Classical Elite Theory

Elite theory first identifies its subjects by class.  A broader, more cohesive understanding of elites as a group characterizes them by skill, values, personality and attitude as well.

            Vilfredo Pareto identified Class I and II leadership traits, much like Machiavelli’s foxes and lions, to describe two different types of elites.  This characterization of elites as powerful and clever is a general one, though seemingly accurate to describe why it is they are able to attain positions of preeminence.  Pareto described the rise and fall of elites, similar to that of empires or hegemonic actors, and calls “the history of man…the history of the continuous replacement of elites: as one ascends, another declines.”[1]  It is with Pareto that a certain importance begins to be attributed to elites and their role in society.  Furthermore, it his with his ideas of rising and falling elites that the theory entertains the possibility of changing roles and modified characteristics of the leadership group.

Another early theorist, Gaetano Mosca, also saw the nature of the elite as a function of the needs of society.  He described them as a politically active ruling class whose actions and appearance mirror that of the polity they represent.[2]  Thus the elite in one society may appear significantly different from an elite group elsewhere.  It is important to point out that while he does not discount the military and economic upper classes, he saw that they acquired strength politically, and exercised their power in the political arena.

And finally, Robert Michels, the third of the classical elite theorists gave us his “iron law of oligarchy.”  Even democracies, he noted, which are praised for their plurality and attempt at equality in influence, are governed by the few.[3]  Mark S. Mizruchi recalls that pluralist and structural Marxist models claim that the upper classes are generally too selfish to be effectively organized.[4]  Here we use elite theory to find a middle ground where elites represent an upper class which, by selfishness or collusion, manages societies.  In all sectors, but especially that of political decision-making, collusion of elite leaders persuades opinion and is influential in creating policy.

C. Wright Mills

A seminal work in elite theory was later put forth by C. Wright Mills.  His commentary on the state of public policy creation in the United States in the 1950s continues to inform the theory and shape its direction.  He defined a triad of political, economic and cultural elites which he juxtaposed to the Marxist idea of a ruling class.  These elites are defined by wealth, power and status and, through collusion, shape policy proposal and creation.  They are not just the people in society who possess the most, but who, through institutional membership are able to exercise power, retain the wealth they create, and cash in on the claims of prestige.[5]  From the very beginning of life these elites are given a head start by their Northeastern-based, upper class families, they attend the same proper secondary schools and Ivy League colleges and later commingle in the same metropolitan clubs.

But Mills took a step beyond the class-laden assumptions that these elites engage each other in the same institutional settings.  He posits that because of their geographical proximity and historical familiarity throughout their lives that they also possess a unique bond.  Mills says that there is no where such a class consciousness as in the realm of elites.  In no other social circle is there a more pronounced identification of “us and them.”  This he attributes to a generational development of psychological and social make-up.[6]

A lower class possesses class collusion in disarray and community over complaints and suppression but may come from completely different cultural, social, religious backgrounds.  The elite that Mills addresses is a white, protestant, cake-eating, therapist-visiting, polo-playing, money-making upper class.  Their cohesion does not necessarily have to rest on similar convictions and issues that they see needing to be addressed, but rather on the fact that they come from the same place, occupy the same space, and will see their children appreciate the same fineries of life.  Mills refers to the elite as a people of superior character and energy.  They are the elite because of the individuals they are and they maintain their hold on society through their regular collusion.[7]

For example, the two former American Presidents Bush and Clinton are both undoubtedly considered elites.  However they have very different origins and policy convictions.  George Bush is a Yale graduate from an upper class, New England family who supported his family’s elite legacy in banking.  Clinton comes from a single parent, working class household.  He is a Rhodes Scholar, and through a very different route has arrived at a similar level of power and influence.  Whereas Bush was raised in the elite setting, Clinton was recruited and attained this position for himself and the mutual benefit of elite society.  Once Clinton had achieved this level in American society, the interests of these two are bound to be similar.  They share the values of meritocracy, equality of opportunity, due process of law and individual liberty.  But because of their individuality in person and history, differ on specific policy issues.[8]  It is these similarities that allow a collusion of elites, but the differences provide for their staying power.  If they can continue to impress on the masses rejuvenation of ideas and policy, support from below will also continue.

