Social Class and State Power (with David M. Hart)

David M. Hart joins us to discuss his latest book, Social Class and State Power.

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Anthony Comegna: David M. Hart is the Director of Liberty Fund’s magnificent and influential Online Library of Liberty. If you have ever spent serious time reading deeply and classical liberal or libertarian sources, chances are you’ve either used OLL directly, or wherever you were reading from got it thanks to people like David M. Hart. For many, many years now, Professor Hart has worked diligently to revive a cornerstone of this [00:00:30] very show, the classical liberal theory of class conflict.
His latest book “Social Class and State Power” is a reader in libertarian class theory, including documents from Richard Overton in the English civil wars, all the way down to Libertarianism.org contributor, Roderick Long. David M. Hart joins us now.
[00:01:00] Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. So first I want to start out fairly straightforward, what exactly is this thing, this category that historians throw around so easily it seems, this idea of class? What is it?

David M. Hart: Well, it depends, because class can be defined in any way you like. You can talk about the class of redheaded people, or the [00:01:30] class of Australians who live in Indianapolis. Really important, is this distinction that you’re making of any historical or political importance? Traditionally, class has been defined as a group of people who are able to get particular privileges for themselves, at the expense of other people, and use this access to power to enjoy greater wealth, [00:02:00] greater access to political authority, even to have their enemies killed or removed by the use of force.
Now, one of the things we tried to do in this book was to show that the people who think that power and exercise of power has been important in helping to explain how societies function has been part of the classical liberal, libertarian tradition going back 4 or 500 years. But what’s commonly mistaken I think is [00:02:30] that class, especially in the universities today, is seen as purely at a leftist category.
It goes back to Karl Marx, of course, who back in the 1840s began writing some very good journalism as it turned out, about the 1844 revolution that had occurred in Paris, and come into power, Louis-Napoleon, who eventually became Napoleon III. His definition of class was very different. His [00:03:00] argument was that … Well, it was related, but his extension of it was to say that anyone who was involved in a wage relationship with an employer was in a class based relationship, which was exploitative.
This was a branch that went off in different direction from the longer standing I would say classical liberal idea about class. That’s become the dominant definition of class, that anyone who is involved in the capitalist system, [00:03:30] who makes a profit in a capitalist system, who pays wages to workers, is exploiting them by doing that, and that constitutes a class relationship.
And the whole previous tradition of thinking about class, as access to political power and using that to get privileges has been forgotten. It’s gone down the Orwellian memory hole, and what we’re trying to do in the book is to resurrect this older tradition, to say A, it existed, B, Karl Marx borrowed from this tradition, and then extended it in new directions, which happened to be completely [00:04:00] wrong. We’re trying to stake out a claim to territory, in other words.

Anthony Comegna: Now again, the reader is called “Social Class and State Power” and as you said, this classical liberal tradition of class analysis goes back at least 500 years. The first document you have is from Richard Overton in 1641, and I’m wondering were there clear concepts of class before the early modern period? [00:04:30] Not exclusive to a classical liberal view of class, but were there really any senses of people belonging to a particular class in the premodern period?

David M. Hart: Yes, there were, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but just going back to the title, my preferred title for the book was “Paris Fights Plunders of Plutocrats” which happened to be words used by people in these broadly defined classically [00:05:00] liberal traditions, but I was outvoted by my other editors. We got something much more anodyne, “Social Class and State Power,” and that was done deliberately in order to appeal to leftists in the academy who might be more tempted to read the book or buy it.
To go back to your original question about were there notions of class before the early modern period, and you’d have to say yes, there were. I mean, it was often back in the Greek and Roman period, there was talk [00:05:30] about tyrants and despots, which I think was a very crude distinction, the people, the despot, the aristocrats, those kinds of very simple social divisions were used, and building upon that, starting I think in the early modern period, you have a much more sophisticated or an appreciation of the complexity of society, and needed to have other ways of describing [00:06:00] what might have been a relationship between a subject and a king, or a subject and a senator, or tyrant of some kind.
That’s what you get [inaudible 00:06:13], who was a 16th century French author, was still thinking in these classical terms of people versus tyrants. What happens I think in this period, [00:06:30] the classic, if you like, definition of a class relationship was the slave owner and the slave, which of course is a crucial institution in the ancient Roman world. That continues up into the modern period.
In fact, in the 1820s in France, when these theories about class were being rediscovered and explored, that was the classic definition of a class, of a slave owner/slave relationship. But it was extended to say, “Well look, Napoleon [00:07:00] wasn’t literally a slave owner, but he enslaved the French people by taxing them and forcing them into the army and so on.” This became a reference point for a further development of the notion.

