RALPH STEADMAN
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Islamist terror, security and the Hobbesian question of order

Liberals often worry about the need to protect citizens from the state. Yet in the age of global terror, the risk posed by failed states is by far the greater danger.

Among the consequences of the atrocities in Paris – many of them impossible to foresee so soon after the terrible events – one seems reasonably clear. The state is returning to its primary function, which is the provision of security. If the SAS has been on the streets of London and Brussels under lockdown, these are more than responses to the prospect that further attacks may occur. What we are witnessing is the rediscovery of an essential truth: our freedoms are not free-standing absolutes but fragile constructions that remain intact only under the shelter of state power. The ideal liberal order that was supposedly emerging in Europe is history. The task of defending public safety has devolved to national governments – the only institutions with the ability to protect their citizens.

The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility. Overthrowing despots in the name of freedom, we have ended up facing a situation in which our own freedom is at stake. According to the liberal catechism, freedom is a sacred value, indivisible and overriding, which cannot be compromised. Grandiose theories of human rights have asserted that stringent limitations on state power are a universal requirement of justice. That endemic anarchy can be a more intractable obstacle to civilised existence than many kinds of despotism has been disregarded and passed over as too disturbing to dwell on.

But one modern thinker understood that a strong state was the precondition of any civilised social order. With his long life spanning the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was convinced that only government could provide security against sectarian strife. Anyone who wanted the amenities of “commodious living” had to submit to a sovereign power, authorised to do whatever was necessary to keep the peace. Otherwise, as Hobbes put it in a celebrated passage in his masterwork Leviathan (1651), there would be “no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

Hobbes has been criticised by liberals for neglecting the necessity of protection from the state – a need that was clear in the 20th century, when the worst crimes were the work of totalitarian regimes. But one need not accept all of Hobbes’s political theory, with its fictitious state of nature and social contract, to see that he captured some enduring realities that liberals have chosen to forget. The form of government – democratic or despotic, monarchical or republican – is less important than its capacity to deliver peace. At the present time, it is not the state but the weakness of the state that is the greater danger to freedom.

Consider the migrant crisis and how it is likely to develop in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. The first and most obvious ­reality is that the crisis has been driven by a flight from failed or failing states. The largest single category of migrants has come from Syria, which has been devastated by a many-sided civil war in which the West – along with its ally Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states – has intervened with the aim of toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Others come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere. But it cannot be accidental that so many of these migrants are fleeing countries whose states have been dismantled by western policies of regime change. Migrant flows have other causes, such as environmental degradation in Africa and the economic opportunities that are available in European countries, which will persist long after war in the Middle East has ended. The chief driver at present remains failed states and it is wishful thinking to imagine that these states will be repaired any time soon.

Destroying states is relatively easy, while re-creating them is very difficult. Iraq and Syria will not be reassembled in a recognisable shape in any realistically imaginable future. Similarly, effective government will not be restored in the jihadist-ridden chaos that is now Libya. Politicians who tell us that the solution to the migrant crisis is to stabilise the migrants’ countries of origin are not being serious, or honest. None of them has any clear idea of how to accomplish such a feat, or is willing to face the enormous difficulties and costs that the task would involve.

By creating failed states, the West brought into being the zones of anarchy in which Isis (also known as Islamic State) has thrived. It will be objected that the states that were destroyed were brutal dictatorships. But Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a secular despotism and so, too, is Assad’s Syria. In working to overthrow these regimes, the West has released the forces of theocracy and come close to eradicating secular government in the Middle East. Worse, by persisting in its efforts to topple Assad, the West risks producing a catastrophe greater than any that has yet occurred. If Assad were violently overthrown, the Syrian army would likely disintegrate and the state of Syria cease to exist. The country would become an anarchical killing field in which dozens of jihadist groups compete for power. Communities that had depended on Assad’s regime for their survival, such as the Alawites, Druze and Christians, would confront a threat of genocide as real as that which has faced the Yazidi in Iraq. The result would be enlarged flows of desperate people into Europe. By intensifying the war, Russia’s involvement in Syria is likely also to swell these flows, though not by as much. In the longer term, Russian intervention opens up the possibility of some kind of political settlement in which Assad can be induced to give up power.

