The Circulation of Elites by Vilfred Pareto (1916) (part one)

Italian sociologist Vilfred Pareto (1848-1923), who is well-known for the “80/20 Pareto Principle,” penned a groundbreaking thesis about the Circulation of Elites. This idea is central to his sociological analysis, which provides a dynamic understanding of the emergence and dissolution of influential groups within societies and their direct or indirect influence on the entire country’s chain reaction. The theory itself, however, presents itself as both an academic construct and a story of society’s elites’ ongoing struggle and adaptability. The purpose of this series is to investigate the workings and consequences of this hypothesis.

Pareto classified society into two main groups: the Elites, who are those in positions of authority and influence, and the Non-Elites, who are the vast majority of people who do not have a lot of power (Pareto, 1916). This important division creates the conditions for a dynamic interaction between the groups as well as within them. According to Pareto, elites aren’t simply people in positions of power; they’re also people who have the capacity to influence society’s direction and governance via their influence, whether that influence comes from international organisations or bodies, morality, intelligence, money, or coercion.

This group is dynamic; some of its members shift through circulation without the general public being aware of it, while others do so through warfare. This cycle can be thought of as nature’s lifespan, where the old gives way to the young.

Let’s first explore the idea of circulation itself before exploring the mechanisms of circulation. Fundamental to his theory, Pareto defined circulation as a complicated evolutionary process that involves ongoing competition, regeneration, and decay rather than just as a straightforward replacement (Pareto, 1916). Such a Circulation takes place via two primary, independent mechanisms:

1) Attrition: Over time, elite groups gradually deteriorate due to complacency, decreased effectiveness, or a growing disconnection from the needs, demands, and realities of the moment.

2) Aggregation: New people or organisations gather resources, information, or popularity at the same time, presenting themselves as worthy successors to the current elite. Pareto provided a symbolic approach using the story of the Lion and the Fox. This can be compared to the idea found in “The Hedgehog and the Foxes,” which deals with realism and grand tactics. The two types of Elites that rule distinct stages of the circulation process are the lion and the fox. Whereas the “Lion” rely on strength and authority and are aggressive and direct in their approach.

On the other hand, “Foxes” utilise their cunning, guile, and strategic manipulation/s to achieve their ends. These (2) types rotate in power, which is reflected in the shift of not only in their personnel being, but also in their style of leadership and governance (Pareto, 1916).

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