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Inter-Elite Competition and Institutional Destruction
There are more ways to be an elite than ever, and the fight for dominance is just getting started
By Daniel M. Rothschild
Several months back, there was a brief contretemps involving podcaster Joe Rogan, Canadian rocker Neil Young and music streaming service Spotify. What is now a distant memory, soon to be forgotten entirely, burned like a supernova in the firmament of Twitter-based cultural discourse for several days, a comparatively long stretch for a medium where the only permanence is the ephemerality of it all.
The proximate cause of the dustup was Young’s insistence that Spotify remove his music from its service because the company also hosted Rogan’s podcast. Young was protesting Rogan’s failure to police his guests for deviance from bien-pensant thinking on COVID-19 or to fact-check them in real time when, over the course of podcasts that can run for three or more hours, they made misstatements of fact.
Much of what was written about the affair at the time accepted this proximate cause—a stand by Young against “disinformation” that Spotify was “platforming”—as the correct framing; pundits analyzing the matter from all angles relied on the language of rights and free speech and cancel culture.
The ultimate cause, however, was nowhere as lofty; little in the way of principle was actually at stake. By dramatically announcing “You can have Rogan or Young. Not both,” Young was initiating a fight for dominance between the two entertainers. Rogan won the pissing contest—though it’s worth noting that Young seems to have done well while doing (what he considered) good. His streaming numbers increased in the immediate wake of the dustup—and likely drew some music fans’ attention to Young’s own streaming service. There was really no downside for Young in this whole matter.
Rather than a matter of principle, this whole sordid affair was simply a case of inter-elite status competition between an aging cultural icon and a relative newcomer whose path and vocation would have been inconceivable when the former was in his prime. It was, as these things often are, gussied up in the language of high-minded ideals. But at its core, it was just another squabble between elite factions tussling for status, both of which were incoherent in their positions.
The Theory of Intra-Elite Competition
The idea of intra-elite competition was popularized by anthropologist Peter Turchin; he credits George Mason University sociologist Jack Goldstone with the idea. The basic concept is that the number of elite roles in society is limited, and prospective elites jockey and compete for those positions.
As Turchin explains, when there are too many elites (or elite wannabes) contending for a relatively small number of spots, meritocracy gives way to instability:
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. Today, however, we’ve gone even further, from just intra-elite status competition to inter-elite competition. That is, competition occurs not just within one elite group but between different factions of elites battling against one another in a way not seen in recent memory.
Who Is Elite?
The term “elite” is notoriously hard to define and frequently misapplied. It’s seldom if ever self-applied; indeed, the paradox, especially in the democratic United States, is that seemingly everyone wants to be an elite but nobody wants to be called one.
Politicians with impeccable Ivy League credentials and professional pedigrees are among the readiest to inveigh against “elites”—as though they themselves, from their perches at the pinnacle of success and power, are mere everymen.
To be sure, the desire to play down elite status has a long pedigree in American life, from the famous Log Cabin Campaign of 1840 run by William Henry Harrison (a retired major general, diplomat and U.S. senator) to the embrace of a Texas wildcatter aesthetic by George W. Bush (alum of Harvard and Yale and son of a U.S. president). But this can be thought of as an aw-shucks elitism, signaling perhaps that one is in the elite but not of it, which stands in contrast to the new fashion of clearly elite actors essentially denying their elite status and claiming that the true elites are elsewhere.
One of the great fables of our age, beloved by populists, is that the major cleavage in our society runs between elites and everyone else. But most populist leaders are themselves elites. For instance, the masthead of the new self-described “radical” Compact magazine is overflowing with Ivy League degrees and graduate and professional degrees from top-tier institutions. The magazine says it exists to “challenge the overclass that controls government, culture, and capital”—but surely “overclass” is simply a way of noting a different set of elites, with Compact being yet another organ of inter-elite competition.
Society today is beset by cells of elites jockeying with one another for position. At a Bitcoin conference earlier this month, Peter Thiel denounced Warren Buffett as a “sociopathic grandpa from Omaha.” Thiel was casting cryptocurrency (specifically Bitcoin) as a young, anti-elite upstart: “At one point, Thiel presented a colorful photo of Miami next to the word ‘youth.’” But is there any question that Thiel and Buffett (both well-connected billionaires with degrees from Stanford Law School and Columbia Business School, respectively) are both elites and that this fight is merely about supplanting a system favored by one group of elites with a system favored by another?
