Elite Overproduction and Foreign Policy

August 19, 2023 Topic: History Region: Global Tags: HistoryElitesSocial ScienceEndless WarsImperialism

Elite Overproduction and Foreign Policy

The historian Peter Turchin’s new work on how societies collapse due to intra-elite competition raises perilous questions about today’s problems.


Peter Turchin, End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration, (New York City, Penguin Random House). 368 pp., $28.00.

If a science of history was possible, could policymakers use it? More specifically, could foreign policy establishments around the world guide the chaotic nature of inter-state anarchy and avoid calamity?


In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, the mathematician Hari Seldon develops a theoretical macro-historical model to predict the future in order. Seldon hopes to save as much technology and cultural achievement (the eponymous “Foundation”) as possible from the impending collapse of the galactic empire. However, As the narrative unfolds, ever more unpredictable consequences leave the Foundation struggling to adapt. A secret Second Foundation  is established after the predictive models of the original fail when faced with the mutant powers of a mysterious warlord known as “The Mule.”

Peter Turchin, a real-life Hari Seldon, is a former biologist whose website describes him as a “complexity scientist who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call cliodynamics.” Cliodynamics is a relatively new field in which historical case studies and variables related to measurable economic factors are combined to discern human history's broad, large-scale trends and integrate them into public policy. 

Turchin deploys cliodynamics in an attempt to bring the observations of hard science to bear onto the more relativistic field of the humanities. During this unique career arc, Turchin has published many books on cyclical models of history. His most recent work, End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration, distills his thought so far.

The book’s core premise can be summarized as the study of boom-and-bust cycles for societies based on the interplay of growing class inequality and a massive expansion of the number of administrative elites. Regarding foreign policy and national security, Turchin found state failure begins as a breakdown in trust between the goals of the governing elite and those asked to enforce their decisions, whether that means dealing with the economic effects of sanctions or serving in military operations.

In Turchin’s assessment, when a society’s governing consensus becomes complacent, wealth often becomes more stratified due to elites maintaining and expanding their sources of wealth. This negatively impacts state capacity and legitimacy, leading to destabilizing outcomes. 

As the number of educated elites produced by a society grows over time, the number of opportunities keeping elites upwardly mobile in terms of wealth and status either stagnates or shrinks. Frustrated by their diminishing prospects, a new counter-elite rises to challenge the very society that created them. In doing so, they often find willing recruits among the discontented non-elite. 

Though the interplay of these two factors is the most critical element of destabilization, Turchin emphasizes that the overproduction of elites is the more dangerous factor in the equation. Should this process go unchecked, state collapse and civil war may follow in its wake. A few societies, however, have seen this danger on the horizon and enacted reforms to avoid this fate—at least for a time. The New Deal Era in the United States is one such example.

However, failure to avoid calamity is a more common scenario for most societies. Falling living standards and the competition between the rural and urban elites, such as what occurred between the North and South in the decades leading up to the Civil War, are more common. In these upsets, one faction of elites solves the problem of overproduction by simply removing their rivals from power. 

Often, this upheaval is deadly or destabilizing for much of the rest of the population, leading to a growing consensus around the new order and a desire to maintain stability. But it can only last so long before the process repeats itself. 

As the fourteenth-century scholar Ibn Khaldun once theorized, political history is a cycle of regimes sped along by economic change and the decay of social solidarity. The modern historian Walther Scheidel reached a similar conclusion in his 2018 book The Great Leveler

Cliodynamics is an ever-evolving field. Turchin makes it explicit in his book that he seeks not to compete with historians but rather to work cooperatively with them in building up case studies. Here, we come to an element of his work that foreign policy scholars might view as needing greater refinement.

One of the elite strategies to escape periodic internal calamities that Turchin identifies is expansion abroad. He cites Victorian Britain and nineteenth-century Czarist Russia as examples. Both dumped their surplus elites into foreign colonies where they would not compete with elite administration at home. 

While one suspects that many early-stage empires benefit from exporting elites and excess young men abroad, this dynamic does not always work in latter-stage imperial states. The example of Alexander II’s Russia, in particular, shows how such policies can increase the likelihood of calamity through over-expansion. As Russia grew into Central Asia and the Pacific, it found increased competition with other great powers. Shocks to the system, like the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 and the First World War, were ignited by mission creep as the list of purportedly “vital” national interests grew beyond the state’s capacity. It was these shocks that would precipitate the Russian Revolution and Civil War. 

A similar dynamic undergirds the contemporary United States. Elite overproduction and wealth stratification are surely among the many problems the United States faces in the 21st Century. However, the constant expansion of American power abroad since the end of the Cold War has failed to alleviate this process.

In fact, it is doing the opposite. An over-produced foreign policy elite appears to be compensating for its own overproduction by adopting an unsustainably broad and moralistic view of the “national interest,” pushing for more sanctions, interventionism, and military buildup. 

Meanwhile, the “forever wars” fail to end, increasing the alienation of the general public from the very conflicts waged in their name and further undermining social solidarity. The leftover casualties, both physical and mental, will leave a mark on U.S. domestic stability for some time to come.

For the geopolitical analyst, even if all the rest of his theory is true, Turchin might have underestimated the dangers of over-expansion abroad. His book is still an excellent overview of attempting to make history into science. Fittingly, he ends the text with a warning about the dangers of monoculture in strategic and policymaking circles:

Cumulative cultural evolution equipped us with remarkable technologies, including social technologies—institutions—that enable our societies to deliver an unprecedentedly high—and broadly based—quality of life. Yes, this capacity is often not fully realized—there is great variation between different states in providing well-being for their citizens. But in the longer-term, such variation is necessary for continuing cultural evolution. If societies don’t experiment in trying for better social arrangements, evolution will stop. Even more importantly, when selfish ruling classes run their societies into the ground, it is good to have alternatives—success stories.

Turchin’s theory of elite overproduction and the ideological extremism it creates among competing factions struggling to dominate a finite system could end up spiraling into purity tests within the establishment with no room for prudence, restraint, or toleration abroad. Viewing great power rivalry as an existential battle of ideology is a pertinent example. But to have a foreign policy that serves the citizenry, the policy objectives of the elite must be understandable to the society at large and based on practical and grounded goals. 

So how do we do that? Reining in excessive military interventions and economic warfare via sanctions abroad would be a good start. Global stability is not served by treating foreign policy as a playground for an expanding elite looking to create more opportunities for their own advancement. 

While comparing Turchin’s work to Hari Seldon’s in the Foundation series may be the most obvious starting point in fiction, there is an additional science fiction novel worth remembering: Larry Niven’s The Mote in God’s Eye. In that book, first contact with a new alien species dubbed “Moties” by the spacefaring humans who find them leads to initial hopes for a positive outcome. The species seems peaceful, confined to one world, and non-threatening. However, it soon becomes apparent to humans that this apparently peaceful race has a catastrophically high birth rate, leading to social instability resulting in periodic apocalyptic wars. The human spacefarers, recognizing the danger of this race should it expand into space, rush to institute a blockade to keep them in their own system. We might also recognize the dangers of our own hyper-competitive and over-produced elite today.

Christopher Mott is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy and the author of the book The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia. He holds a doctorate in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews and has previously worked for the U.S. Department of State.

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