Angry, educated and rich
July 11, 2020 1:11 AM   Subscribe

Intra-Elite Competition: A Key Concept for Understanding the Dynamics of Complex Societies - "Elites are a small proportion of the population (on the order of 1 percent) who concentrate social power in their hands."[1] (via; previously)
Intra-elite competition is one of the most important factors explaining massive waves of social and political instability, which periodically afflict complex, state-level societies... it is important to keep in mind that the social effects of elite competition depend critically on the norms and institutions that regulate it and channel it into such societally productive forms.

Excessive elite competition, on the other hand, results in increasing social and political instability... A great expansion in the numbers of elite aspirants means that increasingly large numbers of them are frustrated, and some of those, the more ambitious and ruthless ones, turn into counter-elites. In other words, masses of frustrated elite aspirants become breeding grounds for radical groups and revolutionary movements.

Another consequence of excessive competition among elite aspirants is its effect on the social norms regulating politically acceptable conduct. Norms are effective only as long as the majority follows them, and violators are punished. Maintaining such norms is the job for the elites themselves.

Intense intra-elite competition, however, leads to the rise of rival power networks, which increasingly subvert the rules of political engagement to get ahead of the opposition. Instead of competing on their own merits, or the merits of their political platforms, candidates increasingly rely on “dirty tricks” such as character assassination (and, in historical cases, literal assassination). As a result, excessive competition results in the unraveling of prosocial, cooperative norms (this is a general phenomenon that is not limited to political life).
Competition among the 1% could be a destabilizing force - "In recent years our economy has become more 'winner take all'. When success is defined as being the next Zuckerberg, almost everyone will fail. And slowing growth means that jobs like tenured professorships are also in shorter supply. A recipe for rebellion?"
Smart, ambitious young people are told to compete ever harder for the plum spots, even as their efforts have a smaller chance of paying off. The danger is that eventually all the frustrated aspirants decide that the system itself is the problem, and seek to overthrow it. Over-competition is especially dangerous when combined with another factor: slowing growth. A long period of prosperity -- such as that from 1985 to 2008 – can create high expectations that leave a bitter taste in young people’s mouths when dashed by a slowdown.

How can the U.S. reverse the trend toward elite over-competition? Increasing the number of elite positions is very difficult. Instead, adjust expectations. Taxing inheritances heavily would reduce the number of young people who feel entitled to great wealth. Reducing the number of PhDs would mean fewer disappointed scholars who fail to achieve tenure track. And wealth taxes on the greatest fortunes can lower expectations to more reasonable levels, making people with $10 million feel rich again.

Turchin believes that low inequality helps explain why the unrest of the 1960s and 1970s was ultimately mild and didn’t threaten the integrity of the nation. It’s too late for the U.S. to avoid the current period of turmoil, but by leveling the playing field and changing expectations, it can get an early start on minimizing the next one.
"The underlying contention is that, in a State so wealthy as the United Kingdom, every citizen should have full means of earning by socially useful labour so much material support as experience proves to be the necessary basis of a healthy, civilized existence. And if in the actual working of the industrial system the means are not in actual fact sufficiently available he is held to have a claim not as of charity but as of right on the national resources to make good the deficiency." --L. T. Hobhouse, Liberalism, 1911

