Who puts out the rubbish?

When Britain signed the EC Landfill Directive in 1999, we should have entered an era in which waste-

At the start of the 1990s, the UK's recycling rates were languishing at around 5 per cent. While West Germany passed laws committing its citizens to recycling 50 per cent of its packaging waste by 1995, the UK continued to pile the plastic on to landfill sites for another decade.

The catalyst for change came in 1999, when the Labour government signed up to the EU Landfill Directive - a legal agreement to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste that goes to landfill in European Union member states. Scotland published a waste policy the same year; Wales's strategy was ready in 2002, Northern Ireland's in 2006, and after much toing and froing, in 2007 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) finally published its plan for reducing the amount of waste England creates.

Waste Strategy for England, as it was called, targeted five stakeholder groups that needed to change their behaviour to minimise the waste the country produced, as well as claw back energy by treating the residual rubbish: government, industry, retailers, consumers and the waste industry. Each stakeholder was allocated responsibilities and market-based incentives and goals were established which, if met, would ensure that, by 2020, 50 per cent of England's waste would be reused, recycled and composted.

Government

In 2006 the European Union established a Waste Framework Directive relating to the management of waste across the EU, and committed member states and their local authorities to reducing the amount of waste they produced. The UK government took this to mean tighter regulation of waste activity and delegated a much greater task to the ­Environment Agency - whose core role is to enforce environmental standards. It was now expected to take a role in setting these regulations, particularly in industry, while also monitoring targets and standards.

Paying for the green revolution was going to be an issue. A hike in the landfill tax - now at £48 per tonne of waste going to landfill, compared to £7 per tonne in 1996 - was introduced, and the universal charge to every authority, business and household that takes a tonne of waste to landfill has been the most effective fiscal measure brought in to divert waste.

The government gave local authorities the duty of delivering landfill reduction targets by increasing the municipal waste recycled or reused from 27 per cent in 2005 to 53 per cent in 2010. This involved diverting waste from landfill, helped by PFI credits to stimulate investment in waste infrastructure schemes. The councils also had to give businesses and households advice on how to minimise waste. As an incentive, the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme fined local authorities £150 per tonne of waste that was above their target figures which went to landfill.

Over the past three years, the amount of biodegradable waste that goes to landfill has reduced to beneath 2010 targets, using 78 per cent of its allocated amount. But, as long as landfill reduction remains the only way that our government passes on responsibilities and incentives to local authorities and councils, waste continues to be produced.

Industry

Could this be the year that the government finally holds industry accountable for its environmental impact? Historically, levels of waste have risen as the economy has grown, and the fear has been that, if the biggest polluters were made to reduce waste, this would force the economy to contract.

Moreover, while monitoring household waste (collected by local authorities) is fairly straightforward, central government is still struggling to find an effective way to monitor commercial and industrial waste, which is collected by hundreds of private companies.

But it is waste minimisation that is really becoming a buzzword for industry at the moment, particularly given the current economic climate. The obligations of "producer responsibility", both statutory and voluntary, oblige industry to make products using more recycled materials and fewer newly extracted raw materials, and to design products that are less wasteful in their production and use. Producers should manage the cost of these changes, not simply by handing the costs of eco design over to the consumer, but by addressing their supply chain and establishing links with different stakeholders in the strategy.

It is at the bottom of the priority list for most business - the commercial benefit in producing less waste is not immediately obvious - but slowly, as businesses begin to see the cost benefits of introducing upstream waste minimisation policies, the idea is catching on.

Retailers

Most of the UK's commercial waste comes from the retail sector, and in 2003 5.1 million tonnes out of the 6.1 million tonnes of waste produced by retail went to landfill. Retailers create waste in two areas - on their own property and by passing packaging on to consumers. The former is tackled economically, and retailers opt for the cheapest disposal method available. As in industry, private waste companies are employed to take the waste, then sift through it before taking it to landfill.

