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Pareto’s Rise and Fall of Elites

January 27, 2009

Perhaps it is Vilfredo Pareto, from among early writers who have been labeled “classical social theorists, which best follows the method of first defining his social problem of interest, then stating propositions and only then constructing theories and hypotheses.  As he notes in Chapter 1 of The Rise and Fall of Elites, it is not his aim in writing to defend some concept or finding, but rather to objectively analyze social theory with facts (25).  As a result of his clarity of purpose and stated aim the reader is greatly enabled in following his analytical processes.  Moreover, Pareto is to the point in advising the reader to consider the text in specific contextual meaning and not to go beyond the limits of this text (25).  The Rise and Fall of Elites first written by Pareto under the untranslated title ______ is an excellent introduction to the basic theory of the “circulation of elites”.  In essence this proposal provides that the coming and going of elites during different eras of society are critical elements of societal progression. 


Pareto follows the _____ reasoning process of Claude Bernard, whereby facts are noted, and thereby concepts are created.  It is from concepts that the scientist returns to an examination of objective fact (27).  Pareto informs the reader that he limits his analysis in “The Rise and Fall of Elites to examination of the concepts back to the facts (27).  He therefore jumps immediately into a discussion of his hypotheses or as elsewhere called laws.  Two hypotheses are as follows: 1) the greater sorts of human action arise not in logic but in sentiment, 2) In hindsight (a posteriori) humans try to justify actions arising in sentiment by assigning logical justification (27).  As this process plays out in the daily affairs of humankind most action is irrational and only afterward due to certain stimuli humans attempt to give rational justification to those actions.  The discussion of Themistocles defeat of the Persian fleet, ten times the size of the Athenian fleet at Salamis, in the Aegean Sea is a prime example of a posteriori justification (29). 

            Pareto concludes that from the two prior propositional laws that “every sociological phenomenon has two distinct and entirely diverse forms”, to wit: the subjective and the objective form (27).  Accordingly, the psychological state of belief is the subjective form and the objective state relates to the real interchange between objects.  Again his use of an example, the fun house mirror, brings clarity to his conceptualization.

            In getting a firm basic understanding of Pareto’s theory it seems most important to understand that human consciousness reflects (like a mirror) objective reality.  In essence, examination of the objective leads to understand the subjective.  None the less, in understanding the roles of both subjective and objective forms it is important not to discount either.  Rather it is a blend of both subjective and objective states that creates the better understanding of action.  Pareto rejects Darwin because Darwinianism suggests that forms that do not “fit” suffer demise.  In the interaction of objective and subjective basis for action neither form is eliminated.  Within this blending of subjective and objective is the answer to why or how their mutual relation plays out (29).  From hindsight history allows society to look back and see how actions based upon subjective sentiment play out and in so doing filled with greater objectivity bring fuller understanding of action.  Perhaps it can be said that in the present, the actors are too close and engrossed with the phenomena to fully appreciate the action taken.  Could the “war on terror” which some how led to the removal of Saddam Hussein from his seat of power in Iraq be form of globalized struggle of elites?  Could the sentiment of fear caused by 9-11 combined with religious zeal have bonded a people to irrationality?  If so, in a time of more rational evaluation would the U.S. now be continuing the struggle in Iraq? 

            In moving forward to the concept of the law of rhythm Pareto introduces the reader to a major assumption that he makes in this text (34).  Specifically he points out that the makes an assumption that “there is a rhythm of sentiment which we can observe in ethics, in religion, and in politics as waves resembling the business cycle” (31).  Pareto gives reference to Spencer’s law of motion (30).  These currents or waves of motion or movement may be accompanied by substantive interaction with ethics, religion, politics or other forms of sentiment.  These waves ebb and waine, they are turbulent and stagnate, but their flows create a “faith” or “skepticism” in groups of society.  This faith or skepticism binds with law number two regarding a posteriori logical justification for actions taken and create “strange imagination” about reality.  These strange imaginations provide the irrational justification for action.  In the process of justifying prior action both the actors and the masses come to see the justification as the actor’s true motive for the act completed.  For example anger may lead to assault and capture, which is justified as protection and thereby fear or hatred combined with a rhythmatic force such as patriotism or religion is seen as the justification.   In short people act because they get caught up knowingly or unknowingly in currents that lead to the impulse or irrational action.  After completing the act imaginary or devised reasons are constructed to justify the act.  Most all people, but the actors and the masses come to accept the justification as truth.


Elites are those people represent the strongest , most energetic, and most capable citizenry in concept.  They are part of every society and era of time and may be evil or good.  Pareto notes that elites come and go.  In this way as previous elites are removed new elites are being brought into the circle.  In the end the elite as a model of power and influence remains the same as in previous eras (36).  Pareto explains this continual process as follows.  Elites make major contribution to stability and continuance of society.  Each era, new outsiders with to come to power.  In their effort to enter the circle of the old elites they may establish and objective to only join the circle or they may determine to remove the old circle members.  In the ideal form these “want to be’s” sponsor the good of the oppressed and frail masses and declare the good of all or most of the society.  This provides support to their subjective cause to join the circle with an objective cause on behalf of the masses.  An example of the objective effort may be the use of boycotts, or sponsoring laws for general health care.  If successful, the new elites begin to take on the same role of the old elites and the masses are controlled, forgotten, or given concessions in order to manage solidarity of the society.  Could this also play out as a dream to bring Democracy to a part of the world that has historically denounced the concept?  Figure 1. below provides a flow chart of elite circulation.

Growing Sentiment


Growing Period of Crisis

Rise of New Elites
(under class)




Decline of Old Elite


sponsor needs of society




a.       some may be retained

b.      all may be removed

once in power =

perpetuates the power, but appear to vindicate the weak, perhaps with grants and necessary concessions



Religious sentiment is a commonly associated with





Pareto, Vilfredo. [___] 2008. The Rise and Fall of Elites: An Application of Theoretical Sociology.  Translated by ____; with an Introduction by Hans L. Zetterberg. New Brunswick, NJ:Transaction Publishers.

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