Anthony Comegna: In some sense, is this an idea that has always been around and maybe even held by the vast majority of people? I mean, you think of your ancient Chinese peasants, and how they must have secretly hated the emperor, and-

David M. Hart: [00:07:30] But he made the rain fall. They loved him for that.

Anthony Comegna: Is this an idea that you think goes much deeper in human existence than social scientists and philosophers in the early modern period? I mean, I know there are notions in the Greco-Roman world about masters and slaves, et cetera, et cetera, but in some sense this seems very fundamental to the everyday human experience against the state.

David M. Hart: [00:08:00] Well, I think the notion you’re referring here is us and them. I mean, we are the peasants of digging our plot of land, and every year we have to make a “donation” to our lord and emperor. But for most people, I think they just accepted that as the natural part of the world. It’s when people start to think that this is unfair or unjust that I think changes the way that they look at that relationship.
[00:08:30] That I think is a modern phenomenon. “This is not right” or, “It’s excessive” or, “Maybe there’s another way of doing things,” but I think for most of human history, they didn’t think that way.

Anthony Comegna: It seems fairly popular, common to me, for libertarians to date the origins of our set of ideas to the English Civil War, as a very clear moment in time when the whole libertarian package [00:09:00] started to emerge. What is the special about the English Civil War?

David M. Hart: I’m glad you asked me that, because I have a special fondness for the Levellers. I’m currently editing for the Online Library of Liberty a seven volume collection of Leveller tracks. You’re quite right, I think there’s something special about the 1640s, where a lot of disparate ideas that you can trace back hundreds of years into the past, about political structures and about elites and about [00:09:30] the relationship between elites and people, come together in not a fully formed way, but in a very precocious … I call them protoliberals, protolibertarian, because they’re not quite there yet. But they’re so close it’s not funny.
But I think it’s partly because of a crisis, a political and economic and military crisis that forces people to do things and to see things in a different [00:10:00] way. There are these revolutionary moments that occur in history where suddenly people are forced … It’s like the kaleidoscope. If you shake the kaleidoscope because of a revolution or a crisis in society, and turn the handles, you get a new image that appears out the end of the kaleidoscope, and I think this is what happens in revolutionary moments.
It happens in 1640s in England, it happens in the 1760s and ’70s in America, [00:10:30] and it happens again in the 1780s in France. It’s not surprising that you get some flourishing of new thinking about politics and economics that come out of these crisis situations.

Anthony Comegna: For these generations of thinkers and activists really, plenty of them, especially in the English civil wars, or more properly, categorized as activists, for those in the English Civil War, the Enlightenments [00:11:00] going across Europe in the century afterward, what exactly was the makeup of the classes to them? How did they think that social classes formed and what kept them in existence?

