The cockney Siberia

The Thames Gateway development is the largest urban regeneration scheme ever attempted in Britain. I

Appendix 2, Figure A2.1 on page 98 of the delivery plan launched by Gordon Brown in September 2007 is called "Governance of the Thames Gateway". It is intended to encapsulate, in diagrammatic form, the structure that the government has devised to ensure the regeneration of an area that stretches 40 miles along both sides of the Thames Estuary, from Tower Hamlets in London to Southend in Essex and Sittingbourne in Kent.

The colour-coded diagram features a bewildering variety of government offices, inclu­ding the Thames Gateway Cross-Government Board, the Thames Gateway Strategic Partnership and the Thames Gateway Executive. It attempts to illustrate, with a series of directional arrows, how these state organisations variously "influence, advise, direct or collaborate with" the equally bewildering number of agencies "tasked", in the government's language, with "delivering" the desired changes.

To those unschooled in the ways of government, it looks a mess.

Philip Cohen, formerly of the University of East London, is co-editor of London's Turning: the Making of Thames Gateway, published in 2008, which collects essays on aspects of the government's scheme. He calls it a "labyrinth": "You'll meet many lost souls wandering in those places." The Brentwood and Ongar constituency of the Conservative Party chairman, Eric Pickles, lies on the edge of the Gateway. He ought to be able to make sense of it if anyone can, yet he says the diagram is the Westminster version of a Sickert painting: "Look at it for long enough and you'll go mad."

Perhaps the complexity is not surprising. The Thames Gateway scheme, to develop the vast tracts of brownfield land that begin in east London and extend far beyond the city's borders, has been described as the largest urban regeneration project in the world. It is certainly the largest of its kind that has ever been attempted in the UK. "Not since the Great Fire of London will the capital city have been subject to such an enormous and concentrated process of change," writes Cohen in the introduction to London's Turning.

The Department for Communities and Local Government is in overall charge, but many other government departments, including those for health, education and transport, are also involved. The area covers 15 local authorities, home to some of the most deprived wards in England, and three regions of England. It is home to 1.6 million people at present, but planners believe it has the capacity to absorb half a million more: the government aims to create 160,000 new houses and 225,000 new jobs in the region by 2016, as well as the additional infrastructure, in the form of schools, hospitals and transport links, that will be required to support the communities emerging on the banks of the Thames.

There are six "strategic locations" - Stratford, Lower Lea and Royal Docks; London Riverside; Greenwich Peninsula and Woolwich; Thurrock; Kent Thameside; and Medway - and five areas of "urban renewal" - Barking; Basildon; Erith; Sittingbourne and Swale; and Southend. There will be major investments in education, including two new universities in Southend and Medway, and £1.4bn has been allocated for new or improved hospital provision.

Even the government concedes that there is much to be done - as one of its recent "vision documents" notes, the Gateway consists of "rundown town centres, poor transport links and uninspiring business areas". Anyone who has driven down the blighted corridor of the A12, ushered eastwards by pylons and puddled wastelands, will have formed an even less favourable impression. The Guardian's architecture critic Jonathan Glancey has described it as "the cockney Siberia". Steven Norris calls it "the land that God forgot". Yet, as Ken Livingstone said in one of his last published documents as mayor of London, the city's economic centre of gravity is shifting eastwards, and the Thames Gateway is the place where London's "needs and opportunities meet".

Livingstone is not the first planner or politician to have noticed its potential. Already, the scheme to regenerate the Gateway is entering its third iteration. When it was conceived more than 20 years ago by Michael Heseltine and Peter Hall (professor of planning at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London), the emphasis was on providing transport links to create a "linear city" extending along the banks of the Thames. Under John Prescott, the priority changed to affordable housing, but according to Philip Cohen, Thames Gateway Mk III is reverting to a form closer to the original prescription, with an emphasis on public works projects. He says it is hard to identify a coherent plan and yet even if there was one, the events of the past 18 months would have made it hard to realise. "It's all predicated on the assumption that private development is very profitable and that private developers will be prevailed upon to pay for the necessary infrastructure," says Michael Edwards, one of Hall's colleagues at the Bartlett.

Since 1990, developers on most major schemes have been required to contribute to the cost of roads, parks, schools, hospitals and social housing under a provision known as a Section 106 Agreement. "It worked tolerably well during the years of the long boom when profits were staggeringly high, but now the boom is over, it's not producing anything," says Edwards. The government plan was to spend £9bn in the Thames Gateway between 2008 and 2011, in the hope that its investment would attract £43bn of private-sector money in the next 20 years. Edwards believes such figures have become unrealistic. "What worries me is that the profitable bits will get done, but the infrastructure and the social equipment won't be provided. We shall just get great splurges of speculative housing and a few retail parks, and it will have very poor collective facilities. It could be awful - a very poor-quality experience for the people who live there."

