UK / Europe — 15 July 2011
For the few, by the few, in the name of the many

“Government is always government by the few, whether in the name of the few, the one, or the many”  - Harold Lasswell.

A crash introduction to Elite Theory[1]

Whatever the narrative behind the term democracy – the reality is that in a democracy it is the elite political class who holds the power to make decisions. Elite political theory holds that any society is divided between the elites (the few) and the masses (the many). The elites – who make up the leaders of society – are generally different from the masses, having control over wealth, education, access and so on. There is an elite class who graduates into the various leadership positions of power – in the UK think of the Eton/ Oxbridge/ Bullingdon club graduates which dominate the political class whether politician, journalist or other. The role of the masses is to be ruled, not to rule, with elections having symbolic value rather than being any meaningful competition. In reality, the elections are simply a tool to decide who will run the system, and nothing to do with changing it.

Elitism doesn’t prevent other non-elites from entering the elite set – a few from the masses can be permitted to work their way up, serving the double purpose of assimilating the best talent from the generality of people while at the same time providing an outlet to undermine any potential for revolutionary leadership emerging. But to be accepted as one of the elite – you have to give up any alternative views to that of the elite class. You can become one of the people at the top – as long as you agree to the rules of the game and to help maintain the playing field. A good example of this would be the current White House incumbent Barack Obama, superficially appearing as an outsider but one who has internalised what are the fundamental interests of the United States according to the elites, helping to explain that though he was carried in on a slogan of change he has disappointed even his most ardent supporters.

There will be differences amongst elites as well as competition for leadership, which leads to conflicting interests and therefore to competition as represented by the plurality of the political parties. But the disagreement within the elites and therefore between the various parties which are generally led by elite interests are over a pretty narrow scope – which has resulted to the long-time public apathy towards the political system in the UK due to the impression that neither Labour nor Conservatives represent the people and basically do not represent any kind of real choice. (The same could be said of American politics, Obama’s campaign aside which has as already mentioned since lost its lustre).

In other words, the veneer of plurality in Western democracies hides the reality that the effective political parties represent the elites and not the masses (New Labour?). The actions of the Liberal Democrats in government only confirms the view, since even the third “alternative” party has basically been proven that it is a part of the “establishment”.

Being part of the elite means that you have a stake in the status quo – the system and the institutions that compose it should stay as they are, since you are doing so well out of it. Hence any changes should be slow, gradual and incremental. Getting the masses to buy into the system is important – getting them tied to debt or into property is a good way of doing it, explaining the encouragement for mortgages leading to the boom in house ownership. A man afraid of losing his house is unlikely to revolt even if his living standard becomes straitened while he observes the few others (bankers, politicians etc.) still doing extremely well. This helps to explain the relative quiet of the masses even though they are literally being worked over by the political class in order to resolve the economic crisis brought on by the banking sector. While the few reaped the vast majority of the profit in times of growth, the many pay the vast majority of the price in the time of decline.

At the same time, when resources are plentiful, it is in the interest of elites to ensure that the masses share some proportion of them in order to ensure their apathy towards the inequality between the two. But as resources shrink, the elite have to make choices about whether they should sacrifice their own interests to maintain mass support/ apathy, or risk undermining mass support through self-serving policies which protect their interests whilst harming those of the public, leading to discontent and potential unrest. A revolution is the nightmare for the elite, something to be resisted at all costs. Therefore in times of economic or political crisis, elites may turn upon one another and make compromises within their system in order to maintain their own position.

The current Murdoch scandal engulfing the political classes in the United Kingdom highlights the entrenchment of the elites in the country. Elite theory helps to explain the web of interests tying the newspaper barons, big business etc. to the political class, and the culture of unaccountability amongst them. Far from evidence of the strength of the current politics, the current blood-letting focused upon the Murdochs and R. Brooks, with the promise of an eventually more open and accountable government and media, is an example of how elites are willing and able to sacrifice one another on the altar of public humiliation in order to ensure the stability of the underlying system, a necessity at this time due to the severe undermining of public confidence in the political system as a result of the whole phone-hacking scandal and how it extends through the media, police and politicians. However, previous crises has shown this is not necessarily successful. As mentioned by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian “Three major national crises of trust in as many years, and neither of the two previous crises have led to convincing reform. The danger we face is of an intensifying cynicism, and the angry apathy that entails.”

With confidence in the Western capitalist economic system shattered and the moral leadership of the West long gone, the current political crisis appears to be yet another symptom of the wider malaise of a dying civilisation. Though the current elite appear able to maintain their control and interests in the short term future, as the economic situation reaches further depths, and a greater number of people face eviction from their homes and hunger coupled with the complete loss of confidence in the political and social institutions in the country, the situation may become much less easy to control.

[1] The description of elite theory as mentioned here is derived from the explanation in Dye and Zeigler’s “The Irony of Democracy”

A version of this article is also published at Foreign Policy Journal

Reza Pankhurst is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He has a PhD from the London School of Economics Government department, and also blogs at rezapankhurst.net.

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