How America’s failure is pushing us ‘off the cliff’

Discussion in 'Politics' started by FryDaddyJr, Nov 22, 2020.

  1. FryDaddyJr

    FryDaddyJr Well-Known Member

    As soon as Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election was clear, the question of what lies ahead immediately came to the fore: What do Democrats need to do, not just to help America recover from the profound damage of the Trump presidency, but to address the long-term underlying problems that made it possible in the first place? To help answer that question, I turned to the man who took the measure of those problems in the first place, sociologist and historian Jack Goldstone, whose 1991 book, “Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World,” revolutionized our understanding of revolutions as products of organizational failure in coping with demographic pressures.

    This article first appeared in Salon.

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    Goldstone’s book appeared just as America was celebrating “The End of History,” as announced in a then-famous book by Francis Fukuyama. With the end of the Cold War, everything had supposedly been settled. There would be no more revolutions or ideological struggles. Almost 30 years later, no one thinks that anymore, and the demographic factors Goldstone identified — such as the “youth bulges” associated with the Arab Spring — have become commonplace terms in discussing potential revolutions. Goldstone’s model combined measures of demographically-driven social stress from the mass population, the elites and the state to produce a single number, the “political stress indicator,” or psi. State breakdown — and thus revolution — has only occurred when psi rises to dramatically high levels. Unlike earlier theories, Goldstone’s approach explained when revolutions didn’t happen, as well as when they did.

    I discovered Goldstone’s work by way of cultural anthropologist Peter Turchin, who refined and expanded his model and applied it to a broader range of societies, including modern industrial states. Four years ago, the month before Donald Trump was elected, I reviewed Turchin’s book, “Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History,” which predicted an approaching period of social and political disintegration, regardless of whether Trump won or lost.

    But even in 1991, Goldstone had seen worrying signs in America of the same sorts of problems his book described in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively, as well as in China and the Ottoman Empire. Most notable was the problem of “selfish elites” who “preferred to protect their private wealth, even at the expense of a deterioration of state finances, public services, and long-term international strength.”

    That’s why Goldstone’s perspective on the problems facing us today seem particularly worth our attention. He and Turchin combined to write an article for Noema magazine in September, “Welcome to the Turbulent Twenties,” and BuzzFeed highlighted their perspective — and specifically, the role of psi — in a late October story on the possibility of rising political violence in the U.S. But their perspective deserves much more than an occasional mention — it should inform the entire framework in which our discussions take place.

    I reached out to Goldstone even before this election had been decided, seeking the broadest perspective I could possibly get. Some of what he and Turchin wrote about is admittedly now difficult to imagine, given that Democrats may not win a Senate majority and have lost at least nine seats in the House. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

    Your book “Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World” came out just after the end of the Cold War, at the same time as Francis Fukuyama’s celebrated book “The End of History and The Last Man,” which claimed that we had reached “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Fukuyama was hardly alone at the time, but you offered a strikingly different view, one much more consistent with how history has unfolded in subsequent decades. What was the key insight that gave you such a different view?

    Most people had viewed revolutions as a result of great ideological struggles. And if there weren’t going to be any more such great struggles, people thought there wouldn’t be any more revolutions either. It’s certainly true that the leaders of revolutions need an ideological platform, but in my view the causes of revolutions were organizational failures, and the ideological shifts come about when people feel the organizational failure of their society and look for new ideas on how to fix it.

    In my view, organizational failure is not something that goes away with some march of history. It’s always possible, even likely, that societies will get themselves into trouble. Governments tend to overspend, elites tend to fight taxation and accumulate resources. As elites grow in number, they tend to fight more and more among themselves for position and wealth, and if elites do not make sure that the wealth of society is distributed in the way that gives ordinary people hope and a stake in society, then they can be recruited to opposition, even radical movements.

    So I feel the risk of revolutions is always there. The ideologies may change. We went from an ideology of liberalism to an ideology of communism and then, when communism faded, the Middle East and much of Asia started turning to an ideology of radical Islam. So I had no reason to believe that revolutions would disappear.

