Why is American democracy in a state of crisis — one that almost no one saw coming? And how can we escape it? At least some of the answers can be found in a new book by someone who did see it coming, Peter Turchin’s “End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration.” Although not intended as a prescriptive guide, it makes sense of our current situation in a way that coiuld help us avoid the worst — and potentially even prosper. To do that, Turchin draws on millennia of human history, which he sees as a pattern of similar predicaments that recur repeatedly over time.
The idea that history is cyclical in some sense is an ancient one found in many cultures, not least the ancient Greeks, harbingers of modern science. But it’s only in the last three decades — since Jack Goldstone’s “Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World” was published in 1991 — that this ancient idea has been given a testable scientific foundation, based on relationships between the general population, elites and the state, and how they vary over time with demographic changes.
Turchin has played a leading role in refining and testing this model. His 2009 book “Secular Cycles,” co-authored with Sergey Nefedov, used Goldstone’s model to examine England, France and Russia during the medieval and early modern periods, as well as the Roman Republic and Roman Empire. His widely read and 2016 workbook “Ages of Discord” (Salon review here) did the same for American history.
While Goldstone’s primary concern was understanding what caused states to collapse into civil wars such as the English and French revolutions, Turchin is more interested in how they can be avoided. He and his colleague have assembled a database of about 100 cases of crisis from the Neolithic to the present, with data on another 200 still being worked on. While most such crises do result in state breakdown, he reports, roughly one in five do not, and the data assembled so far “is enough for us to discern the main patterns.” That’s at least partly good news, since we’re in the middle of such a crisis right now. The bad news, however, is that the patterns Turchin discerns suggest that the crisis will almost certainly get worse. But if we buy his analysis, at least we now know the kinds of things we need to do to avoid the worst — essentially, the same kinds of things that were done during the Progressive and New Deal eras of U.S. history, or at least policies aimed at similar results.
That may sound like a partisan political position — indeed, the fact that it does reflects the difficulty of our situation. That’s why it’s especially helpful to develop this kind of scientifically-based historical understanding. The lessons gleaned from “End Times” could help redirect us away from blind alleys as we seek to find our way through the challenges confronting us in the turbulent 2020s. To learn more about how Turchin understands the road ahead, and how much calamity we can avoid. I recently spoke with him via Zoom. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
In a 2010 letter published in Nature, you wrote that the U.S. was due for a sharp spike in political instability by the early 2020s. Now we’re in the middle of it. So how did you know?
This comes from a science of history that I and my colleagues have been developing over the past 20 years or so called “cliodynamics.” Right now we have analyzed a couple hundred past societies sliding into crisis and then emerging from it. That allows us to determine the generic features of the road to crisis, which is typically signposted by developments such as falling popular well-being, which we call popular immiseration and, even more importantly, by “elite overproduction.” By 2010, when I started looking at the data pertaining to the United States, I realized that the United States has stepped on the same road to crisis that many other societies in the past had followed. That’s the short answer.
“Pundits and politicians often invoke ‘lessons of history,'” you write, but history is so rich that they can cherry-pick points to argue whatever they want. What makes your approach different?
What I think we should do is translate the rich data we have about the dynamics of past societies into theories that, first of all, are formulated as mathematical models. You have to do that because any kind of non-linear dynamics is not easy for human brains to process and forecast forward, and therefore we need a formal mathematical apparatus to do that. So that’s the first thing.
Second thing, even more important, is the empirical content. There are many different ideas about how and why, for example, revolutions and civil wars happen. So we need to know which of those ideas are correct and which ones are not correct. You find that out by testing theories, the predictions from rival theories, using that historical data. That’s why we need large historical databases, because the more data you have, the better you can test different possible explanations about why, for example, civil wars happen.
The essence of your model is a relationship between elites, ordinary citizens and the state. Can you briefly describe how this relationship changes over time, over the course of a cycle, and how it brings us to the point of potential civil war?
