A Simple Desultory Analytic (Or How I Was Peter Turchin’d Into Perdition) by “I lost my harmonica albrt”

Yves here. albrt is frustrated by Peter Turchin having produced a popular book based on what he depicts as quantitative analysis spanning 10,000 years, both in that he does not show his work and has not come up with anything novel. The topic is the mess we find ourselves collectively in, of more violence, widening differences between classes combined with less income mobility, and political schisms. Turchin does say this is a prescription for revolution, although societies do sometimes manage to pull out of the dive path.

So one might regard this post as a reflection of the state of commentary on decline, with Turchin’s book End Times as the point of departure.

By albrt. Originally published at his website

Peter Turchin began his academic career as an ecologist applying data-intensive methods to the study of animal population dynamics.  In the late 1990s he started applying some of these methods to humans.  He describes his work as complexity science, mixing computer modeling with big data analytics.  Turchin now claims to have gone a step further and invented a new field of study he calls “cliodynamics,” using big databases going back 10,000 years to identify patterns leading to societal crises.

Turchin is a prolific academic author, but he decided to write a popular book because he has a message for Americans today:

[W]hen a state, such as the United States, has stagnating or declining real wages (wages in inflation adjusted dollars), a growing gap between rich and poor, overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees, declining public trust, and exploding public debt, these seemingly disparate social indicators are actually related to each other dynamically.  Historically, such developments have served as leading indicators of looming political instability.  In the United States, all of these factors started to take an ominous turn in the 1970s.  The data pointed to the years around 2020 when the confluence of these trends was expected to trigger a spike in political instability.  And here we are.  End Times at xi.

In particular, End Times identifies two structural-dynamic variables leading to predictable crises throughout human history:  overproduction of elite aspirants and popular immiseration.

I bought End Times at the same time as The Fourth Turning is Here by Neil Howe.  I found Howe’s writing style more engaging, so I read his book first (five part review begins here).  End Times was a bit of a slog, despite being much shorter.  That said, the book is worth reading, or is at least worth reading a good review.  Jack Goldstone, a colleague of Turchin’s who is cited often in End Times, had this to say:

Unlike Turchin’s major previous works, End Times is clearly an attempt to reach a much wider, non-scientific audience.  The book has not a single graph, table, or equation.  Instead, it presents its arguments in part through a series of vignettes featuring largely invented individuals whose life-situation is used to illustrate the social trends being discussed. . . .

The attempt to reach a broader audience seems to have been successful:  End Timesreceived reviews in the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Times of London.  Unfortunately, the price of such broad response has been a regrettable oversimplification, leading to a superficial dismissal—thus the headline on the review in the Sunday Times read “End Times by Peter Turchin review: we’re in a mess, blame the elite … we just have too many of them now” (Glancy 2023).  To say that this trivializes decades of research, based on data covering cases spanning millennia, is an understatement.

I no longer follow any of the newspapers listed by Goldstone, but as a member of the coveted middlebrow target market I think Turchin bears some of the responsibility for his methods being trivialized in reviews of End Times.  The book often fails to say when Turchin’s conclusions are based on quantitative analysis of historical data and when Turchin is just riffing based on his own observations and knowledge of history, which he seems to do fairly often.

By using “vignettes” and oversimplified explanations, it seems pretty clear Turchin is trying to reach a demographic that is a rung or two down the ladder from the elites mentioned in the subtitle.  Attempting to write for the working class can be a noble endeavor.  Whether Turchin will succeed in reaching the populace with End Timesremains to be seen, as we approach the time when a paperback edition could normally be expected to appear (and just in time for an election).

Background

By Turchin’s reckoning, a crisis is a relatively short-term phenomenon that happens within a longer framework of integrative and disintegrative phases.  During integrative phases a society is relatively unified and resilient.  During disintegrative phases, societies have internal conflict and are more susceptible to crisis and eventual collapse.  A disintegrative period can continue for a long time and follow a rhythm.

