Human chromosomes, with the "sex" chromosomes on the far right. Image: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images
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Sex isn’t chromosomes: the story of a century of misconceptions about X & Y

The influence of the XX/XY model of chromosomal sex has been profound over the last century, but it’s founded on faulty premises and responsible for encouraging reductive, essentialist thinking. While the scientific world has moved on, its popular appeal remains.

When the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reclassified Pluto from planet to dwarf planet in 2006, it did nothing to change the fact of the existence of Pluto. Its status, however, is an innocuous example of how science is not always an objective descriptor of reality, but an interpreter, loaded with the context of previous generations – how the Greek “planetai” and the post-Copernican “planets” were both labels to describe things that moved in the heavens, even if we realised those things weren’t actually that similar to each other on closer inspection over time.

The scientific process often involves tweaking taxonomies. Humanity saw distant objects above, and the taxonomy we built was simple: two entries, one labelled “planets”, the other “stars”. Over time we added extra things, like asteroids (rocky) and comets (icy), to cover new discoveries – and, then, even further research (and pictures like those returned by the Rosetta probe) meant that some of the things we thought made asteroids and comets very different were really only a reflection of our perspective. (And, for what it’s worth, at the same meeting in 2006 where the IAU created the new term “dwarf planet” for objects like Pluto and “planet” for, y’know, planets, it also voted to use “small Solar System body” for everything else. This too will pass, probably.) 

We all believe in the existence of comets and asteroids, even though the colloquial distinction between them makes less and less formal sense – would we bother with two different names if we’d only discovered them today? What purpose would drawing the dividing line between them that way serve?

Famously, when the first taxidermied duck-billed platypus was sent back to London by naturalists working in Australia, it was believed to be a hoax, as it refused to cohere to the then-accepted definitions of mammals and birds by insisting on being a hairy warm-blooded creature that laid eggs. The taxonomical status of the platypus (and the few other egg-laying monotremes that have yet to become extinct) is still a subject of debate to this day - biologists have found it has genes usually only present in fish and amphibians. A male platypus even has ten sex chromosomes (XYXYXYXYXY), instead of the normal two for a mammal.

Ah, but there’s a weasel word there: “normal”. And with sex chromosomes, perceptions of “normal” play a huge role – not only in what we think that they are and do, but in the very existence of the term “sex chromosomes”. This is the subject of Sarah Richardson’s revelatory book Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome, a history of the science of sex and the invention of the sex chromosome concept – one that Richardson argues we should reject entirely as a mistake that has led to bad science, societal prejudice and widespread misunderstanding of what sex really is.

This is the point in talking about this issue where, so to speak, things can fall apart. Just as mammals not only don’t lay eggs, but shouldn’t, it can come across as a bizarre postmodern self-indulgence to say that humanity isn’t split neatly in two on the basis of whether they’re chromosomally male (XY) or female (XX). This is a framework that makes intuitive sense to almost everyone because it correlates exactly with sexual dimorphism – there are those with penises, and those with vaginas, and with a bit of luck combining the two means we end up with even more humans that each have their own penises or vaginas. But like the platypus, it’s crucial not to think the taxonomy more important than the reality it’s meant to describe.

As Claire Ainsworth writes for Nature, the science of sex has, for some years now, recognised that sexual characteristics exist on a spectrum – not as a binary:

Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary – their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions – known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of sex development (DSDs) – often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD.

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Since the 1990s, researchers have identified more than 25 genes involved in DSDs, and next-generation DNA sequencing in the past few years has uncovered a wide range of variations in these genes that have mild effects on individuals, rather than causing DSDs.

Ainsworth’s article is an excellent overview of the current state of the science of sex; Richardson, as a historian and philosopher of science, excels at telling of the people whose work (and whose mistaken assumptions) has misled popular thinking on sex over the years. She describes how existing sex and gender stereotypes were projected onto chromosomes by early researchers, in turn creating and reinforcing the misunderstanding among the wider public that the strict XX/XY binary is a true synecdoche for sexual dimorphism. In reality, there are extremely few sexual characteristics solely controlled by the presence or absence of a Y chromosome – and just as there are plenty of characteristics controlled by genes found on other chromosomes, the “sex” chromosomes also carry genes that determine traits that have nothing to do with sex.

Y is not the essence of masculinity, nor is X that of femininity. As Richardson writes:

Gender has helped to shape the questions that are asked, the theories and models proposed, the research practices employed, and the descriptive language used in the field of sex chromosome research... Today, scientific and popular literature on the sex chromosomes is rich with examples of the gendering of the X and Y. Humorous maps of the X and Y chromosome – pinned up on laboratory walls and always good for a laugh in an otherwise dry scientific talk – assign stereotypical female and male traits to the X and Y, from the ‘Jane Austen appreciation locus’ to ‘channel flipping’.

