End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration, by Peter Turchin, Allen Lane, 240 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0241553480
Peter Turchin is the founder of the discipline of ‘cliodynamics’ (Clio being the ancient Greek muse of history), a big-data-enabled approach to the study of history over the very long term. He is frank in his claim that cliodynamics is a science; to aspire to being a science, of course, a discipline must discover at least approximate laws, which have robust if not absolute predictive value. Since 2011, Turchin has led a research team engaged in a remarkable programme called Seshat: The Global History Databank (named for the Egyptian goddess of wisdom), which gathers data from and extends its analyses over 10,000 years of human history, seeking macrolevel patterns that would approximate laws of human behaviour and interaction, and typical outcomes, on an aggregate scale. Explaining political integration and disintegration – the rise and decline or collapse of states and empires – has been the chief focus of the work. It has also been, says Turchin, ‘the area where our field’s findings are arguably the most robust ‑ and the most disturbing’.
Turchin rose to prominence when a 2010 contribution to the journal Nature, from among a number then solicited asking for predictions for the next decade, began circulating widely during the Trump presidency: Relying on his evolving models, Turchin had predicted a rise in political tension and potential for political violence in the United States, peaking some time in the mid-to-late 2020s, possibly with a descent into civil war. End Times is a popular (that is, nonmathematical) presentation of Turchin’s work on the drivers of political disintegration, focusing especially on the recent and current situation in the United States.
His thesis is that we have entered a new ‘age of discord’; he outlines those phenomena historically most predictive of political turmoil, revolution and civil war, and details their presence in the contemporary US. Cliodynamics is the application to human history of what Turchin calls ‘complexity science’, which is the science of nonlinear dynamic interactions of forces. For all that it sounds complicated, the lessons the cliodynamic research has distilled are simple – one might even say in most cases intuitive. ‘This is the essence of complexity science: complex dynamics do not have to have complex causes.’ For Turchin, the essential causes of our new age of discord are few, and familiar.
There are two primary and two secondary ‘structural drivers’ of instability. One of the latter is external political causes (but this is seldom a factor for large or powerful states, and indeed in extreme cases, for example the threat of war, may ultimately strengthen a state by unifying its population and accustoming it to sacrifice for the common good). The other is the state’s loss of legitimacy (usually accompanying a decline in its fiscal health), though this is often a product of the two primary structural drivers. These are ‘popular immiseration’ and ‘elite overproduction’, a combination which Turchin finds that again and again throughout history presages revolution or state collapse. As a driver of instability, popular immiseration needs little elaboration; the interest of Turchin’s analysis is that dangerous immiseration runs across classes, and is often masked. It means not starving masses of peasants, but generalised insecurity caused by stagnation of or decline in real wages over time, imperilling intergenerational upward mobility. Immiseration of this kind in the United States is very real, and is reflected in population vital statistics, not only in rising ‘deaths of despair’ (from suicide, drug abuse or alcoholism) among uneducated populations, but in general stature, a particularly reliable historical indicator of population wellbeing. ‘When the real wages of typical Americans stopped growing in the late 1970s, so did the average height of their children.’ Immiseration is commonly masked in statistical analyses concentrating on gross national or domestic product and consumer price indices; its sting is felt most harshly in larger, longer-term outlays, particularly the costs of education (student debt), healthcare and housing, all of which are far more expensive relative to median wages than in previous decades. In the US, in the forty years from 1976 to 2016, ‘the relative wage [wages divided by GDP per capita] lost nearly 30 percent of its value’.
Popular immiseration comes about because of what Turchin calls ‘the wealth pump’. This is the funnelling to a small number of elites of an ever greater proportion of a nation’s wealth. Where wages are depressed or stagnate, the money produced has to go somewhere else; since the proportion taken by the state in the US has remained relatively constant over decades, this has meant increasing profits to the extremely wealthy and an explosion in billionaires, centimillionaires and decamillionaires. The turning on of the ‘wealth pump’ in any society has calamitous consequences; if it is not turned off, in time revolution or collapse will ensue. One consequence of the situation is that entry into the elite (broadly, those in a society who bear some power or influence) becomes essential for any security in life, making places in elite professions or positions more desirable. This is one trigger for ‘elite overproduction’, a concept which can justly be called Turchin’s most important.
