The split within the contemporary U.S. ruling class is, like the Pacific, wide, deep, and turbulent. To find a similar specimen, I would say, requires a reach back to the early 1930s. At that time, the ruling class was riven by division and the singular event that precipitated it was the onset of the Great Depression and the contending views within these circles and across society as to the efficacy of a model of capital accumulation and political governance dominant at that time and how to escape its clutches.
Today’s split is traceable, not to one overarching event, but, in my mind, to a number of shape shifting events over roughly a decade. The first was the near total meltdown of the global economy in 2008 and the slow recovery that followed. Only with the Biden administration in the White House and governing is it becoming apparent how shape shifting an event the Great Recession and its aftermath were at every level of society. Capitalist globalization, financialization and neoliberalism weren’t unceremoniously whisked away never to see the light of day again, but their role and legitimacy as the dominant vehicles and modalities to organize the economy and structure politics came under intense scrutiny so much so that a look for economic alternatives began in earnest among sections of the ruling class.
Close on its heels came the historic, and, to many, unexpected election of the first African American, Barack Obama, to the presidency. While tens of millions rightly celebrated this cracking of the wall of racist exclusion, it soon became clear that many others didn’t at the mass level and in elite circles. They met the electron of the first Black president – and not only in the moment – with chilling racist anger and an irreconcilable revanchist spirit.
The evolution of the Republican Party into a hard right wing, anti-democratic instrument of white supremacist authoritarian rule further aggravated divisions in the ruling class. Gone from the Trump dominated Republican Party is any pretense of winning a popular majority or commitment to democratic norms, rights, and governance or even a preference for a democratic form of capitalism. Instead, minority rule by any means necessary, including bloody insurrection as we saw on January 6, unrelieved exploitation, xenophobia, and white supremacy, always in the bloodstream of U.S. politics, have become the governing staples of the party of Trump and a section of the U.S capitalist class.
The existential nature and consequences of climate change over the past decade have fractured the ruling class as well. One the one hand, powerful concentrations of capital – low road capitalists – are wedded to older and dirtier (fossil fuel) production systems and products that ravage the environment and ecosystem, while, on the other hand, other concentrations of capital – high road capitalists – employing new technologies and developing new products make them protagonists for a transition to a less fossil dependent – even fossil free – and equitable economy.
Finally, the scale, depth, and political character of democratic and class struggles intensified over the decade and predictably caused rifts in ruling circles. The candidacy of Bernie Sanders, the women’s march, the election interventions of a broad democratic coalition in 2018 and 2020, the shift of the center of gravity of the Democratic Party in a progressive direction, the massive uprising in reaction to the police assassination of George Floyd, and, not least, the election of Joe Biden couldn’t help but exacerbate intra class contradictions.
Broadly speaking, two different responses to this tangle of events (or social processes) are evident. One grouping of the ruling class energetically pursues a politics steeped in white nationalism, plutocratic authoritarianism, hatred for equality and difference, climate denialism, militarism, and a relativisation of truth and meaning. Domination and dictatorship not hegemony is the lifeblood of this section of the ruling class.
The other gravitates towards a renovated capitalism, that is more egalitarian, democratic, ecologically sustainable, and responsive to popular democratic desires and pressures that have notably grown over the decade in scope, depth. This grouping of the political and economic elite embraces reforms that only a year or two ago it would consider anathema. This cat hasn’t changed colors, but it purrs and moves to a new beat.
This split is (or should be) of more than academic interest to any individual, movement, coalition, and parties that have an interest in a more just, egalitarian, and sustainable world. Ignoring it would be folly and self destructive. The movements in the 1930s didn’t make such a mistake. They rightly adjusted their strategy and tactics to take into account these differences. Class against class was replaced by a cross class coalition stretching from FDR to the Communist Party, searching for a new model of economic organization and political governance (out of which came Social Keynesianism) and committed to the imperative of unity and joint action. Let us hope that today’s movement has such wisdom!