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Peter Turchin: Entering the Age of Instability after Trump

Why social instability and political violence is predicted to peak in the 2020s

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By Peter Turchin

Cliodynamics is a new “transdisciplinary discipline” that treats history as just another science. Ten years ago I started applying its tools to the society I live in: the United States. What I discovered alarmed me.

My research showed that about 40 seemingly disparate (but, according to cliodynamics, related) social indicators experienced turning points during the 1970s. Historically, such developments have served as leading indicators of political turmoil. My model indicated that social instability and political violence would peak in the 2020s (see Political Instability May be a Contributor in the Coming Decade).

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The presidential election which we have experienced, unfortunately, confirms this forecast. We seem to be well on track for the 2020s instability peak. And although the election is over, the deep structural forces that brought us the current political crisis have not gone away. If anything, the negative trends seem to be accelerating.

My model tracks a number of factors. Some reflect the developments that have been noticed and extensively discussed: growing income and wealth inequality, stagnating and even declining well-being of most Americans, growing political fragmentation and governmental dysfunction (see Return of the Oppressed). But most social scientists and political commentators tend to focus on a particular slice of the problem. It’s not broadly appreciated that these developments are all interconnected. Our society is a system in which different parts affect each other, often in unexpected ways.

Furthermore, there is another important development that has been missed by most commentators: the key role of “elite overproduction” in driving waves of political violence, both in historical societies and in our own (see Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays). As I wrote three years ago,

Increasing inequality leads not only to the growth of top fortunes; it also results in greater numbers of wealth-holders. The “1 percent” becomes “2 percent.” Or even more. … from 1983 to 2010 the number of American households worth at least $10 million grew to 350,000 from 66,000. Rich Americans tend to be more politically active than the rest of the population. … In technical terms, such a situation is known as “elite overproduction.” … Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.

This was written when Donald Trump was known only as a real estate mogul and reality show host; well before this presidential election characterized by an unprecedented collapse of social norms governing civilized discourse—“epic ugliness”, in the words of the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.

The victory of Donald Trump changes nothing in this equation. The “social pump” creating new aspirants for political offices continues to operate at full strength. In addition to politically ambitious multi-millionaires, the second important source of such aspirants is U.S. law schools, which every year churn twice as many law graduates as there are job openings for them—about 25,000 “surplus” lawyers, many of whom are in debt. It is emblematic that the 2016 election pitted a billionaire against a lawyer.

Another visible sign of increasing intraelite competition and political polarization is the fragmentation of political parties. The Republican Party is in the process of splitting up into three factions: Traditional Republicans, Tea Party Republicans, and Trump Populists. These divisions run so deep that many Republicans refused to endorse Trump, and some even voted for Clinton. Similar disintegrative forces have also been at work within the Democratic Party, with a major fault line dividing Bernie Sanders’ Democratic Socialists from the Establishment Democrats of Obama and Clinton.

So far in this analysis I have emphasized elite overproduction. There are two reasons for it. First, as I mentioned before, other factors are much better understood, and have been discussed, by social scientists and political commentators. Second, cliodynamic research on past societies demonstrates that elite overproduction is by far the most important of the three main historical drivers of social instability and political violence (see Secular Cycles for this analysis).

But the other two factors in the model, popular immiseration (the stagnation and decline of living standards) and declining fiscal health of the state (resulting from falling state revenues and rising expenses) are also important contributors.

From what I have seen so far, it seems unlikely that the Trump administration will succeed in reversing these negative trends. And some of the proposed policies will likely make them worse. For example, drastically reducing taxes on the wealthy Americans will hardly strengthen fiscal health of the state.

Thus, I see no reason to revise the forecast I made three years ago: “We should expect many years of political turmoil, peaking in the 2020s.”

But this is a science-based forecast, not a “prophecy”. It’s based on solid social science, the workings of which I have left “under the hood” in this article intended for a general audience. But the science is there. If you are interested in looking under the hood, see my recently published book, Ages of Discord.

