MJD 59,354

This entry is part 16 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

Peter Turchin’s concept of elite overproduction has been on my mind increasingly lately. It refers to historical conditions during which there are more people aspiring to elite roles in society than power structures can absorb. In 2021, to a first approximation, this is people with college degrees in fields with low market demand. A good measure of the degree of overproduction is the intensity and rancor around STEM vs. humanities type debates, and “do you want fries with that?” jokes about art history degrees. The idea of elite overproduction is descriptive, not normative. It does not matter who wins Twitter debates about the “true” cultural value of various elite roles and aspirations. What matters is the actual distribution of unemployed human elite overstocks. When large masses of people fail to find economic means to sustain the elite social roles they’ve been conditioned to expect, and trained and enculturated to occupy, you have elite overproduction going on. The prevailing default perception of the specifics of the distribution of surplus elites is correct in broad strokes, even if there are weird exceptions and corner cases. It is probably true right now that the average STEM degree is less likely to make you part of the elite overstock than a humanities degrees.

The jokes about do-you-want-fries-with-that are particularly fraught this year. Service industries struggle to hire workers, but are wary of letting wages inflate even as various other price levels succumb. Unlike commodity prices, which can go up and down with supply and demand, wages are something of a sociopolitical one-way door. They’re harder to push back down once they manage to creep up. There is revolutionary fervor in the air as well, around everything from student-loan forgiveness and stimulus economics to policing and urban blight. The optics around great wealth are much uglier today than 10 years ago, when they were last in the spotlight to this degree. Gen X has joined the Boomers on the villains side of the aisle. Younger generations struggle, while older generations sit on top of record savings.

One reason to take elite overproduction theory seriously as a lens right now is that Turchin has been unusually right lately in his calls about the timing of historical crisis points. He anticipated that 2020 would be a year of crisis, and it was. He didn’t predict Covid afaik, but the pandemic was merely a cherry on top of the dire basic scenario he foresaw.

Thirteen years ago, the Global Financial Crisis led to a generation of disaffected and underemployed young graduates turning their online-native skills to culture-warring. Ten years ago, that reached a flashpoint with the Occupy movement, and led to far right and far left movements making inroads into mainstream politics and shaping the next decade. That whole story was primarily an elite overproduction story. To the extent there was non-elite energy in the movements, it was there because it had been co-opted by wannabe-elite actors in service of their own frustrations. In the US, urban black political issues turned into white wannabe-elite causes, rural and small-town rust-belt blue collar issues turned into white wannabe-elite causes as well. For a few years, all political roads led to elite overstocks, often being transformed unrecognizably in the process. The result was the volatile mix of genuine and imagined grievances, insincere co-option of non-elite causes, and outright grift, that gave us the Great Weirding.

It’s commencement season and we can expect to see a new crop of commencement speeches soon. The global Class of 2021 will probably be much smaller than normal, and have to make do with curtailed or online ceremonies. Despite the small size of the cohort though, I suspect, most of this year’s crop of fresh graduates will still struggle to find jobs and careers, and be in a worse situation than the Class of 2008. I wonder what the commencement speakers will say. I’d have nothing much inspiring to say if challenged to give such a speech. It is hard for privileged older generations to say useful things to younger generations entering adulthood under much worse conditions.

Conditions today are far more fraught than in 2008. Freshly minted Zoomer wannabe-elites today are likely more disaffected than the Millennials who came of age through the GFC, more skilled at channeling that disaffection into elite overstock unrest, and have more history to learn from. On the plus side (such as it is) they have only every known fraught times, and have never known hope in the sense Millennials did. Will that make them more or less energized? I don’t know.

But in the meantime, on the demand side, elite roles have become even more scarce, non-elite under-the-API roles are under even greater stress, and there has been essentially no political or economic movement on the issues of 2011. The far right has, to some extent, shot its shot, but the far left has yet to do so. All-in-all it’s a much bigger powder keg than 2011.

Unless something exceptionally big and positive happens soon, as the emergency civic discipline of Covid loosens its grip on populations around the world, we can expect the 2020s to get even more explosively weird than the 2010s.

