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Norbert Elias [1897-1990]


Norbert Elias: On the Monopoly Mechanism

By Frank W. Elwell



There is a parallel structural process at work that, beginning in the Middle Ages, led to the formation of states and the eventual monopoly of these states over the means of violence and taxation. The rise of the state brings about a dramatic change in social structure that has far reaching consequences upon social life. Before the state, the individual had to be constantly fearful of physical attack, destruction, or confiscation of property. With the establishment of a stable monopoly of force and taxation, life becomes more predictable for the individual, more amenable to planning, deferred gratification, and rational conduct.

Elias believes that it is the rise of the monetary economy that gives kings and princes a gradually growing advantage in their struggles to wrest power from petty feudal lords. And this gradual centralization, bringing more and more territory, wealth, and power to an increasing absolutist monarchy, eventually transforms the West, bringing about the rise of civilization (188).

Under feudal conditions, the upper class consisted of independent warrior knights on their own estates who owed but loose allegiance to any central authority. In the course of time, these independent warriors situated on manors and estates gradually lost their independence and were reduced to dependent courtiers. That this was a structural process and not the result of historical accident is attested to by the fact that it occurs across Europe at roughly the same time; that we speak of the “age of absolutism” (188). Nor is it a coincidence, Elias says, that it roughly parallels the civilization process itself, which was closely “linked to the formation of the hierarchical social order with the absolute ruler and, more broadly, his court at its head” (188). For the formation of the absolutist court demanded a change in the behavior, drives, and emotions of former warrior nobility; to retain standing, successful nobility had to civilize their behavior to come into line with their dependence on the central ruler.

How did this increased constraint and dependence come about? How was an upper class of relatively independent warriors or knights supplanted by a more or less pacified upper class of courtiers? Why was the influence of the estates progressively reduced in the course of the Middle Ages and the early modern period, and why, sooner or later, was the dictatorial “absolute” rule of a single figure, and with it the compulsion of courtly etiquette, the pacification of large or smaller territories from a single centre, established for a greater or lesser period of time in all the countries of Europe? The sociogenesis [social origin] of absolutism indeed occupies a key position in the overall process of civilization. The civilizing of conduct and the corresponding transformation of the structure of mental and emotional life cannot be understood without tracing the process of state-formation, and within it the advancing centralization of society which first found particularly visible expression in the absolutist form of rule (191).

Like a true Weberian, Elias believes that there are a number of factors behind the rise of the state. First and foremost, he believes the rise of the money economy at the expense of barter is the most important factor. This weakened the feudal lords who existed on fixed rents, and strengthened the middle class merchants and artisans who produced and traded wealth as well as the central ruler whose tax system gave him a share in the growing economy (192).

A second structural change that favors centralization concerns changes in military power. Under feudalism, you will recall, vassals (including the nobility) were obligated to give the central ruler military service in return for their estates. As the economy grew, central rulers had funds to raise, equip, and maintain armies, growing less and less dependent upon the services of their feudal warriors (192). At the same time, there were changes in military techniques that changed the character of warfare and further devalued the services of the nobility. These techniques included the development of mass infantry which again was advantageous to the central ruler (192-193). The nobility, Elias reports, lost their monopoly on weapons and soldiering, and this monopoly passed into the hands of a single ruler (193).

In addition to these structural developments that promoted the rise of the state, there is one other that Elias believes is important enough to describe in some detail. This is the rise of the bourgeois classes. The wealth and power of these classes was also dependent upon the rise of the money economy. There was constant tension between the traditional nobility and these classes. While the tensions and conflicts varied between societies and over time, centralized rulers quickly learned to exploit these tensions and interest groups, supporting one for a time and then the other, to neutralize and prevent either from gaining too much power and becoming a true rival to the ruler and the absolute state (194).

Finally, there were several developments in technology that also promoted centralization and the rise of the state. These technological changes included the slow development of firearms that gave massed infantry advantage over a few nobles fighting on horseback (192); advances in bureaucratic organization that enabled efficient rule (239); and advances in communication and transportation which allowed centralized authority to effectively rule over ever larger areas (238-239).

Another way of looking at these technological and structural factors that promoted the rise of the state is to look at them as factors that change the balance between the forces of centralization and decentralization. The rise of the monetary economy promotes centralization by replacing land ownership as the dominant form of wealth. As long as land is wealth, processes of centralization and decentralization (feudalization) alternate: military competition among small estates in a given region for dominance (more land, wealth, and power), eventual supremacy by one lord who then dominates many warriors, and then a wave of decentralization as that lord and his descendants allocate estates to their supporters and warriors to start the process anew (313). The rise of a monetary economy, and the creation of wealth from manufacture and trade, breaks this cycle. The development of firearms and mass armies, bureaucracy, transportation, and communication has a similar effect on the forces of centralization versus decentralization, allowing kingdoms and states to grow ever larger and more powerful. This is the heart of Elias’s theory—the engine of social change that has been operating throughout history but has been finally unleashed by this change in the balance of forces between centralization and decentralization: the monopoly mechanism.