Because it’s a scientific theory, we also need to understand the limitations of what it can forecast. Cliodynamics is about broad social trends and deep structural causes of these developments. It did not predict that Donald Trump would become the American President in 2016. But it did predict rising social and political instability. And, unless something is done, instability will continue to rise.

So what’s to be done? I find myself in the shoes of Hari Seldon, a fictional character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, whose science of history (which he called psychohistory) predicted the decline and fall of his own society. Should we follow Seldon’s lead and establish a Cliodynamic Foundation somewhere in the remote deserts of Australia?

This would be precisely the wrong thing to do. It didn’t work even in Isaac Asimov’s fictional universe. The problem with secretive cabals is that they quickly become self-serving, and then mire themselves in internecine conflict. Asimov came up with the Second Foundation to watch over the First. But who watches the watchers? In the end it all came down to a uniquely powerful and uniquely benevolent super-robot, R. Daneel Olivaw.

No, the only way forward is through an open discussion of problems and potential solutions and a broad-based collective action to implement them. It’s messy and slow, but that’s how lasting positive change usually comes about.

Another important consideration is that in Foundation Seldon’s equations told him that it would be impossible to stop the decline of the Galactic Empire—Trantor must fall. In real life, thankfully, things are different. And this is another way in which the forecasts of cliodynamics differ from prophecies of doom. They give us tools not only to understand the problem, but also potentially to fix it.

But to do it, we need to develop much better science. What we need is a nonpolitical, indeed a fiercely non-partisan, center/institute/think tank that would develop and refine a better scientific understanding of how we got into this mess; and then translate that science into policy to help us get out of it.

Our society, like all previous complex societies, is on a rollercoaster. Impersonal social forces bring us to the top; then comes the inevitable plunge. But the descent is not inevitable. Ours is the first society that can perceive how those forces operate, even if dimly. This means that we can avoid the worst — perhaps by switching to a less harrowing track, perhaps by redesigning the rollercoaster altogether.

2016 November 17


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  • Dick Burkhart

    Here’s my Amazon review of Turchin’s latest book (Ages of Discord):

    With this book Peter Turchin has solidified his reputation has one of our foremost interdisciplinary scholars and public intellectuals. The implications of his latest analysis are dire indeed, as they show that the United States is currently undergoing a state of political stress not unlike the US just before the Civil War or France just before the French Revolution. You’ll quickly recognize Donald Trump as Exhibit A. In previous books, such as “War and Peace and War” and “Historical Dynamics” Turchin’s “structural-demographic” theory was developed and applied to historical agrarian societies. Here it is adapted to the United States all the way through the industrial revolution and right up to the present. As in “Historical Dynamics”, the mathematics is explained with remarkable clarity (it’s similar to standard differential models in other disciplines) but most of the book can be easily read and appreciated without them.

    Turchin identifies three key factors that often lead to civil war or some form of state collapse. The foremost is competition and conflict among an expanding population of elites, the second is a declining real wage for an expanding population of workers, and the third, though less prevalent, is state financial collapse (unpayable debt). In some ways this is an empirically verified version of the classical population theory of Malthus, one that identifies key feedback loops that produce approximate cycles of rise and fall over a century or two, rather than a more or less permanent Mathusian nightmare of poverty for the masses. Unfortunately, the eras of “good feelings” have typically lasted only a generation or two, such as 1810 – 1840 and 1940 – 1970 in US history, before elite individuals and groups abandon consensus politics to pursue ever harsher exploitation and competition to enrich themselves.

    Though remarkably successful, Turchin’s analysis does hide some key underlying drivers. Most obvious are issues of economic growth or contraction related to resources and ecosystems. Thus newly developed technology for energy resources, such as fossil fuels, can be what drives the spectacular population growth that Turchin highlights, far outpacing the slower population growth of agrarian societies, though with similar social effects. On the downside, collapse may be driven not just by competition and inequality, but also by the rapid depletion of key resources (fuel, fresh water, good agricultural lands, fisheries, forests, etc.) and the often related damage to ecosystems (climate, biodiversity, estuaries, watersheds, etc). Following this line of thought, a much grimmer future is painted by some popular historians, such as John Michael Greer (“Dark Age American: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead”, 2016).