The West continues to reject co-operation with Russia on the grounds that Vladimir Putin and his client Assad are evil tyrants. From a Hobbesian standpoint, this is irrelevant. The salient question can only be: which is the greater evil? How is Assad’s dictatorship worse than a cult that abducts and rapes children, kills women it considers too old for sexual slavery, throws gay men off roofs, assassinates writers, cartoonists and Jews, murders dis­abled people in wheelchairs and razes irreplaceable cultural sites?

It is true that, with his barrel bombs and torture centres, Assad may have killed more people than Isis but this is not for want of the jihadists trying. They have launched mass-casualty attacks in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, among other countries where the victims have been overwhelmingly Muslims; and, if they can get their hands on biological or other weapons of mass destruction, they will surely use them. By any reasonable standard, Isis is a vastly greater threat to world peace than Assad.

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The impact of the Paris attacks will be profound. Casualties are a fraction of those of the 9/11 attacks on the US but Europe is incomparably more fragile. A fatal blow has been dealt to the Schengen dream in which people are free to roam across a borderless European continent. Though some controls were planned ahead of the climate summit that starts in Paris on 30 November, the imposition of border checks immediately in the wake of the attacks testifies to a stark fact. European institutions lack the capacity to tackle a security challenge of this magni­tude. Only national governments possess this power and, by reclaiming control of their borders, they are revealing a fundamental vulnerability in the EU.

Already, Bavaria’s finance minister, Markus Söder – a member of the Christian Social Union, which has been sharply critical of Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel – has declared that, with the Paris attacks, “everything changes” in Germany’s open-door approach to migrants. At the same time, Konrad Szymanski, Poland’s incoming minister for European affairs in the government that is being formed after the Law and Justice Party won the election in October, has announced that Poland cannot accept migrants allocated to it under a European quota system without stringent security checks. Even before the Paris attacks, Sweden had suspended Schengen, arguing that it was struggling with the influx of refugees. With Europe paralysed, the continent’s nation states are seizing control of their borders to stem a mounting threat to their citizens’ security. Just two days before the attacks, European leaders gathered in Malta to reaffirm their commitment to welcoming migrants. Now a different scenario is emerging. One by one, European governments are adopting policies of which the overall effect looks like the beginning of the end of the era of mass migration into Europe.

To many liberals – not least Barack Obama, who has condemned any such reaction as hysterical – European leaders seem to be succumbing to xenophobia when they should be defending openness and common humanity. But it is worth considering the situation from a Hobbesian point of view. Controlling the flows of people cannot neutralise Isis militants who are already here. Some will have entered Europe years ago, or been born in a European country and then travelled to war zones where they were trained in terrorist skills. Even so, uncontrolled immigration on the scale that has been reached in the past year cannot avoid posing security risks in conditions that ­approximate those of war. If Isis militants form only a tenth of 1 per cent of the ­million or so migrants who have entered Europe to date, a thousand or more new risks have been created. When it is recalled that the Isis militants who have returned from Syria to Britain are believed to number in the hundreds, the danger is clear enough. A major terrorist threat can be created by very few people.

The weakness of the EU in this regard is a direct result of the freedom of movement that has been one of its defining features. As a borderless zone, it can control the movement of people only at its perimeters. But when the frontiers of France are, in effect, in Greece (through which the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks is reported to have travelled when returning from Syria), tracking travellers is practically impossible. Rather than being an overbearing super-state, as many Eurosceptics have claimed, the EU is a pseudo-state, an institution that claims many of the prerogatives of statehood but cannot meet the primary and overriding need for safety that states exist to serve.

Moreover, this pseudo-state contains at least one semi-failed state. The fractured and paralysed state of Belgium has been a jihadi haven from which attacks could be launched. At least two of those implicated in the Paris attacks had links with the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, as did jihadists involved in previous terrorist incidents.

