In his studies of the rise and fall of empires, Peter Turchin emphasizes that in the lead-up to a climax of internal social conflict, there is an over-production of elites. They got in while the getting was good, during an age of increasing societal cohesion (and so, presumably in trust of others in the in-group). But more people keep trying to get into that niche even when there's no more room left. That is, sponging off of the peasantry can only support so many elites, and the peasants may be willing to tolerate a fair amount of that, so long as they have trust in their superiors, perhaps personally if they're lower-ranking but more like faith in their symbolic representations and in the institutions they run.
However, with rising numbers trying to claw their way into the elite, their relationship to the peasantry becomes quite exploitative, fraying the fabric of good faith. This is between-class conflict, but the competition is no less intense within the elite class, with so many aspirants vying for a fixed number of slots, and with the current elite members trying ever more desperately to protect their downward fall, should they be displaced by ever more ruthless newcomers.
Turchin posts at the Social Evolution Forum here
, and has also written a terrific and easily readable popular book, War and Peace and War, about the cycles in societal cohesion at a massive scale.
America looks like it's at or heading into some kind of climax in social breakdown, not necessarily the kind of bloody civil wars that plagued pre-modern states, but probably something like the disintegration of Britain after its Victorian peak of political power. Turchin explores this theme here
. One key sign is the over-production of elites, most obviously in the form of the higher education bubble that began inflating around the 1980s.
This parallels the rising enrollments at Oxford in the decades leading up to the English Civil War. In those days too, a diploma was more of a credential for the young careerist, so the explosion in enrollments was a good proxy for more intense competition within the elite class.
I think another great place to look for this pattern today is related to the higher ed bubble, but specifically its counterpart within the military. I've never been, but most of my family has, and I recently enjoyed a good bull session with my brother about how bureaucratic the Army keeps getting.
Because it's funded with huge amounts of tax-payer dollars, and because it's one of the few institutions that most Americans wouldn't dream of touching, the military is the safest bet for someone looking to credential themselves via education and get a cushy managerial type job, with no ambition to lead, but simply to eke out a comfortable and stable living, without having to produce very much.
These are the ubiquitous non-commissioned officers, or NCOs, that he has to deal with, particularly those in grades E-4, E-5, and E-6. They have not received a commission, and so do not have command of those below them. They are charged with more managerial or supervisory duties of their subordinates. The lower grades E-1, E-2, and E-3 are basically grunts or initiates, and the higher grades of E-7 and above are what we would probably call more executive roles in the private sector.
The way he made it sound, the E-4 through E-6 grades are like store manager, district manager, and regional manager, more interested than those in other grades are in giving out pointless busy-work so that it looks like they're needed to supervise and manage that load of work. He also said they're somewhat likely to be out-of-shape, and so not the most inspiring folks to lead a group of soldiers.
Promotion from the lower ranks through the E-4 to E-6 ranks is based on points awarded for several factors, but some of those get maxed out quickly because they have a natural upper limit. For example, your physical training score gets maxed out because you can only get so fit. Ditto for your marksmanship score -- you can only get so keen in hitting the targets.
Then he told me about points awarded for "education," which is a domain that has no natural upper limit. You can take courses forever. You're only allowed a fixed number of correspondence courses, but normal in-person coursework is fair game. Points don't differ according to the subject matter of the course, the institution that the credits are received from, the grade you receive, etc. It's all just credit hours.
I'm sure that aspiring bureaucrats wouldn't want to raise any eyebrows by taking Mayan basket-weaving from the local junior college, but that still leaves just about everything else open to study.
So, there is an incentive to just keep taking more and more coursework to get promoted up through the middle-management ranks. Now, if you want to get up past E-6, I understood him to mean that you'd need more of what a normal person would think of as "officer material," like leading others in combat, greater praise from peers and superiors, and so on. But if you're just looking to lock in a comfortable living without having to do too much, other than going through a long and boring, yet fairly safe, credentialing process -- and even then at much lower cost than if you took courses as a civilian -- then why worry about whether you've "got what it takes"? It beats the ever more vicious struggle for good-paying slots in the private sector.