Peter Andrews, chief executive of the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation - one of two such bodies that have been created to implement the government's plans - concedes that raising private-sector funds is proving "challenging". The LTGDC, which is responsible for regeneration projects in the five London boroughs that fall within the Gateway - Barking and Dagenham, Hackney, Havering, Newham and Tower Hamlets - plans to invest £150m in capital projects by 2011: £120m in public funds is guaranteed, but it will have to raise £30m by selling land assets; the yield from assets has been cut from £117m due to the collapse in property prices. "Two years ago, nobody could have forecast what would happen," Andrews says. "The credit crunch is impacting, and if we were writing our corporate plan now, we would probably look at things differently."

In one sense, the financial crisis has worked to their advantage: the LTGDC was set up in 2004, but, unlike the London Docklands Development Corporation, it didn't have land "vested" in it - it had to buy it. With the downturn, people have become more realistic about values. "We're able to acquire greater areas for less money - what we can't do is put our hands on our hearts and say we'll be able to recycle that money very rapidly."

However, Andrews says the market will recover sooner or later. He believes it is important to maintain a long view: the LDDC was set up in a recession in the early 1980s, and survived another recession in the early 1990s before it began to see the "true fruits of its labours". "Regeneration is a long-term process - it does not happen overnight, and you have to accept that you will have to go through one or two economic cycles."

The LTGDC is based on the ninth floor of an office block in Marsh Wall, and Andrews's office windows look out towards Canary Wharf and the half-built towers of other Docklands developments. It is clear that he regards the Docklands as a benchmark for LTGDC's work. Other people see it as a cautionary tale. Critics say that the development of the Docklands forced out local people and destroyed established communities, and there are fears that the same thing will happen in the Gateway. In some places, it already has.

The government has identified the construction of the Olympic Park and the adjacent development at Stratford City in Newham, east London, as one of the "four locations for transformational economic growth" that will drive the regeneration process; but some residents, such as the photojournalist Mike Wells, believe it is only an elite that will benefit. "Regeneration is something that is done by one social class to another social class," he told me, when we walked round the site of the Olympic Park. "The social class that does the doing says it's being done for the benefit of the other social class, but I take issue with that. Basically, they're moving one lot of people out and moving another lot of people in - people of a different class and income bracket."

The Manor Garden Allotments, which used to lie between the banks of the River Lea and the Channelsea River, in the northern area of the Olympic Park, are the best-known casualty of the park, but there are many others. Wells used to live on an estate called Clays Lane that was home to 450 people. It was the UK's largest purpose-built housing co-operative, designed to address the lack of housing for "vulnerable single people", and it was erected in 1977 on top of an old landfill site called the West Ham Tip. Each of its 57 shared houses and 50 flats faced in to one of ten courtyards - an arrangement that generated a strong sense of community, and a strong loyalty to the estate among its residents. They were sufficiently well organised to force a public inquiry to recommend the compulsory purchase of the estate, but it was dismissed by a high court ruling in July 2007, and the estate has since been demolished.

The area it used to occupy, off Temple Mills Lane, lies within the Olympic Village, on the site of the Olympic Park, although even before the bid for the games was won Wells regarded it as an anomaly: "You had a lot of not very well-off people living on a scruffy estate next to this multibillion-pound development, and I couldn't see it lasting - at some point, they'd have got rid of it and built another yuppie block of flats there."

As a photojournalist, Wells has documented the progress of the Olympic Village, and as an activist, he makes the case against it. He now lives on a narrowboat on the River Lea or the Lea Navigation, and he regrets the destruction of the two and a half square miles of London that lie inside the infamous blue perimeter fence. "It was one of the most fascinating areas of the city," he says. "It combined the most beautiful elements with the ugliest. It was so diverse.

“You could see a congregation of 10,000 arriving at the Kingsway International Christian Centre while ravers were leaving the clubs on a Sunday morning. There was everything going on there - rough sleepers, artists, entrepreneurs and religious people. There were meat-processing plants and scrap metal dealers. And yet the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London Development Agency make out that there was nothing there. It's quite bizarre."

