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“Ruling Class, Ruling Ideas”

Barbara Goodrich, Ph.D.


Contents:

Introduction

1. Hopi and Navajo examples of economic substructure reflected in the ideological, cultural superstructure

2. Summary of a few historical examples

3. John Wayne’s film roles

Introduction

In his recent book Monkeyluv (Scribner, NY, 2005, “The Cultural Desert”), primatologist Robert Sapolsky describes anthropological findings that, statistically speaking, desert cultures tend to be more monotheistic, more violent, and harsher to women than rainforest cultures.  Anthropologists seeking to explain these striking findings suggest that tenuous life in the desert might lead to a view of a hierarchical divinity with a powerful and  “interventionist” god at the top.  In a land of scarcity, it may also be important to spread out the birth of children, so that restrictions on sex and reproduction may have some value.   And if the land is poor enough that flocks must be herded far away to find enough to eat, so that some of the men must be away from the household for whole seasons, the culture is more likely to develop a warrior class, possibly to help protect the households whose men are away with herds. 

Marx had anticipated this insight that material conditions influence culture and ideology.   But for him, it wasn’t just the natural environment that inform who we become, it is, most centrally, how we work, how our economy is set up.       

1. Hopi and Navajo examples of economic substructure reflected in the ideological, cultural superstructure

There are two very different Native American peoples living in close proximity in Arizona and New Mexico in the American Southwest.  They occupy the same desert environment, and yet have extremely different cultures.

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Hopi woman, photograph from www.crystalinks.com/hopi1.html

The Hopi people of Arizona (possibly related to the Anasazi people of the world-famous cliff ruins in Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico) have an ancient economy based on agriculture -- in the arid American southwest, which is an astonishing achievement.  The careful irrigation and crop-tending that this requires has given rise to a culture that emphasizes cooperation and duty.   Ranchers and other employers in the area were surprised when they began asking the Hopis to work for them; the Hopis did not want to accept work if only some of the available men would be hired; this was considered unfair to the others.  Good manners for the Hopis are also much more other-oriented; while excelling in one’s field is of course admired, winning at a competition too often is considered in poor taste; by competing too much, the winner isn’t giving others a chance.   Notice that this emphasis on cooperation and the group’s benefit is necessary for survival as farmers in the desert; if one household has a member injured, say, when the harvest is ready to be collected, other households will be ready and happy to help out. 

The Navajo people who live in the same area have evolved an economy based mainly on sheep and cattle ranching, which requires long-distance travel alone, sometimes facing wolves or other dangers.   Their culture, not surprisingly, has been far more individualistic and competitive.  

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(This is from the Fotosearch.com website.  You can buy photographs of it there.)

2. Summary of a few historical examples

A) In hunter-gatherer societies, everyone must be versatile and flexible in their work for anyone to survive.  It’s not surprising that, famously, they tend to be quite egalitarian.

B) In feudal medieval European Christendom, the rigid class system of agricultural peasants, townspeople including craftsmen and merchants, the church hierarchy, and the aristocratic hierarchy developed a theological worldview that gave meaning to the whole thing.  While Christianity acknowledged the individual in a way that earlier pagan religions did not, it also asserted that one’s proper place in the class system (and indeed in the whole universal chain of being) was God’s will.  One’s own honor was bound up with the loyalty one gave one’s superiors (e.g. the famous swearing fidelity to one’s liege lord).  Obeying authority was a key virtue; if one disagreed with that authority, one could trust God to sort it out for the best, or at least look for a reward after death.  (And those in power did not have arbitrary power, but power modified by responsibilities to their inferiors and duties to their superiors, including God.  Of course they didn’t always act according to the responsibilities and duties, either.)   If the situation seemed bleak for a dirt-poor peasant, at least she could tell herself that the whole of nature had been created for humans such as her, in fact the Earth was at the center of creation, and God noticed and blessed her faith and her submission to the great order that he had established.  She would go to church every Sunday and every Holy Day, and “read” the stories illustrated in the church’s windows, and hear the priest’s sermons, and perhaps talk about them a little with her family and neighbors.  She would be expected to be submissive to her husband or father at least in important matters, and respectful to the squire, and in awe of any aristocrats she might see.

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Didacus Valades, image of the medieval Christian “great chain of being”

No one had cynically, deliberately dreamed up this worldview to brainwash people into putting up with harsh conditions that benefited mainly the ruling class, the aristocracy.   Instead, it was a worldview that evolved because it worked in that particular economic and class system.  The society tended towards homeostasis, so to speak, and this worldview did give meaning to sometimes grueling situations.   If anyone had suggested that “all humans are created equal and have certain inalienable rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and property,” he would have been regarded as babbling.   

