Latygina, Nataliіa, 2015. BASIC THEORIES OF ELITES. Social and Human Sciences. Polish-Ukrainian scientific journal, 01 (05), pp. 10-26.
ОСНОВНІ ТЕОРІЇ ЕЛІТ
доктор політичних наук, професор,
Київський національний торговельно-економічний університет (Україна, Київ),
кафедра філософських та соціальних наук,
У статті розглядаються теоретичні, емпіричні, філософські, організаційні та інституційні аспекти основних теорій еліт.
Метою статті було дослідити природу та зміст елітарних теорій.
Стаття поділяється на три частини. Перша частина характеризує виникнення класичного елітизму. В другій частині аналізуються положення демократичного елітизму. Третя частина описує вплив сучасних елітарних теорій на формування вільної держави.
У висновках зазначається, що теорії еліт акумулюють у собі три головні ідеї: переконання у неминучості правління еліти та ірраціональності ліберальної демократії; заперечення марксистської концепції економіки як остаточної детермінанти соцієтальної динаміки; віра у потенційну автономію держави від соціальних та економічних сил.
Ключові слова: еліти, елітизм, демократія, держава, економіка, влада, свобода, лібералізм.
BASIC THEORIES OF ELITES
Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor,
Kiev National University of Trade and Economics (Ukraine, Kyiv),
Department of philosophic and social sciences,
This article discusses the theoretical, empirical, philosophical, organisational and institutional aspects of the basic theories of elites.
Its aim is to review the nature and content of elite theory.
The article is divided into three sections. The first section discusses the emergence of classical elitism. In the second section we analyse the position of democratic elitism. The third section describes the influence of some modern elitist perspectives on the formation of free state.
In sum, the article states that the elitist position is a cumulative one which rests on three central claims: a belief in the inevitability of elite rule and the irrationality of liberal democracy; a rejection of the Marxist conception of the economy as the ultimate determinant of societal dynamics; and a belief in the potential autonomy of the state from social and economic forces.
Key words: elites, elitism, democracy, state, economy, power, liberty, liberalism.
At the core of the elitist doctrine lies the belief that the history of politics is the history of elite domination. Elitist theory therefore challenges the key premises of most Western liberal assumptions about politics, the organisation of government and the 'proper' relationship between the state and civil society. As Gaetano Mosca puts it:
In all societies – from societies that are very meagrely developed and have barely attained the dawnings of civilisation, down to the most advanced and powerful 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 .
Hence, the nature of any society – whether it is consensual or authoritarian, dynamic or static, pacifist or totalitarian, legitimate or illegitimate – is determined by the nature of its elite. Moreover, the goals of every society are both established and manipulated by its elite .
In political science there exist the following basic theories of elites, which are described in this article.
– Classical elitism
Although the seeds of the perspective were sown in the ideas of Plato, Niccolo Machiavelli and others, elitism as a theory of social power is most associated with the works of Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels. Their common thesis was that the concentration of social power in a small set of controlling elites was inevitable in all societies, and they rejected the feasibility of Karl Marx's vision of evolutionary change towards a classless society with power equality. This section provides an overview of the core propositions of classical elitist thought, focusing on: Pareto's reworking of Machiavellian realism and the circulation of elites (Pareto, 1935); Mosca's idea of The Ruling Class (Mosca, 1939); and Michels' main work, Political Parties (Michels, 1911), which drew attention to the inevitability of an 'iron law of oligarchy' . Each one of these texts engage in a critique of Marxism and pluralism that emphasises the rejection of both class domination and the diffusion of power on pluralist lines. A critical discussion of these texts will enable us to identify a partial, if weak, theory of elite domination.
Pareto argued that historical experience provides testimony to the perpetual circulation of elites and oligarchy. Every field of human enterprise has its own elite. Pareto borrowed two categories of elites from Machiavelli: 'foxes' and 'lions', in order to illustrate the nature of governing elite structures . The two categories stand at opposite ends of a continuum of governance. 'Foxes' govern by attempting to gain consent and are not prepared to use force, they are intelligent and cunning, enterprising, artistic and innovative.
