Limits to Social Mobility

28 October 2011


In the streets of cities across the US, where protesters are setting up camps and displaying their signs, staging an “occupation” of US cities in order to gain attention for their plight, we have a textbook-perfect illustration of what sociologists call anomie. The word “anomie” is the negation of the Greek word “nomos,” which means “law,” so that “a-nomos” means “without law,” though the term has come to have connotations of hopelessness, drift, and the absence of “normative consensus.”

Émile Durkheim, one of the greatest of all sociologists, gave the term its current sociological meaning; Durkheim’s conception of anomie was further developed (and taken in a different direction) by Robert Merton. Merton created a “social deviance typology” based upon the insight that anomie is a consequence of a disconnect between socially-approved means and socially-approved ends.

Merton didn’t formulate his conception of anomie in the language of political science, but I would say that society implies a social contract of socially-approved means that lead to socially-approved ends. There is a social expectation that, if you do what you’re supposed to do, you will receive the reward that is part of this social contract.

And although the “Occupy” protesters don’t formulate their demands either in the language of sociology or political science, the subtext of their protest is that the social contract has been violated. These are people who believed that they were doing the right thing. These are people who were following the socially-approved means, and then found that the socially-approved ends have not come their way.

What are these means and ends? The socially-approved means are leading an orderly life within the context of socially acceptable behavior, getting an education, and then seeking work in your field. The implied socially-approved ends are a nice house, a nice car, a nice family, and improved social status. In the US, improved social status — often called social mobility — has been especially important. This is what the “American Dream” is all about: if you work hard, obey the law, and pay your taxes, your children can go to the university and become professionals. If this pattern is iterated over a sufficient number of generations, your descendants can aspire to joining the elite of a presumptively meritocratic economic and political system.

For a while, things seemed to work out that way, but now the social contract implied by the American Dream seems to have failed for a number of persons — that is to say, for a sufficient number of persons to be simultaneously sufficiently angry about their situation that they believe that public protest is the appropriate method to draw attention to their plight.

The problem is that ideal social mobility is essentially a social Ponzi scheme: those who get in early get rewarded, but the last in are likely to get a drubbing. And this is for the very simple reason that it is impossible for everyone to join the elite class of society; no society can consist exclusively of elites.

It is a constant of all human societies throughout all history and for all social systems that a small number of political elites control the socio-political infrastructure. This has been as true for communist regimes as for capitalist regimes, and it has been as true under the industrial organization of society as it was of the agricultural organization of society.

The social mobility of the American Dream has been exclusively upward social mobility. In the US, no one wants to talk about (let alone live the drama of) downward social mobility. And yet it is a fact of life — indeed, it is another constant of human society like the existence of a minority elite in political control. This was recognized in the Middle Ages in the form of the Rota Fortunae — the Wheel of Fortune — which might unexpectedly turn, bringing the mighty low and raising up the humble to great heights.

In more recent thought, the idea of the fungibility of fortune has been encapsulated in the now-famous phrase “zero sum society” — I’m up, you’re down; I’m down, you’re up. It is an essentially retaliatory calculus, and an unforgiving code by which to live, but it has been the operative rule of most human societies, like it or not. And it is the rule because it is not possible for everyone to simultaneously perch on the apex of the wheel of fortune: if we all did so, we would all most assuredly swing to the lowest point — together.

It has become nearly unacceptable to suggest that contemporary society is an fact a zero sum game, as it has long been unacceptable in US society to invoke class conflict, much less class war. Part of this is a holdover from Cold War paranoia, but more of it is about retaining the illusion of meritocracy. Even those among us today who have become thoroughly cynical about the “American Dream” seem to cling to the idea of the US as a meritocracy. The very idea that there must be a social circulation in which some move up the hierarchy while others — gasp! — move down the hierarchy seems to be unspeakable. It is also inevitable.

It is entirely possible (at least, possible from a theoretical point of view), in the long term of the history of human civilization, that poverty and want could be eliminated for all practical purposes. This simply involves the production and distribution of wealth. There is no a priori limit to the production and distribution of wealth. While this economic raising of all boats by a rising tide of prosperity is a form of social mobility, it is not the same as having a realistic hope of joining the elite or privileged class of society.

It could be argued that increasing wealth and education while not increasing privilege and access to elite power structures is ultimately ruinous for a society. I have several times attempted to make this point, as in Our Less Than Optimal Labor Market when I quoted my own Variations on the Theme of Life:

“Fire a young man with ambition, fill his mind with an edifying education, swell his heart with proper pride, urge him to dream big dreams, tell him that the world waits like a ripe fruit that comes to meet the hand that plucks it, prepare him for a life of adventure and achievement — then show him the practical impossibility of attaining his ambitions, and you may just as well have shown him the instruments of his martyrdom.” (section 41)

I also discussed the problematic character of US society — the appearance of meritocracy coupled with the reality of entrenched privilege — in Meritocracy’s Elite.

It has long been the traditional view of elite classes, for reasons similar to those that I recount, that it is better not to have the masses educated, since educated masses will only be discontent with their lot and will make trouble as a consequence. This traditional view of highly stratified societies was eventually passed on in a changed form to less stratified but still patriarchically organized societies. In much of the world, women had no political rights up until, and through most of, the twentieth century. It was widely thought that it was better to keep women uneducated and confined to the home, since any education would only make them discontent with their social role as wives and mothers.

