Table of Contents 

PC.GIF     NC.GIF    

Alfred de Grazia: Discovering National Elites





A function of power is that of maintaining social order. A common element of this function is the process of "fixing" certain persons in a status hierarchy of social prestige, the designating of them either formally or informally as prestige bearers. They are given, by ascription, certain rights, privileges, advantages, immunities, and prerogatives at birth and, all things being equal, can pass such social favors on to their offspring who, in turn, have ascribed status. Within a given society the whole process is designed to give stability to the social order by the controls implied in the ranking. The process is one of inclusion-exclusion. The bearing of titles of office may or may not accompany the exercise of the rights, privileges, etc., involved in hereditary forms of social control.

The maintenance of social order is a preoccupation of those who govern or wield power. Many devices have been utilized in this process and history is replete with descriptions of systems of social control that have succeeded and others that have failed. Many systems that have succeeded have utilized hereditary prestige rankings to give stability to the working arrangements of the social structure. The most obvious ranking system is that which obtains in feudal social orders in which rank is dependent upon the control of land. Others such as the caste system of India or hereditary religious castes elsewhere, are also built around controls. They may involve trade and skill monopoly, service performance or sacerdotal functions. In such systems the social rankings must be generally accepted by the underlying population in a traditional and historical sense.


XXIII-1. Charting the hereditary structure based on land. It is well accepted that titles of nobility and feudal grants of authority were originally conferred on such persons as those who had performed a service for the ruling authority or who had, by force, demanded and obtained control of certain territories and peoples. At any rate, in a feudal system the top ranking person of authority is specifically designated and others measure their own authority in relation to him. The prince, for example, has power of taxation, war levy, and land rents over a wide territory but of lesser rank have lesser authority. The system, in all of its ramifications and complexities where it is a potent force, is essentially a measuring device for authority.

XXIII-2. Hereditary structures, non-landed. Where the feudal system has lost its potency in relation to land control, titles of nobility may still remain in force and be functional to a modified system of semi-feudal organization. By tradition, certain designated families retain certain rights, privileges and prerogatives. The general mass of people within such a system accept the gradations of social status as right, just, and forever-given so long as the scheme apparently meets their needs. Habit and custom provide a stable base upon which systems of authority and obedience rest. The hereditary elite are often ardent keepers of tradition. They perform roles prescribed by custom. Members of the elite hold to the rituals of their station by preference in most cases because the rights and privileges are desirable, but they also held to the rituals because they are duty bound to do so by the culture in which they operate. They provide a point of reference by which each man can measure his own status and gauge many of his actions.

XXIII-3. Describing symbolic hereditary destinations. Every social system has some modifications of the gradations so clear visible in a feudal system. An hereditary elite is directly powerful in those states and communities in which authority is an integral vestment of office. In such places, law and institutional sanctions butress habit and custom to make the system operative. In other areas the hereditary elite may be divested of direct authority and serve only as symbols of the ruling authority. English rulers are the usual example of the latter situation. These monarchs are used as symbols for the political purposes of the ruling ministries.

XXIII-4. Heredity in democracies: indices thereof. In societies dedicated to a democratic tradition there are also hereditary elites, although their rights and privileges may be more obscure and less well defined than in constitutional monarchic states. Property and money handed from one generation to another in democratic states lend social prestige and a modicum of power to those so possessed.

In modern societies, class systems are the generalized social structures that define gradations of eliteness or the lack of it. Much has been written about class systems and few authors agree on how many classes exist if they "exist" outside the minds of social investigators. Without repeating the arguments pro and con on class systems (come say there are three classes in America, for example; others say five or six; the Marxists say two), it can be postulated that men do use some rough classificatory system to measure their own social position in relation to others, particularly in those areas where feudal gradations have been blurred or obliterated. The process of identifying others in a class scale is primarily psychological in its operation.

There are apparently clusters of attitudes around occupations, living areas, wealth, ways of speaking and acting, and social origins that can be said to be class oriented. A group within a community, for example, whose members have traditionally gone into the practice of law, whose son and daughters have been educated in fashionable schools, whose homes are located in pleasant, healthy surroundings, whose "roots" have been in the community for a long period of history, and whose members speak the language of the region correctly, and act in a manner "approved" has a class status differing from members of the community who do not enjoy the distinctions cited.

If the members of the families cited above accumulate property and pass it on to their children, along with a relatively rigid code of conduct befitting their class, they may be said to be an hereditary elite regardless of whether the position they hold in society is prescribed by title. Community custom and habit will afford the families in question a degree of deference withheld from those of other social stations in the area.

