Pakistan Institute of Development Economics

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PIDE Knowledge Brief No. 121:2024
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Not Elite Capture but Capture by Colonial-made Elite

Publication Year : 2024

Elite, a concept as random, subjective, and multifarious in theory, and as widely heard or debated in the public discourse, has gained prominence in public consciousness over many years. The concept alludes to several related concepts, including but not limited to, capture, in-group, control, power, authority, extraction, and transactions. With the equivocalness of the related concept- Elite Capture, several materials have been produced in the context of Pakistan, including one of the PIDE’s knowledge briefs[1] in which an attempt was made to explain who the elites are, what they do, who the elites in Pakistan are, and what they capture (if they do). The current piece is an attempt to further deepen the discussion on the inevitability of elites, who are the gatekeeping and meritocratic elites, whether is meritocracy an alternative to elite capture in Pakistan and the linkage between colonialism and the elite state. 

1. No State Without Elites

Elite capture, the phenomenon where a selected group or class monopolizes access to resources and decision-making processes, has played a complex role in state formation throughout history. State formation as well as most early law development occurred as elites struggled for power and established power-sharing arrangements such as parliaments and justice systems. In certain contexts, elite capture has contributed positively to state formation by providing coherence and stability to governing structures. Historically, cohesive elite groups have played pivotal roles in establishing and maintaining centralized states, fostering economic development, and promoting social order. This form of elite capture can lead to effective decision-making and the implementation of policies that benefit broader societal interests.

On the other hand, various monuments and castles also remain as signs of inequality and exploitation that resulted from elite control of resources and led to many movements such as Marxism to develop an equal state.  When a small elite group monopolizes political power and economic resources, it can lead to widespread corruption, patronage networks, and the exclusion of marginalized voices. This form of elite capture distorts governance systems, perpetuates social disparities, and hampers inclusive development.

Striking a balance between elite cohesion and democratic participation is crucial for ensuring that elite capture serves the interests of broader societal welfare rather than perpetuating inequalities. This perhaps was the brunt of the political aspect of the Enlightenment movement in the 17th and 18th centuries which led to the development of constitutional democracy. Later, the progressive movement of the 19th and 20th centuries was to add welfare policies for social mobility and risk sharing to ensure fluidity in social structures.

The result of these reforms was the creation of a merit-based elite with substantial social mobility. While there is evidence to show that wealth may be sticky, political power generally was driven by popular discourse allowing substantial fresh entry. This argument allows for further theoretical explorations of who is elite, on the one hand, and broadens the core for more elites to enter.


Defining elites

“Sometimes you’re an elite because of how people have decided (or been forced) to relate to some aspect of your social identity. Sometimes you’re an elite because of some more contingent advantage: your level of education, wealth, or social prestige. Sometimes you’re an elite just because you happen to be the only one of your group who’s in a particular room.” (Taiwo, 2022, page no. 47)

By this elite is either symbolic capital (reverence, respect and honour, and resultant economic entitlements bestowed upon) one has, or socioeconomic prestige one carries or cultural embodiments (knowledge and prestige) one embodies.

Political scientist Freeman in Taiwo (2022) does not define the elite as a standardized and stable identity. Freeman articulates elite, relationally; a power-based relationship in which one holds a position of power over another person, group, or community. This definition is not only contextual relationally but also spatial as the spatial specifications deepen the understanding of how, why, when and from where the relationships of social power emerged.

“An elite refers to a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part, usually without direct responsibility to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent.” (excerpt from Jo Freeman’s piece, ‘The tyranny of structurelessness’)

Described broadly in terms of power, economist Diya Dutta further funnels down the concept of elite by defining elite capture along the axis of access and economic/non-economic resources.

“The presence of unequal access to power- some have greater access to power (by their lineage, or caste, or economic wealth or gender, or some other reason) and consequently the ability to influence the transfer of funds/resources disproportionately.” (Dutta, 2009, page no. 10)

Contrary to socio-economic and politico-economic dominance as the phrases related to elite and eliteness, O. Taiwo (2022) notes that international financial institutions create another elite group that not only functions as economic hegemons but also as units of creating inequalities in the production, distribution, and dissemination of knowledge. The term, on either theoretical or operational levels, whether grounded in political economy or sociology, describes the commonality of characteristics; less collective action by people, decision-making tightened by the core, and the rise of technocrats. These features are visible not only at the national, multi-national or international fronts but also at the organizational levels.

