All societies are ruled by an organized minority, a class of elites. This is an iron and inescapable law, as certain in modern democracies as it has been in every society throughout history. Popular sovereignty may be the legitimating mechanism for our current elite, but there is always a ruling class.
The Italian political theorist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto observed that all ruling classes contain a balance of what he referred to as residues, and of those residues, two types are most prominent: the type one residues, or foxes, and the type two residues, or lions. Foxes are the elites who are crafty and clever. They focus on combinations to create new ideas and solutions. Lions are strong and brave. They focus on persistence of identity and tradition.
Foxes are academics and merchants; lions are generals and police captains. While one group may dominate at any given time, all ruling classes contain a mixture of these two primary residues.
While a ruling class is always present, no healthy society has a totally static set of elites. The conditions a nation faces are constantly shifting, and the composition of a ruling elite must also constantly adapt in order to meet new challenges. During a time of war or physical danger, a society needs an elite composed primarily of lions to provide a steady stream of commanders capable of training and leading an army into battle. In a time of peace, economic or logistical concerns may require solutions that only foxes can provide. The elite class will always require some mixture of both skill sets, but it must be fluid enough to adapt its composition to the needs of the civilization over which it rules.
Aristocracy is an inescapable fact of human organization. Just as there will always be a ruling class, that ruling class will always seek to pass its power and privilege on to its heirs. Whether fox or lion, all members of the ruling elite grant preference to their friends, families, and other members of their class. This means that no ruling elite is ever completely open to the elevation of common members of the society to its ranks.
This preference serves a practical purpose. Those descended from the ruling class are more likely to have the natural ability and receive the skills and training necessary to lead. A completely open ruling class leads to instability, as those of dubious qualification engage in a never-ending struggle for power and dominance.
But even if a totally open elite were desirable, it never exists for long, as the drive to pass property and privilege on to one’s lineage is one of the most powerful human instincts. Anyone ignoring this iron law of human nature when evaluating power will fail miserably.
While aristocracy is unavoidable, an elite must change over time to reflect the needs of the society, so every healthy ruling class allows some method by which new members may be elevated into positions of leadership. The ruled class will always contain capable and ambitious individuals who can bring new skills and solutions to bear on the problems currently facing their civilization.
In some societies, aristocrats adopted exceptional members of the lower class. In others, the church or military were used as institutions to sort and elevate those of extraordinary talent. In many Western nations today, financial success or educational attainment are used as ladders by which exceptional individuals ascend to the ruling elite. No matter what mechanism a specific society uses, any ruling elite that seeks to maintain its power must strike a balance between the persistence of its own dominant minority and the circulation of capable individuals into its ranks.
The temptation to close the ranks of the elite is great, as it allows for a more extreme concentration of power and wealth among those who rule. In the past, the consolidation may have been based on blood or religion; today it is more likely to be ideological, but in either case, an elite that decides to limit access to the best and brightest will always set itself on the path to ruin. Over time, a closed elite will degenerate as it limits or completely ceases the flow of capable individuals who can shift the composition of the ruling class.
In virtue of class-circulation, the governing elite is always in a state of slow and continuous transformation. It flows on like a river, never being today what it was yesterday. From time to time sudden and violent disturbances occur. There is a flood — the river overflows its banks. Afterward the new governing elite again resumes its slow transformation. The flood has subsided, and the river is again flowing normally in its wonted bed.
Revolutions come about through accumulations in the higher strata of society — either because of a slowing down in class-circulation or from other causes — of decadent elements no longer possessing the residues suitable for keeping them in power, and shrinking from the use of force; while meantime in the lower strata of society elements of superior quality are coming to the fore, possessing residues suitable for exercising the functions of government and willing enough to use force. (Pareto, "Compendium of General Sociology," p. 279.)
A closed elite dooms itself in a myriad of ways. It degenerates and becomes decadent as those chosen purely out of nepotism become more and more sure of their right to rule. The elite lose any connection to the ruled as their interactions become increasingly insular, and they grow disdainful of the lower classes. All the while, they have denied themselves access to the skilled who would naturally rise to leadership and balance the mixture of the elite. This generally leads to an extreme imbalance of foxes and lions in the ruling class, as one residue becomes overrepresented in the nepotistic elite that now favors only those of the same disposition.
At the same time, those gifted and ambitious individuals who have been denied entrance into the ruling elite do not disappear. Some will give up their quest for elevation, but many will become disgruntled and seek alternative avenues of power. A dedicated counter-elite will often grow in institutions that become societal pressure points, seeking to leverage the increasingly alienated masses against the sclerotic ruling class that has become indifferent to the well-being of the ruled.
It is a common misconception that regimes fall when they are overbearing and totalitarian. Instead, regimes most often fall when they have grown weak and decadent, unable to control the population through the manipulation of the fox or the force of the lion. When the elite have degenerated and grown soft by closing themselves to the natural circulation of new talent into the ruling class, those denied access will eventually lead a far more sudden disruption of the status quo.
Pareto uses the Greek civilizations of Athens and Sparta as examples of societies dominated by fox and lion residues respectively. While the openness and clever nature of the Athenian leaders allowed for a great success in areas like economics, art, and philosophy, these qualities also resulted in factionalism, scheming, and political plotting that weakened the unity of the people and made it difficult for them to persist through the Peloponnesian Wars. Sparta’s legendary military tradition gave it an incredible ability to endure adversity and maintain unity, but the failure of its elite to produce an empire or great cultural advancements meant that it could not adapt to rapid change and eventually faded in the shadow of those who could.
According to Pareto, over time, most elite classes tend to see a concentration of type one, or fox, residues and a waning of type two, or lion, residues. This leads to a loss of religiosity, identity, and martial prowess among the ruling class, which starts to select primarily for cunning and deception inside its own ranks.
A healthy circulation of elites will temper this tendency, replenishing the ruling class with a supply of capable leaders who are still religious, patriotic, and connected to the people. A closed elite filled with foxes will lose connection to both its identity and the people and will create a surplus of capable lions who have been denied access to the ruling class, creating the kind of societal pressure that leads to more sudden and dramatic change.
By opening only to those individuals who betray faith and conscience in order to procure the benefits which the plutocracy so lavishly bestows on those who devote themselves to its service, it acquires elements that in no way serve to supply it with the things it most needs. It does, to be sure, deprive the opposition of a few of its leaders, and that is very helpful to it; but it acquires nothing to replenish its own inner strength. So long as cunning and corruption serve, it is likely to keep winning victories, but it falls very readily if violence and force chance to interpose. (Pareto, "Compendium of General Sociology," p. 372.)
The circulation of elites is an inescapable part of every society. A wise ruling class that seeks to maintain a healthy society will strike a balance between protecting its own power and allowing new and capable leaders to elevate themselves, providing their strength and skill to the ruling class. The elite class should always be changing and adapting, meeting the new challenges of its civilization with the right mixture of residues in order to overcome adversity. A ruling class that succumbs to the temptation to completely close its ranks does not escape the reality of the circulation of elites, but only delays it and ensures that the circulation will be more severe.
Even if the circulation does eventually take place through a more dramatic event like a cultural or violent revolution, Pareto reminds us that it is very rare for an elite to be completely replaced. The ruling class may be heavily disrupted by a sudden surge in foxes or lions, but it is very common for a large element of the previous elite to persist in the new arrangement. Unless a civilization is completely wiped out, there will usually remain some level of continuity through the persistence of its elites. For Pareto, the story of a civilization is the story of its ruling elites, and while that elite may always be in some degree of flux, the religion, art, and culture that define a society are inextricably linked to the elite class that guides it.