Intra-elite competition is one of the most important factors explaining massive waves of social and political instability, which periodically afflict complex, state-level societies. This idea was proposed by Jack Goldstone nearly 30 years ago. Goldstone tested it empirically by analyzing the structural precursors of the English Civil War, the French Revolution, and seventeenth century’s crises in Turkey and China. Other researchers (including Sergey Nefedov, Andrey Korotayev, and myself) extended Goldstone’s theory and tested it in such different societies as Ancient Rome, Egypt, and Mesopotamia; medieval England, France, and China; the European revolutions of 1848 and the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917; and the Arab Spring uprisings. Closer to home, recent research indicates that the stability of modern democratic societies is also undermined by excessive competition among the elites (see Ages of Discord for a structural-demographic analysis of American history). Why is intra-elite competition such an important driver of instability?
Elites are a small proportion of the population (on the order of 1 percent) who concentrate social power in their hands (see my previous post and especially its discussion in the comments that reveal the complex dimensions of this concept). In the United States, for example, they include (but are not limited to) elected politicians, top civil service bureaucrats, and the owners and managers of Fortune 500 companies (see Who Rules America?). As individual elites retire, they are replaced from the pool of elite aspirants. There are always more elite aspirants than positions for them to occupy. Intra-elite competition is the process that sorts aspirants into successful elites and aspirants whose ambition to enter the elite ranks is frustrated. Competition among the elites occurs on multiple levels. Thus, lower-ranked elites (for example, state representatives) may also be aspirants for the next level (e.g., U.S. Congress), and so on, all the way up to POTUS.
Moderate intra-elite competition need not be harmful to an orderly and efficient functioning of the society; in fact, it’s usually beneficial because it results in better-qualified candidates being selected. Additionally, competition can help weed out incompetent or corrupt office-holders. However, it is important to keep in mind that the social effects of elite competition depend critically on the norms and institutions that regulate it and channel it into such societally productive forms.
Excessive elite competition, on the other hand, results in increasing social and political instability. The supply of power positions in a society is relatively, or even absolutely, inelastic. For example, there are only 435 U.S. Representatives, 100 Senators, and one President. A great expansion in the numbers of elite aspirants means that increasingly large numbers of them are frustrated, and some of those, the more ambitious and ruthless ones, turn into counter-elites. In other words, masses of frustrated elite aspirants become breeding grounds for radical groups and revolutionary movements.
Another consequence of excessive competition among elite aspirants is its effect on the social norms regulating politically acceptable conduct. Norms are effective only as long as the majority follows them, and violators are punished. Maintaining such norms is the job for the elites themselves.
Intense intra-elite competition, however, leads to the rise of rival power networks, which increasingly subvert the rules of political engagement to get ahead of the opposition. Instead of competing on their own merits, or the merits of their political platforms, candidates increasingly rely on “dirty tricks” such as character assassination (and, in historical cases, literal assassination). As a result, excessive competition results in the unraveling of prosocial, cooperative norms (this is a general phenomenon that is not limited to political life).
Death of Gaius Gracchus (François Topino-Lebrun) Source
Intra-elite competition, thus, has a nonlinear effect on social function: moderate levels are good, excessive levels are bad. What are the social forces leading to excessive competition?
Because the supply of power positions is relatively inelastic, most of the action is on the demand side. Simply put, it is the excessive expansion of elite aspirant numbers (or “elite overproduction”) that drives up intra-elite competition. Let’s again use the contemporary America as an example to illustrate this idea (although, I emphasize, similar social processes have operated in all complex large-scale human societies since they arose some 5,000 years ago).
There are two main “pumps” producing aspirants for elite positions in America: education and wealth. On the education side, of particular importance are the law degree (for a political career) and the MBA (to climb the corporate ladder). Over the past four decades, according to the American Bar Association, the number of lawyers tripled from 400,000 to 1.2 million. The number of MBAs conferred by business schools over the same period grew six-fold (details in Ages of Discord).
On the wealth side we see a similar expansion of numbers, driven by growing inequality of income and wealth over the last 40 years. The proverbial “1 percent” becomes “2 percent”, then “3 percent”… For example, today there are five times as many households with wealth exceeding $10 million (in 1995 dollars), compared to 1980. Some of these wealth-holders give money to candidates, but others choose to run for political office themselves.
Elite overproduction in the US has already driven up the intensity of intra-elite competition. A reasonable proxy for escalating political competition here is the total cost of election for congressional races, which has grown (in inflation-adjusted dollars) from $2.4 billion in 1998 to $4.3 billion in 2016 (Center for Responsive Politics). Another clear sign is the unraveling of social norms regulating political discourse and process that has become glaringly obvious during the 2016 presidential election.
Analysis of past societies indicates that, if intra-elite competition is allowed to escalate, it will increasingly take more violent forms. A typical outcome of this process is a massive outbreak of political violence, often ending in a state collapse, a revolution, or a civil war (or all of the above).