The dilemma on the t­ip of a needle

Stem cell research may hold the key to future wonder cures. It is predicted that the market for stem

In a biotech laboratory close to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Bloomsbury, London, Professor Geoffrey Raisman, is researching a treatment for spinal cord injury using adult stem cells. This week, with no brief for Republicans or Democrats, he has been pondering the presidential inauguration celebrations with serious misgivings. He believes that the new president’s pledge to fund human embryonic stem cell ­research could have a detrimental effect on the future of his work.

Ten years ago in a tiny, underequipped laboratory in the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Professor James "Jamie" Thomson, an embryologist, extracted the first human embryonic stem cells from an embryo. Thomson was part of a community of scientists who had been pursuing the "philosopher's stone" of embryonic stem cells with slender resources and huge determination for a decade. Last year, at a conference in New York City calling itself the World Stem Cell Summit, it was projected that the market for stem cell clinical products could reach $8.5bn within a decade.

Stem cells have potential to be coaxed into different tissue, blood and cell types, in the body. In the human embryo they are "totipotent", that is, in a state of greatest potential to become any blood or cell type. But stem cells, albeit with more restricted potential, also exist in adults: in the gut, high in the nose, in blood, in the ­umbilical cord, and in bone marrow. While stem cell research has been hailed for its prospects for future wonder cures, scientists are divided over the merits of the two basic cell strategies: adult and embryonic. Some, such as Raisman, believe that adult cells are yielding the fastest and safest ­clinical results; others insist that embryonic cells ­offer the best prospects. Thus the question arises: where do governments and investors put their money?

Professor Raisman charges that the media hype over embryonic research as a coming miracle cure has put his adult stem cell research programme in the shade

Scientists on the Raisman wing believe that human embryonic research holds back medical progress by attracting funds that might otherwise go to adult stem cell work. Raisman, who is not against embryonic stem cell research on ­ethical grounds, has been funded by the Medical Research Council, and by private donations, but in common with many similar research programmes he is underfunded. If President Barack Obama makes good his promise to support funding for human embryonic research, Raisman predicts that there will be a rush to "invest" in embryonic strategy.

Information on the actual sums invested by private industry and governments into the many hundreds of stem cell research programmes worldwide are impossible to calculate because of secrecy. In the meantime, however, adult stem cell therapies have been achieving notable successes. The Stem Cell Summit in New York cited the use of a breast cancer patient's own stem cells in breast reconstruction, and a heart patient whose bone marrow stem cells mended a severe lesion. In Bristol, last November, the first tissue-engineered trachea (windpipe), using the pat­ient's own stem cells, were transplanted into a young woman with a failing airway, saving her life. No such tangible successes can yet be produced based on human embryonic stem cells.

Under George W Bush, federal funding of ­human embryonic stem cell work was banned in the United States for religious reasons. Bush's scruples were prompted by the stock objections of the American religious right, which regards human embryos as persons with full human rights. The Catholic Church also bans research that threatens the life of the human embryo for, according to papal teaching reiterated frequently by the late John Paul II, human individuality, or ensoulment, commences from the moment of conception. Research involving embryos has, for two decades, riven churches and religious groups within and outside America, as well as national governmental policies and research communities throughout the west. During his election campaign Obama repeatedly claimed, however, that he would overturn George W Bush's policy on the issue in the interests of its future benefits for a wide range of illnesses.

Under Tony Blair, Britain adopted a go-ahead policy on human embryonic stem cell research during a period (ending three years back) when the European Union declined to fund such programmes. Last year Britain went beyond the ­ethical limits of most countries in the west by sanctioning the creation of hybrid animal/ ­human embryos. After a heated nationwide ­debate, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) licensed three British research laboratories, in Newcastle, London and Warwick, to create embryos in which the ovum comes from an animal (typically a cow or rabbit) and the nuclear DNA from a human being.

The scientific and political arguments in Brit­ain in favour of hybrid embryos focused on the scarcity of donated human embryos available for research, and the claim that such research transgressed moral norms was rejected by parliament. Professor Raisman argues, however, that the ethical debate over both human and hybrid stem cells ignores the issue of intellectual property rights and patenting: in other words, the profit motive. "Adult stem cells are much more promising therapeutically; they are already in use for such things as skin grafting, but they attract less funding and much less interest because they can't be patented." As the adult cells come from the patient's own body, the cells are not amenable to the imposition of intellectual property rights. On the other hand, exploitation of embryonic stem cells for therapy requires many complex laboratory processes from the out­set, and is consequently more amenable to patenting. Both governments and industry the pharmaceutical industry) are loath to invest or fund unless they can see the prospect of intellectual property rights - in other words, ownership.

