If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


I.

A couple of weeks ago, over on his Astral Codex Ten newsletter, Scott Alexander posted, A Cyclic Theory Of Subcultures, which posits that movements go through four phases: precycle, growth, involution, and postcycle. 

In the precycle phase people join the movement out of love, and it’s probably inaccurate to label it a movement, it’s just something a few people do. But at some point the excitement felt by those initial people starts to spread to the wider world. And because it’s new it’s naturally exciting, there’s “a vast frontier, waiting to be explored”. As a consequence of this early entrants receive disproportionate payouts. To continue the territory metaphor, imagine buying a lot of land… in San Francisco… in the 70’s. But in the case of a movement, imagine the first few people to start a blog, or get hired by Amazon.

As the movement grows it takes on the characteristics of a “status Ponzi scheme”. As long as there’s new people joining the movement and territory still to be claimed there’s plenty of status for everyone, and no reason to compete. But like all Ponzi schemes eventually you run out of new people. All the people granting status expect to receive status and there are no new entrants to provide it. Accordingly, things start to collapse. This is when involution sets in. As Alexander describes it:

Thanks to the Chinese for teaching me this lovely word, which I think works better than Turchin’s term “stagflation” in this context.

The movement has picked the low-hanging fruit of their object-level goals. Artistic movements have created enough works that it’s hard not to seem derivative. Intellectual movements have explored most of the implications of their ideas. Political movements have absorbed their natural base and are facing organized opposition. It’s still possible to do object-level work, but unless you’re a hard-working genius, someone will have beaten you to most good ideas.

And the movement already has most of the infrastructure it needs. Want to hold a conference? There are already five top-notch conferences about the movement; unless you’re a hard-working genius, yours will never be as good. Want to start a newsletter? Maybe instead you should beg for an internship at one of the ten newsletters that already compete for readers – too bad a thousand other people are begging equally hard for that same position.

In other situations, everyone would lower their expectations and be fine. But the subculture is used to being a status Ponzi scheme. This is the stage where the last tier joins the pyramid, realizes that there won’t be a tier below them, and feels betrayed.

Eventually, after all the status seekers get culled, the movement settles down into the postcycle, where people once again mostly join the movement out of genuine interest and not a desire for status, and so the cycle goes.

II.

My initial reaction is that this description applies to more than just subcultures. It also seems like a reasonable description of what’s happening to Western Culture as a whole. This conclusion seemed so obvious to me that I assumed it would dominate the comments on the post, or at least there’d be a thread where it was mentioned and masticated on. But as near as I can tell, after searching for various terms (I didn’t read all the comments, no one has time for that) only one person made this point, UKResident said:

This is a pretty perfect description of our current western ‘civilisation’.

Innovation ––> bureaucracy ––> dogmatism ––> anti-innovation

To which Erusian responded that it might describe our politics, but not the entire civilization. I’m not sure why UKResident felt it necessary to rename the steps. It doesn’t appear to have added any clarity. Nor am I sure why he was the only one to make the connection, or why the one person who did respond dismissed it as purely a political issue. If I was going to try to center it anywhere it would be at the level of the university, but I’ll get to that. Before doing so I need to consider the idea that if hardly anyone else is making this connection then perhaps the connection doesn’t exist. Perhaps it’s only my numerous biases that lead me to a conclusion no one else seems to be arriving at. 

Certainly I have a bias for large, overarching narratives and explanations. Additionally, I have demonstrated repeatedly that I think there is something wrong with the world and I’m always on the hunt for what that might be. But perhaps the most salient admission of bias I could make is that I just barely finished reading The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason by Douglas Murray, which seems very clearly to describe a civilization in the middle of involution.

But I didn’t call out all of the foregoing biases for nothing. You should certainly take them into account, and if that means you stop reading here then I suppose that’s what I get for attempting to be intellectually honest. Though before you bail, I would pose one final question. If you accept that something like this happens with subcultures, what prevents it from operating at a larger scale? Certainly each phase in the cycle would take longer if you’re dealing with an entire culture rather than just a subculture (another point I’ll return to) but beyond that why wouldn’t we see a similar progression? 

If you’re still with me, and you’ve decided that there might be something worthy of discussion—some useful knowledge to be gained, both from the observation more generally, and from the specific application of it to Murray’s book—then we should move on to discussing what that knowledge might be.

Before coming across Alexander’s post, I had already decided that War on the West reminded me of the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, an 1841 book by Charles Mackay. (I only just discovered that Douglas Murray has also written a book called Madness of Crowds, make of that what you will.) Mackay’s book is best known for his discussion of financial bubbles, but he also discusses various other episodes of crowd psychology including things like witch hunts and alchemy. Mackay’s book is basically a collection of episodes of peak mania. I had a similar sense when reading Murray. Or at least I hope what Murray is describing is the peak, that in 100 years when people want to understand just how crazy it got that they’ll be able to pick up War on the West, in the same way we now pick up Mackay’s book to understand how crazy the Mississippi Scheme got in France.

