Class Conflict: The Structure of Power

Did Marx think that there was a united ruling class in the capitalist state? If so, was he right?

THE RELATIONSHIP OF capital to the capitalist ruling class is circular and causal: one cannot exist without the other. And capital as a product of class relations is the platform to demonstrate the behavior of the capitalist ruling class to engage in concerted efforts for a unified action, position, and even resistance to change from reform or revolution within the class struggle to keep the status quo. This essay will argue that the intertextual exploration of several works of Marx on capital and those from subsequent Marxists who came after him can demonstrate on how Marx thought of a united ruling-class in a capitalist society—and how he was right.

Marx and Engels adopted the materialist conception of historical development of mankind’s societies from the Hegelian dialectics to reveal the historical development of classes in a capitalist society.  They also charted the historical development of the capitalist system and then predicted its eventual demise (in a classless society) and positively demonstrated class antagonism that is framed in a class struggle analysis: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman—in a world oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, no open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending class.” (Marx, 1848/2000b, p 246)

Class interests in the capitalist state are not static objects incapable of movements and conflicts. To understand the nature and internal structure of the behavior of a united ruling class we must locate the location or points of convergences and divergences of these interests within the ruling the class and between the classes.

Divergences within the capitalist ruling class is the crisis of power struggle among the elites on how to manage capital accumulation and protect the capitalist system mode of production, and this can be resolved through reform or a false ‘revolution’ as Marx emphasized on the December 1851 coup d’état of Louis Bonaparte. Divergences between classes on the other hand is a class struggle and can only be resolved through a revolution, the violent overthrow of the ruling class and seize from them the means of production (Ibid, 1848/2000b).

Convergences of interests within the class is a negotiation on how to manage the means of production; however, convergences between classes, for Marx (and subsequent Marxists after him) is teleologically impossible and inherently illogical in his historical materialist conception of human civilization. Class struggle aims at something concrete and indissoluble: for Marx, the abolition of classes in the society and the continuation of the class division (in labor, property, access to capital among others) for capitalism.

Divergences of interests within the class is power struggle among the elites on how to maintain the status quo and the resolution is usually processed within the society’s infrastructure through its existing institutions. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx revealed how the crises among ruling bourgeois class utilizes the state’s institution to address the impasse and then reinforce the status quo to accommodate the interests to emerging capitalist class: through a coup d’état lead by Louis Napoleon as popularly supported by the masses, the peasantry in 19th century France. Here Marx succinctly stated that revolution is impossible in the crises within the ruling class even if peasants and the mass are involved in the process. Marx detailed that the peasants who supported Louis Napoleon were the conservative lot, small holding peasants remnants of feudalism, posed to protect their individual interests and not of their class. Marx revealed that the coup d’état was not something revolutionary to overthrow the existing system and the status quo but rather a product of its time, without an attempt to challenge or dismantle the existing power structure where the bourgeois ruling class was the hegemony (Marx, 1852&1853/2000a). Marx revealed the location of the ‘peasantry’ that supported the popular coup d’état of Louis Napoleon and their evolution from the former oppressive system of the bourgeois ruling class as petite bourgeois, the predecessor of the capitalist ruling class:

“But in the course of nineteenth century the feudal lords were replaced by urban usurers; the feudal obligation that went with the land was replaced by the mortgaged; aristocratic landed property was replaced by bourgeois capital. The small holding of the peasant is now only the pretext that allows the capitalist to draw profits, interest, and rent from the soil, while leaving it to the tiller of the soil himself how he can extract his wages.” (Ibid, 1852&1853/2000a)

The convergences of interests within the capitalist ruling class  reveals the power structure that creates and legitimizes the ruling class at the same time. In Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx interrogates the articulation of resistance of the proletariat working class as he reveals the presence of the hegemonic power of the capitalist ruling class in their own language. Marx charts the location of concepts such ‘present-day state’, ‘present-day society’, ‘state’, ‘fair-distribution’, ‘equal rights’, ‘free state’ in the language of the German socialist in 1875. Marx reveals the hegemonic powers of the capitalist ruling class as embedded in the language of resistance that its internal structure of meanings (and the production of meanings) legitimizes the status quo in which the political and economic systems are being held by the ruling class through the capitalist system of production.  Critique of the Gotha Programme also reinforces the primacy of a revolution over reform as the convergences between classes is teleologically impossible and ontologically implausible and illogical.

