52. Vilfredo Pareto – Sociological Writings (1935)

Vilfredo Pareto is best known today for the economic Principle named in his honour: the Pareto Distribution, or the 80/20 rule. Pareto did not create this formula (he wrote between 1896 and 1921, before such mathematical approaches to economics had been developed), but his philosophical approach to the question of social, cultural and economic elites aligns perfectly with what this formula expresses.

For the first half of his life, Pareto was a successful businessman, working in the railways. He was taken in by democrats in Italy and wrote for them between 1896 and 1901. He was primarily concerned with the way that elites monopolise power; something he was, at that point, against.

The defeat of the free marketeers in Italy, however, led him to reassess his views. He came to accept the necessity for elites and wrote purely about their function. He created an objective system for classifying and measuring the effective functioning of elites. At this point he became widely unpopular, and so retreated into over-writing; producing The Mind and Society, a massive 100,000-word-plus work that mixed groundbreaking economic and sociological insights with crankism and unhinged rants about unions, do-gooders and socialists.

It was this strange book that introduced Pareto’s writings to an English-speaking audience. By the 1930s he had taken a position in Mussolini’s government and so his writing was largely dismissed as the ravings of a fascist. A small coterie of freethinking economists at Harvard, however, took it upon themselves to investigate his work and assess it objectively.

Burroughs was at Harvard at the time. Ginsberg remembers him, a couple of years later, walking around New York with a copy of Pareto under his arm.

Drawn to the esoteric and the taboo, Burroughs may have been the optimal reader of Pareto at this time. Where the academics and economists found him unpleasant, but managed to extract a useful theory from him, Burroughs was reading Pareto alongside Spengler and Kafka, producing for himself an unusual and dark view of the world which ended with him entering (briefly) into a life of crime.

The Mind and Society is a mess, and so I read Pareto in a “selected works” form, complete with annotations and explanatory text by S.E. Finer. As Burroughs presumably read the book as part of seminars led by experts, I’d say this approximates the environment in which he would have encountered it. He wasn’t going in blind, and so neither did I.

There’s a surprising amount of sense in Pareto’s findings. Alongside the work for which he is now famous, demonstrating that 80% of work is done by 20% of workers, and etc, he also pioneered a theory of “Residues”.

Residues are similar to Marx’s “class attitudes”, but whereas Marxian materialism insists that ideologies emerge from classes as reflections of the class’ self-interest, Pareto’s system recognises that a class’ self-interest is not self-evident and so, although their attitudes ultimately derive from their elite position (“residues” implies “superstructural” qualities) there is, within any elite, a set of contradictory imperatives that produce inter-class friction.

Pareto lists 26 types of residues, all with their own subcategories. As Hinton points out, really these are all just derivatives of the first two Classes.

Class 1 residues are summarised in the term “instinct of combinations”: the desire to look at the world as it is and create new systems of thought combining the elements that present themselves. You might call these progressive, or radical, or simply innovative.

Class 2 residues are summarised in the term “persistence of aggregates”: the desire to maintain the old classificatory systems and continues to assess newly arising elements through pre-existing ways of understanding. You might call this conservatism, both with big and small C.

Both have positives and negatives, but as these are “residues” rather than “attitudes”, Pareto does not believe one consciously opts for one or the other, but rather one’s circumstances determine which attitude you will take.

Society progresses, he argues, due to “the circulation of elites”. One set of elites must inevitably replace another as the forces in power; it is merely a question of how this occurs.

Meritocracy and democracy, for example, are two ways of bringing new blood into the elite. Revolution, war and social upheaval also serve to replace a weak elite with a stronger one.

Class 1 residues would tend to increase the peaceful processes of circulation by removing traditional barriers to entry, but they can also create destabilising situations that result in social upheavals.

Class 2 residues keep the present elite safe through a more rigid approach to security yet, if society remains too rigid for too long, it will inevitably grow decadent and weak, leaving the door open for foreign invaders, or else the economic outpacing of the nation by neighbouring, freer nations.

This all fits with Burroughs’ Spenglerian view of the rise and fall of civilisations. It also justifies the aristocratic view of the Romantic artist, above the world, looking down and castigating it, which is the view that gives Burroughs his satirical power.

Like Spengler, Pareto shows us a world where unconscious or irrational powers – what he calls “centrifugal forces” – drive history on with a callous disregard for what is “logical” or “reasonable”. The process is more like that of an organism than a planned entity.

We perhaps see the seeds of Burroughs’ later sci-fi mutations in these early readings, then; an expected connection to make, but one that is in keeping with Burroughs own “residues”: a desire to mutate off the planet being the same Class 1 attitude as the bohemianism of his twenties.