    Turchin makes a point of using mathematical models that are as simple as possible to illustrate his key points, yet more complex models have been developed in the past to great effect, such as the famous Limits-to-Growth models of the 1970s, which include variables like resources, food, industrial growth, and pollution. Though the latter lack the detailed explication of Turchin’s simpler models, they do permit an exploration of the future via a number of scenarios, something Turchin does not attempt. These scenarios give mathematical credibility to Greer’s vision of near total collapse, which is also supported by the historical collapse of the Roman Empire. It would be very interesting to see a cyclical version of the limits-to-growth model.

    • Rick Derris

      Thanks for sharing your review! I’m going to get “Discord” because I’m curious to see the underlying math that Prof Turchin uses.

  • Ned

    Pseudoscientific nonsense. What an overblown parade of anecdotes pretending to be facts and predictions. This is worse than astrology.

  • Psychology and the history of revolutions in the past are two important ingredients in what is going on – the underlying processes for which Turchin calls for deeper research.

    The history of the French revolution shows some interesting parallels to the US:
    -pressure by landed nobility to extract resources by extending and reviving their ‘rights’ – rent extraction, lowered or stagnating real incomes of most workers / employees
    – the use of printing presses to print and distribute pamphlets telling opinionated and wrong stories about what went on – social media
    – a loss in confidence in institutions due to e.g. the diamond necklace affair.

    The psychological effects these had were imprtant in the course of events and thus the mental representations of (groups) of actors and its formal modelling matters – pretty similar to the concept of ‘psychohistory’.

    • Derryl Hermanutz

      It is informative to note that a few years ago China’s political leaders were all reading de Tocqueville’s, “The Old Regime and the Revolution”, in which de Tocqueville chronicles the political mistakes that led to 1789 and the subsequent Terror. China has its Confucian tradition of political philosophy that describes what is required for good government. De Tocqueville provides an object lesson in avoidable errors.

      • Thanks for the pointer! Is it known what their opinion about this book or Tocqueville more generally is?

        • Derryl Hermanutz

          Hi Carl,
          I don’t know what the Chinese took away from reading de Tocqueville, but I can guess. De Tocqueville describes how the French nobility had abandoned actual governing for many decades, leaving government in the hands of a fiscal authority with almost absolute power. Landowners were selling out to their more prosperous peasants, to get money for their children and/or themselves to live in the “City of Light”. Before the Revolution, radical political philosophies became fashionable. Ideas like liberte, equalite, fraternite — “democratic” ideas that were deeply subversive to the feudal order — were embraced with delighted abandon by fashionable society. The nobles seemed unaware that revolution begins in the mind, with ideas. Political theorists like Montesquieu — people who had no experience whatever with actual governing — invented entire theories of society and government based on “scientific” principles. According to de Tocqueville, political philosophy was debated in the streets among shopkeepers, housewives, and everybody else who could form an opinion. The people believed in the ideas, believed that if they could think them, they could make them work.

          Louis XVI implemented some of the economic relief policies that eased the tax burden on the peasants. Ironically, by lifting the heavy hand of noble oppression, Louis enobled the people into expecting they could realize their political utopia. The King who tried to serve the people, was introduced by the people to Madam Guillotine. Little more than a decade after the French farmer and peasant revolution, France fell under the absolute dicatorship of Emperor Napoleon. De Tocqueville observed that while the people hated the taxes of tyranny, they loved their illustrious tyrants.