Germany has been reluctant to allow stem cell research in the light of its Nazi history

In Britain, consciousness of the urgent requirement to pay heed to patents in medical science gathered impetus when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. She argued that Britain had lost billions of pounds in revenue through a single failure in the mid-1970s to patent an important discovery. The episode, ­notorious in the annals of British science, involved the development in Cambridge of monoclonal antibodies (crucial to diagnostic testing) by César Millstein’s molecular biology team. The discovery was not patented, but a member of the team patented a further development of the process in America, thus earning billions of dollars for biotech research in the United States. During the Thatcher years, the promotion and protection of intellectual property rights in British research became an absolute priority.

Individual European countries have pursued their own national funding policies on embryonic stem cell research, reflecting traditional ethical attitudes, in some cases to the detriment of commercial advantages. While Italy has banned funding because of the influence of the Catholic Church, Germany has been equally reluctant as a consequence of its sensitivity to human ­ex­experiments in the light of its Nazi history. Japan has adopted similar policies, for the same reasons. Both Germany and Japan invoke the "slippery slope" argument. In other words, they are less preoccupied with doctrinal issues due to their caution based on national historical experience. Britain's more liberal ethical attitudes are largely based on classic utilitarian principles. The ideas of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham - the greatest good for the greatest number - hold more sway than arguments about ensouled embryos. When I served on an HFEA ­inquiry panel two years ago, exploring public attitudes towards ­hybrid embryos, it was noticeable that the majority of the participants, which included an ­ordained Church of England ethicist, emphasised the consequentialist clinical benefits - finding cures for Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, and cancer.

In the United States, the administration's views on stem cell research have been largely shaped by a combination of Evangelical and Catholic attitudes. While Catholics traditionally voted for the Democrats during and after the John F Kennedy era, the Republicans under George W Bush's leadership won over a sizeable proportion of the massive Catholic vote. Rights to life, abortion, and embryonic stem cell issues loomed large. A mailshot of four million letters was despatched to Catholics in advance of the 2000 election, claiming that the Republican Party endorsed John Paul II's views on family and life issues. Meanwhile John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, and a Catholic, appeared at odds with his own church on abortion.

During the 2008 election campaign, the Republicans were no less energetic in seeking the Catholic vote, and the Catholic bishops were ­vociferous in condemning Obama's human ­embryonic stem cell policies. In 2000 and 2004, half of America's Catholics voted for Bush. In 2008, however, there was a noticeable swing towards Obama of one crucial segment of the Catholic vote. Catholics, numbering 65 million, form the largest single denomination in the US, making up 27 per cent of the entire electorate. Some 52 per cent of white Catholic regular church-goers voted for McCain, and 47 per cent for Obama. But non-church-going Catholics voted 61 per cent for Obama and 37 per cent for McCain. The swing is probably a reflection of the increase in Hispanic voters, who opted for Obama on account of the economic downturn. The total Catholic vote was 54 per cent for Obama and 45 per cent for McCain, a five-point swing for the Democratic candidate on 2004.

Professor Raisman is typical of scientists who are agnostic on questions over the status of the human embryo; his jaundiced view of embryonic stem cell research is scientific, he insists. Using rat models, he has been grafting adult stem cells (known as olfactory ensheathing cells) from the upper region of a rat's nose to create pathways across spinal cord lesions. The strategy has been amazingly successful in rats. Animals that had been paralysed in a front limb have completely regained movement. In the near future, Raisman hopes to apply the treatment to human beings, starting with victims of accidents (typically motorbike riders) who have lost the use of an arm as a result of trauma at a site of the spinal cord known as the brachial plexus (where the shoulder meets the spinal cord). The olfactory human cells will be taken from the patient's own nose, thus reducing the possibility of immunity problems. This is just a prelude to tackling major spinal cord injury.