The unfolding pattern of the attacks must also be taken into account. Uniquely among jihadist groups, Isis has demonstrated the capacity to join guerrilla warfare and spectacular acts of terror into a single strategy. The Paris attacks were a reaction to defeats on the ground in Syria, where Isis has been forced to retreat in the face of advances by Syrian government forces, backed up by Russian air power and Kurdish fighters. If it suffers further defeats, Isis will step up its campaign of urban terrorism in western countries. More stringent security measures cannot prevent this assault. Suspects can be identified and some plots foiled but there is a limit to what can be done when every member of the population is a target. As long as Isis exists, its attacks will continue.

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Given how the “war on terror” created some of the conditions that led to the rise of jihadism, it is daunting to contemplate the prospect that further military action may now be needed. Yet François Hollande may be right in urging that, at this point, the only effective recourse is the Islamic State’s destruction by the combined might of western and Russian military force. Since, unlike al-Qaeda, Isis is a territorial unit, with supply lines and infrastructure, this is not an unrealisable objective. The unanimous UN resolution passed on 20 November to do whatever is necessary will help. But intensified bombing will not be enough and whether the will can be summoned for an operation requiring large land forces (which would suffer significant casualties and have to remain in place for many years) is an open question.

In a region where the enemy of your enemy may well be another enemy, the geopolitical ramifications of such an operation are labyrinthine. Any prospect of co-operation between Russia and the West in the fight against Isis could be stymied  by incidents such as the recent shooting down  of a Russian plane by Turkey. The risk-averse Obama administration shows no stomach for the job, while in the UK David Cameron’s enthusiasm for British involvement is at odds with his government’s record of hacking away at core state functions, including massive reductions in defence spending and ongoing cuts in front-line police, in the pursuit of fiscal austerity.

Concerted action against Isis on the scale that is required may not be feasible in current conditions. But even if the will to act can somehow be summoned, Isis will not go down without launching more assaults on western cities. That is why the powers of the state may need to be expanded, including restrictions on freedom that many liberals will want to reject out of hand.

Here again, it is worth considering a ­Hobbesian view. Liberals have reacted with horror to government proposals to allow intelligence agencies to collect internet data. This response is not altogether unfounded, since clear safeguards are plainly needed. Allowing security agencies to trawl through our emails entails a loss of ­privacy, which is an important dimension of freedom. A universal surveillance society is not a pretty prospect. Politicians who say that there is no conflict between freedom and security are deceiving themselves and us. The conflict is genuine but it is also un­avoidable. Those who want to treat liberal freedoms as sacrosanct should ask themselves what price they are willing to pay for these liberties.

It is not just security that is compromised if the freedom of privacy is treated as untouchable. Other freedoms are, too. Mass surveillance cannot deal with the conditions that have led people to jihadism. Life in the banlieues, blighted by generations of neglect and racism, is part of the background of the Paris attacks. Nor can mass surveillance be relied on to prevent future attacks. Sifting through data is an unending task; threats are multiple and continuously mutating. But monitoring internet traffic can still be useful and, in some cases, it may be vitally important. To rule out collecting data to protect privacy makes sense only if you accept that the risk to other freedoms may thereby be increased. In recent liberal philosophy, freedom is seen as a fixed system of interlocking and mutually reinforcing rights – the dovetailing liberties of John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin and other liberal legalists. Outside the law courts and the seminar rooms, the reality is continuing conflict. One freedom collides with another and sometimes we have to choose between them. Does it make sense to be uncompromising in protecting privacy, while surrendering the freedom to publish satirical cartoons?

Freedom is not indivisible. Politics is the continuing choice among liberties that comes with the earthy business of rubbing along together. Different faiths, cultures and traditions have to learn to co-exist. Aside from their many benefits, plural societies are an unalterable fact of modern life. But they can be made to work only so long as the state has the means and the will to enforce a common peace. If mainstream parties cannot rise to the challenge, they leave the field open to the far right.