Retailers could avoid passing on waste to consumers if they reduced the amount of packaging. This responsibility includes cutting the number of carrier bags that consumers use, and the waste strategy gives retailers the chance to sign up to the voluntary Courtauld Commitment, which encourages them to source and market products that are less wasteful and more sustainable as well as help their consumers be less wasteful themselves.

By 2008, 94 per cent of the UK's food retail sector had signed up to the Courtauld Commitment and 61 per cent of the country's packaging waste was being recycled. On the face of it, the substantial increase from 28 per cent in 1997 meant that the scheme was working. But beneath the perceived success lies the reality of these achievements. While this was a success for recycling targets and landfill avoidance, the commitment avoids waste reduction and continues to tie the retail industry to the hungry incineration industry, leaving consumers to wonder what to do with their packaging.

In 2009 Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, reviewed packaging policy and laid out a new set of priorities for the period 2010-2015. Nonetheless, he missed the opportunity to enforce packaging reductions, and again recycling pipped reduction to become the government's first priority. As far as the waste industry is concerned, the responsibility for dealing with waste remains with consumers.

Consumers

Consumers certainly have a powerful role to play in waste reduction. As the customers of consumerism and the darlings of democracy, consumers have in theory the chance to influence the behaviour of these other stakeholders. However, one symptom of being a lowly member of the stakeholder hierarchy is that environmental negligence is hidden behind a screen of covert costs and consumers are led to believe that government, industry and retailers are doing the job for them.

Defra claims that the consumer's job will be made easy if other stakeholders meet their duties to the waste strategy. The strategy states that consumers - business and individual households alike - simply need to reduce the environmental impact of their behaviour by taking a variety of simple measures. These include such habits as purchasing products and services that generate less waste and separating their waste for recycling.

As consumers are made to believe that minimisation is an upstream issue and beyond their reach, their focus is on ­recycling and composting. So far, it appears that consumers have done a good job of meeting the demands that borough councils make of them. By November 2009, the proportion of municipal waste disposed in landfill decreased from 54.4 per cent in 2007/2008 to 50.3 per cent in 2008/2009. These successes were a result of an increase in the amount of recycling that households and businesses were doing, which went up from 34.5 per cent in 2007/2008 to 37.6 per cent in 2008/2009.

Yet, while Defra's targets are being met, environmental NGOs argue more needs to be done, citing the rate set in Flanders in Belgium of 74 per cent municipal waste being recycled as the sort of levels for which the UK should be aiming.

However, it could be consumers who ask for more. They must assert their power and take advantage of their status as "partners" in the process of policy development. They must demand greener products and drive eco-design and they must be willing to negotiate the transparent cost of doing all this, rather than accepting the one they currently pay as part of council taxes and product prices.

The industry

Defra's strategy expects the largely pri­vatised waste industry to work with local authorities and deliver policy demands. Local authorities have to encourage their communities to separate their rubbish and attract investment to the waste industry using PFI credits, and the waste industry has a role to deliver a reduction in the use of landfill. A lot of their success relies on the landfill tax escalator - inflating the charge by £8 each year - taking the cost of landfilling from £40 per tonne to economically inefficient levels. Until then, industry, business and households will revert to this option while the recycling will continue to be undercut.

Nevertheless, in order to meet the EU Landfill Directive, local authorities need to develop waste infrastructure. By entering into a contract with private waste companies, local authorities are given PFI credits to pay for the use of the waste industry's service. Essentially, this is a subsidy for the industry and was aimed at encouraging the development of techno­logies that would cope with the diversion of waste from landfill in an environmentally friendly way.

In actual fact, and unsurprisingly, local authorities spend PFI credits, as they understand it, "responsibly". Credits are used to fund long-term schemes that investors know will pay off. Experimental technologies such as composting and anaerobic digestion or recycling, which have relatively low value, rarely receive any money. As a result, funding is aimed at conventional incineration - the pro-cess of mass-burn in which municipal waste is treated and turned into heat and electrical energy.

Environmental campaigners argue that, while our governments continue to ignore the highest rungs of the waste hierarchy, the private interests of the waste industry will carry on ignoring the environment and more sustainable methods of energy recovery.

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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.

***


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