The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas

Karl Marx writes in The German Ideology (1845):

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. For instance, in an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie are contending for mastery and where, therefore, mastery is shared, the doctrine of the separation of powers proves to be the dominant idea and is expressed as an “eternal law.”

If now in considering the course of history we detach the ideas of the ruling class from the ruling class itself and attribute to them an independent existence, if we confine ourselves to saying that these or those ideas were dominant at a given time, without bothering ourselves about the conditions of production and the producers of these ideas, if we thus ignore the individuals and world conditions which are the source of the ideas, we can say, for instance, that during the time that the aristocracy was dominant, the concepts honour, loyalty, etc. were dominant, during the dominance of the bourgeoisie the concepts freedom, equality, etc. The ruling class itself on the whole imagines this to be so. This conception of history, which is common to all historians, particularly since the eighteenth century, will necessarily come up against the phenomenon that increasingly abstract ideas hold sway, i.e. ideas which increasingly take on the form of universality. For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.

This truism must be the starting point for any rational analysis of how beliefs are formed, transmitted, adopted, modified, resisted, and overthrown. Indeed, Marx’s observation supplies us with quick answers to outstanding questions about the way our world works simply by focusing our attention.

Consider, for example, the major media corporations operating in the United States – ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC. Who owns them? Capitalists. Who controls them? Managers working for capitalists. The result of concentration of the means of communication in the hands of a small number of families is that the ideas transmitted by the major media represent the interests of those families via such ideas as “capitalism is the best economic system ever,” “inequality is inevitable and natural and even useful because it motivates people to work hard,” “socialism is inefficient and oppressive,” “anything is possible for an individual living in the United States if he works hard enough and plays by the rules,” and so forth.  

The other dominant institutions are controlled by the same ruling forces. The prevailing ideas presented by the major churches in the United States are supportive of the status quo of patriarchal capitalism. The subordination of women is justified by the dominant religious teachings. Religion also covers attitudes about capitalism. The flock are taught that however inadequate their lives are on Earth, a better life awaits them in an imaginary place called “Heaven”—as long as they perform the rituals and never question the veracity of the myth. Moreover, the inadequacies they suffer in the present are the result of a lack of faith and not following the rules.

The reality is that the problem for most individuals is not that they fail to following the rules, but rather result from the rules themselves, as these rules are established by the elite in order to advance their interests over against the interests of the majority. The real problems for capitalism begin when the majority recognizes that capitalism is the source of its problems.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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