Here we go again. Fasten your seatbelts.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. It’s an interesting point you raise about the left not having ‘shot its shot’. There were definitely a number of sparks (Bernie, Corbyn, AOC, etc.), but for whatever reason none
    could ignite the tinder to the same extent as MAGA,/pol/ memes and Qanon.

    There is a community of far-left Gen Z MLM types, but I think the 4chan-style provocative rightist rhetoric is far too appealing–and particularly as it’s now somewhat contratian/edgy to be against the mainstream ‘woke’ culture. All of this, together with the trad revival of Jordan Peterson and co., give little room for left-wing agitation. It’s simply out of fashion.

  2. Marc Hamann says

    “Elite overproduction” is a catchy and descriptive phrase, but a more general description is “broken system”.
    Any healthy society needs a mechanism to incorporate young people into their adult roles as both contributors and benefitors, and our mechanisms have become cargo cults serving embedded interests.
    The mad grasping for ideology is the sign of an established elite not acknowledging the seriousness of the problems or their responsibility to tackle them.
    Ask Louis XVI how that turns out…

    • I’ve never found that phrase particularly useful. Systems are rarely broken as such (c0vid is a rare true example). They are just not working for you in specific circumstances. That does not mean they’re not working at all, or are unsustainable.

      More concretely, “broken system” is not a model so much as a plaintive complaint. It doesn’t point to clear dynamics. It merely feeds discontent and tear-it-all-down revolutionary fervor.

      • Marc Hamann says

        I think I was pretty specific about what process was broken, and I definitely DON’T want a burn it all down revolution… I’ve studied enough history to not want to live through that movie.

        I’m not even disagreeing with Turchin’s analysis, I just don’t think it has enough urgency or prescription behind it, and “elite” is a much abused word: half the elite doesn’t realize it’s the elite….

        Looking for ways to help the young integrate into the system is something we can all do locally.

  3. I’m more in line with Marc Harmann’s assessment. Most importantly, it’s an overall broken system or rather a system that is working well for less than desirable purposes that don’t serve the interests of most people, even many supposedly aspiring elites. Yet, at the same time, I am partly convinced by Turchin’s theory of elite overproduction. To some extent, and in some cases, it might explain reactionary movements led by counter-elites. Is that true of what we’re seeing now in the US?

    Trump possibly could be described as a counter-elite in not being old respectable wealth. And definitely Bannon is a counter-elite, having gone from working class Catholic to Ivy League, Hollywood, Wall Street, and presidential advisor; and then out of power again. There has been a history of Catholic counter-elites in Anglo-American society (Edmund Burke, Paul Weyrich, etc). Nonetheless, I don’t know that most of those counter-elites could be explained as elite overproduction. Did Federalists like Alexander Hamilton turn to reactionary politics because of elite competition for limited elite positions? Not that I can tell.

    This is where the theory breaks down a bit for me. Trump and Bannon are counter-elites in not fully fitting into respectable society. Yet it’s not because of elite overproduction and failure to achieve elite status. Trump inherited immense wealth and promoted his influence through his father’s name. And Bannon gained immense wealth from a successful career in powerful industries. The emergence of counter-elites has more factors than that. Elite overproduction probably is involved to some degree. If so, I’m not entirely convinced that it’s the causal factor or even the central contributing factor.

    “When large masses of people fail to find economic means to sustain the elite social roles they’ve been conditioned to expect, and trained and enculturated to occupy, you have elite overproduction going on.”

    This is another element that simply doesn’t pass the sniff test. Very few people going to college have any ambitions for elite careers and status. A college degree today is about equivalent to what a high school degree was a century ago. My grandfather dropped out of school and still got a high-paying factory job, whereas my grandmother graduated high school and so was able to get a nice job at the local state college where she edited and rewrote papers and letters for professors to make them sound smarter. Both of my grandparents’ jobs were better than what is available today to the average college graduate.

    Still, all that most people, similar to my grandparents, are aspiring to is a comfortable middle class lifestyle, not elitism. I live in a city where most people, even many in the working class, have college degrees. It doesn’t really mean a whole lot. One goes to college simply because lacking a college degree is even worse in terms of opportunities. Most college graduates did not go to Ivy League schools and leading educational institutions. So they were never “conditioned to expect, and trained and enculturated to occupy” elite social roles.

