Elite (from late eighteenth century French élite), is a term that originates from Latin eligere (“to choose, elect”). In political and sociological theory for a small group of powerful people that controls a disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege or political power in a society.
Identity and social structure
American sociologist 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 recognise additional 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 additionally 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 after 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 Mills' time a heightened concern about warfare existed, making top military leaders and such issues as defence funding and personnel recruitment quite 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 characterised by the organisational structures through which its wealth is acquired. According to Mills, the power elite rose from "the managerial reorganisation 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 doesn't do the ruling. Instead, class rule is manifested through the activities of a wide variety of organisations and institutions...Leaders within the upper class join with high-level employees in the organisations they control to make up what'll 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".
Power elite is a term used by American sociologist C. Wright Mills to describe a relatively small, loosely connected group of individuals who dominate American policymaking. This group includes bureaucratic, corporate, intellectual, military, media, and government elites who control the principal institutions in the United States and whose opinions and actions influence the decisions of the policymakers.
The basis for membership of a power élite is institutional power, namely an influential position within a prominent private or public organization. One study (published in 2002) of power élites in the United States under President George W. Bush (in office 2001-2009) identified 7,314 institutional positions of power encompassing 5,778 individuals. A later study of U.S. society noted demographic characteristics of this élite group as follows:
- Corporate leaders aged about 60; heads of foundations, law, education, and civic organisations aged around 62; government employees aged about 56
- Men contribute roughly eighty percent in the political realm whereas women only contribute roughly twenty percent in the political realm.
- White Anglo-Saxons dominate in the power élite, with Protestants representing about 80 percent of the top business leaders and about 73 percent of members of Congress.
- Nearly all the leaders have a college education, with almost half graduating with advanced degrees. About 54 percent of the big-business leaders and 42 percent of the government élite graduated from just 12 prestigious universities with large endowments.
- Social clubs
- Most holders of top positions in the power élite 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 City, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C.
Impacts on economy
In the 1970s an organised 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 isn't 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's 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 a large number of influential organizations, and are, as Mills describes, "professional go-betweens of economic, political, and military affairs". Relentless expansion of capitalism and the globalising of economic and military power binds leaders of the power elite into complex relationships with nation states that generate global-scale class divisions. Sociologist Manuel Castells writes in The Rise of the Network Society that contemporary globalisation doesn't mean that "everything in the global economy is global". So, a global economy becomes characterised 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 isn't 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.