Italian Elite Theory

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By Sinisa Malesevic:

"While Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca are well known as key representatives of elite theory in sociology, not much attention is paid to their analyses of violence and war. Both interpret history in terms of perpetual domination by an organized minority over a disorganized majority, and they also emphasize the indispensable role of coercion in this process. More specifically, they both identify the two essential and concomitant ingredients that secure elite domination in all social and political orders – ideology and force. In Pareto’s (1935) theory of the circulation of elites, the decadency of old rulers is counterbalanced by the ascent of a new elite out of the ordinary masses thus making history ‘the graveyard of aristocracies’. However, any elite, regardless of its origin, in order to acquire and stay in power, has to rely on ideological hegemony (‘derivations’), and even more so on force. Although recognizing the importance of coercion for social change, he distinguishes between violence and force: not to be confused with force. Often enough one observes cases in which individuals and classes which have lost force in order to maintain themselves in power make themselves more and more hated because of their outbursts of random violence. The strong man strikes only when it is absolutely necessary, and then nothing stops him. Trajan was strong, not violent: Caligula was violent not strong. (Pareto, [1902] 1973: 79) Consequently, force is seen as the backbone of successful rule, both within a particular society and in relations with other societies. For Pareto, the profligacy and dissoluteness of ruling elite inevitably lead to the violent overthrow by emerging new elites, while the inability to defend one’s state is likely to result in the conquest by another state.

The first case is illustrated by the outcome of the French Revolution:

- The knife of the guillotine was being sharpened in the shadows when, at the end of the eighteenth century, the ruling classes in France were engrossed in developing their ‘sensibility.’ This idle and frivolous society, living like a parasite off the country, discoursed at its elegant supper parties of delivering the world from superstition and of crushing l’Infame, all unsuspecting that it was itself going to be crushed. (Pareto, 1973: 81)

The second case is even more common as ‘there is not perhaps on this globe a single foot of ground which has not been conquered by the sword at some time or other’. In this con-text, Pareto understands colonial policy as nothing more than coercion camouflaged under the pretence of ‘civilizing mission’ and ‘humanitarian sentiments’. The scramble for Africa and control of China are accomplished and maintained by naked force and can be reversed by force alone. In Pareto’s view, ideology is not to be contrasted with coercion as it is only a means for attaining force. Indirectly echoing Weber, Pareto argues that ‘for right or law to have reality in a society, force is necessary’ as both laws and rights originated in force, hence ‘it is by force that social institutions are established, and it is by force that they are maintained’ (Pareto, 1973: 80–1). Mosca’s general argument is similar, as he too sees force as central to social development and to minority rule. As he put it: ‘History teaches that the class that bears the lance or holds the musket regularly forces its rule upon the class that handles the spade or pushes the shuttle’ (Mosca, 1939: 228). However, his theory focuses much more on the organizational and institutional mechanisms that enable domination of an organized minority over a disorganized majority. This is particularly evident in Mosca’s analysis of military and warfare where he argues that the birth and expansion of the modern state are rooted in the processes of gradual centralization of power and extension of bureaucratic organization in the two key spheres – military (efficient control of the army) and financial (efficient control of money). In The Ruling Class(1939: 222–43), he provides a comparative historical analysis of militaries in order to show how neither the establishment of a professional army nor an all-inclusive conscript army can prevent the emergence of minority rule. The conscript model, where all citizens are soldiers and where professional military organization and ‘specialists in matter of war’ are lacking, is likely to produce a situation when ‘in the moment of peril there will be no soldiers at all’ and the army will be easily defeated by a smaller but better organized counterpart who will then impose themselves on the conquered society. The model of a professional army creates another problem: ‘In [the contemporary] bureaucratic state...the standing army will absorb all the belligerent elements, and, being readily capable of prompt obedience to a single impulse, it will have no difficulty in dictating to the rest of society. Thus, military might requires a delicate balance and power sharing between the economic, military and political ruling classes to prevent the slide into military rule. Furthermore, in both these cases, the efficiency of the army rests in part on its rigid' hierarchical structure that enables the successful division of labour between a minority officer class (‘usually recruited from the politically dominant ranks of society’) and a majority of mostly obedient ‘privates and petty officers’. Although, as Mosca points out, this distinction is highly arbitrary, it nonetheless is present in all organized and successful standing armies throughout history from ancient Egypt through military mandarins in China to contemporary armies. There is no military effectiveness, and hence wars cannot be won, without a strict social hierarchy. Seeing human beings as primarily conflictual creatures Mosca, like Pareto, is pessimistic about the prospect of a world without war.

In his analysis, conflicts never disappear but only are displaced from one sphere to another:

- There will always be conflict of interest, and the will to have one’s own way by brute force...When that organization [of the contemporary standing army] has been dissolved or weakened, what is to prevent small organizations of the strong, the bold, the violent, from again coming to life to oppress the weak and peaceful? When war has ended on large scale, will it not be revived on a small scale in quarrels between families, classes or villages?



* Article: How Pacifist Were the Founding Fathers?: War and Violence in Classical Sociology. By Sinisa Malesevic. European Journal of Social Theory, 13 (2), pp. 193-212


"the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were characterized by the primacy of militarist ideas in social thought. Not only was it that war and violence constituted the esprit de corps of German academia (Mann,1988, 2004), but similar ideas were widespread and highly popular within leading academic circles throughout Europe and North America."