In our off-the-cuff conversation, he made it sound like this managerialist problem has been getting worse in recent years, even though he's pretty new -- more like what you hear from others, plus your own limited experience. That would provide another great example of rising competition to get into an elite position, and also through the route of credentialist coursework. But these are more qualitative changes in the nature of the job that someone has as an E-5, not necessarily in their sheer numbers or share of the entire Army. So I don't have an easy time series graph to show these changes over the past several decades.
However, we can get a pretty good hint of when the credentialist process really took off by looking at major milestones in the history of NCO Education System. Here
is a brief overview of the NCO, with some focus on the educational component of advancing. Under "NCO Education I," covering the mid-20th C., it sounds more these early officer education programs were like an optional way for real try-hards to score some extra points, but not so widespread or required. What really jumps out as a sign of a higher ed bubble is the developments covered in "NCO Education II":
The Sergeants Major Course first began in January 1973 as the capstone training for the Army's most senior NCOs. The Sergeants Major Academy also operates three senior NCO courses outside NCOES that are designed to train NCOs for particular positions. These are the First Sergeant Course (FSC), the Battle Staff Course (BSC) and the Command Sergeant Major Course (CSMC).
These are the upper levels (a Sergeant Major is an E-9), where most of those in search of a cushy job would find their duties too onerous. So there's still creeping credentialism in the 1970s, but not widespread.
In 1986 [Primary Leadership Development Course] became a mandatory prerequisite for promotion to staff sergeant. This was the first time an NCOES course actually became mandatory for promotion.
A staff sergeant is an E-6, about the highest rank that the parasitic types aspire to. Because it's the middle-management level, and because coursework is now mandatory, I'd say the mid-late 1980s is a good point to mark the beginning of the education bubble within the military. And as with other institutions during the still-growing bubble, there are lots of new, massive buildings with dazzling equipment (note also the banal bureaucratic self-praise toward the end):
In 1987 the Army completed work on a new state-of-the-art education facility at the Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, further emphasizing the importance of professional education for NCOs. This 17.5 million-dollar, 125,000 square foot structure allowed the academy to expand course loads and number of courses. As the Noncommissioned Officer Education System continues to grow, the NCO of today combines history and tradition with skill and ability to prepare for combat. He retains the duties and responsibilities given to him by von Steuben in 1778 and these have been built upon to produce the soldier of today.
By the later half of the '80s, the Cold War had more or less been won in our favor, which removed a key source of threat from outside that served to keep us tighter within. Before that, we'd had the Indian threat for several centuries, until the 1890s when the frontier was closed.
With a relaxing pressure from outside to make us play nice with each other inside, the elites began to really go after each other, not only in the bitter Culture Wars, but in the everyday pursuit of Looking Out For Number One. So what if I'm gaming the military system to secure a sweet paycheck for life? You gotta do what you gotta do. And hey, better to sponge off of tax-payers by merely being unproductive and pointless -- not actively hostile and destructive like some Marxist English professor, amirite?
Well, except for having an incentive to launch and continue all those pointless wars that are a main drain on our prosperity. Disturbingly, rising debt due to war costs was a feature of earlier episodes where the breaking point was just around the corner.
Most people, including me, have overlooked the military as another battlefield of intensifying intra-elite warfare, probably because we think of it as the One Last Bulwark against darkness and decay. But it's a government institution just like any other, and no less susceptible to the tactics of those aspiring to join the elite in other domains. Also, the shift in values and behavior seems to be fairly recent, no more than one generation old, so you might not have suspected it was this bad if your views were based on any of its earlier history.
As we slide further into societal break-up (not bloody civil war), people in the military will probably feel more open to discussing the problems honestly, as my brother did. Now that we no longer face great military threats, it's best to begin the process of de-sanctifying the military. The earlier sanctification served its purpose, but those conditions are now long gone. A freak occurrence like 9/11 was not enough to hold popular solidarity together for more than a few years (maybe through 2006), and that's the most we can expect for the near and middle-term.