Sure. Let’s start first of all with an observation that all complex societies organized as states — which first appeared about 5,000 years ago — go through repeated sequences of integrative and disintegrative periods, lasting roughly a century, although it varies quite a lot depending on the characteristics of that society. So let’s start with the integrative phase, when the society is internally at peace, although they can fight many external wars. It’s important to distinguish between external wars and internal wars. So generally the society is at peace.
At this point it is very tempting for the elites — the small proportion of the population that concentrates social power in their hands — to profit from their power for selfish reasons. It’s sometimes called the iron law of oligarchy: People in power are tempted to turn this power to their own selfish ends. By doing that they reconfigure the economy in such a way that the fruits of the economy disproportionately flow to the powerful from the rest of the population. I call this process the wealth pump. It’s a perverse wealth pump that pumps income and wealth from the workers or peasants to the lords or capitalists or what-have-you.
“It is very tempting for elites — the small proportion of the population that concentrates social power — to profit from their power for selfish reasons. It’s sometimes called the iron law of oligarchy: People in power are tempted to turn this power to their own ends.”
That results in two developments. First of all, most obviously, it results in popular immiseration. And popular immiseration undermines the stability of the society, because when large swathes of the population are discontented, obviously that’s not a very good condition for the society. But more subtly, the size of the elites starts to bloat, their proportion of the population becomes larger, society becomes top-heavy. Also, their incomes and wealth grow. For a while this situation is great for the elites. That’s why many of the so-called “golden ages” in history are actually gilded ages, because the elites are doing great but the general population is suffering.
Interestingly, because human society is a dynamic system, you have to think about the outcomes of these good conditions for the elites. Because after maybe a generation or so the elites themselves start to hurt, because there are so many of them, while positions of power in both the economy and politics are relatively fixed. Now you have three or four times as many elite aspirants — people who want to get these positions — and that is what we call elite overproduction.
You describe four main kinds of elites — military, ideological, administrative and plutocratic — any of which may predominate in a given polity and even persist across cycles. You discuss how the example of Egypt illustrates this, and how that understanding helps make sense of what happened with the Arab Spring in Egypt and its aftermath.
There are four sources of social power, and they also define the four types of elites that tend to specialize in them. But keep in mind that the ruling class, the governing elites, tend to try to control all sources of power. Most of the societies that we are familiar with are governed by a coalition between economic and political elites. But in the past, military elites were much more important, and we still have lingering examples of that, such as Egypt, where all the way to [Hosni] Mubarak, it was the generals who ruled. If you wanted to become the president, you would join the military, go to the academy, work your way up the ranks and then position yourself so that the rest of the generals will appoint you as the ruler.
You argue that this pattern goes back roughly a thousand years, right?
Exactly. But of course, remember that a thousand years ago most countries were governed by elites that emphasized the military.
So how does that make sense of what happened with the Arab Spring and its aftermath?
Let’s think about it from two points of view. First of all, the usual structural demographic forces were operating: There was essentially a Malthusian explosion of population, because as a result of a better economy and better medicine and so on, birth rates of Egyptians greatly increased in the late 20th century. So by 2010 there was a huge youth bulge — a large proportion of the population were in their 20s. In addition, the proportion of the population that went to universities had quadrupled. There were lots of degree holders, but the number of jobs for them did not keep pace. So you have a lot of discontented youth, and that provided the raw force driving Tahrir Square and other disturbances.
Now, what was happening at the top was that Mubarak apparently decided to break the rules and instead of appointing a successor from the military officers, as he was supposed to do, he was grooming his own son to step into his position. His son, Gamal Mubarak, didn’t go through the army. He was a businessman, part of a rising segment of elites who represented economic power. So the generals stepped aside and they allowed for a popular uprising against the Mubarak regime to go its way. It led to the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate [Mohamed Morsi, in 2012], and then the military stepped in, and in essentially a military coup, installed one of their own [current president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi] and thereby returned to that same power configuration that had been governing Egypt before the revolution.
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In contrast to that stability of military dominance in Egypt, you describe how the structure of leadership changed in Europe over the past 500 years, and how it transformed from hundreds of smaller states to the Europe we see today.