2. The Nature of Elites Matters

The concepts of meritocratic elite and gatekeeper elite provide insights into different mechanisms through which individuals or groups attain and maintain elite status within society.

2.1 Meritocratic Elites

The meritocratic elite refers to a group of individuals who achieve their elite status based on merit, talent, and achievements rather than inherited privilege or social connections. In a meritocracy, individuals ascend to elite positions through their hard work, skills, education, and contributions to society. Meritocratic systems are often associated with ideals of fairness, equal opportunity, and social mobility, where individuals are rewarded based on their abilities and accomplishments rather than their background or social status.

Examples of meritocratic elites include successful entrepreneurs, accomplished professionals, talented artists or athletes, and individuals who have excelled in academia or scientific research. These individuals rise to elite positions through their demonstrated competence, innovation, and dedication, earning recognition and influence based on their meritocratic achievements.

There is however a downside to the meritocratic elite. Micheal Sandel[2] explains that merit as competence and meritocracy are different- the part ‘ocracy’ signals the mode of ruling for distributing wealth, opportunities, social acknowledgement, honour, and power. Meritocracy often tends to be self-perpetuating as in the case of guilds and some legally protected professions where they control entry and sometimes even benefits. In such cases, meritocracy can turn into a gatekeeper elite.


Examples of Meritocratic elites

Individuals or groups who have risen to positions of power or influence based on their merit, skills, abilities, or achievements rather than inherited wealth, social status, or other arbitrary factors. Here are some examples:

  1. Tech Industry Leaders: Figures like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg are often cited as examples of meritocratic elites. They founded or led some of the world’s most influential technology companies based on their innovative ideas, entrepreneurial spirit, and technical expertise.
  2. Scientists and Researchers: Nobel laureates and leading scientists often achieve their status through rigorous academic training, groundbreaking research, and significant contributions to their fields. Examples include Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Jane Goodall.
  3. Athletes: Successful athletes often reach the top of their respective sports through hard work, dedication, and exceptional talent. Examples include LeBron James, Serena Williams, and Lionel Messi.
  4. Entrepreneurs: Many successful entrepreneurs have built their businesses from the ground up, leveraging their skills, vision, and determination. Examples include Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, and Jack Ma.
  5. Academics and Scholars: Professors, researchers, and intellectuals who have achieved recognition in their fields through scholarly publications, teaching excellence, and contributions to knowledge can also be considered meritocratic elites. Examples include Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, and Stephen Hawking.
  6. Military Leaders: Some military leaders rise through the ranks based on their leadership abilities, strategic thinking, and performance in combat situations. Examples include General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Admiral William H. McRaven, and General Stanley McChrystal.
  7. Artists and Creatives: Accomplished artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers often achieve success through their talent, creativity, and dedication to their craft. Examples include Leonardo da Vinci, Beyoncé, and Quentin Tarantino.

2.2 Gatekeeper Elites

The gatekeeper elite refers to a group of individuals or institutions that control access to resources, opportunities, or positions of power within society. Gatekeepers wield influence by regulating entry into elite circles, determining who can ascend to positions of authority or influence, and setting the criteria for inclusion or exclusion. Unlike the meritocratic elite, gatekeeper elites may not necessarily achieve their status based on personal merit or achievements but rather through their control over key institutions or networks. As mentioned above it is natural for even meritocracies to develop entry barriers to perpetuate their status. The colonial civil service continues to keep its closed union while groups like lawyers raise entry barriers and ensure they have a monopoly on judicial positions, and urban planners have a legal monopoly. Bankers too have closed entry to other groups into the banking and finance sector. The corporate sector has created a Pakistan Institute of Corporate Governance to ensure that entry into the Boards of Directors of restricted to a particular group.

