“Changes of regime, revolutions, and so on occur not when rulers are overthrown from below, but when one elite replaces another. The role of ordinary people in such transformation is not that of initiators or principal actors, but as followers and supporters of one elite or another.”


“a conspiracy of an easily located set of villains”

Wright Mills

Anyone who reads pieces I write know I am generally optimistic about technology and its future. So let me begin by recommending a podcast with Jim Pethokoukis and Marc Andreessen which was conducted after Andreessen’s ‘the techno-optimist manifesto’ was published. I recommend it because while I chafed at lots of the written manifesto, and still disagree with many points, listening to Marc discuss it softens it up a bit and fleshes out some of the thinking that is not always possible to communicate in writing. I encourage everyone to read the companion piece to this one, a discussion on technocrats, because my biggest concern with Marc, and other technology people like him, is he makes some very scary things – things with massive existential risks – sound incredibly reasonable.

That said. Tucked into the podcast is a short section where Marc discusses ‘elites’ and ‘masses.’ It’s a bit jarring to hear “elites” particularly when it is discussed in terms of “the people who influence the decisions for the masses.” Both words, elites, and masses, are burdened with a number of negative halo perceptions. So today I discuss the concept of circulation of elite.

Which leads me to Pareto’s “circulation of elites.”

The circulation of elites is defined by the process whereby the ability to govern and the powers of government lie in the same hands as well as that process which allows for the expression of social interests within the elite circles. The circulation of elites theory is grounded in a belief that people are unequal intellectually and morally and the more gifted, those who are most capable in any particular grouping, are the elite.

“By elite, we mean the small number of individuals who, in each sphere of activity, have succeeded and have arrived at a higher echelon in the professional hierarchy.”

It was Emory S. Bogardus who said:

“The theory of elite is that in every society there are people who possess in a marked degree, the qualities of intelligence, character, skill, capacity, whatever kind, that there are two classes of elite, that the two groups are disjunctive at any given time, that there is an up and down circulation of elite.”

Circulation, or upward and downward circulation amongst the members of the elite and non-elite, is a typical characteristic of an ongoing cycle of social change. That said. Very few individuals may join the ranks of elites from the non-elite groups. And a few elites may become non-elite members of society. In a fair economic system, heck, a fair system in general, there should be a constant and free circulation of elites. Unfortunately, the circulation of elites is seldom ideally free or unimpeded. In fact, typically the only time a vast change in elites occurs is either through revolution or war. Despite that, as Pareto suggested, it is true that a steady flow of elite into vital positions enhances a stable society that does develop and progress – just not optimally.

“History is the grave-yard of Aristocracy.”


The cycle of history plays a really important role in that small ‘circulation’ of elites I mentioned earlier. It suggests an existing elite emerges, dominates, falls into decadence and falls in power to be replaced by new elites who have had disdain for the decadence or seek power with their new wealth. But, once again, most of the circulation of elites is on the edges – small percentages highlighted to create the perception of ‘movement.’  Certainly, some non-elite, by their merit, may rise to the level of elite and, of course, on rare occasions revolution overturns the elite class, but for the most part elites stay elite.

‘By the circulations of elites, “the governing elite is in a state of continuous and slow transformation. It flows like a river, and what it is today is different from what it was yesterday. Every so often, there are sudden and violent disturbances. The river floods and breaks its banks. Then afterwards, the new governing elite resume again and slow process of self-transformation. The river returns to its bed and once more flows freely on.”


Which leads me to how circulation is managed and limited.

