Vilfredo Pareto and Political Irrationality
By Tomislav Sunic
Few political thinkers have stirred so much controversy as Franco-Italian sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923). In the beginning of the twentieth century, Pareto exerted a considerable influence on European conservative thinkers, although his popularity rapidly declined after the Second World War. The Italian Fascists who used and abused Pareto’s intellectual legacy were probably the main cause of his subsequent fall into oblivion.
Pareto’s political sociology is in any case irreconcilable with the modern egalitarian outlook. In fact, Pareto was one to its most severe critics. Yet his focus extends beyond a mere attack on modernity; his work is a meticulous scrutiny of the energy and driving forces that underlie political ideas and beliefs. From his study, he concludes that irrespective of their apparent utility or validity, ideas and beliefs often dissimulate morbid behavior. Some of Pareto’s students went to so far as to draw a parallel between him and Freud, noting that while Freud attempted to uncover pathological behavior among seemingly normal individuals, Pareto tried to unmask irrational social conduct that lay camouflaged in respectable ideologies and political beliefs.
In general, Pareto argues that governments try to preserve their institutional framework and internal harmony by a posteriori justification of the behavior of their ruling elite–a procedure that stands in sharp contrast to the original objectives of government. This means that governments must “sanitize” violent and sometimes criminal behavior by adopting such self-rationalizing labels as “democracy,” “democratic necessity,” and “struggle for peace,” to name but a few. It would be wrong, however, to assume that improper behavior is exclusively the result of governmental conspiracy or of corrupted politicians bent on fooling the people. Politicians and even ordinary people tend to perceive a social phenomenon as if it were reflected in a convex mirror. They assess its value only after having first deformed its objective reality. Thus, some social phenomena, such as riots, coups, or terrorist acts, are viewed through the prism of personal convictions, and result in opinions based on the relative strength or weakness of these convictions. Pareto argues that it is a serious error to assume that because his subjects or constituents feel cheated or oppressed, a leader of an oppressive regime is necessarily a liar or a crook. More than likely, such a leader is a victim of self-delusions, the attributes of which he considers “scientifically” and accurately based, and which he benevolently wishes to share with his subjects. To illustrate the power of self-delusion, Pareto points to the example of socialist intellectuals. He observes that “many people are not socialists because they have been persuaded by reasoning. Quite to the contrary, these people acquiesce to such reasoning because they are (already) socialists.”
Modern Ideologies and Neuroses
In his essay on Pareto, Guillaume Faye, one of the founders of the European “New Right,” notes that liberals and socialists are scandalized by Pareto’s comparison of modern ideologies to neuroses: to latent manifestation of unreal effects, though these ideologies–socialism and liberalism–claim to present rational and “scientific” findings. In Freud’s theory, psychic complexes manifest themselves in obsessional ideas: namely, neuroses, and paranoias. In Pareto’s theory, by contrast, psychic impulses–which are called residues–manifest themselves in ideological derivatives. Rhetoric about historical necessity, self-evident truths, or economic and historical determinism are the mere derivatives that express residual psychic drives and forces such as the persistence of groups once formed and the instinct for combination.
For Pareto, no belief system or ideology is fully immune to the power of residues, although in due time each belief system or ideology must undergo the process of demythologization. The ultimate result is the decline of a belief or an ideology as well as the decline of the elite that has put it into practice.
Like many European conservatives before the war, Pareto repudiated the modern liberal, socialist myth that history showed an inevitable progression leading to social peace and prosperity. Along with his German contemporary Oswald Spengler, Pareto believed that no matter how sophisticated the appearance of some belief or ideology, it would almost certainly decay, given time. Not surprisingly, Pareto’s attempts to denounce the illusion of progress and to disclose the nature of socialism and liberalism prompted many contemporary theorists to distance themselves from his thought.
Pareto argues that political ideologies seldom attract because of their empirical or scientific character–although, of course, every ideology claims those qualities–but because of their enormous sentimental power over the populace. For example, an obscure religion from Galilee mobilized masses of people who were willing to die, willing to be tortured. In the Age of Reason, the prevailing “religion” was rationalism and the belief in boundless human progress. Then came Marx with scientific socialism, followed by modern liberals and their “self-evident religion of human rights and equality.” According to Pareto, underlying residues are likely to materialize in different ideological forms or derivatives, depending on each historical epoch. Since people need to transcend reality and make frequent excursions into the spheres of the unreal and the imaginary, it is natural that they embrace religious and ideological justifications, however intellectually indefensible these devices may appear to a later generation. In analyzing this phenomenon, Pareto takes the example of Marxist “true believers” and notes: “This is a current mental framework of some educated and intelligent Marxists with regard to the theory of value. From the logical point of view they are wrong; from the practical point of view and utility to their cause, they are probably right.” Unfortunately, continues Pareto, these true believers who clamor for social change know only what to destroy and how to destroy it; they are full of illusions as to what they have to replace it with: “And if they could imagine it, a large number among them would be struck with horror and amazement.”
