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.’

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