Political Elites: Definition, Role and Criticism of Elitism



Political Elites: Definition, Role and Criticism of Elitism are described below:


Aristotle held that some persons are fit to rule while others are fit to be ruled over. Elite means 'chosen few'. Elite consists of those persons who come at the top because of their superior quality. Such chosen few generally exist in trade-Unions, bureaucracy, armed forces and almost everywhere.

The Elite Theory:

The Elite Theory consists of the idea that there are two groups:

(1) The selected few who govern the society because of their ability and

(2) The vast masses who are governed because they are destined to be ruled.

Elite theory assures that men may be equal in the eyes of God but they are not so in the eyes of man.

According to the theorists, inequality is largely found in every state and society, thus making every one of them oligrachical in different degrees. Elites arise in every type of society and state because of the ancient traditions, wealth, physical might, economic status and ability.

Rule of Elite differentiated from Aristocracy and Oligrachy:

"An elite," according to Verney, "appears to combine some of the characteristics of both an oligrachy (government by the few privileged) and an aristocracy (government by the best) but is not to be confused with either. It is a minority, like an aristocracy but there is neither in the sense of self-preparation and selfishness which often is associated with the latter".

In simpler words oligrachy and aristocracy are both distinct from the elite. Oligrachy is a government by the few privileged and the Aristocracy is a government by the few best but with the Elite there is no grandeur of aristocracy and no desire for self-perpetuation and selfishness as we found in Oligrachy.

The Elite always works in the interest of those from whom it derives its power and authority but still it works against democracy because it believes in the rule of the few. Therefore Maurice Duverger holds the opinion that "government of the people and by the people must be replaced by another formula Government of people by an elite sprung from the people". Consequently, the theory of political elite stands on the principle of natural inequality and is opposed to the liberal democratic state.

Role of the Elite:

The role of the elite in the society is extremely important because it formulates the policies and takes the decisions. The elite give political education to the masses and they set certain model standards in the society. It is throughout the elites, writes Rajni Kothari, that-values of political development penetrate into society at various levels and by stages.

The role of the writers, artists, social workers and scientists ever more important than the bureaucrats and politicians. They enlighten the people. Thus they preserve and promote the culture. T.S. Elite remarked: No society without a governing elite can hope to transmit the culture it has inherited.

Karl Manheim has praised the elite by calling it "the culture' creating groups". Freidrich writes: "the elite itself sets the standards of excellence by which particular men are to be evaluated". Not only that the elite help the poor and remove their genuine grievances. In times of crisis the people look to the elite to show them the way.

Criticism of Elitism:

The elite theories which had been first advocated against Marxism have been put to searching questions and found lacking.

Some of the points of criticism are:

1. Elite cannot control the whole sphere of political activity:

The advocates of elite theories wrongly believe that elite can control the whole sphere of political, social and economic activity. An elite may influence one field but it cannot influence all the fields. For example, Dahl holds that economically well-off section of society cannot find any place in the sphere of education. Dahl has beautifully made a distinction between the 'economic notables', 'social notables' and political leaders.

2. Wealth and political position cannot be proportionate:

The supporters of the elite theory wrongly hold the belief that the wealthy persons may rise to political power and control the political structure. It is not necessary that the most powerful man of the state may be also wealthiest.

Besides that it is also not certain that the wealthiest person may rise to political power. In communist countries the wealth has no role to play. Even in democratic countries like India, though the wealth has played a notable role in the elections, yet all the wealthy persons have not risen to power. Many big capitalists of India may exercise political influence upon the government directly or indirectly but they have not contested the election so far. Hence there is no proportionate relation between the two.

3. Elites are more concerned about their personal interest than the interest of the whole community:

Supporters of the elite theory wrongly lead us to believe that the elites look to the interests of the whole community. In fact they never look to the interests of the whole community. In fact they never look to the interest of entire society but confine themselves to their own interests.

4. Decision-making does not lie solely in the hands of the elites:

It is argued by prominent supporters of the elite theory that the decisions in the government are generally taken by the elites. When the government takes decisions, several factors influence it and not only the wishes of the elites.

5. Ideas of elites never create values:

The supporters of elite theory believe that the ideas of the elites create value for the society but this is only one-sided picture. On the other hand the truth is that the elite give ideas in accordance with the values recognised by the masses because the elites can never force their values on society.

6. Elites are not cohesive, conscious and conspiratorial:

The main exponents of the elite theory hold that the elites are linked by ties of common interests and they are cohesive, conscious and conspiratorial but it is not so. Friedrick says that, "It is not the class that rules but the class from which the rulers and in whose interest they exercise power." He further holds that their power is not cohesive because many rival groups hold power in the society.

7. Elites do not rule with their inherent ability:

It has been held that the elites rule any country because of their inherent abilities but it is not so. The hard ' fact is that they have to rule the country according to the consent of the masses. Even if a small section of the people is alienated from the political system, then it may resort to protests and demonstrations which may paralyze the elite rule and the theory of the elites.