Mathematical History And Turn of the Millennium American Literature
The goal of structural-demographic theory is to mathematically model political instability by finding quantitative proxies for a range of socio-economic features and aggregating them by means of a neat bit of logical reasoning about how such features mutually determine one another.
I hope that’s not the most boring sentence you’ve ever read. The theory is, in my view, super cool, and one of my aims here is just to explain it a bit to those unfamiliar. But I have a second aim. The theory is quantitative, I said. An interesting thought is whether it is either borne out or refuted by more qualitative, hard-to-proxy features like culture. I want to propose that at least a part of it, at least very arguably, is. In particular, I’ll argue that a feature of a series of critically acclaimed novels by Americans published around the millennium can be seen as cultural manifestations of the math(s) of history. I’ll end by suggesting that the thought developed here could be turned into a neat research program: go back through the history of literature and see if features of the structural-demographic theory show up in it.
I don’t know how to quote graphs. And the most recent account of structural-demographic theory, Peter Turchin’s Ages Of Discord, is full of graphs, the understanding of which is central to understanding the theory.
It’s thus amazingly convenient for me that the cover of that book has a graph that tells a lot of the story. Behold:
Take a good look at it. The blue line represents popular well-being, as measured by a range of obvious and non-obvious bits of data (in addition to wages, for example, it includes height, because stature correlates neatly and understandably with poverty — in particular, poor and undernourished parents give birth to smaller children). The red line indicates political instability. And the extent of political instability is detemined functionally by the values of three variables: in addition to the popular well-being just mentioned, there is also what Turchin calls elite overproduction, and what he calls the fiscal crisis of the state. I’m going to ignore the fiscal crisis of the state subsequently, mainly because as Turchin himself notes it’s not always present (Ages of Discord, 16) and also to keep the length of this post down as much as possible.
Elite overproduction is where my interest lies. And explaining it I can explain the underlying logical kernel of the SD theory which Turchin attempts to show true by data. So here’s a neat bit of reasoning: sometimes population increases and thus the cost of labour decreases (because the supply of labour will shoot up while the demand for it won’t). This is good for the rich (hereafter, and slightly imprecisely, the elites; again, see Turchin) as the purchasers of labour but bad for the non-rich as sellers of it. The standard of living of the non-elites deteriorates, while the elites engage in Veblenian conspicious consumption and have it good. But only for a while. It’s essentially become cheaper to become rich, so more people are rich, and more people try to be. Suddenly your erstwhile wage-slave neighbour now has just enough money to set up his own business by availing himself of the cheap labour. And you want a piece of that action; you want to be an elite too. You try hard: you, for example, enroll in law or business school, because that at least was a sure fire way to get rich, for the generation before you. Lots of people have the same thought; lots of people try to become rich, try to become elites.
But a society can sustain only so many elites. As the number of rich increases, the proportion of the cheap labour each benefits from will decrease, and so their overall richness will decrease. People will eventually get booted out of the elite class. And such people won’t be happy about it, especially if they’ve spent thousands on fancy law and business degrees thinking it was sure to boost their status.
This influx of rich and wannabe rich has political consequences, too. Politics attracts the elites; historically, it’s the rich who get involved in politics. So there’s more competition for political offices, which are, after all, fixed (there’s only one president, only one hundred senators). In addition to failed lawyers and businessmen, there’s also failed politicians.
That’s not good. You have a generally unhappy populace, and many unhappy failed elites. The unhappy failed elites will resent the successful politicians and businessmen, and they can encourage the people to resent them too. It’s not implausible that this would lead to political instability: factionalism, competing ideologies, and so on.
That’s the neat logical theory: increased population leads to decreased wages and falling well-being for the many; this leads to the production of too many elites, which lowers the quality of life for the elites and produces failed elites, and together they kick up a stink, and we get political instability.
The main point, as I mentioned, is to try to find a way to express this theory mathematically, to see if the numbers bear it out. I won’t go into all the details, but Turchin uses figures like law school admissions (and cost) as well as data about income inequality to measure elite overproduction. When combined in a way with the quantitative representation of popular ill-being, we get, roughly, the scary red lines like those in the picture above.
(This is a slight oversimplification: the political stress index depicted on the cover doesn’t take into account features like law school admissions or, in the component which measures popular well-being, things like stature. The above diagram, then, kind of confusingly, doesn’t actually present the central findings of the book; but the central findings yield substantially similar graphs, and, as I’ve pointed out, I don’t know how to quote graphs, so we can stick with this one without worrying too much.)
