There are major differences between the way many of us would like societies to function and their current function and form. Indeed, at the founding of this society, my main thrust was to look at processes that we can ‘rationally’ use to get away from a purely GDP-driven world dynamics. It is worth a quick look at the current model of democracy that we live in. For those that want a more basic introduction, please see a previous article and The Challenge of Democracy.
The competitive élitist and the pluralist models of democracy were conceived between the end of the XIX century and the first half of the XX. The latter wouldn’t have been born without the former, in that obviously bearing similarities with it, and didn’t stop to develop into neo-pluralism until recent decades, in that marking significant differences with competitive élitism and even pluralism itself in its original form.
The aim of this discussion will be to elaborate on these similarities and differences. In doing so, before reaching conclusions it seems appropriate to summarise the two models with the help of the philosophers, sociologists and economists who best represent them: among élitists, Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941), Max Weber (1846-1920) and Joseph Alois Schumpeter (1883-1950); and among pluralists Robert Dahl (1915-).
According to the competitive élitist theory, every political system is ruled by a political élite or élites. It was Sicilian social scientist Gaetano Mosca who first introduced this model, along with his fellow Italian contemporary sociologist, neo-Machiavellian Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), whose work was later developed by Schumpeter and Dahl into the pluralist model. Mosca defined democracy as a system in which competing élites are formally chosen or rejected by electors. However, he was convinced that members of Parliament were not actually elected by the people, but rather by their friends who arranged for them to be elected.
This is, in short, Mosca’s concept of élitism, a competition heavily relying on the nature of an organisation (the “friends”) which is nothing less than the bureaucracy described by one of the founding father of sociology, Max Weber, in what is perhaps his most important theory. Weber was the first to introduce the idea that modern political systems are becoming more and more similar among them because they all endure a process of bureaucratisation.
Bureaucracy’s special features include storing information on a vast scale and the fragmentation of functions according to the specialised abilities of experts. In this respect it is worth to recall the work of Roberto Michels (1876-1936), another Italian sociologist, who developed Weber’s thoughts on bureaucracy into the “Iron Law of Oligarchy”: if a form of organisation is necessary for effective action in society, that organisation unavoidably demands a bureaucracy and those bureaucracies, again unavoidably, concentrate power at the summit of a hierarchy, where few people control information, communication and finances. It is a fascinating theory about the civil servants controlling a given organisation ignore or distort the wishes of its membership. It basically is a development of Weber’s account of bureaucracy, and to Weber we go back in our discussion.
Another interesting theory derived from Weber’s work and relevant to our discussion on élitist bureaucracy is that on the “convergence thesis”, claiming that systems apparently very different such as those of the Soviet Union and the United States become increasingly similar because of the expansion of bureaucracy. This is a concept shared by Schumpeter in analysing how the huge size of modern industry determines a convergence between socialism and capitalism because of the need of bureaucratic management in both models of society.
Schumpeter’s pessimistic view of democracy (he didn’t trust humans as being able to act rationally) was that the ordinary citizen should not have any further role in the decision-making process other than taking part in periodic elections to choose between political parties, one or other team of competing leaders. In reinterpreting democracy as a system in which rival élites of party leaders vied for power through election, Schumpeter was to become the link between Weber and Dahl (see below), between the competitive élitist and the pluralist models.
Indeed, his thought could well be seen as the common ground between the two models of democracy we are examining here: we begin to see what in my opinion is the most important similarity between the competitive élitist and the pluralist model (which follows): differently from previous models such as, for example, the Marxist one, they do not tend to describe what would be the best model, nor to construct an example of what they wish to be the model, but they rather take a photograph of the existing model. As David Held explains in his Models of democracy:
Like Weber and Schumpeter, their [the pluralists’] goal was to be “realistic” and “objective” in the face of all those thinkers who asserted particular ideals without due attention to the circumstances in which they found themselves. Since the pluralists’ critique of such thinkers is similar in many respects to the critical treatment offered by Montesquieu, Madison, Mill, Weber and Schumpeter, the focus below will be on the pluralists’ positive understanding of democracy.
Among the many pluralist thinkers, each with his version of the pluralist model, Held chooses as the most representative a political scientist, Robert Dahl, who has in the last five decades dominated the international discussion on democracy for making its definition closer to the Western political system by developing the idea of polyarchy.
The root of this word is Greek, meaning the rule of the many, rather than the rule of the people as in democracy. It is a concept invented in order to describe the conditions of modern democracies, in which society is managed by interest and pressure groups with common goals and the government merely plays the role of mediator among them.
