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Sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916–1962) argued that the ruling class differs from the power elite. The latter simply refers to the small group of people with the most political power. Many of them are politicians, hired political managers and/or military leaders. The ruling class are people who directly influence politics, education and government with the use of wealth or power.
Analogous to the class of the major capitalists, other modes of production give rise to different ruling classes: under feudalism it was the feudal lords while under slavery it was the slave-owners. Under the feudal society, feudal lords had power over the vassals because of their control of the fiefs. This gave them political and military power over the people. In slavery, because complete rights of the person's life belonged to the slave owner, they could and did every implementation that would help the production on the plantation.
In his recent studies on elites in contemporary societies, Mattei Dogan has argued that because of their complexity and their heterogeneity and particularly because of the social division of work and the multiple levels of stratification, there is not, or can not be, a coherent ruling class, even if in the past there were solid examples of ruling classes as in the Russian and Ottoman Empires and the more recent totalitarian regimes of the 20th century (Communist and Fascist).
Milovan Djilas said that in a Communist regime the nomenklatura form a ruling class, which "benefited from the use, enjoyment, and disposition of material goods", thus controls all of the property and thus all of the wealth of the nation. Furthermore, he argued, the Communist bureaucracy was not an accidental mistake, but the central inherent aspect of the Communist system since a Communist regime would not be possible without the system of bureaucrats.
In the media
There are several examples of ruling class systems in movies, novels and television shows. The 2005 American independent film The American Ruling Class written by former Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham and directed by John Kirby is a semi-documentary that examines how the American economy is structured and for whom. The 2017 Philippine political crime-suspense epic Wildflower is about a rich influential and corrupt political family the Ardientes ruling over a town where a wave of murders and crimes which they have committed washed over.
Society, in the novel Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, is eusocial with a genetically engineered caste system. The alpha++ class is the ruling class having been bred as scientists and administrators and control the World State in the novel. This situation can also be found in the George Orwell novel Nineteen Eighty-Four where the inner party as symbolized by the fictitious Big Brother literally controls what everyone in the outer party hears, sees and learns, albeit without genetic engineering and on the model of Stalinist communism having taken over the Anglosphere (Oceania). In Oceania, the ignorant masses ("proles") are relatively free as they pose no threat to oligarchical collectivism ("Big Brother").
Examples in movies include Gattaca, where the genetically-born were superior and the ruling class; and V for Vendetta, which depicted a powerful totalitarian government in Britain. The comedic film The Ruling Class was a satire of British aristocracy, depicting nobility as self-serving and cruel, juxtaposed against an insane relative who believes that he is Jesus Christ, whom they identify as a "bloody Bolshevik".
- Codevilla, Angelo. "America's Ruling Class — And the Perils of Revolution". The American Spectator. 2 (July 2010): 19. Retrieved 14 July 2015.
- "Slave Ownership". Archived from the original on 2007-12-03.
- Wasserstein, Bernard (12 February 2009). Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in our Time. OUP Oxford. ISBN 9780191622519.
- Transnational Capitalist Class Archived 2010-08-16 at the Wayback Machine
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- Domhoff, G. William (April 2005). "The Class-Domination Theory of Power".
- Dogan, Mattei (ed.), Elite Configuration at the Apex of Power, Brill, Leiden, 2003.