Discover more from Political Ponerology
In the Margins: The Rise of the Precariat
Footnotes chronicling the decline and fall of the American empire
I’m currently reading Peter Turchin’s new book, End Times. I’ve read several of his other books, including War and Peace and War (discussed here), Ultrasociety (here), and Ages of Discord. I was slightly nervous that this one would simply be a rehash of Ages of Discord, which is an analysis of the United States and the two secular cycles it has experienced over the course of its history. I’m happy to say it isn’t.
While it covers some of the same ground as Ages, End Times zooms in to focus more on the disintegrative phase of the cycles which see the rise and fall of nations, the periods of stability and those of chaos. The main examples relate to America’s current time of crisis and how we got here, but the book is salted with supporting examples from current events and deeper history: the Taiping rebellion, the Late Medieval Crisis in France, the Wars of the Roses, Egypt, the ex-Soviet states of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. (His description of the Ukrainian plutocracy is refreshingly honest.)
Like all his books for the popular market, End Times is well written, engaging, and fascinating reading. And a page-turner. I also think it is the clearest explication of his work to date, so whether or not you’re familiar with his work, I recommend checking it out.
This will not be a full summary or review of the book, however. I want to focus only on a few points and how they relate to Political Ponerology.
While reading the book, I learned a new term: the precariat. Turchin borrows it from Guy Standing, whose book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class is described as follows:
This book presents the new Precariat – the rapidly growing number of people facing lives of insecurity, on zero hours contracts, moving in and out of jobs that give little meaning to their lives. The delivery driver who brings your packages, the uber driver who gets you to work, the security guard at the mall, the carer looking after our elderly...these are The Precariat.
Guy Standing investigates this new and growing group, finding a frustrated and angry new underclass who are often ignored by politicians and economists. The rise of zero hours contracts, encouraged by fat cat corporations as risk-free employment, and by silicon valley as a way of outsourcing costs and responsibility, has been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.
The appearance of this class is a symptom of what Turchin calls popular immiseration, one of the key features of a state which has entered a disintegrative phase: the poor getting poorer, sicker, and more miserable. But as he argues, one significant faction of the precariat is essentially composed of educated surplus elites or “elite aspirants.” When the “wealth pump” directs more and more to the uber-rich (and away from everyone else), more and more people want to get in on that action. But there are only so many positions at the top. This is another key feature: elite overproduction.
For example, back in 1991 most lawyers made around $30K a year. A few made up to $90K. By 2020, not only were there more law students (law is the most typical path by which to enter the American ruling class), but most lawyers made $45-75K, and 20% now made around $190K, with few in between. The distribution had split from a single peak in the middle, to a curve with two peaks: below average, and way above average. Most of those law students hoping to get into the top-earning positions are screwed, to put it bluntly. Half of them end up owing over $160K in debt.
More generally, back in the early 1950s fewer than 15% of young people went to college. (Incidentally, based on what Lobaczewski writes in Logocracy, that’s probably a realistic proportion.) That number is now around 66%. Simply following the rules isn’t good enough anymore to get a decent job with a high standard of living. The 1950s truly were the “good times,” when a man could find a stable job and make enough to own a house, a car, and provide for an entire family. And he didn’t need credentials to do so.
Riffing on Marx, Turchin concludes his chapter on “The Revolutionary Troops” (hint: it ain’t the peasants): “The growing proportion of credentialed youth who are doomed to become the educated precariat are the ones who have nothing to lose but their precarity” (p. 107). Every member of the precariat is a potential counter-elite. Think Lenin, Mao, Castro, and Hong Xiuquan.
Earlier, Turchin writes:
History … tells us that the credentialed precariat (or, in the jargon of cliodynamics, the frustrated elite aspirant class) is the most dangerous class for societal stability. Overproduction of youth with advanced degrees has been the most significant factor in driving societal upheavals, from the Revolutions of 1848 to the Arab Spring of 2011. (p. 91)
Where do the “peasants” come into play? “Immiserated masses generate raw energy, while a cadre of counter-elites provides an organization to channel that energy against the ruling class” (p. 25).
And here’s how Turchin summarized the process in a recent interview:
[Elite overproduction] creates intense competition, and while some competition is very helpful and good, excessive competition is harmful as it corrodes the social norms and institutions of the society.
When you have huge numbers of losers in this game, a proportion of frustrated elites will decide to break the rules.
