The Protests Are a Preview of Our Turbulent Future

A man raises his fist over a crowd of demonstrators during a protest in Madrid, Spain, June 7, 2020. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

Protests like those over George Floyd’s death may soon become a regular feature of life in the Western world.

That the killing of George Floyd would produce both terrible sadness and deep anger was to be expected, and so was a wave of protest. That protest might sometimes degenerate into riot and looting could also, perhaps, have been expected, but the scale of the protests — and of what came next — well, almost certainly not. Part of the explanation lies in double repetition: another killing, replayed again and again, feeding the despair and fueling the rage from cell phone to news bulletin and onto the web.

And yet something else seems to be happening, something that suggests these events are a harbinger of even more serious upheavals in the years ahead. These upheavals will not be averted by justice being done in Floyd’s case, or by reforms in policing, however overdue they may be. And these upheavals (which may or may not be violent) will be “about” a lot more than race. To understand why, it’s necessary to appreciate that the protests over Floyd’s death were both a sincerely felt reaction to an appalling incident (that was itself emblematic of far deeper problems in both policing and race relations), and another round in a broader social and generational fight.

Politics, at its core, is about power. Lenin, who knew a thing or two about both, reportedly (but believably) argued that, in the end, the only political question that counts was “who will overtake whom.” That formulation was later shortened to “who, whom” (“??? ?????”), a reduction of politics to a zero-sum game. There could only be one winner. Someone had to be giving the orders and someone else had to be taking them. In Lenin’s day, that was a reference to the confrontation between Bolshevism and capitalism, but the principle has far wider application.

For all the talk, under whatever system of “the people,” all politics can be reduced to a struggle for power within the elite. Revolutions (whether violent or peaceful, whether democratic or otherwise) occur when an able out-group can no longer be absorbed into the ruling elite, and instead tries to replace it. This process is well under way in the West, with the out-group being an increasingly large number of the educated, victims of economic changes that have shut them out of an elite in which by virtue of their education they feel entitled to belong. When an opportunity arises to shake the existing order, they will take it. And there will be opportunities.

How We Got Here

There are ways in which the events of the last few days have made for a perfect storm: a hideous death (another hideous death) available on social media for all to see, a president who seems incapable of finding the right words and rather too capable of saying the wrong ones. And then among the consequences of COVID-19 are the measures that have thrown 40 million Americans out of work and denied millions more the opportunity to get out and about in cities where bars, restaurants, cinemas, and sometimes even parks are shut down. The political dangers of mass unemployment are well-known; the potential for disorder triggered by mass boredom, rather less so.

This is not to argue that there would have been no protests if those 40 million had jobs to go to. Nor is it to claim that there would have been no protests had people something else to do. To argue either would be to trivialize the current mood. At the same time, to deny that these factors must have contributed both to the extent of the turmoil and the destructive turn that it took would be absurd.

In an article for the New YorkDaily News last week in which he (rightly) called for an end to New York City’s lockdown, Robert A. George wrote:

As the old saying goes, idle hands are the devil’s playthings. With historically high jobless numbers, there is little reason for these protests to stop organically. In “normal” times, Monday would roll around and a weekend of protest would subside to the realities of work obligations. Except for millions of New Yorkers today, there is no work to return to. And, under current rules, there may not be for several more weeks.

Then there is something else. For whites to stand with African Americans at this hour is welcome. However, some of those whites appear to have been playing a disproportionate role in the violence and, indeed, may have been waiting for a moment just like this.

Last week, NBC reported this:

[New York City’s] Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller said there is a high level of confidence within the NYPD that these unnamed groups had organized scouts, medics, and supply routes of rocks, bottles and accelerants for breakaway groups to commit vandalism and violence. There are strong indicators they planned for violence in advance using at times encrypted communications, he said.

Deeper Forces at Play

The longer-term significance of this is that such groups were already around, ready to strike. This was no surprise: Their existence is hardly a secret. A trail of destruction stretching back even before the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization riots in Seattle, and the behavior of similar groups now, suggests that they view Floyd’s death as both an additional confirmation of their beliefs about the evils of Western society and a valuable opportunity to advance a crusade — a word I use advisedly — that has been gathering speed in recent years.