One generation fights an all-out civil war, but the next generation (“the sons”), scarred by this violence, keeps uneasy peace.  The following generation (“the grandsons”), who grew up not being directly exposed to violence, repeats the mistakes of the grandfathers.  This dynamic sets up a recurrent cycle of violence of roughly fifty years in length (that is, two human generations), which persists until the structural conditions are somehow resolved, leading to the next integrative phase.  End Times at 30.

Worth repeating—a disintegrative phase in Turchin’s framework can last for more than one fifty-year cycle of violence.  Turchin estimates that the first disintegrative phase in the United States lasted from roughly 1830 to 1930, with spikes of collective violence during the Civil War and an “instability peak around 1920.”  The United States was in an integrative period from 1930 to 1980, but then a new generation of elites began dismantling “the pillars on which the postwar prosperity era was based.”  End Times at 74.

One of the reasons why Turchin is getting attention right now is because he predicted in 2010 that the United States would see a “peak of political violence in 2020.”  End Times at 252.  Widespread media obsession with a riot in Washington DC in early January of 2021 gave Turchin an opening for a popular book.  I have very little confidence that political violence in the United States peaked with that DC riot, but I can definitely get on board with the idea that the United States is in a long-lasting disintegrative phase where institutions are losing legitimacy and social conflict is increasing.

To be clear, I do not actually disagree with Turchin about much. If he were simply an old school newspaper columnist saying whatever came into his head (as newspaper columnists were wont to do back in the days when I used to read newspapers), I would probably agree with him 80 to 90 percent of the time.  He seems like a clear-sighted guy who has acquired a fair amount of knowledge about history since getting bored with animal population studies and embarking on an autodidactic adventure in the social sciences.  Where I get stuck is trying to figure out his claims for a great leap in scientific method and precision, which are not really supported by the information included in End Times.  Turchin’s big database, like a kind of social science MacGuffin, is mysteriously missing from many of the segments in End Times that contain interesting insights.

This is not to say that Turchin fails to support his points with evidence.  End Times has a substantial number of footnotes citing many books and journal articles.  But most of Turchin’s conclusions are not all that different from the conclusions other smart and sensible people have reached by less quantitative methods of observation and reasoning over the past two or three centuries.  As one reviewer put it, “none of the component parts of his core vision is original – in fact, each is commonplace.”

I think the best way to approach Turchin is to assume he is still a population ecologist, but now he is working on the much harder problem of trying to figure out the important variables for human population dynamics.  He is not trying to preach an ideology, but he eventually comes up against the problem that ideology and other subjective factors are important to human population dynamics.  Turchin presumably has a better understanding of the complexity/chaos theory part of the problem than traditional philosophers and social scientists, but it is not clear that Turchin has a better understanding of how human factors play into historical cycles.

The rest of this review will highlight the main variables discussed in End Times, and try to figure out from the relatively scant clues in End Times whether Turchin seems to be making progress with a quantitative approach.

Main Thesis Points

As noted, the two big causes of instability according to Turchin are popular immiseration and overproduction of elite aspirants.  Both are the result of what Turchin calls a “wealth pump.”  Whenever elites develop a system for extracting wealth from the broader economic system, usually by reducing wages in some fashion, then the populace is immiserated and too many elite aspirants are created.  The wealth pump operates on both of Turchin’s variables by taking from the poor and giving to the rich.

When you are a member of the populace stuck in one of these dynamics, the most constructive ways to escape from immiseration include fleeing, becoming an elite aspirant yourself, or organizing behind an elite aspirant who seems to be offering a better deal. Less constructive options include dying in a plague or a war. Instability increases, regardless.

Popular immiseration and overproduction of elites comprise most of what Turchin calls the structural-dynamic aspect of his model.  Turchin recognizes two other “structural drivers,” a failing state sector and external geopolitical factors.  End Timesat 30.  The failure of state financing and legitimacy is probably a good measure of how much a society is disintegrating, but logically this seems more like an effect of the wealth pump dynamic rather than an independent variable.  Turchin says the geopolitical factors have less impact on larger, more powerful states, and he does not seem to give much attention to geopolitics in his forecast for twenty-first century America.

