Storr on elite overproduction

Elsewhere, Goldstone finds a predictable precursor to societal collapse to be ‘elite overproduction’ — when too many elite players are produced and have to fight over too few high-status positions. A moderate level of overproduction is beneficial, as it creates healthy competition and increases the quality of the elites that do end up occupying the most prestigious positions, in government, media, the legal world, and so on. But too much overproduction leads to resentful cadres of failed elites forming their own status games in opposition to the successful. They begin warring for status, attacking the establishment, which contributes to its destabilization. Goldstone finds these dynamics in the years leading up to the English Civil War, the French Revolution and crises in China and Turkey. Once again, we find chaos and history being made in the aftermath of the game’s expected rewards failing to pay out.

Storr, Will. The Status Game. William Collins Books; London; 2021. p. 115


Envy of the high-statused

Our ill feeling toward high-status players has been captured in the lab. When neuroscientists had participants read about someone popular, rich and smart, they saw brain regions involved in the perception of pain become activated. When they read of this invented person suffering a demotion, their pleasure systems flared up. Psychologists see this effect cross-culturally, with one study in Japan and Australia finding participants took pleasure in the felling of a ‘tall poppy’: the higher their status, the greater the enjoyment of their de-grading. The most venomous levels of envy were reported when the poppy’s success was ‘in a domain that was important to the participant, such as academic achievement among students’ – when they were rivals in their games.

An yet, as we’ve learned, we’re also drawn to high-status people: we crave contact with the famous, the successful and the brilliant. So our relationship with elite players is thunderously ambivalent. On one hand, we gather close to them, offering them status in order to learn from them and, in the process, become statusful ourselves. On the other, we experience grinding resentments towards them. This, perhaps, is the result of the mismatch between our neural game-playing equipment and the massively outsized structure of modern games. Our brains may be specialized for small tribal groups but today – especially at work and online – we play colossal games in which poppies loom over us like redwoods. Status is relative: the higher others rise, the lower we sit in comparison. It’s a resource and their highly visible thriving steals it from us. The exceptions we make tend to be for ambassadors from our own groups: artists, thinkers, athletes and leaders with whom we strongly identify. They seem to symbolize us, somehow. They carry with them a piece of our own identity, a pound of our flesh – so their success becomes our success and we cheer it wildly. To our subconscious these idols are fantastically accomplished versions of us: our copy, flatter, conform cognition overrides our resentment.

Storr, Will. The Status Game. William Collins Books; London; 2021. p. 97-8

Why aren’t the NDP climate and environmental champions?

It is generally held that the existence of this socialist tradition allows governments in Canada to play a larger role than in the United States. As noted above, however, pollution regulation in this country has imposed costs on industry that are only one-third of those imposed by American governments. Despite their much more vocal commitment to the virtues of free enterprise, Americans have been much more willing to see governments intervene to protect the environment than have Canadians.

Perhaps of more significance is the fact that this socialist tradition led to creation of the CCF in 1932 and the New Democratic Party in 1961. Environmentalism has always been seen as part of the progressive agenda and therefore it might be assumed that environmentalists form a natural constituency for the NDP.

In fact, however, the NDP has been no more successful than either of the other two parties in articulating environmental policy and NDP governments have not been particularly noted for action on the issue. It would be difficult to argue that British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, in which NDP governments have held power, have introduced more stringent pollution control measures than Ontario, where, until 1990, the NDP had not formed a government. A 1985 review of the record of NDP governments in Manitoba since it assumed power in 1982 reached this conclusion: “Changes in [environmental] legal arrangements and institutions have also been minimal; not one change seems to strike environmentalists as having great significance.”

The question is not whether the socialist foundations of the NDP will lead that party automatically to environmentalism, since they will not, but whether environmentalists can draw on that party’s concern for fairness and social justice as they work to put in place policies based on fairness and justice for the natural world.

