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Alfred de Grazia: Discovering National Elites





The rural elements of a population or elite consist of people to whom agricultural, nomadic, pastoral, lumbering or related and dependent pursuits are the important ones, and who live in small towns or open country. The capital of a country whose population is heavily rural will, of course, reflect strongly the rural interests, but it is considered the center of a more general elite. Here the focus rests upon the special conditions of rural leadership.

A common empirical error is the belief that rural elements are the same the world over. On the contrary, there are large numbers of rural functions, rural social systems, and hence rural elites. For instance, the industrial, transportation, and agricultural revolutions have struck the rural areas of the world with varying impacts. In many regions - most of the U.S.A., parts of the U.S.S.R., Denmark, to name three - the rural population has become urbanized by universal education, rapid communication, travel to and from cities, the decentralization of industry, universal military service and other widespread modern conditions. In others - China, Siam, India, and parts of many other places - rural life has changed little over the last milennium. In addition, in these and other areas, urbanized rural life lives along side the original country society, producing two different modes of life, each with different goals, methods, and political attitudes. The analysis of rural leadership must take into account these numerous differences.

Scarcely any universal trait of rural leadership may be cited. Conservatism, for example, which is supposed to characterize the rural mind, is often not true of particular areas, or at least requires such a stretching of the term as to make it useless. The Iranian large landlord is not conservative in the same way as the American midwest farmer, and so on through many similar comparisons. The same holds for other presumed universal traits, such as "respect for authority," "stability," "superstition," "isolation from human contact," or "high patriotism." They may or may not exist in high degree in given localities. What is true of popular attitudes pertains also to rural leadership. Generalities are easy to make but misleading. Better to engage in some kind of social analysis - no matter how rudimentary - before judging the prevalence of attitudes and behavior. Some of the elements of such an analysis are contained in the paragraphs to follow.


XX-1. Hereditary connections of the rural elite. Hereditary elites springing from urban societies are rare. The aristocracy of the Venetian Republic was an exception to the general course of development by which a rural society- through conquest or systems of land-holding - generates a class with hereditary privileges. The most abundant provider of nobility is a feudal system, such as most of Europe possessed in medieval and earlier modern times. A hereditary monarchy itself does notipso facto signify a nobility extending beyond the monarch’s immediate family or person. Manchu China, with its emperor and his bureaucracy exemplifies this condition.

Also, titles of hereditary nobility nowadays do not necessarily signify present or former land-holding. In some countries, part of the nobility retains its titles without owning land; it is urbanized and its members may be found in the professions, business or other pursuits. In other cases, titles are granted for exploits or aid to the ruler and land ownership may occur subsequently.

Titles are equivalent to a guaranteed prestige "income," land ownership to economic income; together they form an imposing combination for gaining power. Large-scale land ownership with title of nobility everywhere is coupled with large powers in the local government and some important actual or potential contribution to the central government. The age of the combination a man possesses and the grandeur of both title and holdings suggest the potential power that may be ascribed to the position of the incumbent, but may not at all indicate his actual power role in the society.

XX-2. Composition of rural elements. The rural population is not composed wholly of farmers, and some knowledge of the occupational composition of rural areas is essential. Rural power centers are small towns and trading centers shading into larger provincial cities. Inhabitants of open country are unlikely to be politically active or generally influential. In the town, one encounters the doctor, lawyer or "fixer," priest, money-lender, land agent, artisan, vendor, and laborer. Rural power is often concentrated in the hands of a combination of occupations with "dirt farmers" constituting a modest percentage of the total. For instance, a survey of the economic status and occupations of the leaders of a "radical" Saskatchewan rural movement (The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) revealed the figures.




Saskatchewan 1941 Total Population C.C.F. Delegates Cooperative Delegates
Size of farm (acres) 433.2 673.7 689.4
Value of farm 6,435.7 12,983.4 14,189.9

Another example may be adduced from a study of AAA crop control elections in selected southern countries, where it was observed over a period of years that the administration of this "grass roots" opinion apparatus was predominantly managed by local bankers, lawyers, and others of an education and economic status considerably above that of the farmers themselves.



Convention Delegates Constituency Executives Prov. Council & Constituency Presidents Total
Workers 45.9 63.6 52.2 50.0
Buisness and Professionals 43.4 24.7 38.1 34.3
Teachers 11.2 11.7 9.6 11.3

*From Seymour Lipset, Agrarian Socialism, 1950

Generalizations about the character of leadership in villages and country of a nation are not difficult. Ordinarily, the power structure of a given local unit is easily observed or learned. It is much more difficult to determine how much the power of a local ruling group extends outward, and also whether the local elite found in one village will be replicated everywhere in the nation. In respect to the first point, a big fish in a small pond may never find himself in the large pond. Here the observer can rely both upon direct field investigations or on deductions from what is known generally about the society in determining by all indicators of contact and relationship, whether the local leaders belong usually to larger leadership groups, as when they are heads of farmers’ associations or members of parliament.