Elite overproduction is the situation where there are far more aspirants to the elite than there are positions to be filled. This inevitably leads to increasing numbers of frustrated aspirants, and eventually to the formation of a counter-elite which aims to overthrow the ruling class and stake its own claim to becoming the establishment. Consequences of ‘intraelite competition’ are the spread of frustration and resentment when ‘the demand for power positions by elite aspirants massively exceeds their supply’, and the undermining of ‘civic cohesiveness, the sense of national cooperation without which states quickly rot from within’.
The typical member of the emerging counter-elite is ‘someone who is willing to break the rules to get ahead in the game’. Dogged as it is by competing aspirants’ resentments and sense of being wronged, ‘extreme competition does not lead to the election of the best candidates, the candidates most suited for the positions. Rather, it corrodes the rules of the game, the social norms and institutions that govern how society works in a functional way. It destroys cooperation.’ In crisis periods, some members of the elite or near-elite with grievances tend to emerge as ‘political entrepreneurs’, who ‘use the high mass mobilization potential of the non-elite population to advance their ideological agendas and political careers’. Frustrated elite aspirants are and have always been far more dangerous to a state and its establishment than the proletarian masses. ‘Popular immiseration together with elite overproduction is an explosive combination. Immiserated masses generate raw energy, while a cadre of counter-elites provides an organization to channel that energy against the ruling class.’
Turchin substantiates this thesis with historical examples of the mid-nineteenth century Taiping Rebellion in China and the shifting fates of medieval France and England over decades when they were usually at war. (Here, outlining an interesting dynamic whereby England could ‘export’ its surplus elites to France as knights, who became a huge problem whenever they were beaten back and returned to England, and a France which ultimately benefited from the wartime destruction, as ‘the hecatombs of Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt, and a host of lesser-known battles removed tens of thousands of “surplus” nobility’.) These examples serve to sharpen the focus on contemporary America. The contemporary US is a plutocracy – the term is not intended polemically, but as a statement substantiated by the facts and accepted by most informed commentators. It simply describes a country in which networks of corporate interests set the policy agenda via lobbying and political donation, and where hard data show that, over decades, in literally every translation of advocacy into legislative acts, the interests of the wealthy prevail. Plutocracy in fact is the form that rule typically takes in the US; most states, says Turchin, have a form of rule to which they revert over centuries after crisis periods, and ‘culture is persistent’ here. The US is reverting to type after the crisis of the Great Depression spurred elites, in their own self-interest, to turn off the wealth pump; this new co-operative instinct was consolidated by the experience of World War II, so that the decades from the early 1930s saw ‘the Great Compression’, with the gap between the wealthiest in society and ordinary citizens narrowing. Reversal of this trend is a reversion to type.
Wage suppression or stagnation over the first few decades of this reversal primarily, however, affected low-skilled and unskilled workers. Those with a college education mostly escaped the worst of the decline in real wages, making a degree a ticket to security. This, however, led naturally to a rising demand for college places, triggering a massive expansion (and ultimately oversupply) of college graduates, as well as inflation of student debt. The trends evident among graduates of law are particularly illuminating. From a purely political point of view, law has historically been the profession providing the surest path to political power; but there are far more aspirants now than there are positions of real power to be filled (the US has, rather astonishingly, stubbornly stuck to the constitutional prescription of two senators per state; despite enormous gains in population, there are only one hundred senate seats, and there were fewer before 1959). A law degree’s guarantee of the chance of a good living has also gone. Oversupply naturally pushes down the average earnings of graduates; but it also happens that trends in professions or sectors come to mirror those in overall society, with gradually a larger and larger share of the spoils going to fewer and fewer members. In the US today, college graduates very much belong to the ‘precariat’. A majority of law graduates will make only an average salary, and will begin their working lives burdened with a forbidding amount of student debt. ‘It’s strange to think of most law school graduates in America as members of the precariat,’ writes Turchin, ‘but that’s what they are.’ Meanwhile, in this atmosphere of uncertainty, where resentments are stoked by the mass of failed elite aspirants, even ‘the minority of newly credentialed youth who get into elite positions right away, like the 20 percent of law school graduates with $190K salaries, are not happy campers, because they feel the general insecurity.’