Thomas Hobbes’s thought has limitations, some of which are relevant at the present time. Seeing violence as a means to self-preservation, he left out the ways in which human beings use violence to assert their identities and beliefs. He was fully aware of the dangerous intensity of religious passions. That is why he insisted that religion should always be under civil control. But as an early Enlightenment rationalist, Hobbes could not explain why human beings are so ready to throw away their lives and those of others for the sake of faith. Convinced that, in the final analysis, they cherish survival above all else, he thought they could be persuaded to put their beliefs to one side for the sake of peace. “Reason suggests convenient articles of peace,” Hobbes wrote, “upon which men may be drawn to agreement.” For a thinker who is usually seen – and possibly saw himself – as the supreme realist, it is a strangely unrealistic view. The history of his time and ours tells a different story. Significant numbers of human beings have often been ready to kill and die in order to secure meaning in their lives.

It has become commonplace to describe Isis’s attacks as nihilistic but “nihilism” is a term that nowadays means nothing. The term was originally applied to 19th-century Russian radicals who rejected religion in favour of science and advocated terror as a means of emancipating humankind from the burden of the past. Since then, it has come to be used to describe those who have no beliefs or values. But far from believing in nothing, Isis militants are possessed by faith. Though some reports suggest that the militants may have been fuelled by euphoria-inducing drugs, their attacks are not random acts of terror. They are moves in a methodical strategy of savagery that serves an apocalyptic myth. Isis is an explicitly eschatological movement, infused with fantasies of cataclysmic end-time battles and a universal caliphate. It is not without significance that the group has made few, if any, concrete demands.

Many of those who condemn Isis as nihilistic go on in the same breath to describe it as “medieval” – a curious conjunction. Certainly, Isis has links with Islamic apocalyptic traditions and with Wahhabism, the 18th-century Islamic fundamentalist movement that has been financed and exported worldwide by sources in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Nonetheless, the idea that Isis is no more than a reversion to medieval values is misguided. Since it implies that the group is an atavistic force that will fade away in the normal course of historical development, this is actually a consoling thought. It is also an illusion.

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It is not just in its use of the internet and social media that Isis is modern. The practice of suicide bombing was pioneered by the Tamil Tigers, who first developed the suicide belt and were, at one point, the most active terrorist group in the world. The Tigers were largely Marxist-Leninists, who killed and died for the sake of a vision of the future that is unambiguously modern. So were the followers of Pol Pot, who were ready to slaughter much of the Cambodian people to realise their fantasy of a new world. The Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult recruited among scientists and aimed to develop biological weapons with which it planned to wipe out most of the world’s population; it succeeded in mounting a number of bioterrorist attacks, including one on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 in which thousands were injured. Isis embodies a type of apocalyptic terrorism that, in different forms, has recurred throughout modern times.

Hobbes cannot deliver us from a situation in which we have become the targets of people who embrace death and destruction. Other than unwavering determination in defending ourselves, there is no solution to that problem. What Hobbes can do is dispel the lazy certainties and idle hopes of the prevailing liberalism. The lesson of the Paris attacks is that peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind. We are going to have to get used to the reality that “commodious living” does not come cheap.

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer 

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State

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Why the elites always rule

Since an Italian sociologist coined the word “elite” in 1902, it has become a term of abuse. But history is the story of one elite replacing another – as the votes for Trump and Brexit have shown.

Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was based on the rejection of the “establishment”. Theresa May condemned the rootless “international elites” in her leader’s speech at last October’s Conservative party conference. On the European continent, increasingly popular right-wing parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the German Alternative für Deutschland, as well as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, delight in denouncing the “Eurocratic” elites. But where does the term “elite” come from, and what does it mean?

It was Vilfredo Pareto who, in 1902, gave the term the meaning that it has today. We mostly think of Pareto as the economist who came up with ideas such as “Pareto efficiency” and the “Pareto principle”. The latter – sometimes known as the “power law”, or the “80/20 rule” – stipulates that 80 per cent of the land always ends up belonging to 20 per cent of the population. Pareto deduced this by studying land distribution in Italy at the turn of the 20th century. He also found that 20 per cent of the pea pods in his garden produced 80 per cent of the peas. Pareto, however, was not only an economist. In later life, he turned his hand to sociology, and it was in this field that he developed his theory of the “circulation of elites”.