    “To the extent there was non-elite energy in the movements, it was there because it had been co-opted by wannabe-elite actors in service of their own frustrations. In the US, urban black political issues turned into white wannabe-elite causes, rural and small-town rust-belt blue collar issues turned into white wannabe-elite causes as well.”

    I honestly don’t see the BLM movement and related activism being co-opted by wannabe-elite actors. For example, AOC went from working class to politician. She is now a major voice in demanding reforms, but apparently not out of personal frustrations. Other leading voices of progressive reform among the presidential candidates were also not people to be described as counter-elites (Sanders, Williamson, Yang, etc). Ignoring those political types, the active leaders of something like the BLM movement seem to be ordinary people.

    Or look back again to the American Revolution. It’s an interesting example because so many elites were involved on both sides. But was there really an elite overproduction? A bigger conflict was a carryover of feudal aristocracy. First sons inherited the wealth, land, and titles. And third sons went into lucrative and powerful careers in the clergy. But seconds sons were expected to find their own way, although with much access to connections and funding.

    Yet, at the same time, colonialism suddenly opened up vast opportunities for those second sons. Second sons could get wealthy on slave plantations or in the slave trade in a way second sons never could before. And, in the colonies, new social networks and political systems developed around this secondary aristocracy combined with an emerging middle class and capitalist plutocracy. The problem was the second sons didn’t have the same level of power and respectability back in England.

    This was happening simultaneously with the enclosure movement that created millions of landless peasants who crowded into the cities. Also, working class people could sometimes make great money, such as through privateering. That is what Thomas Paine and then, as many others did in London, he used his money to buy books and pay for lectures. He informally educated himself, as non-aristocrats weren’t allowed into the universities. Did that make Paine into a wannabe-elite? No. But it did create an interesting situation where someone like Paine could end up socializing with the elite, if only the secondary aristocracy of the colonies.

    A larger factor of destabilization, besides enclosure, was the vast levels of high inequality that emerged with colonial trade and capitalist privatization. This is a pattern that is also seen in the present. It’s not merely that potential elites, wannabe or otherwise, and others seeking social mobility or simply economic security don’t have as many opportunities but are actively being denied opportunities. Inequality is not only about wealth but also inequality of cronyism, resources, power, representation, privileges, etc.

    There is more wealth and resources, scientific knowledge and technological capacity, not to mention human potential right now than ever before in history; but so much of it is being privatized, monopolized, suppressed, wasted, and destroyed. Meanwhile, the costs are being externalized and socialized. This plutocracy is what some call socialism for the rich If we were to redistribute all of the wealth and resources that have been stolen by the plutocracy this past century, every US citizen could be a millionaire.

    The instability and outrage heard now probably has little to do with elite overproduction. It’s simply the response to a morally corrupt society where most Americans are being denied basic decency, justice, fairness, rights, and freedom. As someone who is working class (and, by the way, GenX), I think the obsession with issues of the elite among the elite seems to be another indication of how out of touch are the elite. For all their attempts to control and possess everything or simply maintain their comfortable lifestyle, it’s simply not true that all of reality and society revolves around the elite, including overproduction and aspiration of elites.

    The fact of the matter is most Americans are to the left of the elites, but the elites are some combination of clueless, corrupt, and cynical about it. The average American, including the majority of college graduates, simply want their basic needs met: shelter, access to healthy foods, universal healthcare, etc. It’s not only elite activists and leaders pushing for reform. The strongest demand for far left policies comes from the general population and keep in mind, even now, the vast majority of Americans lack a college education, including myself.

    We ignore populism at our detriment, especially when it gets dismissed as right-wing and reactionary. If the left-wing majority continues to be silenced and suppressed, then elite demagogues like Trump and Bannon will continue to play their games, as the likes of Obama and Biden will try to hold onto power and maintain the status quo.


    • What you’re calling counter-elite is just elites. Pareto’s circulation of elites theory posits fox elites vs lion elites who take turns at the top. The distinction is useful for intra-elite competition models but makes no difference for the aggregate demand/supply. Just like PCs and Macs both count as computers. Trump and Bannon were lion elites. In Turchin’s model, it’s not about cultural markers or ideologies but a structural role in a power structure. If you have power by being on top, you’re elite. If you aspire to such a role, but there’s more than normal amount of competition, we’re in elite overproduction conditions.


