1. Mosca starts out by defining what he means by "principles" and what he means by "tendencies."
For Mosca there are two types of political principles defining the types of regime. There is autocracy, where authority is transmitted downwards from the top; then there is liberalism, where ultimate political authority is transmitted upwards, where "the authority of the governor derives from the governed."
Then there are two tendencies, meaning the way that the ruling class changes over time, with "democracy" as tending "to replace the ruling class with elements derived from the lower classes, and "aristocracy" as tending to "stabilize social control and political power" to the descendants of the current ruling class.
Mosca proposes dichotomies between the political principles of autocracy vs. liberalism, and the political tendencies of aristocracy vs. democracy as the criteria for determining the type of political system.
2. Autocracy is the basis of the first great empires: Asia, Egypt, Persia, Arab caliphates. And the recent governments of Japan, China, and Turkey were all autocratic. Plus the Roman Empire after Diocletian, the Byzantine Empire, Russia under Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Alexander III, and the early days of Nicholas II.
Early post-feudal European nations were autocratic. In the Americas, Europeans found Mexico and Peru organized autocratically, all except the state of Tlaxcala, ruled by tribal chiefs, that allied with Cortez against the Aztecs.
That autocracy occurs all over the world tells us that it "must somehow correspond to the political nature of man."
[A]autocracy supplies a political formula, a principle of authority, a justification of power, that is simple, clear and readily comprehensible by everybody. There can be no human organization without rankings and subordinations. Any sort of hierarchy necessarily requires that some should command and other obey.
And there is no shortage of men that "love to command" nor those that "can be brought to obey."
The objection is that, however effective at creating great political organizations, autocracy "does not allow the peoples that have adopted it, and especially their ruling classes, to attain all of the moral and intellectual development of this civilized mankind is capable." However, it also seems that periods of moral and intellectual development are "exceptional periods" that are followed by periods where humans seem to need "a long sleep" and a reversion to autocracy.
Where an autocrat has life tenure there is a tendency toward hereditary succession; this reduces the temptation for civil wars. Thus the monarchies of Europe tended to be more stable than the monarchies of the Near East. There is a tendency for Asian dynasties to start with a strong adventurer and then slowly decline; in Europe the more frequent case is a dynasty that starts small and grows bigger: Capets and Hohenzollerns.
Those inheriting a state are not likely to possess the qualifications for leading it effectively. Thus the titular autocrat is often assisted by a council of ministers, or a single powerful individual, or vizier. And yet in Europe there were often kings that inherited their kingdoms and ruled effectively. They had, Mosca proposes, a capacity for sustained exertion, and a "strong will to rule."
This vizier is likely to acquire ascendancy over his boss, in particular because he will "fill all high positions with persons bound to him by ties of family, gratitude, or... complicity in questionable acts or actual crimes."
The formation of a clique... who monopolize the management of the state and occupy the more important offices, sometimes in rotation, is a thing that occurs in all autocracies, and, in fact, in all forms of government.
For anyone getting an appointment in high office, "those who already belong to the clique have to be satisfied."
In cases where autocracy and aristocracy combine, the clique will usually be the high nobility, and the arena of their rivalry is the court. But sometimes the autocrat will succeed in cutting out the clique by appointing a commoner: Louis XIV and Peter the Great did this. Sometimes the vizier overturns the autocrat and takes titular power in a coup.
3. Below the ruling clique is another leadership level that is much more numerous, and critical. Any "intellectual and moral deficiencies in this second stratum" is an existential threat to the regime. This second stratum is, says Mosca, like the officers in an army that "personally lead the soldiers under fire." You could remove all the generals and replace them with the best regimental commanders, but remove the officers that command the men and you are in trouble.
In ancient autocracies the second stratum was usually priests and warriors, but as time went on these "Aristocratic autocracies therefore almost always develop into more or less bureaucratic autocracies" as did the Roman, Byzantine and Chinese empires. But this development requires a level of taxation to pay for the salaries of the bureaucrats and the expenses of a standing army. This more efficient state machine will be able to direct the governed masses more effectively "toward the purposes that their governors wish to achieve."
The large bureaucracy requires specialists, and this creates an opportunity for talents from the lower ranks, appeasing the universal desire for distributive justice. Unfortunately the judgement of personal merit is subjective, and judges of merit tend to value their own qualities best.
That is one of the chief reasons for the blind conservatism, the utter incapacity to correct one's faults and weaknesses, that is so frequent in bureaucratic regimes.
Given the various well-known weaknesses of bureaucracies, Mosca notes that much depends on the moral level of the bureaucracy, and that depends on the moral level of the ruling class, its honor and probity, its generations in the service of the state. Adventurers and people from the lower orders are more likely to be corrupt.
Bureaucracies are disposed to believe "in their own infallibility" and loath to accept criticisms and suggestions.
4. The liberal principle has a more brilliant record than the autocratic, but it is a shorter record and less widespread. In states organized on the liberal principle,
the law is based upon the consent of the majority of citizens, though only a small fraction of inhabitants may be citizens; and then that the officials who apply the law are named directly or indirectly by their subordinates, that their posts are temporary and that they are personally responsible for the lawfulness of their acts.
In states where the liberal principle prevails -- that the state recognizes limits to its powers against individuals and groups -- we still see the two strata of the ruling class. The upper stratum is smaller and the second stratum much bigger.
There are still closed cliques that select the highest officials, but selection requires not just court intrigue but to steer the inclinations of the whole second stratum of the ruling class.
If the electorate is "narrowly exclusive" then a large part of the ruling class is kept out of the selection of high officials; the system is almost like autocratic rule. Indeed almost all the voters are themselves eligible for office. Generally, either a single clique forms or two cliques with the "out" clique offering "a spiteful and systematic opposition."
