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A last chance

Leaders meet in Washington on 15 November for a summit to attempt to resuscitate a world finance sys

The giant video screen at 745 Seventh Avenue, in Manhattan, is still lit up: only now, instead of the old Lehman Brothers promo, with its tossing oceans and desert sunsets, it projects the ice-blue bling of Barclays Capital, five-storeys high. The problem is, though the lights are still on for finance capital, ideologically there’s nobody home.

Lehman's bankruptcy marked the end of a 20-year experiment in financial deregulation. But it was Alan Greenspan's congressional testimony, a month later, that marked the collapse of something bigger: the neoliberal ideology that has underpinned it all.

It was Greenspan who had begun ripping away restrictions on financial speculation and investment banking in 1987. Last month, he said: "I have found a flaw. I don't know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact . . . Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders' equity, myself especially, are in a state of shock and disbelief."

The belief in self-interest as the guiding principle of commerce is as old as Adam Smith. What happened with the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism was something different: the principle of rational self-interest was elevated to replace regulation and the state. Selfishness became a virtue. Inspired by Ayn Rand's credo - "I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine" - the giants of global finance revelled in amoralism. Morgan Stanley boss John Mack's legendary trading-floor motto - "There's blood in the water, let's go kill somebody" - sums up the era.

But the theory was flawed. Instead of safeguarding the property of shareholders, self-regulation drove the system to the point of collapse. Trillions of dollars worth of capital has been destroyed. "My view of the range of dispersion of outcomes has been shaken," Greenspan conceded. That's a logical response when the range of outcomes is clustered around the collapse of the savings system, the evaporation of global credit and the bankruptcy of most banks.

But selfishness was not the only tenet of neo-liberalism. Any definition of the term would include: a belief in the market as the only guarantor of prosperity and democracy; the futility of state intervention in pursuit of social justice; the creative destruction of cherished institutions and stable communities; the shrinkage of the state to regulatory functions only, and then as minimal as possible.

And the problem for the G20 leaders who will assemble at the Washington summit on 15 Nov ember is this: every single one of them has, to a greater or lesser extent, bought into the neoliberal ideology. It has dictated the direction of travel even in economies such as Brazil, India, Indonesia and China, classified as "mostly unfree" on the neoliberal league table.

The summit's most pressing task is to come up with a co-ordinated crisis response: for all the rhetoric, this is a firefighting operation not a second Bretton Woods. In the end, the route to a Bretton Woods-style settlement may be impassable for the weakened, multi-polar capitalism represented by the G20. But, even to begin that journey, there must be an honest reckoning with neoliberalism.

An ideology does three things: it justifies the economic dominance of a ruling group; it is transmitted through that group's control of the media and education; and it describes the experience of millions of people accurately enough for them to accept it as truth. But it does not have to be logical. For this reason, picking logical flaws in neoliberalism has been an exercise with diminishing returns.

For example, Milton Friedman's assertion that free-market capitalism and democracy are mutually reinforcing always looked a non-sequitur after he hotfooted it to Chile in 1975, personally urging General Pinochet to inflict a neoliberal economic "shock", even as the secret police were administering electric shocks to the genitals of oppositionists. But his theories continued to inspire policymakers.

Instead of logic, any balance sheet of neoliberalism has to begin from its outcomes. I will list five negative outcomes for countries following the Anglo-Saxon model:

In the first place, rising inequality. Between 1947 and 1973 the income of the poorest fifth of US families grew 116 per cent, higher than any other group. From 1974 to 2004 it grew by just 2.8 per cent. In the UK, the share of national income received by the bottom 10 per cent fell from 4.2 per cent in 1979 to 2.7 per cent in 2002.

Second, the replacement of high wages by high debt. The real wages of the average American male worker are today below what they were in 1979; and for the poorest 20 per cent, much lower. In 1979, personal household debt was 46 per cent of America's GDP; now it is 98 per cent. In the UK, real household incomes grew, but slower than in the postwar boom, until early this decade, since when they have fallen. The debt pattern, however, followed the US; 30 years ago British households were in debt to the tune of 20 per cent of GDP, now it is 80 per cent.