In fact, that’s been a general pattern over the past 500 years, as military elites have been supplanted by economic and political elites. You see that now happening even in Turkey, for example, which was governed by the military, but over the past 20 years the power of the military was broken. What happened in Europe was an intensified military competition, interestingly enough, that put an end to those military elites, but because of the Industrial Revolution the states had to win in that competition by using more powerful economies, because now the economy was much more important in surviving wars than before. That’s one of the reasons why economic elites came to the fore.
The second thing was that in order to survive in that 19th-century competition, states had to build mass armies. It started with the French Revolution and Napoleon, they started using huge armies. To get acquiescence from the general population for this type of mass recruitment, the rulers of those states found that they had to give them some power. And that really was the source of the spread of democratic governance. In the United States, for example, it’s very clear: Every time there was a war, it was accompanied by the expansion of the proportion of people who vote. So there is a very clear, almost causal effect. That’s why politicians also became extremely important.
So both political and economic elites have become dominant.
Yes. In all modern democratic countries, we see a variable degree of collaboration between the economic and political elites, but the relative powers of those two segments of the elites vary. So in the United States economic elites are really quite dominant, which is why in my book I call the U.S. a plutocracy. But in France, for example, the economic elites are more subordinated to the political elites. In France, you need to work your way through the system of education, it’s actually quite similar to imperial China. You have to go through the right schools and colleges, and when you graduate from them, you work your way up in the government. In fact, many leaders of state companies in France become leaders by working their way through these administrative layers. The point I’m making here is that in different democratic countries, the relative power of political versus economic elites is a variable.
You describe how America is different from Europe. First, you describe the rise of America’s plutocracy as explained by history and geography and, second, that it’s sustained by race and ethnicity. Can you elaborate?
I use two major factors to explain why America is different. If you look at the degree of economic inequality, for example, and how much it has increased, America’s way up there, compared to places like France and Germany and Denmark, and also in many other ways, in terms of popular immiseration. Even though we spend huge amounts of money on health care, if you look at population-level indicators of public health, the United States is actually worse than Cuba, a very poor country.
“If you look at the degree of economic inequality, America’s way up there, compared to places like France and Germany and Denmark. if you look at public health, the U.S. is actually worse off than Cuba, a very poor country.”
So America is really different. Why? First of all, America is an offshoot of the British Empire — the British Empire is in its cultural genome, so to speak. Because England is an island, there was no need to have a standing army within the British Isles, and they essentially abolished it and put their efforts into the navy, and then into trade. As a result, the United States has inherited the more important role of economic elites.
And then, the United States is also an island — a huge island, with two big oceans on either side and two weak states, Canada and Mexico, sharing the continent. Essentially, the United States did not have to participate in this intense geopolitical competition in which Europe was involved during the 19th century. That meant there was no military elite that had to be replaced by economic and political elites. The only military elites were in the Southern states that contributed most to the military academies, and that elite was pretty much destroyed because they lost the Civil War. So this was one reason.
That second reason is the “peculiar institution.” The United States was a slave society, and that has left a really big imprint on the institutions of the county. It also has been an immigrant country, and as a result of that there are many different ethnicities. I use Denmark as a counterexample in my book, where in the early 20th century their social-democratic party came to power and governed Denmark for three generations.
One of the reasons why it was difficult for economic elites to undermine the workers’ movement in Denmark was that it was difficult to divide the workers against themselves, because they’re all ethnically similar and there were no fault lines. The United States, on the other hand, has multiple fault lines: Blacks versus whites, Chinese, Asians versus Europeans, Latinos versus Anglos. So the ruling class has been capable of using those divisions to maintain its power, and that is one of the reasons why plutocracy is so entrenched and so difficult to dislodge in the United States.
Yet despite all that we went through a previous “age of discord” and somehow all pulled together. Talk briefly about that.
First of all, don’t forget that the American Civil War of the 1860s was a major disaster. But then a very similar revolutionary situation gripped the United States in the 1910s and ’20s. There was a huge outbreak of worker violence, there were labor strikes, there was terrorism, huge racial riots and clashes. So the ruling class in the United States essentially got frightened by that.
