In this article we will discuss about the views of various sociologists on elite theory.
History of Elite Theory:
Elite theory was first developed by two Italian sociologists, Vilfredo Pareto (1848- 1923) and Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941). Elite theory developed as a reaction to Marxist theory. The Marxist dream of a classless society was rejected by it as an illusion.
All societies, according to Elite theory, are divided into two main groups—the ruling minority and the majority of the ruled. This kind of division is accepted as inevitable, irrespective of whether society is capitalist or socialist. Even a proletarian revolution will mean: replacement of one ruling elite by another.
According to Pareto and Mosca, the elite owe their position to the superiority of their personal characteristics or attributes. Pareto and Mosca, however, differ with regard to the nature of these personal characteristics.
While Pareto emphasised personal qualities of cunning and intelligence of a high order as important prerequisites of power, Mosca emphasised personal qualities of considerable organisational ability as pre-requisites of leadership, and hence of power.
Later versions of elite theory do not emphasise the personal qualities of those who happen to enjoy power, but the institutional framework of society. It is held that the hierarchical organisation of social institutions allows a minority to monopolise power.
Vilfredo Pareto: The Circulation of Elites:
For centuries attempts have been made to explain the behaviour of men by attributing it to ‘human nature’. Perhaps the most famous attempt by a sociologist to deal with the problem of human motivation is that of Vilfredo Pareto. He views human conduct as inspired by certain constant ingredients of human nature which he terms “residues”.
He classifies the residues under six main groups residues of combinations (the faculty of associating things or thinking them together), of group persistence or persistence of aggregates (the conservative tendency), of self-expression, of sociability, of individual integrity, and of sex.
According to Pareto, these are the actual motivations of human conduct. But these are obscured by all sorts of unsound reasoning’s and misleading explanations which he names “derivations”. According to his interpretation, “derivations” are nothing but logical explanation of non-logical actions.
Pareto refers to the human tendency to ‘rationalise’ motives, “to form habits of concealing petty and self-seeking motives under high names, like duty and honor and principle and patriotism”, and “to stand well in the sight of others and in our own eyes”.
Having made a detailed analysis of the ‘theories’ of action, distinguishing between logical and non-logical action, residues and derivations, Pareto discusses the place of various elements of action in the equilibrium of the social system. Here, for purposes of detailed discussion, he confines himself to two of his six classes of residues — the ‘residues of combinations’ and the ‘persistence of aggregates’.
Very broadly, the former consists of the commitments or propensities in social groups to adapt flexibly to environmental or situational exigencies, while the latter consists of the propensities in social groups to maintain patterns of commitment once they have become institutionalised.
Pareto makes one of his most important empirical generalizations by combining this analytical distinction with a conception of the elite element in social stratification systems.
He confines himself to the simplest level of analysis of such systems, distinguishing only between elite groups which combine control of great political power with the enjoyment of high prestige in various other respects, and the other groups which constitute the mass of the society and which have relatively little power, prestige or wealth.
Pareto makes psychological characteristics the basis of elite rule. In his view, there are two main types of governing elite which, following Machiavelli, he calls ‘lions’ and ‘foxes’. ‘Lions’ are those who are more actuated by ‘the persistence of aggregates’. Pareto shows that in a political context, the commitment of the lions to belief systems and values is connected with a readiness to resort to force and to rule by force.
Military dictatorships provide an example of this type of governing elite. ‘Foxes’ are those who are more actuated by ‘the residues of combinations’. In a political context, the flexibility and adaptability of the foxes mean that they are not likely to be very much concerned about the stability of the political system in which they operate.
Foxes rule by cunning, guile and manipulation. In his view, European democracies provide an example of this type of elite. Thus, Pareto argues that members of governing elite owe their positions primarily to their personal qualities either to their lion-like or fox- like characteristics.
He, then, develops the idea that the composition of the elites alternates cyclically, a process which Pareto calls the ‘circulation of elites’. All elites tend to decay in quality and lose their vigour. Being used to easy life, they may become soft and ineffective.
The privileges of office may make them set in their ways and too inflexible to changing circumstances. Moreover, elite may lack the qualities of their counterpart, qualities which, in the long run, are essential to maintain power.
“An elite of lions lacks the imagination and cunning necessary to maintain its rule and will have to admit foxes from the masses to make up for this deficiency. Gradually foxes infiltrate the entire elite and so transform its character. Foxes, however, lack the ability to take forceful and decisive action which at various times is essential to retain power. An organised minority of lions committed to the restoration of strong government develops and eventually overthrows the elite of foxes”.
The differences of views of Marxists and Pareto with regard to the transformation of class systems may be noted. Pareto maintains that the fall of elites is due to their decline in relative numbers and to their decay in quality. The Marxists insist that the material conditions of a social order inevitably bring about the transformation of class power.
Further, to Marx history ultimately leads to and ends with the communist Utopia; to Pareto, history is a never-ending circulation of elites. According to Pareto, nothing ever really changes and history is, and always will be “a graveyard of aristocracies”.
Pareto’s analysis of circulation of elites led to a set of empirical generalisations. In modern terms, Pareto’s analysis throws light on “an important rhythm in the processes of change in dynamic societies (like that of the West, both ancient and modern), consisting of successive phases in which leadership is primarily in the hands of adaptive-innovative and then of conservative-regressive groups”.