As Turchin describes it, the path into a disintegrative phase is relatively straightforward:  the wealth pump gets turned on, the people get immiserated, and elite aspirants get out of control.  The ways out of a disintegrative phase are much more varied.  The best case is that a society can reform itself enough to make the populace settle down and get back to work, as the United States did from the 1930s to the 1960s.  The worst cases include civil war, civilizational collapse, or an epidemic that wipes out so many people that the wealth pump gets reversed by rising wages due to the lower supply of workers.

Turchin credits others, particularly Jack Goldstone, for developing earlier structural-dynamic models.  Cliodynamics purportedly distinguishes itself from structural-dynamic approaches by accounting for less quantifiable variables such as culture and ideology.  End Times at 95.  The book does not explain all the working parts of Turchin’s current model, but as far as I can tell there are at least five important categories of variables:  popular immiseration and elite overproduction are the main structural-dynamic variables that apply to all societies; culture, ideology, and organization of interest groups are relatively independent sociopolitical variables.

Popular Immiseration

The story of popular immiseration creating instability certainly is not new.  Popular immiseration and unrest can be caused to some extent by external factors such as overpopulation, famine, or disease, but Turchin focuses on societal causes, particularly the wealth pump.  Non-sociopolitical causes of immiseration are mostly endogenous to the structural-dynamic model, and in some cases actually lead to a longer-term reversal of the wealth pump by decimating the labor force and creating higher wages for the remaining workers.

So the wealth pump enriches the elites and immiserates everyone else.  This simplification allows Turchin to bypass the last few centuries of debate about the inner workings of political economy.  Perhaps this is a good thing—we can’t realistically expect the working class to read the entire tangled mess that Marxism has become.  As Turchin says more than once, his job is to build a model that is as simple as possible but no simpler.  Perhaps it is better if we just acknowledge that the working class is getting screwed and give it a name that everyone can understand.  “Wealth pump” seems like a good candidate.

Joe Biden and his handlers profess to have difficulty understanding why anyone in America today would consider themselves immiserated, but frankly I don’t feel a need to make that case here.  The wealth pump is visibly operating in America today, to the detriment of most people. Turchin provides some statistics. Only the willfully blind cannot see it.

Overproduction of Elite Aspirants

This is the piece of Turchin’s theory that is getting the most attention—the idea that when more people are trying harder to get ahead it will necessarily lead to instability. Upward mobility is supposed to be a founding principle of American culture and economics. If more people trying to be upwardly mobile inherently leads to instability, that would seem sort of bad.

In Turchin’s words, “[e]lite overproduction develops when the demand for power positions by elite aspirants massively exceeds their supply.”  End Times at 7.  When this happens, elite aspirants begin breaking the rules more and more, leading to instability.  In olden times, “the speed with which the elite ranks could grow . . . was strongly influenced by the biological reproduction of the elites.”  End Times at 44.  As a test of the elite overproduction theory, Turchin hypothesized that polygamous cultures should have shorter historical cycles than monogamous cultures during the middle ages, and he claims that the data bear this out.  End Times at 45-46.

Nowadays, elite aspirants are mostly created by going to college.  “Overproduction of youth with advanced degrees has been the most significant factor in driving societal upheavals, from the Revolutions of 1848 to the Arab Spring of 2011.”  End Times at 91.  Turchin therefore uses “the term class not in a Marxist sense (where it is defined by the role of individuals in the production process) but in the sense of a group of individuals who have the same socioeconomic status—most importantly, similar levels of wealth and educational attainment.”  End Times at 304 n.5.  Turchin says that having a four-year college degree is a “much more salient” indicator of class than wealth “if we want to understand the diversity of life trajectories and social attitudes.”  End Times at 6.