The X is dubbed the ‘female chromosome’, takes the feminine pronoun ‘she’, and has been described as the ‘big sister’ to ‘her derelict brother that is the Y’ and as the ‘sexy’ chromosome. The X is frequently associated with the mysteriousness and variability of the feminine, as in a 2005 Science article headlined ‘She Moves in Mysterious Ways’ and beginning, ‘The human X chromosome is a study in contradictions’. The X is also described in traditionally gendered terms as the more ‘sociable’, ‘controlling’, ‘conservative’, ‘monotonous’, and ‘motherly’ of the two sex chromosomes. Similarly, the Y is a ‘he’ and ascribed traditional masculine qualities – ‘macho’, ‘active’, ‘clever’, ‘wily’, ‘dominant’, and also ‘degenerate’, ‘lazy’, and ‘hyperactive’.”

We treat the X and Y chromosomes in a way we’d never think of treating other physical characteristics – many people who would think it absurd or rude to tell a stranger that “really you’re male, though” because they have short hair, or a penis, or excess body hair, nevertheless think nothing of doing so when it comes to having XY chromosomes. Sex Itself is the story of how some scientists became convinced that there was something in the body, and then the cell, and then the genome, that would literally be “sex itself” – the only thing that truly mattered for sex, the thing that was its true source and the thing that finally allowed for a simple, causational definition of sex. It’s also the story of how the premise of that entire argument was wrong from the start.

Surprisingly, though, the emergence of the “sex chromosome” concept didn’t happen immediately – while the term itself was first coined by Edmund Wilson of Columbia University in 1906, and not generally accepted by the rest of the science world until the 1920s due to its incompatibility with what was already understood about inheritability.

During the 19th century, biologists were “fascinated by the diversity of forms of sexual dimorphism and intersexuality in nature”, Richardson writes. Sex was seen as something that began before conception and which could change before and after birth – experiments with castrated chickens, and male guinea pigs given ovaries through transplants, gave rise to what was known as the “metabolic model”. A combination of environmental factors – like the health of the parents, or the temperature of an egg – determined the sex development of the offspring.

By the end of the century, though, microscopes had improved enough to allow biologists to see inside the nuclei of cells, and researchers “raced” each other to try and identify the cellular evidence that would confirm the theories put forward by Darwin in On The Origin of Species in 1859. It didn’t take long for chromosomes to be found - but German cytologist Hermann Henking found a weird, unpaired chromosome in the sperm of a fire wasp in 1891. He called it the “X element”, and others speculated that it might be a “degenerate” or “accessory” chromosome that no longer serves a purpose, like the appendix in the human gut.

Between 1903 and 1906, Nettie Stevens (left) at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania investigated this “X element”, and found that it wasn’t alone – there was a tiny Y chromosome hidden right next to it. Elsewhere, Wilson (he who first used the phrase “sex chromosomes”) also found the Y, and agreed with her that its presence seemed to influence the development of male sex characteristics. (Richardson takes some time to sardonically note the extraordinary achievements Stevens, who was never offered a full faculty post, made “in the face of few opportunities for women” – when she applied for post-doctoral funding from the Carnegie Institution in 1903, she “assembled stunning letters of recommendation” from America’s most prestigious cytologists, and “none failed to note her brilliance – for a woman”.)

Stevens and Wilson both agreed that the X and the Y had something to do with sex – but they disagreed as to what. Stevens thought that sex must be one of the traits carried on the X, in the same way other chromosomes seemed to carry multiple traits; Wilson, instead, saw them as solely sex-determing. There was “a whole-chromosome effect – one X kept things titled towards maleness, while two Xs pushed the balance in favour of femaleness”.

The two worked to refute each other until Stevens died in 1912, aged 50. By 1920, Wilson’s version of the chromosomal theory of sex won out, as the term “sex chromosomes” became almost ubiquitous in the scientific literature, displacing “accessory chromosomes”, “hetero-chromosomes” and “idiochromosomes” as popular alternative labels. This came after a strong fight from those who disagreed. Richardson writes of Thomas Montgomery at the University of Philadelphia, who called the sex chromosome theory “an absurd and simplistic overextension of the chromosome theory of heredity”; and of Thomas Hunt Morgan, one of the leading figures in the young field of embryology, who blasted it for inventing “a special element that has the power of turning maleness into femaleness”.

