Persuading the people

Now that the election has been postponed, Gordon Brown must start to define his vision for Britain f

In politics expectations are everything. Keep them low enough, and everyone stays happy. Raise them too high, and everyone's disappointed. That's why teasing the public with the promise of an exciting battle, and then cancelling, was bound to leave people angry. A leader who understood better than most how much trust and integrity matter in modern politics, how long they take to build up and how quickly they can evaporate, has begun his premiership with a nasty jolt.

Yet this could be one of the rare moments in politics when the official explanation - that Gordon Brown needed time to set out his vision - could turn out to be the right one. Elections should be moments when the music stops, and when, for a few seconds, millions of people make a rough judgement about what direction they want their society to go in. Good elections offer people real choices as the parties crystallise their policies and arguments into vivid primary colours.

Yet in October 2007 the parties weren't ready. A dozen years of new Labour, and a much briefer period of Tory strategy modelled on new Labour, have left the parties with fuzzy identities. They are cunning at making forays into enemy territory and adept at eliminating their "negatives", but cor respondingly poorer at articulating their positive vision of what a good society might look like. Brown is a man of strong convictions and has defined his premiership around the virtues of strength and trust. But at times it has looked as if both parties were following Elias Canetti's comment that the man with power "must be more reticent than anyone; no one must know his opinions or intentions".

Some governments are re-elected for being competent administrations, so long as their oppositions are sufficiently implausible. But centre-left governments have to do more: to persuade people there is a task for government, something that needs to be done. Here Brown's government is still struggling to define which compelling tasks will give it purpose. There is no shortage of policies. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts and Labour's candidates complained that they would have had no ready answer to the question why an election was necessary, or what mandate was being asked for.

Labour's lack of a clear argument for government action matters because the role of government remains the most profound dividing line in British politics. The best account of this was provided 20 years ago by the American social theorist Albert Hirschman, in a brilliant book on what he called "the rhetoric of reaction". He argued that only three types of ar gument lay behind the thousands of speeches, pamphlets and books that had fuelled the Thatcherite and Reaganite revolutions, and that these had been largely constant since the left/right division first took shape at the time of the French revolution. The "rhetoric of futility" claimed that any government actions to ameliorate society would not work. So efforts to raise social mobility were doomed, because some people are clever and others are stupid. The "rhetoric of jeopardy" claimed that government action would jeopardise valuable things such as the family. The "rhetoric of perversity" argued that if government action did have any effects, these would not be the ones intended. So wars on poverty would end up with more welfare dependants. A good society, it followed, was one where governments attempted relatively little, and left people to get on with their lives.

Hirschman didn't do a similar analysis of progressive arguments; but they turn out to be equally consistent. First comes the "rhetoric of justice" - the argument for righting wrongs and meeting needs, whether these be pensions or affordable housing. All centre-left parties draw their energy from this basic moral sense of fairness. Next comes the "rhetoric of progress", the idea that change is cumulative and dynamic: new reforms are needed to reinforce old ones, or to prevent backsliding. So, for example, new rights to maternity leave are essential to make a reality of past laws outlawing gender discrimination. Then, in a mirror to the rhetorics of reaction, comes the "rhetoric of tractability": the claim that government action works, and that whether the problem is unemployment or climate change, the right mix of what the current jargon calls action plans and delivery targets, levers and interventions, rolling out and scaling up, will do the trick.

In the political DNA

The three reactionary arguments and their three progressive counterparts pepper the speeches of Labour and Conservative politicians. They are written into the political DNA of most party members and MPs. Members at Blackpool and Bourne mouth may have learned to applaud dutifully as very different messages are sent over their heads to floating voters, and their heads tell them this is the price that has to be paid for power.

But their hearts beat to different rhythms. It doesn't take long at the bars or on the fringe circuit to see the persistence of the ancient division between a conservative sensibility - distrustful of change, ideas and radicalism - and a progressive one, eager for reform; or the equally persistent division between a party which sees inequality as natural and one which sees it as abhorrent.

The parties have worked hard to hide their true feelings; they distrust their instincts. No contemporary leader could say, as Richard Nixon once did of the American public: "They want to believe - that is the point, isn't it?" If anything, the public wants to doubt. Yet the public does seem to trust leaders who have the courage to lead, and having consistent beliefs is one of the markers that leaders are trustworthy. It is surely no coincidence that when governments have acted boldly on issues as varied as congestion charges or smoking bans, public support has quickly crystallised behind them.

Outside politics, most truly successful organisations work with their feelings, not against them, and my guess is that both the major parties will need to shape their programmes in ways that animate their values, rather than burying them. After all, even the big-government conservatives who rule in America, Australia, Germany or France remain very much conservatives, just as the centre-left parties that most ostentatiously flirted with right-wing ideas - such as New Zealand Labour - are now once again recognisably parties of the left.

For Labour here, too, the best prospects of sustained success lie less in self-denial, and not in defending the status quo of a highly unequal Britain, but rather in campaigning against ugly realities and showing why these warrant state action. That approach, too, offers the best chance of retaining the sensibility of the outsider (something that was visibly missing from the spin on this month's election discussions, which looked like a throwback to the most self-satisfied and manipulative excesses of new Labour's past). This isn't an argument for more taxes or spending - the sharp rises of recent years need to be translated into unambiguous results before the public will be ready for that - but it is an argument for showing where change is needed and governments can make a difference.