          I think the Chinese will be impressed with the dangers of allowing democratic political philosophy to gain traction among the Chinese people. I believe most people are not political. They are economic. As long as the system provides them work and the opportunity to improve their economic lot, the people are satisfied with their government. Most people have no clue what “the economy” is, where money comes from, or how a complex economy actually works. They do not understand power struggles among wannabe tycoons and rulers. They do not possess the basic knowledge that is needed to be involved in governing, nor do they possess the aptitude to learn it. Most people just want to do their work and live their lives, as free as possible of oppression and exploitation.

          Confucian political philosophy does not consider democracy to be a viable system of choosing a government, advocating instead a professional civil service trained in the art and craft of government. Moral training of carefully vetted candidates is a core feature of the Confucian system, whose goal is to provide a government that serves the Mandate of Heaven: harmonious society. It’s a good ideal, though Westerners have been taught to value individual liberty over social harmony. Individual liberty is a good ideal in a frontier economy, which the US hasn’t had for 200 years now. With 1.4 billion people, China cannot afford social discord. Democracy will not be embraced anytime soon by the Chinese.

  • This is going to have a few problems – particularly the fact that it is recursive.

    Consider the 2016 elections and looking at a combination of various economic and social metrics to weight polls, a technique thought to be reliable. The problem is, it is the job of someone running a campaign to find variables that are unaccounted-for and make those relevant.

    Or take a metric like GDP or the Dow Jones – essentially, when you measure on a particular metric or a basket of metrics, and take on the task of “make that number go up” you eventually wind up with an economy that doesn’t work for most people, but has high numbers.

    That fiercely non-partisan think-tank is a fine idea, but it needs to recognize that as soon as what it measures influences public policy, the process of the things it measures becoming irrelevant to stability has begun.

    As I said, I think it’s a good idea, but I’d also question how scientific the selection of metrics is – given the vast number of possible ones, and sensitive dependence on initial conditions – small changes in variables leading to large changes in outcome. Any such institution needs to be ruthlessly intellectually honest about the possibility of overfitting.

  • Any alternative, viable, sustainable economic system will be very dependent on a much more knowledgeable and competent citizenry, including the ability to comprehend complexity and the nature of knowledge acquisition. The best of our educational systems are inadequate. The negative shifts (including Trump) globally point to flawed knowledge and comprehension of the vast majority of humans. Informing is a very inadequate process for changing humans.

  • José Geraldo Gouvêa

    Long history short: psychohistory has been invented. I want a ticket to Foundation.

  • Ned

    Pseudoscientific nonsense. He is a historian, not Isaac Asimov.

    • Actually, an evolutionary anthropologist dealing with history over long time frames. Others are too, like Jared Diamond, Paul Kennedy, Fred Spiers, David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown.

  • X-7

    Dr. T: Okay. As you know, collapse is when-not-if physics: self-organized criticality.

    I don’t think we need a think tank, more like a cabal of generals with Eisenhower-like integrity to declare a state of emergency, etc. (Both is better.)
    Yes, myriad unintended consequences with a military insurrection but in our life-threatening, life-ending circumstances, many immune-response variations should be considered.
    A think tank doesn’t have enough balls, speed or force to take the keys away from a suicidally drunk species. Cliodynamics surely reveals that . . .

  • Duncan Cairncross

    I would love to read the latest Turchin book – but it seems to be only available as hardcopy – when will it be available as a Kindle book?

  • dc.sunsets

    In the smaller context, it pays to notice the interrelationship between all the Utopianism of the mid-1960’s and subsequent appearance of prosperity. In 1964 the USA took silver out of coins and passed the Civil Right Act. In 1965 the Hart-Celler Immigration Act threw open the gates to culturally alien immigrants, about 65 million of them and counting, while the Great Society changed the carrot/stick incentives for people to endeavor to escape poverty. In 1971 Nixon completed the free-floating of the FIAT dollar and after a brief and painful CPI inflation wave, in 1981 a secular low in bond prices occurred. Since then, bond vigilantes went into a coma; the path to riches for 35 years now was paved with acquiring the long-term debt of others, and since debt growth was equal to wealth growth, a veritable Mt. Vesuvius of IOU’s was piled ever higher even as debt-enabled (leveraged) speculation in asset markets spiraled higher, encouraging the people of Pompeii to build skyscrapers and factories and fluff all in the shadow of the volcano of debt they simultaneously piled up.