Ideology and History
The residues of each ideology are so powerful that they can completely obscure reason and the sense of reality; in addition, they are not likely to disappear even when they assume a different “cover” in a seemingly more respectable myth or ideology. For Pareto this is a disturbing historical process to which there is no end in sight:
Essentially, social physiology and social pathology are still in their infancy. If we wish to compare them to human physiology and pathology, it is not to Hippocrates that we have to reach but far beyond him. Governments behave like ignorant physicians who randomly pick drugs in a pharmacy and administer them to patients.
So what remains out of this much vaunted modern belief in progress, asks Pareto? Almost nothing, given that history continues to be a perpetual and cosmic eternal return, with victims and victors, heroes and henchmen alternating their roles, bewailing and bemoaning their fate when they are in positions of weakness, abusing the weaker when they are in positions of strength. For Pareto, the only language people understand is that of force. And with his usual sarcasm, he adds: “There are some people who imagine that they can disarm their enemy by complacent flattery. They are wrong. The world has always belonged to the stronger and will belong to them for many years to come. Men only respect those who make themselves respected. Whoever becomes a lamb will find a wolf to eat him.”
Nations, empires, and states never die from foreign conquest, says Pareto, but from suicide. When a nation, class, party, or state becomes averse to bitter struggle–which seems to be the case with modern liberal societies–then a more powerful counterpart surfaces and attracts the following of the people, irrespective of the utility or validity of the new political ideology or theology:
A sign which almost always accompanies the decadence of an aristocracy is the invasion of humanitarian sentiments and delicate “sob-stuff” which renders it incapable of defending its position. We must not confuse violence and force. Violence usually accompanies weakness. We can observe individuals and classes, who, having lost the force to maintain themselves in power, become more and more odious by resorting to indiscriminate violence. A strong man strikes only when it is absolutely necessary–and then nothing stops him. Trajan was strong but not violent; Caligula was violent but not strong.
Armed with the dreams of justice, equality, and freedom, what weapons do liberal democracies have today at their disposal against the downtrodden populations of the world? The sense of morbid culpability, which paralyzed a number of conservative politicians with regard to those deprived and downtrodden, remains a scant solace against tomorrow’s conquerors. For, had Africans and Asians had the Gatling gun, had they been at the same technological level as Europeans, what kind of a destiny would they have reserved for their victims? Indeed, this is something that Pareto likes speculating about. True, neither the Moors nor Turks thought of conquering Europe with the Koran alone; they understood well the importance of the sword:
Each people which is horrified by blood to the point of not knowing how to defend itself, sooner or later will become a prey of some bellicose people. There is probably not a single foot of land on earth that has not been conquered by the sword, or where people occupying this land have not maintained themselves by force. If Negroes were stronger than Europeans, it would be Negroes dividing Europe and not Europeans Africa. The alleged “right” which the people have arrogated themselves with the titles “civilized”–in order to conquer other peoples whom they got accustomed to calling “non-civilized”–is absolutely ridiculous, or rather this right is nothing but force. As long as Europeans remain stronger than Chinese, they will impose upon them their will, but if Chinese became stronger than Europeans, those roles would be reversed.
For Pareto, might comes first, right a distant second; therefore all those who assume that their passionate pleas for justice and brotherhood will be heeded by those who were previously enslaved are gravely mistaken. In general, new victors teach their former masters that signs of weakness result in proportionally increased punishment. The lack of resolve in the hour of decision becomes the willingness to surrender oneself to the anticipated generosity of new victors. It is desirable for society to save itself from such degenerate citizens before it is sacrificed to their cowardice. Should, however, the old elite be ousted and a new “humanitarian” elite come to power, the cherished ideals of justice and equality will again appear as distant and unattainable goals. Possibly, argues Pareto, such a new elite will be worse and more oppressive than the former one, all the more so as the new “world improvers” will not hesitate to make use of ingenious rhetoric to justify their oppression. Peace may thus become a word for war, democracy for totalitarianism, and humanity for bestiality. The distorted “wooden language” of communist elites indicates how correct Pareto was in predicting the baffling stability of contemporary communist systems.
Unfortunately, from Pareto’s perspective, it is hard to deal with such hypocrisy. What underlies it, after all, is not a faulty intellectual or moral judgment, but an inflexible psychic need. Even so, Pareto strongly challenged the quasi-religious postulates of egalitarian humanism and democracy–in which he saw not only utopias but also errors and lies of vested interest. Applied to the ideology of “human rights,” Pareto’s analysis of political beliefs can shed more light on which ideology is a “derivative,” or justification of a residual pseudo-humanitarian complex. In addition, his analysis may also provide more insight into how to define human rights and the main architects behind these definitions.
