Anthropologist Brian Fagan tells us* that all pre-industrial states were rigidly hierarchical structures that systematically transferred wealth from the edges of society to the center -- toward a state-created ruling elite. The privileged few, or at least the head man, were thought of as divine, or at least as having a special relationship with the gods that separated these people from the toiling multitudes. (Sumer, possibly the oldest state on Earth, called itself "Land of the Lords of Light.") Public religious ceremonies held in intimidating temples served to legitimize their right to consume the product of the labor of others and to dictate their beliefs and actions.
Most people think that with the advent of the industrial age, the state, or at least some states, changed into the exact opposite of this. After all, we now have democracy and separation of church and state. The new state doesn't represent the private interests of a select group, but the public interest. In ordinary language today, the words "government" and "public" often mean the same thing (eg., public school, public sector, public land, etc.).
According to this blockbuster essay by historian Angelo Codevilla, America has been moving to an updated version of the old system for about a century now. The new ruling class differs from the old one in that it does not claim to be divine, but its members are profoundly certain that the are intellectually and therefore morally superior to the rest of us. More exactly, they believe that we are bigoted, greedy, and racist compared to them, and that this is the basis of their right to correct our behavior and consume our product. (In a way, they still think they are the Lords of Light.)
They are very much like the old sorts elites in another way: they survive by a system of patronage, ie., the suction of wealth from the periphery to the center, toward a select group of client individuals and organizations.
Codevilla's view of the current situation is seriously depressing. In his view, the ruling class is well represented by the Democrats, while the others are well represented by nobody. The Republican establishment is part of The Center. Further, the only possible alternative to the present situation would be a change so radical as to deserve the name, revolution.
Some quotes from the article:
Thus if you are not among the favored guests at the table where officials make detailed lists of who is to receive what at whose expense, you are on the menu.
Even more significantly, these and other products of Democratic and Republican administrations and Congresses empower countless boards and commissions arbitrarily to protect some persons and companies, while ruining others.
Because modern laws are primarily grants of discretion, all anybody has to know about them is whom they empower.
Americans think it justice to spend the money they earn to satisfy their private desires even though the ruling class knows that justice lies in improving the community and the planet.
Since The American Spectator ran the piece, they have been flooded with emails. A book version is in the works. I urge you to read it, if you haven't already done so. It will make you pray that he is wrong.
[Hat-tip to Linda Frey for alerting me to this article.]
* Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations (The Learning Company, 2003), Lecture 19. Like last summer, I've been listening to a lot of recorded lecture courses, mainly on history.