000 to 300,000 people in Attica, the territory that Athens controlled, roughly 100,000 were recognized as citizens, and of these, perhaps 30,000 could vote in the assembly. Votes were cast directly by these people rather than by representatives and had to be made in person. So it was a pure democracy, limited to certain members of the population—not a representative government such as the one we have today.
Although there was democracy, there was not what we would call liberty. It was what might be called a democratic dictatorship. Though individuals had a say through their vote, the assembly’s power was unlimited. It could do as it pleased, reversing itself completely if it chose and thus upending what we today might call “the rule of law.” Additionally, both civil and criminal trials involved a democratic process in which a subsection of the population (typically five hundred people) sat as a jury. There were no protections in place for the accused, who could be convicted based on a simple majority alone. Unlike in America, where jury decisions usually have to be unanimous, those on trial in Greece could be found guilty by a single vote. The trial took a single day; perjury and falsifying evidence might be found later and used to convict the perjurer, but the harm caused by verdicts could not be undone. So the Athenian government had power as great as any tyrant, the only difference being that power within the government was broadened to include more people in the Ruling Class. The individual was still totally subservient to the society as represented by the State.
The greatest example of this came with the trial of Socrates, whom the assembly charged with corrupting the young and with impiety, not believing in the state-accepted gods. Impiety in that day was punishable by death. How could an individual be free with such state-imposed standards on personal beliefs? The “corruption” the assembly spoke of was in reference to the Socratic method of teaching through questioning, the way that Socrates encouraged his students to question constantly the basis of their thinking. Society is usually terrified of ideas that contradict accepted belief, and that was Socrates’s real crime. The concept of liberty in terms of thought and speech was seen as subservient to the democratic will, not a “right” that trumped it.
Socrates was found guilty by a vote of 280 to 220 in favor of conviction, a decision that was essentially a political verdict.12
A narrow majority of the jury felt that Socrates was causing too much trouble for Athens, an attitude Socrates summarized by describing himself as a gadfly. He was an irritant to too many powerful people, often questioning their actions and motives. The lesson, which is still true today, is that questioning those who see themselves as “intellectually superior” might end up costing you dearly. The ability to do so, to question those in authority and those who claim some expertise, is an important cornerstone of liberty, one that was absent in even what is believed to be philosophically enlightened Greece.
The story of Socrates illustrates a confusion that many of the Ruling Class throughout history have seemed to suffer. Power does not mean that your beliefs are a source of absolute truth; your principles are still as fallible as anyone’s. Admitting that your principles are fallible doesn’t in turn mean that you need to change your mind, but it does suggest that your critics’ opinions are worth hearing. If nothing else, opposition identifies weakness in your ideals worth correcting. This was lost on the different Ruling Classes that held power around the world, and meant that most people, for most of history, were trapped in a limited role, lacking the empowerment to change their circumstances.
The lesson of history is that liberty is a very radical idea, one that did not exist in any substantive form before our Founding Fathers declared independence from England and the Crown. These brave men demanded the right to live their lives free of Ruling Class interference. They demanded the right to question those entrusted with power; question their assumptions, question their motives, and to ensure as best as possible that they were acting in society’s best interest and not merely their own. They created a constitution that for the first time in history provided a framework limiting the scope of the government rather than the rights of citizens. Most significant, the Founders realized the importance of these rights and were willing to die for them. I
. In the movie Gladiator (2000), Marcus Aurelius was portrayed by Richard Harris. The story line is that his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) ensured his succession by eliminating his father’s alleged preference, the general Maximus, played by Russell Crowe. The historical accuracy of this account is doubtful, but conceivable.