In our recent series on class we argued that the vast majority of people are working class. So who are the minority in the ruling class? Most of us rarely have any contact with this group of people. The papers run articles about the lifestyles of the super-rich.
Their lives in luxury mansions, jetsetting around the world or at Royal Ascot are a world away from our daily experience. But the ruling class are about much more than how much wealth they display. This group of people make decisions that determine the lives of the rest of us. Take Brian Souter, boss of Stagecoach and South West Trains. He deliberately dresses in ordinary clothes, carries a plastic bag instead of a briefcase and makes a point of not appearing to have a personal fortune worth £250 million.
Yet his company controls vast tracts of the transport network across Britain. His decisions to hold down pay and force longer working hours affect the lives of tens of thousands of workers and their families. The ruling class own and have control over the financial institutions and companies which produce the goods and services we all use in society. They are the bosses of the giant national and multinational corporations, of the banks, and of global institutions like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organisation.
The decisions these people make have an impact across the world. A few individuals can choose to shut down a factory or 'restructure' a workforce, bringing devastation to hundreds and thousands of people's lives. They can order a hospital or school to be knocked down and replaced with luxury homes.
This group of people is tiny, but they are wealthy and powerful. The assets of the top three billionaires in the world are equivalent to the wealth of the 48 poorest countries. Some $1.1 trillion in assets is concentrated in the hands of just the top 200 billionaires in the world.
The ruling class make up less than half of 1 percent of the population. Yet because of their position in society their say over what happens far outweighs the wishes or interests of the vast majority.
Those at the top of the giant companies rely on relationships with others in their class to maintain their wealth and power. They want laws, social institutions, a state bureaucracy, a government, a police force and an army that reflect and help continue their rule in society. The judges, army generals, those who head the police force, and top civil servants act alongside the top bosses in industry, and are part of the same class.
If necessary these forces will act to repress any challenge to their power. Multinationals may have tremendous power across the globe, but they also need the governments, courts and sometimes the army of a particular country to support their interests.
The gap between the wealth and power of the ruling class and the rest of society is not diminishing. It is growing ever greater. When Marx was writing about class 150 years ago the ruling class was made up of quite a large layer of small scale capitalists and landowners, alongside a few super-rich landowners and capitalists.
The ruling class today have even more wealth and power concentrated in fewer hands. Giant companies have gobbled up smaller rivals or merged with other firms to dominate an industry.
The overwhelming majority of the rich and powerful have inherited their wealth, marry within their circle and pass that wealth on to their children, and appoint other members of the elite to top positions.
Their public schools, separate clubs and exclusive lives reinforce their feeling of superiority over the rest of us and their 'right' to that position. For the most part the ruling class are able to maintain their wealth and power without facing a fundamental challenge. But during times of great political and economic crisis they can begin to feel the weight of the masses stacked against them.
In such situations the ruling class can find their long-held power and privilege begin to be questioned as people look towards an alternative society where the interests of the majority, not the minority, rule.