By studying the dynamics of power and influence in small American communities, Dahl came to the conclusion that a pluralist political system has several centres of power and sources of authority, rather than a single regulator. The government shares power with several other entities such as trade unions, industrial associations and business organisations, the administrative bureaucracy, interest groups and pressure groups (based on gender, class, religion, ethnicity…), and non-governmental organisations lobbying for the environment, human rights and civil liberties, etc.
Another original feature of pluralist theory derived from the study of community power is that a low rate of participation in democratic process is not necessarily regrettable. On the contrary, apathy in political involvement could even be seen as healthy in meaning trust by the people in those who govern them, while history shows that excessive participation often coincided with undesirable phenomena like fanaticism in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and communist Soviet Union.
David Truman (1913-2003), who shares with Dahl one of the longest ever memberships of the American Political Science Association, adds to the theory the explanation on how stability can be achieved in such a dispersive decision-making system: actually, “only the highly routinized governmental activities show any stability”, he writes in The Governmental Process, while organised interest groups may only play segments of the whole structure, each of them being too weak to impose its “Tyranny” (a concept of society fragmentation that Truman owes to Madison).
Pluralists like Dahl and Truman agreed with Schumpeter that the distinctive feature of democracies is the method of selection of politicians, but here ends the similarity and begins the difference: in fact, they broadened Schumpeter’s and Weber’s ideas to apply them to a multiplicity of social actors, using the same conceptual framework to show how the concentration of political power in the hands of competing élites was not inevitable.
What follows is a summary of other similarities and differences that I have noticed between the two models, in David Held’s presentation of them.
Both models find their principle of justification in the need to obstruct the emergence of exceedingly powerful political factions and leadership.
Among their key features, the two models share the principle of a healthy electoral competition between rival political élites and at least two parties.
Again among their key features, both models value the independence of a well-trained bureaucracy as a fourth pillar along the classical tripartition of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary (and the system of checks to balance their powers).
On an eminently philosophical dimension, pluralist Dahl maintains that the legitimacy of a political system ought to originate from “the depths of political culture”, while according to Schumpeter the simple acceptance of a competitive electoral system means a belief in its legitimacy.
Analogously, together with fellow pluralists Dahl insisted that democracy is firmly berthed in the harbour of society’s consensus, hence no politician would be successful in leaving a lasting impression unless in tune with a nation’s political culture; on the other hand, before him Schumpeter stressed instead the profound impact on democratic politics made by the direction given by competing (and competent) élites.
Last in this list, but probably the most noteworthy, is a feature of polyarchy limpidly explained by Held:
The democratic character of a regime is secured by the existence of multiple groups or multiple minorities. Indeed, Dahl argued that democracy can be defined by “minorities government”. For the value of the democratic process lies in rule by “multiple minority oppositions”, rather than in the establishment of the “sovereignty of the majority”. Weber’s and Schumpeter’s scepticism about the concept of popular sovereignty was justified, albeit for reasons different from those they themselves gave.
In conclusion, and as an attempt to answer the assessment’s second question, on which of the examined models I consider to provide the more convincing picture of contemporary democracy, it is quite obvious to point at the more recent and developed model, in its neo-pluralist version, because it is easy to recognise in it an important element which in our era of globalisation we have grown used to: the increasing influence of corporate capitalism over the other actors of pluralism. This represents another difference between the competitive élitist model and pluralism in its newer, neo-pluralist variant. Neo-pluralist author Charles Lindblom (1918-) writes:
Because public functions in the market system rest in the hands of businessmen, it follows that jobs, prices, production, growth, the standard of living, and the economic security of everyone all rest in their hands. Consequently, government officials cannot be indifferent to how well business performs its functions. Depression, inflation, or other economic disasters can bring down a government. A major function of government, therefore, is to see to it that businessmen perform their tasks.
Therefore, a government will follow a political agenda that is polarised towards corporate business, causing erosion of parliamentary politics and the marginalisation of those excluded from the political agenda itself. This is, in extreme synthesis, what neo-pluralism represents or, better say, what neo-pluralism differentiates itself from earlier pluralism. It is somehow ironic, although hardly surprising in consideration of the foreseeable counterattack of conservative forces, that the dissolution of pluralism into crystallised schools of neo-pluralist thought was the consequence of the 1968 social movement and the political polarisation subsequent to it, for it was precisely the 1968-69 social unrest in Europe and North America to highlight all the limits of a pluralist theory which reached its climax of popularity between the 1950s and the 1960s.
Neo-pluralist thinkers adjusted their theories. For example, in spite of being an admirer of free market economy, Lindblom himself grew increasingly uncomfortable in respect of the asymmetries of power that he witnessed in favour of big corporate business. Remedies to this unbalance are to be found in the future models of democracy which David Held delineates in conclusion of his book – democratic autonomy and cosmopolitan democracy – but are not the subject of this essay.
The competitive élitist and the pluralist models