However, in times of crisis their misplaced humanitarianism leads them towards compromise and pacifism. Hence, when final attempts to reach a political solution have failed, the regime is fatally weakened. 'Lions' represent the opposite pole. They are men of strength, stability and integrity; cold and unimaginative, they are self-serving and are prepared to use force to achieve or maintain their position. 'Lions' are defenders of the status quo in both the state and civil society. They are likely to be committed to public order, religion and political orthodoxy. For Pareto, the qualities of 'fox' and 'lion' are generally mutually exclusive. History is a process of circulation between these two types of elite. Pareto's ideal system of governance would reflect a balance of forces that exhibits characteristics of both 'fox' and 'lion'. This incessant process of elite renewal, circulation and replacement illuminates the thesis that an elite rules in all organised societies.
Pareto's focus on the concentration of power in the hands of a political elite represented a rejection of both vulgar Marxist economism and the weak but popular liberal/pluralist view. It undermined the Marxist conception of the state as a mere tool of the working class. It rejects Marx's claim that 'the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle'. Within this approach, liberal-democratic constitutions give expression to bourgeois demands and cement the dominant ideology. Hence, for Marxists, the state is a reflection of the economic conditions and the nature of class struggle. No capitalist state can be called democratic in the sense of securing liberty and rendering the exercise of political power accountable because the state ensures the long-term interests of continued and expanding capital accumulation.
At the same time, Pareto's elitist claims also weaken the pluralist conception of the state as a co-ordinator of the national interest in a plural society. Within the pluralist paradigm the polity is comprised of a multiplicity of competing groups, all of which seek to influence the decision-making process. Rule purports to be in the interest of all and not that of any one section or alliance of sections. The duty of government is to harmonise and co-ordinate.
Mosca argued that elites were inevitable as all societies are characterised by the dictatorship of the majority by the minority. He posited the existence of a ruling, but not necessarily economically dominant, class from which key office holders were drawn. Within Mosca's formulation, each ruling class develops a 'political formula' which maintains and legitimates its rule to the rest of the population. Elite circulation will usually occur through inheritance but, from time to time, power will pass into the hands of another class due to the failure and collapse of the 'political formula'.
Mosca's conceptualisation of the 'political formula' has much in common with the concept of 'hegemony', which springs from the views of Karl Marx and Friedich Engels in The German Ideology (1846); the ideas of the ruling class are in every historical stage the ruling ideas. Hence, the class that is the dominant economic group in society is, at the same time, its ruling intellectual force . In other words, an economistic Marxist would say that those people owning the means of production also control the process of government and can use this domination to impose their views on society.
This results in a false consciousness among the proletariat, whereby they accept their subordinate position in capitalist society and do not question the existing social and political structure. Mosca failed to develop the concept of 'political formula' in any systematic way, unlike his Marxist contemporary, Antonio Gramsci. The centrality of the ideological dimension to an understanding of the dialectic of power domination and control is an important consideration that Mosca's research clearly overlooked.
Michels' work needs to be understood in the context of his own personal struggle against the German academic establishment. He wrote from the standpoint of a radical socialist whose ability to secure an academic post at a German university was impared by his ideological position.
However, it was the German Social Democratic Party, and its propensity for oligarchy, and not the establishment, that bore the full brunt of his frustrations. Michels' central explanation of the inevitability of elites represents a further critique of pluralism and Marxism. With regard to the former, Michels argued that the practical ideal of democracy consisted in the self-government of the masses in conformity with the decision-making of popular assemblies. However, while this system placed limits on the extension of the principle of delegation, it fails, 'to provide any guarantee against the formation of an oligarchical camerilla' [political structure].
