David Hume opens his essay “Of the First Principles of Government” with the statement that “Force is always on the side of the governed.” Though she uses different terminology, Hannah Arendt’s understanding of power is analogous to Hume’s “Force.” In On Violence, she asserts that “[i]t is the people’s support that lends power to the institutions of a country, and that this support is but the continuation of the consent that brought the laws into existence to begin with.” Both accounts consider social power to be something fundamentally popular, rooted in collective action undertaken in accordance with a shared will. Thus, “[a]ll political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power,” which “petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them.” This understanding of power is consistent with the nature of the social world: institutions do not come into existence of their own accord, but are created and maintained by the actions of people. Laws do not exist as natural truths—they are established in accordance with shared beliefs and modes of understanding, and retain their jurisdiction only insofar as people assent to them. Therefore, those social structures and formations which hold significant influence over our world, do so because they have substantial, popular support underlying their authority and answering their commandments with corresponding action.
Given this notion of power, “[n]othing appears more surprising…than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few.” If the governed possess a constitutive power over their social world, how is it that institutional authority so often supersedes the will of the masses with that of its ruling contingent? I will argue that this counterintuitive state of social organization, in which the few hold dominion over the majority, must rely on an imposed, hegemonic system of belief capable of convincing the general population that their oppression is just and their liberation villainous. Such a system of belief, while certainly instrumental in the maintenance of totalitarian states, is especially important in the context of ostensibly representative systems of government like that of the contemporary U.S.
In these contexts, voters must be convinced not that it would be amoral for them to overthrow their rulers, but rather that it is moral for them to continue to formally reproduce the power of those rulers year after year, by way of the voting booth. In the United States, that process of coercion has proved quite successful. According to exit polls, over 42% of voters with household incomes under $50,000 per year voted for Donald Trump, despite his promises to cut taxes for corporations and the super-wealthy while defunding already limited social services; in 2020, that contingent rose to 43%. Over half of the Kentuckians in that income bracket voted to reelect Mitch McConnell in the same election cycle. In a country where well over half of the population has a household income of under $75,000, our governing authorities consistently promote the aims of the wealthiest few, often at the expense of the many. While the United States incarcerates more people than any other country, and while 969 people have been killed by U.S. police this year alone, the State does not rely solely on such direct repressive force to achieve its inequitable ends. As the electoral data shows, the electorate consents to its own socioeconomic oppression; with shocking frequency, we as a nation “resign [our] own sentiments and passions to those of [our] rulers.”
What system of belief is responsible for convincing American citizens, whose collective sovereignty is systematized in electoral systems, to continue voting directly against their economic interests? If we are to build a better world by overcoming the oppressive systems and structures of the established order, we must first understand the mechanism by which that implicit consent of the oppressed is elicited. A society designed to pursue the aims of a small and exclusive minority at the expense of the majority cannot rely on force alone to sustain itself, since institutional authority possesses the apparatus of force only so long as a substantial contingent of the people are willing to follow its orders. Instead, it requires the tool of an official moral framework capable of securing the popular mandate upon which its dominion is established. It is possible for a small ruling class to maintain its jurisdiction over a much larger oppressed one only when the dominant segment promotes its ends as necessary, and thereby convinces its society that anything which goes against those ends is immoral. The ruling class perpetuates its existence by convincing the ruled majority that their subjugation is just, according to supposedly universal moral precepts.
That moral indoctrination is possible because, to use Marx, the economically dominant class “rule also as thinkers and producers of ideas and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age. Their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.” Therefore, the ruling class is able to disseminate its own beliefs and understandings as comprehensive fact, absorbing, in the words of Barthes, “into its ideology a whole section of humanity which does not have its basic status and cannot live up to it except in imagination.” The universality of the established ruling order and its corresponding cultural norms supersede any alternative worldviews or systems of belief, and thereby create the illusion that the entire social formation lacks meaningful class differentiation (the absence of ideological stratification is implied as evidence that social class does not cause a fundamentally different experience of the world). So, using its near monopoly on the dissemination of far-reaching ideas and discourse, through channels including broadcasting companies, social media platforms, and the national political stage, the economically dominant class convinces its entire social world that its particular morality, corresponding to its particular class interests, is in fact universal, natural moral law, obligatory for all.