Unfortunately it remains to be seen whether Murray was describing maximum craziness—whether wokeness has peaked as some have predicted. Certainly I hope things are getting a little more sane, but that’s not what I’m claiming. My claim is that Murray is describing an involution. One that has all the same characteristics Alexander describes with respect to subcultures, but that it’s an involution involving the whole of Western culture. Also, you’ll see that as we dig further there appear to be reasons to doubt that we’re at the end of that involution.

III.

Let’s take another look at one of the paragraphs I quoted earlier:

The movement has picked the low-hanging fruit of their object-level goals. Artistic movements have created enough works that it’s hard not to seem derivative. Intellectual movements have explored most of the implications of their ideas. Political movements have absorbed their natural base and are facing organized opposition. It’s still possible to do object-level work, but unless you’re a hard-working genius, someone will have beaten you to most good ideas.

Does this perhaps sound like the place Western culture is at the moment, that we have picked all the low-hanging fruit? Obviously when you’re talking about an entire culture, it’s going to play out over a longer time period, but perhaps you can see the progression. For example, let’s consider the subject of rights. Universal male suffrage was declared in 1870 with the 15th amendment (though just in theory, not in practice). Female suffrage came in 1920 with the 19th amendment. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and gay marriage was legalized in 2015. Now the big fight is over transgender rights. When that’s all you have left I think it’s safe to say you’ve picked all the low hanging fruit in the territory of expanding rights. The other things Alexander mentions seem equally applicable. At this point it seems nearly impossible to create art that’s not derivative, and philosophically, we’ve done it all as well. When was the last time there was a genuinely new ideology?

Moving deeper into Alexander’s post, this section seems even more on point:

During this phase, a talented status-hungry young person who joins the movement is likely to expect status but not get it. The frontier is closed; there’s no virgin territory to go homesteading in. The only source of status is to seize someone else’s – ie to start a fight.

I’ve talked about this more in other places, but we’ve turned up the knob on basically everything described in this paragraph. We’ve convinced every young person that they’re talented, vastly enlarging the pool of people who expect high status, and then gone on to place an even greater priority on status with the current trend towards self-promotion and “influence”. And if we dig a little bit deeper, historically the vast majority of people were too worried about survival to worry about status, these days it’s the exact opposite. And all of this is happening at the same time that the frontier, i.e. potential sources of status, is almost entirely exhausted. Leaving the young with no choice but to either start fights or check out entirely. Conveniently we’ve also made both of those activities a lot easier as well.

Continuing on:

Sometimes these fights are object-level: the movement’s art is ugly, its intellectual arguments are false, its politics are unjust. But along with the object level disagreements, there are always accusations that accurately reflect status-famine, ones like “the leaders of this movement are insular and undemocratic” or “the elites don’t listen to criticism”. These accusations may or may not be true. But during the Growth phase, nobody makes them, even when they are true; during the Involution phase, people always make them, even when they aren’t.

That last point is particularly critical: the truth of any accusation matters far less than its efficacy. The youth who are scrambling for scraps of status, who’ve been promised that they’re members of the elite, are going to say whatever works. As it turns out saying “The current elites are racist!” has worked remarkably well at moving status from one group to another, which is almost certainly a better explanation of its prevalence than any inherent veracity it might possess. 

As such, whatever else it might be describing Murray’s The War on the West is basically a chronicle of these fights for status. A description of the entire culture reaching the involution stage of the cycle. Now of course there are exceptions, such fights aren’t happening everywhere all the time, but it’s remarkable how comprehensive this phenomenon is.

I was discussing this idea with a group the other day and I offered up Medievalism as a disciple that was in the postcycle stage, because it was long past the time when there was any new territory to stake out. One of the people in the conversation laughed out loud at this, and proceeded to describe the cutthroat Twitter fight that was happening between medievalists at that very moment. This is presumably an example of the commonly noted modern phenomenon of everything becoming political. Which would appear to be another way of saying that the lack of new territory is not isolated to a few areas. It’s widespread and pervasive. Afflicting nearly every part of Western culture all at once. The medievalists realize there’s no point in writing the fifteen thousandth paper on Chaucer. Politicians know that the era of the grand bargain is over, that congress is mostly a performance space and not a legislative body. And millions of twenty-somethings have gone to college, only to realize that they’re the “last tier” of the pyramid. Yes, some areas of technology and science might still have some interesting territory left, but less than people like to imagine. 