Calling them “sex chromosomes” ran against the accepted convention of naming other chromosomes after their size and structure within a cell, not their function. And there were still unanswered questions: what the hell was going on with species that reproduce with more than two X accessory chromosomes at a time? What about odd numbers of sex chromosomes? A significant number of species didn’t reproduce in line with the neat sex chromosome theory. Wilson was one of those who tried to integrate the sex chromosomes into the metabolic theory – with sex chromosomes, hormones and environmental pressures each influencing how offspring move through different parts of the sex development spectrum – but the damage, Richardson argues, was done.

One of the main reasons the name had such appeal, she argues, is that the 1920s and 30s was when oestrogen and testosterone were first isolated, and the idea of binary “sex hormones” captured the popular imagination:

By the mid-1920s, hormones had become, like genes today, the most prominent object of biomedical, pharmaceutical, and popular interest to emerge from modern biology. Sex hormones seized the public imagination and became a node through which ideas were exchanged between scientific theory and cultural norms, ideologies, and expectations. Scientists promoted the view that the sex glands were the ‘master glands’ of the endocrine system... Pharmaceutical hormone therapies promised new fertility aids and offered the prospect of a simple, highly effective means of birth control. Many also believed hormones would permit the correction of modernity’s gender deviants – feminist spinsters, homosexuals, impotent males, and frigid wives. The endocrinology pioneer Eugen Steinach promoted testicular transplantation as a medical cure for homosexuality and a 'rejuvenation' therapy for low virility and listlessness in elderly men.”

(It was around this time, by the way, that Frank Buckley, the then-manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers, started a rumour that he was injecting his players with a serum taken from monkey glands to improve their performance. The sex hormone fad was weird.)

In this context, sex chromosomes made perfect sense – a matching pair to go with the hormones that determine maleness and femaleness. By the end of the 1930s, the metabolic theory had been discarded in favour of this new model, where the genetic sex (XX/XY) causes the developments of either testes or ovaries, which in turn create the sex hormones that take care of the rest. This two-stage process was “a powerful mutually self-reinforcing framework for the biology of sex”, and the foundation upon which later work – like the idea that sex is biological and fixed, and gender social and malleable - was built.

This can been seen in how the sex chromosomes began to influence debates on gender and sexuality. There was speculation that the Y chromosome “represses” the feminine X, or that femaleness is the “absence” of maleness; or, that the “greater intellectual variability among males” (ie, why male researchers thought men were smarter than women) was down to the lottery of having a single X chromosome. With two Xs, unusual recessive traits would be more commonly repressed, but with one, rare genes presumed responsible for genius must be allowed through. And, similarly, early women's rights activists and feminists, as well as male writers like the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, seized on the idea of having twice as much X as men as the scientific justification for what was really women's “biological superiority” over the male. The idea of the X and Y carrying “sex itself” was entrenched, helped by the fashionable eugenics of the time that saw biology as the justification for a range of racist, sexist and classist prejudices.

This only became worse after the Second World War, with the discoveries of DNA and the first specific chromosomal causes for certain illnesses (like Down’s Syndrome, caused by an extra chromosome 21). The fashion was to think of genetics as the reductive answer to everything – it felt like every physical characteristic, from eye colour to height to intelligence to sex, was caused by the presence or absence of a single gene or set of genes. The sex chromosomes of the 1930s hormonal model – “the genetic homunculi underlying sexual dimorphism”, as Richardson calls them – fit perfectly into this new paradigm.

Karyotypes (pictures of chromosomes against a stark white background) became widely known, giving people perhaps the first real iconic image of the human genome. The sex chromosomes were shoved to the margin or to the end of the last row, accentuating their perceived difference – the format still used today:

A human male karyotype. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Sex Itself has plenty of stories about the general public not understanding that X and Y are not all there is to sex, but it has even more when it comes to scientists leaning on theoretical models built on sand not realising until too late. (Though that isn't to say this was true of everyone – Richardson finds plenty of evidence of geneticists struggling to figure out how much influence they should really ascribe to the X and the Y.)

One particularly damning example is that of the so-called “super male” – the discovery by a researcher that an unusually high number of men incarcerated in an Edinburgh prison had an extra Y chromosome (making them “XYY males”), leading to speculation that “it predisposes its carriers to unusually aggressive behaviour”. The amount of time spent investigating this hypothesis, and its influence on pop culture, is astounding:

The so-called XYY syndrome was a mainstream target of investigation in the most prestigious journals of biology, genetics, and cytogenetics... by 1970, nearly two hundred papers on the link between XYY and aggression had appeared in the scientific literature. Between 1960 and 1970, XYY research comprised 82 per cent of all published scientific studies on the human Y chromosome. It accounts for 28 per cent of the entire body of Y chromosome research generated in the quarter-century between 1960 and 1985.