Antifa and their kin are only on the vanguard of what is less a movement than a massive shift in sensibility in the West, and, more specifically, within its younger generations — on both sides of Atlantic. The spectacle of the protests against Floyd’s killing across Europe was striking, especially when compared with the absence of any significant demonstrations against the detention of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in China, or, for that matter, against the throttling of Hong Kong.

But in those latter cases, the malefactors are not part of the wicked West; they are not the white us. The horrors they inflict are of little concern to a generation (or, now, generations) of whites caught up in the delirium of identity politics. Their interest lies in highlighting, and then sharing in the blame for, the offenses committed by whites. In accepting their guilt by reason of ethnicity, they proclaim their innate sinfulness and use such confessions (followed by performative repentance) as evidence of their moral superiority and, in a good number of instances, a power play: narcissism with benefits. Being able to navigate the ever-more-demanding rules of wokeness is a skill well-rewarded in academia, politics, and, increasingly, the workplace.

Nevertheless, understanding the success of a belief system essentially based on a profound rejection of the society in which many of its adherents were born into a relatively privileged position is not straightforward. A starting point is to recognize that the Great Awokening has — as the term implies — many of the characteristics of a religion. Eruptions of religious fervor, often preoccupied with the eradication of some sin or another, are common enough. Why they erupt has everything to do with the peculiarities of human nature. When they erupt is a different question, with, over the ages, different answers.

The rise of identity politics among the young, like the mounting popularity of the more apocalyptic strains of environmentalism, is part of their broader hard-left turn, which began in the early years of this century. It then accelerated during the Great Recession, a trauma that gave birth to movements such as Occupy and Spain’s Indignados. Its aftermath played no small part in the surge of support from younger voters in favor of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain and, just this year, for Sinn Fein in Ireland.

Economic crises come and go, but the persistence of this trend — it’s been a long time since the Battle of Seattle — shows that there must be another explanation for the sense of alienation that has been growing for a long time. Here and there, the causes are easy enough to find. Consider the high cost of housing in the cities where the best and the brightest of the rising generations are drawn — San Francisco, say, New York or London: In 2015, roughly 20 percent of Londoners aged 25-34 owned their own home, a decline of more than a half over twenty years. As Mrs. Thatcher once observed, it is hard to ask people to support capitalism if they have no capital. It is even harder to do so if they are worrying about repaying their student loans, another problem they face.

A Glut of Overeducated Graduates

In the course of an article I wrote for National Review back in 2016 on the political impact of automation, I mentioned the work of University of Connecticut’s Peter Turchin, a pioneer of cliodynamics, a heavily data-based area of study that uses the detection of patterns to decipher the past and, from that, “predict” the future (in 2012, Turchin related how one line of analysis suggested that “the next instability peak should occur in the United States around 2020“). Whether one agrees with Turchin’s math or the shadow of historical determinism that wafts through it, much of what he has to say also makes, intuitively, a great deal of sense.

Specifically, Turchin has warned that “elite overproduction” can be a precursor of turmoil to come. To oversimplify, this occurs when members of the elite (or those with the talents to join it) become too numerous for society to accommodate their aspirations. Thus, Turchin noted, the Arab Spring was preceded by “a remarkable expansion of the numbers of university-educated youths without job prospects” — in other words, by elite overproduction.

Well over a third of 25- to 32-year-olds in the U.S. have a bachelor’s degree (or above), up from one-eighth in 1965 (and there will undoubtedly have been a dramatic increase in the number of university graduates in almost every Western country). The U.S. is not Egypt. University graduates earn more and are considerably less likely to be unemployed than those who could only manage high school. Nevertheless, the growth in the number of graduates has not been matched by the number of jobs that require degrees. This sets those who earned them up for a disappointment that won’t have been made any easier by the fact that, far too often, their degrees will have been of limited value in the first place. Increasing the quantity of degrees is one thing, preserving their quality quite another. In 2012, the New York Fed reported that “during the first decade of the 2000s, many college graduates were forced to move down the occupational hierarchy to take jobs typically performed by lower-skilled workers.” Unemployment may not yet be a problem for them, but underemployment is.

