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Mosca Summary

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What Mosca called “political formulas” are largely identical to what today are called ideologies, doctrines the purpose of which is not to offer true scientific or philosophical explanations of reality but rather to justify a course of action for a particular group—a political party, a religious sect, a nation, or a ruling elite.

Ideologies, however, generally claim to be philosophical or scientific in nature and to provide true explanations of reality, while, at the same time, they offer justifications or rationalizations for courses of action and behavior that accrue to the advantage of the group that has adopted them. There is therefore a sense in which ideologies are always fraudulent or deceptive, for their real purpose is to benefit the group that adheres to them; and the explanation of reality that they claim to offer is one that is calculated to promote the interests of the group. “And yet,” writes Mosca, “that does not mean that political formulas are mere quackeries aptly invented to trick the masses into obedience.”

The truth is that they answer a real need in man’s social nature; and this need, so universally felt, of governing and knowing that one is governed not on the basis of mere material or intellectual force, but on the basis of a moral principle, has beyond any doubt a practical and a real importance.[154]

Elites, in other words, do not simply make up their ideologies or formulas out of whole cloth. The members of elites (excluding cynics and dissidents) generally believe in their own ideologies and try to behave consistently with their implications, and the intellectual foundations of an ideology, whether scientific, religious, ethical, or philosophical in character, must be both reasonably sophisticated in argumentation and reasonably honest and complete in the selection of evidence. An ideology fails if its ostensible purpose of explaining reality becomes transparently deceptive and the real purpose is exposed, so that if it is not to fail, it must preserve the ostensible purpose by its credibility and intellectual sophistication in order to appeal to persons outside the elite who have no special interests served by it.

The ideology of an elite must in general perform three functions: (1) it must rationalize the interests of the elite in the sense of legitimizing or justifying them in terms of some larger or higher good than those interests themselves. Elites, in other words, do not usually claim, publicly or privately, that they are acting in a particular way because such action is in their group interest. They claim rather that their action is in accordance with the will of God, the principles of morality, the laws of nature, the national interest, the destiny of a race, the inevitable course of history, the will or good of the people or of mankind, or is a step toward some widely approved value such as peace, liberty, justice, prosperity, or stability.

(2) An ideology must identify and communicate the interests of an elite to the members of the elite itself as well as to those outside it. The identification and communication of elite interests take place within the terms of the ideology and not outside these terms. The ideology of the landed elite of 17th-century England, for example, did not baldly assert that Crown and Parliament must protect the rights and privileges of landed property because it was in the material interests of the landed elite to do so. Rather it presented a set of formal arguments, drawn from religious, historical, legal, and philosophical sources, that the power and privilege attached to landed property were morally right and socially necessary. It is unlikely that very many members of the landed elite doubted the truth of this ideology, and it was certainly unusual for them to express such doubts in public. The terms or formal arguments of the ideological justification of landed property served to identify to the elite what its interests were and to communicate to its members how to defend and pursue these interests. The formal arguments did so, not baldly or overtly, but in a disguised or “coded” way that satisfied both the elite and those classes outside and subordinate to it that power was institutionalized in a just form that served the interests and rights of everyone.

(3) An ideology must serve to integrate a society, to provide a common frame of reference to which all parties in a dispute can appeal and a common ground of action to which all members of a society can rally. On a popular level such integration is achieved in part by symbols such as the King or Queen in Great Britain; the Constitution, the Flag, or the “American Way” in the United States; the teachings of Marx and Lenin in the Soviet Union; or, in religiously unified societies, the tenets and symbols of the public faith. Thus, the ideology of an elite must be credible to the members of society outside the elite. Only by the ideological integration of the population at large can the elite obtain more or less spontaneous obedience and deference from it. An ideology performs its integrative function successfully if the general population acknowledges the legitimacy and efficacy of the power of the elite. An ideology that successfully integrates a society is often called a “public orthodoxy,” and dissent from it or attacks on it are frequently subject to serious sanctions.