also btw...
  • This is a really interesting paper - "Price controls can be optimal in a high inequality environment, so if you like the efficiency of market allocation, you better support massive redistribution."
  • The Pandemic Proved That Cash Payments Work - "An extra $600 a week buys freedom from fear."
  • Trump Would Like to See You Now - "Workers are kept on edge — and willing to accept whatever wage is on offer — by the threat of immiseration. This, for politicians who back both big business and existing social relations, is a feature and not a bug of our economic system, since insecurity and desperation keep power in the hands of capital and its allies. Even something as modest as expanded unemployment benefits is a threat to that arrangement, as they give workers the power to say no to work they do not want."
  • Do Economists Actually Know What Money Is? - "For economists, what has just occurred is an efficient transaction. Each person has been made 'better off'. The person who tosses the life preserver gets paid, and the drowning man gets saved, by paying someone to toss a life preserver. Everyone is happy. Of course, in reality, you have extracted a person's entire wealth from them by threatening to let them die, and callously refused to engage in the most basic of moral human behaviors unless you get paid for it. You have acted like a total sociopath. (Or, in other words, like an economist.)"[2]
A Theory of History and Society: Technology, Constraints and Measurement - "Markets are good for the multi-year measurement problem of capital but terrible for the much longer timescale — one of attention... on topics such as pandemic disease or the climate crisis."
In my book World After Capital,[3] I propose a theory of history in which technology changes the binding constraint for humanity. After hundreds of thousands of years of the Forager Age, constrained by the availability of food in the natural environment, humanity invented agriculture. With that set of technologies (planting, irrigation, domestication of animals, etc.), invented roughly 10,000 years ago, the constraint shifted from food to land in what became the Agrarian Age. Then only a couple hundred years ago a series of new technologies (steam, electricity, chemistry, mining, etc.) shifted the constraint again, away from land to capital. By capital I mean the physical capital of the Industrial Age, such as factories, buildings, and roads. More recently with the advent of digital technology (computers, packet-switched networks) the constraint has shifted yet again, away from capital to attention.

In the book I note that each of the two prior transitions came with dramatic changes to how humanity lives. In the transition from the Forager Age to the Agrarian Age we went from being nomadic to sedentary, from flat tribal societies to extremely hierarchical feudal societies, from promiscuity to monogamy, from animistic religions to theistic ones. In the transition from the Agrarian Age to the Industrial Age we went from living in the country to living in the city, from large extended families to nuclear families or no family at all, from commons to private property (including private intellectual property) and from great-chain-of-being theologies to the Protestant work ethic. I then go on to make the argument that we need a similarly dramatic set of changes to get from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Age, which explains why the incrementalist changes pursued in most developed societies have fallen far short. I then propose three increases to freedom — economic, informational and psychological — to help us with the adjustment that’s needed.

I have been happy with this characterization of the role of technology in human affairs. Big technological shifts change the binding constraint on humanity, which results in large scale reorganization of how humans live. What I have been struggling with is to what degree we can understand the features of those reorganizations. While they make a lot of sense ex-post, we are now finding ourselves in the midst of one and would therefore ideally learn from history. This is particularly important for two reasons. First, in the past transitions we often wandered in the dark for long periods before finding a successful model (those periods were often marked by extreme violence through revolutions, wars as well as mass death from disease and starvation). Second, in the current transition we don’t have a lot of time as we are faced with the ever accelerating climate crisis.


So far we have seen how the prior shifts from food to land and then from land to capital corresponded to massive increases in the difficulty of the measurement problem. We went from nearly immediate measurement (Forager Age) to yearly (Agrarian Age) to multi-year (Industrial Age). This brings us to the current transition from capital to attention as the binding constraint.

While I don’t claim to know what the features of successful Knowledge Age societies will be, it is clear now that the measurement problem for attention exists on a decadal or potentially even hundred year scale. Take the current coronavirus pandemic. The last prior pandemic of similar scale, including economic impact, was the Spanish Flu about one hundred years ago. So as a society you may only find out if you have paid enough attention to pandemic preparedness every hundred years. It gets even worse when you think about a big asteroid strike on earth. Those happen roughly every million of years.

This is also true from the perspective of the individual. If you commit your attention to some artistic endeavor or research program. When will you know if your attention was well spent? Often not within your own lifetime. Some art that we today recognize as magnificent as well as science which we regard as transformative was dismissed, considered fringe or even actively fought for decades. And conversely, much of what was popular in the moment has not withstood the test of time. The allocation of attention cannot and therefore should not take place on the basis of near term measurement.
posted by kliuless (20 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, hey, it's Peter Turchin! Ages of Discord is an excellent book, and it explains a lot about the world we now live in.
posted by Quackles at 1:23 AM on July 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

from the previously (2012) link: "By analysing some of the broad social forces that shape transformative events in US society: historical records on economic activity, demographic trends and outbursts of violence, he has come to the conclusion that a new wave of internal strife is already on its way, and should peak around 2020." :P
posted by kliuless at 1:49 AM on July 11, 2020 [6 favorites]

i mean i've never read turchin and i tend to see everything through a particular lens, but here are a couple of hasty thoughts:

