Chapter 1 Elites, Elite Overproduction, and the Road to Crisis Who Are the Elites? Sources of Social Power
Who are the elites? You, reader, are you "elite"? If I were a betting man, I'd predict that 99 percent of my readers would answer "no!" So let's define what I mean by "elites." In sociology, elites are not those who are somehow better than the rest. They are not necessarily those who are more hardworking, or more intelligent, or more talented. They are simply those who have more social power-the ability to influence other people. A more descriptive term for elites is "power holders."
Because power is such an important part of the story to come, we will return to it in later chapters, where I discuss how sociologists define power and power holders in different societies, past and present. But for now, let's take a shortcut. In America, power is closely correlated with wealth. As a result, it is relatively straightforward to figure out who belongs to different ranks of power holders. (A more sophisticated answer to the question of who rules will have to wait until chapter 5.)
If you are an American and your net worth is in the $1-$2 million range, for example, then you are roughly in the top 10 percent, which puts you in the lower ranks of American elites. Most people in this category are not particularly powerful in the sense of having a lot of other people to order around. But a few million dollars in wealth (and higher incomes that are typically associated with it) gives ten-percenters a lot of control-power-over their own lives. They can turn down jobs that are unpleasant, or don't pay enough, or are located in regions they don't care to move to. Or they can choose to retire from the rat race. They typically own houses and send their children to good colleges, and sudden medical emergencies will not wipe them out. They have certainly escaped "precarity."
The correlation between wealth and real power starts to become tighter for those whose net worth is counted in tens or, better, hundreds of millions. People in this class include owners of businesses and CEOs of large corporations, who wield their power over hundreds or thousands of employees. Many powerful politicians are also in this range. (There are about fifty members of Congress whose net worth is greater than $10 million.) The correlation between wealth and political power is not perfect. Nine American presidents didn't even make it into the $1 million or above territory (in today's dollars), including Harry Truman, Woodrow Wilson, and Abraham Lincoln. But more than half of them had enough wealth to put them into what today would be the top 1 percent. And before 1850, all American presidents were one-percenters (at the least).
Another point to keep in mind is that poor people who become power holders in America don't stay poor for long. Bill Clinton grew up in a poor Arkansas family with an alcoholic and abusive stepfather, but now his wealth is estimated to be at least $120 million. The close correlation between wealth and political power in America arises partly because many a politician, poor at the start of their career, joins the ranks of the wealthy after leaving public office. But an equally important reason is that people who are already very wealthy are much more likely to seek and gain public office than the rest of us. Think of the Roosevelt and Kennedy clans, Ross Perot, Michael Bloomberg, and-yes-Trump.
Still, the correlation between wealth and power, even in America, is not perfect. So let's talk about other sources of power. The hardest-and crudest-form of social power is coercion: force, or a threat of force. Americans specializing in coercion, such as army generals and police officers, are generally thoroughly subordinated to other forms of power. Exceptions, such as J. Edgar Hoover, who was the first and most powerful FBI director, are rare.
The second kind of power is wealth (or accumulated material resources, more generally). Wealthy people can hire people to do what they want (within limits).
The third and more subtle kind of power is bureaucratic or administrative. Modern human beings belong to a variety of organizations. We have a variety of "bosses" whose orders we generally follow. There is an element of coercion to these relationships, of course, because not following orders may get you fired, fined, or arrested. But most of the time we follow orders simply because of the power of social norms. The bosses at various levels of organizations all wield different amounts of power, which tends to increase the larger their organizations and the higher their positions within them.
The fourth and "softest" kind of power is ideological-the power of persuasion. Soft power, or persuasion, is an extremely potent force that can sway multitudes. It includes the realm of thought influencers, such as famous "public intellectuals," columnists at major newspapers, and, more recently, social media figures with millions of followers.
As we can see, this simple question-who are the elites?-doesn't have a simple answer. Human societies are complex systems, and trying to characterize the flows of social power within them by way of an overly simplistic scheme would be counterproductive. My job is to make my theory as simple as possible, but not simpler. The Game of Aspirant Chairs
Once we start thinking about so-called elite behavior, we encounter several layers of complexity. First, in terms of wealth, there is no hard boundary between the elites and non-elites. Ten-percenters (roughly, millionaires in today's dollars) have a lot of power over their own lives. One-percenters (roughly, decamillionaires) have a lot of power over other people's lives. Centimillionaires and billionaires wield even more power. But there are no sharp boundaries between one-percenters and ten-percenters-the distribution of incomes is a smooth curve. And there is no huge difference in social attitudes between the one-percenters and ten-percenters, or between the ten-percenters, the top income decile, and the next decile. In chapter 3, we will see that another way of distinguishing social classes, in terms of the more educated (those with a four-year college degree) and the less educated (those without one), is much more salient if we want to understand the diversity of life trajectories and social attitudes.
Second, different elites tend to specialize in different kinds of social power: generals, admirals, and police chiefs mete out coercion; CEOs and wealth holders wield economic power; senators and secretaries of federal departments manage administrative power; and TV anchors and influential podcasters deal in persuasion. Each kind of influence has its own power hierarchy. This is most clearly seen in military chains of command, but softer kinds of power also have their pecking orders.
The third layer of complexity arises when we ask, how are elites made? In order to understand elite overproduction, we need to understand social reproduction of the elites-what happens with them over time.
Let's distinguish between people already in elite positions-established elites-and those who want to get into such positions-elite aspirants. Elite aspirants come in a variety of shapes and forms, depending on the kind of power they want and what level they aspire to. For example, most lieutenants want to become majors, and most majors want to become one-star generals, and one-star generals aim for additional stars to their insignia. Similarly, decamillionaires want to become centimillionaires, and those who have already made their first $100 million aim to get into the billionaire class.