Examples of gatekeeper elites include political party leaders who control access to political nominations and endorsements, corporate executives who influence hiring and promotion decisions within organizations, media owners and editors who shape public discourse by controlling access to information and platforms, and academic institutions or credentialing bodies that determine qualifications and certifications for certain professions.

Gatekeeper elites can shape social hierarchies and perpetuate inequality by controlling access to opportunities and resources, reinforcing existing power structures, and limiting mobility for individuals from marginalized or disadvantaged backgrounds.

Examples of Gatekeeper Elites

Individuals or groups who control access to resources, opportunities, or information, often through institutionalised means, thereby exerting considerable influence and power over others. Here are some examples:

  1. Government Officials: Elected officials, bureaucrats, and policymakers can function as gatekeeper elites by controlling access to political power, public resources, and decision-making processes. Examples include heads of state, senators, and high-ranking civil servants.
  2. Corporate Executives: CEOs, board members, and executives of large corporations often function as gatekeeper elites by controlling access to capital, employment opportunities, and market resources. Examples include leaders of multinational companies like Apple, ExxonMobil, and Goldman Sachs.
  3. Media Owners and Executives: Owners, editors, and executives of media conglomerates can function as gatekeeper elites by controlling access to information, shaping public discourse, and influencing public opinion. Examples include Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), Jeff Zucker (CNN), and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook).
  4. Academic Institutions: University administrators, admissions officers, and faculty members can function as gatekeeper elites by controlling access to educational opportunities, research funding, and academic prestige. Examples include Ivy League universities, prestigious research institutions, and academic publishers.
  5. Professional Associations: Leaders and members of professional associations, licensing boards, and certification bodies can act as gatekeeper elites by controlling access to professional credentials, career advancement, and networking opportunities. Examples include the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
  6. Cultural Institutions: Curators, gallery owners, and cultural policymakers can function as gatekeeper elites in the art world by controlling access to exhibition spaces, funding, and critical acclaim. Examples include directors of major museums, influential art critics, and prominent gallery owners.
  7. Financial Institutions: Bankers, investment managers, and venture capitalists can function as gatekeeper elites in the financial sector by controlling access to capital, investment opportunities, and financial services. Examples include leaders of major banks, hedge funds, and private equity firms.


The connectedness of Pakistani Elites

Armytage (2015), while explaining the social lives of business elites in Pakistan, describes that Pakistan is comprised of disparate groups of elites entitled to positions of power in politics, military, and bureaucracy. These elites govern separate but equally powerful institutions of Pakistan. Their wealth over the last seventy-plus years is sustained by the possession of social and cultural capital they possess through ancestral politics, military influence, and social lives. These social lives as highlighted by Armytage (2015) in ethnographic research conducted with the elites of Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi, are constitutive elements of dealings and transactions among business elites. Exchange of expensive gifts, private dinners, meals cooked by the best chefs of the country, expensive alcohol, best musicians, and vocalists flown in from different cities of Pakistan, and designer-clad clothes, provide conducive atmospherics for finalizing business deals, securing government contracts, owning lands, seeping insider information, and acquiring a price concession on the vital item of industrial manufacturing. Hence, for elite survival, the fuzzy lines between friendships and the instrumentality of relationships are critical.

3. Enter Colonialism

Colonialism from Oxford English Dictionary

“A settlement in a new country … a body of people who settle in a new locality, forming a community subject to or connected with their parent state; the community so formed, consisting of the original settlers and their descendants and successors, as long as the connection with the parent state is kept up.” (Loomba, 2015, page no. 7)

Colonialism from Ania Loomba

“… as the conquest and control of people’s land and good.” (Loomba, 2015, page no. 8)

Colonialism is not merely the extraction of goods and wealth, it is about restructuring the economies and developing relationships of politico-economic dependencies between the colonized and the colonizer in which human beings were also moved. The subjects from the colonized regions moved as indentured labourers, domestic servants, slaves, and traders. The masters also moved but as administrators, soldiers, settlers, merchants, artists, missionaries, scientists and teachers; averring the identity of a gatekeeper elite. The intent of this movement is avowed by Chandra (1999) while detailing the stages of colonialism. In the first stage the colonial administrators, corporations, merchants, and traders, directly appropriated the surplus of the colony for three reasons: (1) to physically conquest seas and ports in the colony and take control of the naval forces, forts, armies, and trading posts, (2) to purchase the colonial products and, (3) to generate profits for the corporations, exchequers, and merchants. In this stage, the only changes were brought about in the military organization, technology, and revenue-collection structure to make the procedural and transactional systems smoother for extraction and appropriation.

