One of the great stories about the United States in recent years has been the rise of political polarisation and instability. Though the growing strife at the heart of the nation has been in the making for decades, the last year alone has seen the Covid Crisis, the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement, as well as an election process that climaxed with the storming of the U.S Capitol Building. To any observer, it is apparent that these events have continued to exacerbate cleavages in American political life, and it seems that such divides will not be bridged anytime soon. The great fear is that US in the 21st Century may be facing a period of political instability, competing radical ideologies and ever-widening inequality. The last century in the US saw a post-World War One resurgence in the Roaring of the 1920s- will the 2020s in contrast see us dragged Screaming through the decade?
The United States is not alone in facing this problem. France has faced nationwide protests since 2018 with the gilets jaune movement, whilst the United Kingdom faced political paralysis and partisan infighting with the Brexit referendum (while Northern Ireland faced some of the worst riots its seen in years in part due to the Irish Sea Border). Many hypotheses have been put forward about the source of the discontent that has been rising in the United States and the rest of the Western world. Yet no theorisation, I believe, can claim to be as unique or intriguing as that of elite overproduction, and there is reason to believe that the 2020s will continue to see increasing political instability because of it.
Peter Turchin, whose work has been gaining increased recognition as of late, uses Structural Demographic Theory alongside a way of studying the long-term dynamics that create conditions for political stability, and in turn, political disintegration, and uses this to analyse history. Turchin proposes that all structural-demographic variables that influence the (in)stability of a given society are encompassed within three forces: the population, the state, and the elites (with each of these categories subject to change in response to structural shifts).
Though there is more to this theory that can be outlined here (if interested, Turchin’s Ages of Discord and blog come highly recommended), what is perhaps most compelling are the dynamics of intra-elite warfare, caused by what Turchin dubs elite overproduction.
Who are the elites? It is not just the capitalist class as such, but also lawyers, professionals, journalists, and cultural figures. These are the most highly vaunted positions within society that aspiring elites seek to enter in order to move up the social ladder. Yet what happens when the numbers of the elite and those who wish to enter the elite classes become too high for the society to adequately accommodate? This is what is known as elite overproduction.
When there is an oversupply of elites and elite aspirants, this creates the conditions for elite overproduction. Elite overproduction is usually created and influenced by factors such as labour oversupply which leads to increased competition for resources and jobs), popular immiseration, and declining living standards thus further swelling the ranks of elite aspirants seeking to work their way into the elite classes in order to secure a future for themselves, as well as the revenues of the state and its ability to absorb these candidates. The result of these factors can be an increasingly large class of elite aspirants who find themselves spurned, a government and society that hasn’t the capacity to absorb them, as well as an elite class that benefits from these conditions and will often go to great lengths to protect their position.
So where can we see elite overproduction? Turchin uses the case of Law graduates in the United States, as well as US wealth inequality as measurements of this phenomenon. Law happens to be one of the most popular degrees chosen by those wishing to enter politics, and is seen by aspiring elites as a way to attain professional prestige. Yet the value of a Law degree is relative and is not above the laws of supply and demand. Of those graduating in 2015, only 63% of law graduates entered jobs that required the bar, and as of July 2020, those who majored in Criminal Justice had an underemployment rate of 73% ( meaning they are working jobs that don’t utilise their skills and are unable to work the hours they’d wish to).
Whilst it is certainly true that not all those that graduate in Law intend to practice it, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that a large surplus of Law graduates is created in the U.S every year- a problem that is only compounded by the large student debt that they are left with, as well as the high hopes that many had for themselves. And this is only looking at Law graduates in the US. In the UK for example, nearly one-third of graduates were underemployed pre-Covid, and this likely to be much higher in the near future with the added complications of the Covid Crisis and the recession that followed it. When this is combined with declining living standards and anemic economic growth, you will see the creation of a class of embittered and scorned counter-elites, who hopes to join the elite classes has transmuted into resentment against them. It was understanding this frustration that led to the rise of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who capitalised on the anger of many elite aspirants in the U.S and the U.K respectively.
