Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto are the two most prominent figures of the Italian school of elitism. This new theory developed in response to the challenges of the democratic age, which was seen as incompatible with elitist ideas. Unlike other theorists who addressed similar issues at that time, such as Alexis de Tocqueville or Thomas Carlyle, Mosca and Pareto saw democracy as a positive development. However, they believed that this new social context required a new type of elite which would take advantage of the opportunities offered by democratization while preserving the pre-democratic “natural” elites. For both Mosca and Pareto, the old aristocratic elites could no longer be effective in a democratic society because they were not equipped to compete with democratically elected leaders and had become impotent in front of open elections. The new elite should be able to perform effectively as managers of society; it should be chosen for their inherent abilities; and it should come from a privileged background where education was accessible only to a small group. Only then would this new elite be able to govern effectively without making any concessions to popular demands or establishing any kind of cooperation with competing non-elite groups. The Italian School of Elitism was an intellectual movement in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century. It was mainly concerned with the role of elites in society. It was heavily influenced by the work of Italian sociologist Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto. The other leading figures were Enrico Ferri, Roberto Michels, and Giovanni Gentile. The main idea behind the movement is that human societies always have an elite. The elite is in control of the power and the state. And it acts in its own interests, regardless of what is best for the society as a whole. The doctrine of the Italian School of Elitism is based on the idea that all societies are ruled by elites. The elites are the people with power in all social systems, such as governments, corporations, or other institutions. Elites are people who have power because of their wealth, their political influence, or their social prominence. The elites are different from the majority of the people because they have access to resources that others do not have. This gives them great power in both social and political systems. For example, in a corporation, the president and the board of directors represent the elite. They have power in the company and the ability to make decisions that affect everyone who works there. When people talk about the American elite, they are referring to the people who have power and influence in the United States. These might be politicians, business executives, professors, or other people in positions of power. Elites are not composed of people who were born into power. Rather, they are people who have been chosen in a selective process. When Pareto first came up with his circulation model, Pareto could not have known that it would become so influential. However, he did not intend for it to be used as a way of explaining how people got rich. Instead, he believed that his model would help explain why some countries had high levels of inequality and others did not. As it happens, his model has proved useful in many fields outside economics. For example, it has been applied to problems in education, health care and politics. More recently, however, economists have started to use Pareto’s model more widely when trying to explain inequality in society. Today, the circulation model is one of the most popular models for understanding how inequality affects people at different points in their lives. This selectiveness is one of the most important characteristics that distinguishes an elite from the rest of society. Since elites are composed of few people, they must be selective in choosing their members. No person is automatically a member of an elite group simply because he or she was born in a certain place or has a certain amount of money. Beyond their physical or economic characteristics, elites also select their members according to their abilities. An elite group is a group of people who have the skills and abilities necessary to govern the society effectively and make decisions that are good for everyone. For example, the U.S. Congress is the most important elite group in the country. It is composed of two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Italian School of Elitism believes that the most important elite is the intellectual elite. Intellectuals are people who are involved in creating and shaping ideas. These people are part of the intellectual elite because they have the knowledge and skills necessary to govern the society effectively. The intellectual elite should also act in the interests of the elites in general. It should use modern scientific knowledge to improve the lives of people who are not part of the elite. But it should not promote ideas that are in the interests of the people. For example, in the early decades of the 20th century, intellectuals were very interested in creating and promoting new social sciences. In this movement, they sought to expand the boundaries of knowledge through scientific research in areas like sociology and psychology. However, the Italian School of Elitism criticized this trend. Intellectuals only wanted to study the behavior of people. They wanted to understand social phenomena like poverty, crime, or religion. But they had no interest in changing these phenomena. Mosca, who was the first to develop this theory, is perhaps the most influential member of the Italian School of Elitism. He is also the author of one of the most important works in modern political theory: The Ruling Class, published in 1939. He believed that political institutions are a reflection of the society’s elites. Mosca imagined a hypothetical society in which the political institutions were designed by an engineer. In this society, political power is based on numbers: the more people who support a politician, the more power he has. Mosca then