Rules for the Ruling Class

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These days, some of the signifiers have changed; there are fewer takers for a tastefully worn rug. In New York City, the press has documented the rise of private kitchen staff, rotating teams of nannies, and in-home laundresses who will devote half an hour to ironing a single shirt. For those days when a foray outside the home becomes unavoidable, the Aman hotel offers the private refuge of a members-only club, which charges a two-hundred-thousand-dollar initiation fee and fifteen thousand dollars in annual dues.

Yet the deepest drive is not for stuff but for the social rank that stuff conveys. The musician Moby, who sold twelve million copies of his album “Play,” once said that he kept courting success in the music business not to make more money but to “keep being invited to parties.” In the 2022 book “Status and Culture,” the journalist W. David Marx argues that we are hardwired to pursue status, because it delivers a steady accretion of esteem, benefit, and deference. In ancient Rome, élites were permitted to recline at dinner, while children sat and slaves stood. More recently, the champion golfer Lee Trevino remarked, “When I was a rookie, I told jokes, and no one laughed. After I began winning tournaments, I told the same jokes, and all of a sudden, people thought they were funny.”

Status can be frustratingly ephemeral. As you get closer to the top of a pyramid, the steps get crowded. Just ask the senators who peer longingly down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Oval Office, knowing that they are contestants in a zero-sum game. “For every person who goes up,” Marx writes, “someone must go down.”

Jockeying in a hierarchy, no matter how lofty, occasionally swerves toward the physical. Not long before becoming President, Joe Biden offered to take Trump out “behind the gym” and beat him senseless; Trump, asserting that he had a “much better body,” insisted he’d win. In a Senate hearing last fall, Markwayne Mullin, of Oklahoma, told an invited witness, the president of the Teamsters union, “If you want to run your mouth, we can be two consenting adults—we can finish it here.”

Their taunts barely registered above the din of other élite standoffs in recent years: Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift, Chrissy Teigen vs. Alison Roman, Lauren Boebert vs. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Each dispute has its own esoteric stakes, but, taken together, they make up a perpetual American undercard, feeding our cravings for entertainment. Peter Turchin, an emeritus professor at the University of Connecticut, calls this an age of “intraelite conflict.”

He explains it as a game of musical chairs: each year, we get fresh graduates from Stanford and the Ivy League, bored hedge-fund executives, restless tycoons—all angling for seats. Year by year, their numbers accumulate, but the chairs do not, and the losers become “frustrated elite aspirants.” Eventually, one of them will cheat—by faking a kid’s college résumé, trading on an inside tip, or trying to overthrow an election. Others will catch on and begin to wonder if they’re the last suckers in the bunch. Things fall apart.

That’s the pattern that Turchin explores in “End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration.” Trained as a theoretical biologist, he now mines a vast historical data set, called CrisisDB, for insights into how societies encounter chaos. The crux of his findings: a nation that funnels too much money and opportunity upward gets so top-heavy that it can tip over. In the dispassionate tone of a scientist assessing an ant colony, Turchin writes, “In one-sixth of the cases, elite groups were targeted for extermination. The probability of ruler assassination was 40 percent.”

In fifteenth-century England, he notes, a long spell of prosperity minted more nobles than society could absorb, and they took to brawling over land and power. The losers were beheaded on muddy battlefields. During the three grisly decades of the Wars of the Roses, three-quarters of England’s élites were killed or driven out by “downward social mobility”—an estimate that scholars reached by studying the declining imports of French wine. Eventually, Turchin writes, “the most violent were killed off, while the rest realized the futility of prolonging the struggles and settled down to peaceful, if not glamorous, lives.”

In America’s case, history holds two examples with wildly different outcomes. In the early nineteenth century, old-line Southern élites, who profited from slavery and from exports of cotton, faced competition from Northern élites, who made their money in mining, railroads, and steel. They battled first in politics—some ran for office, others funded candidates—but the élites proliferated faster than politics could accommodate them. Between 1800 and 1850, the number of America’s millionaires soared from half a dozen to roughly a hundred. During the Civil War, the North’s tycoons prospered, the South’s went into decline, and the country suffered incalculable damage.