In short, direct government by the masses was impossible. Michels applied a similar argument to political parties. In his view, the technical and administrative functions of political parties make first bureaucracy and then oligarchy inevitable. Hence, for Michels, 'Who says organisation, says oligarchy' . This maxim clearly determined his conception of the nature of elites. The notorious notion of the 'iron law of oligarchy' provides the key to Michels' thoughts on the nature of elite structures, because it ensures the dominance of the leadership over the rank and file membership. Elite circulation is maintained by the inability of the masses to mobilise against the leadership view. This ensures their subjugation to the whim of the elite. In essence, it is the very existence of this system of leadership that is incompatible with the tenets of liberal democracy and pluralism.
The work of Robert Michels is remembered more as a series of sound bites than as a seminal contribution to political thought. As a case in point, his phrase the 'iron law of oligarchy' has been conceptualised more by others than by himself. For example, the notion of organisation as the basis of oligarchy has been developed much further in the research of Max Weber (1947) and organisational theorists such as March and Simon (1958), among others. The major impact of Michels' work has been on pluralist thinking in so far as it has compelled pluralists to acknowledge the existence of elites, although they continue to reject the argument that elites act cohesively.
The integration of elites is generally assumed by Pareto, Mosca and Michels without any rigorous empirical investigation. Pareto failed to demonstrate a theory of elite domination in his native Italy. Mosca showed that governments in the past were often characterised by a self-serving elite, but did not establish that this was always the case. Further, while Michels argued that Western European political parties were characterised by elite domination, it was a difficult proposition to sustain empirically.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, subsequent elite theorists have disagreed strongly about the relative degree, causes and consequences of elite integration in Western industrialised societies. In the USA a lengthy debate has ensued over the structure of power and influence at the national level, which has centred on the degree to which this structure of elite domination has coalesced or expanded . This debate will be considered in the third section of this article. First, however, we shall examine the work of the democratic elitists.
– Democratic elitism
Democratic elitism is associated with the work of Max Weber (1864–1920) and Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1946) which emerged in critique of the weak liberal view of democratic theory. Both these thinkers believed that participation in politics was circumscribed by powerful social forces. In their view, liberal democracy at its very best was a restrictive enterprise for selecting decision-makers and ensuring their legitimacy through elections. At worst, it was an attenuated form of governance aimed at securing the hegemony of a ruling political elite.
Max Weber's political thought emphasises the independent influence of the 'political' as opposed to the 'economic'. He therefore rejected any notion that the history of ideas could be reduced to economic factors. Hence he was opposed to Marxist analyses of 'ideology' and 'superstructure'. He further argued that the advance of bureaucratic organisation was an inevitable component of the growth of capitalism and had undermined the efficacy of the liberal democratic model. He viewed democracy as a means for securing good government rather than popular control and political equality and refuted any natural law of democratic government embodied in classical democratic theory.
Weber's views on state power and domination are central to our understanding of the theoretical development of elitist thought. They represent a significant and sophisticated development.
Weber argued that the state is characterised by three main elements:
– a differentiated set of institutions and personnel;
– centralisation, in the sense that political relations radiate from the centre to cover a territorially demarcated area; and
– a monopoly of authoritative, binding rule-making sustained by a monopoly of the means of physical violence .
For Weber, elite domination within the state apparatus was inevitable. As Weber himself puts it, 'All ideas aiming at abolishing the dominance of men over men are illusory' . The crucial feature of the state is located within its role as the major authoritative association within a given territory. For the state to maintain its central position it has to claim a monopoly of the legitimate use of force. Domination, or as Weber termed it, 'the authoritarian power of command' is a necessary and inevitable feature of this process .
State domination requires:
– a minimum of voluntary compliance;
– an acceptance of commands as valid norms; and
– a belief in the legitimacy of the form of domination.
Hence, force, although always present, is not enough to ensure the stability and survival of a regime; all systems have to provide a source of legitimation for their form of governance.
