In political and sociological theory, an elite is a small group of people who control a disproportionate amount of wealth or political power. In general, elite means the more capable group of the peoples. The selected part of a group that is superior to the rest in terms of ability or qualities.
C. Wright Mills wrote in his 1957 book The Power Elite of the “elite” as: “those political, economic, and military circles, which as an intricate set of overlapping small but dominant groups share decisions having at least national consequences. Insofar as national events are decided, the power elite are those who decide them”. Mills states that the power elite members recognize other members’ mutual exalted position in society.
“As a rule, ‘[t]hey accept one another, understand one another, marry one another, tend to work and to think, if not together at least alike’.”
“It is a well-regulated existence where education plays a critical role. Youthful upper-class members attend prominent preparatory schools, which not only open doors to such elite universities as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton but also to the universities’ highly exclusive clubs. These memberships in turn pave the way to the prominent social clubs located in all major cities and serving as sites for important business contacts”. The men who receive the education necessary for elitist privilege obtain the background and contacts that allow them to enter three branches of the power elite, which are:
- The Political Leadership: Mills contended that since the end of World War II corporate leaders had become more prominent in the political process, with a decline in central decision-making for professional politicians. The Military Circle: In Mill’s time a heightened concern about warfare existed, making top military leaders and such issues as defense funding and personnel recruitment very important. Most prominent corporate leaders and politicians were strong proponents of military spending.
- The Corporate Elite: According to Mills, in the 1950s when the military emphasis was pronounced, it was corporate leaders working with prominent military officers who dominated the development of policies. These two groups tended to be mutually supportive”.
According to Mills, the governing elite in the United States primarily draws its members from three areas:
- Political leaders, including the president, and a handful of key cabinet members and close advisers
- Major corporate owners and directors
- High-ranking military officers
These groups overlap, and elites tend to circulate from one sector to another, consolidating power in the process.
Unlike the ruling class, a social formation based on heritage and social ties, the power elite is characterized by the organizational structures through which its wealth is acquired. According to Mills, the power elite rose from “the managerial reorganization of the propertied classes into the more or less unified stratum of the corporate rich”. Domhoff further clarified the differences in the two terms: “The upper class as a whole does not do the ruling. Instead, class rule is manifested through the activities of a wide variety of organizations and institutions…Leaders within the upper class join with high-level employees in the organizations they control to make up what will be called the power elite”.
The Marxist theoretician Nikolai Bukharin anticipated the power-elite theory in his 1929 work, Imperialism and World Economy: “present-day state power is nothing but an entrepreneurs’ company of tremendous power, headed even by the same persons that occupy the leading positions in the banking and syndicate offices”.
Who are the power elite?
The basis for power elite membership is institutional power, namely an influential position within a prominent private or public organization. One study of power elites in the United States under PresidentGeorge W. Bush identified 7,314 institutional positions of power encompassing 5,778 individuals. A later study of U.S. society found that the demographics of this elite group broke down as follows:
- Corporate leaders are about 60 years old; heads of foundations, law, education, and civic organizations are around 62 years old; government employees are about 56 years old.
- Women are barely represented among corporate leadership in the institutional elite and women only contribute roughly 20% in the political realm. They do appear more among top positions when it comes to cultural affairs, education, and foundations.
- White Anglo-Saxons dominate in the power elite, with Protestants representing about 80 percent of the top business leaders and about 73% of members of Congress.
- Nearly all the leaders are college-educated with almost half having advanced degrees. About 54 percent of the big-business leaders and 42% of the government elite are graduates of just 12 prestigious universities with large endowments.
- Social clubs
- Most holders of top position in the power elite possess exclusive membership in one or more social clubs. About a third belong to a small number of especially prestigious clubs in major cities like London,New York, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C.
Impacts on economy
In the 1970s an organized set of policies promoted reduced taxes, especially for the wealthy, and a steady erosion of the welfare safety net. Starting with legislation in the 1980s, the wealthy banking community successfully lobbied for reduced regulation. The wide range of financial and social capital accessible to the power elite gives their members heavy influence in economic and political decision making, allowing them to move toward attaining desired outcomes. Sociologist Christopher Doob gives a hypothetical alternative stating that these elite individuals would consider themselves the overseers of the national economy, appreciating that it is not only a moral but a practical necessity to focus beyond their group interests. Doing so would hopefully alleviate various destructive conditions affecting large numbers of less affluent citizens.
Global politics and hegemony
Mills determined that there is an “inner core” of the power elite involving individuals that are able to move from one seat of institutional power to another. They therefore have a wide range of knowledge and interests in many influential organizations, and are, as Mills describes, “professional go-betweens of economic, political, and military affairs”. Relentless expansion of capitalism and the globalizing of economic and military power binds leaders of the power elite into complex relationships with nation statesthat generate global-scale class divisions. Sociologist Manuel Castells writes in The Rise of the Network Society that contemporary globalization does not mean that “everything in the global economy is global”. So, a global economy becomes characterized by fundamental social inequalities with respect to the “level of integration, competitive potential and share of the benefits from economic growth”. Castells cites a kind of “double movement” where on one hand, “valuable segments of territories and people” become “linked in the global networks of value making and wealth appropriation”, while, on the other, “everything and everyone” that is not valued by established networks gets “switched off…and ultimately discarded”. The wide-ranging effects of global capitalism ultimately affect everyone on the planet as economies around the world come to depend on the functioning of global financial markets, technologies, trade and labor.
Since an elite is in traditional usage by definition a group, a single person cannot be an elite and a number of individuals cannot be elites. Individuals with power are however increasingly being referred to as “elites” in popular media and vernacular speech, a usage that is looked down upon by more academic English speakers.