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This post, I am warning at the outset, is something of a “rambling wreck.” The themes I will try to tie together require the in-depth analysis of several books to be fully demonstrated. But they have been coalescing in my mind based on past reading, current reading, current events, and Ricochet posts and comments.
Hypothesis: George Orwell pre-figured post-modernism, Peter Turchin’s cliodynamics explains the oscillation of state integration and disintegration and why it is (normally) beyond anyone’s control, and Orwell explains how post-modernism will (if allowed to) disengage cliodynamic oscillation and freeze us in a permanent state of tyranny.
What is post-modernism and how did George Orwell pre-figure it? Post-modernism rejects objective reality. Reality is invented, not discovered. We are all locked in our own brains, so how can anyone objectively measure reality, dependent as we are on senses that inform us but whose accuracy cannot be measured by the brain (dependent as it is)? Arguably if we were networked with many (all?) other brains and senses we could approach objective reality. But we aren’t. Our senses tell us we are in communication with other brains, but it is hard to “checksum” the data flowing from human communication. When we realize this, we realize that nothing is solid and our mind cannot get a grip on anything permanent and reliable.
George Orwell, in his dystopian novel 1984, described a methodology employed by The Party to make everyone give up their minds to the State or, failing that, to be extinguished. Individuals were put into tension by confronting the isolating truth that they could not trust their own minds and therefore chose to give their minds up as a means of relieving that tension. The State first makes the mind chaotic then offers you comforting order.
In their 2020 book, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay set out the history of post-modernism in academia, and expose it for the intellectual dead end that it is. Post-modernism’s own conclusions deny the truth of its conclusions: if reality is invented by each of us constantly, then how can you educate anyone in a manner that gives them tools to navigate the world? If post-modernism is true, academics would have nothing to research, nothing to teach. Cooperation would be impossible. Life would end quickly.
And yet, as Pluckrose and Lindsay document, post-modernism found a way to make a compromise with itself and transcend word games and intellectual mischief and morphed into truly destructive things — critical theories of race, gender, and identity — that leapt out of the academy through its utility to political activism and has now become embedded in the culture. Somehow, illogically but cleverly, it has married no objective reality to certainty about oppression! Any challenge to their perceived reality, is proof of oppression. “My philosophy is ‘nothing can be objectively known,’ but my feeling makes it true. More importantly, your feelings cannot make it untrue.” We have been on the path to making everyone’s minds chaotic. Or, failing that, to extinguish those whose minds are not chaotic.
So now let’s shift to Peter Turchin’s cliodynamics:
I have been contending with Peter Turchin’s new book, End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration. As I was reading (actually listening) I found things with which I agreed, things that I did not understand well, and things that made me wonder what his biases might be. In the end, I saw his personal preferences for a society (which is a form of bias) as not really playing a part in his conclusions. That is, if he is in error, it is fundamental — data modeling can not do what he wants it to do — rather than that his particular data selection, affected by bias, does not support reality.
But enough of what he said aligns with my own conclusions about life, that I think he may be on to something.
OK, so far, I haven’t really said what his book is about. I don’t think I can do a better high-level summary than the Amazon page for the book:
From the pioneering co-founder of cliodynamics, the groundbreaking new interdisciplinary science of history, a big-picture explanation for America’s civil strife and its possible endgames
Peter Turchin, one of the most interesting social scientists of our age, has infused the study of history with approaches and insights from other fields for more than a quarter century. End Times is the culmination of his work to understand what causes political communities to cohere and what causes them to fall apart, as applied to the current turmoil within the United States.
Back in 2010, when Nature magazine asked leading scientists to provide a ten-year forecast, Turchin used his models to predict that America was in a spiral of social disintegration that would lead to a breakdown in the political order circa 2020. The years since have proved his prediction more and more accurate, and End Times reveals why.
The lessons of world history are clear, Turchin argues: When the equilibrium between ruling elites and the majority tips too far in favor of elites, political instability is all but inevitable. As income inequality surges and prosperity flows disproportionately into the hands of the elites, the common people suffer, and society-wide efforts to become an elite grow ever more frenzied. He calls this process the wealth pump; it’s a world of the damned and the saved. And since the number of such positions remains relatively fixed, the overproduction of elites inevitably leads to frustrated elite aspirants, who harness popular resentment to turn against the established order. Turchin’s models show that when this state has been reached, societies become locked in a death spiral it’s very hard to exit.
In America, the wealth pump has been operating full blast for two generations. As cliodynamics shows us, our current cycle of elite overproduction and popular immiseration is far along the path to violent political rupture. That is only one possible end time, and the choice is up to us, but the hour grows late.
As I understand it, Turchin’s model basically tracks the interrelationship of four phenomena: the growth or contraction of the elite in a society, growth or contraction of wealth held by the societal majority, transfers of wealth from the majority to the elite (“the wealth pump”), and evidence of societal integration or disintegration. He expressly rejects the “Great Man theory” and believes that events make the man, not man the events. Thus, for example, Turchin believes President Trump seized the moment, he didn’t make the moment.