Weber suggested three types of legitimate domination. The first, 'traditional', rests on a belief in the 'sanctity of immemorial custom'. The second, 'charismatic', centres on a devotion to the exceptional sanctity of heroism or exemplary character of an individual person. The final type, 'rational', focuses on a conviction as to the legality of enacted rules  .
It is important to note that these three pure types did not represent historical stages. Any empirical situation could involve elements of any of the three, in different combinations. How do these ideal types of legitimate domination relate to different institutionalised state forms? 'Traditional' domination centred on patrimonial states and feudalism; 'charismatic' domination was an inherently unstable form caused by what Weber termed 'the routinisation of charisma'; and 'rational' domination was seen as the major state form in Western societies. Weber argued that charismatic domination was the 'creative revolutionary force of history', but that it was the fate of charisma to decline with the development of permanent institutional structures. Bureaucracy was viewed by Weber as the epitome of a formally-organised structure based on rational principles. However, he also believed that bureaucracy first arose in patrimonial states and, as such, lacked certain features deemed to be essential to modern democracies.
A pure type rational bureaucracy involves:
– the organisation of functions on a continuous and regulated basis;
– a functional division of spheres of competence;
– hierarchical organisation with control of higher over lower levels;
– working rules which may be technical, or norms requiring training;
– officials who are separated from the ownership of the means of production or administration;
– officials who cannot appropriate their office;
– administration which involves a written record; and
– a bureaucratic administrative staff.
Hence, there exists a hierarchy of domination which contains a system of rationally consistent rules and job specialisation among the officials, who administer the rules in a highly impersonal way. As Weber puts it:
The development of modern organisational forms in all spheres (state, church, army, party, economy, interest groups, voluntary associations, charitable bodies etc.) is simply identical with the development and continuous increase of bureaucratic administration .
Weber was a liberal who thought that politics inevitably involved an unceasing struggle for power, and that nation state interests should supersede all others. At the same time, he was clearly a liberal in anguish who argued that the central issue was not that there was too much freedom, too much individualism or too much democracy. He was concerned with establishing how one could preserve any individual freedom. How is it possible to check and control the power of state bureaucracy? As Weber puzzles, 'How will democracy even in this limited sense be at all possible?' Here, he broadens the scope of his critique of liberal democracy and power relations from one which focused on the relationship between, and contradictions of, democracy and capitalism, to one which emphasises the role of the state in securing elite domination.
Schumpeter's approach involved a mixture of competing methodologies; a tool-bag of Weberian, utilitarian and Marxist method. He shared Marx's view of the inevitability of the collapse of the capitalist state under the weight of its own contradictions and, like Marx, argued that large corporations dominated the production and distribution of goods . Despite this, Schumpeter was a reluctant socialist who rejected Marxist class analysis and class conflict.
As David Held observes, for Schumpeter:
the definitive element of socialism was the planning of resources: an institutional pattern which allowed a central authority control over the production system. Interpreted in this manner, socialism was not necessarily incompatible, as Weber had asserted, with democracy .
For Schumpeter, the most important task for socialists was to develop the most appropriate model of democracy to meet the demands of 'big government'. Here, he highlighted the importance of the planning of resources in economic and political life. In particular, he emphasised the need to re-examine the role of both bureaucratisation and democratisation in providing the conditions for a centralised governing tradition. It was within this context that he embraced the need for a leadership model of democracy. He rejected explicitly what he perceived to be the classical doctrine of democracy, and was a vociferous advocate of the leadership state. Because, in Schumpeter's view, 'the people' are, and can be, nothing more than 'producers of governments', a mechanism to select 'the men who are able to do the deciding'. Hence he refuted the notion of the 'popular will' as a social construct that had no rational basis, as a 'manufactured' rather than a genuine popular will. 'Popular will' is therefore the 'product and not the motive power for the political process' . Within this formulation, democracy and socialism can only be compatible as a form of 'competitive elitism', and if the conditions for its successful functioning are met .