The Monopoly Mechanism

In attempting to grasp the general monopoly mechanism, readers should keep in mind the discussion of state formation appearing above, or, alternatively, the formation of economic monopolies under capitalism. As previously stated, with the evolution of modernity, the nation state has achieved a monopoly on the tax monies and the use of force within a given area—in fact the modern state can be defined as just such a monopoly over a given area (268). The formation of the state with its monopoly on force makes possible restricted economic competition within its area of control, which makes the operation of the monopoly mechanism among economic units inevitable (277; 303-304). Though the resulting competition is constrained and excludes the use of force, the mechanism itself works the same.

The mechanism of monopoly, according to Elias, operates whenever there are a number of social units of roughly equal social power competing for scarce resources—usually, Elias adds, the means of production. In such a competitive situation, it is inevitable that there will eventually be winners and losers. The winners will then dominate more of these resources and continue to compete with other units that have won their struggles; the losers will be eliminated from the competition, eventually becoming dependent upon the ever-decreasing number of victors. Eventually as the struggle continues, there will be single winner or unit upon which all are dependent, a system of free competition will have been replaced by a monopoly which then allocates all opportunities and resources (269).

Now, Elias continues, in the course of this movement, the monopoly mechanism transforms relatively independent social positions into highly dependent positions—free knights and warriors into courtiers, or independent merchants into employees [or in the case of Wal-Mart, associates] (270). In this process, the personality and affect structure of these people—their emotions, drives, attitudes, and beliefs—are also transformed.[1] The attitudes, emotions, beliefs, skills, and drives that make a knight successful in medieval society are far different from those of a courtier. Rather than physical strength and combat skills, his success is now dependent upon resources and opportunities to be dispensed from the prince; he must now practice restraint, and subordinate his own desires and needs to his lords’. “The means of struggle have been refined or sublimated. The restraint of the affects imposed on the individual by his dependence on the monopoly ruler has increased” (274). The civilizing process has been advanced.

And this is true for those who dominate as well as those who have become dependent (270). For the monopoly mechanism does not stop here. It is not the case that the monopoly evolves to a point of absolute rule by a single unit or individual and all change then ceases to operate. As the number of dependent individuals rises, their power vis-à-vis the monopolist increases. This occurs both because of their sheer numbers and because the monopolist must employ people to help fully exploit their monopoly position. “The more comprehensive the monopolized power potential, the larger the web of functionaries administering it and the greater the division of labour among them; in short, the more people on whose work or function the monopoly is in any way dependent, the more strongly does this whole field controlled by the monopolist assert its own weight and its own inner regularities” (270-271). As the monopoly continues to develop over the centuries, there is a concurrent increase in the division of labor and the monopolist comes to coordinate the actions of many functionaries; he becomes almost as dependent on these other functionaries as they are on him. Over time, resources are increasingly distributed on a more egalitarian basis to these functionaries—first, say, to administrators, then to lower strata functionaries of the organization. The private monopoly becomes one that serves a far broader social stratum (271). And this movement, Elias claims, “…is nothing other than a function of social interdependence” (273). A monopoly with a high division of labor, he believes, will inevitably move toward a state of equilibrium in which income and advantages from the monopoly will have to be distributed on a more equitable basis than to just those at the top—even to the “advantage” of the whole figuration. Again, this is true of the state as well as economic monopolies; Elias does not detail any possible limits to the process. Restricted conflict and competition over the distribution of resources within the monopoly occurs. Sometimes the process is reversed for a time, but the long-term process is toward an equitable distribution of resources for all (273-274).

This can be seen, Elias says, with the state and its passage from the rule of absolute monarchs to democracy, as well as the evolution of single-owner economic concerns and their passage to corporate structures which allocate their resources now to numerous groups of stockholders, corporate officers, administrators, employed professionals, and eventually to skilled and unskilled workers. Within a monopoly, distribution changes from a private affair in which the vast majority of resources of the figuration go to the monopolist, into a public monopoly in which resources are allocated to the figuration as a whole. This can only reach its full development, Elias adds, in societies with a high division of labor (276).


Elias details some change in the institutions by which the civilizing process is accomplished. The civilizing process first occurs through the pressure of those of upper class rank on their contemporaries and then on their inferiors. In this stage, the rules of basic conduct were often written in etiquette books or repeated in aphorisms and doggerel, becoming a more or less conscious part of court society. The rules of conduct were transmitted from above to the classes below. With the rise of the middle classes, this courtly behavior lost some of its force, and some of the behavior patterns of the bourgeoisie (particularly those involving money and sex) were merged with courtly behavior codes to become the new standard (440).

