Elitism is a political theory that rejects Marxs views of equality and suggests that there will always be a minority elite ruling the majority. The theory in principle suggests that the people are ruled by the most able and those who are capable of doing the best job and this sounds like a good theory as the country will fare better under people who are most capable of leading. However the issue with this is that the elite in control can use the state to control power and thus maintain power and not providing a true democracy. Elitism can be split into three forms; classical, democratic and modern elitism all of which have a slightly different take on the way the state works and how the minority can use the state to dominate the majority. Elitism is not believed by all and is challenged by two other theories, Marxism and Pluralism. Marxists believe that class position is derived from the person’s relationship to the means of production, owners and workers, and not as elitists believe from a mix of economic political or ideological resources. Furthermore Pluralists believe that the state such a complex institution that it cannot be dominated by one group and hence power is shared between many government departments and institutions. The British state with the queen as the head of state, although this is a powerless position, is dominated by parliament who has the ability to create or dismantle laws without having to answer to the people until a general election. I believe that the contemporary British State is still quite elitist with the members of parliament and the cabinet being largely made up of those who have been public schooled and gone to the elite universities of Oxford or Cambridge. This view can even be shown by the recent MP’s expenses scandal as the MP’s cheated money out of the taxpayer showing how the elite minority thought they were above the majority. Therefore this essay seeks to show how the different elite theories relate to the contemporary British state and how relevant they are today.
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Classical Elitism was defined by key political scientist Gaetano Mosca as “In all societies two classes of people appear a class that rules and a class that is ruled the first class always the numerous performs all political functions, monopolises power and enjoys the advantages that power brings, whereas the second more numerous class is directed and controlled by the first”[i]. This quote represents the belief that elite rule is inevitable due to the human race being blessed with different talents and those who are more talented will always rise to the top. The classical elitist theory is underpinned by the fact that “the ruling elite is closed off from the ruled and its members are selected by virtue of the economic, political or ideological resources”[ii]. This shows the reason why elitists reject Marxism, that eventually there will be a classless state, as elitists believe that there will always be the dominant and the dominated and that class will occur through all societies. Pluralism is also rejected by elitists as pluralists argue that there is a diffusion of power between many government institutions and departments whereas the elitists believe that power is dominated by the minority in control. Classical elitism in some ways does refer to the contemporary British state in so far as parliament is made up of the upper class and that many were public schooled and further educated in the elitist institutions of Oxford and Cambridge.
Figure 1 shows the Educational Background of MP’s and the cabinet from 1918 to 1955, this shows the large numbers especially on the conservative side who attended elite institutions compared to the Labour party who have a large number MP’s and cabinet members from Elementary Schools. This shows that in the conservative party there is a sense of the elite are protected as they have the money to afford public schools which gives them an advantage and as such they are protected in their powerful positions in the state. This is further backed up as in the Thatcher government there were “only two members of her cabinet not to have attended a fee paying school”[iv]. Therefore it can be argued that the contemporary British state can be seen to be slightly elitist as those in power are protected due to their wealth and their education.
Democratic elitism which is the form of elitism created by thinkers such as Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter and is associated with critiques of Democracy, they still agree with classical elitism however, as Weber put it “All ideas aiming at abolishing the dominance of men over men are illusory”[v]. This quote gives clear indication that democratic elitist think that elitism is inevitable as long as there is “Voluntary compliance, acceptance of commands as valid norms and a belief in the legitimacy of the form of domination”[vi]. Similarly to classical elitists democratic elitists fundamentally disagree with Marxism as they reject the idea of equality and say that Government has become so large that it will need specialists to run and control it in order to work efficiently, thus elitism is inevitable. Therefore the argument is that power and decision making should be those most qualified and who have the relevant expertise to make the right choices. As far as this relates to the contemporary British state it could be argued that Britain is relatively elitist as 37 out 51 prime ministers went to either Oxford or Cambridge suggesting that they are the most intelligent and thus the right people to be taking decisions on behalf of the country. However these institutions are very elitist and select on background and status thus meaning that elites are protected as they will always be the most educated hence why the population cannot decide on the elite but can only legitimise their decisions. However in the future under new plans laid out by Lord Mandleson students from a disadvantaged background would be given a reduced offer to university in Labours attempt to increase social mobility. The scheme would work in such a way that “The plan could replicate the scheme at St George’s medical school, London, where the standard requirement for a place to study medicine is three As at A-level. Candidates can be given an offer of two Bs and a C if they outperform their school average by 60 per cent. This favours the brightest pupils in bad schools, which are often in the most deprived areas”[vii]. This is an attempt by the Labour government to try and make the state in the future less elitist as people from all over the country with different backgrounds will be qualified and will be able to perform an active role in Government and in society in order to promote a more equal state.
