On an edition of University Challenge in 2013 there was a question on elite theory. I was pleased and relieved that the student competitors had heard of Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels, even if they mixed them up a bit. All of this intellectual triumvirate were born in the mid-nineteenth century and they all died in Italy in the Mussolini period. Pareto is by far the most important in the conventional reckoning of things and is considered to be primarily a contributor to the development of economic theory: “Pareto optimality” remains an important foundation of economic calculations of well-being. But his sociological and political thoughts are still common currency. Mosca and Michels were more narrowly political and would only be read these days, I guess, in departments of politics and political science. What is common to all three is that they lived in a period of democratization and of aspirations to democracy but inferred from what they observed that “democracy” would not change the essentially hierarchical structures of human societies. At its most brutal the conclusion was that democracy was, as Pareto put it, a “fraud”.
Pareto introduced the term “elite” into modern social science. As with many other such introductions it is of theological origin, being the Genevan Calvinist term for God’s chosen; it is the old past participle of the French verb elire - the modern one is elu. He also popularised the “80/20 Rule” which suggests that 20% of the population will always have 80% of the capital; this began with detailed research on land ownership (over 400 years), but is obviously extendable. Michels’ most famous soundbite is “The Iron Law of Oligarchy”, an observation that even egalitarian and socialist political parties proceed inexorably to form and/or join political elites. Originally, in the pre-war book which was published in English in 1915 as Political Parties, Michels saw a saving grace for democracy in the “critical spirit” that it inculcated, but he appears to have abandoned this in later years by favouring Fascism. If there was a single soundbight attached to Mosca’s name it was that he believed there was a “ruling class” in all societies, though the significance of the phrase is slightly exagerated in translation.
The most interesting thing about the “Italian School” of elite theorists is that they are, according to all available evidence, right. And the second most interesting thing is that hardly anyone admits that they are right. In academic books and courses on social theory they are usually accorded a chapter or a lecture before we move on to something more comfortable and progressivist, whether derived from Marx or from an (Adam) Smithian inspired notion that commercial society is bound to evolve into something more peaceful and egalitarian. It is important to remark that there is no immediate disagreement between marxists, for example, and Gaetano Mosca on the question of whether existing societies are ruled by elites and each side could identify the features of the elite in particular forms of society in similar ways. The difference is on the question of whether this will change. Marxists expect a “raising” of consciousness and a revolution followed by the development of a very different form of society. If my experience as a young academic was anything to go by the marxists were very difficult to argue with. Their model was “dynamic”, their opponents “static”. Dynamic right, static wrong, no argument. Yet all the evidence continued to favour the Italian School, especially the history of the Soviet Union, evolving an apparatchiki and a nomenklatura with unprecedentedly structured privileges (like their own exclusive shops) exactly as the theory suggested they would. Orwell’s Animal Farm reads pretty naturally as an Italian School allegory about the USSR.
The late Brian Barry developed the argument that the doctrines of equality espoused by a society normally function to justify that society’s inequalities. Thus “equality before the law”, “equal human rights”, “equal opportunities” and “one person, one vote” work in such a way as to justify some people having billions and others none so that, in important respects such as health care and life chances contemporary America is actually less egalitarian than Norman England. “Communism” in reality led directly to something unequivocally described as “oligarchy”, complete with oligarchs. Barry’s preoccupation late in his life was in showing how ideas of multicultural equality served to perpetuate patriarchy and other forms of inequality in Asian “communities”.
Simple observation tells us that society changes in some ways but not in others. The question, which is both causal and evaluative, then becomes whether change is more important than continuity, more essential to our understanding. I tend to agree with the Italian School that it is the continuities which really matter: people will always try to accumulate wealth, power and status and pass them on to their children. Some will succeed and make alliances with each other; therefore, there will be elites. The twenty first century isn’t that much different from the first. Marx’s idea that technology, the “mode of production”, changes everything, is mostly and obviously wrong. The existence of elites is one of the most natural and permanent features of human society.
