WHY "THE CIRCULATION OF ELITES"?
IMPLICATIONS OF THE ITALIAN POLITICAL REALIST SCHOOL
The title of this substack has been taken from the Italian political realist tradition. That tradition’s position is that in all reasonably complex societies, with population sizes exceeding a very low limit, there is always (and there always will be) an elite, ruling class. Suggestions that this situation can be overcome through democracy or socialism (or, excuse my bemusement, democratic socialism) or any comparable notion are just examples of what Italian political realist Gaetano Mosca called political formulas. These are the myths that sustain a prevailing regime.[i] The reasons for this certainty of an elite ruling class are many.
These reasons were illustrated by another Italian realist, Robert Michels, in his classic study, Political Parties. There he demonstrates that even those organizations which are ostensibly, in theory, the most dedicated to democracy and popular sovereignty still wind up conforming to what he calls the iron law of oligarchy. Among the reasons for this law are the organizational problems of both scale and urgency. Among large organizations, it is simply impossible for the full membership to convene for decision-making, other than very occasionally – and often even that isn’t possible. Also, when an emergency arises, there is simply no time to use any mechanism for consulting the full membership – designated authorities have to be in place for a timely response.[ii] These contingencies require the authorization – even among the most democracy-identified organizations – of a distinct leadership cadre.
Democratic ideas for the control of this leadership group are equally examples of Mosca’s political formulas. Plebiscites and referenda may appear at first blush to be expressions of a wider membership. But of course, the precise question posed, as well as the organizational conditions under which such activity occurs is determined by the leadership. Indeed, the very same gatekeeping function is exercised by leadership in determining the agenda and procedures for those occasions when plenary (or something resembling plenary) sessions are convened. And, of course, few political formulas are more delusional than the idea of representation. For, what is being ostensibly represented is popular sovereignty. Sovereignty though by definition cannot be delegated. It’s a contradiction in terms. Giving your sovereignty to someone else simply means that you no longer possess it. Representation is not a delegation of sovereignty, but an abdication of it.
Elections may affect the specific personnel in leadership, but the entrenched organizational distinction between the rulers and the ruled is unchanged and still entrenched. Plus, of course, the limited distribution of the appropriate skills and aptitudes for leadership assures that who ever is elected still comes from the small cadre of potential leaders. In Michels’ words: “For democracy…the first appearance of professional leadership marks the beginning of the end, and this, above all, on account of the logical impossibility of the ‘representative’ system, whether in parliamentary life or in party delegation.”
Once such a leadership cadre or class comes to be organizationally entrenched, with all the perks that such office entails, it is impossible to control, due to coordinated action problems. A small number of people with a clear vision of their self-interest (much easier to possess for a leadership with better, even exclusive, access to relevant, even vital, information) can much more easily coordinate their actions toward a specified end, than can a much larger membership, with a proportionately greater number of conflicting visions and interests, and usually lacking privileged and often closely guarded information about the facts of the matter.
As Italian realist Vilfredo Pareto observes, in principle, such a leadership cadre need not necessarily become sclerotic, if it remains open to the gradual circulation of elites, so that those with objective ability are allowed to rise up into the ranks of that leadership cadre. In reality, of course though, this meritocratic myth too is another of Mosca’s political formulas. The more likely circulation of elites in the unvarnished world is the replacement of what Pareto calls the “governing elite” with elements of the non-governing elite. Or, to use the language of Peter Turchin, who has, since Pareto, addressed these issues, what we would have here is a surplus elite. Members of the elite, or ruling class, to whom prevailing conditions have denied the perks that members of the elite have come to expect. When such a surplus elite is sufficiently motivated – and who usually must be able to form an imaginary alliance with a sufficient number of the ruled population – they may successfully rebel against and even displace the ruling faction of their class. While such historical events have been characterized through history as civil wars, wars of independence, and revolutions, when meeting the conditions described here, they are all always in fact class coups. They change nothing about the class nature of the elite; they are merely coup d’états against the ruling and degenerate, sclerotic elements of their own class.
Such a class coup, though, even if it fails to displace the ruling class itself, may still be beneficial to the ruled classes. To some considerable extent their grievances may have arisen from the very same degenerate, sclerotic features of the ruling faction of the ruling class that gave rise to the conditions that generated the surplus elite necessary to execute the class coup. Again, it would be succumbing to Mosca’s political formulas to portray such events as the establishment of popular sovereignty – frequent enough though that some such fairy tales are spun.
So, the Italian political realist position does not rule out, at any particular time, in any specific situation, the prospect that the conditions of the majority of the ruled people may not be able to be improved in terms of their freedom or prosperity. The circulation of elites offers this possibility. What it does dismiss are Mosca’s political formulas: the fairy tales and smiley delusions of universal egalitarianism, liberty and justice, or the triumph of popular sovereignty.
Before closing out this post, it would be derelict to not address an obvious criticism of these arguments from the Italian realist school. Since they expressly address the social forces and dynamics of complex societies, isn’t it true – it might be argued – that such elite rule is absent from anthropological, or hunter-gatherer societies? And so, therefore, is it not proven that this tendency to elite rule is not intrinsic to human nature, so still allowing for the prospect that Mosca’s political formula might yet leap to life? However, even for a scholar who seemed to be eagerly seeking such conclusions, this dream turned out not to be sustained by the facts.
Christopher Boehm’s book, Hierarchy in the Forest, was dedicated to arguing that humans have an evolved political egalitarianism, leading hunter-gatherers to eliminate tyrants. Such elimination measures went from ostracism and desertion to execution and assassination. Close reading of the book, however, reveals that such tyrant elimination does not actually result in a universal political egalitarianism. On the contrary, Boehm acknowledges that in the absence of tyrants, still, a distinct hierarchy, with a clear ruling elite persists. Any claim to a political egalitarianism by Boehm must be qualified by his acknowledgment that this political egalitarianism was only that realized between political actors. And the political actors were the patres familias or headsmen of the families that made up such a hunter-gatherer band or tribe. It would be an error to romanticize this proto-aristocratic egalitarianism as excluding coercion or aggression within the family, or as circumstances may dictate, between such families.
In fact, recalling the original post to this substack – and anticipating future ones – while he may not have been aware of it, what Boehm was probably describing in his book was a hunter-gatherer society’s mechanism for the regulation of pathocracy and elimination of psychopaths. And it will be precisely the kindred question of why contemporary surplus elites must likewise learn to regulate their own psychopaths – and perhaps even speculation on how they might do it – which will be the topics of coming posts to this substack.
So, stay tuned. And if you haven’t subscribed yet…
[i] In the Italian political realist tradition, Mosca’s use of “political formula” closely resembles the idea in the Marxist tradition of hegemonic class ideology.
[ii] While Michels, of course, wrote at a time prior to the internet and social media, the basic claim is unchanged by this newer technology. Urgent decisions require a nuanced and detailed familiarity with the circumstances and variables. It is the job of the leadership to be so apprised, at the ready. Such can hardly be expected of the full membership. If all this nuance, detail and context had to be explained to the full membership before urgent action could be taken, valuable, possibly decisive, time still would be lost.