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Culture

The Overproduction of Elites

Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters at a rally in St Louis, Mo, March 9, 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Ross Douthat mentioned on the New York TimesThe Argument podcast that he’d been thinking a bit about the Russian-American polymath Peter Turchin, some of whose previous predictions seem prescient in 2020. Turchin mentioned the potential for conflict arising from a culture that produces too many elites who turn against one another in a nasty pursuit of too few positions.

Turchin noted, in a piece that attracted Douthat’s attention, that the U.S. has far more lawyers, MBA holders, and millionaires per thousand population than it did 30 years ago. This is worrying because “elite overproduction” is, according to Turchin, an underlying cause of political instability. He blames elite overproduction for playing a role in the fall of Rome and the American Civil War, for instance. He says “stagnating and declining living standards of the general population and increasing indebtedness of the state” are two other critical factors.

Turchin continued:

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. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.

Looking around at the U.S. in 2020, who would deny that there is a large and discontented cohort of “elites” — for instance, holders of degrees from prestigious colleges and universities — who perceive themselves to be on the losing side? Such frustrated elites signed on to the Bernie Sanders campaign, then marched in the streets this spring. Their anger is palpable, though it emerges in varying forms.

In the piece I quote, which was first published in 2013, Turchin added, “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.”

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