The overhaul of the judiciary, transport, communication, and methods of industrial and agricultural productions took place in the second stage of colonialism in which the emphasis was on turning a colony into a subordinate trading partner which provided raw materials and cheap labour to the colonizers to produce finished products. In this stage, for the deeper permeation of the finished metropolitan products into towns and villages, the colonial administration had to be more comprehensive. The legal structure was also overhauled to ease the process of transactions of millions for imports and exports.

However, it was in the third stage that the administration was made more bureaucratized, hierarchical, and subservient. This administration was ruled by the colonial elites who made sure to manufacture institutions of business, control and surveillance and produce local elites who would mimic colonial elites and sustain colonial institutions.

Colonialism interfered in the natural evolution of our society. Colonial extractive systems that took 2 centuries to develop remain in place along with the colonial institutions—bureaucracy, judges, and the army. The bureaucratic and judicial systems in many post-colonial nations, including Pakistan, were created to be gatekeeper elites.  These systems were established to serve the interests of colonial powers, required to inhibit local initiative and entrepreneurship. Bureaucrats and judges were trained to enforce colonial laws and regulations, which prioritized the interests of the colonial rulers and facilitated the extraction of resources from local populations. Even after independence, these institutions have continued to operate as gatekeepers. This indeed perpetuates elite capture, favouring entrenched elites and hindering the empowerment of marginalized groups.

The military, another key institution shaped by colonial legacies, was historically tasked with maintaining colonial dominance and suppressing dissent among local populations. Trained and indoctrinated by colonial powers, military forces were deployed to crush local initiatives and uphold colonial interests. Post-independence, the military often assumed a dominant role in governance, further entrenching elite capture by aligning with powerful political and economic elites. This legacy of militarized governance continues to influence power dynamics, undermining democratic processes and perpetuating elite control over resources and opportunities.

Rent-seeking, the extraction of economic benefits through manipulation of institutional mechanisms rather than through productive activity, has deep roots in colonial economic systems. Colonial powers established extractive economic structures that facilitated the transfer of wealth from colonized territories to colonial centers. This rent-seeking behaviour was institutionalized through bureaucratic controls, legal frameworks, and economic policies designed to serve colonial interests. Despite political independence, post-colonial elites have often perpetuated these rent-seeking practices, exploiting bureaucratic and legal channels to maintain their privileged status and control over resources.

Despite formal decolonization, the legacy of extractive practices persists within post-colonial states. Bureaucratic red tape, judicial corruption, and military interventions continue to stifle local initiatives and perpetuate elite capture. The collusion between political, bureaucratic, and military elites enables rent-seeking behaviours that undermine economic growth, social development, and democratic governance. As gatekeepers of power and resources, these elites reinforce systemic inequalities inherited from colonial rule, obstructing efforts to promote inclusive development and empower marginalized communities.

In essence, the colonial hangover within bureaucratic, judicial, and military institutions perpetuates elite capture and rent-seeking behaviours, undermining efforts to build inclusive and equitable societies. Addressing these entrenched legacies requires comprehensive reforms aimed at democratizing institutions, enhancing transparency and accountability, and empowering grassroots initiatives to challenge elite dominance and promote genuine socio-economic progress.

Colonial legacy institutions have had a profound impact on rent-seeking and extraction in former colonies, perpetuating systems that prioritize the interests of elites over broader societal welfare. Several examples illustrate how these institutions when left unreformed, entrench rent-seeking behavior, and perpetuate economic exploitation:

Nigeria: The bureaucratic and legal systems inherited from British colonial rule have been characterized by inefficiency, corruption, and rent-seeking. For example, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has been plagued by allegations of corruption and mismanagement, allowing elites to siphon off oil revenues meant for national development (Ayadi, 2016).

