Political Elites

Political Elites

Political Elites

Political Elites


Political Elites, first published in 1969, reviews the literature on the role of elites in politics. It deals with both the 'classic' elite theorists -- Mosca, Pareto, Michels, Burnham and C. Wright Mills -- and with many of the empirical and theoretical works on elites by modern political scientists and sociologists. It seeks to clarify the central terms of elite discourse, some of which have entered the everyday political vocabulary -- 'elitism', 'power elite', 'establishment', 'elite consensus', 'iron law of oligarchy' and 'mass'. It explores the ways in which the descriptions of power relationships can subtly be infiltrated by the values of the observers.


the context of elite theorising

The study of elites was established as part of political science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries largely as a result of the work of two Italian sociologists, Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) and Gaetano Mosca (1858–1941). Political theory always reflects on political practice and in many ways the political circumstances of the time favoured attempts to theorise about the nature of control and the role of leadership in society. The state appeared to be extending its influence into areas of society with which for a long time previously it had shown little concern. Governments were legislating on such matters as the limitation of hours of work, the regulation of working conditions and the provision of pensions and other rudiments of the welfare state.

A celebrated series of lectures by A. V. Dicey argued that even in England the years since 1870 had witnessed a revolutionary change, whereby legislative collectivism had displaced individualistic liberalism as the principle behind government action. In order to administer these measures the executive branches of government had to be extended and made more efficient. The trend towards a stronger executive had been continuing intermittently since the seventeenth century and there were clear indications by the late nineteenth century that this process was being furthered rather than arrested in the more democratic states. The civil service was being organised on more bureaucratic lines. The establishment of modern bureaucracy was hailed by many as part of a progress towards a more open society and even a step towards the democratisation of government. Bureacracy offered a 'career open to the talents' and its establishment was a major aim of many nineteenth century liberals. In principle, entry into government service was now open to any man of talent and was not dependent on influence or patronage.

Bureaucratic administrations also appeared to provide constraints on the free use of governmental power. Bureaucracy operates according to deliberately constructed rules. These rules lay down a hierarchy of administrative offices and the scope and responsibility of each. The holder of any office can act authoritatively only so long as he carries out the duties laid down in the rules. Neither the government nor the individual office holder is owner of the means of administration, the bureaucracy being itself part of the legal order which constitutes the state. The effect of this system was to require that governmental orders were issued in the . . .

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