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Pride of the Elites: Political Correctness, Identity Politics and Class War
How Elite Overproduction drives culture wars, and how to move beyond it
Trish Blain and I are offering a free Peak, Non-Ordinary and Ecstatic States Workshop on July 13 as an intro to NonOrdinary Sensemaking - not to be missed. A huge thanks to everyone who’s been reviewing ‘The Bigger Picture’, it currently has a 5 star rating on Amazon and Audible!
Two old enemies sip tea on the battlefield. They are surrounded by warriors, their banners snapping in the breeze. As the tea ceremony unfolds, the generals converse. They speak in tight metaphors, touch on unspoken tensions. A sip, followed by a polite ultimatum. A smile in reply as steam rises between them. Their etiquette hides darker impulses. The tea is just for show, and eventually one will have to die.
While this scene from feudal Japan may seem far removed from the culture wars of the 2020’s, it isn’t. During the Tokugawa period in particular, tea ceremonies in Japan evolved into a way for elite samurai to practice diplomacy and negotiate conflict. They were doing what elites have always done; developing complex social games to maintain civility as they competed for positions of power.
Today, we have the ever-shifting rules of political correctness and identity politics that dominate corporations and mass media. But our social games are now failing. As Pride Month draws to a close, social tensions run high. For an increasing number of progressives, a corporatised version of equality and inclusion has turned the social justice movement into a Disneyfied falsehood. On the political right, a pushback from both traditionalists and reactionaries rails against identity politics and its enforced values. While these issues are contemporary, our culture wars are rooted in the same social and political forces that have affected all human societies throughout history.
These forces are the subject of Peter Turchin’s new book End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration. Using a quantitative analysis called Cliodynamics, which takes a ‘big data’ approach to history, Turchin argues that the main cause of political and social instability is ‘elite-overproduction’ combined with ‘popular immiseration’. Put simply, this means that there are too many ‘elite-aspirants’, or people seeking positions of power, influence or status in society, and too few positions for them. As well as this, socioeconomic pressure on wages in the West has created a disenfranchised populist base that feel let down by elite institutions.
Turchin argues that, throughout history across cultures, an overproduction of educated elites leads to instability, and often revolution or collapse. He likens it to a game of musical chairs in which chairs (positions of power or status in society) keep being removed while the number of players keeps increasing until the social pressure is too much.
For example, the US produces too many PhDs every year with nowhere near enough academic positions for them to go into. The values and ideologies transmitted by universities and other powerful institutions overwhelmingly select for forms of social justice ideology, which have become the value system of the mainstream elite. Counter-elite responses push back against this and tap into populist anger in the process, creating a vicious culture war.
In this piece, I’m going to explore these dynamics and what they might mean for the future of culture. In the process, I’ll examine how, in the same way the samurai developed ways to ritualise inter-elite competition, the elites of 2020’s have developed identity politics and political correctness games to fulfil a similar function. I’ll also expand on ideas I introduced in a piece I wrote exactly three years ago called Sleeping Woke, in which I explored how social justice movements had been captured by power structures and turned into a ‘simulated religion’.
Specifically, I’m going to explore how the landscape has changed since then. As Peter Limberg has argued recently, we are undergoing a cultural shift in aesthetics and values, what Sean Monahan has called a ‘Vibe Shift’, that may see radical identity politics decline and something else take its place as a dominant force in grassroots culture and elite institutions.
This, in turn, will inform how elite social games are played and have a significant impact on all our lives. It’s what will eventually become the new tea ceremony. The new vibe has yet to emerge, and that creates a cultural opportunity for all of us to influence what it is. There is hope in this, because we could move toward a cultural aesthetic that moves beyond the culture war.
Beyond the right-wing pushback against ‘wokeness’ which has become increasingly bigoted, as well as the oppressive certainties of progressive identity politics, and toward what I call a ‘complexity culture’. A cultural vibe that listens to multiple perspectives and dances with them toward a new game.
Them vs Us
To get there, we first have to look at how our current cultural game developed, and explore what’s brewing in the depths of elite and counter-elite imaginations. We can start by defining what exactly an ‘elite’ is.
Turchin provides this definition in End Times:
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.”
Of course, if there are power-holders, there are those who are excluded from holding power. This process of elites fighting over positions of status (and tapping into popular grievances to bolster their power) lies at the heart of the culture wars, because it incentivises intense competition and selects for increasingly extreme ideologies. Revolutionaries like Fidel Castro, Hong Xiuquan (leader of the Taiping rebellion), Gandhi and Lenin all began as elite-aspirants (often lawyers) and eventually went on to overthrow a system that they saw as unfair with the help of a populace who shared overlapping concerns.