It could be argued that the increasing technical complexity of society has made broadly-based higher education necessary to the continued growth of any industrial-technological society. There is a grain of truth in this, although the growth of higher education has also created a new hierarchy based on credentials. However, while the continued growth of an industrial-technological economy may be predicated on the continuing growth of higher education, the growth of the economy will produce wealth (as noted above), but it will not create more elite positions in society.

Not only has the growth of industrialization, urbanization, and modernization not created more opportunities to join social elites, it has done the opposite. I explained in The Birth Lottery how industrialized civilization has established a trend of making political elites an ever-smaller minority of a growing population. It was just announced in the past week that the population of the globe has been estimated to have passed seven billion people. Eventually the population growth will level off, but there has been no trend — no trend whatsoever — of a proportionally increasing elite class, so of that seven billion figure, fewer than ever before can hope to be among the privileged with access to real power.

You can call it the increasing isolation of the ruling class, or you can call it crony capitalism, or you can call it anything you like — it all amounts to the same thing, which is that there are limits to social mobility.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

6 Responses to “Limits to Social Mobility”

  1. MisterEgo said

    layers… you are really full of layers…

    You are a true Ogre 🙂

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear MisterEgo,

      I don’t believe I have previously been called a “true ogre” but I appreciate any title to add to my utter lack of credentials. Being a true ogre is certainly preferable to being a counterfeit ogre.

      Very Best Wishes,


  2. Nick,

    From a Brit perspective, I’m not sure that any educated person ever thought that anything was guaranteed, much less membership of ‘the elite’. I think that most people hoped that one’s life chances were not unduly compromised by where and to whom one was born, and this did seem to be almost true for a while. They also thought that their government was looking after common security issues, so that they could get on with their lives, social and economic. I’m not sure that this was ever really true, and it certainly hasn’t been true here for quite a while.

    In the UK what matters is being respectable and – ideally – making a name for one’s self. There are many different ways of doing this and gaining respect without necessarily joining ‘the elite’. In effect, there are many elites.

    I can easily envisage that in some near-by communities having taken part in the current protests will become a source of pride. In that sense, the protestors are operating well within the normative consensus of many. The rest of us are, as you suggest, just confused.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Dave,

      You are right; in a large and diverse society there are many elites to which one might aspire (if indeed one does so aspire). The larger and the more diverse the society, the more diversity among the elites.

      Certainly most people hope that their life chances are not unduly compromised by where and to whom one was born, but in so far as this hope is satisfied in one’s life experiences, it is almost certainly a hope born twin with lack of imagination.

      It was a British filmmaker who made the Seven Up film, and the subsequent films that followed. The filmmaker’s original intent was to investigate the extent to which the British class system frustrated the aspirations of working class people. I have watched most of the iterations of this film, and some of the subjects of the documentary openly threw this bias back in the face of the filmmaker: they were far less concerned with social class than was he.

      It has been my observation (and this is purely anecdotal) that most people aren’t aware of how powerless they are, or delude themselves that they are more powerful than they are. Even the poorest of the poor in the US believe that they can buy a winning lottery ticket and thereby claim the American dream, though if they did win they wouldn’t know what to do other than buy a big house and a new car. They don’t even posses the background knowledge that would make it possible for them to accrue real power. That is what I call lack of imagination.

      And it’s not just the lower classes. The aristocrat featured in the same film mentioned above was as clueless as the rest. And the ruling elites are perhaps the most bereft of imagination of all. I get nauseated when I see that same policy positions debated back and forth as though no other options ever existed. In fact, a great many things have never even been tried, but because the political elites are essentially hermetically sealed off from new blood, hence innovative ideas, new ideas don’t get a hearing, and they certainly don’t get enacted as policy.

      Best wishes,


  3. xcalibur said

    I’m replying a bit late, but this issue is still relevant. I think this ties into the concept of ideological superstructure. History has seen superstructures based on different forms of class, religion, and philosophy. In the US, our superstructure is built around democracy and social mobility. People are exhorted that if they work hard and study hard, they’ll have opportunities for social/economic success in a prosperous republic. However, the reality of the US is one of restricted mobility. There is a festering underclass, an alienated working class, a middle class burdened by debt, and an oligarchic element at the top. When a society’s ideals fall out of step with its actual conditions, friction and conflict is the result.

    I could also apply this to foreign policy; our mantle of moral superiority vs. our realpolitik, and the problems this has created. I could also factor this into the recent election, but I’d rather not go on at length.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I consider almost all the posts I’ve written perennially relevant, or, at least, nearly so, and so I’ m always happy to get a comment, even years later (I never shut down my comments section).

      The problems that you mention — festering underclass, an alienated working class, a middle class burdened by debt, and an oligarchic element at the top — are all reasons I had in mind for writing about the limits to social mobility. Moreover, I would argue that industrialized civilization, once it reaches maturity, begins to approximate perennial human institutions, of which feudalism is one.

      The time scale of industrialization, like any historical process, is so long that it is not aligned with the time scale of the individual life. Hence individuals see only a sliver of the process. The industrial revolution began more than 200 years ago, and it is still transforming our economy and our social institutions. This is not an isolated episode in the past that we can now safely ignore. The industrial revolution is an ongoing process, and, as a part of that process, some clever individuals have been able to use the chaos and disruption to move up in society. When technological change levels out, the world that results will be as different from our world today as the world today is different from the pre-industrial past.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: