The ruling class is the term used to describe the class of people who rule society. In modern-day capitalism, it consists of three main sub-groups: the political class, who control policy decisions and legislation; senior people from other branches of the state (judges, military generals, department heads, etc.); and most importantly, the bourgeoisie, which controls the economy.
The bourgeoisie (aka the capitalist class) is the class that own and control the means of production. They own controlling stakes in companies, and through those companies (generally), they own all that infrastructure which is needed to generate profit – factories, mines, logistics chains, etc.. Now, these days, many of the largest companies are publicly-owned and traded. This doesn’t mean that everyone with a superannuation account, or who owns a few thousand dollars’ worth of shares, is a “capitalist” – that’s not nearly enough to have actual decision-making power in a company. We are talking about people who have hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of assets. They often sit on corporate boards, or are CEOs or high-ranking executives of extremely large corporations.
Red Flag provides some figures to try to put context to the capitalist class (and demonstrate that they’re not just your average business owner, or an average owner of shares). Of 2.4 million registered businesses in Australia, 1.4 million have no employees (they’re sole traders), 710,000 have less than 5 employees, and a further 220,000 have between 5 and 20 employees. 55,000 employ between 20 and 200 workers, which is still not considered big enough to be “big business”. So in the end, we reach the top 4,000 companies employing at least 200 people, which include what you would think of as “big business”. Apparently, these account for 44% of “value added” (whatever that means) and 95% of Australia’s exports. Red Flag adds:
These big capitalists overwhelmingly influence how resources are used, who will work and where they will work, which things are produced and how they are distributed. Their decisions, which are made on the basis of how much money can be made, are the single greatest determinant of how the rest of us live.
Ownership of these companies (and other assets) is remarkably concentrated among a small group. For example, Red Flag quotes a 20-year-old study saying that at that time, 5% of families owned 77% of shares, 46% of rental properties, 29% of private business equity and 30% of all worth. The trajectory of the last 20 years has been of concentrating wealth further and further and worsening inequality, so the statistics would likely look worse now.
The bourgeoisie has been the ruling class since the replacement of feudalism with capitalism. Possibly the most emblematic bourgeois revolution is the French Revolution. But this didn’t result in rule directly by the major capitalists; instead, it was lawyers and the like who became a new political class. This is still, in the main, the model of capitalism today. With few exceptions, capitalists don’t run for government directly. This is for a few reasons; one is that there needs to be a somewhat neutral arbiter between rival capitalists. A state infrastructure also helps maintain order among the general populace, which the capitalist class would struggle to do themselves, and yet they benefit from that stable order.
The reason the state exists is to maintain the interests of the ruling class. Politicians do not have much freedom to go against the wishes of the capitalists. This is part of why the Overton window can seem so narrow, to the point that (in Australia) both parties seem substantially the same: there is a very narrow range of policy that the bourgeoisie is willing to tolerate. Leaders who go against that even slightly find themselves chucked in rapid order: take the example of Kevin Rudd (not even particularly radical), who just wanted to more fairly tax the mega-profits the mining companies were making off Australia’s natural resources. There was a massive smear campaign against him in the billionaire-controlled commercial media, and within days the Australian Labor Party had heeded their corporate donors’ demands and replaced him with Julia Gillard, who did not try to tax corporations’ mega-profits. When a government really pisses off the capitalist class, as has happened in countries like Venezuela for example, you get “capital strikes”, where the capitalist class throws their economic weight around to deliberately wreck the economy (e.g. cutting essential utilities, or hoarding food in warehouses to create the illusion of scarcity, to make the general population panic and turn against their government).
While I’ve talked a lot about national bourgeoisies (and particularly the Australian bourgeoisie) here, the bourgeoisie is an international class because capitalism is an international system. For the most part, capitalists (and their capital) can freely cross borders to exploit the labour laws, taxation laws, poor regulation, etc. of whatever country they choose. This is obviously not a freedom available to us as workers (and is a reason for harsh immigration laws – if it was easy for low-paid workers to move to jurisdictions where they wouldn’t be lowly-paid, then how could the capitalist class exploit dirt-cheap labour?). What this also means, though, is that the bourgeoisies of the most powerful countries are able to ride roughshod over the bourgeoisies of less powerful countries – as they’re in global competition with each other, a competition the less powerful bourgeoisie loses – and, obviously, do stuff like profiting off the national resources of poorer countries. The governments of different countries see is as an integral part of their job to support their national bourgeoisies in their quest to project their power abroad, through lobbying efforts, trade deals, etc., and in the case of the absolute most powerful countries (like the USA), they may even do so through direct military intervention. This whole phenomenon is called imperialism. This also shows why we have to reject the idea of the “national interest”; inevitably, the “national interest” always refers to the interest of the national bourgeoisie, but this is not the interest of those of us they exploit.