A Study of the Elite Theory in Political Science and Sociology

Categories: Political science

Elite theory states that an elite, ruling class controls the power in society through their accumulation of wealth and knowledge. (Dryzek and Dunleavy 2009:58) This is used to control the masses who are easily duped with a desire to be ruled. (Mosca 1939:492) I am going to argue that in Liberal Democracies elitism describes the distribution of power with reasonable accuracy, although it does not describe politics as a whole all of the time.

However, I disagree with the early traditional Elitist’s stance that elitist rule is desirable; pointing out that a recent move has been made towards pluralist ideas mixed with elitist rule which is far more appealing.

Early Elite theorists argued that he masses being ruled by an elite class was not only inevitable in society but also desirable. They saw the masses as unintelligent, a group of people who based their actions on their emotional instincts and not on any rational thinking.

(Pareto 1916) Because of this an Elite ruling class came to the forefront in societal and political life to give them direction and leadership, which were sorely needed.

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The ruling classes manipulate the emotions of the masses, this can be seen in things such as consumer demand for products and the fake arena of party politics in which all of the leaders can be described as being pretty similar. (Pareto 1916) In the 2010 UK General election the hype around Nick Clegg would be a good example of the party politics hysteria. Another example of the elite classes manipulating the masses would be charismatic fascist leaders such as Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in Italy and Nazi Germany respectively.

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Elite theory seems to have some similarities with Marxism, in respect to the fact that they see the ruling elite as having all the power. They differ, however, on their optimism with regard to a solution to this. Marxism seems short sighted with its declaration that a revolution against the ruling classes would be beneficial and lead to a more fair form of government by the people. Elitism disagrees with this idea, and historical examples seem to agree that when an elite is overthrown a new elite simply fills the void, i.e the top of the socialist elite in Soviet Russia becomes the new elite. (Dryzek and Dunleavy 2009: 59) (Weber 1925: 1978) Another example of this is when after the English Civil war when the monarchy was disbanded Oliver Cromwell was made to be “Lord Protector for Life.” George Orwell’s novel animal farm also shows this, with the pigs gradually seizing control of the farm after the overthrow of the farmer. (Orwell 1945) In respect to this elitism seems a good indicator of the nature of politics.

Elitism works well as an explanation of politics in liberal democracies even when changes in the party politics system are taken into account. Some Elite theorists argue that in recent times the ruling class may not be dominating the entire state but the parties which in turn wrestle to take control of the state. (Dryzek and Dunleavy 2009:71) This can be seen in modern politics in many places, the republican candidate Mitt Romney was certainly a member of the ruling elite. And in Britain a large amount of MPs, particularly cabinet members are privately educated, at least middle class and have been to Oxford or Cambridge.

Looking at party politics and MPs in Britain using elite theories does, however, pose some problems. One of these would be the fact that MPs and Cabinet Ministers could not do their job without other members of society. For example education policies require the aid of head teachers and school governors. But if each of these are included in the bracket “ruling class” then there would be arguments for most of society to count as “ruling”. (Smith 2009: 63-4) There is also the issue that politics in recent years has become far more pluralistic. This is shown by the use of a referendum to decide the (non) introduction of the AV voting system in the UK, also the use of referenda in Switzerland and California to help make decisions.

This gives a huge amount of political decision making power to the masses, as does the public voting in the Labour leadership elections and the Primary system for US elections.

While these aspects of modern politics in Liberal democracies would seem to be pluralistic rather than elitist it must be remembered that these are only small parts of the political engines that run society, and these are powers afforded to the masses by the ruling elites. In this light David Held’s assertion that Democracy is just a way of choosing the decision makers and curbing their excesses would seem to be accurate. (Held 2006) He continues his argument to say that any more direct/pluralistic forms of democracy would just prove to be inefficient given the size of modern societies. When a group gets too big it’s ruling has to be done by a small group of people, such as the ruling elites. (Weber 1978: 951-2) Held also argues that bureaucracies have become part of the modern day ruling elite: “as economic and political life become more complex and differential bureaucratic administration becomes more critical.” (Held 2006:132) This view would allow elite theory to be far more applicable to modern political life. These bureaucrats could be referred to as the public elites, and business leaders and suchlike could be called the private elite. One advantage of this view of elitism is that it provides a checks and balance system with the two limiting corruption.

It is clear that elitism provides a fair description of some political systems, and that any elitist description of modern political society has to recognise the presence of pluralist features. One of the drawbacks of elitism as a description of politics is that it doesn’t seem to offer any solutions to this method of rule. In this respect pluralist ideas would marry well with elitism to help democratise politics.

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A Study of the Elite Theory in Political Science and Sociology. (2022, Jun 09). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-study-of-the-elite-theory-in-political-science-and-sociology-essay

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