Control and power is easier if you control and have power over the everyday population’s (masses) perceptions of what the system is and should be. To be clear, perception isn’t reality. Reality is reality. That said if the Elites can shape a perception, which encourages most of the people to generate a reality close enough to that perception, control can be maintained. What I mean by this is elites establish images of the system that prepare the people for their own particular conditions within which they will survive or thrive. Elites shape reality in a number of ways, through numbers, through imagery, through words, all with the intent to generate enough success for the masses so their position can be maintained.  This is a bit easier than one may think because reality is unlikely to be as we believe it to be. Which means that we approach everything with just a bit of skepticism because its never exactly how we wish it could be (or believe it should be) therefore begin thinking there is something wrong – just not with us or our own view. This leads the everyday person to begin questioning data/information which doesn’t support the perceived reality and that leads the everyday person to give up on science or rational thinking and embrace some dubious non empirical speculative thinking. This is bad (but elites take advantage of) because it is rational thinking, in particular, which helps us understand things about ourselves and our relation to the world. But possibly the most important image elites foster is one of safety. When the societal imagery is crafted well the Elites are seen as the safety net for the entire circus. The masses become dependent upon the Elites for a level of thinking. What this means is that the everyday person offloads some of the really important shit for a number of very good reasons and yet it will inevitably decrease learning among the masses of everyday people themselves. It is a structure and a system of dependency or somewhere there is some powerful leader or group of Elites who exist to ensure that no catastrophic events follow as a consequence of the irresponsibility of certain individuals. This entire perception driven system encourages all of the everyday people to assume someone else, never them of course, is stupid and likely to do irresponsible things and it is the elite who ensures that ‘stupidity and irresponsibility does not affect me as an individual.’ Ultimately this means that the majority of people mirror the system that they are placed within. That is basically how the elites embed control.

Which leads me to elites as a concept.

No matter how one decides to discuss ‘elites’ it has a nasty taste to it. For the most part we think of them as a group of people who believe they are smarter, more capable, and “more,” than the majority of society. Simplistically, partially true, and partially false, elites are the few who have the power and the majority are the many who do not have power to ‘pull the levers’ of policy and governance and business. This power decides who gets what, when, and how as well as the participation in the decisions that allocate things to society. They are the few who participate in the decisions that shape our lives while the majority of people are the many whose lives are shaped by institutions, events and the elites. Now. An elite group is not some conspiracy cabal desiring to oppress or exploit the masses. The reality is many elite decision makers may actually care about the welfare of the majority, but, they do so with an eye toward maintaining their own status and power and wealth. Regardless of theyir attitudes, we are stuck with them governing. This may chafe, but the reality is they possess more control over more resources and more information and knowledge of the processes then everyday people (note: this doesn’t mean an increasing amount of everyday schmucks think they are as qualified as the decisionmakers). This isn’t to suggest a well-organized, well informed, mass of non-elites can’t seek some control, but the truth is the majority of Americans are relatively apathetic and ill-informed about politics and public policy and, if we are honest, they have a surprisingly weak commitment to the freedoms that would actually give them power. What this means is that the critical element for the health of society (and a country) consists of the beliefs, standards, and competence of elites. This would also suggest that if society issues arc toward indecision, disaster, and crisis, the responsibility rests with the elite, not the majority, to find the solutions. This doesn’t mean the ‘masses’ never have any impact on the attitude of Elites, but only that elites influence masses more than masses influence elites. Once again, generally speaking, elitism is not a conspiracy to oppress society. It also doesn’t imply that those in power constitute a single body polity. This also doesn’t mean that the Elites in power are always in conflict with the masses and always desire self-interested goals at the expense of the public interest. All this means is that the decisions and direction are controlled by the elite. In the end elitism implies that public policy does not always reflect the demands of the people so much as it reflects the interests and values of Elites. This also means any change in policy or direction only occurs when, and if, the elites redefine their own values as well as what they value. And while the general attitude of an elite group is it is that it is always in their best interest to preserve the institutions and the systems, that doesn’t mean that public sentiment can’t affect a change in their attitudes and beliefs which can modify the existing systems. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that last sentence reflects that most changes tend to be incremental rather than revolutionary.

Which leads me to the economic elite.

It would seem like the main distinction between Elites and 99% is based primarily on control over the economic resources of society. This means that industrial and financial leaders compose a major part of the elite. This has been true since the dawn of time. Industrialization pooled extreme wealth creation and made a few men spectacularly wealthy. From there it became a short leap for the economic elite to believe they, rather than the government, should direct the country’s development. With that I offer a quick historical lesson from Heather Cox Richardson:

In June 1889, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie published what became known as the “Gospel of Wealth” in the popular magazine North American Review. Carnegie explained that “great inequality…[and]…the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few” were “not only beneficial, but essential to…future progress.” And, Carnegie asked, “What is the proper mode of administering wealth after the laws upon which civilization is founded have thrown it into the hands of the few?”

Rather than paying higher wages or contributing to a social safety net—which would “encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy,” Carnegie wrote—the man of fortune should “consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer…in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community—the man of wealth thus becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”

At the source of economic success attitudes and beliefs resides the fact America has never lacked for anything. This creates a sense of infinite abundance and a lack of appreciation, or respect of, of any scarcity. One of the consequences of this attitude/belief is that the ‘masses’ are continually drawn to ‘possibilities’ which, as a counterweight, simultaneously increases the likelihood of despair when possibilities are not attained. All of that said. We need to remind ourselves that the technology industrial machinery are solely instruments and it is people who are the true source of America’s power. Today there is tier of technocrats, business autocrats and inherited wealth who make up a more significant portion of the elite. In fact. Recently we recorded the first instance where inheritance, not entrepreneurship, has been the primary source of wealth for the majority of new billionaires. It is expected this trend will continue for the next 20 years (1000 billionaires passing an estimated $5.2 trillion on to children). The shift in the elite class will continue to accumulate wealth because we are in an economic period where market power consolidates in the hands of a few and market power has unprecedented power over governance and policy which ensures the power structure remains intact. I mention this shift only because it changes the challenges of how to break up the elite. Anyway. Circling back to an earlier comment, this is not a conspiracy within which there is some global cabal who ultimately make all of the decisions for everybody, like puppet masters, but rather they are part of a group of influential people that influence public policy and programs that impact society. And while people may be chafing on this whole concept of elite group making decisions I need to point out that the Founding Fathers of the United States were quite elite. They had elite education, elite experiences, and clearly viewed the United States not just in an isolationist or nationalist perspective, but as a nation among nations and had a very intentional international collective view. But getting back to economic elites, these economic elites – just like other elites – do not wield limitless power, they are nominally held in check by the ‘masses’ (shifting needs, wants, legitimate concerns, of the people). In fact, the process of the ‘circulation’ is often triggered by the existing elite’s ineffectiveness to meet the present problems, which effects their wealth, and new wealth ‘circulates’ into the economic elite. To be clear with regard to this group, as John Kenneth Galbraith said in A Short History of Financial Euphoria, “the relationship between intelligence and wealth is specious at best.” So, we do not always get the best and brightest simply through an economic narrative. That said. In capitalism, particularly with the advent of certain types of technology, wealth determines social status, and those possessing a disproportionate share of the capital, resources, and money to wield it all have assumed a disproportionate share of power. This inevitably creates a class bias based primarily on wealth where wealth is a fixed factor of the elites. In fact, while my information is dated, let’s say the wealthiest one-fifth of all American families hold nine out of every ten elite positions on the federal level with the next wealthiest controlling the remainder, save for a few token positions scattered among the rest.

Which leads me to experts versus elites.

I guess experts are part of the elites, but we need experts; not elites. I am not suggesting that we view those with the best qualifications and competencies as ‘the few who are chosen and everyone else is a failure and deserves to be forgotten,’ I will suggest that experts mostly get chosen because fewer people can actually do what they do – and do it well. I get that people are sick of experts, but that is misguided thinking because experts are experts for a reason. But, maybe worse, people are sick of thinking that people can actually do something they cannot do or make decisions they cannot make. The absurd overarching view becomes “a decision is a decision and anyone with common sense can make it.”

That is absurd. And, yet, that perception creates a reality in which those who truly have superior competence and excellent qualifications are treated to the unending joy of explaining why that doesn’t translate into a commodity. All this to say that we have a competency crisis at hand. If qualifications do not matter … if experience does not matter … if everything you have done is second guessed to a point of … well … nothing meaningful, then anyone and everyone is competent enough to maybe not do any job, but certainly able to make the same decisions anyone else can make. Reread that. If that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, I do not know what will. Look. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut on occasion. And even the guy at the corner of the bar can find the right decision on occasion.

What made me include experts is that I had the unfortunate experience of listening in on Lex Fridman’s podcast with Jared Kushner. You can go on YouTube to find a couple of critiques of the podcast which outline the many lies and half-truths Mr. Kushner showcased. I’m not going to talk about that. But tucked within the podcast is a moment where Mr. Kushner physically ‘air quotes’ experts. What he espoused was that he was able to see things and think of things because he was an outsider and that the experts in particular on diplomacy and foreign policy – they just couldn’t “see things because they were, well, experts.” This is one of these insidious arguments that have a minutia of truth. Experts certainly can be blind to alternative ideas and thinking, but for the most part they’re experts because they have more experience, have seen more things, have a deeper education into the intricacies and complexity of that particular topic. While as an individual, they may have some objective blindness, within an expert group there is usually a healthy dialog and debate which leads to some fairly robust thinking. The main point of this particular little section is that the circulation of Elites was a theory developed when the Elites were aristocracy. In today’s world elites can be a number of different things or made up of a bunch of different groups – of which one can be experts. The experts who are directly involved in policy development, governance, and the development of system ideas can often be found in the Elites, but many experts reside outside of the elite category. They can range from academia, whose increased abstract knowledge may only equal decreased usable or relevant knowledge, to experts with specific specialties or skills (note: they are more likely to ease into the elite group if they are of value to the value creation of the elite). Within the circulation of Elites I would suggest that there’s a difference between expertise and expertism. Expertism is talking down from the authority of privilege and position. Expertism typically inhibits any systemic transformative adaptation and tends to maintain the institutions and the system construct of power and control. Expertise are true experts who offer us the structural knowledge who can enhance an adaptive adaptability and create the progress a society deserves.

