An age of chaos?

Many of society’s current ailments are symptoms, not causes. The root lies in rising inequality

The RSA
The RSA
Nov 21, 2019 · 8 min read

by Michael Bang Petersen

@M_B_Petersen

“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

This quote is the culmination of an iconic monologue in the 2008 movie The Dark Knight. Here, Batman’s butler, Alfred, illuminates the core motive of the supervillain, the Joker, who spends the film wreaking destruction and chaos. A little over a decade later, a new film about the Joker has hit box offices. Simply entitled Joker, the film seeks to explain how a craving for ‘burning it all down’ can emerge. Its most iconic scene, at least to me, is when the Joker asks a talk show host on live TV: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” And then shoots him.

Over the past few years, myself and two colleagues, Mathias Osmundsen from Aarhus University in Denmark and Kevin Arceneaux from Temple University in the US, have been trying to understand the desire to ‘watch the world burn’, how it can be measured scientifically, how it emerges and, most importantly, how it affects current politics. The Joker movie is chillingly accurate, not just in its portrayal of the dynamics that propel an individual towards this ‘need for chaos’ but also in its description of how widespread the need is. A key difference between the two films, The Dark Knight and Joker, is that in the first film our antihero is a one-of-a-kind figure. In the second, he is not. He is just one of many, and they are all completely fed up with society as it is.

Our research journey into the darkest corners of the political mind began by examining the circulation of conspiracy theories and other ‘fake news’ on social media. In 2016, the US presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum made it clear that some citizens were actively sharing stories on social media that painted highly negative pictures of political elites and were also, plainly, false.

A prominent example was the so-called ‘Pizzagate’ set of stories that were circulated in the lead-up to the US presidential election. This conspiracy theory argued that leaked emails from the Democratic Party contained evidence that leading Democrats were running a paedophilia ring from the basement of a pizza place, Comet Ping Pong, in Washington DC. The stories were widely shared and prompted a man, Edgar Welch, to drive from his home a couple of hours from Washington to Comet Ping Pong to investigate. Welch had brought his automatic rifle with him; he entered the restaurant and released a shot before the authorities were able to arrest him.

In our research, we were interested in understanding why people shared these conspiracy theories on social media. To this end, we conducted a number of surveys in the US and Denmark, thereby studying both a country with more and a country with less political polarisation. We presented participants with a series of political conspiracy theories that we had identified on extreme political forums from both ends of the spectrum: from the alt-right to Islamist forums and those of the Antifa. For each conspiracy theory, we asked our participants whether they were motivated to share the story on a social media platform.

We found that many people were not particularly motivated to share conspiracy theories. But, at the same time, there was a hardcore of people who were very eager to share, and they did not care whether the specific story impugned the left wing or the right wing. They were motivated to share them all. This group of promiscuous sharers were all highly engaged in politics. Yet, when we probed the characteristics of the group, they did not conform to the stereotypical picture of a partisan. They were not particularly likely to donate money to a cause or to follow a politician on social media. Instead, they scored high on measures of political activism that we had borrowed from the literature on radicalisation. They were willing to fight the police, participate in violent demonstrations and use threats to silence political opponents.

Our next step was to understand why these violent political activists were motivated to spread conspiracy theories. In another survey, we presented American participants with a list of conspiracy theories and asked them to pick the one they were most motivated to share. We then asked why they had picked this particular story. Was it because they believed the story was the most accurate? Was it because this story was the most amusing? Or was it because the story was most likely to mobilise the audience against a group they despised? Violent political activists tended to say “no”, “yes” and “yes”. That is, these people disregarded truth and, instead, favoured stories that incited hatred; and they found these stories funny. This was when we began thinking about the Joker.

Our goal became to measure this psychological syndrome directly. While super-destructive motivations like this had escaped the interest of social scientists, there were plenty of references to such a syndrome in popular culture. The Batman movies are one example, but an equally strong statement can be found in the book, and later film, Fight Club. Films like these became our starting point for formulating the questions that constituted our ‘need for chaos’ scale. The scale asked participants to agree or disagree with a series of rather extreme statements, such as “I think society should be burned to the ground” and “Sometimes I feel like destroying beautiful things” (the latter statement being based on a quote from Fight Club). With our measure, we marshalled a range of surveys in the US. We found that the need for chaos — this ‘Joker syndrome’ — was not only measurable and highly stable over periods of several months, it was also the best explanatory factor we had seen of motivations to share conspiracy theories.

“Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder,” says Petyr Baelish in Game of Thrones, another pop culture phenomenon filled with chaos-seekers. What Baelish hints at is that those who stand to gain from tearing down the hierarchy are those who want to climb the hierarchy but cannot. Instead, as a strategy of last resort, they can try to destroy it all and hope that something better awaits in the aftermath. We found that people with a high need for chaos were also more lonely and saw themselves as lower in society’s hierarchy. In line with the Joker’s explanation from the beginning of this article, a need for chaos emerges when society ‘abandons you and treats you like trash’. But, as per the Joker’s explanation, there is also another component to the explanation: the personality of the individual. While the Joker argued that it takes “a mentally ill loner”, it would be wrong to equate mental illness with a need for chaos. Instead, our data shows that it takes someone who is obsessed with status. A need for chaos emerges when a personality that craves status is also experiencing social marginalisation.

the root cause of the need for chaos is the clash between status aspirations and thwarted opportunities

Those who have a high need for chaos are a minority. But it is a sizeable minority. When we measured the need for chaos in a representative sample of Americans, we found that 30% did not reject the statement “I think society should be burned to the ground”. And 40% of the sample did not reject two other political statements from the chaos scale: “When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking ‘just let them all burn’” and “We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.” These numbers are stunning.

In the US, the sociologist Zachary Neal has shown that polarisation in Congress is not a new phenomenon but has been on the rise since the early 1980s. Meanwhile, the Russian-American scientist and author Peter Turchin has documented a similar rise in a number of indicators of political instability in the US since the 1970s, including in incidents of politically motivated violence. Many of the current-day factors that preoccupy pundits, politicians and many social scientists — the circulation of ‘fake news’, polarised media environments, echo chambers on Facebook, populist politicians — are symptoms rather than root causes.

To understand the origins of the age of chaos, we need to look beneath the surface at the deep forces at work that are operating across western democracies. Turchin says that the most significant factor in this regard is rising inequality. According to the OECD, the richest 10% earn on average nine times more than the poorest 10% across OECD member countries, and this difference has increased in the past few decades. Inequality as a root cause fits our findings about the need for chaos perfectly. Inequality not only generates marginalisation but also fuels competition for status. Inequality stretches the status hierarchy, leaving fewer positions on each rung of the ladder. In this regard, it is important that our own research shows that individuals who have a strong need for chaos are not poor, but in fact report having an income that is higher than average. The age of chaos is not just the poor competing against the rich. Everyone is competing against everyone else.

Because pundits and politicians — and many social scientists — are preoccupied with symptoms rather than root causes, their proposed solutions are also focused on symptoms. Related to the spread of ‘fake news’, for example, people call for more fact-checking. This assumes that the culprits actually care about truth; according to our findings, they do not. Instead, the root cause of the need for chaos is the clash between status aspirations and thwarted opportunities. To stem the tide of chaos in an enduring way, politicians need to address the latter component.

We can get inspiration about how to do so by examining how different countries are affected by chaotic motivations. Although we live in an age of chaos in western democracies in general, there is variation. According to the political economists Torben Iversen and David Soskice, two factors explain this variation. First, how much a given country is investing in public education. Second, how much the mainstream political system in a given country has embraced populist parties.

The essence of their findings is that educational investment generates opportunities for the marginalised and that the embrace of populist parties secures their political representation, in turn de-radicalising the parties and their constituencies. The issue, of course, is that in a polarised world the last thing many people want is to reach out to their chaos-mongering opponents. Yet, to do so in a way that takes their frustrations seriously and, at the same time, stands firm on democratic principles is the key challenge of our time for any mainstream politician.

Michael Bang Petersen is Professor of Political Science at Aarhus University, Denmark

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 3 2019

RSA Journal

The award-winning RSA Journal is a quarterly publication…

RSA Journal

The award-winning RSA Journal is a quarterly publication for our Fellows, featuring the latest cutting-edge ideas from international writers alongside RSA news. A selection of articles have been reproduced here.

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RSA Journal

The award-winning RSA Journal is a quarterly publication for our Fellows, featuring the latest cutting-edge ideas from international writers alongside RSA news. A selection of articles have been reproduced here.