Instead the medievalists fight over whether the term Anglo-Saxon is unforgivably racist. The politicians fight over everything and encourage their base to do the same thing. You might think that it’s impossible to have a fight more all-encompassing than “everything” but students have managed it. They’re having fights about epistemology and ontology, i.e. they’re fighting over what “everything” even means. 

A lot of ink has been spilled over the craziness taking place at modern universities. Many people have defended the craziness with the idea that the students will grow out of it. But if we’re looking at a large-scale involution of the entire culture, then academia is just the tip of the spear, and it’s probably not just a phase young people are going through. The fact that it has spread to businesses with the phenomena of woke capital would seem to be evidence for how broad this cycle really is. 

It would make sense that academia is the tip of the spear. One of their traditional roles has always been to distill culture and transmit it to the next generation. One very obvious example of this effort was the idea of designating certain books to be foundational. Establishing a list and a curriculum around the “Great Books of the Western World”. (As you may recall, if you’ve been following my book reviews, I’ve been quite taken by the idea myself.) Numerous universities required students to become familiar with this canon as part of their undergraduate experience. Some universities still do, though these days they inevitably include books from outside of the West. And even with that adjustment, the practice is controversial enough that Roosevelt Montás, the director for Columbia’s version of the program, wrote a whole book defending the endeavor: Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation (reviewed here).

Beyond being an example of the way academia distills culture, I want to talk about the “Great Books” effort for another reason: I think it’s a useful marker if we’re going to try to determine where we are in the cycle. There are many questions worth trying to answer as part of this discussion, but perhaps the most important is: how long can we expect the involution to last? (if we’re ready to entertain the idea that that is indeed what’s happening.) While Alexander didn’t say anything about this in his original piece, you can imagine that somewhere along the growth curve, indeed probably near the top, the subculture would want to catalog and compile all of the progress they’ve made. We might even call this process canonization. I could also see an argument that this canonization process would represent the first signs that the movement was past its peak and beginning a descent into involution. If there’s no status to be gained for originality anymore then cataloging the originality which has already occurred would seem an obvious next step.

Even if the “Great Books” programs of the post war period give us some sense of when the cycle peaked, we still need at least one other point before we can have any chance of fitting things to a curve, and from there arriving at the durations of each of the four periods. Fortunately history gives us a pretty good idea of when the precycle period occurred and when things transferred from that, to “growth” and Western Culture really took off. Which is not to say that we can specify a precise year or anything like that, but what we can say with certainty is that it happened at least a couple of centuries ago. Personally I would nominate the American Revolution as a very conservative estimate for the transition from precycle to growth. As in, I definitely don’t think you can place the transition any later than that. 

For the sake of argument let’s run with these two data points. First off they give us a growth period of around two hundred years. Which we can use as an initial, depressing estimate, for the length of the involution. Though of course nothing says that each period has to be of equal duration. But as I said it’s a place to start. Can we make any guess as to the length of the precycle? If we assume that it was also two hundred years, and once again take the American Revolution as the end point then two hundred years before that puts us around the birth of Galileo and the end of the Renaissance. Three hundred years puts us in the middle of the Renaissance, right on top of Da Vinci. Again, precision is basically impossible, but if we were to say that each period lasts at least a couple of centuries, that feels like we’re in the right neighborhood.

Accordingly, unless the involution period is significantly shorter than the previous periods, this methodology would seem to indicate that it’s far from over. That it’s only just getting started. I would hope I’m wrong, but this methodology would seem at least as good as people who search their feelings or read the tea leaves in an attempt to determine whether wokeism has peaked or not. And it is possible that wokeism is just one of the initial phases of the involution, that there are other phases yet to come. If that’s the case I have no idea what these subsequent phases will look like. Perhaps something akin to a counter-reformation? But I’ve already engaged in enough crazy speculation today, so it’s probably best to step back from that cliff.

V.

Alexander mentions Peter Turchin, the current sage of historical cycles, in his original post, and gives him credit for inspiring the idea, but beyond that he doesn’t spend much time on him. However, if we expand the cycle to the whole culture, as I am attempting to do, I think it takes us to some interesting places vis-à-vis Turchin.

One of the central mechanisms for Turchin’s cycles is the process of elite overproduction. Obviously you can see exactly how that plays out in the subculture cycle. During the growth phase there’s plenty of room and status for all the potential elites, things transition to the involution phase when all the elites that were attracted to a movement that was growing arrive to find that all the easily acquired status has been claimed. The cycle naturally leads to elite overproduction. Once things tip over into involution some of the elites, or potential elites, will stick around and fight over the shrinking pool of status, but some will decide that it’s not worth it and either go looking for some other subculture which is still in the growth phase, or they’ll abandon their ambitions and accept some low status position. This is how it works for subcultures, but what happens if you’re talking about the entire culture?

