Liberty Matters

Democracy’s Decline: Pareto and Fascism

A few words are perhaps due regarding what Rosolino Candela calls Pareto's "alleged" association with fascism. Giandomenica Becchio points out that "his initial sympathy for early fascism has been overestimated and probably had been manipulated by the regime."
Indeed, too much has been made of such sympathy, though it is a fact that Pareto supported the fledgling fascist movement.
For one thing, Pareto passed away a few months after the March on Rome and a few months before the assassination of the socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti, which showed the true color of fascism for all to see. So he can certainly be excused for not having predicted the evolution of the regime. In his essay "Pochi punti di un futuro ordinamento costituzionale," in which he reflects on the sort of reforms the fascist government might undertake, he writes:
To only govern with the consent of a majority, however large, cannot be done.… To only govern with force, for any length of time, cannot be done. It is necessary to know whether the consent—at least implicit—of the larger number does exist. For this a House of Representatives is quite useful.… A broad freedom of the press is indispensable.… Care should be taken lest one yields to the temptation of strongly curbing it. [Pareto 1923, 797]
This sort of plea for freedom of expression is certainly in contrast with the ambitions, and the practice, of fascists.
Still, what is more interesting, as Giandomenica remarked, is that Pareto's interest in fascism was grounded in his understanding of the crisis of democracy. This was the crisis he styled as "demagogic plutocracy."
It may be worth quoting Pareto on how this particular political arrangement came to be (Pareto 1920, 83-83):
  1. A very large increase of wealth, of savings, of "capital" directed to production.
  2. Such a distribution of wealth that inequality persists. Some contend that [inequality] increased, others that it decreased; it is likely that the average distribution did not change.
  3. The steadily increasing importance of two social classes, namely the wealthy speculators and the workers.… "Plutocracy" is seen to grow and prosper, when one looks at the first of these occurrences, "Democracy" is seen to increase when one focuses on the second….
  4. A partial alliance between these two elements, which becomes particularly remarkable since the end of the 19th century. Despite speculators' and workers' interests being not entirely coincident, still part of the first and part of the second find working in the same direction to be profitable for both, with the goal of capturing the government and exploiting the remaining social classes. It also follows that plutocrats achieve this alliance by cunning means, availing themselves of the sentiments (residues) which obtain in the common people…
  5. While the power of these two classes grows, likewise declines the power of the remaining two, namely the wealthy or affluent owners which are not speculators, and the military; in fact, the power of these is by now quite negligible….
  6. Slowly and steadily, the recourse to force passes from the superior to the inferior classes….
  7. Parliaments turn out to be a very effective tool of demagogic plutocracy….
Notice that Pareto did not focus on the opposition between employers and employees: he saw an alliance between some of them, an alliance established on a common interest and kept alive by political myth-making.
He considered World War I a consequence of demagogic plutocracy, with profiteers benefiting from military spending and part of the working class cheering entry into the war, hoping for a better life afterward. The very triumph of demagogic plutocracy foreshadowed a crisis of this kind of regime. Plutocracy feeding demagogy entails a dangerous equilibrium: it means feeding ever-bigger demands for new benefits and special privileges. For Pareto, when a ruling class weakens, it becomes at the same time less efficacious in defending its own power but also more greedy: "on the one hand its yoke gets heavier, on the other hand it has less strength to keep [the yoke on society]." (Pareto 1900, 206; Zetterberg trans., p. 59)
The crisis of democracy in Italy was strongly felt during the so-called "Biennio Rosso," the "Red two years," with violence dominating the political scene. A Bolshevik-style revolution or a nationalist reaction was possible, but so was a continuous crisis in which the old ruling class tried to cope with ever-growing popular demands by multiplying giveaways in the hope of preserving its old interests.
One thing fascism certainly did was replace the old rulers with a new elite.
This—admittedly awfully simplified—summary may highlight a couple of things that are relevant for reading today's politics too. First, distributive coalitions underpin many political phenomena, but they are not necessarily the most obvious ones. Second, distributive coalitions need to be fed with both government giveaways and a comforting ideology: striking a balance between the two isn't easy. Third, we certainly like to talk about times changing, novelties in government, "the people" regaining center stage; but more often than not, what we are actually facing is a competition between wannabe masters. Pareto knew it well: "It is an illusion to believe that now stands, in front of the ruling class, the people; what stands in front of it is a new and future aristocracy, which leans on the people, and actually you can already see some marks of contrast between that new aristocracy and the rest of the people." (Pareto 1900, 218; Zetterberg trans., p. 72.)
To be blunt, in this age of rampant populism (for lack of a better word), it is appalling to me how often opinion makers take the populists at face value, assuming they are something "new" on the basis of their rhetoric. More interesting would be to look at what interest they represent (not necessarily to what interest they claim to represent) and to what ideological chords they aim to strike.