Published April 14, 2017 in Warp & Woof
Social Entropy: Tribalization and Decline of Elites
Shared cultural experience, often reaching back centuries, is what determines many social behaviors, from voting behavior to social attitudes like racism or sexism. It is passed from generation to generation — the basis of class identity and national identity. These cultural identities determine what we read, how we are educated, and how we interpret what we read and learn. Indeed, often, we only accept input from certain qualified sources … the frequently cited “echo chamber” of social media news feeds. It all comprises our collective consciousness as a society. Some of the filters our experience passes through become very sophisticated over time, and may be difficult to perceive. We accept them as the rules we live by. They become “social norms.”
Ordinarily, social norms are enforced by law, custom, and group status markers. Together, the enforcement mechanisms constitute what we know as “authority.” But, what happens when the enforcement begins to break down? Do we lose collective consciousness, forgetting the norms of the past? Do we depend on individuals to successfully break the rules, before we, ourselves, can be free from social bondage to that collective consciousness?
Systems theory, though originally invented to describe natural phenomena, is today common in political science and sociology, especially via cybernetics: the study of feedback mechanisms and system change. Application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy) to social systems, however, has not necessarily been accepted into the standard lexicon of either political science or sociology. Yet, there is a link, as manifested by the transformation of complex social organizations into tribal entities.
Relationships between members of a social group may be based mostly on the larger collective consciousness, social norms; or, they may be based on things like kinship, language, religion, and neighborhood. The multiplicity of filters for shared experience encourages increased tribalization of society. There appears to be a breakdown of traditional social structure underway, with big groups, like nation states, losing influence compared to smaller autonomous groups. These small groups emerge as virtual tribes. This is a global phenomenon, not limited to the United States. It has been aided by the rapid expansion of telecommunications capacity. The more complex social groups, with many interlocking subgroups, which share the same basic cultural identity, are becoming relics of the past. The new tribal groups, being autonomous, never need to speak to one another. Social norms of the larger group are not enforced effectively on their native turf. The ability to “see the forest through the trees” is increasingly restricted to a certain social class … the one that has been acculturated to systems thinking. While perhaps this has always been true to some extent, something is changing now. This group is losing its social status! The authority of knowledge is diminishing, perhaps because of mass availability of information, and a long-established social norm no longer as powerful as it once was. It also may be because more people feel betrayed by the “professional class” that has arrogated to itself an ever-increasing portion of the social pie.
One of the main concerns of pundits is with the existence of social media “echo chambers,” where users tend to be exposed only to opinions, or even facts, which support their own bias. Certainly, it is possible for some exceptional individuals to break out of the prisons of their collective past bias, if they possess the proper spirit of adventure. Eventually, such gifted persons will decide that they may have been wrong! The impact of this in the social sciences is that there is no control mechanism … the Internet is not the “property”, or under the authority, of any recognizable social entity. It is supranational, and its content isn’t even managed by any international organization. (See Warp & Woofpost: “Mysteries of the Internet: IP Addresses – Where Do They Come From, and Why Should You Care?”)
The Power Elite and Social Entropy
Politics and sociology intersect when it comes to looking at power relationsin society. An important component of these relationships is authority. Modern social units — the municipality, the state, the nation — bestow legal authority via politics, but politics also influences other types of authority. The authority of knowledge, especially, comes from social constructs (advanced degrees, or a resume in government) which, in the past, have determined political outcomes. Not so much anymore. If any of these alternate sources of authority are challenged, and lose, a pillar of social cohesion may be lost. This is certainly true of the authority of knowledge, as seen in the last U.S. presidential campaign, and the British Brexit vote. All traditional “intellectual” elites in both countries opposed the two outcomes.
C. Wright Mills, in “The Power Elite,” identified three social groups which, in all advanced industrial societies, control the bulk of social and political norms practiced by the society’s members. They were the institutions of the military, business, and government. He didn’t include academia as a normative power elite. It seems, fifty years later, that omission has become an endorsement for his definition of the power elite, after all.
Power relationships in society do change. There are challenges to the legitimacy of social institutions, and of political outcomes. Elites are challenged. They’re often replaced by other elites, contrary to the argument that there is a pluralism at work in advanced societies. Democracy is fantasy, as elite theory postulates. Still, shuffling off one elite group for another can create social change, because of varying constituencies.
