Peter Turchin on End Times: Counter-Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration
January 10 2024, 1pm to 2pm (UK time), Zoom
What factors drive political turmoil and societal breakdown? How do elites sustain their dominance, and why do ruling classes occasionally lose their hold on power?
Peter Turchin, an expert in researching the origins of political instability, uncovers a recurring trend. When the scales of power heavily favour the ruling elite, it leads to a surge in income inequality, enriching the wealthy and impoverishing the less privileged. As more individuals aspire to join the elite, dissatisfaction with the established order intensifies, often resulting in calamity.
The Policy Institute and the Fairness Foundation hosted a fascinating conversation about political upheaval, inequality, and the historical lessons we can glean. Are we truly living in "End Times," or can history provide a glimmer of optimism for breaking free from past cycles? Should we be more or less optimistic in the light of technological changes such as the advent of AI? And if the US is a plutocracy, to what extent is that also true of the UK?
- Gerry Mitchell, Social policy researcher, writer, community activist and co-author of Uncomfortably Off: Why the Top 10% of Earners Should Care about Inequality
- Will Snell, Chief Executive, the Fairness Foundation (Chair)
- Mary Harrington, author and contributing editor at UnHerd
- Paul Summerville, Adjunct Professor, Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria and co-author of Reclaiming Populism: How Economic Fairness Can Win Back Disenchanted Voters
- Peter Turchin, Complexity Scientist, one of the founders of Cliodynamics and author of The Times thought book of the year, End Times: Elites, counter-elites and the path of political disintegration
Summary of the discussion
Peter Turchin argued that complex societies go through cycles of stability and instability, referring to the key points from his book End Times: Elites, counter-elites and the path of political disintegration. The phases of instability (or ‘disintegration’) are characterised by the following dynamics, which can be observed in many global societies throughout history through the emerging science of ‘cliodynamics’:
- Elite overproduction: When there are more individuals aspiring to elite positions than there are available positions, this creates intense competition among elites, leading to social unrest. There are four types of elite - economic, political/administrative, military and ideological; all exercise social power to influence the behaviour of others, but in different ways. In modern societies, elite overproduction can be seen in the huge number of law graduates; education is a route out of poverty in unequal societies (and getting a law degree is one of the best routes into the elite).
- The wealth pump: This mechanism transfers wealth from the poor to the rich. This occurs through various means, such as coercion in medieval societies or stagnating wages in more modern contexts, and ultimately results in an unequal distribution of resources because the elites reconfigure the economy in their interests. The resulting imbalance in power and wealth contributes to social unrest, political disintegration, and the rise of counter-elites.
- Mass immiseration: The operation of the wealth pump over a prolonged period results in the declining wellbeing of the majority of the population. This decline is not limited to economic inequality but extends to other indicators of wellbeing, including life expectancy and happiness (as seen, for example, in the rise of ‘deaths of despair’ in the US).
- Creation of counter-elites: The imbalance in power and wealth leads to a bloated class of wealth-holders, but also to the emergence of counter-elites - individuals or groups who oppose the ruling regime (despite having become wealthy). These counter-elites often become political entrepreneurs, channelling popular discontent and contributing to the rise of populist movements. This dynamic can be seen in the US today but was also evidence in republican Rome.
- Social disintegration (or not): In the absence of action to counter them, these dynamics tend to lead eventually to some form of social collapse or revolution. However, there have been examples where elites have recognised the danger of social disintegration and have taken action to avert it, for example by tackling poverty or inequality in various ways.
Gerry Mitchell discussed Peter’s arguments in the context of the findings of her co-authored book, Uncomfortably Off: Why the Top 10% of Earners Should Care about Inequality:
- High earners feel increasingly badly off: This is true in the UK as well as in the US. It is partly because their priorities, such as higher education and homeownership, have become more expensive in recent years. But it is also because people in the top 10% of earners compare themselves to people in the top 1%, so they consider themselves ‘normal’ and don’t feel rich (as well as being unaware of the extent or depth of poverty in the UK).
- They are somewhat aware of increasing inequality and instability: Despite underestimating the depth of poverty in the UK, high earners are aware of the increasing competition for elite positions, the unequal distribution of wealth, and the resulting societal imbalances. They are concerned about declining levels of wellbeing and social cohesion, political instability, and divisive populist politics. They are also concerned about downward social mobility, the cost of homeownership and decreasing returns on education; but they aren’t questioning what factors are behind these worrying trends.
- They have conflicting views about government: High earners take it for granted that politicians will be more responsive to their policy preferences than to the views of those further down the income distribution, but underestimate their own reliance on public services and on infrastructure provided by the state. They focus on government waste and on shrinking the role of the state, rather than supporting action by the state to tackle economic inequality and the other problems outlined above.
- The current generation of high earners is not thinking about society: Their meritocratic worldview may lead them to believe that they are immune to societal crises, but to the extent that they see a need to take action, they prefer to focus on insulating themselves from society rather than trying to improve it. The hope is their children, the next generation, will reject the existing trajectory of increasing inequality and demand change.