Schumpeter's theory of democracy reflected support for competitive party systems in which democracy merely served as a source of legitimation for the governing elite. He quite clearly failed to recognise that, rather than safeguarding the last remnants of individual liberty, the competitive party system merely enabled political elites to manipulate and distort the political will of the citizen. As Macpherson observes, Schumpeter appeared to confuse a 'competitive' political system with an oligopolistic one, in which:
there are only a few sellers, a few suppliers of political goods . . . Where there are so few sellers, they need not and do not respond to the buyers demands as they must do in a fully competitive system. They can set prices and set the range of goods that will be offered. More than that, they can, to a considerable extent create [their own] demand .
Political elites are thus both inevitable and necessary.
Following Weber, the democratic elitist model developed a broad view of the state. The state has both capacity and autonomy as a regulator and distorter of markets. The democratic elitist model also emphasises the unattainability of classical participatory democratic forms of political organisation. Joseph Schumpeter's 'equilibrium model' develops this theme, arguing that a division of labour between political activists and a passive electorate was crucial for strong, efficient government and the defence of liberty. Schumpeter accepts the inevitability of hierarchy, observing the democratic process as a forum for legitimate elite competition: 'it is simply an institutional arrangement for reaching political decisions not an end in itself . It is not surprising that Schumpeter's conclusion should claim that: 'dictatorships might better serve the popular interest than democracies'.
– Modern elitist perspectives
This section of the article reviews four modern elitist perspectives.
– National elite power network studies
The study of national elite power networks (NEPNs) has long been a focus of study in the USA and the UK. The key concern of this literature has been to identify the degree to which national elite structures are unified or diversified. The origins of these studies lie in the pluralist–radical elitist debates of the 1940s and 1950s in the USA. These had two chief protagonists: C.Wright Mills (1956) who in The Power Elite provided an account of the role of power elites within the US Executive; and Walter Burnham who, in The Managerial Revolution, argued that a new managerial elite was in the process of establishing control across all capitalist states. However, it was the work of the radical elitist С.Wright Mills that had the most impact on future NEPNs.
Mills' theory involved a three level gradation of the distribution of power. At the top level were those in command of the major institutional hierarchies of modern society – the executive branch of the national government, the large business corporations, and the military establishment. The pluralist model of competing interests, Mills argued, applied only to the 'middle levels', the semi-organised interaction between interest group and legislative politics which pluralists mistook for the entire power structure of the capitalist state. A politically fragmented 'society of the masses' occupied the bottom level. Mills' work suggested a close relationship between economic elites and governmental elites: the 'corporate rich' and the 'political directorate' .
He maintained that the growing centralisation of power in the federal executive branch of government had been accompanied by a declining role for professional politicians and a growing role for 'political outsiders' from the corporate world. Despite this, Mills contended that it would be a mistake 'to believe that the political apparatus is merely an extension of the corporate world, or that it had been taken over by the representatives of the corporate rich'. Here, Mills wanted to distinguish his position from what he termed the 'simple Marxian view', which held that economic elites were the the real holders of power. For this reason, he used the term 'power elite' rather than 'ruling class', a term which for him implied too much economic determinism . Crucially, Mills argued that political, military and economic elites all exercised a considerable degree of autonomy, were often in conflict, and rarely acted in concert.
The Power Elite provided the most important critique of pluralism written from an elitist perspective. It emphasised that far from being an independent arbiter of the national interest, the state was actually dominated by a NEPN of politicians, military and corporate bosses who moulded public policy to suit their own ends. Mills' analysis was given an empirical fillip by a series of 'community power' studies which demonstrated the validity of the elitist interpretation of American politics. In the debate that ensued throughout the 1950s and 1960s, pluralists emphasised the mistaken nature of the claims of the community power theorists. NEPN theorists in the USA such as Mills and Domhoff found a considerable amount of elite integration, although with various bases in the national power structure.
