Luck and The Thing

As he bows out, Tony Blair may reflect that, helped by good fortune, he has left his country a more

Leaders are never easy to judge. Part of their job is to dazzle, disguise and deflect attention. Some who, close up, appear to command all around them, defining the age, come, in retrospect, to appear more like minnows, carried along by the currents of history. Others, more modest, in retrospect turn out to have laid the foundations for the future.

Tony Blair, more than most leaders, will confound the judges and juries for a long time to come. Few will doubt that he became an extraordinarily skilled politician. His was a bravura exposition of the craft. He effortlessly found the dead centre of public opinion. He articulated it with ease and showed again and again that the most important quality in any leader is resilience - the ability to weather shocks and disasters with a smile.

That resilience was helped by the fact that he achieved so many of his stated goals. He rebuilt the Labour Party as a winning machine. This was not something he cared about much for its own sake, but it was quite an achievement all the same (even if the tools that helped him succeed later left the party somewhat hollowed out, just as the ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher and the Saatchis hollowed out the Conservatives). He then made Labour a successful party of government, and the envy of others around the world. He turned around the long demoralisation and underinvestment in public services, and, incidentally, left public servants better paid than those in the private sector in every region of Britain bar one. He did much to alleviate the ugly poverty that was such a disastrous legacy of the 1980s. Although much poverty remains, most British cities have quite a different feel from the sullen fatalism of 20 years ago, while mass unemployment is now a dim memory. And he carried through bolder constitutional reform than any other prime minister of the modern era.

All these achievements were shared by his colleagues, especially Gordon Brown; future historians may bracket their administrations together. They are the achievements of a sane and decent social democratic administration, and they have left Britain, for most of its citizens, a more pleasant place to live.

Yet the achievements come with caveats. My guess is that many future critics could say that Blair's skills as a politician may have diminished his longer-term impact. The truly great leaders bring with them a grit, anger and a willingness to go against the grain that often make their careers turbulent roller-coasters. They become associated with a body of ideas that begins on the margins of their society but, at a certain point, through struggle, becomes the common sense. Just think of Churchill or Gladstone, de Gaulle or Gandhi. Blair was certainly not lacking in bravery. But his boldest risks were not taken in the name of a new idea: instead, most of them were guaranteed to have the centre ground of opinion on his side.

Two centuries ago, William Cobbett described the establishment in Britain as "The Thing": utterly convinced of its own rightness and utterly resistant to change. Today's establishment may appear more reasonable, but it is every bit as powerful. Its strength explains much about the virtues and vices of new Labour's time in government. Two centuries ago the centre of gravity of "The Thing" lay in the aristocracy and the leading factions of the main parties. Today, the aristocracy (and monarchy) are at its edge. Its centre of gravity lies in the media and business. It includes swaths of the senior civil service (though most are somewhat to its left), some of parliament, and the "international class" in every profession. It is firmly committed to market capitalism. It is internationalist, more pro-American than pro-European, and divided on questions of social order.

Labour's ability to court "The Thing", to convince it that the new government would not be a threat and might actually do some good, was the precursor to victory. It meant that Labour ruled from the centre in more senses than one, co- opting, flattering and recruiting an extraordinary army of business leaders, artists, writers and consultants to its cause. All of this was made easier because Blair embodied the liberal end of "The Thing". Unlike his predecessors, he didn't have to pretend to care about the views of business leaders and newspaper editors: much of the time, the respect was genuine.

Embracing the establishment

This alliance helped Labour to marginalise the Conservatives and appear, against all odds, as a natural party of government. Yet this alliance also explains Labour's most visible scandals - all of which blew up when the effort to embrace the new establishment overshot. From Bernie Ecclestone's £1m donation, through the twists and turns of David Blunkett's personal relationships, to the unfolding of the cash-for-peerages scandal, this has been the consistent leitmotif of the Blair years. It also explains much about the contours of new Labour's radicalism. Revising Clause Four or upping the ante on public service reform were bold gambits, but they were ones in which Blair could be confident that the vocal centre ground (or rather centre right) would be cheering from the sidelines. Even the gamble on Iraq fits the same pattern. By contrast, the gambles he eschewed - such as an earlier and bolder stance on climate change, or fuller constitutional reform, or joining the euro - were issues on which that conventional wisdom was either opposed or divided.

This highlights the other ambiguity of his legacy. More than any other prime minister in recent history, Blair has been lucky in domestic affairs: lucky in that he inherited an economy well placed for growth; lucky in that he didn't preside over a world recession; and lucky in that he came to power at a time when Britain was relatively free from titanic social struggles such as the miners' strike or the riots of the 1980s. He brilliantly made the most of this luck - and his record in domestic affairs will be seen as overwhelmingly positive, particularly for the many in society whose interests had almost disappeared from the radar of the elite during the 1980s and 1990s. This achievement is less visible to the opinion-forming middle class in London (few of whose friends have benefited from policies such as tax credits). But it is the main expla n ation for the continued strength of Labour's electoral support.