If the electorate is broad -- universal suffrage -- then the task is to win the votes of the more numerous classes, necessarily poor and ignorant. Those classes desire to be "governed as little as possible" and also "to profit by government in order to better their economic situation" and vent their resentments and envies. Thus all parties "make promises... play to their crudest instincts and exploit and foment all their prejudices and greeds."
Thus, only with a limited electorate confined mainly to the ruling class can the liberal principle really work, with those who represent responsible to the represented.
Another advantage of the liberal principle is the public discussion of the acts of the rulers, "in political assemblies and administrative councils and it the daily press and periodicals." It helps if the press institutions are not mere organs of cliques "nor blind instruments of faction."
5. The democratic tendency -- to replenish ruling classes from below -- is always at work in human societies. Sometimes the replenishment is violent.
In the old days, the violent replenishment tended to involve invasion, as a ruling class became weak. In our day it is more likely to be revolution.
But violent replenishment is unusual; the more interesting question is faster versus slower replenishment of the ruling class from below. In unsettled times, new manners undermine the old concepts, and new science and techniques create new ways of making money and change military organization. Such changes are easier in new countries.
Confined within moderate limits the democratic tendency is indispensable to "progress," because it prevents aristocracies from being "closed and stationary."
It enables ruling classes to be continually replenished through the admission of new elements who have inborn talents for leadership and a will to lead, and so prevents that exhaustion of aristocracies of birth which usually paves the way for great social cataclysms.
However, under the "dogma of human equality" many people have come to believe that all advantages of birth can be eliminated. But this is unlikely: nepotism even exists in the Catholic Church.
Mosca believes that under absolute equality the struggle for place would be "intensified to the point of frenzy." And maybe there are certain intellectual and moral qualities that can best be nurtured by families that "hold fairly high social positions for a number of generations."
6. What about the aristocratic tendency? What are its dangers and disadvantages? First, there is a tendency in aristocracies for the development of a caste spirit, to "think of themselves as infinitely superior to the rest of men," of feeling that everything is due to them. And it is amazing how quickly those who climb from humble origins acquire that aristocratic spirit. And the aristocrats tend not to understand or sympathize with the lower orders.
Rarely have hereditary upper classes, conscious of their "intellectual and moral superiorities," been equally conscious of their obligations towards the lower classes, or for the sentiments of brotherhood and oneness of the world's great religions.
The great vice of aristocracies is idleness, and yet sometimes the freedom from "physical labor" prompts intellectual and moral endeavor, a diversion into paths of no immediate utility that turn out to discover laws that regulate the universe.
We are obliged to admit that science and social morality originated in aristocracies, and that even today they normally find their most consistent practitioners in aristocracies.
This is not to say that people of lower class cannot contribute, but Mosca feels that "genius" while exceptional, reveals itself more often in peoples with high average levels of intelligence, and aristocracies attract such people into membership. On top of that, aristocratic women have an aversion to lower-class, and perhaps less educated, men.
Mosca also feels that families that maintain themselves in the aristocracy over many generations "maintain a sense of restraint and proportion."
They must have been people, in other words, who knew the art of commanding themselves and who practiced it.
Families that don't practice self-command "soon lapse into obscurity."
The Catholic Church has always been open to talent from the lower classes, but "the majority of popes and cardinals have come.. from the upper and middle classes."
The ideal, then, is for penetration into the upper classes to proceed in due proportion so that newcomers assimilate good qualities but do not bring too much of their plebeian ways with them.
Two indispensable qualities in a ruling class are honesty "in its relations with subordinates" and personal courage. Courage often goes with the military life, and Mosca believes that aristocracies with a military origin last longer than those with industrial or plutocratic backgrounds. The Venetian elite, though merchants and bankers, also down the years commanded their ships and fleets and armies. They stopped this in the eighteenth century.
It is "absurd" to accuse a ruling class as being "unproductive;" that is not their job.
In maintaining order and keeping the social structure united they create the conditions under which productive labor can best be prosecuted.
And the question arises as to how much a ruling class should spend on itself. For Mosca,
the class that rules politically has to be allowed a sufficient share to enable it to give its children a long, careful, and therefore expensive education and to maintain a dignified standard of living.
It needs, in other words, enough to spare it "an attachment to petty earnings."
7. The great political thinkers all believed that the best government was a balance between competing principles. Plato in the Laws believed in a balance between autocracy and democracy. Aristotle proposed a modified democracy where workers, slaves and metics would not be allowed public office. Polybius, Cicero, and St. Thomas all spoke for mixed governments. So also Montesquieu and Cavour.
To support this doctrine Mosca proposes that violent upheavals -- such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the Russian revolution -- with their associated "unutterable suffering"
arise primarily from the virtually absolute predominance of one of the two principles, or one of the two tendencies
whereas stability and absence of catastrophe require a balance of principles and tendencies.
By "principles" he means the opposition of autocracy vs. liberalism; by "tendencies" he means aristocracy vs. democracy.
It is only an opposition -- or competition -- between these contrary principles and tendencies that can prevent an accumulation of the vices in each one. Mosca closes with this advice for political weather watchers.
[W]hen everybody is singing hymns of praise to some great restorer of order and peace, then we may rest assured that the autocratic principle is prevailing too strongly over the liberal, and vice versa when everyone is cursing tyrants and championing liberty.
[W]hen the novelists and poets are vaunting the glories of great families and uttering imprecations upon the common herd, we may safely consider that the aristocratic tendency is too strong; and when a wild wind of social equality is howling and all men are voicing their tenderness for the interests of the humble, it is evident that the democratic tendency is strongly on the upgrade and approaching the danger point.
If we pay attention to this, we "can keep mankind from going to the dogs every other generation... For in political life, the mistakes of one generation are almost always paid for by the generation that follows."
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