Elite production: the meaning of pluralism and elitism

1. Situating elites

In his 1976 landmark The comparative study of political elites, Putnam writes wit- tily: ‘Insofar as political decisions matter, political decision makers do, too.’ He reminds us that behind the diverse façades of governance systems, which might appear to be quite transparent and accountable, ‘power was always confined to a ruling few’. Indeed, addressing the issue of elite production and elite action in the context of organizations implies addressing a twofold debate. First, there is a debate concerning the appropriate level of analysis of elites. A controversy exists between an analysis in terms of inter-organizational networks (Mizruchi 1996) and an analysis in terms of endogenous generation of elites. We argue that elite power has to be analyzed in terms of ‘the acceptance of irreversible commitments’ which con- stitute what Selznick termed the ‘character of the organization’ (1957: 39–40). It is by analyzing formal policy commitments that one can distinguish between deci- sions pertaining to ‘routine and critical experiences’ (1957: 56). In this perspective, the question of elites is the question of leadership, that is the choice of ‘key values and [of the creation of] a social structure that embodies them’ (1957: 60). Leadership concerns the transformation of a neutral body of individuals into a ‘committed polity’ (1957: 90).

Second, there exists a debate about the degree of fragmentation and unification of the elite body, one that follows on from Michels’ thought. Elite power is deeply related to the capacity of elites to create and maintain equilibrium between political and cultural cohesion as well as manage diverse practices and decision-making processes. As Miliband puts it, ‘elite pluralism does not … prevent the separate elites in capitalist society from constituting a dominant economic class, possessed of a high degree of cohesion and solidarity, with common interests and common pur- poses which far transcend their specific differences and disagreements’ (1969: 47).

Understanding elites means realizing that leadership concerns the professionali- zation of power holders; therefore, we acknowledge the fact that specific types of knowledge provide the circles of corporate power with resources to maintain their domination over the corporate body. We also acknowledge that constituting an elite body implies constantly engineering the beliefs of subordinates in the ability of a small circle of people to administer political affairs and reaffirming their legit- imacy to take decisions that have large and potentially irreversible consequences.

Belief in the efficiency and legitimacy of rulers not only derives from discourses, as we suggested in previous chapters, but is mostly the consequence of actions gen- erating relatively shared rationalities about what is the common good and who are the enemies of this common good. And these ideas never form in a vacuum. Constituting an organizational elite body is never an isolated act. One has to con- sider also that incumbent elites are permanently controlled ‘by other elites exerting pressure, or by the public … or by institutional codes – that although there may be upper classes, there is no ruling class; although there may be men of power, there is no power elite’ (Mills 1957: 16–17).

Understanding elites comes down to specifying rigorously the respective influ-ence of elitist and pluralist views of power. In other terms, we present elites in this book as the missing link between studies of power and studies of democracy. Power concerns democracy and democracy implies power, as we have argued in the pre- vious chapters. But there is a missing link between power and democracy in theories of organization power (well illustrated in March and Olsen’s otherwise remarkable (1995) Democratic governance). The link is missing not only because of institutional disciplinary barriers between political science, organizational sociology and management studies but also because of the lack of an institutional perspective on elites. From this perspective, elites are responsible for the organization of polit- ical (strategic) action through organizing ‘the interdependent obligations of polit- ical identities’ (1995: 6); at the same time deep conflicts can occur when elites engage in political action, because they have to shape this action in such a way that their performance will be relatively acceptable to diverse political bodies.

In this chapter we focus on the ‘professionals of power’ as the cornerstone of the analysis of systems of governance. With C. Wright Mills we share the point of view that ‘undue attention to the middle levels of power obscures the structure of power as a whole, especially the top and the bottom’ (1957: 245). The purpose of theories of organization power should be to investigate power at the policy level instead of dissimulating its inherent weaknesses in the relentless analysis of power as ‘petty politics and tactics and games’. Power is not just about little games over uncertainty and other irrationalities of systems theory, where some actors, who seem to lack any structural place, get others to do what they wouldn’t otherwise do. Power should not be reduced to such games. It is the pillar of the social fabric of govern- ing structures and regimes.