    When they reappeared with vigor I was not surprised, and my work started getting a lot more attention — especially after the Arab Spring, which was a whole bunch of old-fashioned violent, civil war-inducing revolutions. They obviously had a lot to do with the failure of states to provide jobs for the young, the problem of over-educating a large cohort of youth, the failure to distribute economic progress equally.
  2. FryDaddyJr

    FryDaddyJr Well-Known Member

    So, my vision turned out — not happily but, as it turned out, correctly — to foresee that many more revolutions were possible. In fact, I’ll go one step further. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people said, “Well, those aren’t revolutions, those are something new. Those are refolutions” — with an F — “They’re more like reforms, they’re negotiated, they are peaceful or they are democratic movements.” I was a little bit alone in saying, “Now, wait a minute, to me they look like revolutions.”

    You had a failure of states that were organized on the basis of state communism, and they unwound differently because the populations tended to be older and thus were less drawn to radicalism and violence. So you had the color revolutions as the response, but when you talk about why these things occurred and how they played out and whether we’ll see more of them in the future, the answer was, “They’re organizational failures. Yes, we will see more of these.” And indeed, after 1998 is when so we started seeing more color revolutions across Asia, and we will continue to see those.

    In fact, I think the real difference between color revolutions and violent revolutions is not just a matter of tactics or ideology. It’s got a great deal to do with the age structure of the population, the educational job profile. When you have a younger population that’s more educated, that’s suffering higher unemployment, you’re likely to get a more ideologically extreme revolution. When you have an older population that is in a stagnant economy, you’re more likely to get the color revolutions, seeking just to open up and democratize politics.

    Another big argument I had with people at the time was that they felt that once capitalism had triumphed, there would not be any more need for revolutions. But I said this is not about capitalism. The revolutions of the 19th century were still about the same kind of organizational state failures that we’d seen in earlier centuries, and once we get to the 20th and 21st centuries, we could still have organizational failures, even in modern, fully industrialized states.

    Your model actually had three contributing factors to political instability: the mass population, the elites and the state. You’ve already talked about that dynamic, but could you break it down into those three parts and say a little more specifically about each of them?

    Let’s start with what it takes for society to continue to work and successfully reproduce itself across time. We tend to think about society as how it looks at a particular moment in time: Are people getting along or are they not getting along? Is it because they disagree or whatever? That to me is a very incomplete, shortsighted way to approach the dynamic nature of society. Instead I tend to think in terms of flows of resources, flows of people.

    To reproduce itself over time, the government needs to continue to have enough revenue to carry out its responsibility for national defense and domestic administration. The government, the economy and other institutions like the church need to recruit a fresh flow of leadership every generation. So they need to have some system for training and selecting the next generation of elites or leaders.

    If the government doesn’t have a system to keep revenues in pace with expenses, it will start to go into debt, it will start to go broke, it will start having to scrounge around to find other ways to raise money. If society doesn’t get the flow of elites correct, either there are not enough competent, well-trained people to move into leadership positions or what’s much more common is that you have an overflow, where society ends with more people training and aspiring to elite positions, and believing that they deserve them, than there are positions for such people. For societies to grow stably, there has to be a system of recruitment and filtering that is seen as fair and legitimate to govern that distribution of elite positions. Otherwise, it becomes a dangerous free-for-all.

    For much of human history that was simply inheritance. The older son inherits his father’s position and the younger sons have to go work things out on their own. When we get to a meritocracy, you have people acquiring the training or degrees to provide the right certifications for elite positions, and that’s fine as long as things grow at the same pace — if you have expansion of the universities, if you have societies expanding their bureaucracies, expanding the professional business positions and so on. But if you start training many more people for elite positions than the society can provide, you get the frustration of large numbers of overeducated youth, and that’s politically dangerous.

    Lastly, you understand that a government that’s losing money and resources gets into trouble and it starts picking on other groups to say, “We need to tax your wealth, or we need to increase your taxes.” But, if the elites can organize and be unified and simply say, “No, we’re going to change the system,” then you either get reforms or an elite coup-d’état. There’s no need for a revolution if the elites are united and can agree what needs to be done.

    But if the elites themselves are very divided and unsure — do we need to change government policy, or do we actually need to change the government and displace some of the conservative elites that are preventing the changes we need? — then members of the elite who believe change is necessary will try to recruit popular support. They want the demonstration that large numbers of the population are with them to demand the overthrow of conservative elites or an incompetent ruler.

    So this ties into mass well-being, then?