According to Mills:
The conception of the power elite and of its unity rests upon the corresponding developments and the coincidence of interests among economic, political, and military organisations. It also rests upon the similarity of origins and outlook, and the social and personal intermingling of the top circles from each of these dominant hierarchies .
The existence of a broad, inclusive network of powerful people with similar social origins, in different institutions, is an important feature of this view of the power structure. However, the NEPN literature identifies three key dimensions of political elite integration:
(1) Social homogeneity which emphasizes shared class and status origins. (2) Value consensus, focusing on agreement among elites on the 'rules of the game'; and, (3) Personal interaction among elites, both informally through social and personal interaction and formally through membership of common organizations .
The third dimension is reflected in the interlocking directorates of major US corporations. These ties are seen to foster integration, cohesiveness and consensus within the business community. Many social scientists, particularly in the USA, have examined the sociometric ties among elites in individual communities following the pioneering work of Mills.
In the UK, NEPNs have rarely reached any degree of sophistication. A number of historians have considered the fate of the English aristocracy dwelling on the changing nature of the relationship between landed and mercantile interests. William Guttsman (1963) analysed the decline of the upper class and the rise of the middle class as a principal source of elite renewal. Anthony Sampson, in his exhaustive accounts of the anatomy of Britain, has argued that the aristocracy no longer rules and, indeed, that there is no longer a real social elite at all. Further, Sampson contends that the various hierarchies of British society have become gradually more open in their recruitment, and the diversity of these hierarchies is such that there is no single centre of power.
– The corporate power debates
The aim of this sub-section is to provide a simple overview of the central considerations within elitist thought on the analysis of the relationship between business elites and government. This is a particularly fertile area of analysis as it provides a further example of convergence between competing theories of the state that is crystallised in the 'structural approach' to the study of corporate power; an approach that is implicit both in the work of Charles Lindblom and in neo-Marxist analyses of the liberal-democratic state. These debates focus primarily upon the relationship between economic power and political power as it is exerted through the modern interventionist state. The ensuing discussion will argue that, first, the neo-pluralist position has more in common with elitism than pluralism; and, second, that the corporate power debate in the USA provides a major source of convergence between revisionist pluralist, elitist and Marxist theories of the state.
Neo-pluralism is a critical theory which may be identified with the work of Charles Lindblom. It rests on the structuralist view that because of the dependency of Western democracies on capitalist economies, the disproportionate influence of business corporations over the state is an inevitable structural necessity, 'for the state to operate in conditions of stability and therefore of political equilibrium – business needs must first be met'. Lindblom criticises liberal democratic theory for failing to take into account the 'privileged position of business' . Lindblom's work has not gone without criticism. While many pluralists have modified their methodology to cope with these critiques of corporate power, and have reconsidered aspects of democratic theory, a number of political scientists, who may be viewed as methodological pluralists, have dissented from the new conventional wisdom. Vogel criticises Lindblom's position on the basis that it exaggerates the role that investment decisions play in the performance of the economy. Moreover, he suggests that Lindblom 'underestimates the options available to politicians to manipulate business decisions and fails to appreciate that businessmen are not unique in requiring inducements to perform their social role' .
This leads Vogel to the conclusion that while corporations undeniably exercise significant political power, its scope and magnitiude may be accounted for within a pluralist framework of interest group politics:
My contention is not that individual companies, trade associations and interindustry coalitions do not weild significant political power, of course they do. It is rather that we do not require a distinctive methodology for measuring the political power of business in capitalist democracies. Business is not unique. There is nothing about the nature, scope or magnitude of the power wielded by business that cannot be accounted for within the framework of a sophisticated model of interest-group politics .
Lindblom is also held to be culpable for his failure to analyse the divisions within business, to recognise the power potentialities of other groups, or to take into account the flexibility involved in the relationship between business and the state.