1: technological determinism ("I propose a theory of history in which technology changes the binding constraint for humanity. After hundreds of thousands of years of the Forager Age, constrained by the availability of food in the natural environment, humanity invented agriculture.") is an old-fashioned idea that lacks explanatory utility. and i'm not saying this because old-fashioned things are necessarily bad or because i'm a science and technology studies trendoid. i'm saying it because there's certain insights from sts that it would behoove us very much indeed to internalize — chief of them being that technology doesn't emerge in a vacuum.

like, we're not playing a sid meier game. technologies don't fall from the sky when we've accumulated a certain number of science points or whatever. technologies are developed within and by extant systems, and for a technology to get developed within a society and become successful within a society it must serve in some way the interests of some bloc within the society. sometimes after that technology has been widely deployed to meet the needs of some extant bloc, new groups can array themselves about it and thereby through a (oh shit he's gonna drop the d-word) through a dialectical process large and disruptive societal shifts occur. but the initial development of a technology needs an already-extant group interested in developing it.

2: speaking in terms of abstract economics and grand metanarratives about political-economy can blind us to the significance of contingent events. we're going to pivot away from abstract economics and grand metanarratives and pivot to the contingent material preconditions for revolt.

one of the social rules that i've set for myself is that i strive to never be the first person in any conversation to mention the russian revolution, because (quite rationally) i don't want to be one of those dudes who never ever ever talks about anything but the russian revolution. but — and here i tab over to verify — whoops looks like the magic numbers 1905 and 1917 appear right there in the first link.

so strap in comrades, we're gonna talk about the russian revolution.

of course, we are responsible people, and we are working in the relatively loose medium of the longform reply. and so we're going to stop off in paris first, and look at the timeframe from 1789 to 9 thermidor year ii. throughout the period 1789-year ii, we see the revolution shaped and steered, from lafayette all the way on down to robespierre, by various elite liberal bourgeois lawyers and elite liberal-minded aristocrats. but none of these elite liberals could have secured a revolution without the imprimatur granted them by the non-elite (and largely indifferent to liberalism) sans culotte rabble who flooded the streets of paris when they didn't in some way get their way. let us define the sans culottes, the people who'd starve and die if they didn't revolt, the people with skin in the game, as the genuine revolutionaries, and the elites whose names we know as a particular sort of opportunist counterrevolutionary — the sort who understand that through doing whatever's necessary to position themselves as leaders of the revolution they can become the unquestioned new elites of whatever new unequal society ultimately arises.

when we talk about "inequality" in the abstract, we miss the actual material conditions of revolution: there needs to be a whole lot of folks who understand that they are fucked real hard if they don't get real rowdy real fast. and in some way these real rowdy folks need access to the means of organized violence, or at least a genuine threat of organized violence. if the extant elites have guns and you don't — and if you can't get the elite's pet military to turn their guns around and point them at the real enemy — it doesn't matter how fucked by inequality most people are. [if we were doing the full tour, this is where we'd stop off in paris 1871 and santiago 1973]

okay, so, now that we've laid the groundwork, let's finally visit early-20th-century st. petersburg. in 1905, in the dress rehearsal revolution, there were a whole bunch of non-elite groups in russia who were all pretty fucked by inequality — the dispossessed peasants, the intensely exploited industrial working class (who were small in numbers, but geographically well-positioned to physically threaten the ruling classes) and (especially) the soldiers and sailors who had just spent a fair bit of time under orders to go off to the far east to die for no damn reason in the service of a distant war that no non-elite in european russia particularly cared about. but the time wasn't quite ripe; the st. pete soviet and the revolutionary sailors who liberated their battleships weren't quite organized enough to survive the state's overwhelmingly violent response.

