The Elites And Political Development


Political Development has been articulated to be part of society since the time of ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle (Huntington 1965). Over the centuries politics have evolved through a range of phases from the monarchies and kingship to elected parliamentary systems. Today, western society views a form of democracy as the ultimate aspiration that forms the pinnacle of political development (Kingsbury 2007). This essay will argue that elites play a critical role in influencing the political development of a country. Firstly, the paper explores why political development is important, followed by a discussion on who are the elites. This will set the scene for a discussion on political development from different ideological backgrounds. Furthermore, the paper will explore the concepts underpinning political development; nations, states and democracy. Throughout this paper the notion of elites are explored highlighting their centrality to political development and how they impact society.

Why is Political Development Important?

Politics matter (Whitehead & Gray-Molina 1999) and influence everybody’s daily life. Throughout history, both western and eastern societies have used religion or spirituality to justify the importance of political development. For example, Aung San Suu Kyi recently addressed her people (the Burmese) to ‘… imagine a different kind of social contract between ruler and the ruled based on the highest human aspirations of compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity’ (Jordt 2007). Thus, for her political development is about spiritual and humanistic ideals. On the other end of the spectrum economists argues that political development in the form of ‘good governance’ is central to improve economic growth, alleviate poverty and create democracies (Hickey 2006; Murray & Overton 2011; Robinson 2010). Political and economic development is extremely interrelated and thus too, influence our daily lives (Kingsbury 2007; Sen 1999). Understanding political development helps to ‘…shap[e] development choices, strategies, trajectories and outcomes’ (Leftwich 2006). Amartya Sen (1999), says that the process of development is essentially about people’s freedoms, of both the equal opportunity for citizens to participate and freedom from limitations to this participation. This notion of freedom is echoed by Damien Kingsbury (2007) in stating that political development’s ‘…ultimate goal is liberation of humanity’ and that this liberation is focussed on ‘… a fundamental improvement of social relations within and across societies.’

Who are the Elites?

Elites can be describes as ‘a distinct group within a society which enjoys privileged status and exercises decisive control over the organisation of society’ (Amsden, DiCaprio & Robinson 2009). Therefore, the concept of elites does not only relate to political leaders, but also encompass those born into a particular family and those with high levels of wealth and power. Elites are people that have power and influence over society. According to Higley and Pakulski (2007) a political leader needs the support from elites, and therefore elites unify and bond together which enlarges their power to influence political development and thus daily life within society. However, elites are not necessarily ‘bad’ and many have contributed very positively to society, such as Nelson Mandela upon democracy in South Africa and Bill Gates upon the access of information available today (Amsden, DiCaprio & Robinson 2009).

For society to function there must be a relationship between the elites and the rest of society (Hickey 2006). This relationship is often called a ‘social contract’ which outlines an agreement between different social groups (Kingsbury 2007). It is well known that social cohesion is critical for the functioning of domestic politics, the higher the levels of trust in society the more likely it is able to function peacefully (Jasinski 2011). Political elites and their legitimacy, has a major effect on the cohesion of society and there is a strong correlation between the quality of elites, meaning their integrity and openness and creating effective democracies (Gilley 2006; Levi 2006; Welzel 2003). Therefore, elites are essential to political development.

What is Political Development?

Political development is a complex idea that is constantly evolving, according to Kingsbury (2007), ‘political development is an end or a good in itself.’ Thus the process of political development ‘in itself’ is just as important as what it sets out to achieve. There are a number of key theoretical thinkers and ideologies such as Marx, Weber and Neo-liberalism that impact on the various interpretations of political development.

Karl Marx (1818-1883), never specifically wrote about political models, however through the interpretation of his theories, others such as Miliband, Lenin, Stalin and Mao have interpreted his views into communist political regimes (Hallas 1986). For Marx, politics stemmed from the interpretation that society is made up of different classes. The working class was struggling against the bourgeoisie or the elites who were the owners of property and capital. The elites ran the state, and their power was viewed as a form of oppression against lower classes. Marx hypothesised that through classes bonding together, equality will be created and the role of the state will completely wither away.

