Sunday, November 20, 2016

Radical Progressivism as Intra-Elite Competition

I'm going through the third of Peter Turchin's excellent series of the Structural Demographic theory of societal integration & disintegration.  His main thesis is that three variables complexly interact to produce the disintegrative phase of a secular cycle.

  1. overpopulation
  2. elite overproduction
  3. state fiscal crises.
Elite overproduction is a first order term.  The others are secondary (with a fiscal crises being the straw that breaks the camel's back rather than the deep cause of disintegration).  These lead to three fairly related predictions:

  1. Labour oversupply
  2. Elite overproduction
  3. Instability
In Ages of Discord, his analysis of the United States current foray into societal disintegration, he again stresses the role of elite overproduction as a critical factor.  Competition within this group has lots of negative repercussions.  In this post, I'm simply going to focus on one aspect of this competition; creating a steep fitness gradient to immiserate threshold actors.

Living in Vancouver I was always amazed at the social status marginal elites thought a $5 organic q-tip signalled.  It was quite amazing.  "Well, I only buy cotton from this farm in Nairobi, because they're the only ones I trust to really value their workers".  While this obviously has some very real moral implications, its role as both a virtue signaller and a gauntlet for others is clear.  

Similarly, I wonder if many aspects of social justice dynamics don't reflect the set up of a structural system designed to bifurcate marginal-elite population, heightening the costs of residency.  I'll assume billionaires find such organic sourcing discussions rather boorish - after all if you need to worry about the cost of such things you really aren't near the top.  Its more a behavioural test for aspirants or a quaint "religious-like" pet project for members who are otherwise bored and inclined to moral displays.  Conveniently enough though, minimal expression through a small number of moral agents serves the top class well.  It biases structures to impose high entry & residency costs.  There are lots of necessary but not sufficient markers.  This disproportionately affects marginal aspirants.  It also enables the immiseration of others.

Turchin says it like this
"Low labor costs lead not only to declining living standards for a large segment of the population (especially unskilled ones), but also to a favourable economic conjuncture for the elites.  There are several important consequences of this development.  First, the elites become accustomed to ever greater levels of consumption.  Furthermore, competition for social status fuels "conspicuous consumption".  Thus the minimum level of consumption necessary for maintaining the elite status exhibits runaway growth...Eventually, increasing numbers of elites and elite aspirants will have to translate into declining consumption levels for some, leading to the condition that has been termed elite overproduction.  Intraelite competition for limited elite positions in the economy and government will become more fierce...These "surplus" elites must challenge the established elites for access to elite positions, or acquiesce in downward mobility."

The key is competition.  If you can game others into setting up a competition structure that doesn't really affect you, all the better.  Many aspects of social justice signalling seem to fit this niche.  
  • Immigration - high immigration is closely tied with historic levels of inequality
  • Affirmative action - definitely a plus for minorities (& for societies if not over-extended), but it has a disproportional effect on aspiring elites and near-elites (e.g. a director level position, but not an entry level nor CEO position)
  • Privilege (I just can't justify the societally destructive racist sexist moniker that normally goes with this..) - this sets up structural impediments to marginal elites.  How many billionaires have opportunities limited because of their privilege?  Aspirants, however do.
  • Protesting - Getting arrested tends to disproportionately affect middle class opportunities.  At a high level of elitedom it becomes a badge of honour.
While I certainly might be overextending this analysis, it is interesting to think about the degree to which social justice signalling sets up structures useful for near-elite bifurcation.  While such social justice undoubtably has many good ends, in terms of Turchin's social demographic theory, elite over production is key.  Competition within this group therefore has a more significant role on societal cohesion than what social justice may be attempting.