David M. Hart: Well, to go back to the English, I call it a revolution, not a civil war. But aspects of both, of course. There was a notion that, a very deeply held notion, that there was a traditional way of doing things, [00:11:30] about making a living, or going about your business, going to church on Sundays, and that this traditional way of doing things was being disrupted by people who wanted to do things differently and to impose a particular religious view or force people to join the army and go and fight the Scots or whatever.
It was this shock that other people, people outside us, are trying to force [00:12:00] us to do something that we don’t want to do, and we’ve always done something else, and now we’re being forced to change. In a way, these revolutionaries are conservative in the sense they want to continue to practice the way things had been done for centuries. Now, this of course, can be a myth.
In the case of the Levellers, there was this myth of Magna Carta, or the myth of the Norman yoke, that there was this period of Anglo-Saxon liberty before the Normans, and this had been [00:12:30] disrupted, and now we have the Stewarts trying to impose all sorts of new religious practices, new taxes, which go against tradition. They begin to think of, “What is it we did have that we’re now losing? We had property rights, we could keep our earnings from our day-to-day business activities, we could join a group of people to worship in a church of our own choosing.”
[00:13:00] When these begin to be challenged, people begin to think, “Well, why am I upset?” They think, “Well, this is a right that I have. This is something that we’ve always had. This is our tradition.” That can be just done at an emotional, superficial level, but then you get people who start to think much more deeply about, “Well, where does our property right come from?” It’s not surprising that the Levellers, and then somewhat later, John Locke began to formulate theories about [00:13:30] the original appropriation of property and how you can do this in a nonviolent way to the benefit of everybody, and that once you have these acquired properties, they become rights, which have to be protected and defended.
Then, you begin to have this whole development of a more coherent libertarian theory about property rights. Much the same thing happens in the 18th century. You have wars being waged between France and England, [00:14:00] which spill over into North America, and all the debt problems, and all the taxation problems, again, cause a crisis where the government has to raise more money, it has to impose conscription to get more troops to go off to fight each other in North America, and this forces people to think, “Well, why are they doing this? What about my traditional behavior which are now being defined or described as my rights to do this particular kind of behavior?”
[00:14:30] And you have, again, a flowering of wonderful political philosophers like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, who begin thinking and arguing about, “Well, if our government is a threat to our traditional way of doing things, how do we limit the power of the state to stop it from doing that in the future?” You have this wonderful experiment of limited government that is the United States, at least in [00:15:00] its early few decades.

Anthony Comegna: And there’s that wonderful line from Tom Paine I love so much, that America’s purpose should be to begin government at the right end. To me, always says the right end of society, from the bottom-up, it should come from the people themselves, and they really should rule themselves.

David M. Hart: It’s interesting that you mention him, because he also, in his great pamphlets attacking the British monarchy, [00:15:30] he’s forced to go back into history and say, “Well, where did these kings come from? How did they acquire their power? How do they justify their behavior?” He’s one of my favorite authors, who goes back and says, “Well, if you lift up a carpet, you can see all the dirt underneath, and the real dirt is,” he describes all monarchists, all kings as originally a group of [banditti 00:15:58] who seize power, [00:16:00] and force themselves upon ordinary, hardworking people.
He begins to think about history in a very different way, and in this strong class analysis that you have this unproductive group of bandits who still from the productive peasants, and instead of coming every harvest to seize the peasants’ surplus, they’re the roving bandits, [00:16:30] they set up shop and build a castle, and suddenly they become permanent bandits, and eventually over time, call themselves kings and monarchs, and princelings and so on.
That was done by Thomas Paine as a journalist, but later in the 19th century, historians begin to actually delve much more deeply into the origin of [00:17:00] aristocracy and origins of monarchies. And again, find the same thing. For example, one of my favorite French historians is Augustin Thierry who was writing in the 1820s and ’30s and ’40s, going through for the first time, the official archives of the French government, looking at the origins of the French state, and he’s very much in the same tradition as Thomas Paine.

Anthony Comegna: [00:17:30] Could you take a minute and tell us about the role of the generation that you call the radical individualists, and the Republicans? People like William Godwin in England, and William Leggett, one of my favorites, in America.

David M. Hart: Yeah, so you wrote a thesis on the Locofocos, didn’t you?

Anthony Comegna: Yes.