Although not everybody has ambition to acquire more power, there are always more aspirants than power positions. Inevitably, there are those who try but fail to obtain a power position-frustrated elite aspirants. Elite overproduction develops when the demand for power positions by elite aspirants massively exceeds their supply. Let's focus for now on the nexus between wealth and politics and see how elite overproduction can develop in this sphere.
Starting in the 1980s, the number of superrich in America-those worth at least $10 million, or decamillionaires-started to grow rapidly. In 1983, there were only 66,000 such households, and by 2019 (the last year for which data are available), their number increased more than tenfold to 693,000. This was not a result of dollar inflation; we adjusted the threshold to determine who is in this class (using constant 1995 dollars). During this period, the overall number of households grew by 53 percent, so in proportionate terms, decamillionaires swelled from 0.08 to 0.54 percent of the total population.
A similar upsurge in the fortunes of the wealthy also happened lower on the food chain. If the numbers of decamillionaires grew tenfold, the number of households worth $5 million or more increased sevenfold, and the number of mere millionaires expanded fourfold. Overall, the larger the level of the fortunes we look at, the more growth they have seen over the past forty years.
On the surface of it, an increase in the number of wealthy people doesn't sound like such a bad thing. Isn't it part of the American dream to get rich? But there are two downsides to this good news. First, the ballooning of the superwealthy class did not happen in isolation from the fortunes of the rest of the population. While the numbers of superrich have multiplied, the income and wealth of the typical American family have actually declined. (The more precise term for "typical" wealth is "the median," which divides the wealth distribution into equal halves; the economic decline of American workers will be a major topic in chapter 3.) This divergence between the financial well-being of common Americans and the wealthy elite is what drove the rapid increase in economic inequality, which has been much discussed in recent years.
The second problem is much subtler and less widely understood. When the social pyramid becomes top-heavy, this has dire consequences for the stability of our societies.
To understand why, consider a game. In the musical Evita,
a group of Argentinian military officers plays a game of musical chairs. It goes like this. The music starts playing, and officers walk around a set of chairs. When the music stops, each must find a chair to sit on. However, there are more players than chairs, so one unlucky officer fails to occupy a chair and is eliminated. Then a chair is removed, and another round is played. At the end, there is one winner. In Evita
, the winner is Colonel Juan Perón, who later in the musical (as in real life) becomes president of Argentina and founder of the Peronist Party.
In the elite aspirant game, or the aspirant game, for short, instead of reducing the number of chairs each round, we increase the number of players. The game starts just as musical chairs, with ten chairs representing power positions (such as political offices). In the first round, eleven players (elite aspirants) play to get a chair. Ten become established elites, and the loser is a frustrated aspirant. In the following rounds, we increase the number of players, eventually doubling, then tripling, them (while keeping the same ten chairs). The number of winners stays the same, but the number of frustrated aspirants increases from the initial one to ten, then twenty. As the game progresses, just imagine the growing degree of chaos and conflict. (I would not suggest playing this game at a child's birthday party.) There is also a curious amplification effect: as we increase the number of aspirants by a factor of two, then three, the number of frustrated aspirants balloons tenfold, then twentyfold. (This is a generic feature of elite overproduction games.)
In game theory, a branch of mathematics that studies strategic interactions, the players must devise winning strategies within the given rules. But in real life, people bend rules all the time. Inevitably, as the number of aspirants per power position grows, some will decide to stretch the rules. For example, you can slow down by a chair or even stop and wait right next to it for the music to stop, while shoving away other contenders. Congratulations, you have just become a counter-elite-someone who is willing to break the rules to get ahead in the game. Unfortunately, others quickly catch on, and each chair soon acquires a jostling crowd, and before long you have the recipe for a free-for-all fistfight. This turns out to be a good model for understanding the consequences of elite overproduction in real life.
In real life, as we saw, over the past forty years the number of wealth holders at various levels has increased fourfold, sevenfold, or even tenfold. Only a small proportion of them decide to spend a chunk of their fortune to run for political office. For example, they might aspire for a seat in the House of Representatives or the Senate. They might enter a race for state governor. The ultimate prize is, of course, the presidency. The number of these power positions has stayed the same over the past decades, but the number of aspirants for them has increased together with the overall number of wealth holders. Because of the amplification effect, the number of frustrated aspirants exploded even faster than the already impressive expansion in the number of wealth holders.
This conclusion is not just an abstract model. We can now make sense of several trends in the elections for public office in the United States, which have been documented by the Center for Responsive Politics. One is that the number of self-funded candidates started increasing during the 1990s. In the congressional elections of 2000 (adding the House and the Senate seats), there were nineteen candidates who individually spent $1 million or more of their own money on their campaigns. In the next election round, there were twenty-two such wealthy aspirants for a seat in Congress. Twenty years later, their number had roughly doubled, with forty-one and thirty-six candidates individually spending $1 million or more in 2018 and 2020.
An even better metric for following the effect of overproduction of wealth holders on elections is the cost of running a successful campaign. After all, not all politically ambitious rich people run for office themselves. Many instead choose to fund professional politicians who can advance their policy agendas in Washington. According to the data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, the average spending of the House winner increased from $400K in 1990 to $2.35 million in 2020, while the same statistic for the Senate started at $3.9 million (in 1990) and grew to $27 million in the last electoral round.
Over the past forty years, we've been playing the elite overproduction game once every two years. As the number of players grows, the chance of rules breaking down goes up. Is it any wonder that the rules of the game-social norms and institutions governing democratic elections-have been unraveling in real life?
Copyright © 2023 by Peter Turchin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.