The final form of Elitism, which was put forward by Political Scientists such as Skocpol, C.Wright Mills and Walter Burnham is modern elitism. Modern Elitists still believe that democracy is limited and that elitism is inevitable, apart from modern elitists look at elitism at an international level through organisations such as the IMF and the United Nations which suggests a tie between politics and economics as shown by Mills whose work suggested “a close relationship between economic elites and governmental elites: the corporate rich and the political directorate”[viii]. This can show how elitism has become more globalised as national elites became dominated by international elites, thus following the recent economic pattern of globalisation and global shift and how the world has become more integrated creating another elite on the world stage. On a smaller scale the recent creation of the President of the EU is another international elitist position which is overpowering domestic governments. Therefore it can be argued that contemporary Britain does fit a modern elitist position as to locate the elite one must look more to the international level rather than the national level as Britain is a member of the EU and the United Nations. Another example of international elitism is the upcoming Copenhagen Climate Summit which will be dominated by several key players who have the most influence in both political and economic spheres mainly the USA and China. There is one part of Modern elitism however which does not fit with the contemporary British state and that is the belief that the state has power which can rival or even exceed economic power. I think that the pluralist view that big business has a privileged position in society is more fitting as shown by the recent bank bailouts showing that the government could not let large corporations such as Northern Rock go out of business, highlighting the important position large firms hold in the economy. This is especially so as often general elections are won depending on the economic performance for example of the economy is performing well the incumbent government is more than likely to stay in power whereas if the economy is suffering people are likely to vote for change. For example currently amid the International financial crisis there has been a large swing in the latest opinion polls regarding a general election towards the conservatives giving them a majority of 40[ix] showing how people vote for change in times of crisis such as the current financial crisis. Thus governments understand the importance of big business and will form legislation and policy in order to benefit large firms in order to lead to electoral success. Therefore although the contemporary British state does slightly fit the modern elitist perspective there are bits which suit a pluralist view more.
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Overall Elitist theory I think that Elitist relevant on an international scale and in some part on a domestic level. International organisations such as the IMF and the United Nations have a lot of power and often can overpower domestic governments especially in developing countries which shows that the elite class is becoming more global. I also think that elite theory is relevant on a domestic scale due to the large numbers of the elite in the ruling class of Britain. This is put forward by Guttsman who said “There exists today in Britain a ‘ruling class, if we mean by it a group which provides the majority of those who occupy positions of power and who in their turn can materially assist their sons to reach similar positions”[x]. This fits the criteria of elitism as it suggests the people cannot choose the elite and the elite can protect their position by monopolising top education and the methods of production. This is also backed up by the numbers of Oxford and Cambridge graduates in government and thus in the ruling class, “Over ¾ of Cabinet ministers in 1983 were from Oxford and Cambridge”[xi]. The numbers in government from elite institutions suggests that elitism is an inevitable cycle where the elite is replaced by their offspring who attend public schools and other elite educational institutions. Therefore government schemes such as the grade drop for students from deprived backgrounds could eventually stop the cycle of elite rule in the short run but in the long run these people will then become the elite and then the cycle will begin again this elite rule is inevitable. Thus leading to the theory that the people can only choose between groups of elites at elections for example between the only two parties with a realistic chance of winning a general election, Labour or the Conservatives as shown by Andrew Hayward “One elite can only be removed by replacing it with another”[xii].
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