An entire book could be written about the collapsing prestige of the 20th-century media ecosystem (indeed, several have been). The media’s recent pearl-clutching about Elon Musk’s acquisition of 9% of Twitter and elevation to a corporate board seat (which he has since backed out of in order to launch a takeover bid) is just the latest instance of the old gatekeepers’ inter-elite competition with the new gatekeepers (who in some cases, as with Musk, prefer not to gate-keep at all).
The Rise of Inter-Elite Competition
The prime reason we’ve seen a rise in inter-elite status competition playing a starring role in social dramas is that there are many more ways to be an elite than there were even a couple of decades ago. Put simply, “Who is an elite?” was a largely knowable thing a generation ago. Today it’s pretty much up for grabs—and at a time when there are more elites than ever.
Before the internet, national elites were cloistered in three or four East Coast cities plus Los Angeles (joined by a few industry-specific cities, such as Nashville for country music elites and Houston for the titans of the petrochemical industry). They had similar credentials, worked in a more or less fixed number of industries with an inelastic number of firms, and shared a commitment to institutional continuity and maintaining their stature against outsiders. Political elites were all in or around Washington, literary elites were all in or around New York, academic elites were all in or around (or in temporary exile from, yearning to return to) Boston, mass culture elites were all in or around Hollywood and media elites were scattered throughout these cities.
Even people who weren’t physically in these cities (pity the poor Harvard PhDs who had to take jobs west of the Berkshires!) still saw them as their cultural homes and lodestars, and at a minimum they had spent significant time there and returned often to visit.
Today, elites can exist in industries that didn’t exist 20 years ago (podcasting, social media, internet writing) and be rooted in places that were erstwhile definitional backwaters (“equities in Dallas”). There is no expectation that they “serve their time” or otherwise go through a trial process lasting years or decades before coming into their own. They can define their market segment as widely or as narrowly as they desire, and they seldom have to please gatekeepers. And when gatekeepers still do exist, it’s easier than ever to circumvent them entirely.
With so many more ways to join the ranks of a dizzying array of elites, there’s no longer just one known elite hierarchy in each field, but dozens or perhaps hundreds. And the conflict between these different elite cells is manifested in situations like the Rogan-Young kerfuffle. Hence, status competition is no longer merely intra-elite (that is, among a pool of widely-agreed-upon elites trying to, say, win a House seat, a C-level position at a large firm or an editorial job at The New York Times) but inter-elite.
We see this everywhere. The now more-or-less open feud between West Coast elites (tech and venture capital) and East Coast elites (media and politics) had a weird flare-up in late January with a West Coast meme about “shape rotators versus wordcels” that implied the intellectual superiority of West Coast elites to East Coast elites. The meme attracted the attention of East Coast elites, who wrote about it in East Coast-centric media organs, attracting opprobrium from West Coast elites for mocking their meme.
If you didn’t follow the ins and outs there, not to worry—the details aren’t important. What matters is that two different groups of elites found something they could use to play status games against one another. The individuals involved were trying to raise their own status within their particular elite cell by raising the cell’s status against a competitor cell. East Coast and West Coast elites are competing for dominance to decide what people read, write, hear and view.
Today’s jockeying between elite groups is less like the fight between Republicans and Democrats for power and more as if someone were to start a new U.S. capital in Nebraska. All of a sudden millions of Americans are voting for representatives to send to the Cornhusker Congress and ignoring what they dismissively term the Legacy Legislature. Or, perhaps even more to the point, imagine a Congress that exists only on blockchain, where you vote (quadratically, natch) through NFTs.
In 2020, economist Mark Lutter predicted that the current decade would be “half ‘burning ’20s’ with institutions going to hell [in] a handbasket and half ‘weird ’20s’ with different forms of social organizations, communes, charter cities, religion, etc trying to fill the void.” Two years in, that prediction is being borne out, perhaps most clearly in inter-elite status competition. When elite competition was primarily intramural, elites were institutional preservationists, which meant that most people barely noticed when individual elites were replaced within the institution. Inter-elite competition means more institutional destruction (of both the creative and nihilistic sorts), which means far less social stability. As a result, almost all areas of our lives and our society are affected by this new change in status competition.
As old institutions are reformed and even toppled, new elites will arrive to build and helm the institutions that replace them—and the conflict will be protracted and messy. For the foreseeable future, inter-elite competition is the new normal, which means less stability and increasingly passionate and vitriolic rivalries. Buckle up.