Introduction: stated that ‘power is the probability that


This essay aims to explain how the elitist approach appears to be the most suitable analytical
perspective to identify where political power lies in current liberal democratic states: it contributes to
expose a fake and manipulated democracy. The first part of the text, through the definition of
political power, liberal democracies and elitism, will set the limits of the research. Secondly,
supported by classical sociology, elites will be analysed, regarded as the protagonists in the whole
socio-political panorama, with a further focus on the relationship between elites-mass, elites-
democracy and elites-interests. The final part will apply the elitist perspective in the Italian context.
In fact, it is possible to unambiguously observe most of the listed characteristics: now, as before,
political power and decision-making are held in the hands of a few, often, mostly inclined to make
choices driven by opportunistic dictates, instead of thinking of the common good. Through the
analysis of the current context, it will be outlined that, in the most recent period, a new controversial
movement is born, aiming, not only, to dislodge this fixed pattern, but also to call for an authentic
democracy, not assertive to the interests of the most powerful ones.

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Section 1: Defining the “limen”: political power, liberal democracies, elites and elitists.

Defining what we mean by “political power” is the first step to explain how elitism is often deeply
embedded in many states, including Italy. It can be argued that a definition of power would seem
taken-for-granted because of its self-evidence. Many scholars attempted to define it: Max Weber,
for instance, stated that ‘power is the probability that one actor … will be in a position to carry out
his own will despite resistance’ (Weber, 1978). His definition resembles Dahl’s one: one imposes his
will over another (‘A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something B would not
otherwise do’ Dahl, 1957). A more elaborated perspective is given by Hanna Arendt (1970), which,
unlike the previous two, focuses and emphasises on the idea of power as a collective will: those ‘in
power’ have been enabled by a certain number of people to act on their behalf and their authority
doesn’t originate only from violence or in the raw desire to dominate. De facto, it is possible to
affirm that political power surrounds everything and everybody: a community without power is just
chaos (Shokri, 2017 p.2). The absence of political power or political rights, indeed, carries a total
lack of order. ‘Individuals, societies, and institutions seek to justify their political power since it is
one main angle of preservation – obtain immunity – and effective rule’ (Shokri, 2017 p.6).

Secondly, also explaining ‘liberal democracies’ is a prerequisite. It accurately refers to a specific
political regime based on the imperative combination of two principles: the liberal one, concerning
individual rights (such as, inter alia, freedom of expression, faith and press) and the democratic
one, concerning popular sovereignty. In the Italian case, specifically, the transition to a liberal
democratic state occurred with the enactment of the “Albertine Statute” in 1848, which acknowledged liberalism principles (legality, freedom and equality) and implemented a progressive
expansion of the right to vote.

The third key step concerns a remark over elites. They are deep-rooted in the classical sociological
speculation and many scholars attempted to define the semantic concept. According to Pareto,
for instance, the word denotes either those individuals who most excel and emerge in specific
aspects of life or those who own much power or wealth. Nevertheless, the word “elite” might face
semantic confusion. The origin can be derived from the Latin past participle “electus”, from
“eligere”, interpretable as “exclusive”, or with a French expression, as “la creme de la socie?te?”.
Regarding the political context, it matches the concept of “aristocracy”, literally “the ruling of the
best ones”. To this regard, the figure of an elitist is fundamental: they are often seen as gifted
characters, with great abilities and exceptional capacities. Elitists, just like the Machiavellian prince,
must be capable of wisely using both the bestial side and the reflexive and astute one in order to
either sympathise, comprehend or deceive the mass (simulare and dissimulare, the metaphor of the
lion and the fox, Machiavelli, 1513). The other way to intend the term “elite” is related to the
pejorative meaning. Since it implies a sense of superiority, it is in contradiction with the concept of
“democracy”, which supposes a general equality of status. Many scholars’ critiques highlight
elitism as a mechanism of social discrimination where those in charge only safeguard their interests
rather than the communities’ ones and where, overall, climbing the social ladder is almost

Section 2: How do elitism actually function? Relationship between elites-mass, elites-
democracy, elites-interests.

“Elitism” refers to a specific political theory based on the concept that, in every society, a ruling
minority is in possession of both the decisional power and the most powerful resources. This
perspective is established on the belief of “social atomisation”: over a chaotic and blurry mass,
elites stand up as the ruling actors in the socio-political panorama, with a stable power able to
perpetuate itself. According to Mosca and the classical elitist perspective, a fundamental inequality
is to be found as an historical evidence: on one side those who rule, on the other, those who obey.
As a result, the political establishment is always an oligarchy. In political terms, it can be said that,
overall, political elites consist of people who are able, whether by virtue of key positions in
influential organisations and movements or by wealth or by merits, to affect political outcomes,
which are the basic stability or instability of political regimes. In fact, this is clearly explained by
Weber’s concepts of power and domination which represent the essential fulcrum of contemporary
elite theory: the dualism mass-elite.

Elites are meticulously differentiated and stratified with functional purpose: address every aspect of
the society. However, it is their small size and internal cohesion that allow them to monopolise a
society. Mosca, while outlining this feature, identified the rule of the three C’s: cohesion,
consciousness and conspiracy. The last criterium is essential: the minority, by camouflaging its
power, hides itself from the mass, which is blind and lost. As argued by either Pareto, Michels and Mosca himself, however, these criteria don’t make elites eternal: elites can be substituted, but only
by another set of elites (hence Pareto’s definition of history as ‘a cemetery of elites’). It qualifies as
an elites circulation, where elites are overturned by elites in the continuous struggle of prevaricating
on each other. Regardless of this form of circular equilibrium, the central aspect, a majority
inevitably ruling a minority, is always preserved as the inalterable one-sided relationship between
rulers and ruled.