Unlike Marx, Weber (1864-1920), placed significant emphasis on individual agency and their ability to determine the future rather than the class they were born in. This was coined the protestant work ethic and is used to explain that the bourgeoisie worked hard and it was through their individual agency that they reached the wealth and power they gained in society (Kim 2012). Weber was influential in our understating of the western political systems comprising of states, bureaucracies and the military. Weber believed that the state possesses the power and responsibility to govern and legitimately use physical force if necessary (Kim 2012; Kingsbury 2007). Weber, discussed ‘leader democracy’ and emphasised the importance of charismatic and statesmen-like leaders, although he wasn’t concerned about the characteristics of elites he believed that political leaders had to be charismatic for democracy to be sustainable (Higley & Pakulski 2007).

Neo-liberalism is a more contemporary form of politics, developing through globalisation (Giddens 1999; Gray 1998). It places strong emphasis on economic growth through open markets, free trade and privatisation of the state (Murray & Overton 2011). For developing countries it played out in the Washington Consensus (Williamson 2004), which was implemented through the World Bank and International Money Fund (IMF). Development targeted de-regulation of market forces, through reducing control over trade and minimising expenditure on social services (such as health and education), as it was believed that the market is a more efficient way to better livelihoods. This emphasis on economic development had put politics and the power relations within society on the backburner for many countries (Hickey 2006).

In effect what has happened is that many developing countries were coerced by more powerful donor countries (Martin & Schumann 1997). Thus, the world elites can be compared to previous colonisation practices in imposing policies and strategies, in return for access into the global market (Kingsbury 2007; Seers 1983). It raises the question around countries’ agency, rights and democracy between nations in our global world. In effect the neo-liberalist approach has been elitist countries controlling and oppressing poorer countries through trade (Kingsbury 2007; Martin & Schumann 1997; Murray & Overton 2011).

How Nations and States impact on Political Development

Although the terms “nation,” “state” and “country” are often used interchangeable they are central to political development and have different connotation to support the understanding of political development.

The concept of a nation historically reflected a group of people with the same ethnicity, often speaking the same language and or people belonging to a particular religious group (Kingsbury 2007). Geographic boundaries, such as rivers or mountains also played a role and led to the development of most of the countries within Europe, which was an organic form of nationalisation. Colonisation has meant that for many other parts of the world, boundaries were created incongruent to ‘organic’ nations (Kingsbury 2007). For people in these they become part of a state that can be artificial and does not reflect their identity as a nation (Conteh-Morgan 2000).

However, for countries such as Australia and Canada their nations are multi-ethnic and religious where people bonded as a result of civic values (although one has to question whether the Indigenous people voluntarily signed up to these nations). This civic nationalism, is a bond that is formed around government, rule of law and social reciprocity (Kingsbury 2007). Essential to forming this bond is the notion that it has to be voluntary, where people ‘…desire to belong because of continuing social equity under law to which all other citizens similarly volunteer’ (Kingsbury 2007). In other circumstances, nations were formed because people bonded together against external colonising threats, such as the East Timorese against Indonesian occupation (Kingsbury 2012).

If ideally people volunteer to be part of a nation (plural nationalism) the result is a societal contract negotiated that reflects people’s concern over others social welfare (Kingsbury 2007). However, in many country this is not the reality and thus the elites or political leaders have a responsibility to build and create a nation, for example Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation (Myambo 2010).

Therefore a nation is defined as a ‘… group of people who regard themselves as a bonded political community (Kingsbury 2007). In comparison a state is defined by its physical boundaries. This geographical, spatially defined territory then comprises of people being ruled by ‘a single political authority’ that has power to the ‘extent of its sovereign boundaries’ (Kingsbury 2007). The rulers of this area then creates a government, that ‘… exercises (or claims to exercise) political and judicial authority’ (Kingsbury 2007). As part of this government then comes the establishment of institutions which is used to implement the workings of the government.

Weber, had significant influence in the way that states are viewed and are functioning today (Fabienne 2010), as they become the centre of society (Waley 2005). Institutions and bureaucracies are formed to manage the states functions (Fabienne 2010). Weber outlined that these need to be functioning separately to the political government and be insulated from society, recruitment into these need to be through merit and long-term career rewards must be present (Mulholland 2012). Bureaucracies then have the authority to impose laws to hinder some of societies freedoms, however with the purpose that it is to protect the freedoms of others (Kingsbury 2007; Sen 1999). Today many donors and multi-laterals aim to improve the capacity of states in developing countries through institution building projects, such as decentralisation and good governance (Murray & Overton 2011).