David M. Hart: Yeah, I was very intrigued to see that, because I made it a very important thing to include in the book was some of those people, [00:18:00] because it was a transatlantic phenomenon. It was happening in England and America, with William Leggett writing in America, and his equivalent in England was John Wade, who was another journalist. They’re striking similarities and what’s happening here is that you have the American and French revolutions [00:18:30] throwing up an enormous challenge to established elites and monarchies, where traditional notions of allegiance are being challenged and changed in a very dramatic fashion.
This continues well into the post-revolutionary period, into the early 19th century. The radicals from the Enlightenment and from the revolutionary [00:19:00] period don’t disappear. They are still there, and they’re working as journalists, as budding novelists, so you have the Mary Wollstonecrafts and the William Godwins who actually don’t have a very large audience amongst established readers, but they appeal to ordinary people in a way that hadn’t been done before, except for perhaps Thomas Paine.
Writing pamphlets and writing [00:19:30] newspaper articles and so on, and getting a following amongst not … Sort of like an educated working class, the working class that can read and take an interest in politics, and this is growing in size in the early 19th century. That’s where the press becomes so important, because of the technological changes that are occurring in the printing industry, the cost of publishing a newspaper or a book [00:20:00] falls dramatically.
As you know, when the costs fall, there’s more of it that’s being purchased, and suddenly you’ve got this market for ideas which is being satisfied by radical journalists, and William Cobbett is just a wonderful example of that. His enemy is very similar Cobbett, to Leggett and Cobbett, both identifying what they call the paper aristocracy. There’s a group of people [00:20:30] who are very close to power who control the banks and who are lending money to the government in order for the government to go and have military activities all over the place, and the government is then taxing the people to pay back these loans.
You have this aristocracy of wealthy people who are lending money to the government, so this period from 1810 to about 1840 or ‘50 is extremely important for this movement. [00:21:00] They’ve been largely forgotten, which I think is really, really sad. I mean, Liberty Fund has published a long time ago, a collection of William Leggett’s journalistic writings, but no one’s done the equivalent for some of the English writers.
Like, I put online some of the writings of William Cobbett in order to rectify this situation, but one of my favorites is a guy I mentioned before, John Wade, who was a radical journalist. He [00:21:30] did something that needs desperately to be done again today. What he did was he went through all the government documents, budget papers and so on, and made a list of everyone who lived off the state, everyone who got a grant or an income of some kind, or a privilege, and he categorized it.
He called it his black book, so these are all the people, the parasites who are sucking off the taxpayers’ blood, and [00:22:00] it went through so many editions. It’s like about five or six editions, and each one keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, until the end it’s like 5 or 600 pages of this compendium, listing every single person who gets a sinecure or a special privilege, a monopoly, what their salary’s are if they’re a judge or a military officer, and one of the other big benefits that you could get was that if you were given a job in a ministry, you might have [00:22:30] the power to appoint members of your own family or friends to junior positions.
You could actually stack the bureaucracy with your family and all earn lots of money at taxpayer expenses. And John Wade has got this great, great book, which is … We have a bit of it in the anthology, but we have the complete book on the OLL, and what we desperately need today is to have journalists and historians compiling data about the people [00:23:00] today who are the beneficiaries of all sorts of government largesse. Whether it’s through contracts, or monopolies, or tariffs which is a big issue at the moment.
Or, even just benefits of various kinds. ‘Cause we really don’t know what the monster is. What tentacles that we see, all a part of this huge monster that’s sucking taxpayers’ money out of the system.

Anthony Comegna: One of the [00:23:30] things that you’ve written about regarding this class analysis is that as time goes on and as the state gets more and more intrusive and involved in one thing after another, it becomes very murky and difficult to distinguish who exactly is and is not a beneficiary of the state. So, this idea that class is directly linked to your access to government power becomes [00:24:00] hard to delineate and hard for people to identify with.
To my mind, this might explain the rise of Marxism to some degree. Marx says, “Oh, no, no. Turns out it’s very clear. Do you earn a wage? Well then you’re in the working class, and if you own property, certainly if you own capital, well then you’re just a capitalist,” and it’s as simple as that for Marx. There really isn’t much more of a [00:24:30] room for other explanations in his thinking. Could you tell us what exactly did happen to the liberal theory of history, or the liberal class analysis over time? Why did Marx and Marxism overtake it?