As the middle and industrial classes gained ascendancy, the civilization process was accomplished through gradual changes in the socialization of youth that would instill a sense of personal shame and embarrassment regarding socially proscribed behavior (116-117). It is not until this second stage, when the family becomes the dominant institution responsible for civilizing the child, that such rules of conduct are internalized at an early age, often thought of (if at all) as “second nature.” 

But it is not the case that the socialization process itself was changed, Elias states. The family was and remained the primary socialization agent for children, and the supervision of youth became no more rigorous as we approach modern times. Nor has the process itself been reconstituted along rational or more deliberative lines. It is still accomplished in the same haphazard manner, where the socially patterned habits and rules of the parents passed early on to the children, with only slight modification over the generations (159). But through the years, the civilized rules and behaviors instilled through the socialization of children incrementally changed to incorporate the new civilized standards of behavior, as well as the feelings of shame, embarrassment, satisfaction, and pleasure associated with these standards (109).

Elias seems to be is ignoring the role of the school here. Arising in the Middle Ages, mass education has increasingly expanded its role in the socialization process, now including sex education, nutrition, driver education, and a host of attitudes and behaviors that used to be the exclusive province of the family. As the family is a very conservative institution highly resistant to change, and the schools are very responsive to government regulation as well as other formal institutions that make up the structure of any society, one would expect the civilizing process to advance rapidly as schools took over more and more of the socialization function.

Elias remarks that because the civilizing process is now accomplished through childhood socialization, a large gulf now exists between the behavior of adults and children. This gulf did not exist in medieval times. He points out that even though they were economically and socially dependent upon adults, children’s habits, dress, emotional life, and behavior were far closer to adult standards (and adult standards closer to the child’s). Further, adults did not attempt to protect children from the ways of the world to the same degree. In keeping with the state of the civilizing process itself, sex, violence, and intimacy were more freely expressed and thus more open for children to see (147-148). Consequently, as the civilizing process changes social structures, it becomes internalized in individuals through consequent socialization, and there is a growing gap between the behavior and affects (emotions) of adults and children through time, and there is an increasing segregation and a lengthening of childhood as well. Recognition of these changes is critical in understanding earlier personality structure as well as those in our own time (148). Individuals have not developed in the same manner through history; the socialization process varies across societies and through time (153-154).

Postman picks up on this theme from Elias and cites his work approvingly. Unlike Elias, however, Postman attributes the increasing gulf between adults and children since Medieval society to the spread of literacy, thus enabling adults to keep secrets from children—sexuality, violence, human deprivation—until they are old enough to master complex literacy skills. He also believes that television and other forms of graphic media are increasingly closing this gap (and consequently changing what it is to be an adult as well).

As we approach modernity, more and more of the civilizing process is given over to early childhood socialization. Consequently, children have to internalize the complex standards of behavior within a very short period of time. Their drives and urges must be channeled into the socially approved forms of expression; their behavior molded, shame and revulsion associated with their ability to uphold these standards (as well as the ability of those around them) and made part of the self. “In this the parents are only the (often inadequate) instruments, the primary agents of conditioning; through them and thousands of other instruments it is always society as a whole, the entire figuration of human beings, that exerts its pressure on the new generation, forming them more or less perfectly” (119). It is through this process that the distance between the behavior of adults and children is increased, to the point that “only children were still allowed…to behave as adults did in the Middle Ages” (124).

The primary mechanism for molding the child is fear. As the source of fears within a society change, so changes the code of conduct demanded of its members (441-442). The dominant fear in Western societies was of one person for another. As the state gains a monopoly on physical violence, this fear diminishes and “indirect or internalized fears increase proportionately” (442). Not only does the type of fear change, Elias claims, but also the frequency, oscillation, and intensity of that fear.

Here as everywhere, the structure of fears and anxieties is nothing other than the psychological counterpart of the constraints which people exert on one another through the intertwining of their activities. Fears form one of the channels—and one of the most important—through which the structure of society is transmitted to individual psychological functions. The driving force underlying the change in drive economy, in the structure of fears and anxieties, is a very specific change in the social constraints acting on the individual, a specific transformation of the whole web of relationships, above all the organization of force (442).

Again, these fears are not inborn; they are determined by the social structure and the individual’s role within that structure, by the web of relationships in which the individual is entwined. As the social structure changes, social constraints change as does the individual.

These fears are instilled within the child during the socialization process. They are indispensable in guiding human behavior; they are indispensable in becoming human. Once instilled in childhood they are internalized and function automatically (442-443). Children come into the world as malleable, and their personalities and behaviors are molded through fear to conform with prevailing social standards. “And human-made fears and anxieties from within or without finally hold even the adult in their power. Shame, fear of war and fear of God, guilt, fear of punishment or of loss of social prestige, man’s fear of himself, of being overcome by his own affective impulses, all these are directly or indirectly induced in a person by other people. Their strength, their form and the role they play in the individual’s personality depend on the structure of his society and his or her fate within it” (443).


