The status wars of elites have collateral damage.
In trying to understand our current societal moment, one of the concepts that intrigues me most is the idea of elite overproduction. That is: as a society grows more prosperous it creates more people who want to lead and rule over that wealth. And when you have too many of them, well, they fight for power and (may) end up tearing the whole thing down.
The idea has long existed in evolutionary biology. But Peter Turchin first advanced the concept applied to human societies in 2013 here. And it is worth listening to because among many other prescient things, he states this:
"We should expect many years of political turmoil, peaking in the 2020s. And because complex societies are much more fragile than we assume, there is a chance of a catastrophic failure of some kind, with a default on U.S. government bonds being among the less frightening possibilities."
As my grandfather has often mentioned in a way that only he can: "the world needs ditch diggers." While crude, there is merit to the idea: it takes all sorts to make the world work and that includes people across all skillsets and levels of intelligence. If we all just liked writing semi-intellectual blog posts with a bit of humor, well, there would be a lot of that kind of content... and a whole lot more starvation.
The world needs farmers, makers, doers, and people who are more excited by working with physical things. Of course we also need those whose passion lies in the world of writing and communication, business, or technology as well. But all of those are high prestige routes for kids who want to become "an elite." While an amorphous term, it's kind of like pornography: I don't know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.
So societies can manage along quite well when people achieve high status and are seen to deserve it. When life is hard, it takes a lot to rise to a place of high status and so it would tend to be viewed as deserved.
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But what we have now is... not that. Raised in times of plenty, most Americans seem to think that they should be part of elite culture. Millennials were told by everyone that if they just went to college that they'd get a good job and be living the good life.
The brutal truth is we don’t need a world with 50% of the population going and getting a four year degree in a topic that likely has little relevance to actually creating value in the real world. We need maybe 10%, and that number is dropping every day as AI becomes more and more promising (e.g. things like ChatGPT).
What results from this elite overproduction? It’s a two-sided collapse:
Not enough people are going into low prestige fields and industries, leading to degradation of essential services.
Elite culture increasingly sees the battle for high status as a zero sum game. This leads to flat-out power games which hopefully don't cost any lives upfront, but do tear down the institutions that host these festering games for status and power.
Our focus today is on the second point. Turchin summarizes it well: "Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class."
That may resonate with where we are now. Just a little bit. And again, he wrote this in 2013!
But polarization aside, we can see signs of this everywhere. A typical job posting for a associate professor at a college will draw at least 100 applicants for one spot. Meanwhile our bridges, dams, and other critical infrastructure is crumbling. While you can point to many things, Occam's razor suggests the simple answer: lecturing in front of a class is high status, climbing under a bridge is low status, and so we prioritize the former.
So we cram many people who want to be elites into a high pressure and perceived zero-sum environment. What happens next? Thankfully we are just barely civil enough to keep bullets from flying. Instead, those spaces become incessantly political and petty. The game is cut-throat because the stakes are large: status, wealth, and sexual prospects are all on the table as status rises and falls. Lawyers and lawsuits become more common as battles become more fierce. As the internet remembers (almost) everything, we created a fun new way to fire pot shots at our enemy using past words against them as culture rapidly changes. Cancellations are the drive-by shootings of the elites.
The inevitable result, if uninterrupted, is that one group of elites gains control of the institutions and implements strict in-group power grabs that spread beyond the institution. In a nutshell: totalitarianism.
This is the path that we are on now. As Turchin's quote upfront tells us: this is a precarious place to be in. Throughout the centuries, elite overproduction tends to unwind with some kind of collapse. There simply isn’t a natural way to unwind it because the stakes of having high status in a wealthy society are so high.
Solving this isn't easy, either. As Turchin notes, it is possible for it to be worked out peacefully (as the US did in the early 20th century). But there are a number of reasons why this time is different, and following the 1920's playbook isn't likely to yield good results.
For my money, the answer appears to be a rapid decentralization effort. I'll cover this more in future pieces, as I believe it is the best route for us to straddle the border and avoid a chaotic collapse and/or the revival of totalitarianism.
The United States has always been different than other nations, and as a result we brought billions of people out of totalitarianism and into democracy as the wealth of capitalism has driven incredible gains in overall human well-being around the globe.
But this is still a transitional state. Democracy is great, but it still relies on centralized entities that are controlled by a small group and can become corrupt and can fail. Decentralized governance and decentralized economies can be viewed as the next evolution of democracy and capitalism. But more on that next time.