Third is the redistribution of profits from non-financial companies to the finance sector. In 1960s America, the pretax profits of financial firms made up 14 per cent of corporate profits; now they make up 39 per cent. Most of this profit is not generated from financing productive business: the world's total stock of financial assets is three times as large as global GDP. In 1980, it was about equal to GDP.

The new power of finance capital not only creates asset bubbles, as with the dotcom, housing and commodity bubbles of the past decade, but it allows speculative capital to descend on individual companies, countries and industry sectors, smash them and move on. I present the current economic plight of Hungary as Exhibit A.

Fourth is the growth of personal and financial insecurity, the destruction of social capital and the resulting rise in crime. If you want data, then the four stark pages of membership graphs at the end of Robert Putnam's celebrated book Bowling Alone show the decline of almost every voluntary association in America during the neoliberal age. If you prefer qualitative research, walk the streets of any former industrial city at night.

Fifth is the relentless commercialisation of all forms of human life: the privatisation of drinking water that provoked the people of Coch abamba, Bolivia to revolt in 2000; the creation of a private army of 180,000 military contractors in Iraq, unaccountable to international law. In these and many other instances, the functions of the state have been turned over to private companies to the financial detriment of taxpayers, the material detriment of consumers and the loss of democratic accountability.

But there is a plus side. Since 1992, there has been stability and growth across the OECD countries and beyond, albeit lower than the average growth achieved during the postwar boom years. There has been a marked fall in absolute poverty, with the number of people living on less than $2 a day falling by 52 per cent in Asia, 30 per cent in Latin America (though rising by 3 per cent in Africa) between the years 1982-2002. And though the data is mixed, many of neoliberalism's critics accept that inequality declines as per-capita GDP growth improves.

There has been a huge movement of humanity from the farm to the factory, and 200 million people have migrated from the poor world to the rich. Access to the financial system has brought rising liquidity: access to homeownership and overdrafts for families on low pay was real, whatever its macroeconomic outcome. And above all, the musty cultural and institutional barriers that made life a misery for the young in the 1960s and 1970s are largely gone; the flipside of commoditisation has been the decline of dependency and paternalism in social life.

And this has been the source of neoliberalism's strength as an ideology: borrow big-time, negotiate your own salary, duck and dive, lock your door at night. That is the new way of life for the world's workforce. My father's generation, the generation of organised workers which saw industry and social solidarity destroyed in the 1980s, could never really accept it. But hundreds of millions of people under the age of 40 know nothing else. And if you live in a Kenyan slum or a Shenzhen factory, you have seen your life chances rise spectacularly higher than those of your father's generation, even if the reverse is true in, say, Salford or Detroit.

Until 15 September 2008 (the day Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the largest bankruptcy in US history), the left and the right were engaged in a political debate that revolved around the balance of these positive and negative impacts. Today that debate is over: we now know that neoliberalism nearly crashed the whole financial system. I will repeat, because the adrenalin rush has subsided and it is easy to forget: neoliberalism brought the world to the brink of an economic nuclear winter. Not by accident but because of a flaw in its central mechanism. It is for this reason that President Sarkozy (once labelled "Monsieur Thatcher" by the French left) declared it dead - not flawed - but dead. "The idea that markets were always right was mad . . . The present crisis must incite us to re-found capitalism on the basis of ethics and work . . . Laissez-faire is finished. The all-powerful market that always knows best is finished," he said.

S o what comes next? Though governments are scrambling to deploy Keynesian anti-crisis measures - from George Bush's tax cut to Gordon Brown's borrowing hike - it is axiomatic that the developed world cannot return to the way things were before the 1980s: the Keynesian model broke down spectacularly, and could cure neither high inflation nor economic stagnation.

It is clear, from the sheer level of pain and trauma inflicted by the changes of the past 20 years, that we have lived through the birth of something. Its founding ideology was neoliberalism; its most tangible result was globalisation; and it was achieved through class struggle by the rich against the poor. But none of these facts can encompass the scale of change.