On the question whether the local elite is the same in all localities, one need not be above randomly sampling the rural settlements of a society, and ascertaining the political structure of each type in the whole. In Italy, for example, one encounters several varieties of general rural political-social structures - large landholders; independent commercial farmers; subsistence farming; etc. Each reflects itself in a different kind of elite. The proportion each plays in the whole of Italy is indicated by the sampling results. One would not achieve the same picture by looking solely at the governmental structure, which, like that of France, is uniform throughout the nation.

The same mode of sampling is useful, also in obtaining a notion of the range of variation throughout the land among villages of the same general type.

XX-3. Family role in rural centers. Frequently, in the small rural centers, the power of individual families is considerable. There are many more "family towns" in the world than there are "company towns." It is well to inquire how primitive is the agriculture and how old the cultivation of an area, for a recent nomadic history and a low level of agricultural development are frequently associated with a form of rule by extended families, clans, or tribes.

XX-4. Class structure in rural centers. Overlapping with hereditary or familial organizations where they exist, and existing independently in any event, will be found a class structure of varying extent and intensity. The Chinese village system is founded, for example, upon a basic division into two classes of peasantry and gentry, with outside traders, officials and freebooters entering into the village as foreign but powerful interlopers. The elders of the principal gentry families are the ruling group for local policies and treat with the outsider on matters that involve the hsien or village with the outside world.

But this is only one of many possible rural class structures. American surveys show more complicated, indeterminate and multiple class tendencies. A study of a rural central New York community revealed eleven distinct levels of prestige among the population of 1235 persons. The rating of the people were made by a panel of 14 community members. More or less levels could have been formed and used to analyze the population, just as, in the Chinese case cited, the gentry and peasantry might be further subdivided on the basis of additional criteria regarding ownership, wealth, office-holding etc.. The Sixth Congress of the Chinese Comintern reminded communist strategists of the presence of a hierarchy of many stages, consisting of "landlords and sublandlords as parasitic intermediate links between the laboring cultivator and the big landowner or the state." It further declared that "the longer represent a homogeneous mass. In the villages of China and India ... it is already possible to find exploiting elements derived from the peasantry who exploit the peasants and village laborers through usury, trade, employment of hired labor, the sale or leasing of land..." The operator should not feel some absolute number of classes necessarily exists. A rural caste system is likely to be very tight between castes, but otherwise the important question to answer is how people stand or relation to one another and in relation to the outside world, with respect to the criteria of prestige and wealth in order to ascertain their appropriateness and vulnerability to the message. The adjoining diagram, Figure 8, gives a picture of one kind of structure generalized for several Balkan countries before World War II.

Figure 8

XX-5. Seeking typical agrarian conflicts. Among the distinctions found in rural societies are several that have been associated often with agrarian discontent and revolt. They are: the small proprietor versus the large proprietor; tenants versus landlords (including tenants versus absentee landlords, as in the ancient Roman latifundia, old Ireland and France in the ancien regime hired laborers versus owners of estates; tariff and pricing policies of the government; landowners versus money-lenders.

XX-6. The methods of the rural elite. Rural elites have been and are frequently skilled in the use of violence, and weak in the use of bargaining and propaganda. Mosca writes: "In savage or barbarous counties where economic production is very rudimentary, all adult males are soldiers in the rather frequent event of war...One factor favorable to the permanence of such a state of affairs is the existence of very small political organisms - a de facto autonomy on the part of each little tribe or village, which can make war a daily routine and thefts and reprisals between neighbors unending." Contrasting with this is the tendency towards bureaucratic centralism that results in heavy recruitment of soldiers from the country, leaving no military power in the villages, as has been the case in China and India for many centuries. The soldiers may return, but as conquerors. There are within this latter framework ample opportunities for skills in bargaining to make their way - as with the moneylenders or bankers, the officials, and the warriors who seek to exploit the local community.

There is also room in the same structure, as it is found in the new decreasing but still vast colonial world of the Orient and Africa, for a new kind of market economy - with its own elite of brokers, carriers, storers, dealers and scientific planters and agents overlaying and adjoining the traditional economy and elite. The imposition or development of a popular representative government or communist revolution introduces the instrument of propaganda into the everyday politics of such rural areas. It is in this sense that the fertile territory for communism is ipso facto the fertile territory for capitalistic democratic agitation as well. The two propagandas do not demand different breeding grounds. The success of communism among the agrarian "masses" (a false term, since the peasant mass is differentiated by political skills into leaders and followers) is not the "natural success" of agrarian revolution. It has been success by default, because capitalistic democracy has had more lucrative fields to develop than illiterate, oppressed and impoverished areas provide, and has not "gotten around to them."