America remains a democracy, but its strongly plutocratic nature makes it a ‘partial democracy’, and one increasingly marked by factionalism; among a typology of political regimes, analysis marks such a regime as ‘exceptionally unstable’; such countries ‘were the most like to descend into civil wars’. Adding elite overproduction to these current structural factors has put the United States in an especially volatile situation. Turchin’s research team’s analyses have led to the estimate that about 10-15 per cent of societies in crisis situations (suffering the main structural drivers of instability) manage to avoid either temporary decline or ultimate disintegration; those which do so realise that the stark alternative is ‘reform from above or revolution from below’ and implement the necessary reforms in time. ‘Some societies emerged from their crises in a relatively bloodless way by implementing the right set of institutions that addressed the deep structural forces driving them to the edge.’
Turchin’s historical models here are the nineteenth century reforms under Tsar Alexander II in Russia, most prominently the abolition of serfdom, which prevented (though perhaps in this case only delayed) revolution; and England what has come to be known as the ‘Chartist Period’ (1819–1867), when a raft of legislative and labour reforms served to alleviate popular immiseration (helped by a colonial empire which allowed export both of surplus elites and labourers). The most important insight from Turchin’s predictive models for the contemporary United States is that ‘it is too late to avert our current crisis’. Shutting off the wealth pump and instituting reforms will cause short-term shocks that are ‘a recipe for converting a massive proportion of the elites into counter-elites, which will most likely make the internal war even bloodier and more intense’. However, even with a violent decade or so in prospect, the reforms in the longer run will deliver more important results: ‘we can avoid the next period of social breakdown in the second half of the twenty-first century, if we act soon to bring the relative wage level up the equilibrium level (thus shutting down elite overproduction) and keep it there’.
How is one to assess the claims for this grand project? Turchin’s narrative of the causes of decline certainly has inherent plausibility, even before one tests it against historical data. It can be said fairly that none of the component parts of his core vision is original – in fact, each is commonplace. Popular immiseration should foment revolution. The most infamous remark associated with the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette’s ‘Let them eat cake’, not only testifies to an out-of-touch aristocracy but tells us also that the people had no bread. But equally, Robert Darnton, in his 1982 study The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, highlights the essential role played by disaffected elite aspirants in channelling antagonism towards the ruling class and midwifing the revolution. Darnton writes that in pre-revolutionary Paris, short shrift was given to the ambitious young men flocking to the capital seeking their fortune, ‘perhaps because France suffered from a common ailment of developing countries: a surplus population of overeducated and underemployed litterateurs and lawyers’. This problem of elite overproduction, for Turchin ‘the most important driver of rebellions, revolutions and civil wars’, has been well studied and its potentially dangerous consequences often observed.
The American historian Lenore O’Boyle in 1970 published an article in The Journal of Modern History titled ‘The Problem of an Excess of Educated Men in Western Europe, 1800-1850’. O’Boyle prefaced the exploration by saying that the idea that there was such excess was generally accepted, and looked at the cases of Germany, France and England to gauge contemporary responses. Remarking upon the phenomenon, and the fact that it represented a pressing social problem and was a potential source of disorder or political turmoil, was a commonplace among contemporary observers both native and foreign. Germany suffered an acute surplus of university academics; in England, there was an oversupply of barristers, and of military officers after demobilisation in 1815; in France, government and other administrative positions were subject to fierce competition due to the desirability of the positions and overproduction of qualified candidates.