“Elite” is a common but not well-defined description. It most closely, but not exclusively, lines up with wealth. It is the holders of power in a society. The pathway to elite status is usually through business, finance, the military, law enforcement, regulatory agencies, politics, media, academia, and/or religious institutions. But a “path to” is not a “promise of”; therefore, not everyone who pursues elite status makes it, and this is one of two sources (according to Turchin) of societal disintegration: elite overproduction and popular immiseration. That is, the economic forces that lead to elite overproduction are the same factors that make life worse for the common folk, and disappointed elite aspirants turn their energies away from pursuing elite status to leading the common folk into action against the incumbent elites. Turchin sees an oscillation (he hates the word “cycle”) in economic forces where capital harnesses labor to produce wealth, the wealth expands the number of elites, elites overproduce while labor gets a smaller share of the current economic pie, failed elites incite societal disintegration, disintegration literally “bleeds off” elite overproduction through conflicts, and the oscillation toward integration and economic well-being begins again. Turchin believes the data supports a general oscillation period of 100 years, which describes general conditions and predicts integration or disintegration, but precise prediction of the timing and nature of conflict is not possible.
This lack of precision does not make his model useless. And, as Turchin states, it represents an opportunity because it means that if we understand the phenomena, we can take steps to ameliorate outcomes. He points to some examples where he believes that the elites staved off disintegration by voluntarily modifying the level of wealth transfer between the common folk and the elites. This phenomena brought to mind some employee training I underwent in the 1990s, where we played the “win-win” game. The game winners are the individuals/teams that take the most money, either from the “bank” or each other. The game ends when the “bank” is depleted. Early on, it was evident to everyone that the optimum strategy was for everyone to cooperate to take money from the bank and not each other. But it was also evident that once this was understood, individuals would take advantage of both their teammates and the bank. The game is designed such that when you have individual “winners,” your team is doomed to lose to other teams.
When I played the game, I discovered that in addition to the two poles — big win, big loss — there was a third way: win bigger against your team members early and then let others start to catch up. This strategy, while not optimizing the outcome, was the second-best scoring outcome for the team while maintaining an individual advantage. And, if played correctly, this strategy could defeat other teams who were similarly affected by internal competition. The advantage of this strategy was that it better corresponded with real-life incentive structures. Pure communism is great with robots and automatons, but real people have varying needs and interests. And yet the “win-win” game was designed to make pure communism the optimum strategy. But hidden within the game structure was an alternative: distribute outcomes unevenly but within limits.
And this is what Turchin’s model seems to be telling us. Don’t be greedy, but allow producers to reap the rewards of their productive capability. Don’t oversell expectations about the “path to” elite status — income earnable by the credentialed versus the skilled tradesman. Place limits on inherited wealth. Support wages for labor that avoid popular immiseration. Support progressive taxation or at least avoid regressive taxation.
Now, let’s throw in a recent piece by independent journalist Matt Taibbi. He has a new Substack article out, Campaign 2024: Not Left Versus Right, But Affluent Versus Everyone Else. In it, he highlights a predicted political realignment:
After 2008, when the finance sector bailed itself out and paid for it with the last equity the middle class had saved in their homes, I thought it was only a matter of time before parties broke down and voters re-aligned in the 99%-vs-1% direction the Occupy movement described. We’re here. The phenomenon is obscured by Trumpmania, and the press will try to keep it obscured, but the subtext of Campaign 2024 is already the obvious drift of rich and poor voters in opposite directions, which can’t end well.
American politics has long been a careful truce, in which natural economic tensions were obscured by an elegantly phony two-party structure that kept urban and rural poor separate, nurtured a politically unadventurous middle class, and tended to needs of the mega-rich no matter who won. That system is in collapse. Voters are abandoning traditional blue-red political identities and realigning according to more explosive divisions based on education and income. As the middle class vanishes the replacement endgame emerges. A small pocket of very wealthy and very educated, for whom elections have until now mostly been ceremonial and to whom more fraught realities of the current situation are an annoyance, will move to one side. That’s your “15% strongly approve” group, the Marie Antoinettes who’ll go to the razor pledging loyalty to the regent, even if he’s a loon in a periwig, or Joe Biden. [emphasis added]
Taibbi’s observations accord with Peter Turchin’s. And this isn’t just right-wing alarmism. The Pew Research Center published an article in April 2022, How the American middle class has changed in the past five decades, that documents the phenomena that Turchin labels “popular immiseration.”
But will this lead to conflict that depletes the power of the elites, as Turchin observes in history, or has critical theory given the elites the tools to preserve their power notwithstanding immiseration? In George Orwell’s 1984, the mind control was carried out by The Party. The Party is a good stand-in for Turchin’s “elites.” Taibbi calls out the two-party system as “phony,” and I think he is on to something:
There is an old joke that says if you have one lawyer in town, he makes a middle-class living. But if you have two lawyers in town, they both get rich.
In other words, George Orwell’s vision of the Party can be, and possibly more easily, accomplished through a two-party system so long as both parties are controlled by the elite. If so, Turchin’s oscillations can be ended. Turchin posits that Trump is not the “Great Man” ordering history, but a product of the disintegrative phase. So what better evidence can we have that The Party has found a way out of the Turchin oscillations than if Trump is destroyed and his constituency made into “proles.”
Winston Smith, the main character in 1984, says:
‘If there is hope,’ wrote Winston, ‘it lies in the proles.’
If there was hope, it MUST lie in the proles, because only there in those swarming disregarded masses, 85 per cent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated. The Party could not be overthrown from within. Its enemies, if it had any enemies, had no way of coming together or even of identifying one another. Even if the legendary Brotherhood existed, as just possibly it might, it was inconceivable that its members could ever assemble in larger numbers than twos and threes. Rebellion meant a look in the eyes, an inflexion of the voice, at the most, an occasional whispered word. But the proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength. would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning. Surely sooner or later it must occur to them to do it? And yet——!
Post-modernism harnessed by the elites may not end the oscillations, but it may extend the period of disintegration.Published in