Elites On The Edge

  • Small business owners got PPP “forgivable loans” that came with complex rules and strict limits on how they could spend it (and many who couldn’t apply quickly didn’t even get that).
  • Large businesses got, thanks to the Fed (and Congress), trillions in practically free cash and permission to spend it however they wanted. In many cases, that meant share buybacks and executive bonuses.

Is it any wonder people want to join the elite, and are angry they can’t? The process Turchin describes fits our present circumstances to a T. And they come at a time when we are already bitterly divided in so many other ways.

Cameron Murray, in a review of Turchin’s latest book, offers this foreboding paragraph:

[T]here is a pattern that we see recurring throughout history, when a successful empire expands its borders so far that it becomes the biggest kid on the block. When survival is no longer at stake, selfish elites and other special interest groups capture the political agenda. The spirit that “we are all in the same boat” disappears and is replaced by a “winner take all” mentality. As the elites enrich themselves, the rest of the population is increasingly impoverished. Rampant inequality of wealth further corrodes cooperation.

In past centuries and millennia, the lack of internal cooperation invited aggressive neighbors to conquer the disorganized country. Rome was not so much conquered by “barbarians” as it committed societal suicide, when the glue that held it together, the cooperation of all factions, simply disappeared.

Gary North, (one of my first true historical mentors), in a long and technical 2011 essay, talked about the famous historian Robert Nisbet.

In 1953, his [Nisbet’s] book, The Quest for Community, was published by Oxford University Press. It received some attention, mostly favorable, but it was hardly a bestseller. He asked these questions: "Why was it that the modern world had turned to totalitarianism in the middle of the 20th century? What had taken place in the societies that gave birth to totalitarianism?" He concluded that it had to do with the breakdown of social order. Those institutions to which men had given allegiance throughout history, such as the family, the church, the guild, the fraternal order, and similar voluntary institutions, had faded in importance in the twentieth century. This left only the isolated individual and the modern nation-state. Men gained a sense of belonging through their participation in mass-movement politics. Totalitarian leaders began to attract individuals who were isolated, even though they were living in large cities. These leaders were able to offer a sense of brotherhood to millions of people who felt alone in the midst of cities. The modern totalitarian state functioned as a substitute for the family, church, and voluntary associations that for millennia had given people a sense of purpose and participation. So, totalitarianism was born out of radical individualism, institutionally speaking, even though as a philosophy, totalitarianism is completely opposed to individualism.

Sound familiar? In a world of increasing identity politics, it may not be the same, but it certainly rhymes. North went on to analyze another equally famous philosopher of history, Jacques Barzun, who wrote his final opus at 93 in 2000 (his first book was in 1927):

He asks the question: "What makes a nation?" He answers his own question. "A large part of the answer to that question is: common historical memories. When the nation's history is poorly taught in schools, ignored by the young, and proudly rejected by qualified elders, awareness of tradition consists only in wanting to destroy it." Nisbet had made the same point two decades earlier.

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