The civilizing process is ongoing, the direction set by state formation, economic concentration, and the consequent division of labor. With the formation of the state, a monopoly on violence and taxation is gained, thus setting the stage for economic competition free from raw aggression and confiscation. Economic competition, of course, leads to concentration and eventual monopoly, causing the masses to become dependent upon huge organizations for their livelihoods, and the skills, attitudes, and behavior needed to become successful become refined and restrained. Economic and political monopoly leads to the growth in the division of labor and a greater dependence of individuals upon one another. “As more and more people must attune their conduct to that of others, the web of action must be organized more and more strictly and accurately, if each individual action is to fulfill its social function. Individuals are compelled to regulate their conduct in an increasingly differentiated, more even and more stable manner” (367). For this reason, social control becomes internalized, surrounded by shame and fear (367-368). The structural changes of political and economic concentration combine to cause a comprehensive change in the character of the men and women who inhabit the society, a change in drive structure and affect, a change in the whole personality.

The competition among states and economic units within states continues to fuel the monopoly mechanism, with the division of labor a consequence of organizational growth. Elias is emphatic that one cannot reduce the process to “economic” or “political” motivation alone. Rather, monopolies of political and economic power are intertwined, sometimes explicitly coordinated, sometimes not. Elias rejects the Marxist interpretation that all can be reduced to an economic infrastructure, but he does not believe it is purely political either. It is the same monopoly mechanism that is transforming economic and political organizations; it is the growth of these monopolies that are transforming social structures and thus social life (437).

Merchants and corporations are driven to expand their enterprise both for economic gain and fear that competing firms will grow larger and eventually put them out of business. In the same manner, Elias claims, competing states are driven to expand their power and influence, despite the good will and yearnings for peace of many individuals (437). “The competitive tension between states, given the pressures which our social structure brings with it, can be resolved only after a long series of violent or non-violent trials of strength have established monopolies of force, and central organizations for larger dominions, within which many smaller ones, ‘states’, can grow together in a more balanced unit. Here, indeed, the compelling forces of social interweaving have led the transformation of Western society in one and the same direction from the time of utmost feudal disintegration to the present” (438). And it shows no sign of stopping in the foreseeable future.

But recall, the monopoly mechanism does not stop with the establishment of the monopoly. While the monopoly begins by granting all benefits to a few based on hereditary connections, this allocation of resources creates tensions and pressures for a more equitable redistribution of monopoly benefits. Monopolies also bring in their wake a more refined division of labor; functionaries and professionals are needed to administer and coordinate the activities. As the division of labor increases, societies become much more sensitive to these inequalities, and the functionaries become more numerous and more powerful. Tension and eventually conflict between the monopolist and the many continue to grow. Ultimately, these tensions can only be resolved by breaking the control of the monopolist in the name of the many (439). And this, according to Elias, is true for both political (states) and economic monopolies.

Monopoly formation will continue well into the foreseeable future. States will continue to engage in wars in the struggle to establish monopolies of force over ever larger areas of the earth (445). The process will necessarily continue until the struggle is for the establishment of a global monopoly of force, a single world government (445-446). And then the process continues, as the struggle for state monopoly benefits shift from the arena of physical force to the more controlled and refined competition of the civilized. And the same holds true for the economic order as well. Economic monopolies will continue to enlarge and centralize; struggles for their benefits will escalate between functionaries within these organizations, as well as between the rest of society and the organization itself. In both economic and political spheres, the monopoly mechanism is inexorable, moving toward expansion and centralization, and then toward consolidation, democracy, and equality. “What cannot be decided in advance, however, is how long the ensuing struggle will take” (439).

[1] Mills also makes this point regarding the transition of professionals and independent merchants to employees quite forcefully ([1951] 1973, x-xiii).

For a more extensive discussion of Elias’s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.

Book Cover


Elias, N. (1968/2000). Postscript. In N. Elias, The Civilizing Process (pp. 449-483). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Elias, N. (1939/2000). The Civilizing Process. (E. Dunning, J. Goudsblom, S. Mennel, Eds., & E. Jephcott, Trans.) Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Elias, N. (1998). The Norbert Elias Reader. (J. Goudsblom, S. Mennell, Eds., E. Jephcott, R. van Krieken, J. Goudsblom, & S. Mennel, Trans.) Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Elias, N. (1970/1978). What is Sociology? New York: Columbia University.

Elwell, F. W. 2009. Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. W. 2006. Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Elwell, F. W. 2013. Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

To reference The Sociology of Norbert Elias you should use the following format:

Elwell, Frank W. 2013. "The Sociology of Norbert Elias,” Retrieved August 31, 2013 [use actual date]


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