Elite Theory

Elite Theory was the focus of Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto. There are 7 common ideas found in their major works, which are detailed here.

Elite Theory
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Executive Summary

Elite Theory: Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto - YouTube
Author: Academic Agent
Series: On Managerial Elites - YouTube

George Orwell's 7 Ideas Found in Mosca & Pareto's Writings:

  1. Progress is largely an illusion, Democracy is impossible, though useful as a myth to deceive the masses
  2. Society is inevitably ruled by oligarchs who hold their position by means of force and fraud, and whose sole objective is power and still more power for themselves. No revolution means more than a change of rulers.
  3. Man, as a political animal, is moved solely by selfish motives, except so far as he is under the influence of myths.
  4. Conscious, planned action for the good of the community is impossible, since each group is simply trying to secure its own advantage.
  5. Politics is, and can be, nothing except a struggle for power.
  6. Human equality, human fraternity are empty phrases.
  7. All moral codes are 'idealistic' conceptions of politics, all visions of a better society in the furture are simply lies, conscious or unconscious, covering the naked struggle for power.
  • For Pareto & Mosca, the shape of society is virtually unchangeable, though the individuals composing it are always moving around.

Pareto's Ideas:

  1. The circulation of elites: Pareto believed that elites are always present in society, and that their composition is in a constant state of flux. He argued that elites are defined by their ability to maintain power and influence over time, rather than by their economic or social status.
  2. The principle of the vital few: Pareto believed that in any given society, a small number of individuals hold a disproportionate amount of power and wealth. He referred to this as the principle of the vital few or the "80/20 rule."
  3. The concept of residues and derivatives: Pareto believed that social and economic phenomena could be broken down into "residues" (basic, irreducible elements) and "derivatives" (complex, compound elements). He argued that elites were able to manipulate and control society by understanding the underlying residues that drove social and economic behavior.
  4. The idea of "non-logical" action: Pareto believed that human behavior was often driven by factors that were not necessarily logical or rational. He argued that this was particularly true in the realm of politics and economics, where emotional and psychological factors often played a large role.
  5. The rejection of egalitarianism: Pareto was highly critical of the idea of equality, arguing that it was an impossible and undesirable goal. He believed that attempts to create a more equal society would ultimately lead to the concentration of power in the hands of a new elite.

Mosca's Ideas:

  1. The theory of elitism: Mosca argued that every society is ruled by a minority, or elite, which holds the power and controls the resources of the society. This elite may be based on factors such as wealth, education, or military power, but it always exists. According to Mosca, the elite class is essential to the functioning of society, as it provides stability and continuity.
  2. The concept of the political class: Mosca believed that the elite class forms a distinct political class, which has its own interests and values. This political class seeks to maintain its power and control over society, and may use various means, including coercion and manipulation, to achieve this goal.
  3. The importance of political organization: Mosca argued that political organization is crucial to the functioning of society, as it enables the political class to maintain its power and control over society. This organization may take the form of political parties, interest groups, or other institutions that represent the interests of the elite.
  4. The role of ideology: Mosca believed that ideology plays an important role in shaping the beliefs and values of society. However, he also argued that ideology is often used as a tool by the political class to maintain its power and control. Mosca saw ideology as a means of manipulating the masses and ensuring their compliance with the interests of the elite.
  5. The inevitability of social inequality: Mosca believed that social inequality is an inevitable part of human society, and that attempts to eliminate it are doomed to failure. According to Mosca, the elite will always exist, and will always seek to maintain its power and control over society, regardless of attempts to redistribute wealth or power.

Clearly there is substantial overlap in their ideas of politics and society. Together, the fusion of their thoughts come together to form Elite Theory. This is fairly well summarized in Orwell's list above.

Steel-manning Elite Theory:

  1. Elite Theory recognizes that in any society, there will always be some individuals or groups who hold more power than others. According to Mosca, this is due to the fact that power is a natural attribute of human societies, and there is always some kind of social hierarchy. Pareto, on the other hand, believed that the distribution of power in society is based on a combination of innate and acquired characteristics that individuals possess, such as intelligence, ambition, and social connections.
  2. Elite Theory suggests that elites have a disproportionate influence on society and the political system. Mosca argued that elites have a tendency to form themselves into cohesive and self-perpetuating groups, and that they use their power to maintain their status and protect their interests. Pareto believed that elites have a natural tendency towards self-preservation, and that they will use their power to ensure that their interests are protected, often at the expense of the rest of society.
  3. Elite Theory recognizes that non-elites are generally excluded from the political process and have little influence on the decisions that affect their lives. Mosca believed that this was due to the fact that non-elites lacked the resources and organization to compete with the elites, while Pareto argued that the majority of people lack the necessary qualities to effectively govern and therefore need to be governed by the elite.
  4. Elite Theory suggests that power is often maintained through force or coercion. Mosca argued that elites use a variety of techniques, such as propaganda, the control of information, and the use of violence, to maintain their power. Pareto also believed that elites use force and coercion to maintain their power, but he also emphasized the importance of maintaining the appearance of legitimacy in order to avoid open rebellion.

Straw-manning Elite Theory:

  1. Lack of empirical evidence: Critics have argued that the theory lacks empirical evidence and is based on theoretical assumptions rather than on data. There is no empirical proof that supports the existence of a ruling elite in society.
  2. Failure to account for change: Critics argue that Elite Theory is not adequate to explain the constant changes that occur in society. The theory is based on a static model of society and fails to account for the dynamic nature of social and political structures.
  3. Ignoring the role of institutions and processes: Elite Theory neglects the role of institutions and processes in shaping power relations in society. It focuses solely on the role of individuals and ignores the importance of institutions such as political parties, electoral processes, and the media.
  4. Ignoring the role of social movements: Critics argue that Elite Theory ignores the role of social movements in challenging the power of elites. Social movements have played a critical role in shaping political and social change, but Elite Theory fails to acknowledge their significance.
  5. Elitism: Some critics argue that Elite Theory promotes an elitist view of society, which suggests that only a small group of people are capable of governing. This view is seen as undemocratic and ignores the potential of ordinary citizens to participate in politics.
  6. Failure to account for diversity: Critics argue that Elite Theory fails to account for the diversity of interests, values, and perspectives within society. The theory assumes that elites share a common set of interests, which is not necessarily true in a diverse and complex society.

Major Thinkers and Works

Gaetano Mosca Key work: The Ruling Class

Vilfredo Pareto Key work: The Mind and Society The Mind and Society - WikipediaThe Mind and Society PDF - Internet Archive

  • Volume I: Non-Logical Conduct
  • Volume II: Analysis of Sentiment (Theory of Residues)
  • Volume III: Sentiment in Thinking (Theory of Derivations)
  • Volume IV: The General Form of Society


  • "History is the graveyard of aristocracies." - Vilfredo Pareto
  • "Idleness generates softness and sensuality, stimulates frivolousness of mind and creates an aspiration to a life of pleasures unaccompanied by duties... For to rise in the social scale, even in calm and normal times, the prime question, beyond any question, is the capacity for hard work; but the requisite next in importance is ambition, a firm resolve to get on in the world, to outstrip one's fellow."

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