There is a growing body of thought that the defining feature of the culture wars is the gaping chasm between the concerns of elites and of working-class people. Political scientist Christopher Lasch is one of the original thinkers behind this framing, and pointed to this growing division in his influential 1997 book ‘The Revolt of the Elites.’
More recently, N.S. Lyons has argued that we’re seeing a divide between Physicals and Virtuals, the former being largely blue-collar workers who have physical jobs, and the latter being white-collar workers who make money through ideas, and whose jobs can largely be done online. Journalist David Goodhart has pointed to a similar split between ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’, with Anywheres being metropolitan elites who identify with a more globalised view, and Somewheres being people who identify with a particular place and are usually blue collar workers.
This split is maintained by a lack of class mobility and increasing costs of higher education, as well as by cultural barriers that are maintained by complex social games played by the elites. Writer Mary Harrington points to the ‘luxury gnosticism’, whereby elites remove themselves from the concerns and realities of working people by retreating into the internet, a realm where theory is divorced from reality, and where identity games can dominate. Writer Rob Henderson has argued similarly that social justice ideologies are often used as ‘luxury beliefs’ by elites to signal status. These beliefs are luxury because they aren’t really practiced or deeply held.
The Economy, Stupid
The result of this split is that the elites play one social game - in our era, political correctness and identity politics - while the working classes are presented with the rules through mass media and corporate messaging. Elites who don’t want to play the game become counter-elites who try to change the dominant power structure, but in either case the split between the haves and have-nots remains intact.
Regular people who can’t or won’t play by the elite rules are seen, as Hilary Clinton referred to them, as deplorables. Nuance is required here, because aggressive bigotry, misogyny and racism should be called out in a healthy and compassionate society. However, what this blanket characterisation of the ‘Physicals’ or ‘Somewheres’ too often ignores is the genuine economic concerns that are leading to the election of people like Trump. As Turchin points out,
A common situation during crisis periods is that of elite political entrepreneurs who use the high mass mobilization potential of the non-elite population to advance their ideological agendas and political careers.
Trump and Boris Johnson are good examples of this. However, the concerns they’re addressing, however cynically, are real. Turchin draws on an extensive body of evidence to point out how real wages among working class people in the US have declined since the 1970’s, and less educated workers’ skills “were less in demand in the new economy” and they also “experienced stronger competition from immigrants, automation, and offshoring than college-educated workers did.”
The majority of people don’t vote to say ‘fuck you’ to the system because they are closed-minded racists who can’t think for themselves, as progressives often fantasize. They do it because the system has disenfranchised them, doesn’t care about their interests, and treats them like second class citizens. The underlying socio-economic factors that led to Brexit and Trump, particularly declining real-wages among the working class in the West and the contempt held for lower wage workers by elites, have not gone away. If Turchin’s analysis is to be believed, we are just in the beginning of the age of discord.
And while there is a split between elites and non-elites, there is also a split within elites. Most glaringly, between the intersectional progressives and more traditionalist conservatives. Each have different solutions to the elite-overproduction problem, and as Turchin points out, historically this is nothing new.
A nearly universal feature of precrisis periods is thus the fragmentation of the ideological landscape and the breakdown of elite ideological consensus that underlies routine acceptance of state institutions. Some creeds that gain adherents are radical, in that they aim to remake the society in a new, better way. Others are traditionalist, looking back in time to restore an imagined golden age….Because there is a general perception that the country is going in the wrong direction and that society has become vastly unjust and hugely unequal (not only between commoners and elites but also between the winners and losers among the elites), appeals to set things right by restoring “social justice” gain a lot of traction. Another general feature is that divisive—sectarian and identitarian—ideologies gain an upper hand over unifying ones, giving us ages of discord.
Race and Politics in the US
While ideological tribes on the right often call for a return to an idealised golden age, the progressive tribes that populate academia and mass media have turned social justice ideologies into a version of the tea ceremony. LGBTQ+ movements and Black American struggles have both been turned into corporate-friendly ‘luxury beliefs’ that signal care for equality, without actually requiring elites to sacrifice toward systemic change. Corporations fall over themselves to commodotise social justice but when it comes to genuine redistribution of wealth and power their true colours show; we need look no further than the way Starbucks responds when its workers try to unionise.
