Max Weber’s Triad —Status, Class and Party—in Light of Brexit: A Call to Party Harder, Steve Fuller

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,


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Max Weber famously presented three principles of social ‘stratification’ (‘organization’ would be better): status, class and party. The ongoing saga of Brexit brings to light some interesting features of the last category, which otherwise tends to be neglected or treated as subordinate to the other two.

At the outset, it is worth recalling that Weber conceptualised these three principles as alternative ways in which the law channels power in society. His own presentation stressed the mutually orthogonal character of the three principles, resulting in three distinct dimensions through which power relations can be understood. This way of framing matters enabled Robert Merton to coin the phrase ‘sociological ambivalence’ in the 1970s for conflicts in role-expectations generated by these rather different sources of personal identity. 

My own take on Weber’s tripartite conception is that they correspond to the three major lived temporal horizons: past (status), present (class) and future (party). Their grounds for legitimizing power relations are symbolized by, respectively, the hereditary entitlement, the balance sheet, and the public relations campaign. Let me explain each briefly before focusing on the last category.

Status is a principle grounded in the inheritance of acquired traits. Thus, my status is both a privilege and a burden based on the achievements and/or failures of my ancestors. ‘Honour’ is thus the name of the standard that I qua descendant am compelled to meet or exceed by virtue of my status. The strength of a status-based social system may be measured by the extent to which any subsequent failure on my part to uphold this legacy is localized to me or allowed to contaminate the entire lineage’s status.

Class is a principle grounded in ongoing relations to the means of production in society, which are stabilized by the ‘state’, an entity whose very name implies a capacity to hold change in check, thereby establishing a common sense of the present. The ‘egalitarian’ character of Marxism is founded on the idea that all existing classes are equally valuable to society, such that were the proletariat to withdraw its labour the system would collapse. When Marxists speak of a ‘classless society’, they really mean ‘class’ in a sense closer to ‘status’, that is, something into which one is born and cannot change.

Party is a future-oriented principle for organizing social life. Thus, a party system forces conservatives to campaign for the idea that the future should be as much as possible like the past, rather than simply have society take it as the default pattern of existence. In this respect, parties are inherently aspirational. Parties emerge in a world of periodic elections which invite people to reinvent their political affiliation in the name of providing society with a collective direction. The assumption is that people are sufficiently competent and compliant both to represent their own opinions and to execute the electoral outcome. This is a big assumption!

The bigness of the assumption is reflected in the extent to which the sort of objections that were raised against party politics before its widespread institutionalization have been reinvented in our own time. In the seventeenth century, the objections were grounded in a Christian conception of human fallibility at once moral and epistemic, but in any case resulted in a corruption of judgement: People are both too easily swayed by self-indulging bad arguments and not swayed easily enough by self-limiting good arguments. Nowadays, the same case is made by evolutionary psychologists, decidedly without the original theological spin.

So then, what promotes the party mentality?

The short answer is the belief that people can be other—and typically more—than they have been. Parties enter politics as formally recognised social movements, which aim to get people to alter their sense of self. Even those who promote a status- or class-based social order are forced through the party system to envisage that people might wish to shift position. Thus, parties are incompatible with castes. Indeed, one of the more alarming features of parties for many who value social order is that they prey on the plasticity and fickleness of the electorate. Party politics stagnates if people’s votes become too predictable based on indicators other than the pitches produced in a particular electoral cycle.

More than Weber, his older contemporary Vilfredo Pareto was the master theorist of party-based politics. (For more on Brexit related to this conception, see here.) For Pareto, it was all about the ‘circulation of elites’, which pertains mainly to the speed of circulation and the openness of the process. These two dimensions are orthogonal to each other. Pareto was mainly concerned with the speed of circulation. Following Machiavelli, he posited two party-types: the ‘Lions’ who appeal to authority to maintain an orderly succession, and the ‘Foxes’ who play on intrigue and chance to speed up the process. Generally speaking, Lions rule by default and Foxes in the exception.

However, the modern period’s extension of the vote to the masses introduced a second dimension to party politics, which Pareto only began to explore: It’s the relative openness of the elites to new entrants, who are then brought into the circulation process. Greater democratization has meant greater openness, but there is then the question of whether the masses are incorporated at a steady pace or all at once. The former route is the one preferred by social democratic regimes, which stagger entry into the elites over several generations through education, etc., resulting in the long march known as ‘upward social mobility’. The latter route is the more populist one, which disdains the very idea of meritocracy and would incorporate masses literally en masse.

We might call this general openness to the incorporation of the masses into the elites, ‘Left Paretian’, adherents to which then differ over whether it happens slowly (Lions) or quickly (Foxes). The ‘Right Paretians’ are those who think the difference between the elites and the masses should always be clear. Thus, while some people may manage to migrate from the masses to the elites, there shouldn’t be explicit government policy to encourage such migration. The idea underwriting the Right Paretian position is that the volatility entailed by the circulation elites works best when fewer players are in the mix so the people can be treated as ‘masses’ in the literal sense of relatively inert resources to deployed in the elite power play.

Parliamentary democracy is the modern site for playing out Pareto’s vision. And while the UK is famously known as the home to the oldest major parliamentary democracy, it was founded before the convention of written constitutions. This has meant that the relation between the people and their elected representatives has been always left open. Thus, there is no formal rhetorical space for parliamentarians to exert their superiority over the people who elected them. This means that the exact sense of ‘authority’ which parties can exert over their membership is ambiguous and left to relatively tacit understandings.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Members of Parliament from the UK’s major parties—Tory and Labour—are Left Paretian in their self-understanding and, if the antipathy of most of them to Brexit is an indicator, on the ‘Lion’ side of the Left. But party members seem not to be so inclined, and this has led to increasing internal tensions in both parties. The members see their elected officials as empowered to administer their collective will, not as exercising judgement in ways that serve the people’s interests—which may involve ‘sublimating’, if not nullifying, the collective will.

If the UK learns nothing else from Brexit, it should be that a parliamentary democracy can work only if it becomes self-consciously Paretian and lays down explicit rules to the game by which Parliament plays—which in turn means a written constitution.

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