and now finally we turn to 1917. the romanov state in 1917 was even weaker and even more moronic than they were in 1905 — like, by 1917 the ruling class were not just vapid and out of touch but were in fact trump-level dumb.

in 1905 the urban working class were only starting to become aware of their potential power. by 1917 the urban working class had gotten much more practiced in the arts of organized revolt.

in 1905 the threat to the military rank-and-file was relatively abstract and (all things considered) relatively non-intense. in 1917, though, the threat was as immediate as possible and as massive as possible. st. petersburg was positively crawling with soldiers, and all of those soldiers knew precisely what was going to happen to them in the very near future if they didn't mutiny. what would happen was they'd be packed up into train cars. and the trains would carry them 85 miles west. and they'd be put in a stinking cold wet ditch full of shit and lice and rats. and for a little while they'd stay in that stinking cold wet ditch full of shit and lice and rats starving and shaking and developing trench foot and a thousand other gruesome ailments. and then after that little while in the stinking cold wet ditch they'd be given mediocre arms and told to go run at a bunch of germans who would shoot them to death with rifles and machine guns.

they had the following options: they could go do that, or they could join the petrograd soviet of workers' and soldier's deputies, point their guns at the real enemy, and, uh, not die messily on the eastern front for no good reason.

we see here the conditions for revolution. inequality isn't a condition for revolution. elite competition isn't a condition for revolution. if you want to throw a revolution, if you want to throw a great big whopping revolution that will (for better or for worse) shape the course of the following century, what you need is the following:
  • you need an out-of-touch and just blistering stupid ruling class.
  • you need a bunch of people who are going to die of starvation and exposure and war and disease if they don't take down that blisteringly stupid and out-of-touch ruling class.
  • those people who will suffer starvation and exposure and war and disease need access to the means of violence.
  • those people who will suffer starvation and exposure and war and disease need to be in some way or another practiced in organizing themselves, as soldiers or as unionists or as gangs.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:11 AM on July 11, 2020 [29 favorites]

footnote: here is where you, hand-wringing liberal, say things about the difference between february and october and say that february was grand but october was terrible, and here is where i observe that kerensky's provisional government, that pack of dummies, kept sending soldiers to the eastern front to die in a hole in the ground.

posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:27 AM on July 11, 2020 [6 favorites]

oh, something i forgot to mention, and i'm quite embarrassed indeed that i forgot to mention it: in the russian empire of the early 20th century, people from ethnic, racial, and national minorities were particularly exposed to intolerable oppression and state violence, and these people were instrumental in leading both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. so we can add "marginalized/racialized people exposed to especially severe exploitation and state violence" to our list of preconditions for a successful revolt.

okay, now i'll stop talking about the russian revolution.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:51 AM on July 11, 2020 [7 favorites]

I am fascinated by comparing Taiwan to mainland China. One country has a very large and growing split between the rich and the poor and the other has a much more equal distribution of wealth and income. Interestingly, it is the capitalist Taiwan that is the more egalitarian society.

My understanding of the 'elites' comes from The Dictator's Handbook which includes lots of examples of elite groups controlling access to power, and therefore money, with examples from many countries and even US towns.

This book emphasizes that the cultural expectations in democracies tend to dampen the capability of elites to grab centralized power and to control access to resources among their supporters (which is generally thought of as 'corruption' in democracies). To overcome this, the elites have to undo these democratic ideals and institutions--something we are seeing more and more of in the US lately (and something we are starting to see people revolt against).

So, in my opinion, it is not a competition among elites, at least in the US. It is a competition of the elites vs democratic institutions and culture that has put us where we are today.
posted by eye of newt at 10:14 AM on July 11, 2020 [4 favorites]

What a wonderful FPP!
posted by infini at 11:05 AM on July 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

The danger is that eventually all the frustrated aspirants decide that the system itself is the problem, and seek to overthrow it.

I mean you can call it "danger". Others might call it "possibility", or even "hope".
posted by lollusc at 11:29 PM on July 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

I wish he had way more data - more anecdotes showing what he means - I mean commenters in his post are making great points that elites are barely competing at all, with monopoly and oligopoly and the same small number of banks funding every elite.