One of the most incisive and heterodox thinkers around race and class in the US is Adolph L. Reed JR, a professor of political science who argues that Black American interests have been subsumed by identity politics at the expense of a focus on class and socio-economic equality. It’s cheap and easy to talk about identity and change your logo to rainbow colours, but much harder and less desirable for corporations or governments to face systemic drivers of inequality.
This is because genuine systemic change, as Turchin argues, requires either a revolution or war, or for elites to co-ordinate and willingly sacrifice some of their social and economic power. This happened during the Progressive Era (1896–1917) and the New Deal (1933-1939), which saw the US adopt a Nordic-style system in which policy was driven by a deliberate alignment of the state, labor and business. This was driven by the ruling elites government and business in response to unsustainable levels of corruption and inequality, and it saw the wealth of the top 1% dramatically decline.
As Turchin points out, Black Americans were left out of these social contracts. And so perhaps it is no surprise, as Reed points out in a recent piece From Full Employment to Racial Democracy, that mainstream Black American politics was primarily concerned with writing this wrong until relatively recently.
“As the political scientist Preston H. Smith II has stressed, for more than a generation beginning in the 1940s, insurgent Black politics rested on two distinct principles of social justice: racial democracy, or strict equality of opportunity within capitalism, and social democracy, which was reflected in the view that Black advancement was inseparable from the continuing growth of a strong industrial-union movement and the expansion of universal social wage policies.”
However, this began to shift from the 1960’s, when Reed explains that “the character of what we understand as Black politics changed... drawing attention to apparent racial disparities had become the defining characteristic of Black political discourse. That is, focusing on Black/white disparities—and that alone—came to be what made “Black politics” distinctively Black.”
We can get a clue as to why contemporary social justice ideologies have become the new elite tea ceremony by looking at what lay behind this shift from socioeconomic activism to a focus on identity.
Reed draws on the work of legal scholar Risa Goluboff, who has pointed out how inequality in employment and other areas began to be legally interpreted by liberals as “a problem of state-mandated segregation causing psychological harms.” This in turn “subordinated the material to the psychological” and “subordinated the problems most acute for working African Americans to those most acute for the more privileged of the race.”
The real, systemically-maintained socio-economic struggles of Black Americans began to be subordinated into more abstract, psychological concerns that liberals related to. Concerns about how to put bread on the table were transmuted into concerns about psychology and inner states (check out my interview with Harvard psychologist Joseph Henrich about WEIRD psychology for a deeper dive into this impulse). What this does is bring the concerns of the disenfranchised into the domain of the elites. It takes the real, socio-economic aspect of systemic racism and lifts them into the hazy world of identity, theory and linguistic subjectivity where modern elites feel most comfortable and powerful. There, it can be managed and controlled.
Back on the battlefield, steam curls from porcelain cups. Despite the weight of iron around them, the generals calmly play their language games. What is striking about this tea ceremony is how civilised it is, how easily intra-elite conflict can be masked by courtesy, ritual and etiquette.
Like the British aristocracy, Japanese nobles were exceedingly polite. Politeness is often associated with elite discourse, linked psychologically to civility and maintaining the social order. It also allows for communication to include layers of implicit meaning that require a deep knowledge of the social game being played; a linguistic chess where what is unsaid is as important as what is said. Politeness has been shown to be linked to prosocial behaviour in economic games, with other research showing that it correlates to ‘adhering to social norms, and suppressing aggressive impulses’. Many psychologists see politeness to be an important aspect of civility, and our ability to cooperate in groups.
Just as it was in feudal tea ceremonies, politeness can also be used to sublimate violence and open conflict among elites. Sublimation is a term from psychology where potentially harmful impulses, like anger, are re-directed into a health expression, like hitting a punching bag. It is generally seen as psychologically healthy. However, for all its benefits, politeness has a sinister side as well.
Politeness can also be used to ignore or minimise the pain of others. I believe what has happened with social justice ideology is that it has gone through a process of abstractive sublimation, in which practical concerns by minority groups, which may be dangerous to the status quo, are sublimated into a realm of abstraction that allows elites to reframe and ultimately ignore its calls for a redistribution of power. It is adopted into the world of theory and language games that elites are much more comfortable playing than working class people.
In that realm, social justice ideology is transformed and takes on new functions. It is used as a way to signal progressive status by displaying care, to conveniently minimise the complexities of minority experiences, and to set the rules around what is or isn’t acceptable discourse. It also functions to keep outsiders out unless they can play the game on the same terms, and by extension adopt the same values as the elites (which can be changed and controlled to maintain the status quo).