“The theory of democracy as self-government must be understood as a myth, formula, or derivation. It does not correspond to any actual or possible social reality. It does not, however follow that the theory of democracy is without any influence on the social structure. The ruling minority always seeks to justify and legitimize its rule in part through a formula, without which the social structure would disintegrate. The positive significance of democratic theory is as a political formula of this kind.

Which leads me to the irony of democracy (Dye and Zeigler, The Irony of Democracy) and elites.

Democracy, the construct, and traditions, are nurtured by those elites whose existence depends upon the continuation of democratic principles in the system. Democracy does not technically mean “self-government” or “government by the people,” but it does constitute a unique mechanism where there is a symbiotic relationship between the masses and the elite – one in which the elites seek to control and the masses nudge the behaviors of the elites. They are interdependent. The elites cannot ignore all realities and, yet, they can shape perceptions AND reality. That said. The elites circulate within this interdependence with an eye toward maintaining their status and control. I say that so that those of us in the 99% do not fool ourselves when elites do things that benefit us. Ultimately in any system, the responsibility for stability lies in the hands of the rulers–the elites who, “with few exceptions, have a special stake in the continuation of the system in which their privilege rests.”

“Elite theory pinpoints the central … actors. It does not tell us how much power they have with respect to any given social policy, and it does not tell us what social goals they will pursue”

It is important to remember that because it was Machiavelli who attributed fraud as an indispensable characteristic of the viable “ruler-type,” i.e., the elite. With fraud elites can continue in power by manipulating other elites and the 99%. Yeah. The elites are characterized by their ability to captivate the 99% via stories, uhm, fraud (lies).

“The useful lie serves to direct men into action and at the time create the basis of leadership”

Which leads me to my final issue with elites as they circulate themselves.

Look. I don’t begrudge the one percent their wealth or even their status. What I do have a grudge against is the system that they have crafted so that the one percent, or this group of Elites, constantly circulates itself. They’ve created a self-sustaining system within which 99% of the people cannot participate. Let me clarify that last point. 98.9% of the people cannot participate. Because that is what the circulation of Elites have crafted within their system where 99.9% of the elites constantly circulate allowing .1% to be eliminated and .1% to be added. This creates the perception that the circulation of Elites is a myth because the exceptions are highlighted as they get added. And it’s also possible that I have a grudge against this circulation of Elites because this elitism is typically not based on either social status or intellectual achievements to be able to sustain the system which allows them to exist. And therein lies ‘the rub.’ They have the most power and, yet, they do not have the most intellect to wield that power. It was Tolstoy who said that the state insured that the wicked dominated that criminals were far less dangerous than a well organized government were essentially violent forces held together by intimidation corruption and public indoctrination and, well, Galbraith said what I noted earlier. But where it becomes truly unconscionable from a society perspective is that it almost seems like the governing elite only know three things: money, propaganda, and fear. Each are not discreet in and of themselves, but a rather intricate DNA weave whirling around each other. The elite become elite by working the margins of ethics and norms when the more rules you break the more success you have. This gets compounded with a mindset where the game, i.e., where there are only winners and losers, never stops. This means that any pause for peace by the masses in the daily struggle simply becomes another opportunity for Elites to squeeze more out of the system. But maybe the worst aspect is the elites always view social problems as problems to be solved only if solving them would not reduce some dependence of a system. yeah. Sadly, there are no grand plans no grand strategies just a lust for power and an insane addictive desire to accumulate more and more because too much is never enough. And maybe that is where I end. With my disgust for the circulation of the elites.


Written by Bruce