(Sample Material) IAS Mains Sociology (Optional) Study Kit "Power Of The Elite"

Sample Material of Our IAS Mains Sociology Study Kit

Subject: Sociology (Optional)

Topic: Power Of The Elite

In a general sense, the term ‘elite’ was employed to refer to commodities of particular excellence. This restricted usage of the term in the seventeenth century was broadened later to include social groups such as higher ranks of mobility and others that could be treated as superior to the rest of them. It was only in the latter part of the nineteenth century that the term gained currency in sociological writings in  Europe. In 1930s sociological theories of elite developed in Britain and America particularly in the writings of Vilfredo Pareto.

Elite, the select minority, which influences or exercises the political power has always played the dominant role in every society. Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941) brought the elitist role to prominence in his The Ruling Class. Elites can be of several types. These may be intellectual, cultural, social, military, administrative or political. They had at times greatly influenced the society. Political elite refers to that minority which at any time effectively rules a society.

Now we shall discuss the elite theories of Pareto and Mosca-the sociologists, who attempted a general theory to explain the nature and distribution of power in all societies.
Elite theory was first developed by the two Italian sociologists, Vilfredo Pareto (1848­1923) and Gaetano Mosca (1854-1941). Where Marxian theory argues that relationships to the forces of production divide society into dominant and subordiante groups, elite theory claims that the personal qualities of individuals separate rulers from the ruled. The elite owe their position to the superiority of their personal characteristics or attributes. For example, they may possess considerable organisational ability, a talent which Mosca believed to be the basis for leadership. Or they may possess a high degree of cunning and intelligence, qualities which Pareto saw as one of the prerequisites of power. Later versions of elite theory place less emphasis on the personal qualities of the powerful and more on the institutional framework of society. They argue that the hierarchical organisation of social institutions allows a minority to monopolize power.

Elite theory developed in part as a reaction to Marxism. It rejected the idea of a communist utopia arguing that an egalitarian society was an illusion. It saw Marxism as ideology rather than an objective analysis of society. Elite theory argues that all societies are divided into two main groups, a ruling minority and the ruled. This situation is inevitable. Should the proletarian revolution occur, it will merely result in the replacement of one ruling elite by another. The economic infrastructure, be it capitalist or communist, will not alter the inevitability of elite rule. Apart from the personal qualities of its members, an elite owes its power to its internal organisation. It forms a united and cohesive minority in the face of an unorganised and fragmented mass. In Mosca’s words, the power of the minority is irresistible as against each single individual in the majority’. Major decisions which affect society are taken by the elite. Even in so-called democratic societies, these decisions will usually reflect the concerns of the elite rather than the wishes of the people. Elite theorists picture the majority as apathetic and unconcerned with the major issues of the day. The mass of the population is largely controlled and manipulated by the elite, passively accepting the propaganda which justifies elite rule.


Although there are broad similarities between the various elite theorists, there are also important differences. This section briefly examines the work of the early or ‘classical’ elite theorists, Pareto and Mosca. Pareto (1935) explained the concept of elite the terms of a class of people with highest indices (referring to sign of capacity e.g a successful lawyer has highest index, one who does not get a client has the lowest index in their branch of activity). This class of people is referred to as the elite. In more simple terms, Pareto defined elite by reference to facts which an outside observer is able to verify. Elite class, therefore, comprises of all those who have succeeded and are considered by their peers and the public as the best. When he spoke of the elite consistently, Pareto did not mean all those who have succeeded but those who exercise the political functions of administration or government and those who influence or determine the conduct of governing machinery though they are nor officials or ministers). There are two categories: the non-elite (who may or may not have a role to play in the government) and the elite.

The latter category i.e., the elite is divided into governing elite and non-governing elite. The elite class is divisible into two classes: the governing elite (constituted of people who have some say or who directly or indirectly play a part in the government) and the non­governing elite (constituted of the rest of the elite i.e., those who have to say or no role to play in the government). Pareto argued that the same individuals occupy the same rank in hierarchy for wealth as for other criteria (such as musical talent, level of intelligence and so on) and for the degree of political and social influence. This implies that the upper classes are also the richest and it is these classes that represent the elite. Later Pareto concerned himself with those who have power i.e., governing elite and the masses.

Pareto places particular emphasis on psychological characteristics as the basis of elite rule. He argues that there are two main types of governing elite, which, following his intellectual ancestor and countryman Machiavelli, he calls ‘lions’ and ‘foxes’. Lions achieve power because of their ability to take direct and incisive action, and, as their name suggests, they tend to rule by force. Military dictatorship provide an example of this type of governing elite. By comparison, foxes rule by cunning and guile, by diplomatic manipulation and wheeling and dealing. Pareto believed that European democracies provided an example of this type of elite. Members of a governing elite owe their positions primarily to their personal qualities, either to their lion­like or fox-like characteristics.

Major change in society occurs when on elite replaces another, a process Pareto calls the ‘circulation of elites’. All elites tend to become decadent. They ‘decay in quality’ and lose their ‘vigour’. They may become soft and ineffective with the pleasures of easy living and the privileges of power, or set in their ways and too inflexible to respond to changing circumstances. In addition, each type of elite lacks the qualities of its 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. Whereas history to Marx ultimately leads to and ends with the communist utopia, history to Pareto is a never-ending circulation of elites. Nothing ever really changes and history is, and always will be, ‘a graveyard of aristocracies’.