If you’re talking about the entire culture then each of those three options plays out differently. Those who lack ambition have a more difficult time finding some arena that isn’t swept up in the, near-ubiquitous, involution. This means that comfortable, if boring, positions in postcycle subcultures are much rarer. Instead, if you lack ambition you frequently end up forced out of the culture entirely. Certainly we’re seeing an increase in this sort of disengagement. And whatever its charms there’s very little evidence that it’s beneficial for the people who end up choosing it. (Or perhaps more accurately, forced into it.) 

Transferring to some other culture that’s still in the growth phase is also not really an option. I suppose you could go to China, which is experiencing growth of a sort, but I’m unaware of any significant number of potential elites who have decided to take that option. Historically moving to a different culture was an option. I’ve only managed to read one of Turchin’s books, Secular Cycles, and in that book he covers eight historical examples of elite overproduction, but each one is limited to a specific country. Which means when England descended into involution people could leave and go to other countries, particularly if they were elites. To give you a specific example, in the days of Peter the Great, and later Catherine, there were an enormous number of British and Dutch expats that came to Russia seeking their fortune, precisely because their own country had a surfeit of elites. This is also the story of the early days of America and later the American West. 

Unfortunately these days there’s nowhere for elites to go. There is no Russia-equivilant that’s attempting to rapidly modernize, or frontier waiting to be tamed. There are places like Africa and South America I suppose, but again I am not aware of a large exodus of elites towards either of these places. Also one part of our strange cultural involution has been to place these locations off limits with the negative connotation of neocolonialism. 

Finally you can choose to stay and fight it out, and there would appear to be a lot of that going on, but when things are reduced to a single arena, and this arena encompasses nearly every aspect of life it’s inevitable that fights will become more vicious. Which is also, unfortunately, something we’re seeing more and more of.

VI.

The test of any model is its utility. Does it allow us to explain things we previously couldn’t, does it make useful predictions, and do those predictions come to pass?

It’s my hope that the preceding sections did some of that first bit, that you encountered a few ideas that explained or at least clarified things which were previously opaque. As to the second bit, I definitely made some predictions, and in the interest of clarity I’ll gather them here:

  1. The entire culture is going through a period of involution.
  2. This period of involution is a long way from ending.
  3. Wokeism has not peaked, but we should expect other methods of status subversion to emerge.
  4. The methodology we’re currently employing for raising teenagers, and children more generally is making the problem worse.
  5. Consequently the number of young adults who decide to disengage entirely will continue to increase. 
  6. Fights over what status remains will become ever more vicious.

I am aware that these predictions are not particularly amenable to being graded. But then again I’m not a particular fan of short term predictions with attached confidence levels. My goal is to help you prepare for black swans, and ultimately my claim is that during periods of growth we see an increase in positive black swans, and during periods of involution we see an increase in negative black swans. And if we have switched from one to the other on a culture wide basis, that’s something worth paying attention to.

That just leaves us with the question of whether these predictions will come to pass. Obviously we can’t know that yet. But I’ll add the list above to my annual prediction roundup, so I will continue to check in on things. 

Finally, while we’re doing a round-up of “the model”, it’s worth spending at least a little bit of time examining the last of the four periods of the cycle. If our entire culture is going through this process, what will the postcycle period of Western culture look like? 

Given that I’m predicting we’ve still got decades left in the involution period. I’m not sure there’s much utility in trying to envision the postcyle period. Will liberal democracy eventually end up with the same cultural cache as feudalism? Will we all end up trying to claim status in a new American monarchy? Will we all end up as Confucianists? Will the singularity make all of these questions moot? 

I know that some of my readers will immediately answer “Yes!” to that last question and wonder why I took so long to get to it. And perhaps that is the solution to everything we’ve been discussing. But as I am on record as doubting that the AI singularity is just around the corner, I don’t think we should punt on these questions. In particular I’m interested in how Fukuyama’s “End of History” plays into discussions of a postcycle. 

As you might recall Fukuyama claims that liberal democracy is the ultimate system of government (in both senses of the word ultimate) that there is no better system we can switch to. Meaning that if we expand our horizon back by a few thousand years we can imagine numerous previous cultures going through the precycle, growth, involution and postcycle stages, dimly iterating, via the proxy of status, towards the science and progress that finally reached it’s full flowering in the system of liberal democracy. But now that we’ve finally reached it, it’s a dead end. What do we do now? Is the obvious answer that we have to figure out some way of abandoning the pursuit of status all together? Perhaps, but if that’s the case, then out of all the things asked of us by modernity, that may be the most difficult request of all.


I like to think the sort of techno-pessimistic, religiously tinged, Taleb-adjacent, pseudo-eschatological blogging I do is still in its precycle phase, ready to break out as the next revelatory ideological trend. If you want to get on that rocket before it blasts off, consider donating