Pareto and Elitism

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • The Other Pareto edited by Placido Bucolo
    Scolar, 308 pp, £15.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 85967 516 5
  • Elitism by G. Lowell Field and John Higley
    Routledge, 135 pp, £6.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0487 7
  • Elites in Australia by John Higley and Don Smart
    Routledge, 317 pp, £9.50, July 1979, ISBN 0 7100 0222 X

Elitists are a cheerless class and Vilfredo Pareto was no exception. He certainly led a cheerless life. He gave up a career as an engineer for writing and politics, but although he succeeded Léon Walras to the Chair of Political Economy at Lausanne he never obtained an academic post in Italy itself, and on the two occasions on which he stood for parliament in that country he was defeated (as he saw it) by corruption. He made a bad marriage to a Russian who left him for a servant and engaged him in litigation for almost all of the rest of his life. He lived out those twenty years in his villa at Céligny with increasing bitterness and sickness and a large number of Angora cats. He emerged at the very end once more to marry and to accept Mussolini’s invitation to join the League of Nations Disarmament Commission, but within a year, in 1923, he was dead.

He also had objective grounds for his gloom. His first piece on a political question, a lecture on proportional representation to the Accademia dei Georgofili in 1872, the piece with which Professor Bucolo begins his collection, reveals him as a firm if conventional enthusiast for Mill’s essay On Liberty. Proportional representation, he argued, would effect the best balance between the representation of the views of the majority and the representation of the views of various minorities which can check any tendency to tyranny and which in themselves are often the most enlightened. It would also prevent such minorities, if powerful, from having to work behind the scenes, or, if not powerful, from being made into martyrs. But as he came clearly to see, it required an ‘élite’ (although he did not yet use the term) which was not too divided in its opinions and which agreed about procedure. Italy had no such élite. Instead, there were various groups of conservatives, the Liberals and (after 1895) the Socialists, all very frightened and all in practice, as it seemed to Pareto (not without reason), concerned less with substantive and procedural justice than with self-protection and placement. ‘If Gladstone had been an Italian,’ he later remarked, ‘he certainly would only have opposed Salisbury for a couple of years. He would then have reached a compromise. England would have been governed by a Gladstone-Salisbury cabinet which would have been useful to many petty politicians but would certainly have corrupted not only the principles of each of these two men but the integrity of the political life of the whole country as well.’

Crispi’s second ministry in 1893, which ended three years later in the virtual annihilation of an expeditionary force in Ethiopia, the overt and unthinking repressions of the later 1890s, King Umberto’s attempted coups in 1898 and 1899, the King’s assassination in 1900 and the Socialists’ compromise with the Zanardelli-Giolitti government in 1902, after two years of promising collaboration with the Liberals, finally convinced this austere and unhappy man that nothing was to be hoped for from an enlightened middle class or from those Socialists who in some way shared the ideals that such a class might have. By 1898, he had decided that there were in truth only three parties in Italy: the clerics, the Socialists and ‘the thieves who govern’. By 1904, he had taken Marx’s view that the struggle between the classes ‘is the great factor which rules history’, and decided that force was the only effective means to power. By 1914 and the war, he had come to see the battle as one between German and Slavic vitality, Anglo-Saxon defensiveness and Latin decay. By 1923, he had concluded that democracy and the rule of law demanded dictatorship, that the Marxists had shown themselves to be incompetent dictators, and therefore that fascism, though gratuitously violent and bereft of ideas, had to be given some benefit of the doubt. ‘I do not want to follow anyone,’ he had already written to his friend the Liberal politician and journalist Pantaleoni in 1898, in the month in which the army had mown down demonstrators in Milan: ‘therefore I am going to interest myself in pure science.’ ‘I prefer to discover shame rather than be part of it.’

As science, Pareto’s discoveries have little interest. They are often referred to in that litany of contemporaries, like Emile Durkheim in France and Max Weber in Germany, who had similar political views and not dissimilar theoretical ambitions. But they are less often read. In fact, they can scarcely be said to be discoveries at all. They amount, in essence, to a commitment to that balance of induction and deduction recommended by Mill in the sixth book of his Logic, to an interest in the conditions of social and psychological ‘equilibrium’, as he called it, and to an insistence which became more marked as the years went by on the desirability of reason and the overriding causal force of its opposite. They are difficult to read, generally very boring, and even by the standards of the time infected with an excessive folie de système. They had some purchase at Harvard in the 1930s, when a physiologist, L.J. Henderson, gave a seminar on them and persuaded some young and subsequently influential sociologists that they furnished a soundly scientific counter to Marxism. Now they are sensibly ignored. So it is good to be reminded by Bucolo’s intelligent and well-edited collection that ‘the other Pareto’ had things of interest to say about identifiable events.