David M. Hart: Yeah, that’s one of the big and tough questions that we have to answer. I mean, in the broader picture, it’s partly the general decline of classical liberalism in the 19th century and its practical disappearance in the first half of [00:25:00] the 20th century. That’s like the big picture standing behind. You’re quite right that one of the appealing things about the Marxist theory of class is its apparent simplicity. It’s the workers versus the capitalists.
Of course, what happens in the 20th century is when you do have Marxist and socialist governments, you do have the reappearance of class in the sense that there are people who have privileged positions within the government, who have [00:25:30] privileged access to resources at ordinary workers’ expense, and the idea that there could be class rule within a social system would have been completely inconceivable to Marx, but the fact that it happened suggests that his thinking about class was completely erroneous.
The classical liberal view also had it’s oversimplification, and this was something that Rothbard picked up with his interest in Calhoun, because one of the things that Calhoun said was you have taxpayers [00:26:00] who are paying taxes into the system, and then you have tax receivers, people who get benefits from the government, who receive the taxes in the form of subsidies or monopolies, or handouts or whatever, and even Calhoun could see that this is complicated, because some people might pay taxes but also get benefits from the government.
He came up with the idea that there were net taxpayers and net tax receivers, meaning that if you were a net [00:26:30] taxpayer, you paid more in taxes than you received in benefits, and this is something that Rothbard took up. But as you said, the modern interventionist state where the state and regulations are so pervasive, the mixture now is so complicated that it’s very hard to calculate whether, “Am I personally a net taxpayer or net tax receiver?” ‘Cause I drive on the roads, I get police protection supposedly from the local police, [00:27:00] and so on.
I think that’s where much more research needs to be done by libertarian scholars and writers, to try and identify who are the groups who perhaps benefit more than most from our very complicated system of redistribution and privileges, and legislation? I mean, you can identify some groups, like people who work for the government, [00:27:30] who are government bureaucrats, are obviously net tax receivers. But then you have other people whose status changes over time.
For example, you might be an ordinary person working in the private sector all your life, paying taxes, and then when you retire, and get onto social security, and start receiving benefits from the government, your situation changes. [00:28:00] Have you paid in more in taxes over your working life than you will receive in benefits afterwards, or it’ll be the same? It’s very, very complicated, and that’s where some very hard thinking has to be done.
The other related thing to this is are your interests, are your political views colored by how you receive your income? Do you have a different view of the state if you are a government paid bureaucrat [00:28:30] versus a small, private person in business? What about if you’re older or younger? I mean, older people who are receiving benefits, they may have been anti-state when they were younger, but as they get older, they say, “Well no, maybe we do need to have a social security system and it’s working for me, and will work for others.”
But I think you can identify certain groups where it’s very clear [00:29:00] that they are beneficiaries of the current system and you might consider them to be members of the ruling elite, or the ruling class. I mean, you do have a political class, you have people in the Congress and the House of Representatives, in various important government bureaucracies, who their political views are obviously pro-state, pro-intervention, “No one else can do this job and this is a job that [00:29:30] has to be done.”
But you can also identify other groups, and I call them the dependent class, and this is a really troublesome group of people. These are people who are permanently unemployed. They talk about generations of people who are unwed mothers and on various government programs and so on. They’re not actually exploiting anyone. I mean, they’re poor, they’re weak, [00:30:00] they need assistance, but they’re not “exploiters,” in that they’re stealing from other people. But they are beneficiaries and they are dependent upon the system of redistribution, and I feel that that’s a problematical class politically, because A, they’re never going to vote to change the system, to terminate their benefits, because it would not be in their self-interest to do so.
But I don’t see them as taking active steps to [00:30:30] plunder, to use [Bustiar’s 00:30:31] phrase, to plunder the taxpayers of the country. It’s very complicated, but I still think class thinking, at least in the libertarian perspective, can help unpick some of these knots and problematical areas. That’s why we need so much more research done on this, and I would encourage younger people thinking about a career, that this might be an avenue worth [00:31:00] pursuing, especially if you’re a journalist.
I mean, I think this is wonderful territory. There’s some great blogs out there where economists are looking at the beneficiaries of Trump’s new tariffs. How many companies purchase steel or aluminium to make other things who are opposed to this tariff versus these much smaller group of people who domestically produce [00:31:30] iron and aluminium? It’s like about 10 to 1. The businesses who consume steel and aluminium 10, and the number of companies that are benefiting from Trump’s intervention here is really quite small, and yet, they get the legislation passed.

Anthony Comegna: Classical liberal historians looking for some sort of big broad patterns across long swaths of time, [00:32:00] they’ve often argued that class formation and conflict really produces what we call history, the big movements and moments that get recorded in the big books, that go away in the libraries forever, until somebody like you and me finally checks them out. Is there any possibility of ending the existence of social classes, and therefore, putting a halt to the process of history as we’ve known it?

David M. Hart: You used the word social class there [00:32:30] which is interesting, because there are always going to be groups of people with shared interests and shared behaviors, so for example, a social class might be the group of working women, for example, and as long as women continue to work and have shared interests, you can write histories about their experiences and the challenges that they face in terms of discrimination [00:33:00] or whatever.
That can be very interesting, but what we’re talking about here I think is more political class, and that is the use of people seeking political power or ultimately to use coercion against others, in order to get things for themselves at other people’s expense, and that is real conflict. Because there are people who have to pay for this, don’t want to, the people who want to receive something for nothing obviously [00:33:30] have chosen that as a way of making their living, and want to continue with that, and those two groups, those two classes if you will, are at loggerheads.
As long as there are governments that can dispense privilege, dispense taxpayers’ money, there will be this conflict, and that’s what you’re getting at, that this conflict over time creates “history.” It’s going back over the 20th century, you can see [00:34:00] the rise of Roosevelt and the new deal and so on, and the controversies that that caused, and both intellectual and political struggles that went on, pro and con, and that’s I think just a given of history.
The other question, or what I think you’re implying is that if we get rid of a state that’s powerful enough to dispense this power and privilege and taxpayers’ money, would that change history? We would get a different kind of history. Instead [00:34:30] of writing history about the conflict between the people who ultimately have to pay the taxes, and the people who ultimately get the benefits of access to government power, that would disappear, and you would have a different kind of history.
The history would be then more about what do ordinary people do with their lives? What are their interests and disagreements and challenges? History then would be intellectual history, history of ideas, [00:35:00] what people are generating, what are they writing about, what are they playing on their headphones? There would be social history. How are social classes or ethnic groups changing over time and developing in new and interesting areas? The movement of people from one country to another, or economic history. Scientific, technological history, all the changes that’s occurring, innovations.
That kind of history I think is really, really interesting, and perhaps [00:35:30] we will … Obviously not in my lifetime, but maybe there would no longer be any political history, if you like, in a future libertarian society. Just social, economic, intellectual, scientific history.

Anthony Comegna: For many decades now, and for reasons we will no doubt explore further, the liberal or libertarian theory of [00:36:00] class has been a sort of elephant in the room. It’s definitely there, baked into our history, our language, and even our politicking, but yet no one wants to discuss it for fear we upset the whole party. Yet in the libertarian movement’s most successful periods, the times when our ideas and actions meant the most and changed the world for the better, those libertarians openly embraced and constantly refined their notions of class.
To my thinking, we are long overdue for a Renaissance in libertarian thinking about [00:36:30] class, and history itself for that matter, so thank the Gods we have people out there like David Hart.
Liberty Chronicles is a project of Libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information [00:37:00] on Liberty Chronicles, visit Libertarianism.org.