The divergences of interests between classes (or a class struggle) centers on the discussion on the two important concepts in class struggle analysis: the role of state as a ruling capitalist class infrastructure and the organized mass movement of the proletariat as a form of resistance to offer an alternative through a revolution. In Civil War in France Marx centered on the Paris Commune both as the site that reveals the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and the bifurcation of two classes’ ideologies and presuppositions as political and economic positions. The Commune for Marx is a political system created by the proletariat (labor) class aiming at the emancipation from the oppressive wage-labor relations as the state and parliamentarism (and perhaps parliamentary struggle) do not represent the interests of the proletariat working class (Marx & Engels 1871/2000a).

The Ruling Class and the Capital

Now we must examine capital as a binding force that unite the ruling class together for a concerted effort to maintain and protect the status quo and the systemic accumulation of wealth and unequal distribution of resources in a capitalist system.

In Marx’s Capital, he demonstrated through certain market concepts the exploitative nature of capitalism and its irrationality as a system. Discussions on commodity and the process of commodification should begin from the most elementary process of the subjection of objects into the market forces: to become use value and exchange value. Utility of things makes it use-value (Marx, 1867/2013) and in the most ancient of societies, in communities living in subsistence economy and the division of labor is simple, the use-value of an object is the most vital properties of an object for exchange. However, as societies entered into the market-exchange economy, the object as the abstract human labor is present in it as use-value, are subjected into a heightened social relations of exchange (Ibid, 1867/2013, p. 18). Marx explained the concept of the ‘exchange-value’ succinctly as this is the beginning of the market economy where commodity place itself at the center of the market exchange system, and predicted that the magnitude of its presence as expansive and inherently reproducing:

“Exchange value, at first sight, present itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place.” (Ibid, 1867/2013 p. 18)

Exchange is the key concept in exploring the metamorphosis of commodity use value including labor into money in the market economy. Money is formed in the necessity of an exchange to convert different parts of labor into a commodity, so they can be subjected to market relations (Ibid, 1867/2013, p. 57). We must emphasize though that exchange entails not just social relations as it involves parties and a process as a formal structure—it is also about power relations. Exchange in money and market economy here does not necessarily compel a symmetrical distribution of power among the parties involved and the process does not necessarily abide to the objective of either of the parties involved. Exchange multiplies the parties involved and expands the processes for inclusion, all others remain constant. Exchange is not a negotiation as the latter demands a symmetrical power distribution inherent in the process while the former, favors the imbalance in power distribution as a compulsion of its systemic nature for multiplication and expansion: the creation of a dominant class and oppressed class is inevitable in a capitalist system.

With exchange, another concept that is necessary in the exploration of the behavior of the capitalist ruling class (as opposed to the working class) to keep the status quo and that essential also in understanding of the continued exploitation of labor: circulation.

Capital comes not directly from commodities, Marx opined. Capital begins from circulation. For Marx, the goal of capitalist is the extraction of surplus value (also known as the profit) in the process that created money instead of commodities—and the capitalist navigates the system to manage and control the concentration of money for his own end. Marx called the capitalists the ‘conscious representative’ of the system—and the group of them where the concentration of wealth reside is the class and the accumulation and concentration of wealth as the object is the driver that made them a unified ruling class (Ibid, 1867/2013).

Marx Was Right: The Hegemony of the Ruling Class

How does the capitalist ruling class maintain its hegemony or how does it maintain the power relations where they are united in oppressing the working proletariat class?

Lukács determines two elements that a class should possess to attain hegemony: interests and consciousness to organize the whole society (Lukács, 1923/2017). To pin down class interests in a capitalist society is a very challenging tasks as capitalism and its economic processes are complex, insidious, and systemic that you cannot identify the cause from the effect unless you examine the entire system that produces the relations. The same with consciousness as how capitalism maintains its hegemony beyond the formal and concreate institutions of the society with or by force.

The systemic nature of capitalism as Marx detailed rests on its capacity to reproduce the conditions of production in the capitalist society: the role played by capitalist social formation to reproduce the economic productive forces such as wage relations and the existing capitalist relations of production, the complex process of reproduction from resource extraction to consumption, and reproduction of labor power that benefits the capitalist mode of production (Althusser 1971/2008, pp 1-5).