Pareto’s accounts of these events belie his reputation as an illiberal authoritarian. They can, of course, be used to align him with dark forces. When Castello Branco told young officers at the Escola Superior de Guerra in Brazil in 1967 that ‘for a society to be democratic, it must have free expression for disagreement, for it to be viable, it is necessary that the areas of agreement outweigh those of disagreement,’ he could, if his learning had extended that far, have used Pareto to support him. But he could also have used Gramsci. Unlike Pareto (and, on a charitable interpretation of Brazilian generals, unlike Branco too), Gramsci was not concerned to save the middle ground in politics. But like Pareto, he saw that it was the egemonia of the Church and the force of the state as much as, if not more than, the economic and political power of the bourgeoisie which resisted socialism. He saw, that is, that in Italy there was virtually no strength at all in what liberals and socialists alike would see as the possibly liberal class.

However sympathetic one might be to the despair about that class which led to Pareto’s support for Mussolini, and however critical one might nevertheless be of the extent to which the ‘non-logical’, as he called it, had taken command of the ‘logical’ in his own defence of that support, one can reasonably agree that for most of the Western democracies the perception which led to it, of a weak middle class, now has little to be said for it. This is not, as Lowell Field and John Higley point out in their brief and bluff tract, because it is unarguably true that representative democracy works on an agreed middle ground. As John Plamenatz insisted several years ago, representative democracy does not by itself work as it might at first sight be expected to do, and no serious democratic theorist can actually be found to have claimed that it could. It is, rather, because conditions have changed. The choice is no longer between kings and priests, on the one side, and would be commissars, on the other. The choice is, we are told, between the drift and muddle and incipient disorder of ‘welfare statism’ and decisive ‘management’.

‘Welfare statism’ came into being in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. It consisted in the establishment of collective bargaining between capital (including the state) and labour, and in the extension to the whole population of adequate health, education and social insurance. It had as its condition a marked rise in productivity and real incomes, and as its consequence an apparent ‘end of ideology’. Unfortunately, the condition is almost everywhere past and the consequence has changed. Increasing prosperity is no longer assured, and dispute and even disorder have broken out, not only between labour and capital (especially between labour and the state) and between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, like immigrants and women and the destructive young, but also between factions of the ‘élite’ itself. Advanced industrial societies, these authors argue, have until now been run by ‘consensually unified’ élites. Such an élite is in any such society a necessary condition of representative democracy. Now, the raised but frustrated ambitions of ‘welfare statism’ threaten to divide this élite and so destroy the condition. The solution, it seems, is clear. We must accept that goods are not infinitely extensible and that men are not limitlessly good. We must abandon our ‘contemptible naiveté’, realise that ‘asking people what they want or what they think is right ... is a useless endeavour that risks exacerbating conflict,’ and ‘persuade the large, educated cadres of semi-professional and professional personnel in developed societies of the necessity for élite discretion’.

There is clearly some simple truth in the analysis. Representative democracy is impossible if those with power do not accept it. ‘Welfare statism’ cannot be extended if it cannot be paid for. The nominally represented do get cross if they have been encouraged to ask for what they want, have become used to having it, and are then denied it. There is nothing surprising in any of this. There is scarcely anything very interesting in it. But what of the solution? Should the ‘cadres’ to which readers of this journal belong (Field and Higley’s ‘people’ are at this crucial point naturally not worth asking) concede to the élite, restore its ‘consensual’ cohesion and thus ensure deliverance?

Rationally to do so, they may expect to have answers to two questions. The first is who the élite actually are. To his credit, Higley has tried to find out, at least in Australia, where he works. Also to his credit, he doubts whether he has entirely succeeded. He decided that élites consist of ‘persons with power to affect organisational outcomes individually, regularly and seriously’. He then identified 502 consequential and supposedly serious persons within seven sets of organisations in Australia, businesses, trades unions, political parties, the Commonwealth Public Service, the media, voluntary associations and the universities, 370 of whom agreed to an interview. None of the 370, however, agreed with all the others in his answer to any question save one. They only each agreed, that is, that whoever was in the élite they were not. Someone else ran Australia. (The interviews were conducted in the autumn of 1975, the autumn in which, on 11 November, Gough Whitlam, the Prime Minister, was removed from office by the Governor-General. His reply is not recorded but may safely be presumed to have been the same.) Undeterred by this responsive disarray, although conceding by page 261 that a survey may not after all be a very sensible way to answer the question, Higley and his co-authors identified 418 members of a central circle, invisible and indeed unknown to its members but a social fact nevertheless, they assure us, ‘in the sense that each of its many members was linked to at least two others who were directly linked themselves’. This circle, although it excluded the unsociable leaders of trades unions, was the élite that ruled, although we are not at any point told what it actually did. It was scarcely a cohesive and co-ordinated ruling class, but much more, the authors maintain, than a loosely connected plurality. And if it did not know it ruled, it certainly does now. Elites in Australia must be on every large desk in the country, a reassuring reminder to serious persons that if anyone rules they do, or that if they do not, then they had better call one of those who do.