C. Wright Mills: The Power Elite:
C. Wright Mills published a book entitled The Power Elite in 1956. In this book Mills does not provide a general theory to explain the nature and distribution of power in all societies in the manner Pareto has done.
On the contrary, he limits his study to the analysis of American society. Unlike Pareto, he does not believe in the inevitability of elite rule. Nor does he accept it as something as something inescapable. In so many words he condemns it.
Unlike Pareto, again, Mills does not explain elite rule in psychological terms, in terms of personal qualities of the rulers. He does not believe that the elite groups find themselves in positions of authority by virtue of their superior fox-like or lion-like qualities which distinguish them from the rest of the population.
Mills seeks to explain elite rule in institutional terms: He identifies three key institutions in the U.S.A:
(i) The major business corporations,
(ii) The military and
(iii) The federal government.
These institutions occupy ‘pivotal positions’ in society. Those who occupy ‘command posts’ in these three key institutions constitute the elite.
Mills argues that the holders of those ‘command posts’, though apparently distinguishable from one another in terms of their association with three key institutions, are sufficiently similar in their values, interests and ideals and are interconnected to form a single ruling minority.
He names this ruling minority ‘ the power elite’. He argues that economic, military and political interest which these three groups represent is promoted to the extent that there is co-operation and sharing among them. Thus, as armaments pour out of factories in huge quantities, the interests of both economic and military elites are served. Likewise, business and government “cannot now be seen as two distinct worlds”.
Economic pressure groups influence governmental decisions on economic matters, particularly those pertaining to giant corporations. Moreover, those who are in government have substantial interest in these corporations. “The net result of the coincidence of economic, military and political power is a power elite which dominates American society and takes all decisions of major national and international importance”.
Another cementing bond which further strengthens the cohesiveness and unity of the power elite is the similarity of the social background of its members and the interchange and overlapping of personnel of the three components of the power elite. They share similar educational background, similar values as well as similar life-styles.
There is, as is to be expected in such circumstances, mutual trust, understanding and co-operation among them. The Director of a giant corporation may be associated with the government, either directly or indirectly, for some time.
Similarly, an army general may be on the Board of Directors of a business corporation. Mills argues that there are many such cases of interchange and over-lapping of personnel among the three elite groups which tends to strengthen the power-elite further.
Mills posits the view that American society is dominated by a power elite of “unprecedented power and unaccountability”. By way of illustrating his statement, he refers to the dropping of atom bomb over Hiroshima. Such a decision of stupendous importance to the world at large and to the people of the United States in particular was taken by the power elite.
Another disquieting feature is that the power elite are not accountable for its actions either directly to the public or to anybody which represents public interest. Mills sounds a note of warning that the rise of the power elite has led to “the decline of politics as a genuine and public debate of alternative decisions”.
Mills points out that the power elite has at its disposal the media of mass communication which he describes as “instruments of psychic management and manipulation”. With a great deal of subtlety and cleverness, the power elite uses the mass media to persuade the men in the street to think, act and behave in certain ways. Ideas of consumerism, recreation and leisure grip the minds of the common people.
They are occupied with their respective worlds of work, and outside working hours they spend their time with their families and passively participate in entertainment programmes presented by the mass media, such as the T.V. and the Cinema. They do not, therefore, bother at all with the activities of the power elite. Free from popular control, the latter pursues its own concerns —power and self-aggrandizement.
Robert A. Dahl has criticised Mills on the ground that his evidence is suggestive rather than conclusive. Even if it is granted that the power elite has the ‘potential for control’, we should recognise that ‘potential for control’ is not ‘equivalent to actual control’.
A series of concrete cases, particularly those pertaining to matters of public concern, such as taxation, social welfare programmes, etc., must be taken into account in order to establish the thesis that the power elite has the power to decide such issues. Dahl argues that since Mills has not investigated a range of such key decisions, the thesis that ‘actual control’ lies with the power elite remains un-established.
Elite Theory and Communist Societies:
Though elite theory does not fit in with the Marxian vision of a classless society, a number of scholars have argued that the nature and distribution of power in communist societies can be best explained in terms of elite theory.
T. B. Bottomore, for instance, observes as follows:
“The political system of Communist countries seems to me to approach the pure type of ‘power elite’, that is, a group which, having come to power with the support or acquiescence of particular classes in the population, maintains itself in power chiefly by virtue of being an organised minority confronting the unorganised majority”.
Raymond Aron argues in the same vein that power in communist societies can be best interpreted in terms of an elite model. He argues that in the U.S.S.R. a ‘unified elite’ monopolises political, economic and military powers which are ‘absolute and unbounded’. This small minority of ruling elite takes all crucial economic decisions pertaining to production, investment, wage differentials and pricing.
The entire military establishment is under the control and direction of these ruling elite. All political decisions, both national and international, are also taken by the same group. To cap it all, the constitution recognises the existence of one political party.
Pointing to this aspect, Aron observes:
“Politicians, trade union leaders, public officials, generals and managers all belong to one party and are part of an authoritarian organisation”.
Aron proceeds further to say that the common people are left “without any means of defence against the elite”.
Bottomore emphasises this aspect thus:
“Contrary to the orthodox Marxist view, popular control may well be greater in-some of the capitalist countries, where independent trade unions can bring pressure to bear upon management’s, and where the competition among political groups prevents the emergence of a single, omnipotent elite”.
It has also been argued by some, Milovan Djilas is one of them, that the members of the ruling elite are self-seekers who pursue self-interest at the cost of the interest of the society as a whole.