A rounded image: but modern culture is solipsistic, fixed on looking inward at our own preoccupations. Photo: Fleur van Dodewaard, part of the ‘Sun Set Series’ (2011)
Show Hide image

On narcissim: the mirror and the self

People from Tiger Woods to the Obamas are routinely denounced for their narcissism. But what does the word really mean and are there good as well as bad types of self-love?
Sylvia Plath said that writers are “the most narcissistic people”: whatever the truth of that statement, one can assume at least that her use of the term was correct. Freud bequeathed the modern era a tangled concept in narcissism, and literary culture has shown itself as apt as any other to misappropriate it. Yet it is the fashion to see people increasingly as one of two types – a narcissist, or the victim of one – so perhaps it is worth asking precisely what is meant by the word, which has come to encapsulate a cultural malaise.
 
Alongside the struggle in the modern era to define and enshrine narcissism as a psychiatric condition, the term has been appropriated as a shorthand for the general idea of self-obsession. This is a diverse concept with a large vocabulary of its own, but that vocabulary is increasingly abandoned in favour of a word whose ill-defined connotations of mental illness give it a strange force. What we think narcissism is, and how much of what we see seems to answer to it, depends in reality on the moral status we accord the self: the very forcefulness of “narcissism” lies in the fact that it illuminates the person saying it as much as the person against whom it is said. And indeed narcissism, classically, is a business of echo and reflection that can give rise to a narrative of maddening circularity, of repetition and counter-repetition, in which self and other struggle to separate and define themselves.
 
 
Surface intention: Obama allows himself to be used as a channel for reflecting on the American story.
Photo: Pete Souza/The White House/Polaris/eyevine
 
“Narcissism describes a culturally induced kind of subjectivity,” writes the psychoanalyst Sergio Benvenuto, “a new way in which modern subjects secularise ideals, sex objects and knowledge, a culture in which people believe less and less in psychoanalysis.” A narcissistic culture, in other words, will pillory what it calls narcissists and disown certain cultural products as narcissistic in order to avoid self-revelation and obstruct the pursuit of personal truth.
 
In US politics, where “narcissism” has come to signify the very elision of power and personality that has been fundamental to the nation’s ascendant culture of self, the effect is of a hall of mirrors: “The authors blame John Edwards’s narcissism for his downfall and describe Bill Clinton as a ‘narcissist on an epic scale’,” a book reviewer recently wrote in the New York Times. “Do a Google search on ‘Tiger Woods’ and ‘narcissist’ and you get tens of thousands of references . . . Rush Limbaugh calls President Obama a narcissist, it seems, every 24 hours.” Mitt Romney, himself a known narcissist, also favours this analysis of Obama, and avidly posts evidence for it on his website. The book Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited by Sam Vaknin is often cited in support of these diagnoses. Unfortunately it appears that Mr Vaknin, too, is a narcissist.
 
Narcissism, in the case of Obama and other political leaders, is a catch-all term for nearly every quality a person might require in order to become, for instance, president of the United States: ambition, determination, vision, self-belief. But Obama, in the eyes of his critics, also qualifies as another kind of narcissist. “Perhaps not surprisingly for a man whose principal accomplishment before becoming president was to write two autobiographies,” writes one journalist, “Obama has seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time talking about himself. And it’s not just Obama, but the first lady, too.”
 
Michelle Obama’s narcissism is illustrated thus, in a long quotation from a talk she gave to students at the University of Mumbai: 
 
I didn’t grow up with a lot of money. I mean, my parents – I had two parents. I was lucky to have two parents, and they always had a job, but we didn’t have a lot of money. But it was because of working hard, and studying, and learning how to write and read. And then I got a chance to go to college. And then college opened up the world to me. I started seeing all these things that I could be or do – and I never even imagined being the first lady of the United States. But because I had an education, when the time came to do this, I was ready. So just remember there is nothing that you guys can’t do. You know, you have everything it takes to be successful and smart and to raise a family, right? What do you say?
 
The writer continues: “The poor students in Mumbai might have had something to say, but the first lady never let them say a word. Instead, she continued on with her monologue before permitting a question. She then answered that question by referring to her favourite subject: herself and Barack Obama.”
 
This second narcissist, who spends all his time “talking about himself”, is in a way a more complex figure, and one that is harder to isolate, particularly in a culture (America) where fame and autobiography are so intertwined. As in Michelle Obama’s telling of it, fame (or power, or success) is the happy ending in the American story of life; that story is usually a narrative of ascent. Generally speaking, the Obamas have been lauded for talking about themselves – they have demonstrated an impeccable grasp of autobiographical form. They have in many ways revived and reshaped it by salting the ascent with just enough reality (or “honesty”) to make the American story seem true again. It’s a delicate illusion to manage, and one that is threatened by the notion that the autobiographer isn’t advancing the common story of life after all but is simply talking about his “favourite subject”, himself.
 
