2. Analyse and contrast elite, pluralist and Marxist theories of the state. Which interpretation do you find most convincing? Intro The aim of this essay is to examine the three major theories of the state before concluding which of them is, in my opinion, most useful when examining the relationship between the state and civil society in the UK. I will first attempt to briefly outline the three theories. Following this I will offer some definitions and distinctions as well as highlighting some of the contentious and problematic issues that arise whenever one undertakes examination of this type of subject.
Theories I will vary from the ordering of the question here to first outline the Marxist theory. I do so simply because many prominent academics (1) argue that the pluralist and elitist schools of thought arose, if not directly in response to, then certainly following, the Marxist theory. The theory is outlined most clearly in The Communist Manifesto (2). The argument is that clear social divisions along class lines lead to a ‘ruling class’ controlling the ‘means of production’.
Marx argues that this inevitably leads to an abuse of the proletariat in order to promote the interests of the bourgeoisie. The elitist theory could be said to follow on from the Marxist in that it postulates a privileged minority with disproportionate control. However, the control in this case is over the mechanisms of the state. Therefore, one might argue that these elite only possess influence rather than control over the means of production. This is perhaps the reason proponents of this theory are more content for the continuation of its existence when compared with their Marxist counterparts.
The final theory I will examine is the pluralist theory, which hypothesises that there are many sources of power. Beyond that premise there is serious debate amongst pluralists as to whether these many groups share power or struggle for complete control of the state. It must also be made clear that there are almost infinite variations and combinations of these theories as well as a multiplicity of alternatives that cannot be tackled in this essay. It is important that we view these theories as part of a larger and more complete framework.
For example, Held (1996) argues that the Communist Manifesto offers one interpretation whilst The 18th Brumaire offers two alternatives (with a study of the two Napoleons and their reigns). Compare and Contrast Power All three of the theories are concerned with the distribution of power. Marx’s bourgeoisie control the means of production, and by extension have economic power. In contrast to this, both the elitist and pluralist theories focus much more on socio-political power. Although the argument may well be made that socio-political power would allow, if not control, then at least a degree of influence over the economic landscape.
Taken further, one might conclude that there is some obvious correlation between the Marxist and elitist theories of the state with both positing a minority of the population with the majority of the power. On the other hand, pluralists believe that there are a number of groups and that they all struggle for power. Dahl calls this “government by minorities” (3), and argues within civil society there are many different sources of power all able to influence the state. These groups range from political parties and interest groups acting through formal channels to new social movements who often adopt a more informal approach.
Democracy This multiplicity of socio-political actors espoused by the pluralist theory gives rise to the debate over how these different groups interact with each other and the state. Some argue that the distribution of power amongst these different agents is unequal, with groups such as business interests more able to shape policy, thereby damaging the democracy. Others maintain that all groups have the ability to influence, but most would agree that this latter belief is held up by some rather flimsy arguments, such as Truman’s assertion of a ‘latent’ capacity to organise (4).
In my opinion, the first view holds and not all groups are equal. However, this does not necessarily weaken the democratic process. I would argue that the groups with the most power are often in such a position due to the fact that they have the most support for their cause, and that this inequality might therefore be seen as a positive for democracy. The democratic debate as regards the Marxist and elitist theories is much simpler. Marxists are clear on the position that the concentration of power within the bourgeoisie prevents democracy.
Indeed, Ralph Miliband, a respected Marxist scholar, wrote of capitalist democracy that it is “a permanent and fundamental contradiction” (5). On the other hand, we must note that when the USSR and China installed communist regimes proclaiming Marxist ideals, there was and is even less democracy. Whether or not this is a misinterpretation of Marx and Engel’s writing is a debate in itself. Elitism, much like pluralism, has had arguments made from both sides. Unlike pluralism however, the arguments have not come at the same time.
When the theory was first developed by thinkers such as Mosca and Pareto many were of the opinion that the elite were more suited to control. Many were worried that greater democracy and extension of the franchise would actually harm society as the ‘ignorance of the masses’ would come to the fore. However, in time opinion changed and the theory was adapted by writes like Weber and Schumpeter who incorporated a more inclusive view of democracy with the elite still ruling but in the interest of the wider society who express their will in the form of voting at elections.