He seems to consider the number of elite positions to be fixed, but that's not really true once you filter down to state government, and to city government.

In fact a twitter person I follow made a great point that instead of us holding elites accountable, they instead create another group (this particular example was for municipal government) who specialize on the *important issue* but ultimately are unable to cross group boundaries, and therefore ultimately accomplish nothing. Other than the creation of more 'pseudo-elites' (who are then able to filter up) and less actual accountability.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:55 AM on July 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

elites in the bourdieu sense i think:
Since this elite has an interest in preserving the status quo, it also has every incentive to reinforce cultural maps, rules, and taxonomies. Or, to put it another way, an elite stays in power over time not just by controlling resources, or what Bourdieu described as "economic capital" (money), but also by amassing "cultural capital" (symbols associated with power). When they amass this cultural capital, this helps to make the status of the elite seem natural and inevitable. The wealthy French pupils at Bourdieu's boarding school, for example, exuded a "natural" sense of authority and power by wrapping themselves in dozens of tiny, subtle cultural signals, which nonelite people such as Bourdieu lacked.
speaking of the "significance of contingent events..."
@adam_tooze: "We thought politics of COVID lockdowns were difficult. It took 2 weeks for results to show. If we halted economy & ZEROed CO2 emissions now, it would not be before 2033 that global warming slowed. Tough annual 5% cut shows no effects until 2044."
posted by kliuless at 2:56 PM on July 12, 2020

oh and re: "technology doesn't emerge in a vacuum," here are wenger's tech tuesday posts :P

also btw, @johncarlosbaez on applied category theory!

then, on long-term attention:
Where is this going? Nobody knows yet. Jordan started by trying to understand and generalize quantum mechanics. But his algebras are also connected to the geometry of spacetime, and generalizations of that!

These mathematical ideas springing from physics could be clues leading us to better theories. Or, they could be leading us down to dead ends. By now, I doubt I'll ever know.

The world offers us many mysteries; only a few will be solved during our lifetime.
inequality isn't a condition for revolution. elite competition isn't a condition for revolution... people from ethnic, racial, and national minorities were particularly exposed to intolerable oppression and state violence, and these people were instrumental in leading both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions.

like for ethics in elite AIs...
DeepMind researchers propose rebuilding the AI industry on a base of anticolonialism - "The researchers detailed how to build AI systems while critically examining colonialism and colonial forms of AI already in use in a preprint paper released Thursday. The paper was coauthored by DeepMind research scientists William Isaac and Shakir Mohammed and Marie-Therese Png, an Oxford doctoral student and DeepMind Ethics and Society intern who previously provided tech advice to the United Nations Secretary General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation."
The researchers posit that power is at the heart of ethics debates and that conversations about power are incomplete if they do not include historical context and recognize the structural legacy of colonialism that continues to inform power dynamics today. They further argue that inequities like racial capitalism, class inequality, and heteronormative patriarchy have roots in colonialism and that we need to recognize these power dynamics when designing AI systems to avoid perpetuating such harms.

“Any commitment to building the responsible and beneficial AI of the future ties us to the hierarchies, philosophy, and technology inherited from the past, and a renewed responsibility to the technology of the present,” the paper reads. “This is needed in order to better align our research and technology development with established and emerging ethical principles and regulation, and to empower vulnerable peoples who, so often, bear the brunt of negative impacts of innovation and scientific progress.”

The paper incorporates a range of suggestions, such as analyzing data colonialism and decolonization of data relationships and employing the critical technical approach to AI development Philip Agre proposed in 1997.