Inspection of the graph reveals the US is not in a good place, structural-demographically speaking, and hasn’t been since around the 70s. And inspection of reality reveals the same: I take it as somewhat common ground among many observers that things have been going south politically and economically (at least as concerns equality) since the 70s with Watergate and stagflation, then neoliberalism and a large ideological divide between conservative and democrat, on to the tea party and Trump and so on. And inspection of the graph reveals the US wasn’t in a good place in and up to the 1860s, and inspection of reality reveals the same. While I’m sure there’s much for the skeptic to complain about, the simplicity and retrodictions of the theory are, in my view, prima facie impressive and deserving of our attention.
That completes my whistle stop tour of the story. I refer the interested reader to Turchin’s book and references therein, or to his website which you can easily google. The next question is: do these structural demographic spikes show up in cultural productions?
Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close begins thus:
What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d’être, which is a French expression that I know. Another good thing is that I could train my anus to talk when I farted. If I wanted to be extremely hilarious, I’d train it to say, “Wasn’t me!” every time I made an incredibly bad fart. And if I ever made an incredibly bad fart in the Hall of Mirrors, which is in Versailles, which is outside of Paris, which is in France, obviously, my anus would say, “Ce n’étais pas moi!”
The narrator is nine. The third part of Helen DeWitt’s 2000 novel The Last Samurai begins thus:
Today is my sixth birthday.
I got an Oxford-Duden Japanese Pictorial Dictionary and a little book about a cat in Japanese that was all in kana and a book which I couldn’t tell what it was because it was all in Japanese, but Sibylla said it was Sugata Sanshiro by Tomita Tsuneo. She said I would have to share her kanji dictionary and her Kodansa romanised dictionary and her grammar and she said unfortunately Sugata Sanshiro was not available in English so I might find it rather hard going…
The narrator has already, at this point, finished The Iliad and The Odyssey in Greek.
In the first few pages of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 Infinite Jest, in which 18 year old Hal is being interviewed by college admissions people who suspect something fishy is going on with his nine application essays (on topics ranging from Montague Grammar to Justinian Erotica) we read:
The essays are old ones, yes, but they are mine; de moi…
‘My application’s not bought,’ I am telling them…
‘I study and read…I feel and believe. I have opinions…I believe the influence of Kierkegaard on Camus is underestimated…I believe, with Hegel, that transcendence is absorption…I’m not just a creātus, manufactured, conditioned, bred for a function’
What’s the deal with the figure of the precocious narrator in turn of the millennium fiction? Well, here’s an answer: it’s a cultural trace of the structural-demographic fact of elite overproduction. Recall what happens: people aspire to elite status, they get expensive degrees to facilitate their aspirations, but many are locked out. The end result is, in Turchin’s words, “A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.” (from this article)
Elite wannabes are people for whom fancy education has failed. Knowledge confers little power in a society marked by elite overproduction. What better way to convey this by shutting up knowledge in the heads of children or at least minors who are, after all, powerless? Children can’t vote, are economically dependent, can’t do what they want to, and so on (this is more or less an explicit theme in DeWitt’s book and in interviews she’s given about it; and it was recently reading The Last Samurai that gave me the idea for this post.)
So that’s my theory. Precocious narrators are the result of authors living in a society where knowledge lacks value, which is to say societies marked by elite overproduction. The structural demographic theory is reflected qualitatively in culture.
(I’d note in passing that nostalgia for the 50s and 60s is a central theme in 90s pop culture, from The Simpsons to Twin Peaks to Tarantino — in SD terms, it reflects a yearning for when the blue line was high. But I’ve argued this at great length elsewhere so I won’t do so here.)
There’s some very obvious objections. I’ve picked three books — that’s hardly exhaustive! One might well think I’ve just cherry picked examples, and am overlooking works of art in which knowledge is portrayed as conferring massive power. Granted. But the cool thing about this view is that it can be refuted or confirmed by further examples. For example, the presence of such a knowledge-friendly work would indeed disconfirm my theory; but by the same token, the presence of similarly anti-knowledge figures in the literature of, say, the 1850s would confirm it. More generally, what I’ve started here suggests a research program: check through the history of literature and see if it obeys its own cycles which track the cycles Turchin finds in his mathematical proxies for socio-economic life. I’m not sure I particularly care to carry out this research program, but hopefully this post has at least suggested a new way of looking at cultural productions as manifestations of the new way of looking at history the structural-demographic theory provides.