The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse

The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse, by Graeme Wood.

The year 2020 has been kind to [Peter] Turchin, for many of the same reasons it has been hell for the rest of us. Cities on fire, elected leaders endorsing violence, homicides surging — to a normal American, these are apocalyptic signs. To Turchin, they indicate that his models, which incorporate thousands of years of data about human history, are working. (“Not all of human history,” he corrected me once. “Just the last 10,000 years.”)

He has been warning for a decade that a few key social and political trends portend an “age of discord,” civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced. In 2010, he predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldn’t let up until those social and political trends reversed. Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early ’70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies:

  • a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around
  • declining living standards among the general population; and
  • a government that can’t cover its financial positions. …

Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily “elite overproduction” — ­the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically– think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them.

In the United States, elites over­produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.

In the United States, Turchin told me, you can see more and more aspirants fighting for a single job at, say, a prestigious law firm, or in an influential government sinecure, or (here it got personal) at a national magazine. Perhaps seeing the holes in my T-shirt, Turchin noted that a person can be part of an ideological elite rather than an economic one. (He doesn’t view himself as a member of either. A professor reaches at most a few hundred students, he told me. “You reach hundreds of thousands.”)

Elite jobs do not multiply as fast as elites do. There are still only 100 Senate seats, but more people than ever have enough money or degrees to think they should be running the country. “You have a situation now where there are many more elites fighting for the same position, and some portion of them will convert to counter-elites,” Turchin said. …

Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip — not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before — they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard.

The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies — and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.

Obviously our western societies are getting pretty close to that point.

Peter Turchin: Quantified some big historical themes

For those who are interested in more details of how he came to these conclusions, this is revolutionary:

“All sciences go through this transition to mathematization,” Turchin told me. “When I had my midlife crisis, I was looking for a subject where I could help with this transition to a mathematized science. There was only one left, and that was history.” …

Turchin masterminded a digital archive of historical and archaeological data. The coding of its records requires finesse, he told me, because (for example) the method of determining the size of the elite-aspirant class of medieval France might differ from the measure of the same class in the present-day United States. (For medieval France, a proxy is the membership in its noble class, which became glutted with second and third sons who had no castles or manors to rule over. One American proxy, Turchin says, is the number of lawyers.) …

One of Turchin’s most unwelcome conclusions is that complex societies arise through war. The effect of war is to reward communities that organize themselves to fight and survive, and it tends to wipe out ones that are simple and small-scale. “No one wants to accept that we live in the societies we do” — rich, complex ones with universities and museums and philosophy and art — “because of an ugly thing like war,” he said. But the data are clear: Darwinian processes select for complex socie­ties because they kill off simpler ones.

The notion that democracy finds its strength in its essential goodness and moral improvement over its rival systems is likewise fanciful. Instead, democratic societies flourish because they have a memory of being nearly obliterated by an external enemy. They avoided extinction only through collective action, and the memory of that collective action makes democratic politics easier to conduct in the present, Turchin said. “There is a very close correlation between adopting democratic institutions and having to fight a war for survival.”

People often overlook how heavily war and pandemics heavily influenced the nature of our societies, even in healthy peace time. For instance, in good times libertarianism seems quite attractive, but libertarian societies tend to do badly when tested by war and pandemics — which is why there aren’t any.

Also unwelcome: the conclusion that civil unrest might soon be upon us, and might reach the point of shattering the country. In 2012, Turchin published an analysis of political violence in the United States, again starting with a database. He classified 1,590 incidents — riots, lynchings, any political event that killed at least one person — from 1780 to 2010. Some periods were placid and others bloody, with peaks of brutality in 1870, 1920, and 1970, a 50-year cycle. Turchin excludes the ultimate violent incident, the Civil War, as a “sui generis event.” The exclusion may seem suspicious, but to a statistician, “trimming outliers” is standard practice. Historians and journalists, by contrast, tend to focus on outliers — ­because they are interesting — and sometimes miss grander trends.

Few individuals alive today in the West have first hand experience of violence and it’s effects. We just see the Hollywood versions. Is another generation about to learn the gruesome lessons of real violence?

Certain aspects of this cyclical view require relearning portions of American history, with special attention paid to the numbers of elites. The industrialization of the North, starting in the mid-19th century, Turchin says, made huge numbers of people rich. The elite herd was culled during the Civil War, which killed off or impoverished the southern slaveholding class, and during Reconstruction, when America experienced a wave of assassinations of Republican politicians. … It wasn’t until the Progressive reforms of the 1920s, and later the New Deal, that elite overproduction actually slowed, at least for a time.

This oscillation between violence and peace, with elite over­production as the first horseman of the recurring American apocalypse, inspired Turchin’s 2020 prediction. …

Turchin’s prescriptions are, as a whole, vague and unclassifiable. Some sound like ideas that might have come from Senator Elizabeth Warren — tax the elites until there are fewer of them — while others, such as a call to reduce immigration to keep wages high for American workers, resemble Trumpian protectionism. Other policies are simply heretical. He opposes credential-­oriented higher education, for example, which he says is a way of mass-producing elites without also mass-­producing elite jobs for them to occupy. Architects of such policies, he told me, are “creating surplus elites, and some become counter-elites.” A smarter approach would be to keep the elite numbers small, and the real wages of the general population on a constant rise.

Might be worth a try.