When reading this interview before starting the book, it seemed to me that this process must also have a corrosive effect on the type of people who do make it to the top. Those who win the competition will not necessarily be the most competent. And in fact, that’s arguably what is happening, as Heather Mac Donald makes clear in her own recent book (and which you can read about in my previous post on social justice).
When you have 100 candidates and only 5 positions, who will get them? Unfortunately, it probably won’t be the most competent. Not only have our institutions changed the criteria—race, sex, and political ideology now often trump competence. The ones who get ahead in this highly competitive environment will also be those most willing to break the rules and game the system, i.e., the most psychopathic.
I hadn’t noticed much focus on competence in Turchin’s previous work on elite overproduction. In fact, it seemed to me to imply an over-supply of competence: advanced degrees as far as the eye could see. An embarrassment of riches. But then I turned to page 94 of this new book and it all came together:
The basic dynamic here is completely generic to what happens in aspirant games as they progress to their late stages. Unlike its milder versions, extreme competition does not lead to the selection of the best candidates, the candidates most suited for the positions. Rather, it corrodes the rules of the game, the social norms and institutions that govern how society works in a functional way. It destroys cooperation.
There it is: socio-occupational maladjustment. Cliodynamics didn’t exist when Lobaczewski was writing Political Ponerology, but he saw this too. He even proposed constructing a method enabling us “to evaluate the correlations between individual talents and social adjustment in a given country.” He wrote:
Conducting the proper tests would furnish us a valuable index that we might call “the social order indicator.” The closer the figure to +1.0, the more likely the country in question would be to fulfill that basic precondition for social order and take the proper path in the direction of dynamic development. A low correlation would be an indication that social reform is needed. A near-zero or even negative correlation should be interpreted as a danger sign that revolution is imminent. (p. 45)
Turchin has arguably done just this, or at least something capturing the same dynamic. As I noted in the latest edition of PP:
Anthropologist Peter Turchin has developed a political stress index (PSI) that serves this purpose, combining three crisis indicators: declining living standards, increasing intra-elite competition (caused in part by the production of too many aspiring elites), and a weakening state.
And as he repeatedly states, of the three, elite overproduction (which corrodes socio-occupational adjustment) is the strongest indicator of a coming political crisis.
Lobaczewski saw what was coming back in the 1980s:
America’s psychological recession drags in its wake an impaired socio-occupational adjustment of this country’s people, leading to a waste of human talent [Turchin: “extreme competition does not lead to the selection of the best candidates”] and an involution of societal structure [Turchin: “it corrodes … the social norms and institutions that govern how society works”]. If we were to calculate this country’s adjustment correlation index, as suggested in the prior chapter, it would probably be lower than the great majority of the free and civilized nations of this world, and possibly lower than some countries which have lost their freedom. A highly talented individual in the USA finds it ever more difficult to fight his way through to self-realization and a socially creative position [i.e. elite aspirants]. Universities, politics, and even some areas of business ever more frequently demonstrate a united front of relatively untalented persons. The word “overeducated” is heard more and more often. … In the meantime, the country as a whole—its administration and politics—suffers due to a deficit in the inspirational role of highly gifted individuals. (p. 65)
Therefore it appears that the United States is heading for a profound political crisis … (p. 66)
Again, this was before cliodynamics. Lobaczewski was operating on the ideas of one of his Polish professors, which as far as I can tell was a mostly descriptive theory of the features of societies in their integrative and disintegrative phases (good times, bad times), positing the importance of symptoms of hysteria among the upper classes. Lobaczewski thought this cycle was around 190 years (which is close to the historical average for secular cycles in agricultural nations).
What Lobaczewski lacked was a deeper understanding of the actual factors underlying and driving these dynamics. That is where Turchin excels, teasing out how stagnating wages and high immigration, the wealth pump, class structure and elite overproduction, regime stability, and geopolitics interact to produce the cycles observable in all states over the past five millennia.
Good Times, Bad Times
In that same interview, Turchin summarizes in very few words the secular cycles he has studied so intensely:
What we see in the historical record is that all complex societies go through periods of good times, maybe a century or so long on average, and then periods of disintegration. During the good times, after a couple of generations, the elites get used to the fact that life is good and stable, and that’s when the iron law of oligarchy kicks in. The elites are very strongly tempted to convert their power into goodies for themselves — and if there’s nothing stopping them, that’s what they do. They basically reconfigure the economy in a way that depresses the wages of workers and creates a “wealth pump” that funnels riches directly to the owners and managers of corporations.
