Search This Blog


Vilfredo Pareto’s classical Elites Theory

INTRODUCTION "Classic" elite theories were formulated at the end of the nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth century by Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941), and Robert Michels (1876-1936). Subsequent renditions of these theories also carried a strong imprint of Max Weber’s ideas, especially concerning the centrality of political power and charismatic leadership. The classic theorists focused on the inevitability of a group of powerful "elites" in all large-scale societies, offering a radical critique of two competing theoretical-ideological streams of thought: the democratic theory ("government of the people, by the people, for the people" in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address), and the Marxist vision of class conflict leading to revolution and egalitarian socialism. In contrast with both of these ideologies, the elite theories suggested an inescapable division between dominant minorities (variously called "elites," "ruling classes," "political classes," "oligarchies," "aristocracies," etc.) and the dominated majority, or the "masses" (Bottomore, 1993). Circulation of the Elites Apart from his analyses of residues and derivations, Pareto is notable among sociologists for the theory known as “the circulation of the elites.” Let us remember that Pareto considered society a system in equilibrium, where processes of change tend to set in motion forces that work to restore and maintain social balance. Pareto asserts that there are two types of elites within society: the governing elite and the non-governing elite. Moreover, the men who make up these elite strata are of two distinct mentalities, the speculator and the rentier. The speculator is the progressive, filled with Class I residues, while the rentier is the conservative, Class II residue type. There is a natural propensity in healthy societies for the two types to alternate in power. When, for example, speculators have made a mess of government and have outraged the bulk of their countrymen by their corruption and scandals, conservative forces will step to the fore and, in one way or another, replace them. The process, as we have said, is cyclical and more or less inevitable. Furthermore, according to Pareto, wise rulers seek to reinvigorate their ranks by allowing the best from the lower strata of society to rise and become fully a part of the ruling class. This not only brings the best and brightest to the top, but deprives the lower classes of talent and of the leadership qualities that might one day prove to be a threat. Summarizing this component of Pareto’s theory, a contemporary sociologist observes that practicality, not pity, demands such a policy: A dominant group, in Pareto’s opinion, survives only if it provides opportunities for the best persons of other origins to join in its privileges and rewards, and if it does not hesitate to use force to defend these privileges and rewards. Pareto’s irony attacks the elite that becomes humanitarian, tenderhearted rather than tough-minded. Pareto favors opportunity for all competent members of society to advance into the elite, but he is not motivated by feelings of pity for the underprivileged. To express and spread such humanitarian sentiments merely weakens the elite in the defense of its privileges. Moreover, such humanitarian sentiments would easily be a platform for rallying the opposition. [26] But few aristocracies of long standing grasp the essential nature of this process, preferring to keep their ranks as exclusive as possible. Time takes its toll, and the rulers become ever weaker and ever less capable of bearing the burden of governing: It is a specific trait of weak governments. Among the causes of the weakness two especially are to be noted: humanitarianism and cowardice — the cowardice that comes natural to decadent aristocracies and is in part natural, in part calculated, in “speculator” governments that are primarily concerned with material gain. The humanitarian spirit … is a malady peculiar to spineless individuals who are richly endowed with certain Class I residues that they have dressed up in sentimental garb. [27] In the end, of course, the ruling class falls from power. Thus, Pareto writes that “history is a graveyard of aristocracies.” [28] The Transformation of Democracy Published as a slim volume near the end of Pareto’s life, The Transformation of Democracy originally appeared in 1920 as a series of essays published in an Italian scholarly periodical, Revista di Milano. In this work, Pareto recapitulates many of his theories in a more concise form, placing particular emphasis on what he believes are the consequences of allowing a money-elite to dominate society. The title of this work comes from Pareto’s observation that European democracies in the 1920s were more and more being transformed into plutocracies. The deception and corruption associated with plutocratic rule would eventually produce a reaction, however, and lead to the system’s downfall. In Pareto’s words, The plutocracy has invented countless makeshift programs, such as generating enormous public debt that plutocrats know they will never be able to repay, levies on capital, taxes which exhaust the incomes of those who do not speculate, sumtuary laws which have historically proven useless, and other similar measures. The principal goal of each of these measures is to deceive the multitudes. [29] When a society’s system of values deteriorates to the point where hard work is denigrated and “easy money” extolled, where honesty is mocked and duplicity celebrated, where authority gives way to anarchy and justice to legal chicanery, such a society stands face to face with ruin. There is a basic ambiguity in Pareto's treatment of the notion of the elite. In some passages, as in the one quoted above, it would