Pareto, however, recognized the element of mobility in the elite class i.e., he did not insist that the elite was a static category, which was constituted once and for all. He propounded the idea of ‘circulation of elite’. There are atleast two channels through which the idea of circulation of elite may be explained. Circulation of elite refers to the process in which individuals circulate between the elite and the non-elite groups. It also refers to the process in which one elite is replaced by another. Pareto’s work does incorporate both the conceptions but the former conception referring to the circulation of individuals between elite and non-elite groups predominates. In the context of decay and renewal of aristocracies, Pareto observes “the governing class is restored not only in numbers but - and it is that the more important thing - in quality, by families rising from a lower classes”. Apart from this he also makes mention of showing down of this circulation which leads to increase of degenerate elements in the classes which still hold power and increase in the elements of superior quality in the subject classes (i.e., non-elite class). In such a situation social equilibrium becomes unstable. Even a mild shock may be enough to crumble it. New elite comes to power and establishes a new equilibrium after a conquest or a revolution. Pareto also repeatedly refers to circulation of individuals between the elite and non-elite classes. He suggested that the governing class constituting the elite might induct those people in the lower classes from whom they perceive threat or danger.

Pareto’s view of history is both simple and simplistic. He dismisses the differences between political systems such as Western democracies, communist single party states, fascist dictatorships and feudal monarchies as merely variations on a basic theme. All are essentially examples of elite rule and by comparison with this fact, the differences between them are minor. Pareto fails to provide a method of measuring and distinguishing between the supposedly superior qualities of elites. He simply assumes that the qualities of the elite are superior to those of the mass. His criterion for distinguishing between lions and foxes is merely his own interpretation of the style of elite rule. Nor does Pareto provide a way of measuring the process of elite decadence. He does suggest however that if an elite is closed to recruitment from below it is likely to rapidly lose its vigour and vitality and have a short life. As T.B. Bottomore notes, the Brahmins, the elite stratum in the Indian caste system, were a closed group yet survived for many hundreds of years.

Gaetano Mosca was the first to draw a distinction between elite and the masses. He explained that in all societies there are two classes of people: one that rules and the other that is ruled. The class which rules performs all political functions, monopolizes power and enjoys all the advantages and privileges that accompany power. The class, which is ruled larger in terms of numerical composition and is governed and controlled by the former class through legal, sometimes arbitrary and violent means. Like Pareto, Mosca was also concerned with elites as groups of people vested with political power. Mosca explained that between the elite and the masses is the category of the sub-elite constituted of the ‘new middle class’ of civil servants, managers and white-collar workers, scientists, engineers, scholars and intellectuals. The sub-elite provide new recruits to the elite class. The sub-elite itself is a vital element in the government of society. Mosca suggested that the stability of any political system largely depends on the level of morality, intelligence and activity that this second stratum has attained. He accounted for the rise of new elite in part by the emergence of social forces, which represent new interests (e.g. technological or economic interests) in the society).

Like Pareto, Gaetano Mosca believed that rule by a minority is an inevitable feature of social life. He bases this belief on the evidence of history claiming that in all societies ‘two classes of people appear-a class that rules and a class that is ruled. The first class, always the less numerous, performs all political functions, monopolizes power and enjoys the advantages that power brings, whereas the second, the more numerous class, is directed and controlled by the first’. Like Pareto, Mosca believed that the ruling minority and superior to the mass of the population. He claims that they are ‘distinguished from the mass of the governed by qualities that give them a certain material, intellectual or ever moral superiority’ and he provides a sociological explanation for this superiority seeing it as a product of the social background of the elite. Unlike Pareto, who believed that the qualities required for elite rule were the same for all time. Mosca argued that they varied from society to society. For example, in some societies courage and bravery in battle provide access to the elite, in others the skills and capacities needed to acquire wealth. Pareto saw modern democracies as merely another form of elite domination. He scornfully dismissed those who saw them as a more progressive and representative system of government. Mosca, however, particularly in his later writings, argued that there were important differences between democracies and other forms of elite rule. By comparison with closed systems such as caste feudal societies, the ruling elite in democratic societies is open. There is therefore a greater possibility of an elite drawn from a wide range of social backgrounds. As a result, the interests of various social groups may be represented in the decisions taken by the elite. The majority may therefore have some control over the government of society. As he became more favourably disposed towards democracy, Mosca argued that ‘the modern representative state has made it possible for almost all political forces’, almost all social values, to participate in the management of society.’ But he stopped short of a literal acceptance of Abraham Lincoln’s famous definition of democracy as ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. To Mosca, democracy was government of the people, it might even be government for the people but it could never be government by the people. Elite rule remained inevitable. Democracy could be no more than representative government with an elite representing the interests of the people. Despite his leanings towards democracy, Mosca retained his dim view of the masses. They lacked the capacity for self-government and required the leadership and guidance of an elite. Indeed Mosca regretted the extension of the franchise to all members of society believing it should be limited to the middle class. He thus remained ‘elitist’ to the last.

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