The term élite, used in its current socio­logical sense, first appeared in his 1902 book Les systèmes socialistes (“socialist systems”). Its aim was to analyse Marxism as a new form of “secular” religion. And it was the French word élite that he used: naturally, one might say, for a book written in French. Pareto, who was bilingual, wrote in French and Italian. He was born in Paris in 1848 to a French mother and an Italian father; his father was a Genoese marquis who had accompanied the political activist Giuseppe Mazzini into exile. In honour of the revolution that was taking place in Germany at the time, Pareto was at first named Fritz Wilfried. This was latinised into Vilfredo Federico on the family’s return to Italy in 1858.

When Pareto wrote his masterpiece – the 3,000-page Trattato di sociologia ­generale (“treatise on general sociology”) – in 1916, he retained the French word élite even though the work was in Italian. Previously, he had used “aristocracy”, but that didn’t seem to fit the democratic regime that had come into existence after Italian unification. Nor did he want to use his rival Gaetano Mosca’s term “ruling class”; the two had bitter arguments about who first came up with the idea of a ruling minority.

Pareto wanted to capture the idea that a minority will always rule without recourse to outdated notions of heredity or Marxist concepts of class. So he settled on élite, an old French word that has its origins in the Latin eligere, meaning “to select” (the best).

In the Trattato, he offered his definition of an elite. His idea was to rank everyone on a scale of one to ten and that those with the highest marks in their field would be considered the elite. Pareto was willing to judge lawyers, politicians, swindlers, courtesans or chess players. This ranking was to be morally neutral: beyond “good and evil”, to use the language of the time. So one could identify the best thief, whether that was considered a worthy profession or not.

Napoleon was his prime example: whether he was a good or a bad man was irrelevant, as were the policies he might have pursued. Napoleon had undeniable political qualities that, according to Pareto, marked him out as one of the elite. Napoleon is important
because Pareto made a distinction within the elite – everyone with the highest indices within their branch of activity was a member of an elite – separating out the governing from the non-governing elite. The former was what interested him most.

This is not to suggest that the non-governing elite and the non-elite were of no interest to him, but they had a specific and limited role to play, which was the replenishment of the governing elite. For Pareto, this group was the key to understanding society as a whole – for whatever values this elite incarnated would be reflected in society. But he believed that there was an inevitable “physiological” law that stipulated the continuous decline of the elite, thereby making way for a new elite. As he put it in one of his most memorable phrases, “History is the graveyard of elites.”

***

Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. He used the metaphor of a river to make his point. Most of the time, the river flows continuously, smoothly incorporating its tributaries, but sometimes, after a storm, it floods and breaks its banks.

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

The relevance of Pareto’s theories to the world today is clear. After a period of foxes in power, the lions are back with renewed vigour. Donald Trump, as his behaviour during the US presidential campaign confirmed, is perfectly at ease with the use of intimidation and violence. He claimed that he wants to have a wall built between the United States and Mexico. His mooted economic policies are largely based on protectionism and tariffs. Regardless of his dubious personal ethics – a classic separation between the elite and the people – he stands for the traditional (white) American way of life and religion.

This is in stark contrast to the Obama administration and the Cameron government, both of which, compared to what has come since the votes for Trump and Brexit, were relatively open and liberal. Pareto’s schema goes beyond the left/right divide; the whole point of his Systèmes socialistes was to demonstrate that Marxism, as a secular religion, signalled a return to faith, and thus the return of the lions in politics.

In today’s context, the foxes are the forces of globalisation and liberalism – in the positive sense of developing an open, inter­connected and tolerant world; and in the negative sense of neoliberalism and the dehumanising extension of an economic calculus to all aspects of human life. The lions represent the reaction, centring themselves in the community, to which they may be more attentive, but bringing increased xenophobia, intolerance and conservatism. For Pareto, the lions and foxes are two different types of rule, both with strengths and weaknesses. Yet the elite is always composed of the two elements. The question is: which one dominates at any given time?