In contrast to neo-pluralists, neo-conservative political scientists consider corporate political power to be on the decline. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, for example, identifies the emergence of a new class, a knowledge elite that threatens the political aspirations of corporate power. Kirkpatrick argues that this new class has been in the forefront of efforts to shift various responsibilities from the private sector to the government, and has had a significant role in developing public policies hostile to business and the market system . Aaron Wildavsky, on the other hand, has defended the corporation as a bulwark of pluralism and a sanctuary for private life against the bureaucratic power of the state. James Wilson uses a tool bag approach in assessing competing theories of political power (Marxist, elitist, bureacratic and pluralist). Wilson concludes that no single model provides an accurate description of the political system as a whole, and that different models are applicable in different policy areas. None the less, Wilson may still be considered to be a pluralist because while some groups are able to dominate particular areas, their power is not necessarily transferable to other policy areas or to the overall structure of power.
The structural dimension of corporate power implicit in the work of revisonist pluralists such as Lindblom has important implications for democratic theory and pluralism. It places decison making firmly within an elitist context, or what Lindblom has termed the 'imprisoned zone of decision making' . This suggests a very strong form of elite domination that does not fit happily with democratic theory. Once again, the pluralist response represents a remarkable retreat from the classical position. It is recognised that power is open to competition between numerous groups, but political participation is circumscribed by unequal access to both resources and the decision-making process. Further, multiple groups exist, but a corporate bias predominates. However, in their view, the integrity of the pluralist position is maintained because no one group dominates all policy networks. In both the above cases, the paradigmatic shift within pluralism towards the elitist and Marxist position is striking.
– Corporatism and neo-corporatism
Corporatism emerged as a strand of Catholic social doctrine that was adapted and subsequently modified (some would say vulgarised) in the authoritarian regimes of Benito Mussolini's Italy (1922–43) and Antonio Salazar's Portugal (1933–74). It was later resurrected in several European democracies under the name of 'neo-corporatism'. Like many such concepts in social science, different people have used it to mean different things, but Philippe Schmitter provides the most exact conceptual definition:
Corporatism can be defined as a system of interest representation in which the constituent units are organized into a limited number of singular, compulsory, noncompetitive, hierarchically ordered and functionally differentiated categories, recognised or licensed (if not created) by the state and granted a deliberate representational monopoly within their respective categories in exchange for observing certain controls on their selection of leaders and articulation of demands and supports .
Hence, corporatism is a model of state–group intermediation in which the interests of the state and certain private sector interests fuse. These interests (principally large firms, but also to some extent organised labour and other private interests such as the professions) enter into negotiations and compromise with government agreeing to certain concessions and undertaking certain functions of government. In turn, the government supports them financially and forwards their interests in policy-making. Corporatist theory received an enormous boost in Britain during the period of the 1974–79 Labour governments, when initiatives such as planning agreements, incomes policies and the National Enterprise Board (NEB) seemed to indicate a move towards a system of private ownership coupled with state direction. Corporatism is therefore best understood as an ideal state form which represents a fusion of state and private sector interests .
Elites emerge within this context of social partnership because of the need for governments to increase Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in order to stay in power. Hence, sectional interests almost inevitably become uniquely privileged within policy-making. The most distinctive feature of corporatist theory lies in its structures of elite domination. An institutional setting for legitimate elite domination is created in which elite circulation is dependent upon the bargaining resources of the various sectional interests.
Corporatists have observed a general downgrading of liberal democratic and pluralist forms of state group intermediation. As such, corporatism represented a critique of both pluralist and socialist ideal-typical political forms. However, Corporatism was very much a product of its time, and while Schmitter did provide some empirical evidence to suggest that Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Austria, Italy and Germany all had forms of state-group intermediation approximating the corporatist model, it remained equally possible to provide examples to the contrary.
