How The Seeds Of Revolution Take Root: The Middle-Class Loses Upward Mobility

If you cap the volcano, eventually the pressure beneath rises to the point that the cap gets blown off in spectacular fashion.

That the dramatic upheavals of war, pestilence and environmental collapse can trigger social disorder and revolution is well-established.

Indeed, this dynamic can be viewed as the standard model of social disorder/revolution: a large-scale crisis—often a bolt-from-the-blue externality—upends the status quo.

Another model identifies warring elites and imperial meddling as a source of revolution: a new elite forcibly replaces the current elite (known colloquially as meet the new boss, same as the old boss) or a dominant nation-state/empire arranges a political coup to replace the current leadership with a more compliant elite.

The Great Wave: Price ... Fischer, David Hackett Best Price: $2.65 Buy New $14.88 (as of 10:45 EDT - Details) A third model was described by David Hackett Fischer in The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History. By assembling price and wage data stretching back hundreds of years, Fischer found that cycles of economic growth spawn population growth, resulting in more workers entering the market economy. Their earnings trigger a demand-driven expansion of essential commodities such as grain and energy (wood, coal, oil, etc.).

In the initial phase, wages rise and commodity prices remain stable as supplies of essential goods expand and the demand for labor pushes up wages.

But this virtuous cycle reverses when the supply of essentials no longer keeps pace with rising population and demand: the price of essentials begin an inexorable rise even as an oversupply of labor drives down wages.

Fisher found that this wage/price cycle often ends in transformational social upheaval.

While proponents of these models have a wealth of historical examples to draw upon, these models miss a key factor:  the vulnerability or resilience of the nation-state facing crises.

Some nations survive invasions, environmental catastrophes, epidemics and inflation without disintegrating into disorder. Something about these nation’s social/ economic /political order makes them more resilient than other nations.

So rather than accept the proximate causes of disorder as the sole factors, we should look deeper into the social order of the factors behind a nation’s relative fragility or resilience.

The Decline Of Shared Purpose

Historian Peter Turchin defined a key factor in the resilience of the social order as “the degree of solidarity felt between the commons and aristocracy,” that is, the sense of purpose and identity shared by the aristocracy and commoners alike. War and Peace and War:... Peter Turchin Best Price: $2.19 Buy New $6.00 (as of 10:40 EST - Details)

As Turchin explains in War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires:

“Unlike the selfish elites of the later periods, the aristocracy of the early Republic did not spare its blood or treasure in the service of the common interest. When 50,000 Romans, a staggering one fifth of Rome’s total manpower, perished in the battle of Cannae, the senate lost almost one third of its membership. This suggests that the senatorial aristocracy was more likely to be killed in wars than the average citizen….

The wealthy classes were also the first to volunteer extra taxes when they were needed… A graduated scale was used in which the senators paid the most, followed by the knights, and then other citizens. In addition, officers and centurions (but not common soldiers!) served without pay, saving the state 20 percent of the legion’s payroll….

The richest 1 percent of the Romans during the early Republic was only 10 to 20 times as wealthy as an average Roman citizen.

Roman historians of the later age stressed the modest way of life, even poverty of the leading citizens. For example, when Cincinnatus was summoned to be dictator, while working at the plow, he reportedly exclaimed, ‘My land will not be sown this year and so we shall run the risk of not having enough to eat!'”

Once the aristocracy’s ethic of public unity and service was replaced by personal greed and pursuit of self-interest, the empire lost its social resilience.

Turchin also identified rising wealth inequality as a factor in weakening social solidarity. By the end-days of the Western Roman Empire, elites held not 10 times as much wealth commoners but 10,000 times as much as average citizens.

Wealth inequality is both a cause and a symptom: it is a cause of weakening social resilience, but it also symptomatic of a system that enables the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

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