After London won the bid to host the Olympics, LDA officials conducted a consultation process in which they asked local people what they wanted to see in the Olympic Park. When Wells looked down the list of amenities on offer, including "riverside walks" and "quiet areas", he realised that almost all of them were already available in the area: it seemed the ODA and LDA were planning to destroy what was there and then re-create it, at vast public expense. Wells identifies the travellers' caravans parked beneath the concrete bridges of the A12 and the Eastway as the boundary between the real world and the fantasy land of the Olym­pics, and he says the park's surreal nature is encapsulated in the specially commissioned logo that adorns the fence - it has been designed at great expense to look like a graffiti tag. The actual graffiti on bridges and underpasses tends to express local people's attitudes more succinctly. "Fuck the Olympics," says one. "The Olympics equals exploitation," says another.

Further south, two Victorian warehouses face one another across the still, dark water of the Lea Navigation - Queen's Yard is still intact, but King's Yard has been demolished. "In ten years' time, all you'll see will be flats like these," says Wells.

He gestures at the glass-and-steel buildings that have recently sprouted on Fish Island, where the LTGDC is developing "a comprehensive plan for new high-quality, mixed-use and industrial developments". In the distance, the towers of Canary Wharf rise above the jumble of buildings and flyovers that obscure the river's southward course.

To Wells, such schemes as the Olympics represent an extermination of history. "We'll lose our connection with the past, with our ancestors and with our built environment, and we'll leave people floating in soap-opera land."

Dr John Marriott, reader in history at the University of East London, who contributed a chapter about the industrial history of Thames Gateway to Philip Cohen's book, agrees that "historical amnesia" presents a threat to the validity of future developments. He rejects the conventional wisdom that the Industrial Revolution, in the words of the historian John Hammond, passed "like a storm cloud over London and broke elsewhere". Marriott points out that there were large industrial concerns in Havering, Barking and Dagenham, such as the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company and the Woolwich Arsenal, which employed 75,000 people during the First World War.

Almost all of them were swept away by the process of deindustrialisation that occurred throughout the UK in the 20th century with the loss of markets in various corners of the empire. Ford is cutting back on making cars at its Dagenham plant, though it remains one of the world's largest manufacturers of diesel engines. Tate & Lyle is the last major concern in the area around Silver Town and Canning Town, and Marriott says that significant industrial sites have also been lost around Stratford and the River Lea, bought by compulsory purchase as the site for the Olympic Village was assembled.

Yet Marriott believes that you cannot create sustainable communities unless you draw on the area's history. "It's not a 'tabula rasa', where nothing exists, or has ever existed," he says. Woolwich thrived as a community, because of the existence of the Royal Arsenal and Siemens Brothers, which manufactured submarine cable. "These were not places that provided just employment for their workers: they provided a huge range of facilities as well - entertainment, recreation and housing. Planners have to have due regard for these historical experiences. If they don't, very bad mistakes will be made and my fear is that we'll end up with the Docklands writ large, where the historical communities and the memory of those historical communities are obliterated."

He is concerned that the emphasis appears to be on providing housing, both private and social, to meet the metropolitan housing crisis, without sufficient thought to what the new residents of the Gateway will do for work and leisure. "We have been told the regeneration process will produce thousands of jobs for local people, but I just cannot see it happening." He warns that the provision of transport links, such as Crossrail, which will connect the residents of the Gateway with the financial centre of Canary Wharf, may prove counterproductive. "In a sense, the best thing that you can do is make them stay in the area - though if you're going to do that, you have to provide them with work. Otherwise, it will become a huge dormitory suburb for London, which will be a disaster. It will be dead. People will live and sleep there, but for their work and entertainment, they will go elsewhere."

Naturally, it will not be the old, large-scale industries that will provide employment if or when the regeneration of the Gateway comes about: planners will expect information technology, the so-called creative industries and "green-collar" jobs to fill the gap.

The LTGDC is developing a creative industries quarter in Barking, and it has recently appointed a development manager and a team of architects to help create what it has called a Sustainable Industries Park on a patch of derelict land by the river in Dagenham. It hopes to create "the UK's largest concentration of environmental industries and technologies" on a 25-hectare site enclosed by the A12 on one side, and the smokestacks and jetties of Dagenham Dock on the other.