What we know of Theresa May’s government suggests that she runs a tight ship. She has a close – and closed – group of confidants, and she keeps a firm grip on the people under her. She is willing to dispense with parliament in her negotiation of Brexit, deeming it within the royal prerogative. Nobody yet knows her plan.

The European Union is a quintessentially foxlike project, based on negotiation, compromise and combination. Its rejection is a victory of the lions over the foxes. The lions are gaining prominence across the Western world, not just in Trumpland and Brexit Britain. Far-right movements have risen by rejecting the EU. It should come as no surprise that many of these movements (including Trump in the US) admire Vladimir Putin, at least for his strongman style.

Asia hasn’t been spared this movement, either. After years of tentative openness in China, at least with the economy, Xi Jinping has declared himself the “core” leader, in the mould of the previous strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also hardened his stance, and he was the first world leader to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump. Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are in the same mould, the latter coming to power on the back of promising to kill criminals and drug dealers. After the failed coup against him in July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been cracking down on Turkey.

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In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto elaborated on how a new elite replaces the old. A, the old elite, would be challenged by B, the new, in alliance with C, the people. B would win the support of C by making promises that, once in power, it wouldn’t keep. If that sounds like the behaviour of most politicians, that is because it probably is. But what Pareto was pointing out was how, in its struggle for power, the new elite politicised groups that were not political before.

What we know of Trump supporters and Brexiteers is that many feel disenfranchised: the turnout in the EU referendum could not have been greater than in the 2015 general election otherwise, and significant numbers of those who voted for Trump had never voted before. There is no reason to think that they, too, won’t be betrayed by the new leaders they helped to bring to power.

In the last years of his life, Pareto offered a commentary on Italy in the 1920s. He denounced the state’s inability to enforce its decisions and the way that Italians spent their time flaunting their ability to break the law and get away with it. He coined the phrase “demagogic plutocracy” to characterise the period, in which the rich ruled behind a façade of democratic politics. He thought this particularly insidious for two reasons: those in power were more interested in siphoning off wealth for their personal ends than encouraging the production of new wealth, and consequently undermined national prosperity (remember Pareto’s training as an economist); and, as the demagogic elites govern through deceit and cunning, they are able to mask their rule for longer periods.

Much has been made of Trump’s “populism”, but the term “demagogic plutocrat” seems particularly apt for him, too: he is a wealthy man who will advance the interests of his small clique to the detriment of the well-being of the nation, all behind the smokescreen of democratic politics.

There are other ways in which Pareto can help us understand our predicament. After all, he coined the 80/20 rule, of which we hear an intensified echo in the idea of “the One Per Cent”. Trump is a fully paid-up member of the One Per Cent, a group that he claims to be defending the 99 Per Cent from (or, perhaps, he is an unpaid-up member, given that what unites the One Per Cent is its reluctance to pay taxes). When we perceive the natural inequality of the distribution of resources as expressed through Pareto’s “power law”, we are intellectually empowered to try to do something about it.

Those writings on 1920s Italy landed Pareto in trouble, as his theory of the circulation of elites predicted that a “demagogic plutocracy”, dominated by foxes, would necessarily make way for a “military plutocracy”, this time led by lions willing to restore the power of the state. In this, he was often considered a defender of Mussolini, and Il Duce certainly tried to make the best of that possibility by making Pareto a senator. Yet there is a difference between prediction and endorsement, and Pareto, who died in 1923, had already been living as a recluse in Céligny in Switzerland for some time – earning him the nickname “the hermit of Céligny” – with only his cats for company, far removed from day-to-day Italian politics. He remained a liberal to his death, content to stay above the fray.

Like all good liberals, Pareto admired Britain above all. As an economist, he had vehemently defended its system of free trade in the face of outraged opposition in Italy. He also advocated British pluralism and tolerance. Liberalism is important here: in proposing to set up new trade barriers and restrict freedom of movement, exacerbated by their more or less blatant xenophobia, Trump and Brexit challenge the values at the heart of the liberal world.