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): The extractive economic structures established by Belgian colonial rulers continue to shape the DRC’s economy. Elite capture of the mining sector, characterized by collusion between political elites and multinational corporations, has led to the exploitation of natural resources at the expense of local communities (Global Witness, 2021).

India: Colonial-era land tenure systems and bureaucratic structures have contributed to ongoing rent-seeking in the country. Land acquisition processes often favour powerful elites, leading to land grabs and displacement of marginalized communities for industrial and infrastructure projects (Roy, 2019).

Bangladesh: The administrative cadre, which is the hallmark of public bureaucracy in Bangladesh, has strong colonial baggage. With continued opportunities for professional success, perks beyond salaries, and autonomous status in the functions and operations of organizations the bureaucrats work in, the bureaucracy is a system of yielding power to the very few to regulate and govern the public. For this reason, Zafarullah (2007) pinpoints that the ‘public confidence in the bureaucracy will further wane’ (page no. 171).

Zimbabwe: The legacy of colonial land ownership patterns has perpetuated rent-seeking and extraction in the country. Land redistribution policies implemented post-independence have been marred by corruption and elite capture, exacerbating economic inequalities, and hindering agricultural development (Scoones, 2009).

4. Pakistan

Certainly, Pakistan provides another pertinent example of how colonial legacy institutions can entrench rent-seeking and extraction, perpetuating systems that benefit elites at the expense of broader societal welfare. The following text explains rent-seeking and extractive practices rampant in Pakistan. 

Bureaucratic Corruption: The bureaucratic system inherited from British colonial rule in Pakistan has been plagued by inefficiency and corruption. Rent-seeking within bureaucratic structures is rampant, with public officials often demanding bribes and engaging in nepotism to grant favours and access to resources (Khan, 2016).

Land Distribution: Colonial-era land tenure systems continue to shape land distribution patterns in Pakistan. Large landholdings concentrated in the hands of elite landowners perpetuate economic inequalities and hinder agricultural development. Attempts at land reforms have been stymied by resistance from powerful landowning elites, exacerbating social disparities (Cheema & Naseem, 2018).

Military Dominance: The military, deeply influenced by colonial legacies, has historically played a significant role in governance in Pakistan. The military’s involvement in politics and the economy has contributed to elite capture, with military elites accumulating power and resources at the expense of democratic governance and civilian institutions (Haqqani, 2005).

Bureaucratic-military Complex: Alavi (1972) elaborated by asserting that the bureaucratic-military complex has emerged to form an ‘over-developed state’ rather than an ‘under-developed state’. This complex, following the colonial footprints, is not just economically and geo-strategically extractive but also embodies discursive control over the populace.

Elite Complex: Hussain (1976) while detailing the elitist framework and the diverse elite groups functional in Pakistan, articulates that each powerful section, driven by self-serving political interests, has institutionalized control, power, and autonomy through political parties. Hence, intrusion into political domains which leads to the development of political elites organizes and systematizes the power of the powerful. These ‘powerful’ are classified into different categories with each aiming to develop the Pakistani state based on their interests; Military Elites interested in developing a praetorian state, Bureaucratic Elites in developing an administrative state, Landowning Elites in developing a feudal state, Industrial Elites in developing a bourgeois state, Political Elites in developing a democratic state, and Religious Elites in developing an Islamic state.

Elitist Model: Hussain (1999) explains the elitist growth model by detailing the congruency of roles and functions both the market and the state perform. The market which steers its path towards efficient and productive outcomes if kept unhindered and unobstructed, is rigged by the small group of elites who also hijack the State (priorly active in attaining political and administrative control and authority). This confluence of elite groups in both the market and State produces unproductive and inefficient outcomes that deter long-term sustainable economic growth. Ahmed (2017) validly critiques Hussain (1999)’s model by averring that the model speaks of how elites monopolize infrastructure (administration, brick and mortar, industry, agriculture, etc.) but the model is silent about the monopolization of superstructure (bureaucracy, media, judiciary, clergy, law, and politics) by Pakistani elites.