    This is what sustains the illusion of vast wealth held by those 350,000 ten-millionaires (in 2010.) It’s ALL resting on nothing more than mass psychology. When total debt is small, changes in interest rates have little effect on overall wealth perception; once a mountain of debt is created, however, the leveraged effects of even small changes in interest rates have 9.8 Richter-scale effects. Interest rates appear to be establishing a new uptrend since this past summer. If that trend continues, it is only a matter of time before a panic for the exits occurs, a metaphorical pyroclastic flow toward the foundations of all that wealth piled up these past 35 years. Wall Street, the CME and real estate are but three major towers whose foundations will be destroyed when the debt volcano finally blows. Everything that depends on Uncle Sam’s (seemingly) no-limit charge card will also predictably collapse (for example: see “medical services” under the heading “Medicare/Medicaid.”)

    Remember: When a stock (example IBM) rises in value, each dollar brought into the market by the buyer leaves with the seller; there is NO NET MONEY MOVEMENT into or out of markets, ever. What happens is that a marginal seller and buyer agree to a new price, and that price change is applied to every single share outstanding, the vast majority of which is not being traded. By the trade of a single share of IBM for a dollar more, if a billion shares exist then a BILLION DOLLARS in value is created by the trade of a single share.

    This process occurs both ways. When markets fall, value doesn’t move around. It evaporates.

    • Derryl Hermanutz

      Great comment! Most analysts focus on economic factors — resource depletion, etc. — and seem unaware of the credit mountain/debt pit by which commercial banks create all the money that enables buying-selling of all the stuff. Banks create the credit as loans. Debtors borrow and spend the credits and owe the debts. Payees who earn the new money that debtors spend, end up owning all the credits. Unless earners spend down their credits (deposit account balances in bank accounts; cash balances in brokerage accounts) and debtors earn back the money, debtors can’t pay their loan account debts and bond debts. When banks can’t collect the money they are owed by debtors, banks can’t pay the money they owe to their own creditors — their deposit account customers who earned and now own all the credit-money that banks originally created in debtors’ deposit accounts.

      I don’t believe the world is running out of resources or businesses and workers to convert the resources into the products we need and want: we do not face imminent economic collapse. The world has never been richer in every kind of consumer goods and services. But the commercial bank balance sheet (credit/debt) monetary system is structurally insolvent and would have collapsed into systemic bankruptcy in 2008 had it not been for the extraordinary and ongoing monetary measures of central banks (QE liquidity injections) and governments (taxpayer-funded bailouts).

      I think the credit/debt impasse is the major risk facing the world today. The grossly imbalanced commercial bank balance sheet can be rebalanced in one of two ways: by equally reducing uncollectable credits and unpayable debts (reducing savers’ deposit account balances, to balance the reduction in debtors’ unpayable loan account balances); or by adding government-issued debt-free money as a Basic Income, which would make debtors’ otherwise unpayable debts payable, and would not require reucing the existing total supply of credit-money (deposit account balances) to reduce the total debt (loan account balances). The 1930s credit/debt impasse was resolved by extinguishing people’s deposit account balances in their bankrupt banks. Let’s hope this time governments will choose to add fiat money, rather than reduce credit-money, to restore solvency to the world’s insolvent commercial banking system.

  • Kenneth Slayor

    Federalist Paper No. 10 suggests that there is no possible group of persons which can exist without faction. Hence, no non-partisan think tank can be created. The next possibility is to control the negatives of the unavoidable effects.

  • Dr. James Russel, PhD

    The increase in intra-elite competition precludes the sort of non-partisan solution Turchin advocates, it will fall on deaf ears. Get ready for a wild ride, there’s no breaks on this train.