The capitalist reproduction of conditions of production utilizes State power and State Apparatus to maintain the systemic infrastructure intact; the former could be understood through functions (of the state) and the latter through ideological state apparatus (ISA) and repressive state apparatus (RSA) (Ibid., 1971/2008, p. 15). State institutions such as school, churches, media, cultural productions are ISA, while the police, military and other repressive forces of the state are RSA. Althusser explored the relationship between the modes of production and the state apparatus in a capitalist society: that one both creates and legitimizes the other; however, state apparatus cannot exist by itself without the modes of production that creates it as it functions both by repression and by ideology. The state apparatus (both ideological and repressive) carry the ideology and repressive forces of the ruling class who controls the modes of production: this is the key in understanding process that unites the capitalist ruling class in a highly developed capitalist society.

ISA/RSA: Neoliberalism and the Evolution of the Ruling Class

How capitalism and its fundamentalist, conservative, rigid form neoliberalism created violent regimes in the 70’s until the present by deploying ‘shock’ as tool to forced governments in a swift and undemocratic structural change to induced neoliberal economic agenda in the local economy is the subject of Naomi Kline’s book The Shock Doctrine. Kline argues that wealthy capitalists used repressive and ideological state apparatus such as the military and the police and the academe—through war and conflict—to ‘shock’ the population, to be suspended in disbelief and emotional trauma, and then introduce the neoliberal agenda of privatization, deregulation, and structural adjustments that provided capitalists unwavering access to local market economy. Kline demonstrated this ‘shock doctrine’ through ‘disaster capitalism complex’ on how capitalist utilized the September 11 attack and then the US-Bush ‘war-on-terror’ program in the Middle East as response to the attack ‘expanded’ their market activities:

“And that is the post September 11 difference: before, war and disasters provided opportunities for a narrow sector of the economy—the makers of fighter jets, for instance or the construction companies that rebuilt bombed out bridges.” (Kline 2007, p. 13).

The powerful and influential academic such as Milton Friedman and the Chicago School promoted corporatism, the fundamentalist form of capitalism, dubiously tied capitalism to the fundamental presuppositions of democracy and freedom, battle cries of Western and capitalist countries during the Cold War: “The triumph of ‘deregulated capitalism’ has been born of freedom, that unfettered free market go in hand with democracy.” (Ibid 2007, pp 18-19)

From the 60s to late 90s, as Kline detailed, Friedman and the Chicago School advanced the neoliberal agenda through ‘intimate cooperation’ between powerful and influential capitalists and influential political leaders that ended up being authoritarian dictators of their respective countries or influential financial and economic bureaucrats working for authoritarian dictators: Augusto Pinochet, Juan Maria Bordaberry of Uruguay, Jorge Videla and Admiral Emilio Massera from Argentina, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of Bolivia among others (Ibid 2007, p 445).

The ruling elites in the Philippines is a case on the evolution of the ruling class and how they wield power to maintain their hegemony.

The economic and political systems in the archipelago before the coming of the Spaniards at the middle of the 16th century can be described as feudal. The society then followed a rigid caste system of nobility and slave classes (Simbulan, 2005).

Land played an important role in the Spanish colonial domination of the archipelago. During the 16th century the Spaniards introduced the encomienda system as the huge tracks of lands in the entire archipelago were divided among the encomenderos, Spaniards from the peninsula, to manage and govern. Afraid of concerted resistance from the locals due to the sudden change in their ‘masters’, the Spaniards created a new position of power for the indigenous ruling class, the datus were made into cabeza de barangay for which their primary role is to extract taxes from the locals, the Indios. The encomienda system became an oppressive system of extraction and slavery of the local Indios that the Spanish friar at the early part of the 18th century appealed to the Spanish king for its abolishment. Post-­encomienda Spanish Philippines created the cities and towns in the entire archipelago: the alcadias become the city-centers headed by the Spanish acalde mayor and the pueblos headed by the local gobernadorcillos, the former class of the from where the cabeza de barangay (the datus) came from. (Ibid. 2005, pp19-20).

Parallel to the evolution of the cabeza de barangay into the gobernadorcillo were the coming the Chinese mestizo: a wealthy group of people in the city-centers who were a product of intermarriages with the Spaniards and who follow the colonial master’s lifestyles and speak their language. As soon as the encomienda system was abolished, the Catholic Church became powerful wielding powers through land acquisition and through association with colonial officers and local wealthy communities as capital. The Chinese mestizo accumulated wealth and expansive tracks of land from the common Indio through a new system of exploitative extraction: money lending. The hacienda system continued to grow in the18th century through the increasing wealth of the Chinese mestizo, the local gobernadorcillo, and the peninsular and insular Spaniards who resided in the archipelago. A new master-slave relationship reintroduced through the hacienda system: cacique—the bondage of poor folks to the land they tilled owned by the wealthy landed class: a class struggle ensued that culminated in the Philippine Revolution at the end of 19th century. (Ibid., 2007, pp. 25-26).

As the Americans, the new colonial masters, entered the country at the beginning of the 20th century the hacienda system was still intact. Members of the ruling class, the cacique, were utilized by the Americans to control the political and economic activities in the archipelago. Members of the ruling class were given concessions to the various economic enterprises in the country and several positions in the colonial government as payment for their loyalty to the new masters. When the Americans left the Philippines after the World War II, the ruling elite dominated both the economic and political activities in the archipelago: coming from same families, clans, and from noveau rich as product of inter-marriages between these clans and families. The capital, from land and other productive industries, remained and concentrated to this landed oligarchy until today as political dynasties are tied up to economic elites,  the ruling landed oligarchy. The presence of the ruling class, as Marx thought, evolved and maintained their dominance through capital and in the case of the Philippines, how colonialism perpetuated the oppressive system outside Europe from 16th century, a system that exist until today.

Conclusion: Class Analysis and Intersectional Resistance

Class is central to Marxist discourse and class struggle, between the ruling class and the subjugated class, frames the class discourse.  Class struggle on the other hand is a discourse of power distribution between the two classes: that power is negotiated and for the orthodox Marxist, the complete defeat of the capitalist ruling class, make them powerless, as the penultimate solution to achieve a classless society.

The capitalist ruling class is united through capital—the exclusive access to it and the relentless wealth accumulation and resource extraction by certain group of people as economic elites; inherent in capitalism is the unequal distribution of wealth and the oppression of the subjugated class: the working class.

In the age of neoliberalism language plays an important role as both the repository of the ideology and as a potent tool to propagate and legitimize the neoliberal agenda. Meanings and readings are framed to this agenda, including that of the resistance. The language of the resistance is not necessarily the language of the dominated class; resistance could even a necessary force to legitimize the position and the existence of the object of resistance: the dominant and ruling class is the point of reference for all the proceeding actions from the engagement.

It is necessary therefore as the presence of the unified ruling class is to frame the discourses, criticisms, and engagements to class struggle and the make these discourses, criticisms, and engagements intersectional. Movements such as LGBT, Feminism, climate change activism, consumer rights among others outside class discourse and are not intersectional in their interrogation and critical stance are deploying the language of the ruling class: only within class discourse that capital and the power structure that protects it could be located and eventually, as Marx proposes, could be abolished. Marx thought that there was a unified dominant ruling class and he was right when he suggested that only in a class struggle that they could be defeated: in revolution, not reform.


Althusser, L. (2008). On ideology. London: Verso. (Original work published in 1971).

Lukács, G. (2017). History and class consciousness. Glendale: Bibliotech Press.

(Original work published in 1923).

Kline, N (2007). The shock doctrine. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, K. (2013). Capital: A critical analysis of capitalist production.

Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Edition Limited. (Original work published in 1867).

Marx, K. (2000a). The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In D. McLellan (Ed), Karl Marx: selected writings (pp. 329-367. New York: Oxford University Press, New York. (Original work published 1852 and 1853).

Marx, K and Engels, F. (2000b) The communist manifesto.  In D. McLellan (Ed), Karl Marx: selected writings (pp. 245-271. New York: Oxford University Press, New York. (Original work published 1848).

Marx, K. (2000c). Critique of Gotha programme.  In D. McLellan (Ed), Karl Marx: selected writings (pp. 610-616). New York: Oxford University Press, New York. (Original work published 1890-1891).

Marx, K and Engels, F (2000d) The civil war in France.  In D. McLellan (Ed), Karl Marx: selected writings (pp. 584-603). New York: Oxford University Press, New York. (Original work published 1871).

Simbulan, D (2005). The modern principalia: the historical evolution of the Philippine ruling oligarchy. Quezon City: The University of the Philippines Press.


ROGELIO BRAGA is playwright, essayist, and novelist. He is currently in London as a Chevening scholar.


One thought on “Class Conflict: The Structure of Power

  1. Reblogged this on Kritikong Kultural and commented:
    “The convergences of interests within the capitalist ruling class reveals the power structure that creates and legitimizes the ruling class at the same time. “

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