Turchin suggests that by 2016 the population had sorted itself into two social classes

whose well-being has been declining and, correspondingly, whose mass-mobilization potential has been growing.  The first one is the immiserated noncredentialed working class.  The second one is the frustrated aspirants within the credentialed class.  End Times at 207.

For convenience as the discussion gets more political, I will call them “Team Immiserated” and “Team Educated.”

Team Immiserated consists mainly of the non-credentialed working class and of people who are in even worse economic shape than the working class.  This should be the traditional constituency of the so-called democrat legacy faction that championed social safety nets prior to Bill Clinton’s reinvention of democratic politics.  Turchin observes that aggrieved rural and working-class reactionaries, christened deplorables by Hillary Clinton, are becoming a larger fraction of Team Immiserated and providing much of the energy behind Donald Trump.

Team Educated roughly corresponds to the Professional Managerial Class or PMC.  But having a college degree clearly does not make you elite—indeed, that’s the point Turchin is making when he identifies elite overproduction as a key component of instability.  Credentialing institutions create elite aspirants rather than elites.

End Times is notably inexact in defining actual elites as they exist in America today.  At one point Turchin says that elites “are simply those who have more social power—the ability to influence other people.  A more descriptive term for elites is ‘power holders.’”  End Times at 3.  Turchin sometimes seems to suggest that you need to be a billionaire to be truly elite (or have some other equivalent access to power); other times Turchin suggests that much lower level functionaries may be elite.  I suppose this makes sense in a dynamic model, where changes to the relative status of people and groups may be more important than setting boundaries and classifying people.

The basic dynamic here is completely generic to what happens in aspirant games as they progress to their late stages.  Unlike its milder versions, extreme competition does not lead to the selection 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. . . . [S]ome of those failed elite aspirants convert into radicalized counter-elites who are motivated to destroy the unjust social order that has bred them.  End Times at 94-95.

Turchin states at one point that “the American ruling class is a coalition of the top wealth holders (the 1 percent) and the top degree holders (the 10 percent).”  End Timesat 203.  This seems like a fair statement on its face and a handy rule of thumb, but it does not really fit with the relativistic aspirant dynamic.  Frustrated aspirants obviously do not stop rule-breaking and conspiring against those above them when they hit a 10% threshold and become validated as elite by Turchin’s model.  Instead this seems more like an interpretation of the “ruling class” as seen from the point of view of Team Immiserated.

The bottom line is that “[i]n order for stability to return, elite overproduction somehow needs to be taken care of—historically and typically by eliminating the surplus elites through massacre, imprisonment, emigration, or forced or voluntary downward social mobility.”  End Times at 106.  Turchin does not say what he expects their fate to be this time around, but the options don’t sound great. I guess frustrated elite aspirants have good reason for concern as we enter the late stages of a disintegrative phase.

Culture

This brings us to the first of the non-structural variables that influence Turchin’s cliodynamic analysis.  As previously noted, Turchin hypothesized that polygamous cultures would experience faster elite overproduction than monogamous cultures in pre-modern times.  This is a very quantifiable variable, so I’m not sure it is any less structural than the general concept of elite overproduction, but reproductive constraints are certainly an example of a cultural variable that might need to be added to a population dynamics database if you want to get meaningful results.

A more pertinent example of cultural data is Turchin’s observation that different societies have something approaching “a cultural stencil plate for collapse.”  End Timesat 40.  Different types of default governing structures emerge repeatedly in different societies.  In Egypt the rulers had a military power base for centuries, so whenever the going gets tough the country reverts to military rule.  End Times at 114-18.  The comparable default pattern in the United States is plutocracy.  End Times at 112.  Turchin says, credibly I think, that his diagnosis of chronic plutocracy is not a conspiracy theory, it is a clear and quantifiable observation about who gets the results they want from the United States government.  End Times at 126-28.