That will be a necessary condition for a more clearly defined political landscape. But it won't be a sufficient one. The parties also need to sharpen up their thinking and break free from their habits of fudge and spin. Take culture. Is a good society one that upholds values of duty, family, hard work and obedience, or one that allows people the maximum freedom to shape their own lives? Cultural conservatism helped Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan win over millions of supporters from the other side, and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have been brilliant at winning some of them back, matching lib eralising moves with moves to uphold old values, even as David Cameron has gone in the opposite direction - matching tax breaks for marriage with socially liberal rhetoric on everything from drugs to hoodies. The result is that any clear water has soon disappeared.

Letting traditional images go

Or take the argument over whether a good society should be essentially homogeneous or diverse. Britain remains 90 per cent white, and uncomfortable with migration, but it is also becoming more diverse. So both main parties want to defend their flank by being tough on migration, but both also have to avoid cleaving too hard to a traditional image of Britain or England. Once again, there is little clear water to be found.

Then there is the question of whether a good society is one where work consumes all of our ambitions and energies. Both Thatcher and Brown were brought up to value the redemptive power of hard work. Yet it is an irony of 21st-century politics that the same forces of consumerist individualism that helped drive postwar economic growth are also now leading many to question it. Twenty years ago, Daniel Bell predicted that hedonistic individualism would eat away the foundations of a capitalism that really depends on old-fashioned duty, because people would choose pleasure over work, stimulation now over saving for the future. Focus groups show just how much people want a better balance between work and life, and that quite a few just want to have fun. Other European countries have taken some of their growth dividend in the form of more time off (like France, with its six-week holidays). In Australia, the Labor leader, Kevin Rudd (who looks poised to be elected prime minister in a few weeks' time), has made much of the damage that the market has done to family life. Yet here, once again, there is no clear point of division.

And what about localism: is our vision of a good society one where a thousand flowers of localism bloom, or where we have guaranteed national services policed by armies of regulators? Quite a few cabinet ministers have become deeply sceptical about Whitehall's ability to deliver local services well, and the parties now share a rhetorical commitment to devolution, but neither party dares establish clear water here, either.

The Liberal Democrats should find these issues easier, given that many are essentially about how liberal a society we want. Yet they, too, have felt impelled to muddy the waters. The result is a feeling of transition, a period when tactical manoeuvring has obscured the big strategic choices. We know, for example, that care for the elderly could absorb as much as 5 per cent of GDP within a generation, and a more grown-up debate is beginning, which recognises that governments will have to find more money and that people will have to forfeit their homes (and inheritances) to pay for care. But the debate is still sotto voce (who was willing to say that George Osborne's promises were not just mathematically dubious, but also likely to become beside the point for so many families?). We know that hard choices are coming on climate change, but neither of the big parties wants to be exposed as too far ahead of public opinion. We know, too, that class remains as vital a factor in British society as ever, and that too many things are going wrong with what can loosely be called the traditional white working class. Yet every party wants to be the party of aspiration, of a classless, meritocratic Britain.

Challenged by hard science

Any serious vision of a good society will need to grasp these issues and jump ahead of today's debates. But what could make the next few years unusually interesting is that the ideological arguments about what constitutes a good society will also be illuminated, and challenged, by some hard science. This summer the OECD held one of its biggest events, attended by presidents, prime ministers and professors, on the question of happiness. Its plenaries and seminars aired the voluminous evidence coming in on what makes people happy. For the left, it is reassuring to learn how important it is to provide people with jobs, health care, mutual trust and reasonably equal incomes. For the right, the heartening news is that it helps to have a stable family and weekly visits to church.

The precise policy implications of the new knowledge about happiness are still being worked out, and will be for many years. My own organisation, the Young Foundation, is engaged in a unique experiment testing a clutch of policies to improve public happiness with councils in three areas of England, along with several government departments, the local government agency IDeA and the London School of Economics. The sorts of issues coming to the fore - about cultivating resilience, recognition and relationships for people of all ages, and especially for those most on the margins - are still somewhat distant from the daily currency of Westminster politics, but they are fast moving towards the mainstream. Nor is it hard to see how the parties might meld their underlying instincts with a steady flow of new knowledge. For the left, a plausible position may be taking shape that is not far from what Brown hinted at over the summer: a position that values social order, the family and community, as well as an activist and redistributive welfare state that is tolerant of private behaviour but intolerant of behaviour with visible external harms (such as gambling, drugs and drunk). For the right, a plausible alternative might put more of a premium on personal freedoms and tax cuts and, perhaps, a stronger stance against migration.

Many other permutations are possible and may make sense for parties trying to assemble broad coalitions. But now that the election has been postponed, the leaders have time to define and articulate their visions for Britain - in ways that will lead public opinion, one hopes, rather than follow it. That will require fewer tactics and more strategy, fewer efforts to push every button and win over every interest, and more clarity about a few, simple things that really matter. After all, as any camper knows, tents that spread their base too wide risk collapsing at the first gust of wind.

Geoff Mulgan is director of the Young Foundation and author of "Good and Bad Power: the Ideals and Betrayals of Government", out now in paperback (Penguin, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power

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