Central to the idea of a state is then the complimentary idea of a citizen and citizenship. Originally the concept of citizenship was developed by Plato but it again resurfaced after World-War II (Kingsbury 2007). The idea links to the process of democracy as every citizen is given one equal vote (Held 1996). The citizen is seen as having freedoms to interact with the state, and the state rulers have the duty of being accountable to its citizens (Schmitter 1999).

Democracy and Legitimacy

Democracy has been created by Western societies as the pinnacle of political development (Kingsbury 2007). Democracy can be defined as ‘… a form of rule in which citizens either act as the policy-making authority (direct democracy) or are represented by others to make policy on their behalf (representative democracy) (Kingsbury 2007).’ The Greek origins of democracy literally translates as the ‘direct rule,’ where citizens were involved in voting on all local decisions (Kingsbury 2007). This notion of democracy has an essential element of volunteerism, where people choose to participate (Kingsbury 2007), which links to freedom for people in society (Sen 1999). An active civil society is part of democracy where mass values and civic culture effect democracy and elitism (Benavides 2011). However, elites play a major role in democracy. According to Lev (in (Kingsbury 2007), ‘people getting elected (are often already elites)’ the elites can then assert even more economic or political (or both) power over people within society.

Although all Western societies have different models of democracy and all these models represent certain democratic flaws (Kingsbury 2007). The following is needed for democracy; political participation in the form of civil and political rights and representation and accountability through fair, competitive and inclusive elections (Benavides 2011; Kingsbury 2007). Many developing nations have used the term democracy and it significantly differs from its origin. Africa is a great example, where in many instances democracy has resulted in the use of violence to gain votes, making the democratic system, non-democratic. Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe claims to run a democracy but in reality its authoritarian rule, verging on dictatorship (Makumb 2009).

Democracy has been criticised by some as not being culturally relevant, for example Singapore which is seen as a highly effective country, where people experience a high quality of life (Chong 2005). Democracy is not part of the country and priority has been given to economic growth as part of the argument for Asian values (Kingsbury 2007; Sen 1999). One of the other concerns with democracy comes from the Weberian argument, that people with the knowledge and know-how should be responsible for making those decisions, and not everyone. This leads to the ‘dumbing down’ of complex policy issues to appeal to the masses (Kingsbury 2007).

Legitimacy of those elected is another central theme to political development (Gilley 2006), determining the effectiveness of the democracy and quality of elites. The broad principles and procedures used by authority and how they are interpreted is what constitute legitimacy (Kingsbury 2007). Legitimacy here refers to the Weberian approach of ‘rational-legal’ in that it’s about those chosen and the legitimacy of the institutions created by governments (Fabienne 2010; Kingsbury 2007). Therefore states with quality elites, that are more democratic generally has higher levels of legitimacy. Without legitimacy states are at high risk of losing control and the elites tend to become more controlling and militant (Gilley 2006). The process of building institutions and their value also then become meaningless (Kingsbury 2007).

Crucial to the discussion of democracy and legitimacy is the effects of these concepts on the citizens of developing countries. The notion of economic development and the interrelationship with political development (Conteh-Morgan 2000) warrants in depth discussion elsewhere. According to Benavides (2011), people in developing countries prioritise authority and strong leaderships over democracy. Thus, responding that in some phases of a country’s development of quality elites (Levi 2006) are more important than democracy. Regardless, of the flaws in democracy, in the absence of another viable option, finetuning democracy is the only option (Kingsbury 2007).


To summarise, political development encompass a range of complex ideologies and factors, some of which have been discussed in this essay. Political development is important as it impacts on every aspect of our daily lives, ranging from our spirituality to materialism. The essay continues to argue that elites, (who encompass not only political leaders) play a major role in determining what society looks like. The different approaches to political development such as Marxism, Weberism and Neo-liberalism were discussed to outline the different foundations from which societies have been built. The complex notion of nation and state was explored outlining that elites’ interpretation of these concepts impact on their governance. Lastly, this paper explored democracy and the legitimacy of elites, concluding that although elites continue to exert their power for many in developing countries, safety and security overrides the importance of civil and political rights.