***


What was crucial for Pareto was that new elites would rise and challenge the old. It was through the “circulation of elites” that history moved. Yet the fear today is that history has come to a standstill, that elites have ­become fossilised. Electors are fed up with choosing between the same old candidates, who seem to be proposing the same old thing. No wonder people are willing to try something new.

This fear of the immobility of elites has been expressed before. In 1956, the American sociologist C Wright Mills published The Power Elite. The book has not been out of print since. It is thanks to him that the term was anglicised and took on the pejorative sense it has today. For Mills, Cold War America had come to be dominated by a unified political, commercial and military elite. With the 20th century came the growth of nationwide US corporations, replacing the older, more self-sufficient farmers of the 19th century.

This made it increasingly difficult to ­distinguish between the interests of large US companies and those of the nation as a whole. “What’s good for General Motors,” as the phrase went, “is good for America.” As a result, political and commercial interests were becoming ever more intertwined. One had only to add the Cold War to the mix to see how the military would join such a nexus.

Mills theorised what President Dwight D Eisenhower denounced in his January 1961 farewell speech as the “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower had wanted to add the word “congressional”, but that was thought to be too risky and was struck out of the speech). For Mills, the circulation of elites – a new elite rising to challenge the old – had come to an end. If there was any circulation at all, it was the ease with which this new power elite moved from one part of the elite to the other: the “revolving door”.

The Cold War is over but there is a similar sense of immobility at present concerning the political elite. Must one be the child or wife of a past US president to run for that office? After Hillary Clinton, will Chelsea run, too? Must one have gone to Eton, or at least Oxford or Cambridge, to reach the cabinet? In France is it Sciences Po and Éna?

The vote for Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right are, beyond doubt, reactions to this sentiment. And they bear out Pareto’s theses: the new elites have aligned themselves with the people to challenge the old elites. The lions are challenging the foxes. Needless to say, the lions, too, are prototypically elites. Trump is a plutocrat. Boris Johnson, the co-leader of the Leave campaign, is as “establishment” as they come (he is an Old Etonian and an Oxford graduate). Nigel Farage is a public-school-educated, multimillionaire ex-stockbroker. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Putin is ex-KGB.

Pareto placed his hopes for the continuing circulation of elites in technological, economic and social developments. He believed that these transformations would give rise to new elites that would challenge the old political ruling class.

We are now living through one of the biggest ever technological revolutions, brought about by the internet. Some have argued that social media tipped the vote in favour of Brexit. Arron Banks’s Leave.EU website relentlessly targeted disgruntled blue-collar workers through social media, using simple, sometimes grotesque anti-immigration messages (as a recent profile of Banks in the New Statesman made clear) that mimicked the strategies of the US hard right.

Trump’s most vocal supporters include the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has found the internet a valuable tool for propagating his ideas. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, claims that the Russian plane crash in 2010 that killed his twin brother (then the country’s president) was a political assassination, and has accused the Polish prime minister of the time, Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council, of being “at least morally” responsible. (The official explanation is that the poorly trained pilots crashed the plane in heavy fog.)

It need not be like this. Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, but when some of its members – a new technological elite – start to play a more active role in politics, that might become a catalyst for change. In the UK, it has been the legal, financial and technological sectors that so far have led the pushback against a “hard” Brexit. And we should not forget how the social movements that grew out of Occupy have already been changing the nature of politics in many southern European countries.

The pendulum is swinging back to the lions. In some respects, this might be welcome, because globalisation has left too many behind and they need to be helped. However, Pareto’s lesson was one of moderation. Both lions and foxes have their strengths and weaknesses, and political elites are a combination of the two, with one element dominating temporarily. Pareto, as he did in Italy in the 1920s, would have predicted a return of the lions. But as a liberal, he would have cautioned against xenophobia, protectionism and violence.

If the lions can serve as correctives to the excesses of globalisation, their return is salutary. Yet the circulation of elites is a process more often of amalgamation than replacement. The challenge to liberal politics is to articulate a balance between the values of an open, welcoming society and of one that takes care of its most vulnerable members. Now, as ever, the task is to find the balance between the lions and the foxes. l

Hugo Drochon is the author of “Nietzsche’s Great Politics” (Princeton University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge