I enjoy power-elite analysis. I did some amateur research on the JFK assassination last weekend and have been piecing together all sorts of decade-spanning conspiracy theories for some time. These theories exist in a sort of "quantum superposition" since there is so little solid information and evidence to work with.
When dealing with such difficult problems, it's helpful to use metaphors to keep things straight in your head. One such metaphor I've recently adopted I call "Kingpin theory."
The Kingpin is a character in the Spiderman comics. He has no superpowers but he is Spiderman's arch-nemesis, more powerful than all the other villains who do have superpowers. The Kingpin's power comes from his mastery of human nature, his willingness and ability to manipulate people by threatening their loved ones and his uncanny ability to remain at least one step ahead of everyone else.
In the real world, there are villains and then there are Kingpins. Pablo Escobar was a villain. Hank Paulsen is a Kingpin.
Now, when Kingpin theory is applied to politics, an obvious problem arises. The public doesn't like villains of any sort, Kingpin or otherwise. They want their leaders to be kissing babies and making absurd promises in stump speeches. So, the Kingpins have two options. The first option is to become a Twoface Kingpin (Twoface is a Batman villain, interesting in his own right). As the name implies, a Twoface Kingpin is like an inside-out Sour Patch Kid... sweet on the outside and sour on the inside. The other option is to become a Puppet Master or Corruptor.
Twoface Kingpins are relatively easy to identify. Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the cornucopia of pre-20th century tyrants. Basically, any autocrat is a kind of Twoface Kingpin, though the more unmasked his power, the less of a Twoface he is (whether this is a virtue or not is highly debatable). Puppet Masters, on the other hand, are much harder to find. Robber Baron theory basically takes the working hypothesis that the richest of the rich (say, the top 0.5%) are the Puppet Masters who control everything. This might be a good first approximation but it lacks depth. People in positions of formal power, but of lesser means, wield significant, real power. Consider the Defense Secretary. He might be a millionaire, but his wealth is nothing compared to Bill Gates. Yet I have no doubt the Defense Secretary wields a hell of a lot more power than Bill Gates does.
What makes Puppet Masters more powerful than Twofaces is that they are not easily identifiable targets, like Twoface Kingpins. Puppet Masters hide behind the scenes, pulling strings.
The most powerful Kingpins of all, in my theory, are Godfathers. A Godfather is a patriarch of a wealthy and powerful family. A Godfather family might have many Kingpins within it. David Rockefeller is a Godfather. Evelyn de Rothschild is a Godfather.
The formal power structures of law, government and the market create power centers or Hilltops. The object of power elite analysis is to understand the visible events of the times in terms of a struggle between Kingpins for control of Hilltops. Hilltops are strategic positions of power within the social fabric. The Presidency is a Hilltop. The papacy is a Hilltop.
Twoface Kingpins seek to personally occupy Hilltops. They engage in "King of the Hill" struggles versus other Twoface Kingpins. This is a first-order approximation of an election campaign between two candidates for elected office or the power-politics involved in clawing one's way up to the Papacy.
Puppet Masters sit behind the scenes pulling strings. A puppet-string is anything which acts as leverage to get someone to do what you want. Maybe it's a tit-for-tat business deal, special legal privileges, access to natural resources, the threat of blackmail, whatever.
Godfathers are the most powerful Kingpins of all. For this reason, they rarely seek to occupy hilltops themselves. Rather, they usually act as Puppet Masters and delegate the role of occupying a hilltop to Lackeys or they act as a Corruptor and seek to buy those who already occupy hilltops by corrupting them. As an aside, old-fashioned kings during the era of absolute monarchy (say, Louis XIV) are examples of that rare breed, Twoface Godfathers. A Twoface Godfather can't exist in the era of modern demagoguery, mass media and mass politics because as soon as a Godfather reveals himself to the public for what he is, it is a simple matter for other Kingpins to take him down through populism and class envy. Read about Nelson Rockefeller's political career to see what happens when a Godfather tries to reveal himself.
Wealthy, powerful families with a long history are Dynasties. Dynasties have a proven track record of holding Hilltops and maintaining their power, through thick and thin. Prior to WWI, there were 22 monarchies. After WWII, there were nine and the Windsors were one of those monarchical families. The Windsors are a Dynasty (Elizabeth is the "Godfather"), the Rothschilds are a Dynasty, the Rockefellers are probably a Dynasty, the Kennedys tried and failed to become a Dynasty.
The ultimate unit of loyalty is blood relation, that is, the Family. The Family is the power-base of the Godfather and is what makes a Godfather so much more powerful than a mere Puppet Master. The Godfather not only pulls strings and gets Lackeys to do his bidding on his Hilltops, he can place his brothers, cousins, uncles and other blood relatives in positions of great trust. This permits the Godfather to force-multiply himself vis-a-vis other Puppet Masters. A Puppet Master without a Family can only really trust himself. While blood does betray blood from time to time (and more often when there is a struggle over the Patriarchy Hilltop), there are biological reasons that make the Family less likely to betray its own than for two friends or buddies to betray each other. Human biology dictates a greater degree of loyalty between people carrying common genes than between people who are not.
Basically, the Family can introduce the division of labor into the business of being a Kingpin. All other Kingpins have to self-produce all aspects of the Kingpin business. This is what makes Dynasties possible and this is why Dynasties are the tip-top pinnacle of power.
But Dynasties have competition: fraternal organizations or Brotherhoods. A Brotherhood is essentially a gang. Gangs use the primitive act of a blood ritual (often murder, like the Aryan Brotherhood's "Blood-in, Blood-out") to initiate new members. This initiation process is psychologically powerful and parasitically leverages pieces of human psychology that evolved long ago for surviving attacks by wild animals and foreign invaders. Once initiated, members of a Brotherhood can be extremely loyal. National militaries, secret societies, intelligence agencies, street gangs, crime rings, and so on are examples of Brotherhoods which typically command a high degree of loyalty from almost all their members. However, the command-post of a Brotherhood is itself a Hilltop and is, therefore, subject to King-of-the-Hill struggles between Kingpins for control. In the end, Brotherhoods can be extremely powerful but in a head-to-head match, a solid Dynasty will win every time.
I don't really have a summary, this is about as far as I've thought this out.