Any system of official morality imposed on a society is necessarily repressive on account of that claim to universality. Morality is the product of social development in the same sense that the institutions, laws, and norms of our societies are, as Arendt notes, the products of beliefs held by the popular masses. As social institutions etc. exist to achieve defined ends, such as the preservation of property rights and relations, morality also serves social interests. We see this to be the case in moral precepts as basic as the commandment that “thou shall not kill,” which provides a foundational basis for social cohesion by establishing a normative framework in which a might-makes-right paradigm becomes condemnable. Nonetheless, even so fundamental a moral tenet as that one fails to prove universally applicable in the context of the real and dynamic world. History shows that societies which condemn killing in times of peace often herald it as the most honorable task of their soldiers in times of war. Therefore, the presentation of any system of morality as something universal, and so too ahistorical, is deceptive, given the necessarily specific and dynamic nature of moral analysis (and thus the impossibility of truly natural and universal morality).
Still, such universal moral precepts do serve social interests, even if those interests differ from those which the popular majority perceive as the purpose of their moral laws. The imposition of a particular morality onto the whole of society establishes a moral hegemony, wherein only that which promotes the aims of the social class who defines the moral system is considered right and just. Such a process serves the social interests of the dominant class, allowing the many to be subjugated by the few: the universal application of specific moral norms is all too often employed to prevent the oppressed from striving towards their own liberation. During times of relative historical calmness, that morality-mediated oppression may be concealed to the point of near-invisibility. In the United States, a nation satiated with spiritual and secular prosperity gospels, whose popular consciousness is inundated with myths of the American Dream predicated on the principle of productivity (the notion that an individual’s success is the reflection of their efforts), the illusion that social mobility is always possible—if only for the “most industrious” among us—lends credence to a moral framework that condemns the poor as lazy people suffering from self-imposed shortcomings, while celebrating the wealthy as tenacious and driven individuals whose opulence is merely the manifestation of their moral virtue.
On that basis, cycle after cycle Americans vote against their economic interest, without even understanding that they are doing so. When we are taught that poverty is personal iniquity embodied, and wealth the reflection of the opposite, then those who are not wealthy must identify “not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” if they are to consider themselves virtuous according to the official moral framework. Thus, as they have for decades, millions of working-class Americans continue to vote for “representatives” who facilitate their exploitation for the sake of the wealthy elite. When we fail to recognize the foundational social power we hold as a class, or even our position as members of the working class as such, we unwittingly provide consent for our continued oppression. The underlying misconception of the meritocratic nature of our society is bolstered by the perception that our political and legal institutions are egalitarian, and therefore that all members of our citizenry have an equal shot at financial success, free from any undue external influence or restriction. In other words, we are told that the official morality of our society is just, because all members of our society share equal freedoms under the law. However, I will argue that even if we use that politically conservative understanding of freedom, labeled negative liberty by Isaiah Berlin (that is, the understanding of freedom as freedom from interference in an individual’s exercise of her rights), supposedly universal freedom is not, in fact, shared universally across class divisions. For that reason, the official morality imposed by one class onto all cannot validly substantiate its claims to universality, and can only be understood as a repressive apparatus implemented to ensure the continued self-subjugation of the oppressed.
The contradictions of normative morality often appear more sharply when contrasted against a backdrop of historical tumult and upheaval. Such has been the case over the past fourteen months, as the national response to the pandemic in the United States has exposed the degree to which our official morality is willing to sacrifice the wellbeing, and even the lives, of the working class, in order to promote the interests of the possessing one. In this time, it has become clear “that lack of money implies lack of freedom,” even in the sense that it is defined by Berlin and the political Right, as “the absence of obstacles to possible choices and activities.” This inequitable distribution exposes the class-interestedness of an official morality which heralds such freedom, by which is meant, for the most part, negative liberty, as the most just and morally virtuous ideal to be promoted by our norms and institutions. Our socioeconomic order is one predicated on the value of individual productivity and wealth accumulation. Resultantly, the freedom of the individual to exist in such a way that they might promote their own wellbeing without restriction by external influence is foundational to the American sociopolitical psyche. Hence Berlin’s explanation of the moral condemnation of the poor, whose wellbeing, we are told, is not our concern, since “it is important to discriminate between liberty and the conditions of its exercise. If a man is too poor or too ignorant or too feeble to make use of his legal rights, the liberty that these rights confer upon him is nothing to him, but it is not thereby annihilated,” (Cohen 4). According to the Right, that is the freedom of which this nation’s founders wrote, the liberty to which the United States declares its dedication, our ultimate moral value: the nominal liberty to act without restriction in pursuit of a given set of possibilities, with no guarantee to the outcome or ease of such a pursuit.