The notion of anticolonial AI builds on a growing body of AI research that stresses the importance of including feedback from people most impacted by AI systems. An article released in Nature earlier this week argues that the AI community must ask how systems shift power and asserts that “an indifferent field serves the powerful.” VentureBeat explored how power shapes AI ethics in a special issue last fall. Power dynamics were also a main topic of discussion at the ACM FAccT conference held in early 2020 as more businesses and national governments consider how to put AI ethics principles into practice.
on the notion "code is law" ;)
posted by kliuless at 4:32 PM on July 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

let us define the sans culottes, the people who'd starve and die if they didn't revolt, the people with skin in the game, as the genuine revolutionaries, and the elites whose names we know as a particular sort of opportunist counterrevolutionary — the sort who understand that through doing whatever's necessary to position themselves as leaders of the revolution they can become the unquestioned new elites of whatever new unequal society ultimately arises.

You can of course define things how you like but is it not also true that pre-modern Europe was rife with periodic furious revolt, usually over the most basic necessity of life: food, and that the complete lack of elite participation in these revolts meant that they did not in fact lead to revolutions? The starvation faced by the sans culottes wasn't even particularly extreme by the standards of the preceding centuries so why did this revolt lead to a revolution while others led to rioting and localised anti-elite violence but not to a revolutionary overthrow of the system?

There was a common pattern to these disruptions which was that, just as you say, people who knew that if they did not take violent action immediately rose up en masse. In some cases this led to a complete breakdown in civil order over a substantial geographic area and period of time.

However in the absence of some sort of revolutionary elite, this violence and chaos eventually burned itself out and gradually the traditional elites re-asserted their power. Sometimes making purely local and material concessions but always in the same basic structure.

The German state also basically devolved into chaos at the end of the war and re-organised itself into a bourgeois state with less of a role for military aristocracy and more of a role for the urban bourgeoisie but this was a difference of proportional power rather than a complete re-organisation.

Some would argue that in the absence of an organised counter-elite in Russia at the time, the outcome would have been similar. Localised chaos and disorder eventually settling down into a structurally similar society with change mostly at the top.

Were it not for Kerensky's and Milyukov's foolish decision to continue fighting the war (when not fighting it was basically what the soldiers most wanted) I do think that the October revolution would not have happened. You can look at that in a few different ways:

1) It shows that the elite vs counter-elite argument doesn't work. The soldiers and workers ultimately rejected the counter elite of Kerensky.

2) You can consider the Bolsheviks as a counter-elite as well, it can hardly be ignored that their leadership was made up of minor nobility, and this was actually a three-way fight between elite groups over who could best mobilise the populace behind them. Having made the error of backing the war, Kerensky lost that content to the Bolsheviks.
posted by atrazine at 5:19 AM on July 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Also, since Turchin was referenced here, it is worth considering the model for state instability that he (following Goldstone) developed.

It has three key inputs:
-Immiseration of the general population
-Intraelite competition pressures
-Trust in state institutions

So his thinking at least is absolutely not just about the role of elites but about what happens when the masses recognise their lives are getting worse, a fraction of elites is deeply unsatisfied with the current system, and trust in the state is low.
posted by atrazine at 6:32 AM on July 13, 2020

-Trust in state institutions

Do we have low trust is state and federal institutions? I would say the riots have proven inconclusive at best - the rioters and protesters have trust that the government is not going to just shoot every single one of them. All while the counter-protesters (as publicly evidenced by Tom Cotton's letter but easy to find personal anecdotes as well) are asking the federal government to shoot protestors, with the unstated assumption that they will only shoot the bad protesters (ie: the ones not on their side). So IMO, each is showing evidence of high trust in their federal government.

Of course, they are protesting in the first place, so all is not well. But it's apparently not insurmountable.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:37 AM on July 13, 2020

Anne Applebaum: how my old friends paved the way for Trump and Brexit - "It's a war of one part of the elite against another part of the elite, she says."
She is as wary of the commonplace view that supporters of Trump, say, are conformists, who have been brainwashed online or by Fox News. They may be now in some part, but brainwashing does not explain how populist movements begin. Their leaders weren’t from small towns full of abandoned shops and drug-ridden streets. They were metropolitans, with degrees from Oxford in the case of Johnson and Dominic Cummings. The men and women Applebaum knew were not loyal drones but filled with a dark restlessness. They may pose as the tribunes of the common people now but they were members of the intellectual and educated elite willing to launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite.