2. The meaning of pluralism

Dahl defines ‘the fundamental axiom in the theory and practice of American plu- ralism’ as the fact that ‘[i]nstead of a single center of sovereign power there must be multiple centers of power, none of which is or can be wholly sovereign’ (1967: 24). Newton (1969) notes, aptly, that from such a perspective any political system ‘which is not ruled by a power elite and which has different centers of power is guaranteed the title pluralist’ (in Scott 1994: vol. III, 16). Some critics of pluralism question the possible tautology lying behind the term; after all, as Schils (1956: 154), among others, has pointed out, any complex society is to some degree (and in that view, everything is a matter of degree) pluralist, because it cannot be gov- erned from a political center. But the meaning of pluralism is closer to that of democracy. In the pluralist perspective, pluralism is a political system enabling democratic decision-making processes, where the power to decide is shared between different bodies. More precisely, the behind-the-scenes pluralist thesis is that the existence and action of elites in a political system do not hamper democ- ratic forms being developed. Elites are inevitable, but they can (must?) be plural. Here the statement of Rose is particularly germane: ‘Pluralism is a theory of the power structure in which power is conceived of as dispersed and different elites are dominant in different issue areas’ (1967: 282). A polity made up of what Dahl (1961: 190) called ‘petty sovereignties’ will avoid being confronted with any kind of competition. Competition might threaten democracy, as self-contained subelites do not necessarily act in the interests of the wider community.

The Schumpeterian vision of pluralism as a political system organizing and entailing competition between pluralities of elites is close to the core meaning of pluralist approaches to elite power. According to Schattschneider, ‘democracy is a political system in which people have a choice among the alternatives created by competing political organizations and leaders’ (1960: 141). Nevertheless, a plurality of competing elites is a necessary but not sufficient condition of democracy. What is more important is the institutionalization of a true system of responsiveness and accountability. Thus, as we suggested in Chapter 11, the examination of the rela- tionships between elites and non-elites is the cornerstone of pluralist studies. To quote Dahl:

Political power is pluralistic in the sense that there exist many different sets of leaders, each set has somewhat different objectives from the others, each has access to its own political resources, each is relatively independent of the others. There does not exist a single set of all powerful leaders who are wholly agreed on their major goals. Ordinarily, the making of government policies requires a coalition of different sets of leaders who have divergent goals. In this situation, it is probably easier for leaders to be effective in a negative way, by blocking other leaders, than in a positive way, by achieving their own goals. (1967: 188–9)

The problem with such an approach is the neglect of asymmetries between subgroups. In other words, it is indisputable that some groups and individuals are actually denied access to decision-making circles. As a result, power is not truly disseminated among subgroups, and remains a relationally unequally distributed resource. Here we get back to the idea of polyarchy as a system where ‘each group has enough potential influence to mitigate harsh justice to its members though not necessarily enough influence to attain a full measure of justice’ (Dahl 1961: 89). Newton points out that a major flaw of the pluralist approach is to consider that inequalities are not cumulative,

i.e. that a political weakness in a certain area will be offset by a resource in another area (for instance, someone lacking money will have more time or more energy to devote to politics), contrary to Dahl’s view that ‘money and influence have a certain interde- pendence. The poor man is not likely to gain high influence; but if he does, somehow along the way he is no longer a poor man’ (1961: 245). As Michels demonstrated a long time ago, this is likely to produce and perpetuate a small number of the ‘chosen few’ who pull most of the political strings, if not a single power elite.

3. The meaning of elitism

Elite theory is a well-established school of thought. It argues that a relatively small group of individuals initiate and monitor political and administrative decisions shaping the life of people and the destiny of collective bodies (Perrucci and Pilisuk 1970). Its central tenet is therefore that ‘societies are divided into the few who hold power or rule, and the many who are ruled’ (Etzioni-Halevy 1993: 19). Elitism derives from classical elite theorists such as Pareto, Mosca or Michels. Pareto distin- guishes two types of elite: the governing elite, taking part directly or indirectly in government; and the non-governing elite, encompassing all the people endowed with excellence in their own area of knowledge, or the experts. Pareto writes, ‘I use the word elite … in its etymological sense, meaning the strongest, the most ener- getic, and most capable – for good as well as evil’ (1935: 36).

For Mosca (1939), two classes of people appear in any society: a ruling class and a ruled class. To him, the political domination of an organized minority over an unorganized majority is inevitable. He distinguishes two elite structures, comprising the feudal structure, where the same members of the ruling class exercise all govern- mental functions (economic, judicial, administrative, military), and the bureaucratic structure, where a greater specialization in the ruling class separates the elite into different segments, especially in terms of the division between the administrative- bureaucratic and the military elites. According to Wright Mills, elite power consti- tutes three interdependent groups of the political, the military, and the corporate elite, whose perpetual uneasy coalition shapes the contours of an uncertain struc- ture, a ‘concerted power elite’, sharing a commonality of interests, an ability to impose political unity, because, eventually ‘elites … agree on the “rules of the game”’ (Etzioni-Halevy 1987: 4).

