Rulers’ Ideas Rule

Beware the bearded one!

Beware the bearded one!

W.J. Astore

I can’t remember where exactly, but I stumbled across this apothegm of Karl Marx:

“In every era, the ideas of the rulers are the ruling ideas.”

Striving for even more brevity, I truncated it to rulers’ ideas rule.

Contrarians of the world should unite to identify and challenge these ruling ideas. When they serve only the needs of the powerful, we should be prepared to mark them as dangerous and most likely as undemocratic. And we should work to change them.

What are some of today’s ruling ideas? I challenge you to come up with some. But on this Friday morning, here are ten that I see as ruling our lives:

1. That capitalism is the only economic system that works, and that rampant consumption is necessary to keep the economy growing.

2. Related to (1) is the idea that GDP and similar economic measures are the best measure of America’s strength.

3. That “success” in life is measured by money and titles and possessions.

4. Related to (3) is the idea that education that doesn’t end in a lucrative career is largely worthless.

5. That poor people and other disadvantaged groups are the way they are because they refuse to work.

6. That it’s absolutely necessary to spend nearly a trillion dollars a year on national defense, wars, homeland security, intelligence agencies, and nuclear weapons, all of which are justified in the name of “keeping us safe.”

7. That privatization is the way to improve everything, including public services like education, the prison system, and health care.

8. That corporate spending in elections is the equivalent to freedom of speech for individuals and is therefore protected by our Constitution as our nation’s founders intended.

9. That there’s no such thing as class warfare in the United States.

10. Related to (5), that there’s equality of opportunity for everyone in the United States, regardless of race, ethnicity, economic background, and so on. Thus those who “fail” do so because of their own failings, not because the system is rigged against them.

That’s my non-rigorous, somewhat off-the-cuff rendering of rulers’ ideas. Please add your ideas in the comments section. Contrarians of the world unite!

14 thoughts on “Rulers’ Ideas Rule

  1. The actual and extended quote is,

    “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.”

    It’ from Marx’s German Ideology.

  2. Welcome to the 19th Century, Mr. Astore! In their Manifesto, Marx and co-thinker F. Engels declared: “There is a specter haunting Europe, the specter of communism.” Bourgeois revolutions had broken out that year, 1848, with the rising moneymen trying to overthrow feudal monarchies that claimed to be the sole ruling authority (in cahoots with the church). This idea of communism, which the triumphant moneyed class (Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan was just awarded a 74% salary increase in the wake of that company’s scandals!) has taught the common folk to fear and despise, is rooted in the concepts of “community” and “common” ownership of society’s productive apparatus. In 1864 (this is all from memory, not Wikipedia, BTW) Marx and Engels helped found The International Workingmen’s Association, later known as The First International, to promote the idea of worker solidarity across borders. Man, the ruling class REALLY frowned on that one!! Why, it could put an end to war!!! The horror, the horror! In Marx’s own lifetime, the workers of Paris would revolt and set up the Paris Commune (1870/71). This so infuriated the French rulers that they actually invited Prussian–PRUSSIAN!–troops to march into Paris and drown this uprising in its proponents’ own blood. And thus has it been ever since. The right to a 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, unemployment benefits and Social Security were all secured with the shed blood of the American working class, back when it recognized itself AS an exploited working class, not the mythical “middle class” every aspiring US presidential candidate throws sops to. Apparently the specter of SOMETHING unnerving is still haunting America. Why else would police departments across the continent be acquiring military-style equipment and training? Will Marx, from the grave, yet have the last laugh about the ability of the capitalist ruling class to forever keep the workers in ideological chains of obliviousness as to the real class relations in this society? Only time and continuing economic crises will tell.

  3. 11. Having the highest documented incarceration rate in the world is a proof of freedom.
    12. Incarcerating 4.8% of black men, 1.9% of Hispanic men, and 0.7% of white men irrefutably shows that race is no longer an issue in the US of A.
    13. The more expensive a healthcare system, the better is serves the needs of the People. (
    14. A sure sign of the health of the US healthcare system, is it ranks last among high-income nations on preventable deaths. (
    15. “An American born at the bottom has about an 8 percent chance of rising to the top, it found; the odds are twice that in Denmark.” This proves that the American dream is just that. (

  4. A few truths as set forth by history:

    1 – Capitalism is the only economic system that works. Rampant consumption, however, is a good way to make sure that it doesn’t do so well.

    2 – The GDP and similar economic measures are measures of America’s strength, but only a few among many and rarely the best overall.

    3 – That “success” in life is measured by money and titles and possessions is a sign of a broken people who’ve turned from the Spirit to the Material.