Populist activists are outsiders only in that they feel insufficiently rewarded. And their opponents should never underestimate what their self-pitying vanity can make them do.

One of Applebaum’s closest Polish friends, the godmother of one of her children, and a guest at the 1999 party, provided her with the most striking example. She moved from being a comfortable but obscure figure to become a celebrated Warsaw hostess and a confidante to Poland’s new rulers. She signalled her break and opened her prospects for advancement with a call to Applebaum within days of the Smolensk air crash of April 2010. She let her know she was adopting a conspiracy theory that would make future friendship impossible.

Outsiders need to take a deep breath before trying to understand it. Among the dead was Lech Kaczyński, the president of Poland, who controlled the rightwing populist party Law and Justice with his twin brother, Jarosław Kaczyński. The party has grown to dominate Polish politics, and the supposedly independent courts, media and civil service. The flight recorder showed that the pilot had come in too low in thick fog, and that was an end to it. Jarosław Kaczyński and his underlings insist that the Russians were behind the crash, or that political rivals in Warsaw, including Applebaum’s husband, allowed the president to fly in a faulty plane, or that it was an assassination. Repeating the lie was the price of admission to Law and Justice’s ruling circles and the public sector jobs they controlled. As Applebaum noted in the Atlantic magazine: “Sometimes the point isn’t to make people believe a lie – it’s to make people fear the liar.” Acknowledge the liar’s power, and your career takes off without the need to pass exams or to display an elementary level of competence.


Among her friends who became the servants of authoritarian movements, Applebaum sees the consequences of the lust for status among resentful men and women, who believe the old world never gave them their due.

They were privileged by normal standards but nowhere near as privileged as they expected to be. Talking to Applebaum, I imagined a British government abolishing press freedom and the independence of the judiciary and the civil service. I didn’t doubt for a moment that there would be thousands of mediocre journalists, broadcasters, lawyers and administrators who would happily work for the new regime if it pandered to their vanity by giving them the jobs they could never have taken on merit. Hannah Arendt wrote of the communists and fascists that they replaced “first-rate talents” with “crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity” was the best guarantee of their loyalty. She might have been talking about contemporary Poland, Britain and America.

“Given the right conditions any society can turn against democracy,” Applebaum says, and explains why better than any modern writer I know. To the political consequences of offended vanity – Why am I not more important? Why does the BBC never call? – a sense of despair is vital. If you believe, like the American right, that godless enemies want to destroy your Christian country, and prove their malice by not giving you the rewards you deserve, or think, like Scruton and the Telegraph crowd of the 1990s, that English culture and history is being thrown in the bin, and you are being chucked away with it, or agree with the supporters of the new tyrants of eastern Europe that a liberal elite is plotting to extinguish your culture by importing Muslim immigrants, and proving its contempt for all that is decent by laughing at you, then any swine will do as long as the swine can stop it. You will pay any price and abandon any principle in the struggle against a demonic enemy.
posted by kliuless at 12:24 PM on July 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

1) It shows that the elite vs counter-elite argument doesn't work. The soldiers and workers ultimately rejected the counter elite of Kerensky.

2) You can consider the Bolsheviks as a counter-elite as well, it can hardly be ignored that their leadership was made up of minor nobility, and this was actually a three-way fight between elite groups over who could best mobilise the populace behind them. Having made the error of backing the war, Kerensky lost that content to the Bolsheviks.

oh, absolutely the bolsheviks were an opportunist counter-elite, and a particularly nasty one. though if we take that side-trip to paris 1871 we can begin to understand their motivations, and even begin to understand their more extreme acts (kronstadt and the betrayal of nestor makhno as the most glaring examples here).

a problem we have as people trying to figure out what the hell has happened at revolutionary moments is that it's nearly impossible to avoid an implicit (or, in many cases, explicit) elite bias, simply because we know who the elites are. that's why i'm reflexively "o rly?" whenever anyone proposes a model for revolutionary change that centers the people whose names we know and the classes from which those named people come, and i'm doubly "o rly?" when academics frame the sweep of history in terms that privilege, in one way or another, people from the academic classes.