Half a century later, America was riven once more. In the nineteen-twenties, suspected anarchists bombed Wall Street, killing thirty people; coal miners in West Virginia mounted the largest insurrection since the Civil War. But this time American élites, some of whom feared a Bolshevik revolution, consented to reform—to allow, in effect, greater public reliance on those “private barns of money.” Under Franklin D. Roosevelt (Groton, Harvard), the U.S. raised taxes, took steps to protect unions, and established a minimum wage. The costs, Turchin writes, “were borne by the American ruling class.” Between 1925 and 1950, the number of American millionaires fell—from sixteen hundred to fewer than nine hundred. Between the nineteen-thirties and the nineteen-seventies, a period that scholars call the Great Compression, economic inequality narrowed, except among Black Americans, who were largely excluded from those gains.

Rules for the Ruling Class

Cartoon by Liana Finck

But by the nineteen-eighties the Great Compression was over. As the rich grew richer than ever, they sought to turn their money into political power; spending on politics soared. The 2016 Republican Presidential primary involved seventeen contestants, the largest field in modern history. Turchin calls it a “bizarre spectacle of an elite aspirant game reaching its logical culmination.” It was a lineup of former governors, sitting senators, a former C.E.O., a neurosurgeon, the offspring of political and real-estate dynasties—all competing to convince voters that they despised the élite. Their performances of solidarity with the masses would have impressed the Castros.

When Trump reached the White House, he ushered in allies with similar credentials: Wilbur Ross (Yale), Steven Mnuchin (Yale), Steve Bannon (Harvard Business), Mike Pompeo (Harvard Law), Jared Kushner (Harvard). Though Bannon, the chief strategist, had earned his fortune at Goldman Sachs and in Hollywood, he billed himself as an outsider and sounded every bit the dishevelled count from the Middle Ages. “I want to bring everything crashing down,” he liked to say, “and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Turchin ends his book with a sobering vision. Using data to model scenarios for the future, he concludes, “At some point during the 2020s, the model predicts, instability becomes so high that it starts cutting down the elite numbers.” He likens the present time to the run-up to the Civil War. America could still relearn the lessons of the Great Compression—“one of the exceptional, hopeful cases”—and act to prevent a top-heavy society from toppling. When that has happened in history, “elites eventually became alarmed by incessant violence and disorder,” he writes. “And we are not there—yet.”

In the summer of 2023, the tussling between two noted American élites entered the realm of burlesque. For years, Elon Musk and the Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg had privately grumbled about each other. Zuckerberg yearned for the innovator’s cred that Musk enjoyed, and Musk lamented (initially) that he was not as wealthy as Zuckerberg. In public, Musk has mocked Zuckerberg’s understanding of A.I. as “limited” and said that Facebook “gives me the willies.” Last June, after Musk, the owner of Twitter, purged its staff and plunged it into turmoil, Zuckerberg’s company announced plans for a “sanely run” alternative. Musk responded by proposing a “cage match,” and Zuckerberg, who had been training in Brazilian jujitsu, replied on Instagram, “Send Me Location.” Soon, Musk and Zuck—worth a combined three hundred and thirty-five billion dollars—were posing for sweaty gym photos. The Italian government discussed hosting the fight at the Colosseum, and tech bros divided into rival fandoms.

Eventually, Musk put off the fight—he acknowledged that he was out of shape—and Zuck declared that it was “time to move on.” But, even interrupted, the billionaire cage match showcased some of the rivalries and insecurities already at work in the next 80/20 society. The gentry of new technologies have displaced the industrial and media barons of an earlier age, but the new hierarchies are still in flux. In Silicon Valley, it’s common to hear the prediction that artificial intelligence will yield a world of two broad classes: those who tell the A.I. what to do and those whom the A.I. tells what to do.

Technology won’t spare us a ruling class—and, in any case, it’s hard to envision a thriving society in which no one is allowed to aspire to status. But, instead of continuing to exhaust the meaning of “the élite,” we would be better off targeting what we really resent—inequality, immobility, intolerance—and attacking the barriers that block the “circulation of élites.” Left undisturbed, the most powerful among us will take steps to stay in place, a pattern that sociologists call the “iron law of oligarchy.” Near the end of the Roman Empire, in the fourth century A.D., inequality had become so entrenched that a Roman senator could earn a hundred and twenty thousand pieces of gold a year, while a farmer earned five. The fall of Rome took five hundred years, but, as the distinguished historian Ramsay MacMullen wrote, it could be “compressed into three words: fewer have more.”

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