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As Jeremy Green records, ‘by the early 1970s, there had been at least two thriller films in which the main character is a violent criminal driven by a chromosome abnormality, a series of crime novels with an XYY hero (who constantly wrestles with his inner compulsion to commit crimes), and as a spin-off from the novels, a TV series called The XYY Man’. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Peter Cave’s 1974 Dirtiest Picture Postcard as the earliest English-language usage of the Y chromosome in a nonscientific text: ‘You’ve buttonholed me to give me long and boring lectures upon Germaine Greer, the faulty Y chromosome and the drudgeries of housework and child-bearing’.

But of course there was no link between having an extra Y chromosome and extra “maleness”, because maleness is not defined by the Y chromosome. Stereotypically male traits (like aggression, even though not every XYY male in a prison was there because of violent crime) are a result of a complex interplay of nature and nurture, and the projection of the western concept of maleness onto the Y chromosome led to untold hours of research into a dead-end.

And this type of thinking was common with the X chromosome as well - Richardson describes how Klinefelter (XXY) males were seen as more “mother-dependent”, and tested to see if they were more like men or women in their verbal and social skills. XXY males look like men, and most men with the extra chromosome never realise they have it – yet researchers often interpreted their deviations from normal maleness (like larger breasts or smaller testes) not on objective terms, but as “feminised” male traits, in turn creating a stigma.

The last gasp of the sex chromosome theory came in the 1990s, with the discovery of the SRY gene on the Y chromosome – without it, the development of male gonads is impossible. It’s the only genetic tag found only in those who present as male, and is the best candidate to underpin the classic sex chromosome theory. But, as Richardson writes: “Today the SRY gene is understood as one among the many essential mammalian sex-determining factors that are involved in the genetic pathways of both testicular and ovarian determination. Mammals require cascades of gene product in proper dosages and at precise times to produce functioning male and female gonads, and researchers recognize a variety of healthy sexual phenotypes and sex determination pathways in humans.”

Ascribing biological sex based on the presence or absence of the SRY gene makes no sense when it’s only part of a massively complex network of other biological and environmental factors, especially when it’s not even necessary in every species of mammal. (And perhaps we owe our Victorian ancestors some belated recognition here for their more nuanced appreciation of sex development.) Many scientists strenuously argue that research into the genetics of race shouldn’t begin by cataloguing genomes by what we perceive to be different racial groups, to avoid projecting racial bias onto results – shouldn’t we do the same for sex?

Richardson points to several different groups as responsible for digging genetics out of its chromosome-determining rut: criminal psychologists, clinical physicians and, above all, feminists, whose interrogations of gender and sexuality (often from outside the scientific academy) created an important body of empirical evidence. Anne Fausto-Sterling and Jennifer Graves, in particular, as well as feminist science pressure groups like the Society for Women’s Health Research, are cited as important critics of the binary representation of biological or genetic sex - and critical to the post-2000 “conceptual shift” towards the complex model we know today, where the interplay of different genetic and environmental factors gives rise both to physical sex characteristics and aspects of the psychological feeling of gender identity.

Sex Itself is a comprehensive demolition of the very term “sex chromosomes” – a taxonomy from nearly a century ago, stumbling along half-alive in the public’s imagination but long overdue a visit to the glue factory:

Gender ideology is dynamic, persistent, and ever-present in genetic and genomic research on sex and gender; it cannot be surgically or permanently excised from the science. Rather than seeking to somehow eliminate gender in science, we are better advised to focus on modeling the many roles of gender assumptions in particular areas of the sciences to develop gender-critical methods for and approaches to science.

The question is not ‘how can we get all of this gender politics out of genetics?’ but rather ‘how can we enlarge and critically hone our ideas about gender, which are central to our scientific theories of sex?’

In the time between the discovery of Pluto in 1930 and its reclassification as a dwarf planet in 2006, it had only completed a third of a full orbit around the Sun; about the same amount of time sex chromosomes had to enjoy being mystical arbiters of all things sex. Worrying about the hurt feelings of a downgraded planet is as sensible as worrying about those for some clumps of genetic material in a cell – what matters is how we make sure that we interpret our world, and build our taxonomies, in such a way that improves our understanding of the world, not limit it.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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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.”

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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