During most of the 20th century, there was an alternative social organization to the familiar corporate, capitalist-dominated, form familiar to us in the West (Mills’ model for the “Power Elite”). This alternate form was the socialist model practiced in the Eastern Bloc. The Yugoslav apparatchik Milovan Djilas described a “New Class” in these societies, in the Soviet Union it was known as the Nomenklatura. Prophetic socialist writers from the Bolshevik era (Trotsky) as well as anti-Communist writers in the West (Friedrich Hayek, among others), saw this New Class as the ultimate downfall of the utopian socialist state. Conventional historic interpretation of the fall of the Soviet Union, and transformations of the People’s Republic of China and Vietnam, tends to support that view.
Underlying the theory of social entropy is the notion that internal decay of all social structures is inevitable, following loosely the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The argument goes that the more energy that is invested in maintaining social norms the more friction, and less useful “work” (social change?), is output from the system.
Emile Durkheim, at the end of the 19th century, did a groundbreaking study of suicide, from a sociological perspective. He coined the term “anomie” to describe the case of social norms abandoning the individual, no longer serving their personal needs. By extension, one can see this concept describing radical social alienation in the form of protest, or even revolutionary organizations. Indeed, whenever society no longer serves the needs of its members, we can say there is a state of anomie in the group which perceives that it is not served. If this anomie is spread out among various subgroups in a complex society, one could observe general system entropy, in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
My argument is that politics and sociology, as we study them, are based on constructs we have made about what has gone before us, often what our ancestors had created. It’s not so much that they don’t matter in the present, or won’t influence what happens in the future, but that they come from the past. True, knowledge is being accrued constantly, new research does shed light on social phenomena, perhaps even leads to a new social theory. Investment in social energy through research, just as much as maintenance of social norms, might suggest looking at return on that social investment. Does it match the cost, in terms of social friction, or threats to existing elites? If not, society will ultimately lose energy (value).
Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROEI) theories have been proposed in environmental science to describe similar activity regarding fossil fuels and social structure. Like fossil fuels, it can be argued that social energy is a non-renewable resource. It is limited by the size of the population, and by the available social power of different groups, both elites and non-elites. It is limited by levels of authority given to different groups. The social return on that investment would be measured in increased power for any or all groups. Tribalism might be a response to low return on big social investments. Little is invested, by comparison, in the tribal group, so less needs to be returned.
Warp & Woof
When I launched this blog, last Groundhog Day, I introduced it with a sort of charter. It would be built, I wrote, on five pillars of content, which I called: The Past, The Present, The Future, Totems, and Beats. Then, I went on to describe what sort of material would be in the content for each of the five pages. The page called “The Past, What Used to Matter,” would consist of “philosophical meanderings about politics, sociology and history.” While history is obvious, my thinking about politics and sociology, at the time, was that both disciplines were expressions of our collective consciousness. They were based on shared experiences, and on our reading; but, specifically, on interpretations of them coming via social filters. Those filters are all rooted in a collective social past.
Both economics and anthropology live on Warp & Woof’s “The Future” page … “What May Matter, Who Knows?” That’s because those disciplines have an end which is future-oriented, increasing resources, or surviving in situations of reduced resources. Political science and sociology, conversely, only seek to increase understanding of forces which have led us to our present condition. They have much more in common with the study of history. But, unlike history, which is mainly storytelling, these two disciplines throw in some data analysis, and rely on hypothesis testing, in the scientific tradition … but grounded in data from past behaviors(e.g., voting patterns, survey research).
Finally, I will support my thinking about the social sciences with my reading list from the last few years. Newer authors have been more responsible for my current taxonomy of these disciplines than the older group cited above. These are primarily writers in economics and anthropology. Thomas Piketty did a fantastic job of bringing a traditional Marxian model into the 21stcentury. Joseph Stiglitz has further emphasized what the future “good society” should look like. Robert Frank, a behavioral economist, contributed an important concept for social models: relative status. And, significantly, from anthropology, Jared Diamond, in “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” gave me a long view of human civilization which my college background in modern U.S. and European history never did.
My attachment to older, more traditional, social models, like those of structuralism, or the Marxian creed of controlling the means of production, are clearly romanticized notions from the past. That said, I can’t be totally removed from social turmoil, since I do believe in a dialectic tension in history … thesis à antithesis à synthesis. And, looking at history is as much a part of my page for “The Past” as are the social sciences. I firmly believe that history will continue to be written, even as complex societies decompose into tribal entities, with few enforceable social norms across groups.
Jared Diamond, “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, W. W. Norton, 1997
Robert Frank, “The Darwin Economy”, Princeton University Press, 2011
Thomas Frank, “Listen, Liberal”, Metropolitan Books, 2016
Steve Fraser, “Limousine Liberal”, Basic Books, 2016
Thomas Piketty, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, Belknap Press, 2014