The Argument of Elite Theorists Essay

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The Argument of Elite Theorists

In order to assess how useful this view is, we must first look at the differing factions operating within the framework of elite theory. On doing this it will become apparent within the scope of Government, that this view is outdated and riddled with flaws.

Elite theory originally developed from the work of Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto, two italian sociologists writing at the turn of the last century. Pareto argued that, in the course of history, different leadership qualities are required in order to adapt society to changed circumstances. Essentially, two types of person can be distinguished, ‘lions’ and ‘foxes’, the former, according to Pareto are stolid and forceful, willing to use violence. The latter are basically sly, ‘wheeler-dealer’ types.

One or other type will rule as long as it can cope with the political and economic problems facing it; but in certain circumstances their particular qualities will be insufficient for the task in hand, and they will be deposed by the other group. Pareto describes this process as ‘the circulation of elites’, which rise and fall through a combination of psychological aptitudes and historical circumstances, irrespective of the economic or social structure of society. There are many flaws in Pareto’s work, but the main ones must centre on his inability to explain the origins of the elites rise to power, and his classification of people into two -and only two-psychological types (S.MOORE,1995).

The belief that a superior group forms a ruling elite underlies Mosca’s(1939) writings too, and it is this superiority that he sees leading the elite to power in the first place. Once there, the elite continues to rule, not solely because it is superior but also through its relatively small membership, which makes it far better organised than the mass of the population. Pareto fails to provide a method of measuring and distinguishing betwwen 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 (HARALAMBOS & HOLBORN,1990).

Whereas Pareto and Mosca attempted to provide a general theory to explain the nature and distribution of power in all societies, the American sociologist C.Wright Mills presents a less ambitious and wide-ranging version of elite theory. He limits his analysis to American society in the 1950s.

Unlike the early elite theorists, Mills does not believe that elite rule is inevitable: in fact he sees it as a fairly recent development in the U.S.A. Unlike Pareto, who rather cynically accepts the domination of the masses by elites, Mills soundly condemns it. Since he sees elite rule as based upon the exploitation of the masses, he adopts a conflict version of elite theory (HARALAMBOS & HOLBORN,1990).

Robert A.Dahl has criticised Mills from a pluralist perspective. He has claimed that Mills has simply shown that the power elite has ‘potential for control’. Dahl argues, the potential for control is not equivalent to actual control. Dahl maintains that actual control can only be shown to exist ‘by examination of a series of concrete cases where key decisions are made: decisions on taxation and expenditures, subsidies, welfare progrmas, military policy and so on’. Dahl claims that by omitting to investigate a range of key decisions, Mills and also like-minded British sociologists have failed to establish where ‘actual control’ lies. As a result Dahl argues that the case for a power elite remains unproven (HARALAMBOS & HOLBORN, 1990).

Since the British variant of power elite theory(the idea of a socially and culturally cohesive establishment) was first asserted in the 1950s, it has decreased rather than gained in plausibility. This is first, because British politics has become more polarised, more open and more democratic. It became more polarised in the 1970s, as large differences between major parties displaced consensus. In these circumstances, it became virtually impossible to maintain that elections did not alter things much, and even more difficult after the general election of 1979. Clearly, the advent of Mrs Thatcher changed things a great deal. Second, British government became more open and less secretive. This happened more by inadvertence than design and it was usually resisted by governments of the day.

Nonetheless by the 1980s, the public were far more aware of what went on in the inner counsels of the Cabinet and in the ‘Whitehall village’ than was the case a generation previously. The publication of politicians diaries and memoirs(Richard Crossman, Barbara Castle), ‘leaks’ by civil servants(Clive Ponting) and the revelations of goings-on within the secret services by people like Peter Wright provided fascinating if somewhat selective glimpses of power in the inner sanctums of government and made its ‘mysteries’ less mysterious. Finally, as we have seen, certain important sectors of British society became more democratic.

In political parties, members played an increasing role in the election of leaders and the selection of party candidates; in trade unions, balloting on the choice of leaders and on strike decisions became the norm. The increasing hold of television on society tended to promote both greater openess and greater democracy -not least by providing continual public demonstrations that, far from being cohesive and untied, the so-called establishment spoke with many, often sharply divergent, voices (COXALL & ROBINS,1989).

The overall count against the notion of an establishment in Britain is clear; it is neither united, nor -in an age of revelations and media coverage- mysterious, nor-and most important of all -free from popular control. It is a myth.

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