    Trying to stir up popular support for change is only feasible if large numbers of the people are unhappy with the situation. It’s very hard for dissident elites to get people to take the risk and take the time to engage in opposition to government if most of them think everything’s OK, as long as they’re getting what they expect. It doesn’t have to be great, but at least it’s what they expect.

    But if large numbers of people find there are shortages of land, that wages are going down or stagnant, that they don’t have enough land to provide for their family or kids or enough income to provide a proper wedding for their daughters; if they can’t find work, they lose their land to a greedy landowner and are thrown into the workforce and have trouble finding jobs, or become vagrants or bandits. Then, when things are bad enough for a large portion of the population, they are much more easily recruited to movements that say, “We gotta get rid of everything. These are bad people in charge. Things are never going to get better until we get them out of the way.” That’s how you recruit a mass movement for rebellion or revolution.

    In your book, published almost 30 years ago, you warned that we were getting ourselves in trouble. You focused particular attention on the role of “selfish elites,” which you’ve called a “key difficulty faced by regimes in decline.” You warned that the U.S. was, “in respect of its state finances and its elites’ attitudes, following the path that led early modern states to crises.” What did you see then as the central problem that wasn’t being addressed?
  3. FryDaddyJr

    FryDaddyJr Well-Known Member

    I had just spent 10 years studying how states gradually get themselves into a situation of breakdown, and one of the questions that motivated me was: Why should governments that have the ability to tax and to recruit the smartest people ever get into trouble? You would think that they’re holding all the cards. But what I’d seen in my studies of state breakdown was that government got into trouble when it could no longer count on the support of elites, and that usually occurred because elites lost sight of what we used to call the public service ethic.

    I was just reading about John F. Kennedy and what his parents drilled into his entire family: “Yes, you’re rich and you’re privileged, but you have responsibilities to serve the public.” That’s the same ethic that had been drilled into Roman centurions and senators, and had been drilled into the aristocracy of Europe — the whole code of chivalry was that if you’re a knight or a lord, you have certain responsibilities to watch out for society and take care of those that are not as powerful and fortunate as you.

    Throughout history, societies start down the road into collapse when elites start saying, “No, I’ve got to take care of myself first, because other people are after my position and I can’t count on it being secure for my children. So I have to keep as much of what I have as possible.” So elites start fighting with each other, they resist taxation, they become much less civic-minded. They give less in the sense of philanthropy and leadership for public efforts.

    I was seeing that in the United States. We put a movie out that said, “Greed is good,” and people started revering the work of Ayn Rand, who basically preached that whoever is successful owes that success only to themselves, and it’s wrong for government or anyone else to ask that they share it. Well, that line of thinking makes elites feel very good and feel, “Yes, I’ve earned all of my success. It’s all due to me and I have a right to enjoy it.” But that leads to bigger yachts and private islands on the one hand, and deteriorating schools and ballooning budget deficits on the other. That was very clearly the way the United States was going in the ’80s and ’90s, and it really didn’t change.

    And now?

    So here we are with this election. There was no mass rejection of Trump. It wasn’t about Trump. People didn’t understand that four years ago, and apparently they still don’t understand it now. The breakdown, the polarization, the divisions of American society are not about Trump,. They are about people rejecting the actions of an elite — both conservatives and liberals, it really didn’t matter; it was both New York elites and Texas elites — rejecting a notion of a society in which winners take all and government should be starved, with no provide benefits or support for communities that are in trouble, and basically leaving people on their own.

    So, we have hundreds of millions of people whose lives, they feel, are slipping away from them. They feel their opportunities for their families and their children are getting fewer, rather than greater, they see the government getting further and further into debt. They don’t see why. What’s all that money being wasted on, if their lives aren’t getting better? And so they are voting to reject everything in the traditional elites and establishment politics. They reject everything they’ve seen for the last 30 or 40 years, because it has neglected and demeaned their lives.

    So, they’re voting for the outsider, the renegade, the person who’ll upset the apple cart and who at least says, “I’m doing this for you,” regardless of the reality and regardless of the delivery. Someone who says, “The people that you’re angry at are the people I’m angry at, and I’m going to do something about it for you.” That’s enough to earn their deep, steadfast loyalty, and that’s why they came out in such large numbers to vote for someone, even if the other half of America says, “Well, you know, this guy Trump seems to be divisive and incompetent and nasty and so we’re not going to vote for him.”

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