Exposition of Elitism
Elitism can be defined as a minority which governs in its own interest and is unaccountable to the majority. Elites believe the masses are ill equipped to govern themselves, therefore elitist rule is desirable for all. Mosca, cited in ‘Introducing Government’ outlined elitist theory as the following: ‘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, monopolises power and enjoys the advantages that power brings, whereas the second, the more numerous class, is directed and controlled by the first.’ Mosca’s strand of theory is an organisational approach. The elite has advantages for the simple reason that it is a minority. Mobilising a small group is far easier than that of the mass body, and similarly communication within an elite is therefore simpler.
A key thinker of elitist theory is Michels. Michels is congruent to Mosca in that organisation is in the main frame of elitism. Whilst Mosca advocated elitist theory, Michels saw its negative connotations. His prominent theory was the ‘iron law of oligarchy’, an inevitability that is rife in all organisations - think of Michels other famous statement: ‘Who says organisation, says oligarchy’. Michels, in his study of socialist parties in central Europe believed there to be a ruling elite in even these groups. In every interest group, Michels believed that the elites would dominate and stifle the mass membership, even in socialist parties.
The circulation of elites is another aspect of the theory. Pareto, cited in Bottomore, phrased ‘History is the graveyard of aristocracies’. This means that one elite replaces another and this is universal. For example in Russia in the early twentieth century the tsar was replaced by the Communist party. Tsarist rule was hereditary and elitist and it was replaced by the Bolsheviks a communist party is dominated by an elite at the highest point.
Pluralist and elite theory does offer parallels. In Dunleavy and O’Leary’s ‘Theories of the State’, overlaps elite theory and pluralism: ‘democratic elitism or revisionist democracy’. Polyarchy is perhaps a principal notion of this, in that there are various interest groups in society but these are all in some way or another dominated by an elite at the top of the organisation; as Michels asserted ‘Who said organisation, said oligarchy.’ Organisations then are led by elites but they have to be receptive to the demands of the interest groups. This does I feel reconcile the two theories of pluralism and elitism, even though they are supposedly opposed. This can be explained by a polyarchy of elites, and it is this numerousness of them that means they must adapt policy to adhere to interest groups.
Pluralism believes power is dispersed through society, while in direct contrast elitism finds power concentrated in the hands of a minority. Pluralism centres on the notion of interest groups as being particularly important and significant. This assumes a kind of equal playing field, as not one interest group in pluralist theory is supposed to be more important than the other. However elitism identifies politics as taking place in a sphere ‘characterised by structured inequalities.’ Elites have the domination of resources, such as military, economic or political power in order to impose themselves upon the masses.
Elitism identifies the masses as being incompetent. Michels sees the populace as having a ‘political immaturity’. This does contrast with the pluralist view of the electorate, who organise themselves into many diverse interest groups to influence government.
Pluralism fails to attain that interest groups have conflicting concerns. A government cannot be seen to set up an abortion policy in the UK which satisfies both the Pro-Life Alliance and the Marie Stopes Clinics; this would not be practicable. In this way, pluralism does not give equal measure to every group. There are three main political parties, but in the post war era only the Tories and Labour have been in power at Westminster. In this case ‘other’ parties such as the British National Party are marginalised. Some groups, which are seen to be radical cannot be incorporated into the system of interest group politics, as they oppose the typical consensus of opinion of the majority. They are in fact on the fringes because they try to use coercion, or their opinion is not one that can be readily accepted by society. If the BNP were to be successful in influencing government policy on employment law for example, the consequences for ethnic minorities would be extreme. Pluralism fails to recognise other significant actors. In the age of globalization, trans-national corporations cannot be ignored. With such power and leverage, they can be seen to dictate to the core developed Western world whilst simultaneously smothering the third world and peripheral countries. Pluralism does not focus on the increasingly globalised world we are living in, and in this way a TNC can be seen to dictate government policy, over and above the electorate. While pluralism can see political parties as trying to serve best the interests of the electorate, progression means political organisations are increasingly becoming elitist, though arguably they always have been. This transcends back to Michels ‘iron law of oligarchy’ that in every organisation there is an elite. Bottomore, in his study of elitist theory concludes: ‘political parties have lost something of their democratic character with their transformation into mass parties.’ Democracy it seems, does not prevail. The original meaning of democracy being ‘people power’ cannot be prescribed to describe countries of the world now. This can be related to political parties. As they now have a mass membership it is not practical for the leaders to hold meetings for the mass and it is easier for the elitists to prevail, as Michels predicted. Bottomore reasserts this: ‘they (political parties) are more easily dominated by their officials, and it is more difficult for the rank and file members to have an effective influence in the shaping of policy’. Is this too cynical a view? Perhaps not, especially regarding new Labour. Before 1990 trade unions had the vote at all levels in the Labour party, including electing the leader. Their influence has now been reduced gradually, moving the balance of power from affiliated members and the unions to the cabinet and MPs, or the elite of the Labour party. It is true the unions had previously been able to hold Labour to ransom due to their huge influence, but it is clear here that the ‘circulation of elites’ was in process. Blair has maintained Millbank power over the Labour party by his selection of candidates for example in the Welsh Assembly when he tried to foist his preferred man as leader, labelled by the media as ‘Blair’s poodle,’ Alan Michael, even though the people wanted the rather more colourful Rhodri Morgan. The same can be said for the fiasco of the London Mayor campaign, where the party members vote for Ken Livingstone was diluted by the use of an electoral college. Blair even banned Liz Davies, a member of the Grassroots Alliance faction of the Labour party, from standing for election in 1997 at the Leeds North East seat, as she was seen to be too dissenting. This was however counterattacked by the party members, who then voted Ms. Davies onto the N.E.C. What will replace the House of Lords is also questionable. Will Blair promote the circulation of elites by removing the hereditary peers with simply appointed 'Tony's cronies’? Only time will tell.
Certainly, although pluralism is desirable, it is unrealistic. It is perhaps overly pessimistic to say we live in an elitist society, but we do not fulfil the 7 features of a pluralist political model. There are free and fair elections, however this can be disputed in the selection of the Labour party selection for the candidate for London mayor as discussed earlier. There are elected officials, but this is only for selection of MPs & MSPs , MEPs and local council officials. The corridors of power like the civil service, the military and the police remain appointed and to a large degree, unaccountable.
However as Schwarzmantel does recognise ‘political elites have to submit themselves for re-election but the fact is neglected that many other groups which carry the elite distinction do not.’ Democratic elitism should merge the best parts of pluralism and elitist theory. However we must realise that with the fusion of two systems, the negative elements will also be exposed.
Bottomore, T.B., Elites and Society, Oxford: Alden Press, 1964.
Dahl, Robert A., Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, Newhaven: Yale University Press, 1971.
Dunleavy, Patrick and O’Leary, Brendan, Theories of the State: The Politics of Liberal Democracy, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1987.
Marsh, David, “Convergence between theories of the state,” in David Marsh and Gerry Stoker, eds., Theory and Methods in Political Science Hampshire: Palgrave, 1994.
Perry, Geraint, “Elite theory and democracy,” in Ralph Young et al., eds., Introducing Government Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.
Schwarzmantel, J., Structures of Power: An Introduction to Politics New York: Wheatsheaf, 1987.
J. Schwarzmantel, Structures of Power: An Introduction to Politics (New York: Wheatsheaf, 1987), 18.
Robert A. Dahl Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (Newhaven: Yale University Press, 1971), 21.
Dahl, Polyarchy, 21.
Dahl, Polyarchy, 22.
Geraint Perry, ‘Elite theory and democracy,’ in Ralph Young et. al., eds., Introducing Government, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 35.
T.B. Bottomore Elites and Society (Oxford: Alden Press, 1964), 42.
Patrick Dunleavy and Brendan O’Leary Theories of the State: The politics of liberal democracy (Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1987), 323.
David Marsh, “Convergence between Theories of the State,” in David Marsh and Gerry Stoker, eds., Theory and Methods in Political Science (Hampshire: Palgrave, 1994), 281.
Cited in Schwarzmantel, Structures, 66.
Bottomore Elites, 114.
Bottomore, Elites, 114.
Schwarzmantel, Structures, 105.
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
This essay has some good ideas but is chaotically organised - ironic, given that it is subheaded, usually an indication of a solid structure! Too many words are devoted to summarising texts, without analysing why this is necessary. As such, I'd give it a 2.2, although with some substantial tweaking to the writing style and structure it would probably garner a far better mark.