At the moment, it seems a distant prospect. A row of decommissioned London buses, parked side by side in front of a sea of scrap metal, stands near the entrance to the SIP; vast pylons, which will dictate the height and location of new buildings, run through the middle of the site. When I walked round it, on a cold, wet morning, it seemed irredeemably bleak and inhospitable. And yet progress is being made. In autumn 2008, one of the first tenants of the SIP opened for business opposite the scrap metal depot. Closed Loop Recycling is the first business in the UK to recycle plastic bottles into food packaging material.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has said it wants the Thames Gateway to be "an eco-region", and in November 2008 it published a 47-point plan that attempts to define the term. In one sense, the need for environmental controls is clear - given that 42 per cent of the land in the Gateway has been reclaimed from the sea, flood protection is a priority, and in October 2009 the Environment Agency published a long-term flood risk management plan, Thames Estuary 2100. Within the Gateway, the government hopes to improve the environmental sustainability of all new developments and maintains that the area can become "an exemplar for the UK and other countries, helping to answer many of the big challenges of development for the coming century".

It is an admirable ambition. However, the exact details remain unclear, and Paul de Zylva of Friends of the Earth warns that old habits die hard. "We've had a hard time making sure that the regeneration plans don't result in the whole place being covered in concrete. It's a very rich area, and yet there is a danger that these sites are being picked off because someone wants to build another identikit office or warehouse."

He cites the case of West Thurrock Lagoon and Marshes as proof that the forces behind the Thames Gateway regeneration are still "stuck in the mindset of pouring concrete and turning it in hard landscaping". In the early 1990s, the power station that used to stand on the grazing marshes in south Essex was closed down and wildlife began to colonise the site. In the next 15 years it developed into one of the richest nature reserves in the country. Yet, in 2006, a planning application was submitted for a warehouse and lorry park, and in November 2008 Thurrock Development Corporation approved the plan. An organisation called Buglife led a three-year campaign to save the site, but in January 2009, the Court of Appeal concluded that the decision to build on the land was legal.

The planned development will destroy more than half of the site, including the flower-rich lands on which many of the insects depend, and many rare species will be lost from that area for ever. Buglife is equally concerned by the recent decision to develop a vast patch of land on the Isle of Grain, in Kent.

“We're in danger of denuding the Thames corridor of some of its most precious habitats," says de Zylva. "These are the kind of things which will be important to communities when the process is finished, and they'll have to try and re-create them when they're gone."

Had Havering Council run a more effective campaign, the newest reserve for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, at Rainham Marshes, might have met the same fate as West Thurrock Lagoon. Rainham is where London ends: the border between the London Borough of Havering and the Essex Borough of Thurrock runs through the middle of the marshes, and on a clear day you can see Canary Wharf and the London Eye on a bend on the river 16 miles away. Other man-made structures define its immediate borders: the raised carriageways of the A13 seal the northern edge of the reserve and the Channel Tunnel rail link marks its western limits.

There are bright red and yellow shells of trucks and trailers stacked in a wrecker's yard in Purfleet Industrial Estate beneath the arches of the flyover, and the marshes are dotted with shipping containers - emblems of the Gateway vernacular - that have been turned into hides and education centres. To the south, a high sea wall prevents the tidal estuary reclaiming the low-lying marshes, and to the west, the flats and houses of the old Garrison Estate on the edge of Purfleet rise behind the RSPB's new visitor centre: a sleek concrete box on stilts, encased in a feathered skin of brown and yellow planks.

Yet despite its precarious existence on Londons's industrialised fringes, the area is rich in wildlife. It is home to 10 per cent of the UK's population of water voles, to insects such as dragonflies, beetles and spiders and a rich array of birdlife, including knots, dunlins, redshanks, lapwings, ducks and geese. The Thames Estuary is part of the east Atlantic flyway, and so migrating birds pass through twice a year, en route from the Arctic to the north Atlantic and milder climates in the south.

The RSPB estimates that at any one time in the peak period of January and February, the Greater Thames Estuary between Canvey and Rainham is home to 200,000 birds - which rises to 300,000 if you extend the area to a line between Whitstable and Clacton. The birds are attracted to the mud that lies on both sides of the sea wall. It has been estimated that each square metre contains as much food energy as eight or nine Mars Bars. "Without this area, they don't have fuel and they don't get home," says Paul Outhwaite, the RSPB's communications manager for south-east England.

The site was finally reprieved in 2002, though the board inside the door of the visitor centre confirms it was a complicated process - it lists no fewer than 23 separate bodies that played a part in creating the reserve. "It's symbolic of what a mess it has become," says Eric Pickles, who is a keen birdwatcher and a frequent visitor to the site himself. "There were so many fingers in the pie and no one taking the big decisions. It's a beautiful reserve and a beautiful centre, but I can't help feeling it could have been a lot simpler if we'd all been a bit more rational about it." He wouldn't object if there were two or three organisations involved, he says, "But once you get into double figures, something has gone wrong."