O’Boyle does offer a caveat that should be applied also to Turchin’s analysis of elite overproduction: ‘The word “overproduction” requires explanation. It is meaningless to say that there were too many trained men for the real needs of society; the mass of the population, for example, could have used far more doctors and teachers than were provided. What can be said is that too many men were educated for a small number of important and prestigious jobs, so that some men had to be content either with under-employment or with positions they considered below their capacities.’ The inconvenience caused, not to say the political risk posed, by an abundance of underutilised, overeducated professionals in a country was however universally acknowledged as a problem in need of solution. By the same token, the nineteenth century English reforms have long been recognised as having been made necessary in order to avert social disorder and having succeeded in doing so. It is worth noting that, apart from its colonial channels to export frustrated elite aspirants, England at this time could accommodate expansion of certain types of elites, with many reforms benefiting not only labourers but especially the aspirational middle classes.
Sketching the Cambridge background in the first volume of his biography of Maynard Keynes, including the era of university reform in England, which saw the opening of Oxford and Cambridge to Dissenters or Nonconformists in response to the decline of religious faith and of church vocations among the ‘doubting class’ in the 1860s, Robert Skidelsky noted that ‘the fundamental motive for this was conservative – to prevent the emergence of a rival, or dissident, intellectual class’. Measures were recognisably directed toward averting the formation of a counter-elite, and were extraordinarily successful: ‘with the exception of the small group of Fabians, no one who had not been to Oxford or Cambridge made much impact on English thought over the next sixty years.’ There has perhaps never been a better illustration of the import of that famous remark in Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, intended as counsel to an aristocracy contemplating its coming obsolescence: ‘If we wish for everything to stay as it is, everything must change.’
Given this, it is first of all in the novelty of the synthesis that a claim on our attention will lie, and it is against the boldness and clarity of the predictions Turchin makes that the value of ‘cliodynamics’ and the insights of Seshat must be gauged. Turchin has many critics, and scepticism in the face of claims to discern patterns or cycles in history that are informative, and not merely banal, is understandable. Critics might accuse him of hedging in the long-term forecast, on the basis that one can only say whether the correct reforms were implemented in time to avert collapse if collapse is averted; and how would we accurately distinguish such a scenario from one in which Turchin’s models and predictions were simply wrong?
This argument however can be answered. Turchin’s predictions are clear, and his prescribed remedies are equally so, and are simple (to explain conceptually, if not to implement politically). The United States must turn off the ‘wealth pump’; it must raise the relative wage and keep it raised, and it must make housing and healthcare more affordable and accessible to greater numbers; to counter elite overproduction and alleviate immiseration, it must make regular, non-elite work pay, and accord those doing such work dignity and esteem. Reforms that accomplish any of these goals will be concrete and recognisable. They are being lobbied for.
Let us imagine for example we were to see the following in the next decade in the United States: establishment of a wealth tax; stricter limits placed on campaign financing; reversal of the notorious Citizens United judgement, with the influence of the ‘Political Action Committees’ it enables curtailed; a version of the Affordable Care Act holding, and being built upon to expand access to health insurance; institution of an inflation-adjusted federal minimum wage, and living wage legislation at state level; reform at federal level of trust law and other legal mechanisms that facilitate tax avoidance. Any or all of these would serve the ends of reducing inequality and easing that generalised insecurity that cuts across classes.
We have then two, sequential phases in prospect, which will either validate Turchin’s predictions or not. First, there will be blood. We will see, says Turchin, violence and political disorder in the next decade, and that much the United States can no longer avoid. On that basis we have the first point on which to gauge the accuracy of his modelling. The violence will either trigger a protracted collapse, over perhaps a couple of succeeding generations, or concrete, directed reforms will allow the United States to change course and reach a new equilibrium, averting the worst its crisis seems to augur. In the absence of reforms, Turchin will be validated if political disintegration ensues; in the event it is averted, we will be able to assess the validity of the model on the basis of whether reforms turned off the wealth pump, addressed popular immiseration and restored a good measure of confidence and trust in the government. Whichever the course taken, it would seem we are condemned to live in interesting times.
Paul O’Mahoney works in Trinity College Dublin.