And, despite the stronger economy of the last few years, that has not changed to any significant extent. According to more recent analysis from the New York Fed, the underemployment rate for recent graduates was 41 percent at the end of last year, down from a peak of 43.5 percent in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Graduate underemployment as a whole has remained in the low 30s for decades. Interviewed for an article for Yahoo Finance last year, Glassdoor chief economist Andrew Chamberlain maintained that recent graduates were going after jobs in the skilled trades and e-commerce (rather than graduate-level jobs) because those jobs pay more. That is probably true, but it is only a partial explanation, and one that raises two unsettling issues. The first arises in the question that recent graduates in well-paying non-graduate professions will be asking themselves: Was my degree worth it?

The second is more important. The increase in the pay for (some) non-graduate jobs is another reminder of how wage rates in some of the traditional haunts of the intelligentsia, whether it be in universities or the media, have declined in relative — and not infrequently — absolute terms. Thirty or 40 years ago, a successful journalist or academic was guaranteed access to the lifestyle of the comfortable middle class. For many reasons, that is no longer the case. This shift helps explain both the radicalization of academia and, as has been all too evident in recent weeks, that of the media. No longer, as they see it, having a vested interest in the existing system, they are agitating to replace it with one in which they will have the power and the spoils that go with it. The same will also apply to those millions of underemployed graduates. To understand why academics are teaching what they are, why journalists were writing and broadcasting what they are, and why so many younger people are ready to listen to them, this is not a bad place to start.

The Gathering Automation/AI Wave

The pressure on those who thought that they had it made will only increase as automation and AI make their way up the employment ladder, either eliminating or deskilling (and thus reducing the pay for) the jobs of those — such as lawyers, doctors, and more — who believed that they were immune from the process. They will not take it well.

Back in 2016, I wrote this:

Every revolution, whether at the polling station or on the street, needs foot soldiers drawn from the poor and the “left behind.” Still, it’s the leadership that counts. Add the impact of automation to the effects of existing elite overproduction and the result will be that the upheaval to come will be steered by a very large “officer class” — angry, effective, efficient, a “counter-elite” (to borrow another term from Turchin) looking to transform the social order of which, under happier circumstances, it would have been a mainstay.

I wrote those words under the assumption that automation would create large numbers of the “left-behind” (it was clearly already beginning to do so) whose jobs had been automated away. To take one among many gloomy forecasts, the authors of a 2019 Brookings Institution report predicted that 25 percent of U.S. jobs, mainly low-skilled, will be at “high risk” over the next decade or so, while another 36 percent face “medium exposure” to automation by 2030.

Not all these jobs will be lost at once. And others will replace some of them, for the most part, I would guess, at lower rates of pay. But it does not seem outlandishly pessimistic to think that what lies ahead is a prolonged period of high structural unemployment. History would suggest that bodes ill for social peace, as do the events of the last week or so. With or without the lockdowns, there would, as noted above, have been large protests, but, as Robert A. George reminded us, “idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” Now imagine an America in which hugely elevated (even if not to lockdown levels) unemployment is a reality, not for a few months, but for years.

We are not facing for now the culmination of the sort of revolution that I was writing about in 2016. But some of the elements to which I referred — visible, say, in the behavior of a mainstream media that have at times appeared to be cheering on the current disorder — are gradually falling into place. And the Internet may help speed things along.

For Americans to protest at the cruelty of Floyd’s fate (and not just Floyd’s) is perfectly understandable (the violence and the looting are entirely different matters). But the way these protests have spread so rapidly across much of the West may be evidence that something far deeper is going on as well. They may have been triggered by a killing in Minneapolis, but they are also the latest in a series of skirmishes in a power struggle that will eventually deliver much greater trouble ahead.

Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review.
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