Reflecting on a few interesting reads and listens over the past week
This is an interview from the Atlantic featuring Peter Turchin, someone who "has as been warning for a decade that a few key social and political trends portend an age of discord, civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced. In 2010, he predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldn’t let up until those social and political trends reversed."
The center of his premise is around the idea of elite overproduction and is supported by declining living standards among the general population and a government that can't cover its financial positions.
He defines “elite overproduction as the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites overproduce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated?
The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do."
This creates a growing number of counter-elites for every elite position.
Take a look at protests around the world.
Revolts have happened in poor countries like Somalia and affluent countries like France, Chile, and the US – and the public in revolt, when looked at closely, consists mostly of the middle class and college-educated people. That’s true everywhere.
The cycle looks like this "Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency."
This trend has been accentuated by social media - as explained in by Martin Gurri, the author of The Prophet of the Revolt.
"The elites had abandoned the idea of serving the public before the arrival of the digital tsunami. What that catastrophe did was to reverse the polarities of power: it was the public that was now technologically adept, politically restless, and in revolt against the perplexed elites. The vast gap remained, and the elites have no wish to cross it – to do so would mean breaking that wall that protects the pure soul of the Brahmin.
We have no way of knowing whether a more talented elite class could have avoided the current anger mobilizing the public or the hair-trigger impulse to revolt. There are no laboratories that run parallel versions of history. I will say this: the struggle today is structural, not personality-dependent. Even an FDR or a Reagan would have difficulty preserving institutions whose authority has collapsed because of a radical reversal in the information environment."
A couple of interesting takes by Martin and Peter:
The Case Against Credential-Oriented Education
He opposes credential-oriented higher education, for example, which he says is a way of mass-producing elites without also mass-producing elite jobs for them to occupy. Architects of such policies, he told me, are “creating surplus elites, and some become counter-elites.” A smarter approach would be to keep the elite numbers small, and the real wages of the general population on a constant rise. I largely agree - we are increasingly seeing a world where credential does not equal an elite job as one may have hoped. At an aggregate level, you're fostering an entire generation that resents the status quo.
Democracy is Aided by Conflict
The effect of war is to reward communities that organize themselves to fight and survive, and it tends to wipe out ones that are simple and small-scale. “No one wants to accept that we live in the societies we do”—rich, complex ones with universities and museums and philosophy and art—“because of an ugly thing like war,” he said. But the data are clear: Darwinian processes select for complex societies because they kill off simpler ones. Democratic societies flourish because they have a memory of being nearly obliterated by an external enemy. They avoided extinction only through collective action, and the memory of that collective action makes democratic politics easier to conduct in the present.
“If you look at who is doing these megahistories, more often than not, it’s not actual historians,” Walter Scheidel, an actual historian at Stanford, told me. (Scheidel, whose books span millennia, takes Turchin’s work seriously and has even co-written a paper with him.) Instead, they come from scientific fields where these taboos do not dominate.
"When you organize online, you don’t need any of the trappings of 20th-century radicalism – a revolutionary command and control organization, a maximum leader, a program, even a coherent ideology. All you need is a smartphone and a sufficient measure of anger against. This carries tremendous tactical advantages. The street insurgents will invariably catch the authorities by surprise because institutionally they don’t exist. They are a crowd from the cloud: people from nowhere that suddenly materialize everywhere.
But the digital path to revolt suffers from a congenital, and probably fatal, strategic defect. Without a leader or a program, you can’t maneuver. You can’t adjust your tactics. You can’t negotiate with power, for example. Surprisingly often, governments have caved in and offered to meet the protesters’ demands; this happened in Israel in 2011 and France in 2019. In both cases – in every case I am aware of – the protesters showed little interest in figuring out what their demands were. They wouldn’t take yes for an answer."