Extractive Elite Policy Grid: Ahmed (2017) excellently describes the policy grid institutionalized by the Pakistani elites. The grid puts forth military, industrial, business, religious, feudal, media, judiciary, and professional elites at the Center, who communicate their interests to the Pakistani state through their umbrella representative organizations (chambers of commerce, business and trade organizations, religious and professional umbrellas, etc.) and political parties (liberal, conservative, religious, regional, etc.). Since both political and representative factions have representatives of elites, hence translation of interests into the actualization of policies is easy. This framework of policy formulation as coined by Ahmed (2017) is extractive.

These examples from Pakistan demonstrate how colonial legacy institutions, when left unreformed, can perpetuate rent-seeking and extraction, hindering inclusive development and exacerbating socio-economic inequalities. These references provide insights into the concepts of meritocracy and elite control, shedding light on how individuals attain and maintain elite status within society. In conclusion, addressing the legacy of colonial institutions in Pakistan requires comprehensive reforms aimed at enhancing transparency, accountability, and equitable distribution of resources to mitigate the effects of rent-seeking and extraction on broader societal welfare.

Loomba (2015) critically analyses the concept of decolonization by un-restricting the definition to the decoloniality of space and time to absorb the coloniality of mind, culture, economy, and knowledge. The process of decolonization requires that once-colonized regions do not merely attain physical and flag independence but should also be non-physically colonized, which should ideally translate into a post-colonial state that is at once physically independent and autonomous in its economic decision-making.

Alavi (1972), however, is critical of post-colonial Pakistan primarily because the state institutions were developed by the British colonizers which he calls the metropolitan bourgeoisie. The Pakistani state is run by the military-bureaucratic apparatus which functions to make indigenous social classes subservient to them. The excessive intervention of metropolitan bourgeoise (former colonizers) and neo-colonial bourgeoisie (military-bureaucratic apparatus-institutions inhabited by the British colonizers) are the constitutive features of what Alavi calls the ‘over-developed State’. This assertion further corroborates the fact that mere physical decolonization doesn’t guarantee the autonomy of a region.

5. Nuance the Debate on Elite Capture

“Elite Capture” has become a buzzword on the media in epidemic conferences and in other segments of the public conversation. However, the term is used in a lazy manner reminiscent to the naive Marxist debate of the last century. There is no attempt to nuance the debate with ideas of merit or gatekeeping or put it in the context of history and colonialism.

Is the elite capture a buzzword coined by academia to duck behind real economic issues confronted by Pakistan? With multiple competing discourses on elites and elite capture, it is pertinent to pose this question. The understanding of elites is still at an embryonic stage, hence calling elite capture out without a granular understanding of the concept and its practical manifestations in Pakistan is not only misleading but also undiscerning.

Perhaps the discourse on “elite capture” needs to understand more deeply the structure of governance and social mobility especially the nature of gatekeeping the country. With military, bureaucracy, and dynastic politics, as the controversial gatekeeping elitist domains, merit-based elites based on their hard work, creativity and dynamism need to be distinguished within elites. In terms of wealth and influence in society perhaps elite cricketers, performers and other individuals who are favoured for selling products are judged by the market to be meritorious winners. Yet they are no gatekeepers and cannot affect any economic decisions. Yet the blanket term elite capture does not distinguish the gatekeeper colonial elite from the merit-based elite, perhaps because more of the proponents have class warfare in mind.  

With the footprint of the economy at over 70% which is in the hands of the gatekeeping elite, and the cost of sludge at multiples of GDP, rent-seeking is rife. Social mobility is in the hands of the gatekeeping colonial elite that jealously guards entry. Market development is severely impeded by this gatekeeping. Migration and the limited market that exists in Pakistan are the only place for merit. Let us not brand those winners in with the gatekeepers. Let us also not use the ‘elite capture” narrative to curb the development of our infant markets. They have been stunted for 77 years. If the proponents for elite capture want to propose socialism, they should do it openly and not try to sneak it in through a vague term. 


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