imagined a society in which the political institutions are designed by an architect. In this society, political power is based on merit: the more skilled and competent a politician is, the more power he has. In Mosca’s view, political institutions are a reflection of society’s elites. In the society imagined by Mosca, the political institutions are a reflection of society’s engineers. In other words, political institutions are a reflection of the society’s elites. Among the problems related to the political class, Mosca studied most carefully that of organization. In addition to the very definition of political class in terms of an ‘organized minority,’ it should not be forgotten that all of Mosca’s political science is deeply connected with the organizational dimension of power. First, Mosca distinguishes between organization understood as a context, as a structural field that conditions the behavior of political actors, and organization as a product, that is, as a result of power relations, as a consequence of a deliberate will and ability to coordinate. In the first case, organization is synonymous with hierarchy and refers to a structural requirement of the entire collectivity. In the second it is synonymous with cohesion and refers to a special group of people. Thus, while there can be no political society that is not organized, i.e., that is not hierarchically structured, what makes a social force politically relevant is its internal organization: “Every force, for it to assert itself in proportion to its real importance, must be well organized.” The concept of organization is used by Moscow now as a synonym for the state and political hierarchy, as an organization external to the political class, and now instead as internal organization, as an indispensable resource for the conquest, exercise, maintenance, transmission and eventual overthrow of power, as a set of consciously coordinated activities put in place by the ruling group to increase its cohesion and to achieve common goals. In the latter meaning, the organizational dynamics of the ruling group refers to three distinct processes: the first concerns the way in which the political class has constituted itself and institutionalized the relations between its different components (fractions); the second concerns the mechanisms of power division and the emergence of a hierarchy within the ruling minority itself; and finally, the third refers to the psychological cohesion and the will to coordinate which, by cementing contrasts of interest and opposition, makes the action of the group holding power irresistible. With respect to the external organization, which tends to coincide, as we have seen, with the political organization of society, Moscow identifies two basic types of power structures: one in which authority is transmitted from the top down (autocratic principle) and the opposite one in which power emanates from the governed to the governed (liberal principle). Combining together the tendencies relating to the formation and turnover of the political class with the principles that preside over the transmission and structuring of power, Moskian theory offers an articulate taxonomy of political systems, which configures four ideal types of state organization: aristocratic-autocratic, aristocratic-liberal, democratic-autocratic, and democratic-liberal. The liberal principle is marked by the introduction of a more or less expanded electoral system; the autocratic principle usually makes use of heredity of office, although the case of a division between stage power, which remains the prerogative of the titular autocrat, and actual power, which is instead entrusted, including through co-optation, to a coadjutor autocrat, is not uncommon.The introduction of this typology allows Mosca to develop further reflections on the extent and composition of the political class. His attention to the hierarchy and external organization of power leads him to identify two levels of political class. Between the tiny minority of rulers, “two or three dozen or even a hundred individuals, who monopolize the direction of the state,” and the vast majority of the ruled Moscow places a “second stratum” of the political class, much more numerous than the first. This second stratum encompasses all the directing capacities of the country and exercises power “in sharecropping” and often “on behalf” of the first, which, alone, could not frame and direct the action of the masses. Present in all forms of political regime, this second stratum is more or less extensive and is recruited now on the basis of birth and co-optation, now through contests and elections. In autocratic regimes this second stratum is almost always made up of priests and warriors; in liberal regimes it tends to coincide with the top echelons of the bureaucracy and the leading cadres of political parties vying for power.
According to Vilfredo Pareto, peoples are invariably ruled by aristocratic power, but this power is subject to continuous turnover; where this dynamic equilibrium, consisting of constant and orderly turnover, is guaranteed, all strata of the population benefit. With the delimitation of the concept of circulation of elite, the problem of social balance is resolved in the problem of the relationship between the ruling class and the ruled class. Every society is characterized by the different composition of the ruling class and the governed class, and by the different way in which the turnover between one and the other takes place. To this turnover Pareto gives the name “circulation of elites”: it is the greatest indicator of the different forms that social equilibrium can take. Where there is little or no circulation, the equilibrium is static; where it is gradual and regular, that is, where there is a continuous passage of elements from the ruled class to the ruling class, the equilibrium is dynamic. When circulation breaks down, an imbalance is generated, which can lead to the violent replacement of one system by another (revolution). Pareto believes that he has set the stage for the solution of two fundamental problems in sociology: the typology of historical forms of systems and the typology of social change. The first problem he relates to the composition of the elected class, the second to the circulation from the non-elected class to the other. To solve the first as well as the second problem, Pareto makes special use of the first two classes of residues (instincts) that make up his typology: the one that reveals the instinct of combinations and the one that reveals sentiments in favor of the persistence of aggregates. Depending on whether one or the other instinct prevails, elites are progressive or conservative, innovative or traditional, tolerant or authoritarian, open or closed. Distinguishing therefore in each elected class three different levels, that of the political elite (which to Pareto seems the most important for the purpose of determining social equilibrium), that of the economic elite, and that of the intellectual elite, the predominance of one or the other instinct (“residual”) distinguishes three pairs of elites: at the political level, the elite who rule primarily by cunning and those who rule primarily by force (the foxes and the lions); at the economic level, the speculator class, comprising entrepreneurs, that is, those “whose income is essentially variable and depends on the shrewdness of the person in finding sources of profit,” and the profiteer class; at the intellectual level, men of science who tend toward skepticism and men of faith who tend toward dogmatism. We can tend to say that a society in which politics is in the hands of foxes is also a mercantile society with a skeptical and critical culture; a society in which politics is exercised by lions, on the other hand, is also a society with a stagnant economy and strong religious beliefs. The ideal society should be one in which all three different levels of residuals of the two classes are distributed in such a way as to ensure both change (instinct of combinations) and continuity (persistence of aggregates) together. But since no social system has so far lasted beyond a certain time limit, it is necessary to go looking for the cause of change in a defect of circulation of the elected classes. It is a fact that the elected classes tend to perpetuate their domination: but the former, those of the “combiners,” end up in the long run lacking sufficient energy to keep a grip on power against the various upheavals coming from below; the latter, those of the “aggregators,” end up in the long run being weakened by the innovative thrusts coming from the subject class, often led by those who have been rejected or alienated by the elected class. All this confirms in Pareto’s eyes that social change depends on the different way in which the transition from the unelected class to the elected class takes place. The ideal condition is that there should be a steady and regular transfer of individuals from the non-elected class to the elected class. When this process fails or comes to a halt, the system tends to perpetuate only one type of elected class; but the resulting uniformity eventually pushes society into that stage which, allowing no more gradual change, gradually leads to radical change. Composition and circulation of the elected class are thus two closely conjoined phenomena. The perpetual oscillation of residuals determines, therefore, the play of politics and produces, on the level of ideologies, the alternate prevalence of conservation and progress. Societies are “essentially heterogeneous,” but in order to survive, certain “uniformities” must be adhered to: force and cunning, coercion and consensus-seeking are the tools employed by the ruling elite to maintain the necessary social uniformities, but no political regime, from the most authoritarian to the most democratic, can do without “force” if it does not want to meet with its own disintegration. Of course, a ruling class can by the use of cunning, fraud and corruption, keep its opponents at bay and neutralize their subversive violence: but in this way, in the ruling class, the remnants of the ‘instinct of combinations are increasingly strengthened and those of the persistence of aggregates are weakened, the number of “foxes” increases, the number of “lions” decreases. The leaders of oppositions are skillfully tamed and skillfully integrated into the dominant power system; but this technique of governance, however effective, cannot go beyond certain limits: there comes a time when the ruling elite, over-saturated with men in whom the remnants of the first class prevail, with men accustomed to governing by compromise and cunning, finds itself in difficulty when faced with a new elite in which the remnants of the second class have condensed, a new ruling class in which those traits of faith, energy and courage are present and dominant which are now lacking in the old aristocracy. When a ruling class, faced with repeated transgressions of the social order, no longer knows how to use force, the “anarchic work of the governed” is inevitable, Pareto observes: where public power breaks down, due to lack of energy on the part of those who should enforce the legal order, small states within the large state soon form, small societies in opposition to each other and to society at large; where an authority capable of imposing “public justice” is lacking, private justices proliferate. The efficacy of law, even of the most democratic of laws, lies in the “force” that upholds it and enforces its observance, while “most serious illusion is that of politicians who imagine themselves to be able to make up for the use of armed force with helpless laws.” The proof of this permanent link between “force” and “law,” broken which paves the way for revolution and war, lies in international relations, where, lacking a super authority endowed with actual power, disputes are resolved by the force of the disputants, more or less elegantly concealed “under the trappings of humanitarian and ethical declamations.” Pareto’s lesson is well present in some of the great theorists of liberal democracy such as Joseph A. Schumpeter and Raymond Aron confirming what Sartori has