This is obviously much closer to the system we employ in Britain today, although you may argue that we are now much more of a meritocracy with two of the last four Prime Ministers not attending Oxbridge. In fact, John Major left school at 16 with only 3 O-levels yet still rose through the ranks of the, historically upper class, Conservative Party. Hegemony Despite this, some would still argue that we are run by a bourgeoisie.
This year, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education said in a speech “Rich, thick kids do better than poor, clever children”; he continued “despite the best efforts of our society, the situation is getting worse”. Gove is obviously in a better position than most to judge and seems of the opinion that a move towards a system based on merit is proving difficult to achieve. Some would use this as evidence that civil society at large is under a ‘false consciousness’. This is perhaps a step too far. However, the concept of hegemony does seem to offer us a reasonable expectation.
Hegemony arose as a theory from the Italian thinker Gramsci’s question of why the proletariat don’t rise up and revolt as Marx’s theory predicts. One apt description is that it “allows control through consensus rather than force” (6). The basic hypothesis is that the ruling class subtly control the ‘common sense’ in order to maintain power. This may be applicable to contemporary politics in the UK. For example, the Labour Party is seen as the party of the working class and yet under the Labour governments of Blair and Brown the inequalities in wealth and income grew at a greater rate than under the Thatcher government.
One might postulate that it is only through the construction of a false image of the party that they maintained the support. Perhaps the ‘spin’ that the party was accused of on numerous occasions was a way of them attempting to construct a hegemonic society in order to retain a majority in the House of Commons. It is also possible to argue that there is a degree of hegemony from the angle of groups outside of the government. For example, in the US many have argued that FOX news is bias in favour of the Republican Party and that it has played a huge part in the 2000 election of G.
W. Bush as well as the recent Tea Party movement that returned control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans. This is interesting to us as the Murdoch ‘media empire’ controls a large number of media outlets here in the UK, including Sky and The Sun. The fact that the newspapers he owns have such a large circulation and that they often openly come out in favour of a certain political party in the run up to general elections gives rise to suspicions that perhaps Rupert Murdoch is exercising his influence to ensure his prosperity.
He was often said to enjoy a close relationship with Tony Blair and had more than one meeting at 10 Downing Street. Some believe that his support ‘buys’ him the ear of the PM. In fact, in 1992 the influence was believed to be so great that we saw the famous headline, “It’s The Sun What Won It”. This, if true, would certainly be an example of a minority influencing public opinion to achieve its’ own aims. Further development of theories As mentioned earlier there are numerous offshoots of each theory that this essay does not permit much exploration of.
However, it is important to realise that Marxism has been developed (under the umbrella term Neo-Marxism) by people like Weber and that some of the theories have been combined. This is pertinent as I believe one such combination, the Richardson and Jordan (1979) idea of ‘elite pluralism’ can offer a more succinct and accurate description of the modern UK state-civil society relationship than any of the three theories can taken by themselves. Conclusion In conclusion, I believe I have shown that each of the theories has some overlap with the others, as well as some clear distinctions.
I feel the most obvious similarity is between the Marxist and elite theories, and that the most contradiction occurs between the Marxist and Pluralist. However, any concrete interpretation is made extremely difficult due to the fractious nature of all three theories of the state, most notably the Marxist. I believe that the theory most convincing as an interpretation of the UK is the pluralist. In my opinion the Marxist, as well being fractious, is outdated as the extension of the franchise should be capable of guarding against abuse of power by a minority.
For similar reasons prefer the pluralist theory over the elite; though, as stated above prefer the combination of the two. The fact that not one political party dominates and that the media allows for public opinion to be captured by different interests I think shows that there are many different groups striving for power; and although they may be argued to be elite, there is not one ruling class. References 1) Faulks; Political Sociology 2) Marx and Engels; The Communist Manifesto 3) Dahl; 1956 4) President Truman; 1951 ) Miliband; Capitalist Democracy in Britain 6) Neuman; Power, State and Society Bibliography Bellamy, R. & (2004), “Developments In Pluralist And Elite Approaches “. In Nash, K. Scott, A The Blackwell Companion To political Sociology, 3rd ed, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford, 21-27 Chang (1965). The Marxist Theory of the State. New York: Russell & Russell Publishers Dahl (1989). Democracy and its critics. Yale: Yale University Press Engels (1887). The Condition of the Working Class in England. Berlin: Leipzig Haywood (2007). Politics.
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