There have, of course, been mistakes. Management of the hefty investment in health was often flawed - but overpaid doctors are preferable to the collapsing services that we'd be seeing if there hadn't been such a huge infusion of funds. The encouragement of gambling and 24-hour drinking, and the failure to rein in an often malign media - the aristocrats of contemporary Britain - have left British culture harsher and nastier than it need be. But the big judgements in domestic affairs were broadly right.

Blair's skill, and luck, in domestic affairs contrast strikingly with a different position in foreign affairs, where he combined great energy with extraordinary bad luck. The man who wanted to make Britain a leader in Europe, and at ease in this new role, coincided in office with several of the weakest leaders the European Commission has ever had, and a period of unprecedented public disappointment in the European project. He was unlucky when it came to his fellow leaders. Some, such as Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi, were dire examples of the corrupt and incompetent (I suspect that future historians will marvel at Blair's poor taste when it came to holidays with the man with the bandanna).

He has been even more unlucky with America. A strong relationship with Bill Clinton gave way to an equally strong relationship with George W Bush. But where Clinton was cautious and measured, Bush and his neoconservative allies have turned out to be wild risk-takers, inspired by an extraordinarily unrealistic view of how the world works, and largely careless of their allies.

I'm one of those who think that there were good grounds for intervention in an Iraq that wanted the world to believe it had WMDs. But a narrow alliance with a flawed US leadership never looked like a wise bet, and the Iraq débâcle has inevitably overshadowed Blair's domestic successes. He is particularly unlucky in this regard because in the longer run his arguments for international intervention may come to be seen as prescient. In the late 1990s, he was the first major leader to understand that a new era of interdependence would spell the end of 19th-century ideas of national sovereignty.

The world's responsibility to protect citizens from their own states will be one of the defining ideas of the 21st century, as will the world's responsibility to look after its common resources. A more active and interventionist global community remains the only alternative to an ugly future in which deadly weapons circulate more freely and the world's common resources are plundered and run down. Blair's cheerleading, browbeating and coalition-building over Africa and climate change may not have achieved all he wanted, and many of his efforts were undermined by Bush's unwillingness to collaborate. But they look like heroic partial successes, in a different league from the paltry attempts of his peers.

For progressives, disappointment is tempered by the fact that Blair leaves behind a Britain that is no longer a Conser vative nation. Margaret Thatcher thought she had changed the country irreversibly, but she and her chorus line over estimated her success. They failed to see that "The Thing" saw little of the social costs that accompanied her rule and cared little about her most cherished goals, such as recreating Victorian values and the family.

The Britain of today is a fairly social-democratic country, in which ideas that once languished on the far left are mainstream, and in which David Cameron has no choice but to dress himself in liberal clothes. Even the policies that so many liberals dislike - the coercive activism on asylum and criminal justice - reflected a government that was in touch with public opinion and determined to block a Conservative revival.

An impressive balance

Blair made many compromises with "The Thing". But he also left it changed, slightly more decent, more responsible, less ashamed to care. Where some leaders become more brittle, he matured in office, becoming ever more interested in finding the right answers rather than the easy ones. It is a great paradox that a man accused of being all spin regularly upbraided civil servants and advisers for giving him expedient, incremental options rather than choices based on first principles.

This is where the historians will find it hard to decide. Was he a supremely competent pragmatist, brilliant at adapting to circumstance? Or was he a man of conviction, repeatedly willing to risk his own skin? Comments he made on Pontius Pilate in the mid-1990s are telling. "The intriguing thing about Pilate is the degree to which he tried to do the good thing rather than the bad. One can imagine him agonising, seeing that Jesus had done nothing wrong, and wishing to release him. Just as easily, however, one can envisage Pilate's advisers telling him of the risks, warning him not to cause a riot or inflame Jewish opinion." Blair then cites the Munich agreement of 1938, the Reform Act 1832 and the Corn Laws. "It is not always clear, even in retrospect, what is, in truth, right. Should we do what appears principled or what is politically expedient? Christianity is optimistic about the human condition, but not naive. It can identify what is good, but knows the capacity to do evil. I believe that the endless striving to do the one and avoid the other is the purpose of human existence. Through that comes progress."

It is far too soon to judge whether Tony Blair was on the side of progress, whether he struck the right balance between doing what is right and doing what is expedient. His most visible mistake - Iraq - arose from doing what he thought was right, not what was expedient. His greatest successes came about when a steady moral compass was combined with tactical agility and pragmatism. As always with history, how Blair is judged will depend on what happens next: whether Britain remains a centrist society; whether it continues what now looks like a sustained bounce back from its long decline in the 20th century; whether the Middle East descends further into chaos. My guess is that, in most things, he will be seen to have struck an impressive balance. But we should be wary of instant judgements. Only the future will make sense of the present and determine who looks wise and who looks foolish.

Geoff Mulgan, former head of policy in Downing Street, is director of the Young Foundation

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning

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