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Revolutions Occur When a Significant Portion of Elites Defect From the Existing Regime
And why Harvard shouldn't admit more students
“When the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, cooperation between social classes is undermined. But the same process is operating within each class. When some nobles are growing conspicuously more wealthy, while the majority of nobility is increasingly impoverished, the elites become riven with factional conflicts.”
-Peter Turchin (War and Peace and War)
Contrary to widely held opinion, popular discontent is typically insufficient to trigger large-scale conflict or civil war or a revolution.
When the masses want to effectively topple an existing system, they need a Schelling point to rally around—an individual or organization who can resolve the coordination problem of guiding large numbers of people to unify and act collectively.
Typically, a disaffected or aspiring elite individual or group fulfills that role.
In Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction, the sociologist Jack A. Goldstone has written:
“Poverty is generally not associated with revolution…When the American Revolution occurred, American colonists were far better off than European peasants. Even in Europe, the French Revolution of 1789 arose in a country where those peasants were generally better off than the peasants of Russia, where revolution did not occur until more than a hundred years later. This is because poor peasants and workers cannot overthrow the government when faced with professional military forces determined to defend the regime. Revolutions can occur only when significant portions of the elites, and especially in the military, defect or stand aside. Indeed, in most revolutions it is the elites who mobilize the population to help them overthrow the regime.”
To ignite a revolution, poverty or inequality or mistreatment by the existing system may be critical ingredients. But having the right elite aspirant at the right time who is willing to lead the people to challenge the prevailing regime may be more critical. America’s founders, France’s revolutionaries, and Russia’s Marxist-Leninists came along at the right time and had both the drive and ability to cultivate or make use of people’s grievances to topple the existing structure.
Oftentimes, an existing regime attempts to prevent collective action by dismantling threatening organizations, rooting out troublemakers within institutions, or expelling, imprisoning, or eliminating leaders of rebellion movements.
“When we examine societies in the years leading up to a revolution, we find that social relationships have changed. The rulers have become weakened, erratic, or predatory so that many of the elites no longer feel rewarded or supported, and are not inclined to support the regime. Elites are no longer unified but instead have become divided into mutually suspicious and distrusting factions…Many elites and popular groups view the rulers and other elites as unjust; they are drawn to heterodox beliefs or ideologies that make sense of their grievances and offer solutions through social change.”
He goes on:
“If a significant portion of the elites and diverse popular groups form a coalition against the rulers and demand major changes, a revolution has begun. If the military then suffers defections, and is reluctant or unable to overcome the spreading resistance, the revolution will succeed…Elites may hide their growing discord and opposition until they seize the opportunity to act against the regime.”
This is consistent with Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s observations: Revolutionaries who occupy key positions in prominent institutions quietly bide their time, and wait for the right moment to implement their long-awaited plans.
A common mistake is to view elites as a unified block. A group of people who look out for one another. They are not. Elites are constantly trying to get ahead of one another.
One of the more interesting ideas I’ve read about is intra-elite competition, a concept developed by the mathematician and biologist Peter Turchin.
The key idea of intra-elite competition is that competing “elite aspirants” are vying to obtain powerful positions.
Turchin notes that there are more wealthy people today as a proportion of the population, relative to about 30 years ago.
For example, he notes that since 1983 the number of American households worth at least $10 million (in 1995 dollars) has grown from 66,000 to 350,000.
But there are limited powerful positions. Turchin points out there are still only 100 senators and 435 representatives.
Furthermore, money is not necessarily the key to elite status. If you win the Powerball, you do not suddenly join the elite.
Think about the Varsity Blues Scandal. Hollywood stars willing to shell out large sums of money to get their kid into a top college. This suggests that, for elites, money is less important than college brand.
Speaking of elite colleges, here are some interesting figures. The acceptance rate for the Stanford class of 1978 was 31 percent. Today the acceptance rate at Stanford is 4.3 percent.
The acceptance rate for the University of Chicago in 2005 was about 40.3 percent. Today it is about 5.9 percent.