Neo-corporatism emerged in the wake of a wave of pluralist critiques of Corporatist methodology. They contended that there was nothing within corporatist method which had not already been accounted for in revisionist and methodological currents of neo-pluralism. Corporatism was also criticised by Marxists, who argued that it ignored the ideological dimension of analysis and granted an unwarranted autonomy to the state in mediating between competing sectional interests. The neo-corporatists reshaped their argument accordingly. As Cox observes:
Instead of accepting that the concept might not be as widely applicable as they first thought, to save its integrity they redefined it so that its meaning subtly shifted from being a descriptive concept about an ideal-typical political form of the state to become a catch-all phrase for special interests bargaining with the state .
They argued that, as hierarchies develop in all associational forms, corporatism could be used as a concept for understanding policy-making. Neo-corporatists identify the existence of monopolies of sectional interests within the policy-making process. This is reflected in closed policy networks, but not necessarily tripartite ones. Within this formulation, elite circulation is still dependent upon the bargaining resources of the sectional interests involved.
Whether or not the corporatist state form ever existed is still open to much debate. Many of the claims made in the literature are certainly stronger on assertion than on evidence and remain vulnerable to the Marxist charge that they fail to specify whose interest this new bargained corporatism serves. In sum, it still provides a poor understanding of how and why policy networks operate in the fundamentally elitist way that they do. In this sense, corporatism and neo-corporatism provide insufficient methodological tools for analysing power monopolies within policy networks.
Overall, this article has made two central arguments. First, elitism still provides an important focus for the work of political scientists and political sociologists, particularly in the USA, and has presented a compelling critique of the liberal democratic model.
Second, when contrasted with other theories of the state, the elitist position appears to be both theoretically unsophisticated and conceptually underdeveloped. There are four central reasons for this. First, despite a large number of empirical studies, elite theory remains difficult to sustain in an empirical sense. Second, as Birch reminds us, 'there is no adequate and convincing theory showing that democratic systems must always be elitist in practice' . Third, elite theory offers an insufficient conceptualisation of the relationship between elite circulation and the nature of state crisis and legitimation. Fourth, elite theory offers a limited account of the structure of elite networks, both within the nation state, between centre and region, and outside the nation state, between nations. Yet, despite this, elite theory still contributes much to the tool bag of the political scientist.
As Domhoff puts it:
Thus, the argument about the American power structure is as much philosophic as it is empirical. While the debate continues, however, we should continue to remind ourselves that members of an upper class making up less than 1 per cent of the population own 20 to 25 per cent of all privately held wealth and 45 to 50 per cent of all privately held corporate stock; they are overrepresented in seats of formal power from the corporation to the federal government; and they win much more often than they lose on issues ranging from the tax structure to labor law to foreign policy .
The future of elite theory continues to look bright, because there is now a distinct global dimension to the discourse, of the kind suggested by David Held's conception of global interconnectedness. His view may be summed up as a rejection of the underlying premises of democratic theory that democracies should be treated as:
self-contained units; that democracies are clearly demarcated one from another; that change within democracies can be understood largely with reference to the internal structures and dynamics of national democratic politics; and that democratic politics is itself ultimately an expression of the interplay between forces operating within the nation-state .
Thus the growing integration of economics, technology, communications and law, together with the transnational character of capital, has eroded nation state sovereignty of the kind jealously guarded in the British context, and undermined state capacities. The density of current global politics and its impact upon state theorising has been dramatic. As McGrew comments:
It encompasses not just political relations between states, and relations between states and international organisations, but also a vast array of transnational interactions which cut across national societies, as well as transgovernmental relations which permeate the institutional structures of the state itself .
While the credibility of the elitist approach increased in response to the dramatic rise in the size and complexity of the capitalist state, its future development is likely to reflect a concern with the emergence of new social and political forms as a consequence of globalisation pressures. Analysing how far increased globalisation has facilitated changes in state form must be a key concern for contemporary elitists. Elitists have a new, fertile ground for analysis that will inevitably entail confronting an important source of weakness in the elitist approach: its national specificity.
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