XXIII-5. Determining the stability of inherited distinctions. Class systems of eliteness are generally more open than those based upon caste or other rigid rules of prescribed behavior. Individuals move up and down the class ladder during their lifetimes. Thus the class position "inherited" by a son may differ from that into which his father was born. Yet, there is enough stability in class positions that one generation tends to start at the base line of class position held by the parent generation. Hollingshead in tracing class positions of high school students in a medium sized community pinpointed the relative stability of class positions.

XXIII-6. Changes in hereditary elites. The foregoing does not imply that only the elements of stability must be observed. There is good reason to believe that all social groups are in a slow but constant state of change. Pareto and his followers have discussed at length the idea of "the circulation of the elites," whether hereditary or not. It would appear the that there is a slow but sure attrition of elite groupings in both class and feudalistic societies. The "comers" in any society bear watching.

Latin America gives one example of a "rising middle class." Traditionally many of the nations of Latin America have been dominated by a landed aristocracy with a semi-feudalistic outlook. Family position and land ownership have been the criteria for entry into policy-making positions and elite social position in general. The temper of the mass of people, and that of some of the elite gentry, has been to move in the direction of industrialization. Within recent years small scale industry has flourished giving rise to a relatively new class of individuals in the various nationality groupings. These persons are not yet "included" in all of the social strata of each society, but there is good evidence that they are arriving. Many industrialists marry into the "good" families, employ the sons of old families and in many other ways integrate themselves into the upper social structure. They represent the direction of change.

There are many ways of entering the "closed" circle of hereditary elites. Club memberships, political alliances, business and financial collaboration, intermarriage, and even more subtle and ingenious ways are made in society for inter-action between the hereditary elites and those who wish to be included in the inner circle.

The process of inclusion-exclusion is a key element in any system of eliteness. If one has social position by inheritance, he is automatically included in the elite circles supported by deference patterns extant in social circles. A closer knit, well supported hereditary elite holds an indisputable advantage over those who would try to break into the circle or destroy it. Newcomers cannot claim the privileges of birth; their inclusion can usually come only by sufferance. So long as the hereditary elite retains its vitality, reproduces itself, exercises the will to power, and makes decisions compatible with the basic wishes of the underlying population, it represents a social force that must be acceded to or, at best, compromised with in relation to decision-making and action in social situations.

XXIII-7. Ascertaining role of retainers. In many situations the hereditary elite may delegate its authority or retainers. It may become a purely leisure class. In such situations, of course, the retainers are powerful in the areas of responsibility delegated to them. The basic question here is one of the vitality of the hereditary elite and their ability and desire for actions related to power-wielding. The true test of power lies in the ability of the wielders to move others. If the ability is not exercised, a man may have latent power or he may merely be a symbolic figure in power operations. In many areas the hereditary elite have become symbolic, prestige figures. Such figures may be very important in the power pattern, but it is necessary to look elsewhere for those who exercise power. To cite an historical example, the major doom of the medieval Merovingian empire, founded the Carolingian line.

XXIII-8. Symbolic figures. Symbolic figures serve two primary functions in social action systems. They provide figures of reference and deference. The two functions are intertwined. In wielding power men are prone to "refer" to authority. They use such phrases as, "in the name of the King," or "in the name of the law." The latter implies non-hereditary authority "The King" includes the person of the King and a host of officers and petty officials who " do the King’s will." The King may be a symbol in a whole scheme of action, but at some place there will be people who formulate policy and enforce decisions in his name.

XXIII-9. Visibility of hereditary and free systems compared. Due to the strength of hereditary ties and the ease which, which one can refer to those who have hereditary authority, a system of power built along such lines is more readily visible and much simpler in its operations than when decision-making and action enforcement is more diffuse. Tracing family connections is a fairly simple procedure compared with tracing the lines of communication of multiple power pyramids.

XXIII-10. Indices of deference. Deference implies a yielding or submission of one’s own judgment, opinion, or preference to that of another. The status system of society depends upon these psychological elements. As long as the hereditary elite can depend upon the deference of those below them in the social scale, the system is in balance. Those immediately next to them in the social hierarchy defer to them, and in turn the canons of taste, preference, and the like of the middle group, becomes the power scale. There may be much fiction in all of the deference process, but so long as the chain of deference remains unbroken, the system operates with at least the passive accord of those at the top of the pyramid of power and prestige.

PC.GIF     NC.GIF    

 Table of Contents