Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration
* Book: End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration. By Peter Turchin. Penguin Press, 368 pages
"Turchin’s main claim to originality comes from the quantitative approach he brings to historical topics. He began his academic career in theoretical biology, constructing models of plant and animal population dynamics in pursuit of universal patterns. Once tenured, he shifted his focus to subjects typically studied by historians and social scientists, but he continued building mathematical models. This approach became the basis of the new discipline he helped pioneer: “Cliodynamics,” so named after the Greek muse of history.
“The basic conclusion Turchin draws won’t be all that surprising to most readers.” Despite his innovative methods, the basic conclusion Turchin draws won’t be all that surprising to most readers: that extreme economic inequality is dangerously destabilizing and precipitates civil war, revolution, and state breakdown. More novel is his claim that “elite overproduction”—a surplus of aspirants competing for a limited number of positions in the upper strata of society—is the key factor in these dynamics. It is here that End Times has the potential to offer important insights but fails to do so, owing to conceptual vagueness, methodological arbitrariness, and a lack of serious attention to competing versions of the history Turchin attempts to chart. The result is an account that obscures more than it reveals about elite power dynamics today.
Overproduction of elites, Turchin concludes from the troves of data he has gathered from different historical periods, tends to proceed in tandem with the immiseration of the masses, which, in turn, leads more of those of low station to improve their lot through education or training, compounding the problem. Amid this escalating competition, surplus elites threaten to become politically entrepreneurial “counter-elites” who capitalize on the broader discontents of the masses to foment political unrest.
Who exactly counts as an “elite” is a famously fraught question in the American context: For some, it conjures up images of private jets, private islands, and vast fortunes, while for others, it refers to egghead academics. Despite the centrality of elite overproduction to his account, and his claim to be rendering history into an exact science, Turchin doesn’t resolve the vagueness of the concept. At first, he defines modern elites in a straightforward numerical way, as the wealthiest 10 percent of the population. But he then expands the definition to include those who wield any one of four types of power: physical coercion, economic power, bureaucratic control, and ideological influence. At this point, the category stretches from the ultra-rich to politicians to government employees to the military, but also seems to encompass academics, journalists, and even online influencers.
End Times offers a solid enough account of contemporary class polarization. The American middle class has withered over the last 40 years, with many slipping into poverty, even as the ranks of the rich have expanded. It is common knowledge that the wealth of the top 10 percent, and even more so that of the top 1 percent, has grown enormously; less often noted is that the total number of rich households as a proportion of the population has also grown. As Turchin explains: “Starting in the 1980s, the number of super-rich in America—those worth at least $10 million—started to grow rapidly.” In 1983, only 66,000 households were worth that much, but by 2019, the figure had swelled tenfold to 693,000. As a proportion of the entire US population, decamillionaires are now 0.54 percent, compared to 0.08 percent in the early 1980s. Meanwhile, “households worth $5 million or more increased sevenfold” in the same period.
This absolute growth in the ranks of elites is surely politically significant. But at what point, and why, does this growth become unsustainable, as Turchin claims? That is, what exactly makes a “surplus elite”? “Elite overproduction develops,” he writes, “when the demand for power positions by elite aspirants massively exceeds their supply.” How do we know if that is happening? To answer this, he resorts to an analogy to the game of musical chairs, imagining a version in which the number of players increases each round even as the number of chairs remains constant. But the analogy only goes so far. Some elite positions are indeed fixed in number, like Supreme Court justice and members of Congress; others, like tech CEO or corporate lobbyist, aren’t.
Turchin illustrates the “game of aspirant chairs” by referencing the growing number of self-funded political candidates who spend $1 million or more on their own election campaigns. There were 36 such candidates in 2020 alone, up from a total of one throughout the 1990s. But it remains unclear that this phenomenon demonstrates an “overproduction of elites.
Ultimately, Turchin’s reliance on predictive model-building leads to a conceptual dependency on big, blunt, generalizable categories (like “elite” and “counter-elite”) and a flattening of the specificities and vagaries of climate, geography, personality, individual genius, charisma, mass morale, popular ideology, convictions, and chance. Leaning on his models and database of historical variables, which he calls CrisisDB, Turchin is prone to announcing conclusions as if they were oracular truths produced by the data and assumptions he has fed into tabulating machines, rather than making arguments by way of detailed history.
“More often than not, what the model generates are dire prognoses of doom and gloom.” His justification for this approach is the promise to reboot historical analysis as a predictive science that can inform policymakers on how to forestall catastrophe. But recent events offer ample grounds to be wary of such promises.”