Paul Summerville reacted to Peter’s arguments with reference to his co-authored book, Reclaiming Populism: How Economic Fairness Can Win Back Disenchanted Voters:
- Populism and instability is driven more by lack of social mobility than by economic inequality: Social immobility, in turn, is not purely a function of economic inequality but is also exacerbated by factors such as commuting time, racial segregation, single parenthood, access to quality healthcare, and education. The real problem is lack of fairness, rather than lack of equality; people tend not to object to others getting rich if the process is perceived as fair.
- Disruption has other causes than the ‘iron law of oligarchy’: Most cycles of disruption stem from technological and economic changes, so societal equilibrium is a moving target. Rather than resigning ourselves to inevitable societal collapse, we should ensure that the political system can narrow these differences and establish fair rules of competition.
- Fair but unequal outcomes: These are crucial to successful democracies, as they reward innovation, hard work, discipline, luck, and natural talent. The challenge is to build a society in which personal characteristics do not solely determine one's life chances, and there is genuine equality of opportunity. We can achieve this by providing substantive support to all citizens to become and remain productive.
- Ordinary citizens have power alongside elites: The idea of an enlightened subset of elites taking control to rebalance society underplays the fact that positive change historically originates from actions by ordinary citizens - voting, organising, striking, and resisting unjust norms.
- Fairness is key. Ignoring fairness may lead to the resurgence of dangerous myths, hatreds, prejudices, and the rise of divisive forces such as ethnic nationalism and antisemitism. By contrast, economic fairness can serve as a protector against both the violence of the crowd and potential cycles of disruption triggered by technological advancements and economic changes.
Mary Harrington offered her reactions to the discussion so far:
- 19th Century Britain is an example of where reform averted revolution:Incremental reforms, including the repeal of the Corn Laws and the 1867 Reform Act, improved living conditions for the population and rebalanced power between the landowners, the merchants and the urban working poor (giving the latter a voice). This was in contrast to revolutions across Europe during this period. This period in the UK marked the beginning of the modern labour movement.
- However, Britain today looks very different: Political changes that have flowed from the labour movement in the last 150 years were all predicated on the fact that the economy needed the industrial proletariat. In post-industrial societies, it is not clear where the power of working people resides and how they can influence political decisions. The lack of equivalent mechanisms today for holding elites accountable contributes to a sense of disempowerment that populism feeds off, and this trend is likely to accelerate with the rise of AI and so on.
- There are grounds for both pessimism and optimism: There is a risk that counter-elites on both the extreme left and extreme right do not understand or care about the material concerns of working people; we somehow need to reground political discourse in the context of changing economic structures with a greater understanding of fairness, but this is challenging as counter-elites might retort that the views of the broader population don’t matter. If we do not do this, the future of democracy is uncertain; but it is not clear that existing political institutions are equipped to handle these challenges, so future upheavals may be broader and more chaotic than we would like. However, future generations offer grounds for hope, as young people seem open to radical political possibilities, which could have profound implications.
Peter responded to the comments made by the other panellists:
- Inequality and immiseration: Inequality is not the main driver, but rather a proxy for the wealth pump's operation. Relative immiseration is important - people compare their economic wellbeing to that of their parents and become unhappy if they fall below it.
- Fairness and inevitability: Paul is right to highlight the importance of fairness and to point out that societies are not doomed to follow cycles of stability and instability; societies have become more resilient to these forces in recent centuries, which offers grounds for hope.
- The top 10% and polarisation: When elite overproduction becomes a problem, there is a fight for the top positions, with lots of intra-elite competition and conspicuous consumption, which percolates down the social ladder (from the top 0.1% to the top 1% to the top 10% to everyone) and leads to polarisation across society (between the right and left but also within both groups). But polarisation doesn’t lead to the same level of violence that it used to; character assassinations have replaced real assassinations over the years.
- Comparing the UK to the US: The UK is slightly behind the US in terms of societal pressures, but is very close to it; levels of immiseration and of intra-elite conflict are very similar in both countries, and much higher than in continental Europe (although Germany and several other European countries are also moving in this direction).
The panellists were asked what policies they would like governments to enact in response:
- Mary talked about financialisation, and the selling of assets and hollowing out of industries; we could make it illegal for hedge funds to own private residences, and redistribute asset ownership. We could also radically slow or halt immigration, which makes it harder for working people to earn a living wage and is radicalising young graduates in a way that threatens social cohesion.
- Paul advocated for a basic income guarantee as a measure to address populist complaints, which would help people in their individual lives and would have a huge impact on economic, health and social outcomes.
- Gerry talked about understanding the cost of not investing; we need to rethink the role of the state (including getting serious about net zero), and expect more from the private sector. She also mentioned tax reform (including taxing wealth) and proportional representation.
- Peter stressed the importance of returning power to workers and allowing them to organise, as a way of shutting down the wealth pump. He supported controlling immigration to address the oversupply of labour, which contributes to the erosion of worker power. Equality is not the goal, but fairness should be; an example is that wages should be linked to productivity, so there is scope for some pay inequality, but not at the extreme levels that we see today, which threaten social cohesion and stability.