It must be noted, however, that although Pareto discerns in every political belief an irrational source, he never disputes their importance as indispensable unifying and mobilizing factors in each society. For example, when he affirms the absurdity of a doctrine, he does not suggest that the doctrine or ideology is necessarily harmful to society; in fact, it may be beneficial. By contrast, when he speaks of a doctrine’s utility he does not mean that it is necessarily a truthful reflection of human behavior. On the matters of value, however, Pareto remains silent; for him, reasoned arguments about good and evil are no longer tenable.
Pareto’s methodology is often portrayed as belonging to the tradition of intellectual polytheism. With Hobbes, Machiavelli, Spengler, and Carl Schmitt, Pareto denies the reality of a unique and absolute truth. He sees the world containing many truths and a plurality of values, with each being truthful within the confines of a given historical epoch and a specific people. Furthermore, Pareto’s relativism concerning the meaning of political truth is also relevant in reexamining those beliefs and political sentiments claiming to be nondoctrinal. It is worth nothing that Pareto denies the modern ideologies of socialism and liberalism any form of objectivity. Instead, he considers them both as having derived from psychic needs, which they both disguise.
The New Class
For his attempts to demystify modern political beliefs, it should not come as a surprise that Pareto’s theory of nonlogical actions and pathological residues continues to embarrass many modern political theorists; consequently his books are not easily accessible. Certainly with regard to communist countries, this is more demonstrably the case, for Pareto was the first to predict the rise of the “new class”–a class much more oppressive than traditional ruling elites. But noncommunist intellectuals also have difficulties coming to grips with Pareto. Thus, in a recent edition of Pareto’s essays, Ronald Fletcher writes that he was told by market researchers of British publishers that Pareto is “not on the reading list,” and is “not taught” in current courses on sociological theory in the universities. Similar responses from publishers are quite predictable in view of the fact that Pareto’s analyses smack of cynicism and amorality–an unforgivable blasphemy for many modern scholars.
Nevertheless, despite the probity of his analysis, Pareto’s work demands caution. Historian Zev Sternhell, in his remarkable book La droite revolutionnaire, observes that political ideas, like political deeds, can never be innocent, and that sophisticated political ideas often justify a sophisticated political crime. In the late 1920s, during a period of great moral and economic stress that profoundly shook the European intelligentsia, Pareto’s theories provided a rationale for fascist suppression of political opponents. It is understandable, then, why Pareto was welcomed by the disillusioned conservative intelligentsia, who were disgusted, on the one hand, by Bolshevik violence, and on the other, by liberal democratic materialism. During the subsequent war, profane application of Pareto’s theories contributed to the intellectual chaos and violence whose results continue to be seen.
More broadly speaking, however, one must admit that on many counts Pareto was correct. From history, he knew that not a single nation had obtained legitimacy by solely preaching peace and love, that even the American Bill of Rights and the antipodean spread of modern democracy necessitated initial repression of the many–unknowns who were either not deemed ripe for democracy, or worse, who were not deemed people at all (those who, as Koestler once wrote, “perished with a shrug of eternity”). For Pareto the future remains in Pandora’s box and violence will likely continue to be man’s destiny.
The Vengeance of Democratic Sciences
Pareto’s books still command respect sixty-five years after his death. If the Left had possessed such an intellectual giant, he never would have slipped so easily into oblivion. Yet Pareto’s range of influence includes such names as Gustave Le Bon, Robert Michels, Joseph Schumpeter, and Rayond Aron. But unfortunately, as long as Pareto’s name is shrouded in silence, his contribution to political science and sociology will not be properly acknowledged. Fletcher writes that the postwar scholarly resurgence of such schools of thought as “system analysis,” “behavioralism,” “reformulations,” and “new paradigms,” did not include Pareto’s because it was considered undemocratic. The result, of course, is subtle intellectual annihilation of Pareto’s staggering erudition–an erudition that spans from linguistics to economics, from the knowledge of Hellenic literature to modern sexology.
But Pareto’s analyses of the power of residues are useful for examining the fickleness of such intellectual coteries. And his studies of intellectual mimicry illustrate the pathology of those who for a long time espoused “scientific” socialism only to awaken to the siren sound of “self-evident” neoconservativism–those who, as some French writer recently noted, descended with impunity from the “pinnacle of Mao into the Rotary Club.” Given the dubious and often amoral history of the twentieth-century intelligentsia, Pareto’s study of political pathology remains, as always, apt.
Sunic, Tomislav. “Vilfredo Pareto and Political Irrationality.” The World and I, April 1988 Issue (New York). <http://www.tomsunic.com/?p=165>.
Note: This essay was also republished in Tomislav Sunic’s Postmortem Report: Cultural Examinations from Postmodernity – Collected Essays (Shamley Green, UK: The Paligenesis Project, 2010).
Some readers may also want to be aware that Sunic’s principle sources in this article are Vilfredo Pareto’s Les systemes socialistes, vol. 1 (Paris: Mercel Giard, 1926) and The Other Pareto, edited by Placido Bucolo (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980). On this topic, see also Pareto’s The Mind and Society (Harcourt: Brace, 1935).