this is where i confess that i've got a hazy dream of founding a political journal titled "blanquist," which would position itself as a self-consciously criminal response to the writings of the jacobin crew.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 3:06 PM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Covid Conversations With One of America's Richest Men - "How a pandemic unfolds when you're a Wall Street billionaire."
Wall Street holds sway over millions of American workers. Private equity firms buy up companies and exercise control over their employees. Activist investors buy up stakes in companies and can push them to cut staff. Alternative funds help determine the fate of corporations by owning their debt or lending to them directly. I wondered if the carnage might present opportunities for my billionaire to profit. It would, he told me. But what he seemed to crave right then was a return to the economic reality he’d known before.

“The person who explained this best to me is my contractor,” he said, referring to a man who was building a house for him. “I say to him, ‘Hey, what are you going to do if we have this lockdown? How long do you think we won’t be able to build for?’

“He looks at me like, ‘What, are you talking to me?… If you’re willing to pay us, we’re willing to show up.’

“I said, ‘Aren’t you worried?’

“He said, ‘I don’t have money in the bank like you. If I ain’t working, my family ain’t eating, and then my mortgage ain’t getting paid. Can I take two weeks off? Sure. But anything more than that? No.’

“I said, ‘OK, I don’t care. If you guys want to show up, I’ll pay you.’

“He looked at me: ‘Hey, big guy, this is America.’ ”

The billionaire stopped his story and addressed me directly. “How would you like it if you didn’t get paid?” he asked.


So none of this was about frustration with the system itself—with tax cuts that favor the rich, government bailouts for big corporations, or the decline of the social safety net? “I’m sorry,” he said. “Nobody’s worried about the system. They’re mad about what’s happening in their life.”


“If you don’t like the system, I have no qualms. You want to break the system? Then you’d better be in charge.” His words rang in my ears.

Three months earlier, when my billionaire had picked up my first phone call, the global financial system had been buckling under the threat of a pandemic. Now the financial system had roared back—vindication, of a sort, for one of its biggest winners, who didn’t see any need for it to change fundamentally. For most everyone else, there would be consequences. About 17 million more Americans were on track to become food insecure in 2020, bringing the total to 54 million. White-collar workers who’d lost their jobs were facing fewer open positions and the prospect of lower pay if they landed one.

Those failures weren’t independent of the reasons people were packing streets and bridges. The protesters were demanding that American systems that had let them down be reshaped—systems marked by racism and other forms of inequality that exclude some and privilege others. Their demands might start with policing, but they didn’t end there.

My billionaire had in mind something more incremental: replacing bad sheriffs, police chiefs, and other officials, rather than radically transforming or abolishing the infrastructure they oversee. “It’s easy to change the system—it really is. It’s never hard to change the system. We have a way of going about that,” he said.

“You want to change the system? I get that. You want to break the system? You better win. Because, if you don’t, the system is going to break you.”
The Deficit Myth: A Review - "Capitalists, he wrote, disliked what we now call MMT because it weakened their power. If governments can use fiscal policy to maintain full employment, they don't need to maintain business confidence and so 'this powerful controlling device loses its effectiveness.'"
posted by kliuless at 11:06 PM on July 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

I pooh-poohed this thread until reading the Anne Applebaum profile in Guardian Books (already linked up-post) as well as the McMafia adaptation on iPlayer.

A draft I wrote (that didn't get posted) said that disaffected people losing out on default privilege motivate some of the voters who go for populist stances -- but the opportunist elites exploiting that cohort are exactly people losing out on their default privilege. I've never felt more of a pawn...
posted by k3ninho at 6:18 AM on July 17, 2020

Mathematician predicted violent upheaval in 2020 all the way back in 2012 - "In 2012, University of Connecticut ecologist, evolutionary biologist and mathematician Peter Turchin made a bold prediction: The United States was on track for a chaotic, violent 2020. Well, here we are..." (via)
posted by kliuless at 3:33 AM on July 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

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