If he is not unnerved by this less than wholly convincing answer to the question of who the élite are, the professional or semi-professional may before he signs the new social contract nevertheless still reasonably ask what, with greater discretion, the elusive entity might actually do. Pareto’s first answer was that it should defend economic and political individualism against the threatening collectivisms of the state and the socialists. His second answer was that it should simply fight Bolshevism. Our own elected leaders seem still to be persuaded by both. But many are not. Field and Higley themselves collapse into vacuous confusion. They claim that their élitism recognises the constraint of the non-élite, insist that their chosen élite must be free of such constraint, and then assert that only then will we be assured of ‘the security for social benevolence’ and ‘the opportunity for meaningful participation in social and political decision-making that are the essence of Western values and ideals’. But can a more reasoned case be made?

Negatively, it can. A properly participatory democracy has never been less possible than it now is in large nation states in which the economic direction, insofar as it is given at all, is given by multinational companies (they are very strongly represented in Higley’s Australian 418) and by the state itself (whatever, exactly, that may be). Similarly, a fully liberal society, insofar as that is not by definition made co-terminous either with participatory democracy or with something that could now scarcely be conceived of as (but in liberal political theory is frequently taken to be) a plausible society at all, requires more rather than less co-ordination, direction and institutional restraint. In both cases, it follows that people’s expression of what they want is not going to give it to them, and thus that some linked set of persons in some linked set of institutions is going to have to think about how to resolve the endemic conflicts, how to balance this resolution against internal and external constraints, and how to deliver it. In neither case, however, does it follow on moral or on prudential grounds that people should not periodically be permitted to say what it is they want or to air their views on how they might get it. Not to allow them the first is to claim a true view of real interests or to commit oneself to simple oppression. Not to allow them the second is to suppose that one knows oneself how best to deliver what it is they want. But these are all negative truths. They are also (although not to the new élitists) banal. Is there a more interesting, more positive case?

If there is, it must depend upon there being a generally agreed end to pursue between equity, efficiency and expression and some generally agreed view of how to achieve it. Millian liberals – and Pareto in his better moments was one – have few real doubts on either score. More sober Marxists, like Marx himself in his critical remarks on the Gotha programme of the German Social Democratic Party in 1875, and like others who would not overtly align themselves with him (Anthony Benn once told an audience of Yorkshire miners that English socialists didn’t get their ideas from ‘old German books’), have equally few. The difficulty is that both exist, that neither can be said to be very exact about the possible institutional shape of their confident ambition, and that neither can reasonably be said to face the facts that now obtain. Neither faces the lack of enthusiasm in a society like Britain (Italy, for example, although not West Germany or even France, is rather different) for the collective ideals and even the redistributions of socialism, and neither – not surprisingly, for the 19th century was very different – faces the fierce economic and political constraints from outside.

If one looks at more recent attempts more squarely to confront reality, at social democratic theory, say, such as it presently is, the same difficulties arise. The agony of such theorists, of Anthony Crosland, for example, in what he wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was that redistribution required growth because the middle classes would never accept any sacrifice, but that there was scarcely any growth. Even if the entire nation was committed to social democracy, and it very evidently is not, there is no accepted or at the moment even very plausible account of how to reach it. Yet a case for élitism, a case for men of power and will to be given more room to manage, must depend upon some such account of how they would do so. Short of civil strife, when such an argument would in any case go by the board, there can be no other grounds.

Field and Higley, not surprisingly, think that such strife is imminent. ‘It is to combat naive tendencies and to stop the growing escalation of the future confrontations to which they are leading,’ they write, stretching the present tense to its outer limit, ‘that élites in the developed societies desperately need to reconstitute a self-consciously élitist frame of reference.’ Even in August 1923, in the last piece which Professor Bucolo includes in his collection, a piece in which he argued with desperation but also with evident hesitation for fascism as the last possibility for the middle class in politics, Pareto wisely remarked that ‘there are great currents of opinion which never disappear, even if they only appear every now and again on the surface, such as the currents of faith, scepticism, idealism, materialism, positive religion, free thought. Whoever thinks that he can eliminate them is deceiving himself.’ Whoever thinks, like Field and Higley, that with something called ‘élitism’ he can at once preserve them and make them inconsequential is simply a fool.