Macdonald, Doug. The Politics of Pollution. McClelland & Steward; Toronto. 1991. p. 50–1


Eton’s Pop society

We knew that Gibson and Longden planned to put me up for Pop. The suspense grew heavy, our voices languished. Pop elections took hours, for the same boy could be put up and blackballed seven or eight times, a caucus of voters keeping out everybody till their favourite got in. Only the necessity of lunch ended these ordeals. Suddenly there was a noise of footsteps thudding up the wooden staircase of the tower. The door burst open, and about twenty Pops, many of whom had never spoken to me before, with bright coloured waistcoats, rolled umbrellas, buttonholes, braid, and “spongebag” trousers, came reeling in, like the college of cardinals arriving to congratulate some pious old freak whom fate had elevated to the throne of St. Peter. They made a great noise, shouting and slapping me on the back in the elation of their gesture, and Charles drifted away. I had got in on the first round, being put up by Knebworth, but after they had left only the small of Balkan Sobranie and Honey and Flowers remained to prove it was not a dream.

At that time Pop were the rulers of Eton, fawned on by masters, and the helpless Sixth Form. Such was their prestige that some boys who failed to get in never recovered; one was rumoured to have procured his sister for the influential members. Besides privilege—for they could beat anyone, fag any lower boy, walk arm-in-arm, wear pretty clothes, sit in their own club, and get away with minor breaches of discipline, they also possessed executive power, which their members tasted, often for the only time in their lives. To elect a boy without a colour, and a Colleger too, was a departure for them; it made them feel that they appreciated intellectual worth, and could not be accused of athleticism; they felt like the Viceroy after entertaining Gandhi. The rest of the school could not understand that a boy could be elected because he was amusing; if I got in without a colour it must be because I was a “bitch”; yet by Eton standards I was too unattractive to be a “bitch”—unless my very ugliness provided, for the jaded appetites of the Eton Society, the final attraction!

When I went to chapel I was conscious of eyes being upon me; some were masters, cold and censorious, they believed the worst; others were friendly and admiring. Those of the older boys were incredulous, but the younger ones stared hardest, for they could be beaten for not knowing all the Pops by sight, and mine was a mug they must learn by heart. Everybody congratulated me. The only person not to was Denis. He himself had been co-opted in as future Captain of the School, and could not believe that my election to such an anti-intellectual and reactionary body could give me pleasure. I thought that it was because he was envious, since he had been elected ex officio. My intravenous injection of success had begun to take.

Connolly, Cyril. Enemies of Promise. London; Routledge. 1938. p. 302–3

Doug Macdonald on Canada’s political character

Yesterday I attended a scholarly memorial conference for Professor Douglas Macdonald, from U of T’s School of the Environment.

I worked for him as a TA in 2015–16, in the environmental decision-making course (ENV1001) at the core of the collaborative specialization in environmental studies. I also knew him from various on-campus climate science / policy / activism events.

Between sessions in which people shared kind personal tributes, I picked up Macdonald’s earlier books (having used his final book Carbon Province, Hydro Province in my PhD research). They provide an intriguing opportunity to compare the environmental movement of the 1990s and before with what is happening now.

In The Politics of Pollution (1991), Professor Macdonald makes some observations about Canadian political culture with respect to the environment:

Canada’s global location has two major implications for environmental politics. First, as a northern nation, no matter how much we may insulate ourselves by living in cities, huddled close to the southern border, we Canadians think of ourselves as living in a northern land — looking instinctively to the north, just as Americans look to the west — which means, by definition, living in what is often a hostile and cold environment. Thus, the simple fact of geography has contributed to the “garrison mentality” described by Northrop Frye and others, in which the human and natural worlds are viewed, at least by the non-aboriginal population, with fear and suspicion from behind the stockade walls. The harsh rigour of a northern environment historically reinforced the Canadian perception, brought over from Europe, of this northern environment being something to be feared and, therefore, to be dominated and exploited.