Not all the proposed developments have met with opposition from environmental groups. Outhwaite says the RSPB has abandoned its "thou shalt not" approach and he commends the work of a firm called DP World, which plans to convert the former Shell refinery at Shell Haven into a port called London Gateway - the largest container port in Europe. Shell Haven Refinery, which stopped production in 1999, occupies one of the largest brownfield sites in the UK, with two miles of river frontage and 1,500 acres. DP World plans to expand it by reclaiming yet more land from the Thames.

The port is another of the government's four areas of "transformational economic growth" - the other three being the Olympic Park, Canary Wharf and the Ebbsfleet Valley, the proposed location for Mark Wallinger's 50-metre-high sculpture of a white horse. DP World says it will create 12,000 jobs in the short term and 36,000 in total. The company suspended the project last year during a "global business review" prompted by the economic crisis that struck Dubai, but on 5 January this year, the Prime Minister visited the site to mark the start of construction. Outhwaite is pleased that it is going ahead. He says it is a good example of the way the Gateway should work.

The package of measures designed to compensate for the habitats that will be lost in creating the port includes plans to establish two new areas of tidal mudflats - one in Essex, near the port, and one in Kent, on the other side of the Estuary - by making breaches in the sea wall. "If you're going to break the cycle of self-reinforcing environmental blight, then you have to have quality development in a natural environment that makes the most of what you've got in terms of open space and wildlife."

The task of integrating the various elements of the existing landscape has been entrusted to the architect Terry Farrell, whose international practice is responsible for Thames Gateway Parklands Vision, one of the many glossy documents the scheme has produced. In practice, the vision consists of such commonsensical ideas as a continuous estuary path, new river crossings and a green grid of bridleways, footpaths and cycle routes. The RSPB is developing other sites in north Kent and south Essex, and the LTGDC is attempting to develop its own green grid by opening up the southern portion of Rainham Marshes in phases before 2023.

The resulting amenity, which the corporation is planning to call Wildspace, will be the biggest public park to be created in London for over a century - 645 hec­tares, or twice the size of Hampstead Heath. Ultimately, Farrell hopes to develop it into a "new kind of national park", which will run from the mouth of the Thames to the limit of the tide at Teddington, in Middlesex, leaving 60 per cent of the land on both sides of the river untouched.

Peter Andrews says the LTGDC had a number of conversations with Farrell, but these didn't add much to the corporation's plans: "I don't want to sound arrogant about it, but we'd already got ours pretty well worked through, and I don't think Terry has changed what we have to do in any way. The greater concern was areas outside London that weren't so well thought through. You're trying to improve people's lives, whether through trying to create jobs or better housing, and inevitably it is very complex."

He was disappointed when the plan for the Thames Gateway road bridge, which would have connected Beckton and Thamesmead, was cancelled in 2008. "Maybe it's a British disease: it was in the Abercrombie report in 1943 and we're still talking about it." Andrews argues that strong political leadership is essential, and cites Michael Heseltine's commitment to the Docklands as an example.

In the short existence of the LTGDC, Andrews has already worked with four secretaries of state and half a dozen ministers. Continuity is hard to come by, though the Conservatives insist they would not cancel the scheme if they were to come to power, as developers are already committing funds in difficult circumstances.

In fact, Pickles's successor as Tory shadow secretary for communities and local government, Caroline Spelman, says that the scheme is more important than ever, because it can be used to maintain a skills base in the housing industry and provide a stimulus as the country begins to emerge from recession. She would institute an audit to ensure the money was being spent properly, and offset the growing sense that the scheme is what Pickles calls "a Whitehall farce". They want to change the perception that it is dominated by planners who insist on putting up "little ticky-tacky boxes, without regard for the people who live there".

In a sense, such prescriptions are bound to be self-defeating: it is hard to remove one set of hands from the tiller without replacing them with another, equally deadening set of hands, and there are some who believe that all planners and politicians and their glossy brochures have become a hindrance to development.

“I think it's sometimes the people on the ground who have the real vision," says the RSPB's de Zylva. "So much attention and effort and money goes into these grand documents, but the people in the local communities know what they need and they don't need another high-profile architect or urban visionary to tell them. We go from one 'visioning process' to another and you're never quite sure what's going to come out of it at the end." His advice for everyone involved in the regeneration process is simple: "Listen to what people want and then give them a chance to express it."

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on

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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.

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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