George J Marlin, the author of Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative (“reflections” seems to be an unintended pun), claims that Obama “uses the ‘I’ word more than all the presidents have used it collectively in the 200-and-some-odd years of our nation”. The conservative, it seems, more readily than the democrat, sees autobiography as a form of bad manners (“the ‘I’ word”); and indeed, one reading of the myth of Narcissus itself is as a story of unmannerliness and its consequences.
 
Christopher Lasch, in his celebrated book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979), wrote: “The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety. He seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others but to find a meaning in life.” The guilt of the “old” narcissist might constitute nothing more than this conservative aversion to self-disclosure. The old narcissist processed his self-obsession by inflicting his certainties in a way that nonetheless left his “self” concealed: the “new” narcissist, by contrast, presents an agonised face to the world; his “self” is confessed and given over to others, leaving him free to ignore the social contract and do as he likes.
 
Malignant Self-Love is written in the “survivor” mode of American letters, the author having survived both his own confessed narcissism and that of his parents and gone on to found Narcissus Publications, an outlet for his own works. Yet Vaknin’s definition of narcissism is accurate enough: the narcissistic personality “is rigid to the point of being unable to change in reaction to changing circumstances . . . Such a person takes behavioural, emotional and cognitive cues exclusively from others. His inner world is, so to speak, vacated. His True Self is dilapidated and dysfunctional. Instead he has a tyrannical and delusional False Self. Such a person is incapable of loving and of living. He cannot love others because he cannot love himself. He loves his reflection, his surrogate self. And he is incapable of living because life is a struggle towards, a striving, a drive at something. In other words: life is change. He who cannot change cannot live. The narcissist is an actor in a monodrama, yet forced to remain behind the scenes. The scenes take centre stage, instead. The narcissist does not cater at all to his own needs. Contrary to his reputation, the narcissist does not ‘love’ himself in any true sense of the word.” 
 
What is compelling here is the notion that the narcissist’s “inner world is, so to speak, vacated”. D W Winnicott’s interjection of the maternal figure into the theory of primary narcissism attributes that vacated inner world to an initial absence of recognition: “The mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at his mother’s face and finds himself therein . . . provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own expectations, fears and plans for the child. In that case, the child would find not himself in his mother’s face, but rather the mother’s own projections. This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of his life would be seeking this mirror in vain.”
 
The widespread notion of a “healthy” degree of narcissism, according to this definition, is not quite the essential dose of vanity or self-regard we’re so often told to allow ourselves; perhaps, rather, there is an extent to which a person needs to be another person’s projection, their construction, an inner space that is and ought to remain vacated in order for the social dynamic to function.
 
“Liberated from the superstitions of the past”, Christopher Lasch continues, the new narcissist “doubts even the reality of his own existence. Superficially relaxed and tolerant . . . his sexual attitudes are permissive rather than puritanical, even though his emancipation from ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace. Fiercely competitive in his demand for approval and acclaim, he distrusts competition because he associates it unconsciously with an unbridled urge to destroy. He extols co-operation and teamwork while harbouring deeply antisocial impulses. He praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself. Acquisitive in the sense that his cravings have no limits, he does not accumulate goods and provisions against the future, but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.”
 
Lasch’s “new” narcissist isn’t so new any longer: he has become a parent. It might be said that social media such as Twitter and Facebook – those shrines to the self – are among the new narcissist’s offspring, and they are often seized on as evidence of our own “culture of narcissism”. The notion of networking as a façade for “antisocial impulses” is compelling, but in fact the most striking thing about the representation of self in these forums is its triviality. This may be one consequence of parental over-approval, the outpourings of a generation whose parents abstained from criticising them and instead hung on their every word and deed. The belief that you are very important, in other words, could be genuine – of course the world wants to know what you had for lunch.
 
Talking about your “favourite subject”, in this context, is not just permissible but mandatory: displaying the culturally approved degree of self-love is a sign of narcissistic “health”. In its “healthy” guise, narcissism bears no relation to Vaknin’s vacated inner space, for the defining characteristic of contemporary “healthy” narcissism is banality. The psychoanalytic literature concurs in finding mental activity in itself to be narcissistic: thinking is an act of libidinal appropriation, in which the self removes its attention from the object. The “I” word, in fact, is as dirty as it ever was, when caught in the act of pursuing its own truth. Instead, the duty of the contemporary “I” is to confess itself in public, to dismiss itself by surrendering to an agreed social narrative as rigid in its permissiveness as it once was in its conservatism. According to that narrative, if you’re not your own “favourite subject”, there is something wrong with you. “Health” requires it, and thinking is unhealthy. Hence what looks like a series of consequences – that in a culture of relentless disclosure we have become obsessed with rights of privacy – is in fact a set of concurrently held and contradictory beliefs. Self-disclosure is one thing; selfexamination quite another.
 
When Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 went up in smoke in the 2004 Momart warehouse fire, there was unseemly jubilation in the right-wing press: Tracey’s tent represented the cardinal sin of “confessional” art. Emin is an artist who is often called narcissistic, and there are many ways in which she – and more specifically, the tent – illustrates the contemporary misappropriation of the term. The problem with confessional art, in the eyes of its critics, is that it conflates the trivial and the serious; the more the self is trivialised, the more abhorrent to culture this conflation will seem. In other words, the tent was shocking not because it disclosed what was private and personal, but because it was called “art”. More than that, its disclosures were not “healthy”. And finally, the tent was not tragic. This was very annoying, and made its incineration seem like a piece of poetic justice. Had the tent been self-loathing, it might have fitted in to the narrative of ascent: a girl regrets her chequered past and goes on to become a famous artist, selling her work for vast sums. But like Louise Bourgeois, Emin reprised feminine skills of needlework in order to represent a subjection in which self-discipline and self-care survived; a female art signifying not tragedy, but dignity. The tent is a piece of storytelling – it is commemorative, for keeping. A “confession”, on the other hand, is something to be thrown away in the hope of absolution. The “confessional” work, strictly speaking, is an admission of abnormality made out of the desire to become normal.
 
Emin has had great play in and on the contemporary obsession with narcissism, outwitting it at every turn. Her exertions demonstrate how hard it has become to serve the autobiographical impulse and raise the question of why the “I” word is such a locus of contradiction. Paradoxically, in a climate of unfettered disclosure, the artist is abhorred for examining herself. 
 
Recently I participated in a literary event at which a number of memoirists read from their work. It was striking how many of them assured the audience that “this is not about me”. It seemed that the only legitimate excuse for writing autobiography was to present it as a kind of war report – I was there, I witnessed it, but this is not about me. And there was nothing shamefaced about it: what these writers were saying, in fact, was that their work was “serious”, that although it looked like autobiography (triviality) it was actually diligent documentary (art). Tracey Emin’s statement is the reverse: “This is all about me.” What Emin has understood, as the Obamas have understood, is the notion of autobiographical occasion, whereby the self is not merely declarative but representative; is, in other words, the best example of what it is trying to say.
 
There are places in the social narrative where the form has to become autobiographical in order to advance itself; history passes to the individual for a while, as when a black man becomes president of the United States of America, or a working-class woman becomes one of the most powerful artists of her era. The story of how this came to be is not the story of one exceptional person: rather, that person is able to express and illustrate change through their own being. Self-portraiture was the best way for Rembrandt to describe the ascent of the self and the new relationship with worldliness and death it betokened. At the other end of history, Emin’s tent documents not just the changed status of the female body, but the contemporary problem of “the personal” itself, a representation she has pushed to the limit by making it co-extensive with “Tracey Emin”.
 
To return to Sylvia Plath . . . Literary culture has a far less comfortable relationship with self-analysis and self-portraiture than the visual arts, which is the mark of its conservatism. The openly self-analysing writer will be pilloried for talking about his or her “favourite subject”, for bad manners in using the “I” word. The literary reverence for the idea of “imagination”, as well as for history and for tales of “otherness”, is perhaps another iteration of what Virginia Woolf observed to be the culturally sanctioned “important” (male) subjects for the novel. The more “other” a text, the less it can be believed to be narcissistic; if the personal is trivial, the impersonal is “important”. 
 
Freud described narcissism as a tactic, a libidinal position, as Sergio Benvenuto puts it, “taken, for example, when a human being is in physical pain. Classical neurotic suffering drags narcissism along, because being neurotic in Freudian terms means not knowing what one desires. This uncertainty, or puzzling state of gaping desire, hauls along narcissistic constellations.”
 
A writer may indeed be someone driven by “classical neurotic suffering”, but, to quote Benvenuto again, “The symptom of narcissism is fascination . . . for Freud, our narcissistic love for ourselves is never natural, or primary.” Personal truth – the self-portrait – is in fact the opposite of narcissistic. Rather, the narcissistic artist is tactically seductive and charming, and imagination can be one such tactic. Writers may be narcissists, dragging along evolving literary constructions, but the central preoccupation of the narcissist is the avoidance of self-exposure while garnering attention and praise.
 
Whether or not “narcissism” is misunderstood and misused, its usage is puritanical: it is intended to inflict shame. Often the so-called narcissist’s self-exposure – the very thing that makes him vulnerable – has already been rewarded, if only by the attention of his critics; hence their anger. The accusation becomes an echo chamber, as in Ovid’s telling of the myth, where Narcissus and Echo can only say, “Who are you?” to one another, in a conversation that can never progress. This reflexive relationship leads both parties into upset and madness: Echo runs away, and Narcissus, driven by thirst, goes to the waters wherein his mother was once trapped and seduced, and where he was conceived. He becomes fixated with this source of self, on whose surface his own image floats: he doesn’t recognise the image and mistakes it for a being that might reciprocate. Yet he is thrilled at last to feel something, to feel love. When he tries to approach the image, it disappears. When he retreats, it comes back again.
 
It’s a pretty concept, and one that does indeed describe the struggle of creativity. The eventual result of this impasse is transformation. What is human in Narcissus dies and distils itself: his self-absorption bears fruit and is bequeathed to the world, becoming a flower that grows at the water’s edge, where he himself began.
 
Rachel Cusk’s most recent book is “Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £8.99)
Show Hide image

Why the elites always rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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