Thursday, February 24, 2011

Circulation of Elites

An academic friend tells the story of being asked about the 'revolution' in Egypt and replying: "It's not a revolution, they aren't changing the government only the names on the masthead." That basically describes the principle known as the Circulation of Elites. Vilfredo Pareto is credited with postulating this theory in the late 1800s. He suggested that political and therefore governmental change is nearly always the result of one elite replacing another. And despite the images on television and the internet it is not clear that Egypt was a popular uprising or simply a popular following of the new elite.

Most of the talk about democracy comes from outside Egypt. It appears what most Egyptians wanted was the removal of a tyrant who had ruled for three decades. Time will tell if any actual governmental or political change will result from the departure of the most recent elite. 

Revolutions, on the other hand, sweep the old regime from power and replace it with a new government. Not always a new form of government and not always a better one for those who were actually in the streets doing the revolting. You could use Cuba as an example to prove either point of view here. But one might better look to the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989, where actually governmental change (communist to democratic) did take place and then either did or did not sustain itself depending on your political point of view.

There are those who would argue that bloodless revolution is an oxymoron. Others might look to the old adage 'revolution is the result of a nation pregnant with itself.' Both good solid political arguments, which may or may not speak to what is actually happening in the backrooms throughout the region. What remains to be seen is what actually did happen in Egypt. Was it a revolution? Probably not. Was it a change of elites? Most likely. What will be the eventual outcome? Ah, well there lies the piece for the historians. 

Now what about Bahrain, Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, Libya and . . .

[It has been pointed out to me by the aforementioned "academic friend" that Ibn Khaldun back in 1377 proposed the theory of the "oscillation of elites," which may be an even more explanatory model as it suggests that elites not only supplant each other but they also recycle (oscillate) and recirculate through the corridors of political power.]
art - Clay Bennett in The Christian Science Monitor


mira amiras said...

We should all be reading Ibn Khaldun, whether in the three volume translation or the abridged Princeton paperback. He nails down the cycle and is as relevant today as when he wrote Al Muqaddimah. His signs of State decay and impending collapse are as relevant today as in the 14th century. He teaches us, however, to expect more of the same, and he gives us the evidence for why we should expect it.

Mike said...

Then there are the non elites who come to power and are co-opted by the elites and then forsake their original principles and supporters.