Because none of them allows for the most fundamental change - that information has become a primary factor of production. C omputing power has doubled every 24 months; the internet and mobile telephony have, in the past ten years, altered the patterns of human life more profoundly than any single economic policy. Info-capitalism has been inadequately theorised: call it "post-Fordism", techno-capital or the knowledge economy, whatever the label it remains the central fact of the early 21st century.

If you accept this, then the experience of neo- liberalism looks less like the dawn of a free-market empire, more like the period between the invention of the factory system and the passing of the first effective factory legislation: between the establishment of Arkwright's mill at Cromford in 1771 and the Factory Act of 1844.

For much of that period, the pioneers of industrial capitalism believed that any regulation would kill the dynamism of the system. They too had a celebrity economist to justify their actions, namely Nassau Senior, the author of the theory that all profits were made in the last hour of the working day. The fate of capitalism, quipped reformer William Cobbett, depended on 300,000 little girls in Lancashire: "For it was asserted, that if these little girls worked two hours less per day, our manufacturing superiority would depart from us."

Child labour was abolished; minimal standards of order and humanity were imposed on the factories. But capitalism did not die - it took off. It is no accident, incidentally, that 1844 was also the year Britain, traumatised by recurrent financial panics, enshrined the supremacy of the central bank and the gold standard in legislation. If the parallel is valid, then the new regulations and institutions under discussion in Washington stand a chance not of killing info-capitalism but of unleashing it.

What are the intellectual sources for the system that will replace neoliberalism? Most of the prophets of doom in advance of the credit crunch were survivors from the Keynesian era: Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, George Soros, Nouriel Roubini, Morgan Stanley economist Stephen Roach. But with the partial exception of Stiglitz, they remain dislocated from the grass-roots opposition to neoliberalism. In turn, this opposition, dominated by the principles of anarchism and charity, has revelled in its own diversity and lack of engagement with state-level solutions.

As for the world's policymakers they, for now, resemble the Hoover administration in 1930, or if you are feeling really unkind, Chamberlain's British government in 1940. They are confronted by a crisis they did not think would happen. They are approaching it with the only tools they have - but they are the old tools: the old alliances, the old experts, the unreconstructed ideas and plans: Doha, Basel II, the Lisbon agenda. The IMF's conditions for bailing out eastern Europe - public spending cuts, interest-rate rises, privatisations - confirm the pattern.

The aim, made explicit during a speech on 28 October by Catherine Ashton, the EU's new trade commissioner, is to enact crisis measures while explaining to the public that "interventions and excessive use of public subsidies - while attractive today, will damage us tomorrow". This does not match the rhetoric coming out of Paris and Washington about the "end of trickle-down" and the death of laissez-faire; and it tends to ignore the fact that the most fundamental problem created by neoliberalism was not deregulation but the replacement of high wages by high debt. In other words, it is not the policy framework that is in trouble, it is the growth model.

There are three possible ways out. First, the revival of neoliberalism in a hair shirt: less addicted to the celebration of greed; with government spending temporarily replacing consumer debt as the driver of demand; and with some attempt at co-ordinated re-regulation. That is the maximum that can come out of the Washington summit.

Second, the abandonment of a high-growth economy: if it can't be driven by wages, debt or public spending then it can't exist. And if it can't exist in America, then Asia's model of high exports and high savings does not work, either. In previous eras the proposal to revert to a low-growth economy would have been regarded as simply barbarism and regression. Yet there is a strong sentiment among the anti-globalist and deep-green activists in favour of this solution, and it has found echoes in mass consciousness and micro-level consumer behaviour as the world has come to understand the dangers of global warming. Even a mainstream corporate economist, such as Morgan Stanley's Roach, has called for "a greater awareness of the consequences of striving for open-ended economic growth . . . This crisis is a strong signal that [high-growth] strategies are not sustainable."