To this regard, as discussed above, the elitist theory is founded on specific assumptions: first of all,
that the masses are intrinsically incompetent, secondly that they are pliable, passive and with an
‘insatiable proclivity to undermine both culture and liberty’ (Bachrach, 1969 p.2). This entails a
categorisation of man into higher and lower orders, precisely the opposite of a democratic
perspective. Likewise, one major difference regards the diverse approach as to what constitutes
the public interest: the elitist attitude, unlike the democratic one, sees the general interest in line
with the elites’ judgements. However, since the ‘elite is enlightened, thus its policy is bound to be
the public interest’ (Bachrach, 1969 p.5), they seem to be competent to pursue a common interest
for the whole community. This is also stressed by the fact that elites are not entirely untied, but a
certain degree of pressure is exerted ‘from the passions by which the masses are swayed’ (Pareto,
1902 p.51): an evident interrelationship of political organisations and social forces is undeniable.
Joseph Schumpeter stated that democracy appears uniquely as a mean for people to either accept
or reject the men ‘who are to rule them’ (1942, p.285). In any case, no direct democracy is ever
possible, only representative: a strict minority possess greater power than those whom they
represent (Bottomore, 1993 p.90). And since elites’ authority requires a certain degree of autonomy,
a continuous effort in empowering themselves is made. As pointed out by John Highly and Jan
Pakulski, ‘elitism means identifying and promoting conditions that enhance elite effectiveness’. The
core of classical elitism is, indeed, the idea of “elite inevitability”, meaning that society is
necessarily manoeuvred by, and only by, elites.

Section 3: History of elites in Italy hitherto

Italy can claim, undoubtedly, the longest and most entangled connection with elitism. The
paradigm itself can be witnessed in the ancient Rome: during the monarchic phase the patricians
(patricii) were the only one in charge of legal authority. Belonging to this social rank, strongly
exclusive, was fixed by birth. Then, during the republican period, the number of patrician families
exponentially decreased and a new minority social class arose: the “nobilitas”, opposed to the
mass, the “plebs”. As of the second half of the XIII century, new principalities are born and new
elites are established, more competitive than before. Even a very brief glance at the past shows us
how elitism, always “one sex only” and gerontocratic, is very much deep-rooted in the Italian

Still today, the Italian framework has one of the highest rate of public disparity, second only to
Portugal and Estonia. In the recent past, power was concentrated in the hands of great aristocratic
and bourgeoisie elites, then, later substituted by those ones defined as democratic. However,

14th Dec. 2017 Essay PL10967
nowadays, even these latter ones are on the verge of decline in favour of other elites, which are

most capable, unlike the previous ones, to establish international relations and networking. As
such, it is appropriate to refer to them as the winners of a new relational capitalism. Since the birth
of the Republic, we can observe at least three main elites’ sequence. The first one prone to the
recovery and revival of the country in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. The
second one, on the other hand, was more concerned with the incorporation of broad economical
areas into the public sphere of competence. The last kind, finally, was involved with the
personalisation of the public sphere, especially after the political parties’ crisis (Marchiano?, 2016).

As explained by Michels, through the “iron law of oligarchy”, every organisation, despite its
democratic start, eventually develop into oligarchies: ‘who says organisation, says
oligarchy’ (Michels, 1914). Especially in political parties there is underlined a fundamental
specialisation, which hence builds bureaucratically a party, creating leaders increasingly unbundled
from the original basis. Michels’ analysis (1914) reflects thoroughly the Italian situation: democracy
is not thinkable without some sort of organisation, which generates a solid power structure
identified in political parties. Political parties lead a majority, and its development produces either a
bureaucratisation and centralisation, which then becomes an exclusive and fixed caste. The
participation at the basis is, in the best scenario, a convenient fiction. The reason is that
democracy is merely regarded as the procedure and the mechanism through which political elites
are enabled to reach the government. The idea of substantial democracy, and everything with it
attached, wanes. The popular vote, through elections, is merely the procedural rule that decides
each time which political actor was better able to win over the mass. To this regard, Italy’s case
shows an evident falsity of an auto-representation of a, officially existing, democracy, but,
substantially, assertive to the oligarchy’s interests. Affairs can interfere with the government, not
vice-versa. The consequence of this ‘long-term relationship’ is that citizens feel more and more
kept out from democratic circuits, seen as guaranteer of only private interests. Consequently, they
choose either abstention or to vote for populist parties. And it is in this exact, yet worrying, context
that charismatic figures emerge, even in their most extremist form. Furthermore, frequently, elites
tend to block the access to power to new social forces. However, now, a new political entity,
Movement Five Star, by many considered populist, is rising, trying to reverse these trends and
enter into the political framework. They invoke e-democracy, direct democracy and the idea of
politics not as a career, but only as a temporary service to the community.


To conclude, given the great ability of elites in retaining the power through either organisation,
order or merits, it can be said that these political entities have shaped and, still today, are
successfully shaping the social context. Potentially, this could be a very efficient regime when the
elite’s interest coincides with the community’s one, but this scenario is quite rare, if not even
idealistic. A strict minority rules over a large majority, always safeguarding and prioritising itself
first. Finally, the case-study above mentioned tried to illustrate how even in a country, globally recognised as democratic, hidden elements of elitism can be detected, revealing how the elitist perspective is indeed the most appropriate one to define where political power lies.