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Are These the End Times? Historian Peter Turchin Says Yes

His new book crunches numbers and says our plutocracies are poised to implode. Is his science sound?

Crawford Kilian 29 Jun 2023The Tyee

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

In his new book, noted Russian-American scientist and professor emeritus Peter Turchin offers a plausible analysis of the present American situation. It is inevitably tied to Canada’s, and Turchin’s findings suggest that the U.S. seems headed for history’s ash heap like so many societies before us.

Turchin is now based in Vienna, Austria, where he is the project leader at the Complexity Science Hub, an organization that brings scientists together to “make sense of Big Data in ways that are valuable for science and society.” This month he published the ambitiously titled End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration. In the book, Turchin demonstrates that he is a good writer with a big idea: history is a quantifiable science.

If we approach it as a science, Turchin argues, we can predict at least the general trend of the near future. And we can find solutions in past societies that escaped the ash heap.

The cost of elite prosperity

Turchin is the founder and exponent of cliodynamics, the study of historic change using Big Data applied to societies over the past 10,000 years. But in End Times, he doesn’t go further back than medieval Europe and a couple of Chinese dynasties. He invokes Big Data mathematics, but doesn’t show his work. He is more apt to cite other social analysts like Angus Deaton and Anne Case, who present issues like deaths of despair as current issues, not recurrent ones.

But Turchin makes a case for nations going through periods of stability and instability. Every society, he argues, has a ruling elite — a military class, a plutocratic class or a bureaucratic class. This elite prospers and multiplies. Eventually, it has more members than it can use, and competition begins for the few places available.

Meanwhile, elite prosperity comes at the cost of “popular immiseration.” Those whose work produces the wealth of the elite are themselves increasingly impoverished. The excess members of the elite, the “aspirants” to power, appeal to the people with promises of justice and prosperity.

Whether through elections, street fighting, coups or mass demonstrations, the aspirants leading the people challenge the powers that be.

This is a plausible analysis, supported by many other current social critics, and it generally explains our present situation. I am skeptical, though, of Turchin’s predictions for our impending end times.

An explosive combination

“Popular immiseration together with elite overproduction is an explosive combination,” Turchin writes. “Immiserated masses generate raw energy, while a cadre of counter-elites provides an organization to channel the energy against the ruling class.”

State finances can also aggravate social instability, he argues, weakening the state’s legitimacy, and so can geopolitical factors like climate and pandemics. Together, these four factors drive a cycle of integration: a relatively small population with enough resources to support high wages and productivity, with enough food for everyone. But as population grows, wages fall and elite wealth grows, creating demand for urban artisans and merchants, and luxury goods. Denser city populations in turn give infectious diseases a chance to spread.

“Because the poor suffer greater mortality than the elites,” Turchin writes, “the social pyramids become top-heavy. Lethal epidemics also undermine social co-operation by delegitimizing governments.”

Turchin links the elites and the immiserated with a “wealth pump” — policies that distribute wealth from the rich to the poor or (more usually) vice versa. He cites the New Deal, the Second World War, and the postwar years as examples of working-class prosperity, when the rich were heavily taxed and working families could send their kids to university.

Then he wildly misinterprets what had happened since then.

Forgotten lessons?

“In the 1970s, a new generation of elites began replacing the ‘great civic generation,’” Turchin writes. “The new elites, who didn’t experience the turbulence of the previous age of discord, forgot its lesson and started to gradually dismantle the pillars on which the postwar prosperity era was based.”

I doubt that the 1970s elite forgot anything about the “Great Compression” era, when workers earned good wages. The lesson the elite learned was that summed up in the old saying, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”

While Turchin may want readers to believe that North American and British elites adopted neoliberalism in a fit of absent-mindedness, it was, in fact, calmly and deliberately promoted by a handful of economists and lawyers like Lawrence Powell. They and their wealthy funders could remember the turbulent 1920s perfectly well. They had hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt (“a traitor to his class”) and his New Deal, and they had flirted with the Nazi-friendly America First movement. They hadn’t enjoyed the postwar boom because it was fuelled by tax rates as high as 91 per cent on the top 0.01 per cent.

From all of that, we got Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Turchin’s “wealth pump” started robbing the poor to enrich the rich, and the American Republican party became an aspirant elite seeking to replace the liberal incumbents with the aspirant-in-chief, Donald Trump. The struggle continues.

Turchin is very persuasive that the U.S. is a plutocracy and always has been. The first plutocrats were the Southern enslavers and their Northern merchant-agents who sold cotton overseas and imported luxury goods for the enslavers. The Civil War, Turchin argues, killed off the surplus elite in the South; the Northern merchants replaced them and enjoyed the first Gilded Age of enormous wealth and grinding poverty. That, in turn, led to social unrest, violent suppression of worker strikes, and increasing social instability. Then the New Deal, and so on.

But here’s where I take issue with in Turchin’s book. We are asked to believe that during the turbulent 1920s, the American elite followed the strategy of the British elite in the 1830s: both elites, facing social unrest, gradually introduced laws that raised wages and lowered the cost of essentials. And that was why 1848 Britain didn’t have revolutions like many other European countries, and why 1930s America rejected both communism and fascism. This is much too simple an explanation.

The safety valve of empire

Turchin fails to mention that Britain in the 19th century shipped its surplus elite off to run the colonies of an ever-growing empire, while the immiserated followed them in steerage class. Nor does he mention that the U.S. fought the First World War on proto-fascist lines, jailing anti-war Americans like Eugene Debs, and carrying on after the war with anti-Bolshevik activities like the Palmer Raids, which targeted mostly immigrant radicals. The radicals retaliated with letter bombs. Social turbulence continued through the 1929 Wall Street crash and the Depression.

This is the great weakness of Turchin’s book. He wants to offer us the chance to get through our own end times and reach another integrative era of prosperity and unity.

But for Turchin, salvation depends on the wisdom of American and Canadian plutocrats, who will have to decide to pump wealth back into the working class before it explodes.

In Turchin’s view, the great majority of us are at the mercy of our elites, and at risk of self-harm if we try to free ourselves.

“Immiserated proletarians are not the ones who run successful revolutions,” Turchin notes. “The truly dangerous revolutionaries are frustrated elite aspirants, who have the privileges, trains and connections to enable them to wield influence at scale.”

That influence will be felt by excess-elite educated young people: “The growing proportion of credentialed youth who are doomed to become the educated precariat are the ones who have nothing to lose but their precarity.”

Some countries, Turchin says, have kept themselves from extreme inequality, like the Nordic nations. “In the coming years,” he writes, “the resilience of countries will be severely tested by climate change, pandemics, economic depressions, interstate conflicts and massive immigration flows. Will those countries that did not permit their inequality levels to increase be more resilient to such shocks? We need to know.”

Without resorting to cliodynamics, I’m fairly confident that relatively equal societies will survive the next decades in better shape than the plutocracies, military dictatorships and authoritarian bureaucracies.

The greatest threat to egalitarian democracies will not be climate change or pandemics, but the failed responses of unequal nations to such disasters. Peter Turchin’s diagnosis of our ills is excellent, but his prognosis for the future is unpersuasive. The plutocrats will not save us; we will have to save ourselves.  [Tyee]

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