Here’s how Lobaczewski put it in 1984:
Such contented periods—often rooted in some injustice to other people or nations—start to strangle the capacity for individual and societal consciousness … When communities lose the capacity for psychological reason and moral criticism, the processes of the generation of evil are intensified at every social scale, whether individual or macrosocial, until they give rise to “bad” times. (p. 57)
When a few generations’ worth of “good-time” insouciance and increasing hysterics [which he notes especially affects “the privileged elites”] result in a societal deficit regarding psychological skill and moral criticism, this paves the way for pathological plotters, spellbinders, even more primitive impostors, and their organized systems of social and moral destruction to act and merge into the processes of the origination of evil. (p. 58)
Turchin compares the pre-crisis period to a ball rolling down a valley. The trajectory is fairly confined by the valley walls. However, “once the ball rolls out of the valley’s mouth, it finds itself on a cusp (a revolutionary situation), with many potential routes leading away. Tiny pushes applied to the ball (actions by interest groups or even influential individuals) can nudge its further trajectory in either relatively benign directions or in a complete catastrophic one” (p. 192).
The “valley” corresponds to what Lobaczewski calls peak hystericization, which characterizes the pre-crisis period. What he briefly describes above is one such outcome of exiting the valley: pathocratic totalitarianism. And since integrative phases follow disintegrative ones, that means it can stick around for generations, as it did in the USSR and China. But the possibility of more benign outcomes remains. Both Lobaczewski and Turchin agree that corrective measures can be taken.
Commenting on societal cycles, Lobaczewski observes that they used to operate mostly in isolation in various nations. One nation could be in an integrative phase while another could be in a disintegrative one. But modern global communications networks have connected nations in ways previously impossible, implying the possibility of synchronization of phases.
Turchin discusses a similar phenomenon in a section called “Contagion and Dynamic Entrainment.” For example, “the geopolitical environment can extend or shorten cycles” (p. 46), as when England managed to export its surplus elites to France during the Late Medieval Crisis and thus delay its own crisis. But ideological contagion can also do the trick, aided by modern information technologies, as happened during the Arab Spring revolutionary crisis (before that there was the Springtime of Nations in 1848).
This phenomenon opens up, at least in principle, the possibility that corrective measures can be spread using the same mechanism. If one nation successfully manages to shut off its runaway wealth pump, others can take notice, and take directed action to replicate those results.
There’s bad news, however. At least according to Turchin’s preliminary modeling of the coming decade, “it is too late to avert our current crisis” (p. 202). Shutting down the American wealth pump at this point will likely only increase elite overproduction, and the crisis will not be avoided. Even a very gradual (e.g. 20-year) balancing of relative wages will not prevent the spike in violence predicted for the rest of this decade. However, while corrective measures now might not be able to pull us out of the Terrible Twenties, it may be able to prevent the next period of instability, which would likely occur around fifty years after we exit the current crisis.
Luckily, there’s a bright side to dark times. As Lobaczewski wrote:
When bad times arrive and people are overwhelmed by an excess of evil, they must gather all their physical and mental strength to fight for existence and protect human reason. The search for some way out of the difficulties and dangers rekindles long-buried powers of discretion. Such people have the initial tendency to rely on force in order to counteract the threat; they may, for instance, become “trigger-happy” or dependent upon armies. Slowly and laboriously, however, they discover the advantages conferred by mental effort: improved understanding of the psychological situation in particular, better differentiation of human characters and personalities, and, finally, comprehension of one’s adversaries. During such times, virtues which former generations relegated to literary motifs regain their real and useful substance and become prized for their value. (p. 59)
As I mentioned above, I’m not yet finished Turchin’s book, so any thoughts, if any, on its final chapters will have to wait. Until then, let me just share a couple interesting things from the book.
Polygamy grossly accelerates elite overproduction. This is why polygamous states have shorter cycles than monogamous ones. Their cycles average only about one century, as opposed to the norm of two or three centuries.
In about 10 to 15% of crisis periods, the ruling classes have managed to avert disaster. These examples may provide us with knowledge about how to mitigate the extremely destructive effects of secular cycles, or even break out of them completely.
The longest recorded integrative phase noticeable in the historical record is around three centuries.
The United States is a plutocracy and has been for quite some time. True plutocracies are relatively rare in history (as are pure theocracies). Egypt is a militocracy, and has been for even longer. China, by contrast, is a bureaucratic empire, and has been for millennia.
Political Ponerology is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.