In times of crisis, like that brought on by the pandemic, the most crucial exercise of such freedom involves the liberty to protect oneself and one’s family from immediate threat of harm. The relative ability or inability of American citizens to do so, depending on their socioeconomic status, provides a tragic illustration of the fact that in the United States, “lack of money implies lack of freedom.” In contemporary America, as in any capitalist society, right (as either or both ownership and access) to any object or pursuit is conferred largely by money. This claim is exceedingly apparent: for example, one does not have the freedom to sleep in a hotel room that they have not paid for, and their attempt to do so would likely be met with interference regardless of their otherwise complete ability, will, and legal allowance. In Cohen’s words, “when a person’s economic security is enhanced, there typically are, as a result, fewer ‘obstacles to possible choices and activities’ for him.” Even under the dictum of nominal or negative freedom, an individual’s liberty is largely determined by their wealth. During the COVID crisis, the limits to liberty begotten by poverty have become a visible, existential threat to the marginalized poor.
In the early months of the pandemic, when we knew little about the life-threatening contagion sweeping the globe, many state and local governments to attempted to secure the safety of their citizens through mandatory stay-at-home orders and economic closures. However, the Trump administration, along with countless others in positions of power and influence, were quick to employ the tools of their official morality to an antithetical end. Mask mandates designed to promote some degree of communal security were decried as unjust, immoral attacks on freedom, and as to shutdown orders, these guarantors of liberty held at best that it is the prerogative of an individual to stay at home if she so chooses, but that the State should have no say. As a result, sections of the country opened prematurely, well before the prevalence of testing, much less the existence of a vaccine. Even in places where that was not the case, the categorization of almost 74 million working class Americans as “essential workers” forced them and their families into positions of very real, potentially life threatening, risk. That undue burden placed on the working class was deemed the necessary condition for the restoration of moral equilibrium, according to the language of negative liberty. The resultant dichotomy of freedom as a function of wealth is substantiated by New York Times polling. Higher earners, far more likely than their lower-income counterparts to hold substantial savings, were largely free to continue working from home without risk of job loss or pay cuts. Lower earners were not afforded the same security, financially or otherwise. In this, we see that the working class were compelled to observe moral norms established by the investor class, and thereby to sacrifice of self in accordance with precepts that the wealthy members of our society did not observe themselves. Through the mechanism of universalized official morality prescribed by the dominant contingent, the subjugated were convinced to accept their own suffering while those who demanded their sacrifice refused to do the same.
And to what end? While many essential workers were employed in healthcare or public infrastructure fields, millions of others included members of the food service industry, Amazon warehouse laborers, Tesla factory line workers—in short, the exploited employees of massive, profit-seeking firms focused solely on their goal of increasing shareholder’s returns. In pursuit of profit, these firms compelled countless workers, for pitifully inadequate wages and often without even the most basic protective measures, to sacrifice their safety, and in many cases even their lives. These efforts by executives for the sake of their investors certainly did pay off: according to Inequality.org, “between March 18, 2020, and April 12, 2021, the collective wealth of American billionaires leapt by $1.62 trillion, or 55%.” All this, as thousands died preventable deaths and millions in the world’s wealthiest country faced hunger and eviction. But what of the workers’ freedom? Surely, they were not literally forced to come into their workplaces. The answer to that depends on how we define force. Essential workers, as well as employees of businesses allowed to preemptively reopen, were barred from receiving unemployment benefits if they refused to work, as our legal framework for employment regulation deemed such refusal voluntary even when motivated by fear of death. So, these workers, many of whom would have received more money through unemployment insurance than they were paid at their “essential” jobs, were compelled—quite literally under threat of starvation—to put themselves and their families in harm’s way so that the rich were able to continue amassing wealth at as aggressive a rate as possible.
The hypocrisy of the official morality, and thus its repressive class-interestedness, is evidenced by the fact that this shockingly inhumane restriction of the right of the working class to self-preservation was undertaken under the guise of “freedom,” and thereby given a “moral” justification. In April 2020, Congressman Trey Hollingsworth echoed widespread convictions with his statement that “in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life of American lives, we have to always choose the latter.” That stance was, and remains, a truly popular sentiment—protests in opposition to shutdowns were prevalent across the country last spring, populated largely by working class Americans who had been convinced that economic closures represented government overreach and a restriction of individual liberty. To foster that sentiment, members of the investor class funded media campaigns to promote the notion of the shutdowns as morally wrong These campaigns serve as a tragic example of the investor class forcing its ends onto the whole of our society, portraying anything that interferes with the pursuit of those ends as morally condemnable. The campaigns, of course, concealed their class interestedness to preserve the supposed universality of their precepts. In their polemics against “unfreedom,” they were careful to omit the fact that the “immorality” of the shutdowns, the restriction of liberty which they constituted, was a restriction of the freedom of wealthy firms to force their workers into life-threatening conditions for the sake of profit margins.