Secondly, it’s important to keep in mind that the geopolitical situation in the 20th century changed. In the 19th century the United States was in splendid isolation, or at least we were insulated from major warfare. But in the 20th century there was the rise of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which had different ideologies and were quite threatening. So the original Red Scare was in the early 1920s, when many American elites thought that there could be some kind of the Bolshevik revolution. So there was this pressure brought both internally. from the disaffected working classes, and externally.
Also, many of those people who were in politics during the Progressive Era had actually experienced the Civil War. Many of the businesses made their fortunes in it. They still had that historical memory of what kind of disaster can occur.. So it was a confluence of different influences.
Then, of course, you don’t want to dismiss the individuals, there were people around Franklin D. Roosevelt, his team, who really were trying to do things for the society as a whole rather than for the selfish interests of the ruling class. So the confluence of those internal and external pressures, plus good prosocial leadership, resulted in the United States avoiding a revolution or civil war during that period. The New Deal set in place most of the legislation that was in fact proposed during the Progressive era — it took several decades to solve those problems. Then, after World War II, the United States entered this period which was really unprecedented in history in terms of broad-based well-being that grew substantially during the glorious 30 years that followed the war.
You go through what happened to erode that — can you summarize that briefly?
By the late 1970s a new generation occupied power positions. The new leaders had forgotten about how important it is to keep society in balance. So, again, they gradually began to reconfigure the economy to serve their selfish ends — the iron law of oligarchy bit again in the late ’70s and ’80s; the Reagan revolution was part of that. As a result of that, the perverse wealth pump, which I talked about earlier, was turned on. It is well known that after the 1970s GDP per capita kept increasing, but wages stayed flat or even declined. So now we are in the same situation we were discussing, with popular immiseration, and 40 years later, we have very serious elite overproduction. The breakdown of social norms is a very good sign of that.
“By the late 1970s, a new generation occupied power positions. They had forgotten about how important it is to keep society in balance. So they began to reconfigure the economy to serve their selfish ends — the iron law of oligarchy bit again.”
What can we expect in the future? Many people think that we are past the worst, and I hope they are correct. But the problem is, if you look at the driving factors, they have not been addressed. Worker salaries again were hit, this time as a result of inflation. Real wages have declined. We continue to have a huge class of frustrated elite aspirants feeding a lot of this social and political turbulence that we are experiencing.
So none of that has been addressed. We have to turn off the wealth pump. This hasn’t been done. None of the reforms of the New Deal, which turned off the wealth pump — the minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich, giving collective bargaining power to workers — have been adopted. Minimum wage is declining in real terms, workers have no power and taxes on the rich are only getting smaller. I’m not saying that those are the only ways to solve the problem, by the way. We don’t have to do exactly the same thing the Democrats did in the New Deal, but somehow we have to achieve the same result. And I just don’t see that happening.
What’s your analysis of what’s behind the rise of Donald Trump? What does he exemplify, and what is he drawing on?
Popular immiseration is a big driver of unrest and it is channeled by the counter-elites, the frustrated elites that work to overthrow the regime. Trump is one example of that. You have two sources of disgruntled aspirants. One of them is wealthy people like Trump who want to turn their wealth into political power. The second route is people who get credentials, especially lawyers. If you want to become a politician, usually you go to law school. But there is now a huge bulge of law school graduates without the jobs they expected to get. Until those factors are somehow taken care of, we should expect continued social turbulence.
Finally, what’s the most important question I didn’t ask? And what’s the answer?
Maybe it’s the question of why we need a science of history. You did ask about it, a little bit obliquely, at the beginning. But now that we have come full circle and talked about how to go forward, how do we know that whatever reforms we adopt will not give us perverse, unexpected results? Unforeseen consequences are very likely, because human society is a complex system, and when you push it, you can get a backlash quite easily. This is why we need a science of history. That will allow us to use much better tools for figuring out what we need to do and how to achieve desirable positive outcomes, rather than undesirable negative consequences.
from Paul Rosenberg on politics, history and power