      Class mobility is irrelevant. The fact that Bannon rose from working class while Trump was born to wealth makes no difference to the elite overproduction model. Both played elite roles which had a lot more supply than demand. More to the point, both are old and were junior elites in much less overproduced conditions (70s/80s).

      • When Paine was hobnobbing with the elite and even a guest at the plantations of aristocracy, was he an elite because he was possibly the single most influential individual in the American Revolution? He even made a fair amount of money, but he donated it to the cause. Yet he remained influential and was made a member of the French National Assembly. Then his status took a serious nosedive.

        I just don’t see it as being so simple. My point is sometimes elite vs non-elite vs counter-elite is not always black and white. Nor are they necessarily permanent states, besides highly regimented societies where status rarely changes. And the other point is that there remains no evidence that we are now experiencing elite or wannabe elite overproduction. The scarcity of our society is artificially created and enforced. Opportunities are unnaturally suppressed.

  4. Nitin Nair says

    Interesting perspective here. Would it be a logical conclusion that any activism such as BLM, Climate change, Minimum wage, Free Healthcare, Waiving college debt, etc. done performatively (by members of the aspirational elite) is by default a signal that the person doing the activism is on the losing side of the elite overproduction equation? Is all activism then a marker of low status?

  5. Simon Ho says

    Reminds me of “Brave New World”…

  6. More explosively weird, o.k. but also more properly violent and cause of serious instabilities? In past ages, rulers had to balance civil against military aristocracies, but right now there is only an elite overpopulation in the clergy sector, something which doesn’t look super critical.

    There are lots of earnest-but-not-serious interventions going on for example when the Apple Muslim Association tries to force Tim Cook to proclaim that “Palestinian Lives Matter”. Weirdness might even defy radicalism as it poisons ideological ambition with absurdity. It causes some kind of nausea and epistemic disorientation. One might ask if one is still on Mars but this doesn’t catalyze social upheaval which goes very far. People stormed the Capitol because of Trump and QAnon but they had no plan and Trump and QAnon hadn’t one for them either.

    It is common place that the “system is rigged against you” but the worst fear people commonly seem to have in the internet age is not Bill Gates waiting at the end of the corridor, implanting them a microchip, but losing a handle to the simulation, like getting purged from social media or cancelled from a prestigious company / institution. It isn’t that the system enslaves them but they hate it for being voluntarily dependent on it, dependent by seeking their own manipulated advantage. It is the kind of suffering Buddhism once offered itself as a therapy.

    I would be delighted if any one of our rulers in Germany had at least a little grip of art history or history at all. Lots of pro-European people in the parliaments who believe Europe is some kind of standardization committee. Europeans including their leaders are exiled from their history but the beauty of the continent lies in its historical density. Almost every point on the landscape is a portal which can be used to take a deep dive.

  7. I lack a century of trend data on colleges, distribution of degrees, and hiring practices.
    As an IT person, I see ridiculous job posting for 5 years of experience with Product X, when it’s only two years old. When did hiring practices pivot to having a degree, or a narrow skill?
    Something happened in marketing to the masses – it turned a college diploma into a Must-Have item, certainly when compared to a century ago. When families saved money for higher education, weren’t they more selective than picking a degree program that equates to “you want fries with that?” (Didn’t the stereotypical parent want children to be a doctor or a lawyer?) When the federal government added a Student Loan program, didn’t college pricing explode too? And with these loans available, did “more people than necessary” go to college?

    The purpose of a university is not to help you graduate; it’s not to create a supply of graduates in fields that matches the demands of businesses – the only purpose of a college is to take your money from you.

    It’s so sad that people drop out of college AND have debt but NO degree. The college doesn’t care. It’s so sad that students select or are even directed to “lame” degrees with poor job prospects because some moron told them to “follow your passion”.

    It sounds like this community of lame-degree + no-job is agitated and lashing out. Did that degree give them an entitlement, so that many jobs are beneath them now? There are so many job openings. Is there a lack of applicants? is there a lack of “qualified” applicants?
    The world still needs truck drivers, electricians, and plumbers. And that’s even before you include people in vocations (it ain’t for the money) like clergy, teachers, firemen, police.

    The modern world seems to run on manufacturing, which needs energy and raw materials. Send kids into STEM.