From this point of view, bleating about something being “elitist” is about as sensible as complaining that nature is red in tooth and claw. Yet of course we have to put up with it as the ideology of the debased enlightenment is at the core of our culture. Social criticism which alleges the existence of elites thus blends into more subtle and varied judgements about the quality, accessability and permeability of elites. John Major has recently complained about the elitism in contemporary British politics and I (among many others) have written about how the conduits of social mobility have closed, clogged up by comprehensive education and the devaluation of the university degree. He was one of an impressive series of British prime ministers in the twentieth century who came from fairly “humble” backgrounds, but it is difficult to imagine this sequence continuing as it is difficult to imagine a new wave of actors from lower class backgrounds.
Pareto’s picture of politics is of a small box standing on and controlling a larger one. If this is inevitable we must consider the question of what constitutes a good elite. My answer – which I would claim is traditionally Conservative – is that the best possible form of government should be based on some form of gentry or aristocracy for whom ruling is a duty rather than a gratification of ego combined with conduits to power from all other parts of society. Britain at some points of its history (first half of the twentieth century?) was quite close to this – or at least closer than other times and places – but it no longer is.
If the small box on the big box describes wealth and power, the pyramid may be of more use in understanding the distribution of other capabilities and assets. The pyramid which was envisaged as a picture of medieval society was a pure one: every level was smaller than the one below it. The poorest peasants were the lowest and most numerous class and the king (and/or pope) jostled for room on the tiny summit. But any description of assets in a contemporary society must envisage the bulging pyramid because mediocrity is much more common than abject uselessness or complete failure. Let’s take dancing as an example and assume a thousand steps on the pyramid. At the pinnacle will be N truly great dancers (half a dozen?). The first few levels – single figures – are where you will find the limited number of people who might earn their living as dancers. To be anywhere on the top hundred steps would make you a very good dancer, bearing in mind that these are narrow strata. Most of us would be in the bulge, six or seven hundred steps below, not totally hopeless, but hopelessly mediocre.
The idea of the pyramid generates some amusing speculative games. Where are you on the various pyramids? If I’m low on dancing, I’m much higher up on some things – jam making, for instance, for which I am acknowledged to have a natural “feel”. And who is at the top? Some talents are far easier to map than others: sprinting and mathematics have naturally clear pyramids. But you could argue for a very long time as to who occupies the top levels in writing and even football can get quite complicated. It is also interesting to note the ideological dimensions of pyramid theory: most sports fans talk as if a bulging pyramid of human capacities were an obvious fact, but you are likely to be met with heavy denial if you describe the distribution of abilities for any kind of academic work in that way.
There are also interesting possibilities for statistical snobbery. A mathematics textbook for GCSE, for instance, can be understood, in principle, by a range of people running right down into the bulge. But a state-of-the-art research paper on N-dimensional topology will be understood by only a handful of people. This can be some consolation for an author who has seen his work described as “classic” and “seminal”, but been disappointed with his royalty checks. One hopes there is a “trickle-down” as one assumes there is for advanced mathematical papers. On the other hand, this argument can be abused as it sometimes is in a number of fields. There is no intrinsic merit in being difficult and nothing to be proud of if your fiction or rock music attracts only a very small “cult”.
I risk sounding like an eighteenth century political theorist in putting the following argument, but here goes: the blackbirds which have lived in my garden over many years have all been equal in all important respects. They have all been more or less exactly the same size and have shown indistinguishable capacities for buiding nests, catching worms and avoiding capture by the local cats. All blackbirds seem to be equal – much more so than plants or mammals, for instance. Human beings are at the opposite end of a spectrum from blackbirds; they differ enormously in their capacities. One might say that inequality is the defining condition of humanity. Normally, this role is allocated to language or consciousness, but I submit that it amounts to the same thing. Elitism, in its various forms, is the immutable essence of our humanity.