Raisman complains, however, that he has had scant fund­ing over the years because he cannot promise patents that will make profits. He charges moreover that the media hype for embryonic research as a coming miracle cure, including for spinal cord injury, has put his kind of research programme in the shade. A new surge in gov­ernment-funded human embryonic research in the United States, he believes, is likely to make things worse, as grant bodies in Britain and ­elsewhere will seek to compete. "The scramble to fund human embryonic stem cell experiments looks like the scientific equivalent of sub-prime mortgages," says Raisman. "One wonders how long the large sums of money and hype can go on chasing such a distant goal before the bubble bursts."

Many clinicians agree with Raisman that actual therapies using embryonic stem cells are far off. Professor Keith Peters, until recently president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, puts it as distant as two, even three decades. Yet by no means all supporters of embryonic research base their enthusiasm on early delivery of therapies, or on the prospect of financial returns. There are many potential problems with all stem cell therapies, including adult stem cells, as scientists such as Raisman agree. Scientists still do not know how to make embryonic stem cells proliferate reliably, or indeed switch off once they do proliferate; hence there is anxiety that cancers could develop in treated patients.

All the more reason, according to one constit­uency of the research lobby, for studying human stem cells from their very earliest stage: the embryo. Most persuasive on this score is Professor James Pedersen of Cambridge University (who came to Britain from San Francisco to escape Bush's ban on federal funding in 2004). He ­argues that ­reliable stem cell therapies must go hand in hand with fundamental research on the process of ­development from conception to birth to understand in depth how stem cells work, and hence how to avoid mistakes in therapies. Pedersen's largely academic, non-clinical developmental work, however, does not involve the scramble for patenting rights described by Professor ­Raisman.

While the scientific row over funding and patenting heats up against the background of the new American president's science policies, the ethical arguments are likely to be revived in a population where 57 per cent believe in creationism: the literal belief in the Genesis creation story. But as the economic downturn bites, there will be greater scrutiny of the returns on embryonic research funding - whether in terms of profits to be made on intellectual property rights, or actual delivery of successful therapies to the clinic. A 20- to 30-year delay for dividends in the current economic climate is a long time to wait. In the meantime, Professor Raisman makes an interesting link between regulation in medical science and regulation in banking and the economy: "The creditworthiness of scientific claims," he says, "has no better system of regulation than other derivatives and instruments beloved of financiers, attracting huge bonuses by moving other people's money about."

It is a salutary reminder that the widespread adoption of entrepreneurial and monetarist models from the 1980s onwards for the conduct of medical research is as much due for scrutiny as other failing economic institutions.

John Cornwell is director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College,

Hybrid embryos: a short history

The controversy over stem cell research revolves around the use of human embryonic cells, since extracting the cells destroys the embryo they are taken from. In December 2000, the UK parliament voted to permit the research under guidelines that, by European standards, were liberal. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was charged with granting licences for research on embryos discarded as part of the IVF process. Opposition from anti-abortion groups and senior Catholics was intense. Tory MP Edward Leigh described the research as “the killing of the innocents”, comparing its supporters to Nazis.

“Therapeutic cloning”, or the creation of human embryos for the purpose of growing stem cells, raised controversy on a second front. The lab-created embryos typically only exist for a few days, and are little more than a ball of cells; nevertheless, opponents such as Peter Garrett, research director for the pro-choice group Life, warned, also in 2000: “We are only a couple of years away from cloning human beings.'' In 2004, the UK became the second country in the world to permit the procedure.

By 2006, British scientists were seeking permission to create hybrid embryos by injecting human nuclei into the shells of rabbit eggs. The resulting embryos would contain just 0.1 per cent animal DNA – but this was enough to raise the question as to whether the embryos were human. In late 2006, faced with furious opposition, the government proposed legislation banning the creation of hybrid embryos; but in September 2007, the HFEA decided that there was no fundamental reason to prevent cytoplasmic hybrid research.

A revised Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was drafted.

In January last year, the first licences were granted to carry out projects involving hybrids; but within days, 16 MPs had rebelled, calling for a free vote. The Catholic Church also vocally opposed the proposed bill – among them Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who claimed that the bill endorsed “experiments of Frankenstein proportion". Nevertheless, in April, the first human-animal embryos were created in the UK, and in October, despite a further attempt by Edward Leigh to have the technique banned, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was passed in October 2008, on its third reading.

Alyssa McDonald

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?

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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