Black feminist scholar Audre Lorde illuminated a similar dynamic in her book The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House:
What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.
Whoever controls the game holds the power. When that game exists in the hazy realm of psychology, as defined by elite interests, it can be used to maintain the status quo while claiming to be deconstructing it.
For this to work, social justice ideology has to be removed from its roots as an intersectional critique, and turned into a creed that is unthreatening enough to fit into HR departments and corporate PR strategies. It must become a creed that is, crucially, true across every context because then it can’t ever be questioned in polite society.
Nuance goes out the window, because it allows too many gaps where a non-desirable person or idea might sneak in. Either you become a counter-elite and aggressively reject the whole game (as some on the right have done), you join the ranks and play the game, or you opt out and lose opportunities on all sides.
Ibrahim X Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, pointes to the context-absolutism of the game when he writes:
Our world is suffering from metastatic cancer. Stage 4. Racism has spread to nearly every part of the body politic, intersecting with bigotry of all kinds, justifying all kinds of inequities by victim blaming; heightening exploitation and misplaced hate; spurring mass shootings, arms races, and demagogues who polarize nations, shutting down essential organs of democracy; and threatening the life of human society with nuclear war and climate change.
The original concept of ‘intersectionality’ at the heart of critiques like Kendi’s started as a valid position in my view. It argues that we are affected by multiple overlapping lines of power relationships due to our identity and how we’re perceived by dominant power structures, with marginalised groups being disproportionately and negatively affected by this.
However, if we take seriously the premise that racism is an ever-present and all encompassing force, we also have to take seriously the idea that there are other such forces acting on us all the time. This is a key insight of Integral theory, and something I spoke about recently when I met with Ken Wilber. As he’s argued, often people find a particular ‘line of development’ and then claim that it can explain everything. For example, Freud focused on the psychosexual line and then claimed that everything could be explained through it. Something similar has happened around power and oppression.
Sociologist and author Daniel Görtz, one half of the Metamodern nom de plume Hanzi Freinacht, has written extensively about how developmental models like Metamodernism can give us a deeper insight into the complexity of these issues.
When we spoke, he pointed out that in some ways, intersectionality falls short because it isn’t complex enough. It ignores how power dynamics change in different domains and situations. For example, an educated, disabled lesbian woman may have higher status and opportunity in some social domains than a poor, middle-aged and able-bodied white Appalachian man. As Nora Bateson points out through her concept of Warm Data, all information changes across contexts. It is warm because it is ‘alive’, responsive and evolving. This is true of power and oppression as well. What’s required is a much deeper level of complexity to understand these dynamics and create policy and cultural norms that move toward greater equality. I’ll be exploring these ideas, and sharing my interviews with Ken Wilber and Daniel Gortz, in an upcoming paid-subscriber piece.
The elite game of political correctness is designed to shut out this kind of nuance, because it might move vested interests dangerously close to actually having to give up some power. The game also has to stay simple so it can be played fairly easily, and context absolutism allows for this. Anyone can gain temporary attention and status by insinuating that a minority group is being oppressed. The context-absolutism of social justice ideology means that any nuance or counterpoint is dismissed as oppressive in itself, because the premise has already assumed, as we saw in Kendi’s quote above, that the oppression is both ever-present, inescapable and cannot be mitigated by other factors. Power isn’t that simple: it’s profoundly complex.
The simplified version is achingly well-suited to middle-class intelligentsia, because it sublimates aggression and anger into narrative games. It places minority concerns comfortably into the kind of thinking practiced overwhelmingly by people (like me) who go to psychotherapy, and as I explored in ‘The Truth About Trauma’, it’s part of a wider ‘psychologification’ of culture. It also serves to alienate outsiders, defined as it is by obscure rules and shibboleths that require the specific kind of thinking trained into people with humanities degrees (again, like me), or those who spend a lot of time debating online (me again), are good at. While there is a lot of value in social justice critiques, the great tragedy is that when it becomes an elite game, it transforms into neo-colonialism and narcissistic middle class guilt alleviation which actually gets in the way of deep systemic change. Too often, it is disconnected, false, shallow and hypocritical. Which, incidentally, is how the populace has seen elites for thousands of years.