XX-7. Occupation of rural elite. Although the existing occupational structure of the rural elite is easy to obtain or observe, the potential sources of the elite are more difficult to discover. Leadership in stable times is often reflected in the existing occupational structure, for example, the local lawyer, banker, miller, and large land-holders. In the Western rural community rural leadership in troubled times comes from sources less predictable than urban leadership. One fact has to do with the quality of the discontent - is it revolutionary or simply rebellious? Where a revolution is building up, one may find in rural areas an ideological leadership emerging from students, teachers, or priests, as in England during the early seventeenth century, and most of the Orient today. Morris Watnick writes of the latter regions (1951), "whatever it may be that we are facing in southeast Asia today, it certainly does not resemble the classic uprisings of peasant jacquerie, but a highly organized and well-integrated movement, with a leadership that has transcended the immediate urgencies of its mass following and can plan ahead...That leadership is supplied by the new indigenous intelligentsia." Maps of the type of Figures 9a and 9b (from North,op. cit.) can help plot the similar or distinctive sectional and rural origins of opposed elites.

Click on the Map to Enlarge it !!

Sometimes the leaders of rural movements are not even located in rural areas, though they must, of course, have entreé the rural elite. Thus were the physiocrats of eighteenth century France, the northern manufacturers of pre-civil war United States (leading the min-western farmers) and the many nationalist leaders who have sought tariffs to protect the "virtues" of ruralism and autarchy to prepare for war.

Non-ideological agrarian rebellions that lack persistent leadership and long-term orientations are led frequently by men who come from "nowhere." Writes Mosca: "The initial leaders of rural insurrection are usually but little superior to the peasants themselves in education and social status. The famous Spanish cabecilla Mina was a muleteer. In Naples in 1899, Rodio was a country lawyer. Pronio and Mammone had once been farm laborers, and Nunziante, at best, had been a sergeant in the army. Andreas Hofer, who led the Turolese revolt in 1809, was a well to-do tavern keeper. The initial moves in the Vendean insurrecttion were led by Cathelineau, a hack driver, and Stofflet, a game watchman."

XX-8. Formal versus informal organization of rural elites. The stereotype of the rural elite is of an informal association or network. Often it is thought to be an unconscious combining of powers. In reality, rural elite networks vary from the highly informal to the highly formal, with a great amount of overlapping among both kinds, as is true of all elite elements and the character of mens’ affiliations generally. Writing of the Chinese gentry, Haias-Tung Fei says : "A big house is an empire by itself. The members, like subjects, live under the rules and whim of the patriarch...By such a string kinship organization, the political power of the house in the logger community is secured. The members, even the servants, of the house enter the power structure of the nation with facility." This picture contrasts sharply with the situation in Denmark, for example, where an elaborate formal system of agricultural cooperatives holds political power and dominates the government for the benefit farm interests. Perhaps somewhere in between would fall French rural society, where less politically powerful syndicates of farm producers act formally in politics, where a strong family structure exists, and where the rural elite is complicated by the presence of priests, school teachers paid by the central government, elected and appointed officials, the remnants of aristocracy, doctors, lawyers, traders, and money-lenders.

Agrarian political parties are common in many countries but rarely hold power. They arise from the changes referred to earlier and tend to disappear into communist or fascist movements or the bolster over a period of time religious and centrist parties. Rarely have the leaders of an agrarian movement been able to establish permanent rule, even in a highly rural country, and to subject decisively to their power the financial and large land-holding interests they were directed against.

XX-9. Rural office-holding. The constitutional structure of a state will give clues to the presence and power of rural elements. Federalism, for example, decentralizes power along territorial lines and promoted the achievement of power by land-vested interests. Many of the American countries, including the United States, show such a strong formal encouragement of rural elements and interests. Limiting recruitment of the elite by territorial apportionment accomplishes this, whether called federalism or by another name. Filling quotas of the bureaucracy or military commissions by districts would be examples. So would laws that candidates for parliament must reside in the districts from which they hope to be elected. Moreover, one should examine the representation accorded to rural interests in qualifying candidates for offices in private rule-making bodies such as conservation commissions, dairy control boards, grain exchange regulatory boards, and the like.

XX-10. Rural influences on other elite elements. A large part of any population that is not rural has rural origins. Rural origins only have lingering effects on thought and behavior but where found in concentrated form, rural background is an important determinant of rural behavior. Certain important vulnerabilities, such as the preference for psychological as against forcible conversion of the opposition, may thus be made manifest and explained. Divisive propaganda may fail because the general elite has strong rural ties. A large part of the church or military leadership may spring from rural origins, isolating them to an important extent in kin, idea, morals and behavior from other "cosmopolitan" portions of the general elite. An inquiry into the general elite’s background should determine the extent of recent ruralism within it.

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