The third alternative is the Minsky option. Hyman Minsky (1919-1996) was the godfather of modern financial crisis theory: his works, while largely ignored by politicians, are revered by both Marxists and hedge-fund managers. The "Minsky Moment" - a systemic financial crisis that crashes the real-world economy - was not only predicted in his work but theorised as a natural and intrinsic feature of capitalism. What we are going through now, Minsky argued, is the normal consequence of achieving growth and full employment through an unfettered private financial system.

But he had a solution - outlined in the chapters the hedge-fund managers skip and the Marxists dismiss: the socialisation of the banking system. This, he conceived, not as an anti-capitalist measure but as the only possible form of a high- consumption, stable capitalism in the future.

Minsky argued: "As socialisation of the towering heights is fully compatible with a large, growing and prosperous private sector, this high-consumption synthesis might well be conducive to greater freedom for entrepreneurial ability and daring than is our present structure."

Minsky never bothered to spell out the details of how it might be done. But there is no need to, now.

Stumbling through the underground passageways of 10 Downing Street on the morning of 8 October, I saw it done. Tetchy and bleary-eyed, fuelled by stale coffee and takeaway Indian food, British civil servants had designed and executed it in the space of 48 hours. Within days, much of the western world's banking system had been stabilised by massive injections of taxpayer credit and capital.

The problem is, though they have now been there, done that, the G20 politicians have no desire to get the T-shirt.

The G20 summit will meet in the context of a global finance system on life support. Their impulse is to get it off the respirator as quickly as possible; to put things back to normal. But the ecosystem which sustained global finance in its previous form is also in crisis: easy credit and speculative finance were the oxygen, and they have gone.

The policy challenge, in short, is much more fundamental than is being recognised in the run-up to the G20 summit. Gordon Brown speaks of a "new global order" emerging out of Washington. But in reality he is talking about multilateral crisis-resolution mechanisms, not a rethink of the relationship between finance capital, growth and debt.

If the world's leaders seriously intend to "refound capitalism on the basis of ethics and work", there is plenty of source material to start brainstorming from.

I would throw this into the mix, from Franklin Roosevelt's Oval Office in January 1934: "Americans must forswear that conception of the acquisition of wealth which, through excessive profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune, over public affairs as well. In building toward this end we do not destroy ambition . . . But we do assert that the ambition of the individual to obtain a proper security, a reasonable leisure, and a decent living throughout life is an ambition to be preferred to the appetite for great wealth and great power."

Paul Mason is economics editor of BBC Newsnight; his book "Meltdown: the End of the Age of Greed" is published by Verso in April 2009

Road to the summit

The summit, due to start in Washington DC on 15 November, was first proposed by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France at the United Nations General Assembly debate on 23 September. He urged reform of international institutions, warning that "the 21st-century world cannot be governed with institutions of the 20th century".

On 3 October the US enacted its $700bn bank bailout. EU leaders had initially been confident that their economies would be sufficiently resilient, but the world stock-market collapse now convinced them otherwise. The next day, France, Britain, Germany and Italy agreed to work together to support financial institutions, and issued a joint call for a G8 summit.

On 8 October Gordon Brown announced a rescue package for UK banks. Leaders of the G7 countries (the US, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Canada) met in Washington on 11 October, issuing a five-point plan. On 12 October, in Paris, Sarkozy held an emergency meeting of the 15 eurozone leaders, the first such meeting since the launch of the euro. Unusually, Gordon Brown was also invited to attend, and a rescue plan based on the UK model was agreed. The following week, George Bush went to Italy, Germany and the UK in a bid to coordinate response to the turmoil, and on 14 October announced crisis talks to be held between Bush, Sarkozy and President José Manuel Barroso of the European Commission at Camp David four days later. Here, plans for the summit were unveiled.

Attending will be leaders of the G20, which includes the G7 and major developing nations such as China, India and Brazil, along with the head of the IMF and other international institutions. Of the African nations, only South Africa, the continent's biggest economy, will attend; on 27 October the African Union announced it would hold its own summit in response to the crisis.

Alyssa McDonald

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come

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Why the elites always rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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