appear that those oc- cupying elite positions are, by definition, the most qualified. But there are many other passages where Pareto asserts that people are assigned elite posi- tions by virtue of being so labeled. That is, men assigned elite positions may not have the requisite capabilities, while others not so labeled may have them. Trattato de sociologica generale contains most of the salient elements of Pareto s sociological thought. In it he constructed a general theory of social behavior based upon what he called sentiments, residues, and derivations. According to Pareto's definitions, most human behavior is determined by nonrational and typically unobservable qualities of the mind called sentiments, though vestiges of these sentiments can be observed in a more concrete manifestation as residues. In light of what Pareto observed as the nonlogical basis of social behavior, human beings have developed a tendency to rationalize their actions whenever possible, employing a variety of rhetorical structures, or derivations, to do so. Elsewhere in his treatise, Pareto elucidated his theory of the circulation of elites. Beginning with the observation that all advanced cultures in history have demonstrated some form of social hierarchy in which an elite group wields authority, Pareto argued that the elite class justifies its non-rational authority over the lower classes by employing rationalizing derivations. The process is continued into perpetuity as one group of elites is expelled when its derivations are exposed and a new elite class takes its place. As a political economist, Pareto's priniciples are contained in his Manuale di economica politica (1906, Manual of Political Economy), which includes the Cours d' économie politique and his article "Economie mathématique," pub lished in the Encyclopédie des sciences mathématique. Mosca saw this inevitable polarization of power as reflecting a "material, intellectual, or even moral superiority" (1939, p. 50) of ruling minorities, with their small size and organizational skills helping to maintain this position; Pareto anchored elite domination in the talent and psychological dispositions of such groups, combined with the skilled use of force and persuasion; and Michels saw the domination of "oligarchies" as the necessary outcome of large-scale organization. All three agreed that political power, and not property, forms the foundation of social-political hierarchies, and that these hierarchies can neither be reduced to nor deduced from economic class relations. Most importantly, elite theorists insisted that there could be no escape from elite power: revolutions merely mark elite circulation and, as illustrated by the Russian Revolution, do not narrow the power gap between the elites and the masses. Egalitarian political order and participatory democracy are, therefore, ideological dreams. History, observed Pareto, is a graveyard of successive elites or "aristocracies" ([1915] 1963, p. 1430). Elite theories can also be seen as an intellectual response to the "modern trends" that strengthened the state and have led to the rapid expansion of government bureaucracies, the emergence of bureaucratized mass parties, the concentration of corporate power, the growth of powerful and centralized mass media, and the rise of fascist and communist movements and regimes—all of which have weakened liberal capitalism and dented the hopes for participatory democratization. Mosca, Pareto, Michels, and Weber all saw these trends as a consequence of bureaucratic industrialism. In their view, the increasing complexity of modern society implied progressive bureaucratic organization of all activities and power concentration in the hands of elites, who can effectively manage democratic institutions, accumulate the privileges that power brings, orchestrate mass support, and protect their positions by controlling access to the top. This view of power stratification, combined with the insistence on the universality of elites and treatment of elite characteristics as key explanatory variables, constitutes the most distinctive tenet of classic elite theory. The second theoretical tenet concerns the capacity of power holders to organize themselves and form cohesive groups. Strong cohesion does not preclude the possibility of temporary intra-elite conflicts and divisions on specific policy questions. However, when it comes to defending common power interests, members of the elite act in unison, and this makes their power irresistible. The third tenet concerns the linkages between elites and various "social forces," such as social movements, classes, and ethno-racial groups. The classic elite theorists insist that such linkages are an essential condition of elite power, but they are less than clear on precise meaning of such linkages. The fourth tenet is about access and succession. Entry to the elite ranks depends on acquiring certain rare attributes (e.g., wealth, prestige, education), and it is carefully controlled—directly and indirectly—by elite incumbents. Elites control recruitment of their successors through institutional "gatekeepers" (e.g., corporate hierarchies, political party machines) as well as through elite "selectorates" operating at each level of hierarchical promotion. One outcome of these selective practices is a biased social composition; another is a persistence of elite outlooks, even at times of rapid social mobility and elite circulation, that is, replacement of elite members. The final tenet highlights the way in which elites typically exercise their power. All elite theorists converge on a view of "engineered" elite domination through persuasion and manipulation, occasionally backed by force. Democratic elections have a symbolic character and are an important tool for the orderly circulation of elite personnel, but they seldom alter elite structure. The post-World War II (1939-1945) students of elites played down the cohesion of elites and questioned the classic theorists’ skepticism as to the prospects for democratization. In the seminal formulation of Joseph Schumpeter (1954), elites are an essential ingredient of modern democracy, which implies a regular electoral competition for political leadership. This idea was followed up by Robert Dahl (1971), Giovanni Sartori (1981) and many other "plural," "demo-," and "neo-" elite theorists. It was backed by empirical studies of modern elites (summarized by Robert Putnam in 1976), especially in advanced democracies, that revealed complex networks of competing and collaborating elite groups, rather than cohesive minorities. The key question was whether elites (mainly in the United States) formed a cohesive and unassailable "power elite" or more open, competitive, and responsive "plural" or "strategic" elite groups. The results of these studies, however, were inconclusive, largely because any picture of power distribution depends on the way power is defined and measured. Those who identified power holders by their reputation and incumbency in top organizational positions produced a picture of cohesive "establishments" and "power elites." In contrast, those who defined elites as key decision makers produced a picture of "plural" elites, that is, competing elite groups. Contemporary elite theorists, especially those studying postcommunist transformations, transcend these debates, incorporate elites into broader power and stratification schemes, acknowledge the complexity of power sources and structures, and analyze elites as important "crafters" and "sustainers" of democratic regimes. Perhaps the best-known theoretical syntheses of the class and elite visions of the power structure were undertaken by Wlodzimierz Wesolowski and Eva Etzioni-Halevi, who both saw elites and classes as being linked. In this view, elites enter into alliances (via "coupling") with major classes and other "social forces." As mentioned above, elites are defined in political terms as the most powerful minorities, while classes are defined in economic terms as owners or workers. The relations between elite and regime types of power (including postcommunist regimes and established liberal democracies) have been explored by John Higley and his collaborators (e.g., Field and Higley 1980; Higley and Pakulski 1995; Higley and Burton 2006), who have focused on two elite characteristics— structural integration and value/normative consensus—as key determinants of political stability and democratic character of regimes. Only consensually united elites— that is, elites characterized by inclusiveness and open access (wide integration), as well as strong and widely shared agreement about the norms of political behavior ("rules of the game")—can sustain stable liberal democracies. Elites united by ideological formulas (e.g., the Chinese) operate stable but undemocratic regimes, while disunited elites accompany—and perpetuate—unstable regimes. Critical Reception Commentators on Pareto's Trattato di sociologica generale have noted that the chaotic style of this massive work has made it difficult to understand, and have criticized its sometimes imprecise vocabulary. Also, his sociological writings have been interpreted as proto-fascist, though most scholars now agree that this is not the case. Additionally, many of his works have not been translated, and consequently his overall influence outside of France and Italy has been relatively limited. Still, his methods, economic ideas, and theories on nonrational behavior have enjoyed considerable critical attention in Europe and America, leading many to place him next to Max Weber and Émile Durkheim as one of the fathers of modern sociological thought. The aristocratic version of this theory is the Classic Elite Theory which is based on two ideas: 1. power lies in position of authority in key economic and political institutions 2. the psychological difference that sets Elites apart is that they have personal resources, for instance intelligence and skills, and a vested interest in the government; while the rest are incompetent and do not have the capabilities of governing themselves, the elite are resourceful and will strive to make the government work. For in reality, the elite have the most to lose in a failed government. Pareto emphasized the psychological and intellectual superiority of elites, believing that they were the highest accomplishers in any field. He discussed the existence of two types of elites: 1. governing elites 2. non-governing elites He also extended the idea that a whole elite can be replaced by a new one and how one can circulate from being elite to nonelite. It would seem that Pareto believed that only in perfectly open societies, those with perfect social mobility, would elite position correlate fully with superior capacity. Only under such conditions would the governing elite, for example, consist of the people most capable of governing. The actual social fact is that obstacles such as inherited wealth, family connections, and the like prevent the free circulation of individuals through the ranks of society, so that those wear- ing an elite label and those possessing highest capacity tend to diverge to greater or lesser degrees. Given the likelihood of divergencies between ascribed elite position and actual achievement and capacity, Pareto is a passionate advocate of maximum social mobility and of careers open to all. He saw the danger that elite posi- tions that were once occupied by men of real talent would in the course of time be preempted by men devoid of such talent. In the beginning, military, religious, and commercial aristocracies and plutocracies . . . must have constituted parts of the governing elite and some- times made up the whole of it. The victorious warrior, the prosperous mer- chant, the opulent plutocrat, were