It must not be thought, however, that ideologies are generated spontaneously or that they are willingly accepted by the non-elite. The history of most of the ideologies that have served the interests of elites shows that they are often imposed and maintained by force or fraud and that rival ideologies or even significant deviations from the orthodox ideology are quite ruthlessly suppressed. An ideology often builds upon elements of belief that were generally accepted prior to the rise of the elite that espouses it (and often such elements are themselves the remnants of the older ideologies of earlier elites), but these elements, when they are useful to a new dominant minority or cannot conveniently be ignored or entirely suppressed, are re-interpreted or adapted to fit the new ideology that the new elite formulates and imposes. The process of imposition varies, depending on the apparatus of power and resources available to the elite, but common instruments of ideological imposition in history, in addition to the more coercive sanctions of secret police, informers, state censors, and inquisitors, have been churches, schools, art and literature, and the press and other media of mass communication, all of which may possess official or semi-official ties to and privileges from the regime of the elite.

Nor must it be thought that the intellectuals who formulate the ideology of an elite do so insincerely or with intellectual dishonesty. Intellectuals tend to take ideas more seriously than most people and certainly more seriously than most of the pragmatic leaders of an elite. In any society, different individuals, sects, and schools of thought formulate a variety of ideas. Some of these ideas are more or less consistent with the perceived interests of an elite, which tends to sponsor or promote them and those who have formulated them; other ideas are not useful to its perceived interests or appear to represent a threat to its interests, and the elite tends to ignore or suppress them and their sources. This process of selection leads to the evolution of an ideology, more or less formal in content, that performs the functions of rationalization, communication, and integration that any successful ideology must serve. The intellectuals who originally formulated the elements of the ideology and even those who develop the elements into a formal doctrine presumably do so because they genuinely believe its content, as do those members of the elite who sponsor and promote them and regard the ideology as a serious explanation of reality as well as a convenient justification of their dominance. Indeed, intellectual and literary history furnishes many instances of significant works of thought and art that have performed ideological functions for various elites and political forces. The theological and political theories of Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham were so used by rival political groups (the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor) in the late Middle Ages. Similarly, the autocratic regime of Augustus Caesar in first century Rome used the poetry of Vergil and Horace and the historiography of Livy for political and propaganda purposes, and much of the political content of Shakespeare’s plays served the same function under the Tudor monarchy.[155] To point to the political uses of art, literature, scholarship, and even theology, philosophy, and science in no way detracts from the motivations, characters, or achievements of those who created such works. At the same time, it is not unusual for persons of considerable intellectual stature to attach themselves and their ideas to a rising or dominant political force, to suppress evidence and arguments that question their ideas, and even to join in the professional or political suppression of their intellectual rivals. Despite the occurrence of such behavior, there is no reason to attribute such ambitions to or to question the motives or intellectual honesty of the general run of intellectuals who formulate the ideology of an elite.

Despite genuine efforts by the members of an elite to adhere consistently to their ideology, their overriding need with respect to it is the ability of the ideology to reflect and rationalize their interests. When the elite finds itself in circumstances in which the ideology does not serve its needs and interests, it may alter the ideology or it may simply ignore it. The elite will therefore occasionally violate its professed ideology, and it will seldom display much attraction for a highly formalized set of ideas that cannot be applied to changing circumstances and interests. The ideologies that serve the interests of elites therefore often tend to be rather vague and to cover their evasion of philosophical and scientific problems with rhetoric or specious logic, although such ideologies may draw on systems of ideas that are far more rigorous and serious in their effort to correspond to reality. It is therefore often impossible to describe the ideology of an elite in a logically rigorous way. Most elites simply do not confine themselves to beliefs that are too rigorous and systematic, and accounts of an ideology must frequently describe its formal content and logical structure without a great deal of precision rather than in the carefully defined and precise terms of philosophy and science.