    4 – Poor people and other “disadvantaged groups” are the way they are because they refuse to work in a manner that will make them less poor. However, this is related to (3).

    5 – We don’t spend a trillion dollars on national defense. We spend a fraction of that and the rest of that trillion dollars goes to various pet projects of politicians, often in direct contradiction of what the military has asked for, e.g., C-5 Galaxies and M1A1 Abrams…

    6 – There is no true equality of opportunity because people and their circumstances aren’t materially equal. However, such inequality is, once again, related to (3).

  5. More than “ideas” come down from the rulers. Morality also does. Corruption, self seeking, cronyism, licentiousness, bullying, lying ,etc also are made acceptable by the behavior of the ruling class. When you look at the record of Clinton, Bush, Obama you can see all of these in our “leaders”. When a banker can steal billions from unwary ‘little people’ and is never brought before a judge it tells a big story to those less well entrenched that stealing from others is civilized if you feel the need.

    • This is only true of- but almost always true of cultures that have deprecated faith and religion. Healthy societies, one with faith and functioning churches, are normally, though not always, proof against this sad degeneration.

      Also, of course, the above normally stops being beneficial sometime after the church itself becomes the ruler, normally, but again not always, because the church itself at that point tends to turn from the spiritual to the material.

      • Jonolan Thanks for your comment. South America is littered with churches and religion up the kazoo and until very recently were also littered with the seven deadly sins. And it really didn’t matter whether the church was in power or not. I have lived there and done economic missions there so I have seen it close up.
        Have you seen the film Philomena? Based on a true story of how a corrupt and ideologically driven church in Ireland enslaved young women and sold their children. Try the Guardian or Independent of England online today on the story of Philomena who, at 80, is still trying to get the Irish church and government to release the information on over 60,000 children sold like this up until the 1960’s. All centralized authority tends to breed corruption and inhuman behavior. Even democracies like ours. It’s in the nature of man, not god.
        We once had the rule of man made laws in this country based on the separation of church and state and the balancing of civil power and it worked pretty well. But we have seen that trashed in the last 13 years by our elite political and moneyed class.
        Our democracy wasn’t perfect but it allowed evil to be punished and some good to be rewarded. Today we see evil rewarded and the good sent to jail for bringing attention to the evildoers.

  6. When I think of ‘the ruling ideas’, what comes to mind are things like ‘the market (or more fundamentally, exchange) regulates the production and distribution of goods and services’ or ‘humanity is separate from nature’ that give rise to the more specific ruling ideas you mention, WJ.

    • Yes, perhaps those are meta-ideas or meta-concepts. Seeing ourselves as distinct from nature, instead of being part of it, feeds our relentless, often ruthless, exploitation of the earth and its resources. We elevate ourselves above nature, which dooms any sense of ecology, of connectedness. A similarly false elevation occurs with the idea that “the market” should rule, as if the market is a force of nature rather than a collection of individuals acting on their desires. Indeed, the market (for some) has supplanted the natural world. They see neither forest nor trees; the one green thing they see is money. That’s their reality.

      Thanks for the stimulating comment!

      • Yes, well, the statement: “The magic of the marketplace will cure all societal ills” is one of the most oft-spouted, venal and pernicious bits of nonsense from the lips of “Libertarians.” Imagine what a true utopia we’d live in if big business was freed of all regulation/control–and that’s precisely what these folks are arguing for! This “magic” would “solve” the problem of poverty by letting society’s poorest segment starve to death or perish from easily preventable diseases. Do you think I exaggerate or invented this? Then you need to really look closely at “Libertarianism”!!

  7. “We are a symbol-using class of life, and those who rule the symbols rule us.” — Alfred Korzybski

    The rulers do not even need “ideas” to rule. They only require the means — commercial television, radio, and films — of manipulating the images, symbols, and mythological narratives subliminally ingested by the somnolent and increasingly illiterate masses. Unconscious “feelings,” not conscious ideas, matter to the rulers. In fact, the less public consciousness, the better for The Party — which seeks power for its own sake — and the worse for the proles.

    • That’s a penetrating insight: symbols, images, and narratives are indeed powerful. I see this all the time with the proliferation of the American flag in all shapes and sizes. Watching the Olympics, I noticed that American snowboarders were wearing a portion of the flag as part of their clothing (the sleeve). Flags on clothing used to be forbidden; now it’s practically required. An athlete wins a gold medal and the first thing he or she does is to get a flag, sometimes literally wrapping themselves in it. We’ve cheapened our flag and what it means — instead of a symbol of liberty and sacrifice, it’s now a symbol of cheap commerce and easy patriotism.

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