Skeptics of Democracy and Defenders of Freedom

Skeptics of Democracy and Defenders of Freedom
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In the United States, it is often said, “the people rule.” This is one of the myths or “political formulas” that legitimize those who exercise political power in this country. The American government at the federal, state, and local level is nowhere a pure democracy where the people rule themselves. We are instead a constitutional republic where, as in all other forms of government, political power is held and exercised by a “ruling class,” a group of elites who make, interpret, and execute laws and rules that govern the citizenry.

The great socio-political thinkers Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels, and James Burnham have written eloquently and persuasively about the universal political phenomenon of the ruling class. They have left us with four books that strip away the myths and political formulas to reveal the truth about those who exercise political and social power under all forms of government.  

Gaetano Mosca was born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1858. He studied political theory and constitutional law at the University of Palermo in the late 1870s and early 1880s. He later taught at Palermo, Rome, and Turin, and returned to Rome to teach political theories. He was also active politically, serving in the Chamber of Deputies and later as a senator (for life) where he became a vocal opponent of Mussolini. 

Mosca’s theme: Ruling class and class that’s ruled

Mosca’s greatest and most influential work was The Ruling Class (1896). The principal theme of this work was his contention that “[i]n all societies . . . two classes of people appear — a class that rules and a class that is ruled.” The ruling class is always a small minority that “monopolizes power and enjoys the advantages that power brings.” Under all forms of government, Mosca wrote, an “organized minority” dominates the “unorganized majority.” 

The ruling class holds power in the form of a “bureaucratic state” that controls the levers of power. And it justifies and legitimizes its rule by “political formulas.” Such formulas, Mosca explained, can be based on “national feeling,” cultural traditions, historic memories, or loyalties to dynastic families. 

Even in democracies, a ruling class monopolizes power and privilege. “[E]very governing class,” Mosca wrote, “tends to justify its actual exercise of power by resting it on some universal moral principle.” In the United States, Mosca explained, political formulas “help to foster in the people . . . the illusion that democracy is a fact.” Mosca agreed with Herbert Spencer that “the divine right of elected assemblies is the great superstition of our present age.” 

Ruling class often favors socialism

Mosca wrote about the ruling class’s tendency to move toward socialism or some other form of collectivism, even where political leaders are elected by universal suffrage. Socialism and other forms of collectivism promise equality, the fair and just redistribution of wealth, and other “myths.” In democracies, according to Mosca, “[a]ll the lying, all the baseness, all the violence, all the fraud we see in political life . . . are used in intrigues to win votes, in order to get ahead in public office or simply in order to make money fast by unscrupulous means.” The ruling class issues laws and rules that the ruled must follow, but that in practice do not apply to the rulers. “Under collectivism,” Mosca warns, everyone will have to kowtow to the men in government.” It is the ruling class, moreover, that dispenses “favor, bread, the joy, and sorrow of life.” In the worst-case scenario, the ruling class will become “[o]ne single crushing, all-embracing, all engrossing tyranny.” In the best-case scenario under liberal democracies, the ruling class is not static but is open to change from below. 

Pareto embraced ‘the circulation of elites’

Vilfredo Pareto was born in 1848 in Paris. His family moved to Turin when he was 11-years-old and he later studied at Turin’s Polytechnic Institute. He worked as a railway engineer in Rome, then oversaw mining operations in the Arno valley. While living in Florence, Pareto studied the sociological writings of Auguste Comte. In 1894, he became the chair of political economy at Lausanne, Switzerland. Pareto moved to Celigny and inherited a sizeable fortune, which enabled him to write his magnum opus, The Mind and Society (1916). 

Like Mosca, Pareto in The Mind and Society used a scientific approach to write about society and politics. Like Mosca, Pareto, too, studied elites within various societies. Pareto categorized all societies as divided into two general groups: a higher stratum that includes the rulers and a lower stratum that includes the ruled. He called the higher stratum of elites who govern societies “aristocracies,” and explained that they are “always in a state of slow and continuous transformation” — a phenomenon he called “the circulation of elites.” 

Pareto: ‘Popular representation’ merely fiction

Pareto, too, believed that “popular representation” was a fiction; he used the term “so-called democratic governments.” In all societies, he wrote, “one finds a governing class of relatively few individuals that keeps itself in power partly by force and partly by the consent of the subject class, which is much more populous.” 

Pareto refers to members of the ruling class as “plutocrats,” who are “at all times busy making money, either on their own account or to sate the hungry maws of their partisans and accomplices; and for anything else they care little or nothing.” And there is among the governing class a smaller, more powerful “choicer class” that “effectively and practically exercises control” — he gave as examples the Ephors of Sparta, Venice’s Council of Ten, the party caucus in England, and the political conventions in the United States. The governing class maintains its power, Pareto explained, by using force and skill or guile, like Machiavelli’s lion and fox. 

Michels believed organization tends toward oligarchy

Robert Michels was born in Cologne in 1876. He studied at schools in England, the Sorbonne in Paris, and universities in Munich, Leipzig, Halle, and Turin. Michels later taught at universities in Turin, Basel, and Perugia. He was a member of the German Social Democratic Party in the early 1900s, but later left the party. In 1911, he wrote his most famous work Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy.  

Michels wrote that the ideal of democracy fails due to the “formation of an oligarchical camarilla.” All organization, he explained, “implies the tendency to oligarchy.” “In every organization,” he continued, “ . . . the aristocratic tendency manifests itself very clearly.” As organizations grow and become more bureaucratic, “democracy tends to decline.” 

Like Mosca and Pareto, Michels viewed representative government as “nothing but a continuous fraud on the part of the dominant class.” In democracies, the people get to exercise what Michels called the “ridiculous privilege of choosing from time to time a new set of masters.” The elected representatives of the people, he wrote, “have no sooner been raised to power than they set to work to consolidate and reinforce their influence.” Eventually, the people’s representatives emancipate themselves from popular control. There is among this ruling class a “natural love of power.”

Government and democracy can’t coexist

Michels called this universal political phenomenon “the iron law of oligarchy.” Every system of leadership—no matter what form of government is involved — is incompatible with democracy. The mass of people never rule, Michels wrote, except in the abstract. Instead, the oligarchs who achieve power by the ballot box and secure control of the institutions of collective power, do whatever is necessary to retain that power.

Politics just a struggle for power and privilege

James Burnham was born in 1905 in Chicago. He studied at Princeton and Balliol College, Oxford, and later taught at New York University. In the midst of the Great Depression, Burnham joined the international communist movement as a Trotskyite. Always anti-Stalinist, Burnham broke with Marxism in 1940. In 1943, he wrote his greatest socio-political work, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom.

Burnham in The Machiavellians synthesized the ideas and concepts of Mosca, Pareto, and Michels, and added the ideas of Machiavelli and Georges Sorel, to formulate a science of power and politics. All politics, Burnham explained, is a struggle for power and privilege. All political systems — including democracies — are governed by ruling classes that legitimize their power by political myths and formulas. Ruling classes use the coercive powers of the state to maintain and enlarge their political power and control. 

Burnham praised those courageous thinkers and writers because they told us the truth about political leaders and their love of power; they shattered ideals and abstractions in the service of truth; and they took down the curtain of myths and political formulas to reveal political and social realities. From their writings and his own study of history, Burnham learned that freedom and liberty are not protected by those in power, but by those opposed to the powerful. Constitutions, laws, and other parchment do not protect the ruled from the rulers — only power restrains power. “There is no one force, no group, and no class,” Burnham concluded, “that is the preserver of liberty. Liberty is preserved by those who are against the existing chief power.” 


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