But a northern environment does not lead only to alienation from the land. It also offers the purity of ice and snow and the stillness and quiet beauty of rock and trees encircling a northern lake. Above all, our North American environment offers a sense of being new, fresh, and unsullied. Like the Americans, although to a lesser degree because we did not sever our ties to Europe by means of revolution, we have traditionally seen ourselves as a people who by crossing the ocean left the decadence of the old world and came to live in a new one. For Americans this fostered a conviction of moral superiority; in Canada it produced something very different — a perception of innocence. Canadians see themselves as venturing forth from their new land to do nothing but good in the world, perhaps naive but certainly well-meaning and unburdened by the guilt and corruption of world power. (p. 47–8)

In the end, nearly everything which I said about Carbon Province, Hydro Province in my dissertation ended up being in sections that were cut for length. After I get through Robarts Library’s only physical copies of his two prior books, perhaps I will move those thoughts into a blog post or two.

Pip’s guilt

“He was a world of trouble to you, ma’am,” said Mrs. Hubble, commiserating my sister.

“Trouble?” echoed my sister; “trouble?” and then entered on a fearful catalogue of all the illnesses I had been guilty of, and all the acts of sleeplessness I had committed, and all the high places I had tumbled from, and all the low places I had tumbled into, and all the injuries I had done myself, and all the times she had wished me in my grave, and I had contumaciously refused to go there.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1861.

The soundest base for a diagnosis

So much depends on style, that factor of which we are growing more and more suspicious, that although the tendency of criticism is to explain a writer either in terms of his sexual experience or his economic background, I still believe technique remains the soundest base for a diagnosis, that it should be possible to learn as much about an author’s income and sex-life from one paragraph of his writing as from his cheque stubs and his love-letters, and one should also be able to learn how well he writes, and what are his influences. Critics who ignore style are liable to lump good and bad writers together in support of pre-conceived theories.

Connoly, Cyril. Enemies of Promise. George Routledge & Sons, Ltd. Broadway House: 68–74 Carter Lane, E.C. 1938

Books in progress at the end of 2022

As the University of Toronto’s willingness to let me extend and finish my PhD became more and more strained and conditional I set aside a large number of projects and tasks to focus on getting the dissertation done and defended in 2022.

Some of my books in progress relate closely to my PhD research. I have read most but not all of Britt Wray’s Generation Dread, which accompanies Connie Burk and Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s Trauma Stewardship as a recent text on the psychological burden of environmental destruction and activism. I am reading George Hoberg’s The Resistance Dilemma: Place-Based Movements and the Climate Crisis and William K. Carroll’s Regime of Obstruction: How Corporate Power Blocks Energy Democracy. On broadening the coalition demanding climate action, I need to finish Katharine Hayhoe’s Saving Us. On system justification theory and the just world fallacy, I am reading John Jost’s Theory of System Justification and Left and Right: The Psychological Significance of a Political Distinction. On the psychology of contemporary politics I am also reading Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present.

To help force myself through the final stages of writing up, I nearly finished William Germano’s On Revision: The Only Writing That Counts.

On energy I am still working through Robert Jaffe and Washington Taylor’s The Physics of Energy. Because it was recommended in that text, I have read most of Richard Garwin’s Megawatts and Megatons: The Future of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons.

I most recently obtained Kieran Setiya’s Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way — part of the informal reading I have been doing about modern stoicism and its relationship to the psychology of politics.


Free dissertation release

Official versions are forthcoming on the University of Toronto’s TSpace thesis hosting platform and on paper from the Asquith Press at the Toronto Reference Library, but I see no reason not to make my PhD dissertation available as a free PDF to anyone who is interested:

Persuasion Strategies: Canadian Campus Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaigns and the Development of Activists, 2012–20

I have been fighting for years to get this out into the world, so it makes no sense to wait for an arbitrary convocation date and then through further administrative delays.