In most elitist studies, there is the assumption that the elite is ‘internally homo-geneous, unified and self-conscious’ (Putnam 1976: 4). James Meisel (1962: 4) reminds us that no elite can be durable without group consciousness, coherence and conspiracy (common intentions). That these ideas are seen to be so necessary is largely related to Michels’ tradition, according to which the division of labor necessary to any organization implies, per se, that a few people acquire the skills of leadership, the others being accustomed and socialized to being governed. However, the segmentation of the elite body into two restricted strata shrinks any view of a more open society, especially one that is more democratic. Once again, subsequent accounts of elites show a tendency to widen the scope and the endoge- nous variety of elite bodies, without renouncing the seminal elitist perspective outlined previously. For instance, the three-class theory of Mosca suggests the exis- tence of an intermediate stratum of leaders ‘who transmit information and opin- ion between the top elite and the citizenry, help to implement the elite’s decisions, and provide new recruits for the upper stratum’ (1939: 404–10). Thus, the possi- bility of a political stratification of elites is opened. Figure 12.1 illustrates this view, by displaying both the coexistence of diverse elite strata and the permanence of a hierarchy between elites. It also suggests the possible existence of a continuum between elites and the masses.

The relationship between elite composition and social structure shows a dis-proportionate recruitment among the diverse segments of society. Putnam puts forward two different models accounting for this relationship:

  • an independence model, where the correlation between political status and economic status is negligible
  • an agglutination model (Lasswell 1965: 9), where the powerful are also the healthy, wealthy, and well-educated people.

Mosca argued that ‘Ruling minorities are usually so constituted that the individuals who make them up are distinguished from the masses of the governed by qualities that give them a certain material, intellectual, or even moral superiority; or else they are the heirs of individuals who possessed such qualities. In other words, members of a ruling minority regularly have some attribute, real or apparent, which is highly esteemed and very influential in the society in which they live’ (1939: 53). Elitism, therefore, according to the elitist perspective, is also a way of perpetuating a certain structure of dominancy and the patterns of legitimacy that accompany it. The meaning of elitism is related to the social acceptance by a majority of individuals that the act of governing necessarily implies a small number of indi- viduals; that policies (and not necessarily politics) are a private business; and that participation might only be required at certain moments, under certain conditions, and following certain principles.

Figure 12.1   A political stratification model (from Putnam 1976: 11)

Elitism is not only a matter of social reproduction. It is also a cultural matter, deeply embedded in the political rationalities and identities of organizational members. As we proposed in the early chapters of this book, the constitution of management developed through the engineering of rules and instruments of calcula- tion into a major achievement that was cultural. Having established management as a political affair, and elite managers as leaders who are the equals of statesmen as they make ‘the transition from administrative management to institutional leadership’ (Selznick 1957: 4), then a project that began with humble anatomical politics ends up having governance of the body politic through markets. To the political elites is left the role of regulation, in which people conceived as liberal individuals constitute themselves as entities who may or may not be politically self-regarding subjects (to the extent that they have a choice as to whether they vote or not); to the markets, and its elites, there is the delight of savoring the ascendancy of new forms of governmentality that make people economically self-regarding subjects, whether they vote for it or want it, or not. The notion of leadership is at the center of a struggle of legitimacy and signification between an administrative perspective on managing organizations and a socio-political perspective on governing institutions (Selznick 1992), in which governmentality plays the most recent role.

It is indisputable that the people who control the largest multinational corpora- tions have enormous power and influence; indeed, as much as is the case for high- rank government officials, the fate and culture of entire nations and of millions of individuals reside in their judgments and actions. That is why it is of utmost importance to shed light on the patterns of corporate elite generation, as it is a way to understand better under which criteria, and what conditions, power structures are affected by the people designing and controlling them. Our assumption here is that while the models of analysis of elite production are well established and still pertinent for investigating the patterns and dynamics of elite production, the very criteria and concrete forms of contemporary pathways to the top are transforming, and are likely to affect on a long-term basis the power structures of organizations and, more widely, of the whole business world.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *