Show Hide image

"My sympathies have always been with the bullied rather than the bully."

Graham Linehan on comedy writing, politics and Twitter.

When you think about the current state of TV comedy, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic?

I'm never pessimistic because something always comes along. Every dry period gets shaken up by something like The Office. In fact, it could be said that dry periods create programmes like The Office, which often start as rejections of the current fashion. But they're black swan events, so when everyone tries to copy them they just create a new, dreary status quo to rebel against. I can't bear the mock-doc format now.

How do you personally decide if a joke goes too far or is too cruel?

I love the challenge of covering a taboo subject in a way that can't offend anyone. My favourite comedies do this -- the famous example is the Seinfeld masturbation episode -- and I'm always on the lookout for things that, at first glance, seem impossible to transpose to a comedy setting. I did the episode about Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal, on The IT Crowd because, horrible though the facts of the case were, I heard there was a previous guy who chickened out, so he and Armin went to see Oceans Eleven together instead. I found that hilarious and oddly sweet, so I thought I could do something with it.

Also, Twitter provides a means by which the people attacked in a particular joke can easily get in touch with you. These days, I think: "If the person I was making fun of contacted me, would I be able to defend it?" If the answer is yes, I go ahead. If the answer is no, I ask myself if I like the person. If the answer to that is no, I go ahead.

You said in Mustard magazine that you find it hard to write female comic characters. Do you think audiences still have trouble accepting that women can be funny?

Absolutely not. There may be writers out there who blame their own shortcomings on women but I hope I never become one of them. It's just a little more effort for me to get inside a woman's skin. One thing I have always tried to do is make the female characters as venal, corrupt and silly as the men. Being equally hard on my characters, male or female, is my pathetic little contribution to feminism.

You were a journalist in Dublin. Were you good at it -- and did you enjoy it?

Also here in London, for Select magazine. I enjoyed it very much but I was never a proper journalist. I would write humorous pieces and try and make my subject fit them, rather than the other way round. I was so young. I shudder when I read any of that stuff now. In fact, I shudder when I read things I wrote a month ago.

Are there any journalists you admire?

Plenty! Too many to list! I think the Guardian under Rusbridger has been amazing. I think the Guardian's work over the last decade, especially with WikiLeaks and phone-hacking, has been extraordinary. Literally world-changing. I love the way people like Ben Goldacre give you not just the story but the tools to understand the story and the issues and processes behind it. As a bonus, the Guardian understands what engaging with readers really means and the paper is all the better for it.

How do you think journalism should be funded once print doesn't pay any more -- advertising, paywalls or something else?
Paywalls seem a typical old-worldy example of trying to remake the web in the image of something less efficient, less useful, less shareable. I don't see it working long term. Until people stop resisting the fact that the world has changed utterly, this transition period is going to be longer than it should be and everyone will suffer. I don't have any bright ideas on how to pay for journalism -- if I had, I'd be writing this from my yacht -- but I do know that people will always want it and if you give them a convenient way to pay for it, they will.

You often call out media organisations for their bad behaviour. Are you ever afraid it might damage your career?

I wasn't until now.

How much has Twitter changed your day to day life?

It has totally transformed my life. It has given it an extra dimension and I would miss it terribly were it to disappear. I have daily conversations with people from all walks of life, whom I would otherwise never have known -- human rights lawyers, Egyptian IT Crowd fans who protested in Tahrir Square, policemen, Tories (yes, even Tories!), journalists . . . If ever I see something I like, I immediately find out whether the writer is on Twitter and if so, I'm able to send a note of thanks. A lot of friendships with people I hugely admire have started that way. I get very frustrated when people don't see what a miracle it is. The famous six degrees of separation has been reduced to zero and every day we're feeling the repercussions of that.

Do you think that Twitter-led campaigns -- such as #welovethenhs -- are effective at swaying public opinion and at motivating people to action? Or is Twitter, as its critics suggest, just a cosy lefty echo chamber?

Ask the News of The World. Or Carter Ruck. Or Jan Moir. There wasn't anything cosy about those campaigns. And they got results. I doubt Jan Moir will be tut-tutting the recently deceased any time soon and as for the News Of The World . . .

#welovethenhs wasn't so much a campaign as an attempt to fight propaganda with propaganda. I wrote the first tweet in a Starbucks while waiting for a coffee and a few months later Gordon Brown had inserted the phrase into a speech. That was pretty dizzying but I think the fact that it was so easily co-opted by politicians probably ended up being a fault rather than a feature.

As for the left-wing echo chamber . . . Twitter is made of individuals, so it can't be left or right any more than an individual is purely left or right. There is a problem, however, in that there are a lot of very clever people out there who have decided for whatever reason that they don't want to have anything to do with the internet. Their absence is a problem. They're being left out of the conversation and the conversation is the poorer for it.

You've talked about playing video games (your line about being a dick in Call of Juarez still makes me laugh). Do you think they would be an interesting medium to write for?

Yes. In fact, I did a little work for Little Big Planet 2. It's difficult though, because games often serve the gameplay rather than the story and the stories suffer terribly as a result. Some games with a narrative are so poorly written that I just can't play them. Alan Wake, Red Dead Redemption, even LA Noire . . . I just couldn't bring myself to listen to another good actor delivering terrible lines.

How would you describe your politics?

My sympathies have always been with the bullied rather than the bully so I guess I'm left-wing. I do believe that the internet is giving us a chance to move on from these limiting definitions, though.

You were critical of the Today programme's "dishonest, binary style of debate". But is there a place for adversarial debate in politics/journalism -- for example, Prime Minister's Questions?

Prime Minister's Questions . . . Is there a less edifying spectacle? Point-scoring. A football match. Not even a football match -- the early computer game Pong would be a better example. PMQs might be many things, but I only tune in expecting to see the government fighting a rearguard action. You never expect to see anyone getting shit done.

As for the Today programme, there is absolutely a place for this kind of debate, but it shouldn't be the default mode. That's lazy. It's almost a way of farming out the job of research to a third party. And in my case, it led to what I still think is a breach of ethics in that the only way they could get me on the program was by giving me a false brief. I was told in an email I'd be talking about "the challenges and excitements of adapting a film for the stage" and that was just a flat-out lie. Michael Billington had been briefed accurately because he was working from a few pages of notes, he had been allowed to prepare. My anger stemmed mainly from the fact that I hadn't been afforded the same courtesy. They still haven't apologised for it.

Do you vote?

Yes. It's good for us to feel powerless once every four years.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?

I was very bad at being single. Lots of regrets there.

Was or is there a plan for your career?

No, I just float from project to project.

Are we all doomed?

How many more times can we read "It was the hottest summer on record" before the newspaper bursts into flames in our hands?

Follow Graham Linehan on Twitter: @Glinner

Defining Moments

1968 Born in Dublin
1994 Begins writing for TV with The Day Today. Later writes for Brass Eye as well as Black Books, Big Train, Hippies and Jam
1995 His co-creation Father Ted premieres
2006 Launches his "old-fashioned sitcom" The IT Crowd, filmed with a live audience
2009 Launches Twitter campaign to support the National Health Service
2011 Perpetrates Twitter hoax that Osama Bin Laden was a fan of The IT Crowd

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Show Hide image

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.

***


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