Whereas Marx’s ruling class leaves aside political and military dimensions in its emphasis on the importance of economic power, Mills identifies a triad of elite leaders.  Holders of leadership positions in the economic, political, or military spheres find it easier to communicate with their counterparts in other spheres because of their unique relationship.  Furthermore, positions within the triad are interchangeable and result in gained power and wealth.[9]  Of late we have seen an increasing number of former (and current) corporate elites occupying top government positions.  These include Bush and Cheney in the US (oil and construction respectively), Berlusconi in Italy (media), and Fox in Mexico (soft drinks).  Whether there is a shift in power from political elites to corporate elites[10] or an intrusion of corporate elites into the political arena, or both, it is evident that cross over takes place.[11]

Mills points out that there was a time when the major mergers and market deals were within families.  This was when the family was the seat of wealth.  Upper class families of “old money” who had been expanding their wealth for generations made the deals and arrangements that affected capital markets and government policy.  The Rockefellers and Carnegies held the money and the power, and were thus saddled with the influence that we now attribute to corporations.

The corporation has taken over as the seat of power and possesses now more potential for power maximization.  Furthermore, the military and political engagements of the United States rely substantially on the performance of the economic sector.  It is increasingly important that major corporations succeed in their endeavors to supply the military with its necessary components and information.[12]  Thus corporate leaders have an increasing role to play in policy influence and creation.

Elite Theory Fleshes Out

William G. Domhoff and Thomas R. Dye look more closely at corporate elites and their increasing influence in policy creation.  Domhoff’s elite is comprised of politically, culturally and economically active members of the social upper class.  He includes top level employees of major corporations and government institutions.[13]  Mills is reluctant to look at any but the very top decision makers and even relegates members of the House and Senate to mid-level status.  He describes them to be the cogs that turn, the visible decision making process, but also the distraction that keeps the masses from seeing the real locus of policy creation.[14]

Domhoff includes this group of movers and shakers in his assessment of an elite group.  He emphasizes their importance by claiming that it is foundations, think tanks, and universities, and elite decision makers in these organizations which nominate and are active in the ascension of corporate elites and others to top level government positions.  Domhoff identifies the elites more readily as an upper class and uses a study of the interlocking directorates of the corporate community to determine his claim.[15]  He breaks policy networks down into four origins: foundations, think tanks, universities, and public discussion groups.  His findings, along with those of Burch and Useem, find that these groups play a large role overall in the eventual appointment of corporate leaders to top governmental positions.  He finds that these organizations are capable of ascertaining which candidates will likely be capable of policy implementation.  Thus they posit that it is not only the top decision makers but also the consensus groups that allow elites to attain their positions of influence.[16]

Dye goes a step even further to define his elites as leaders in business, government, universities, philanthropic organizations, the media and military.  He does not presume that all these actors are busily scrambling to influence policy and the course of history.  He rather characterizes his focus as the elite of the elite.  It is those actors who cross over from one organization to another, holding memberships on several different boards of directors, who confer with each other on a regular basis in a variety of arenas that are the true elite.  These elites are truly interlocking, influencing the course of policy and each other, in several different sectors, sometimes with the same cohorts, but always from positions of power and prestige.[17]

Jenkins and Eckert follow a similar intuition and look at organizations such as the Brookings Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Committee on Economic Development to identify an elite that has a broad base of information and influence.  They emphasize the role of business elites and say that corporate elite theory needs to be broadened in order to include social, industrial and regional divisions in its scope.  Through their research Jenkins and Eckert have found that elites associated with the business policy organizations (BPOs) they study have been critical architects of current policy ideas.[18]

The “business policy camps” they identify broaden Domhoff’s four class fractions into the corporate elite, domestic manufacturers, a group they call “Southerners,” and a “general leadership group.”  These groups are divided on two axes into a range of moderate to ultraconservative and another of Yankee to cowboy policy groups that leave their own characteristic mark on policy creation depending on their type of business and family background.  The authors make it clear that class divisions among these BPOs such as these contribute to the ideological range of policy differences presented today.[19]

Mark S. Mizruchi classifies these differences as both a dividing and uniting force of elites.  He sees that economic interdependence and even competition force a sort of political unity if social goals are to be achieved.  Mizruchi identified strongly here with Michel’s iron law of oligarchy.  In his view, economic competition requires a political solution and that solution, through collusion and cooperation has come to be oligarchy.  All parties involved in business, and in the process of designing policy to keep their business profitable, know that divided they cannot achieve their political goals but that through united cooperation they may have a better chance.  They also know that each player in this game-theoretical type situation may not be as successful as he would be on his own.  Political cohesion comes about because the players realize they have a level of added security in competition when engaged in oligarchy.[20]

Some theorists have broadened their identification of elites to include an even greater polity at work in these games.  Harold Perkin describes the evolution of the elites not necessarily as a development from the family structure to a corporate setting.  He typifies the development of elite involvement in history from the beginnings of an agrarian elite that evolved to emerge as a manufacturing elite after the industrial revolution.  He now sees the elite level of influence evolving as a rise in a service elite brought on by the revolution of information of technology we continue to experience.  Perkin calls this the professional elite and claims that because of the affects of the global economy and opening national boarders we identify as globalization, the decisions made by this professional elite are increasingly global in scope.[21]

Suzanne Keller identifies four reasons for the increasingly diffuse power of the global elite:  population growth, occupational specialization, growth of formal organization and growth in moral diversity.  Her characterization of the global elite is that it is so broad and pluralistic, with its many agendas and levels of power that it has an unprecedented ability to make boardroom decisions that affect entire populations around the world.  Because of the increasing mobility and internationalization of corporations and their vast influence on almost every facet of society, these boardroom elites are boundless.[22]

Perkin also emphasizes that this professional, global elite has the power and duty to enhance human life and development.  Amy Chua similarly calls upon the burgeoning global business elite to be more egalitarian in their exploitation of the global population.  She claims that there is an ethnically identifiable global elite in most societies citing the presence of the Chinese in much of South East Asia, Spanish descendants in Mexico, the British in South Africa, and controlling African minorities that dominate much of their continent.  On a global level this position is occupied mostly by Americans as a rich minority of the world who control an impressive majority of its power and resources.[23]

Chua emphasizes the importance of such a position and like Perkin, the necessary moral obligation that it carries with it.  She points out that the export of free market capitalism adds to the wealth of the world’s population, but the simultaneous exportation of democracy provides those people who do not benefit from it with the freedom to protest against it.  She identifies these policies of exportation and liberalization as those that have opened up the west for backlash and terror.  Here is an example of an identified elite and the consequences of their presumed policy collusion.

Jane Marceau examines policy collusion and creation from outside the national perspective as well.  She specifically regards what she calls the international elite and finds that they are pointedly narrower in their outlook than their national counterparts.  Her research encompasses European Universities and Professional colleges and the career strategies of the European elites.  She finds that, like the national elites of so many other studies, this group has similar family ties and social cohesion which may be lacking in a global elite of Perkin and Chua’s identification.  These international elites also have comparable schooling and sometimes personal relationships developing out of those schools that lead to lifelong business partnerships.[24]  Marceau provides the missing link between the national elite structure and the global elite that provides us with the possibility of cohesion across social and cultural groups.

It is important to note that from Mills period of elite inquiry onward, most elite theorists chose to emphasize the non-conspiratorial aspect of the theory.  It is not a witch hunt for secret board room meetings and back-alley schemes, but rather a hopefully legitimate view into who discusses political issues when, and where, and what their outcomes are prone to be.  Mills emphasizes that to look at the course of history as pure uninspired luck is idle and lacks insight.  But it is equally useless to see every decision or non-decision as a conspiracy.  The question of the power elite is not blame, but a search for the workings of responsible government.

The will of elites has always been limited but never before have the limits of these decision makers been so broad.  The money making economy is linked so strongly to the political directorate that readily directs military interventionist policies.  The structural triangle of power is so intertwined and self propagating that it is further insulated from the economic jolts of the economy.  Combined with access to natural and labor resources the elites today have a world at their feet that no other class has ever enjoyed.[25]  To understand the character of the elite is to scrutinize this part of the balance of economic and social forces at work.