The entryway to elite status is narrower. When there are large numbers of frustrated elite aspirants—what Turchin refers to as “elite overproduction”—intra-elite competition intensifies.
“Moderate intra-elite competition need not be harmful to an orderly and efficient functioning of the society; in fact, it’s usually beneficial because it results in better-qualified candidates being selected. Additionally, competition can help weed out incompetent or corrupt office-holders. However, 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.”
Large numbers of elite aspirants heighten intra-elite competition. As elites retire, spaces become available. Elite aspirants compete for those spots.
But there are always more elite aspirants than powerful positions. This gives rise to frustration among would-be elites.
A great expansion in the numbers of elite aspirants with a narrow pool of powerful positions available means that large numbers of them will experience bitterness.
“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.”
The more ambitious elite aspirants who either do not obtain the positions they desire or do not see a path for themselves to earn positions they desire, become counter-elites. They lead rebellion movements.
Social movements are typically led not by someone from the underclass or the poor, but by second-tier elites. Lenin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Che Guevara, America’s founders, etc. were relatively educated and at least middle-class. They were not nearly the poorest of their societies. Far from it.
Which is why their criticisms of the elite within their societies were so astute. They were, figuratively speaking, close cousins—they saw their flaws up close.
Challenging the elite is often an audition to become a member of the elite.
An article in The Economist, reviewing Turchin’s work, states:
“The French Revolution was not primarily the product of misery but instead of a battle between an underemployed educated class and hereditary landowners. Historians identify ‘the problem of an excess of educated men’ as contributing to Europe’s revolutions of 1848. Mr Turchin suggests that though slavery was the proximate cause of the American civil war, a more fundamental one was resentment from up-and-coming Northern capitalists towards stuck-in-their-ways Southerners.”
Most of us vastly underestimate how much status games between elites determine what happens in the world.
Turchin suggests that when competent and ambitious people today feel they are locked out of socially-accepted positions of success, they are more likely to stir up conflict.
Many have asked why elite colleges don’t expand their number of seats for each cohort.
For example, Harvard could easily double or triple each class size and lose nothing in terms of the quality and talent of its student body. Plus they’d earn more from student tuition, future alumni donations, and so on.
There are many reasons for this, such as keeping the credential scarce to inflate its value.
But it might be good that seats at Harvard are scarce.
If elite colleges tripled their enrollment numbers, there would be more modern-day aristocrats who felt they were not receiving their due. Not in terms of money, but in terms of prominence and prestige.
Some research indicates that for predicting future income, smarts are a more powerful predictor than a name brand degree. That is, if you take two people of equal academic ability but one attends a higher-ranking college, both still, on average, end up earning the same amount of money later on.
However, a name brand degree often cultivates an entitlement complex.
Elite college grads are not any happier than those who attend other schools. And one reason for this is that their aspirations were raised by their alma mater, and their outcomes don’t always meet those expectations.
Turchin suggests that when “nobles” are “impoverished,” then factional conflicts arise. Modern-day “nobles” are not impoverished.
But for subjective feelings of satisfaction, expectations matter.
This is a key lesson from Kahneman, Tversky, Thaler, and other behavioral economists that many smart people either don’t know or have forgotten.
Ten dollars doesn’t always feel the same to the same person.
If you expect to get a dollar, then receiving ten dollars feels great. If you expect fifteen dollars, 10 feels like chump change. Regardless of what your objective material circumstances are.
In her book Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, the sociology professor Lauren A. Rivera reports that graduates of lower-ranked schools who managed to obtain jobs at elite firms were happier than graduates of Harvard, Stanford, etc.
The reason, the book suggests, is that employees from lower-tier colleges had obtained occupations that exceeded their expectations, while elite college grads viewed the job as a way station on their way to bigger and better things.
So if top colleges suddenly expanded their seats, Turchin’s theory predicts more instability and conflict would arise. Even if all graduates were all comfortably upper middle class in terms of their objective material circumstances.
When people talk about money/wealth/income, you can often substitute it with social status (prestige, admiration, esteem) and you will see their true meaning.
What many people (especially aspirational elites) truly care about is not the allocation of material goods, but the distribution of status.
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