C) These ideas of “inalienable rights for all humans to life, liberty, and property” only made sense after the industrial revolution and growing international trade, after the old ideas of a holistic hierarchy had been uprooted by economic change, with the rising middle class beginning to catch up in power to the old hereditary aristocracy.  For example, in England, starting in the Renaissance, smaller as well as larger landowners began to evict the peasant families who had lived on a plot of land for centuries, when the landowners realized that they could make more of a profit by acting as entrepreneurs rather than as traditional squires, using their land to raise sheep for wool to be exported, rather than for traditional subsistence farming.   (Sir and St. Thomas More, author of Utopia and reputed to be the only non-corrupt judge under England’s King Henry VIII, martyred by Henry VIII for not abandoning the Church, criticized this practice angrily.  He is the hero of the moving play and film, Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons.”)   Under the old morality, this of course violated their traditional responsibilities to their farm workers.  The unscrupulous landowners would thus tend to prefer a new ideology of self-serving profit-seeking.

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Sir/St. Thomas More, by Hans Holbein

At roughly the same time, industrial machines were being developed that could be operated by unskilled laborers, replacing the skilled arisans whose place in society was grounded by years of training and experience.  And the evicted, dispossessed peasants, who had mostly moved to the cities to try to find work and living quarters (these displaced peasants were called the “proletariat”), were available, desperate for work, and willing to work for almost nothing.   (This is the background to Dickens, whose literature Marx loved, and to Marx himself – he had seen these tragedies in Germany and after he fled to England, where he lived for the later part of his life, he saw them again in London.)  Overall, the older, small middle-class of artisans and merchants was thus replaced by a new growing middle-class of merchants, entrepreneurs, and speculators. 

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And the intellectual and scientific changes, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and on, undermined religious faith in the old hierarchy.   The old worldview no longer made sense.  The growing middle-class needed an ideology to make sense of their success and to justify their success, and the idea that humans are basically individuals, with the right to social mobility, and with the responsibility for their own survival (so that the plight of the poor, including the new urban proletariat, could be ignored), now seemed natural, in this context.   Even Darwin’s new theory of evolution was distorted into a kind of excuse for exploiting the poor, entitled “social Darwinism” (of course, this nonsense has nothing to do with Darwin or with science). In Marx’s terms, the up-and-coming new ruling class, the new middle class, was evolving its own ideology that would become the new ruling ideas for the whole society. 

3. John Wayne’s film roles

Here’s an unusually simple example of “ruling class, ruling ideas.”   

Early American films were frequently pretty left-wing.  Progressive, populist, even socialist politics were very strong in the U.S. throughout the late 19th century (remember the horrible “robber barons”?) and early 20th century (especially during the Great Depression of 1929 and the ‘30s).  

But by 1945 F.D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies and WWII had ended the Depression.  Further, the Cold War with our old ally the Soviet Union was beginning, and word of Stalin’s brutal practices would be gradually emerging.   U.S. tycoons and conservatives had been very worried by left-wing activism during the Depression – at times, it seemed that the U.S. population would insist on a socialist economy, since a free market one had led to the devastations of 1929.   To prevent anything like this (which was occurring to a large degree in Great Britain, with the post-war Labour administrations) some of these people worked to promote an atmosphere of anti-communist, anti-socialist pro-capitalist “patriotism,” and to identify this with the post-war boom in which all classes would prosper.   (E.g. the American Legion was developed to counter leftist tendencies in many veterans.)  

In Hollywood Westerns, John Wayne no longer played simple individual good-guys, or even outcasts, as in the framed jail-breaker in “Stagecoach,”, but now good-guy ranch owners or other status quo figures, as in the rancher in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”  The hero was no longer a common citizen, but a property-owner or military authority figure.  And of course large property-owners (i.e. factory owners, large farm owners, or more commonly these days, those who own these things indirectly by being large stock-holders) would love these stories!   The workers, relieved to be employed and paid a reasonable wage, would no longer be desperate for economic change.   And once they’d heard the attitude of “Let’s all work together for the new prosperity, don’t rock the boat, don’t question authority” a few times, they’d get used to the “property-owner as hero” icon, so it would make sense to them.

Incidentally, in the 1970s, some left-wing filmmakers started creating films with non-standard protagonists, as a deliberate alternative to the “property-owner as hero” motif.   They were presenting ideas directly opposed to the “ruling ideas.”  (And some directors were no doubt inspired by Marx’s analysis of “ruling class, ruling ideas.”)   At first, many viewers found these films extremely disturbing, and reacted with great anger.  After all, the dominant ideology of complacent obedience was being challenged.    The anger didn’t last very long, though.  And soon the “loner challenging the status quo” icon was, in fact, co-opted by the status quo in a brilliant strategy of spin-doctoring that even Marx wasn’t cynical enough to have foreseen.

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