men of such parts, each in his own field, as to be superior to the average individual. Under those circumstances the label corresponded to an actual capacity. But as time goes by, considerable, some- times very considerable, differences arise between the capacity and the label. . . . Aristocracies do not last. . . . History is a graveyard of aristocracies. . . . They decay not in numbers only. They decay also in quality, in the sense that they lose their vigor, that there is a decline in the proportions of the residues which enabled them to win their power and hold it. The governing class is restored not only in numbers, but . . . in quality, by families rising from the lower classes and bringing with them the vigor and the proportions of residues necessary for keeping themselves in power. . . . Potent cause of disturbance in the equilibrium is the accumulation of superior elements in the lower classes and, conversely, of inferior elements in the higher classes. When governing or nongoverning elites attempt to close themselves to the influx of newer and more capable elements from the underlying population, when the circulation of elites is impeded, social equilibrium is upset and the social order will decay. Pareto argued that if the governing elite does not "find ways to assimilate the exceptional individuals who come to the front in the subject classes," an imbalance is created in the body politic and the body social until this condition is rectified, either through a new opening of chan- nels of mobility or through violent overthrow of an old ineffectual governing elite by a new one that is capable of governing. Not only are intelligence and aptitudes unequally distributed among the members of society, but the residues as well. Under ordinary circumstances, the "conservative" residues of Class II preponderate in the masses and thus make them submissive. The governing elite, however, if it is to be effective, must consist of individuals who have a strong mixture of both Class I and Class II elements. A predominance of interests that are primarily industrial and commercial enriches the ruling class in individuals who are shrewd, astute, and well- provided with combination instincts; and divests it of individuals of the sturdy impulsive type. . . . One might guess that if cunning, chicanery, combinations were all there was to government, the dominion of the class in which Class I residues by far predominate would last over a very, very long period. . . . But governing is also a matter of force, and as Class I residues grow stronger and Class II residues weaker, the individuals in power become less and less capable of using force, so that an unstable equilibrium results and revolutions occur. . . . The masses, which are strong in Class II residues, carry them up- wards into the governing class either by gradual infiltration or in sudden spurts through revolutions. The ideal governing class contains a judicious mixture of lions and foxes, of men capable of decisive and forceful action and of others who are imaginative, innovative, and unscrupulous. When imperfections in the circulation of govern- ing elites prevent the attainment of such judicious mixtures among the govern- ing, regimes either degenerate into hidebound and ossified bureaucracies in- capable of renewal and adaptation, or into weak regimes of squabbling lawyers and rhetoricians incapable of decisive and forceful action. When this happens, the governed will succeed in overthrowing their rulers and new elites will institute a more effective regime. What applies to political regimes applies to the economic realm as well. In this field, "speculators" are akin to the foxes and "rentiers" to the lions. Speculators and rentiers do not only have different interests but they reflect different temperaments and different residues. Neither is very good at using force, but they both otherwise fall roughly into the same dichotomous classes that explain political fluctuations. In the speculator group Class I residues predominate, in the rentier group, Class II residues. . . . The two groups perform functions of differing utility in society. The [speculator] group is primarily responsible for change, for economic and social progress. The [rentier] group, instead, is a powerful element in stability, and in many cases counteracts the dangers attending the adventurous capers of the [speculators]. A society in which the [rentiers] al- most exclusively predominate remains stationary and, as it were, crystallized. A society in which [the speculators] predominate lacks stability, lives in a state of shaky equilibrium that may be upset by a slight accident from within or from without. REFERENCES Richard J. Ellis & Michael Thompson eds. (1997), Culture Matters. Boulder: Westview Press Francois Matarasso & Charles Landry (1999), Balancing Act: 21 Strategic Dilemmas in Cultural Policy. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing Immanuel Wallerstein (2000), „Culture as the Ideological Battleground of the Modern World System” in The Essential Wallerstein. New York: New Press, 264-289. Gil Eyal, Iván Szelényi & Eleanor Townsley (2003), „On Irony: An Invitation to Neoclassical Sociology” Thesis Eleven, No. 73. May, 5-41. András Bozóki (2005), The Culture of Freedom. Budapest: Ministry of Cultural Heritage Yudhishthir Raj Isar ed. (2005), Inclusive Europe? Horizon 2020. Budapest: Kultúrpont Péter Inkei, Barbara Lázár, Attila Zongor eds. (2006), Inclusive Europe? Proceedings. Budapest: Kultúrpont Thomas Medvetz (2007), „Hybrid Intellectuals” mimeo. (forthcoming) John Higley & Jan Pakulski (2007), „The Quality of Elites and the Illusions of Ideology” A paper prepared for the 4th ECPR Conference, Pisa, Italy, September 6-9. András Bozóki (2007), „The Making of Reform: Elite Dilemmas and Political Options” A paper prepared for the 4th ECPR Conference, Pisa, Italy, September 6-9.