The importance of the power elite to be emphasized is that they shape history through their actions and inactions.  Mills advises that even inaction on the part of decision makers is momentous because it determines the outcome of history.  The elite are the movers and shakers, the creators and destroyers, and important moments in history are defined by their moves.  No other group has a comparable power to affect society.[26]  Whether seen from a Marxist class perspective or from a more pluralist view that various groups of elites with differing views find ground for cooperation, the study of elites can aid in the common goal of identifying the locus of decision making power.  Domhoff believes that power elite theory serves as a bridge between these two views.[27]  Regardless, they can work in conjunction to shed light on the state of policy creation.

One could posit that the importance should lie not on who makes the decisions but on what types of decisions are made.  Perkin finds that these elites have a duty, as a result of their position and power to enable their fellow citizens and improve society as a whole.[28]  This calls for a value judgment, and though elite theory is value laden, it is focused primarily on the whom of the question.  The decisions made are to be attributed to the decision maker, and evaluated for their effectiveness.  Elite theory is a search for the decision maker.  To identify those who create the policy that governs society is to cast an eye upon the workings of that society.

In a world with increasingly interdependent markets and societies our elites are global citizens as each of us is becoming.  What was once a hunter before the fire with privilege and resultant duties it seems evolved to be the elites of the familiar era.  As society expands these elites have increasing holdings and ever more responsibility.  Why is it that the masses confer their consent to these leaders?  According to Domhoff there is no middle ground as in class theory.  There are the elites and the masses.  One important point of this dichotomy is that because the two spheres are so separated they have very little real insight into the structure and motives of the other.  It is unsurprising that the masses know little about the inner workings of the elite circles.  But it can be unsettling to realize that the elites have just as little information concerning the masses over which they have so much affect.

Such a dichotomy can exist because these levels benefit one from the other.  They are a product of the nature of man and nature itself.  The masses cannot succeed without the direction and leadership of the elite, and the elite certainly would not exist without the resources and support provided by the masses.  The elite could not exist without the masses simply because the normative construct of the elite requires a mass over which to rule.  We allow our hunters the privilege of warmth because we know that we will benefit as a society and our best and brightest will accept our admiration in exchange for their added effort.

It is apparent that elites exist in all groups and societies.  They are influential in the creation of policy and the resultant events of history.  Here this perspective will be used to gain insight into workings of global politics.  As Pareto established, the role of elites changes over time, and Mosca assures that this role will be a reflection of the needs of society.  Despite Mills’ assertion that elites occupy no rank so low as the House of Representatives, this paper will hold more readily with Domhoff, and include these leaders in its assessment of elites in the global context.

Thus this paper will continue to look at agricultural elites in a global context.  In order to identify Global Agriculture Policy (GAP) and the actors who implement it, elites at the national and global levels will be examined next.  Because of the diversity of such a group certain characteristics must be asserted.  The elites that are researched include top decision makers at both the US national and global levels.  These include Congressmen and Women, and the designers of WTO Agriculture policy.  As will be seen, their origins are diverse and so some characteristics will not hold true.  For example, when ascertaining a global elite, it is obvious that Mills characterization of elites as upper class individuals from Northeastern families is geographically unreasonable.

Because of the nature of global society as well, Perkin’s assertion that elites have progressed from agrarian to mercantilist to professional[29] is not retained here.  As will be seen, there is most certainly a professional elite that is active at the global level, and a mercantilist elite that readily lobbies a national political elite.  There also continues to be an agrarian elite who is influential in GAP creation.  Thus this paper finds that the extinction of one group of elites at the moment of creation of another is not characteristic of present global politics.

This paper specifically assesses the education and background of its supposed elites.  Using the characteristics discussed above of elite society, this assessment will identify those elite characters active in global policy creation.  Though the national scope of this paper is limited to the US, and elites in different countries naturally reflect different experience and composition, a global analysis of elites at the WTO level will hopefully theoretically suffice to establish elite action at the global level.

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