Yet elite overproduction is not just about the elite rejects per se, but also about conflict amongst the elites themselves. It is no secret that wealth inequality has been on the increase for decades, leading to vast wealth gains not only amongst the economic hyper-elite, but also creating a proliferation in the number of millionaires within the US. What is perhaps less well understood is the effect this has on inter-elite dynamics. Wealthier citizens are typically more politically engaged than the rest of the populace and may even run for office themselves. Yet the supply of political offices to pursue within the United States has largely remained flat. For example, the number of congressional seats has remained at 435 since 1913, whilst the supply of those seeking political influence and potential candidates only continues to rise. Elite overproduction can therefore even lead to a kind of elite class warfare, where the elites who feel themselves to left out of power and influence begin to fight those who they see as standing in their way, and the elite class itself begins to fracture under such conditions.
So how do elites react to these circumstances, and how does it lead to further political destabilisation? Turchin argues that there are essentially three cardinal sins that the elites often make in these conditions. Firstly, when there is a labour oversupply, the elite classes stand to benefit most from this as they are frequently the beneficiaries of cheaper labour and may even promote mass immigration for this very reason, and thus inequality begins to sky-rocket. Secondly, in an attempt to make their own positions more secure, they raise the bar to elite entry, kicking the ladder away from their would-be competitors and securing not only their own position but also that of their offspring, who will benefit from their built-up economic and social resources and stand a better chance of circumventing the obstacles they have raised. Lastly, the top earners of the society will often do anything to resist taxation and to maintain their own wealth at the expense of public spending – which leads to a dysfunctional and indebted state that people begin to lose faith in and respect for. Fundamentally, these elites stand to gain from the status quo, and many of them would rather defend their privileges than reform the system for the betterment of their country. This is a failing that does not go unnoticed. As Turchin writes, ‘Such selfish elites lead the way to revolutions’.
So what happens when the established elites and the counter-elites (both the spurned elite-aspirants as well as the excluded, competing elites) clash?. The elites who seek to maintain their own positions end up fighting amongst themselves over power and begin to fragment as a result, and they also face the embittered counter-elites that seek reform (and even revenge). The resulting situation is an increasingly unstable society in which the elites themselves attempt to hold onto their privileges at all costs against their competitors, whilst the counter-elites, who view themselves as having been betrayed by the status quo, fight to change this situation and seek the recruit some of the aggrieved population to join their cause. The political situation in such a society sees a breakdown in cooperation in the elite classes as they squabble over power, the breaking of acceptable norms as the fighting becomes more vicious, and an increasing amount of political instability and violence. With the events of 2020 still fresh in our memories, one cannot help but see some truth in this analysis. But what is concerning is that, as seen in the graphs above, is that the events of 2020 may not, in fact, be an aberration. Instead, 2020 may be a particularly memorable representative of a wider trend. As popular immiseration only deepens, as government debt only increases, and as elite overproduction shows no meaningful signs of slowing down, 2020 may have only been a warm-up for what is coming next.
So, what does this mean for the next decade? Though there seems to have been some stability restored to American politics with the election of Joe Biden, one would have to be very optimistic that the political polarisation and increasing levels of violence and protest in the United States are gone for good. Some 45% of Republicans according to one poll actually supported the actions of the Capitol Hill rioters, and some 68% didn’t consider it a threat to democracy- a worrying sign that extreme action is becoming increasingly acceptable in some quarters of American politics. Though the Democratic party controls both legislative chambers in Congress, their majorities are slim, and will likely require a great deal of political skill from Joe Biden to pass even the most modest legislation, never mind offering up bold solutions to America’s woes. It is highly unlikely that the increasing levels of polarisation and instability that 2020 seemed to typify are going anywhere anytime soon.
What the work done by Turchin seems to suggest is that the next decade is likely going to see an exacerbation of the trends that led America down its path to instability, and the 2020s may well be a decade of discord for the U.S. The real question at this point is not a case of whether unrest and instability will unfold, but rather how serious will it get? If reform is not taken and cooperation continues to break down among the elites, the next decade may be Screaming rather than Roaring. Though it is not impossible for these trends to be effectively challenged and reversed, it would require a certain degree of unity and purpose amongst American elites to take the necessary actions, and it is this unity and leadership that America has been sorely lacking. Perhaps an understanding of just how dangerous the situation is and may become could change this. Time will tell.
Gideon Jones is a MA student in Terrorism, Security & Society at the War Studies Department, King’s College London, and completed his BA in History at the University of Warwick. Coming from Northern Ireland, he has been brought up in a country scarred by the issues of terrorism, conflict, sectarianism, and extremist ideology. Through this experience, he has been given valuable insight into how the legacies of such problems can continue to divide a society decades after the fighting has stopped, and how the issues left unresolved can threaten to upend a fragile peace. Gideon is a Staff Writer at Strife.