If you are studying the fossil fuel divestment movement at universities or climate change activism generally in Canada, the US, and UK you may find the extended bibliography useful.

Alicia Garza on activist power-building

“[Alicia] Garza [“a longtime community organizer in Oakland and a major figure within the Black Lives Matter movement” (p. 57)] celebrated that the progressive movement had grown more strident, more self-confident in its demands, more determined to hold leaders accountable. But she wondered if, in the bargain, the movement had acquired a narrowness that kept it smaller than it had to be. She wanted an expansionary progressivism that followed the example of Power [People Organized to Win Employment Rights, a San Francisco activist organization] fighting gentrification in San Francisco: being unflinchingly radical and, at the same time, making space for the non-radical.

“Because crisis is here now, and because we haven’t done the work we’ve needed to do over the last thirty years to actually build a left in this country that is viable, even as we pursue that, we are going to have to figure out who else we can work with in order to get a little bit closer to what we’re trying to do,” she told me. “That doesn’t mean we abandon the project of building the left, and in fact it actually brings into focus how necessary it is. But in the meantime, we can’t just continue to be small.” She often repeated a line picked up from a fellow activist about how the left needs to stop trying to be the god of small things.

“We have to be a lot more selective about who can’t come,” Garza said. “You would think, listening to certain people, that every-fucking-body in this country is on some organized left. It’s just deeply not fucking true. We are so small in relationship to the breadth of where 300-plus million people are politically. We need to understand that in a deep way.”

With that assertion, Garza distinguished herself from a certain strain of her fellow progressives who argue that their policies would be overwhelmingly popular and readily received among those who would obviously benefit from them, but for the corporate media thwarting them and the powerful lobbies blocking their policy proposals, along with the legislators they buy. Garza saw it differently. The ideas in many cases had both a powerful-enemies problem and, partly because of the exertions of those enemies and partly because of primordial realities of American political culture, a lay-public-opinion problem.

For Garza, this was a hard-earned lesson going all the way back to Bayview. It was true that powerful developers and their allies in the city’s power structure wanted to gentrify the area as precipitously as possible. And one could casually assume that the regular people in the area wanted to resist what was being done. But Garza and her colleagues realized that they had both a special-interests problem and a popularity problem. Many of the residents, particularly older Black people who deplored the area’s descent into drugs and violence, were open to the promises of those heralding change. It wasn’t enough to push back against the powerful. You have to be hard on yourself about just how popular your ideas were, assume they were less rather than more popular, and work like hell to make them popular.

In her memoir, she writes that too many of her political allies seem to enjoy the cozy homogeneity of their ranks, instead of viewing that as a problem of smallness. They believe

that finding a group of people who think like you and being loud about your ideas is somehow building power… And while I feel most comfortable around people who think like me and share my experiences, the longer I’m in the practice of building a movement, the more I realize that movement building isn’t about finding your tribe—it’s about growing your tribe across difference to focus on a common set of goals.

“There’s a purism that can come with social justice work,” Garza told me in one of our conversations, “and that purism, unfortunately or fortunately maybe, is actually pretty detrimental to getting things done.” But it was also complicated, she hastened to add. There were bridges too far. You probably don’t want to end up in a partnership with Jared Kushner just because you favor prison reform. When it comes to coalitions, she said, “you do have to assess at any given moment the amount of risk you are willing to take and the potential impacts of those risks. And if the impacts of those risks are not just about being scared about what people are going to say about you, because you’re making unconventional relationships, but actually that you are enabling a really nefarious and dangerous set of values and principles and people, then you need to say no to those things.[“]

“For me, this isn’t about catering to the middle,” she said. “And it’s also not about beating up on the left. It’s just a longing that I have for us to be more effective and to actually want to win, really want to win. And be willing to do what we need to in order to get there. And so much of what I think is missing is a smark assessment of the landscape that we’re operating in.”

Giridharadas, Anand. The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy. Knopf, 2022. p. 68-70 (italics in original)