Only in being justified by the official morality of the dominant class was such blatant disregard for human life allowed to occur. During the initial months of the COVID pandemic, the foundational social power of the working masses could have been utilized to substantial and life-saving effect, if only there had been sufficient organization for the development of a collective will to do so. Consider the power represented by the opportunity of essential workers to join together in a general strike in protest of unsafe conditions, or in opposition to unjust regulations which cut them off from unemployment insurance if they refused to work. Consider the power of the voting population to hold their elected officials accountable for refusing to put such protective measures in place, or that of the consumer base to boycott companies engaged in blatantly exploitative and dangerous labor practices. These collective actions were not taken because the iniquity of the situation was masked by a veil of official morality, which labelled the direct repression of the working class—the elimination of its most basic liberties—as itself a crusade for freedom. Such “moral” manipulations enable the paradox of power noted by Arendt and Hume, in which “the living power of the people,” despite its foundational importance, is restrained and left unrealized by the amplified repressive force of a small but economically dominant social contingent.
It is important to note the role of the State in this process of moral imposition on behalf of the ruling class. By debating and legislating in accordance with the official morality, institutional authority reifies it, providing those precepts of ruling class interest with an appearance of naturalness and thereby working to validate their claims to universality. Representative Hollingsworth was not alone in expressing the sentiment that the flourishing of the stock market is more important than the lives of American workers; instances as brazen as the vehement attempts of conservative politicians to prevent an increase in food stamp funding despite the staggering number of children going hungry represent efforts to embody the official morality.  The success of such reification is heartbreakingly clear: ours is a country in which Nobel laureate economist Angus Deaton “explained the anomalous mortality rates among white people in the Bible Belt by claiming that they’ve ‘lost the narrative of their lives’,” having failed to realize their own “moral value” in the terms imposed on them, unable to earn anything above a starvation wage regardless of their efforts.
Such is the outcome of the ruling class indoctrinating “into its ideology a whole section of humanity which does not have its basic status and cannot live up to it,” using the apparatus of authority as an aid in its illusion. The supposed truth of the official morality, that most insidious of the “ruling ideas” disseminated by the dominant class, holds a devastating weight in the popular psyche because it is manifested by our systems of power and thereby made to seem concrete. To that end, our political representatives, armed with the formalized consent of their constituents, speak and legislate in a manner that serves to enshrine official morality in the rule of law. In the face of the pandemic, they declared that the just action on the part of the working poor was to accept their loss of liberty for the sake of their country. And, faced with that reactionary mandate justified by an apparently eternal morality, we chose not to oppose oppression, but instead to clap for the essential workers as they made their way home.
“The price of obedience has become too high,” writes Terry Tempest Williams, following a vivid illustration of the destruction wreaked by U.S. nuclear arms tests in the Southwest on American lands and American people. Such state-sanctioned harm is the norm, rather than the exception, as we have seen in examples ranging from the Tuskegee Study to the COVID pandemic response. It is enabled by the “inability to question authority,” on account of its justification by official morality, which would have a repressed populace rather accept the rule of their oppressors than challenge it in the hope of change. But this does not have to be the case; ours could be a better world. A governing body loses its legitimacy if its commands are not carried out; its orders are not heeded if the popular masses refuse to recognize its sovereignty. Strikes, protests, and other acts of defiance, in which participants utilize their communal power by refusing, in unison, to conform to the commands of their oppressors, demonstrate the ability of an organized populace to make authority impotent and annul its influence. That transformative kind of resistance is only possible when the official morality which condemns it is recognized as a tool of reaction, when the oppressed declare a morality of their own, oriented towards the liberation and collective betterment of the social world. “[A]nd even then, when power is already in the street, some group…prepared for such an eventuality is needed to pick it up and assume responsibility.” These tasks: the revocation of repressive morality, its replacement with a conviction for true justice, and the development of leadership capable of organizing such a movement, are all possible. It is imperative that we undertake them if we are to liberate ourselves by realizing our collective power.
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 Cohen, 9
 Cohen, 9
 Ibid., 10
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 Arendt, 41
 Barthes, 140
 Marx, 129
 Williams, 128
 Arendt, 49