For every action there’s a reaction. The majority of people aren’t engaging in HR-mandated struggle sessions, absorbing elite theory or attending university lectures on postcolonialism. They are, however, often consuming the media and theory produced by people who are, with varying degrees of acceptance, neutrality or rage. Like the footsoldiers behind the high ranking samurai watching the tea ceremony from afar, non-elite actors are excluded both from participation in the rituals, and in the production of elite ideas. If they want to join, they have to learn to play the game, one that often tells them they are backward, deplorable and that their parochial concerns don’t matter in comparison to the lofty heights of theory.
Alongside declining wages, this leads to what Turchin calls ‘popular immiseration’. Counter-elites, and many working class tribes, are increasingly defined by their pushback against what is often referred to as ‘wokeness’, a term that has now become so broad as to be meaningless. While the impulse is understandable, this pushback has increasingly become narrow-minded, oppressive and nasty. The tea ceremony is failing and the battle is in full bloody swing between elites and counter-elites, and between Virtuals and Physicals. This creates a complex game in which many elites play both sides, publicly supporting the social justice creed to avoid outright conflict, while mocking it within their counter-elite circles.
This is captured beautifully in a memorable scene from ‘Succession’, in which the family attends a closed-door event in which Republican elites choose the next candidate for president, with the team ending backing a populist Trump-like candidate. During the event, the young-upstart character Greg comes up to the older corporate stooge, Tom:
Greg: Um, some guy with an undercut just called me “soy boy”
Tom: Oh, don’t worry Greg, this is a nice safe space where you don’t have to pretend to like Hamilton.
Greg: I like Hamilton.
Tom: Sure you do. We all do.
While there is a hypocritical and bigoted side to the counter-elite pushback, there is also an increasing recognition in the political and social center that ‘context absolutism’ around identity won’t help us make sense of the complexity of power relationships, move toward a more equitable social game, or help cultures to connect and thrive together in a multicultural world. Nor will shutting down nuanced conversation around these topics.
What Lives Between Contexts
An either/or dynamic around these issues creates an ongoing culture war. A more generative response is, as always, a ‘yes and’. Yes to listening to the critiques around power and identity that progressive theorists are bringing, and a recognition that these critiques do not remain valid across every context.
To move toward this kind of position, and for this kind of complexity to embed somewhere in the new vibe, I believe we need to go a level deeper and ask why social justice ideology has become both a creed and status game of the elite. I see this as a result of postmodernity more broadly, and the void of purpose and deeper connection that comes with removing anything transcendent from culture. What we’re left with is a hyper-relativity that has stripped away certainty from Western society and left a gaping void of coherence that is psychologically unbearable, and ontologically unsound.
In 2020 when I wrote ‘Sleeping Woke’, I argued that these ideologies had become a simulated religion. Simulated because they mimic religion in providing purity codes and a sense of mission, but don’t offer transcendence beyond ourselves and our endless language games.
We need certainty. We need something bigger than language, something that is consistent across contexts. We need the sacred. Derkheim and other sociologists argued that, even in the absence of religion, society is always in a dynamic dance between the sacred and the profane. The sacred is that which we set as a higher value than our status games. It’s what truly matters in life, what’s worth living and dying for.
When the role of the sacred is occupied by ideology, we become even more lost than we were. The sacred is the only thing that doesn’t change across contexts. By definition this makes it transcendent, or what some philosophers have called the Sublime; the moment when language fails and we are left with the awe of existence.
There are many ways human beings can access the sacred, many of them non-religious, and I believe their multiple forms will be an essential aspect of a new cultural aesthetic to replace the broken one we’re living with today. Even worshiping the sun would be better than worshiping a corporate version of post-structuralist ideology. As I wrote in 2020, “If your deepest-held beliefs can be comfortably absorbed into Starbucks’ PR strategy, it may be time to go on a vision quest.”
As the tea ceremony draws to a close, the generals prepare for battle behind their smiles. Soon, one of them will die. The only way out of this game is if they question the very system they are participating in. To move beyond feudalism and address the socio-economic and metaphysical assumptions that generate it. Then, and only then, can they align to a higher purpose beyond human status games.
As Peter Turchin argues, elite-overproduction inevitably leads to revolution or war unless the imbalances in society can be redressed, and the elite overproduction problem remedied in some way. Sometimes, this can be done by elites willingly distributing power through culturally-driven policy changes. This is a possibility today, if we can take a step into a new paradigm beyond the status-seeking, selfishness and blindness that defines elite concerns today and replace it with something better.
Whatever that is, I believe it’s best drawn from a cultural aesthetic that has enough compassion and sophistication to genuinely grapple with the complexity of socioeconomic equality and injustice. Only then can we put our swords away, turn them into shovels and build something beautiful.