written about the full reconcilability of the theory of elites, political realism and moral preference for the values and institutions of a democratic society as long as one has a non-mythical conception of democracy. Usually, when one wants to emphasize the non-compatibility between the theory of elites and democracy, one turns to the pages in which Pareto presents democracy as a “metaphysical derivation,” calls popular representation “a fiction,” and recognizes as the only prerogative of democratic government a greater propensity for clientelism and manipulated consent rather than the use of force. However, still to remain in classical elitism, indications of reconciliation can already be found in Moscow, such as when he distinguishes between aristocratic and democratic regimes, which, unlike the former, are governed by articulate, heterogeneous, open political classes subject to the rule of free discussion, or when he defines the representative system as the only form of organization in which a multiplicity of political forces are placed in a position to effectively control each other. But it is mainly a few decades later, first with Mannheim and later with Schumpeter and Lasswell, that the foundations were laid for an elitist theory of democracy. The Hungarian sociologist Mannheim, in an analysis written in the 1930s but published posthumously under the title The democratization of culture (1956), argued that democracy does not exclude the presence of elites, but implies a specific principle of their formation and recruitment. The Austrian-born economist Schumpeter went even further by proposing, in Capitalism, socialism and democracy (1942), a new theory of democracy that has its strength precisely in the problems related to the composition and formation of the political elite. Although Gaetano Mosca’s name never appears in Schumpeter’s book, the critique of the classical concept of democracy in it rests largely on the same foundations on which the Italian political scientist rejected the idea of popular sovereignty. Like Moscow, in fact, Schumpeter believes that in no case can the majority rule and that in all regimes it is always a minority that directs the majority. The literal definition of the term democracy as ‘government by the people’ has, except in very small political communities, no real meaning, while the concept of the ‘common good’ turns out empirically to be more the fictitious product of the governing minority than the driving force behind the political process. But if it is not possible to change the minority character of the political class, nor to think of the will of the people as the subject that decides about political problems, it is possible instead to reverse the terms of the problem and design a realistic democracy in which the people have an effective opportunity to accept or reject the men who are to govern them. In other words, starting from the observation that the people’s task is to produce a government, or an intermediate body that will in turn generate an executive, Schumpeter proposes to identify democracy with a specific way of selecting the political class. From this perspective, democracy is “the institutional means of arriving at political decisions on the basis of which individuals obtain the power to make decisions through a competition involving a popular vote” (see Schumpeter, 1942; tr. it., p. 257). With this new definition, which qualifies as democratic a procedure of “acceptance” of a political class, Schumpeter emphasizes how the degree of autonomy and popular initiative is connected to an effective competition between several individuals or several groups aiming at the attainment of power. Only the plurality of political forces vying for power and genuine competition for leadership constitute the last stronghold of defense of the democratic doctrine, the only possible way to reconcile the inevitability of a minority political elite with the direct intervention of the vast majority of citizens. In these terms, the theory of elites and the doctrine of liberal democracy are not only not contradictory, but become complementary: Schumpeter’s theoretical proposal amounts to an integration of elitist elements into a democratic scaffolding, which replaces the concept of ‘government of the people’ with that of ‘government approved by the people.
Given that democratic politics is also dominated, to a greater or lesser extent, by elites entailed the identification of the following requirements deemed indispensable to configure effective compatibility between elites and democracy: (1) the electorate is able to choose among a plurality of competing elites; (2) elites cannot make their power hereditary or prevent new social groups from gaining access to top positions; (3) elites gather support from shifting coalitions so that none can become permanently predominant; and (4) the various dominant elites in different sectors of society never establish a common alliance. Put in these terms, the initial opposition between elites and democracy would be overcome by the formula ‘democratic elitism’ by which it is intended to indicate that in a polyarchy political power is exercised through an alternation between different mobile and open elites, elites that propose themselves and do not impose themselves, and that the influence that the people as electorate operates on the government ultimately depends on the actual pluralism of elites and the actual competition that takes place between them. All this amounts, as noted by Peter Bachrach in his work The theory of democratic elitism (1967), not only to repudiating the ethical ideal of classical democracy and downplaying participatory instances, but above all to reaffirming the inalterability of the elite-mass dichotomy even in contemporary industrial societies. In classical theory, the focus of attention was on the people and their participation in power; in democratic elitism, the focus is on the elite and its pluralistic and competitive character, resulting in the retreat of the egalitarian principle from equality of power to equality of access to positions of power.