[P]lutocrats, acting in their own selfish interests, tend to create institutional arrangements that favor the operation of wealth pumps.  A wealth pump, on the one hand, increases popular immiseration and, on the other, elite overproduction (by creating more and wealthier plutocrats).  In other words, a wealth pump is one of the most destabilizing social mechanisms known to humanity.

End Times at 189.  I suppose it is somewhat comforting that the United States is relatively unlikely to experience a military dictatorship in the near future because we do not have that cultural stencil in place (yet).  So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.  Too bad about our predisposition for plutocracy and wealth pumps.

Ideology

A nearly universal feature of precrisis periods is thus the fragmentation of the ideological landscape and the breakdown of elite ideological consensus that underlies routine acceptance of state institutions. . . . [D]ivisive—sectarian and identitarian—ideologies gain an upper hand over unifying ones, giving us ages of discord.”  End Times at 97.

Like many other observations in End Times, this seems like common sense. Yet Turchin offers no real explanation of how the 10,000 year database supports this, or how it could be quantified and compared across civilizations. Turchin does cite a study of members of the U.S. Congress ranked along a liberal-conservative axis, concluding that the U.S. went through two cycles with polarization peaking in the seventy-year period from the 1850s to the 1920s, and then again from the 1970s to the present.  End Times at 98.  This more or less corresponds to Turchin’s timing of disintegrative periods in the U.S.

The ideology piece of the sociopolitical puzzle is of considerable interest to me.  As Erik Erikson said,

[i]t is through their ideology that social systems enter into the fiber of the next generation and attempt to absorb into their lifeblood the rejuvenative power of youth.  Adolescence is thus a vital regenerator in the process of social evolution, for youth can offer its loyalties and energies both to the conservation of that which continues to feel true and to the revolutionary correction of that which has lost its regenerative significance.  Erik Erikson, Identity Youth and Crisis at 134 (W.W. Norton 1968).

In order to serve as the foundation for a personal identity, an ideology must be sufficiently convincing to give the individual a reasonable level of confidence in adult life.  In this context, and I think also in Turchin’s usage, ideology does not necessarily refer to abstract, complex, or high level systems of belief—the connections between people’s daily lives and their professed religious or philosophical beliefs may be tenuous. For most people, ideology is whatever works to make sense out of their family, community, and occupational context.

So what are the relevant ideologies for Team Immiserated and Team Educated?

Turchin says that Trumpism is “not a coherent ideology, but rather a wishful program to get one man back in power.” But Turchin outlines a few points of working ideology raised in recent years by Tucker Carlson “which may or may not turn out to be the crystallization nucleus” for a new right-wing populism. In Turchin’s summary, the democrats are identified as the party of the rich because the diversity agenda is cheaper than raising wages. Mass immigration is bad for American wage-earners. Military adventurism is harmful and unproductive. Free speech is being suppressed by both legacy parties. Turchin concludes that “Tucker Carlson is a very dangerous man,” not because Carlson is wrong, but because Carlson’s analysis has at least some overlap with the structural-dynamic factors that Turchin sees as being responsible for our predicament. End Times at 215-19. Turchin seems to think that Team Immiserated is within hailing distance of figuring out an actionable ideology.

Turchin provides less insight into the working ideology of Team Educated, also known as the PMC.  In the last post I wrote before embarking on this Turchin review, I discussed the 1977 article in which Barbara and John Ehrenreich christened the PMC as a class.  The Ehrenreichs defined the PMC as “salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.”  The Ehrenreichs hypothesized that the PMC ideologized expertise and rationality, and the Ehrenreichs believed in 1977 that PMC expertise, rationally applied, would naturally lead to an enlightened society practicing some form of socialism.

That obviously didn’t pan out.

So what is the ideology of Team Educated? Matt Taibbi allegedly says that Team Educated is “being organized around a more potent but also much dumber, more cultlike ideology” than Team Immiserated. Frankly, I’ve had difficulty understanding what the Team Educated ideology is, much less assessing its potency.  Identity politics is obviously part of it, and several of my recent posts have been working on the puzzle of what identity politics means, starting with what identity means.  But I’m still struggling to figure out if identity politics has actual principles, or if the core principle is that you must demonstrate loyalty to the credentialing institutions and/or the democrats at all times.  It would be ironic if the personal identities of Team Educated were organized around an ideology based on identity, but that ideology had no core principles around which to organize anything.

Unfortunately, End Times does not have a lot to say about the methodology of sorting and quantifying ideologies beyond the quote at the top of this section:  we need to look at whether the prevailing ideologies are supportive of state institutions, and whether they are unifying or divisive.  I suppose this is trivially easy if we limit ourselves to the observation that people seem to be arguing a lot. But in the current disputes between Team Immiserated and Team Educated, I think both sides would say they are trying to unify America and the other side is trying to divide it.  Is it even possible to identify a unifying ideology in this situation, or to distinguish it from a divisive one?

If we are not actually thinking about the content of ideologies, then we really are back to observing whether people seem to be fighting a lot, in which case it is not clear how ideology adds anything as an analytical category in the database and its models.  End Times raises the issue, but does not clarify it.  Turchin’s political observations did inspire some additional thoughts about ideology on my part, but alas, those will have to be reserved for a future post because this review is getting far too long.

Organization

This brings us to the final cliodynamic variable, at least for the purpose of this review.  Turchin suggests that no matter how immiserated or frustrated they may be, only “organized people” can overthrow a state.  End Times at 174.  The power of an interest group critically depends on its social cohesion and political organization.  End Times at 298.  That means if you want to predict a revolution, you need to measure the capacity of classes or interest groups to organize and act effectively.

Turchin says neither team/class in America today acts cohesively, except to the extent they stereotype each other and “blame the other for America getting on the wrong track.”  End Times at 73-79.  Again, Turchin seems to be right, but we are left with little insight into how large and small scale organizational capacity can be quantified and sorted for inclusion in a 10,000 year database.

Summation

Turchin is obviously a smart guy, and End Times contains a number of provocative ideas. Unfortunately, after reading End Times I do not have a clear sense of whether Turchin’s ideas are a product of the database, or whether he came up with these ideas using his human brain while he was gathering data. I suspect the latter. Either way, Turchin is probably worth listening to, and I will consider putting some of his more technical books into the reading queue to gain a better understanding his methods.

So where does that leave us? Toward the end of the book, Turchin reveals that integrative periods are inherently hard to maintain because the elites must make sacrifices to allow relative economic prosperity for the non-elites.  The elites always get tired of this sooner or later.  That makes sense, and it is worth remembering that history is unlikely to end when any particular political ideal appears to triumph.

Perhaps the most important insight from the MPF model is that it is too late to avert our current crisis.  But 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 up to the equilibrium level (thus shutting down elite overproduction) and keep it there.  End Times at 202.

Believing that Americans can plan 50 years ahead seems wildly optimistic, but I don’t think that’s the main point. What Turchin seems to be saying is that we are going to have a crisis soon; whether we react well or badly during this immediate crisis will determine whether we are doomed to another fifty years of disintegration followed by yet another crisis.  If the current crisis leads to significant limitations on the wealth pump, we could enter an integrative phase and things will start to seem better fairly quickly, at least by world-historical standards.  If we fail to limit the wealth pump, then things will get worse until they become catastrophic.

Who can argue with that?

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23 comments

  1. Jams O'Donnell

    Mmmm. Sounds rather like Kondratiev Waves, or even worse, like this: “. . . in the waning days of a future Galactic Empire, the mathematician Hari Seldon spends his life developing a theory of psychohistory, a new and effective mathematics of sociology. Using statistical laws of mass action, it can predict the future of large populations.” (‘Foundation’ by Isaac Asimov – from Wikipedia).

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  2. jsn

    Seshat (Turchins Cliodynamics database)) then is a giant, digital confirmation bias generator, which without seeing a description of its design is perfectly plausible.

    Like the author here, I also share those biases.

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    1. chris

      Why? College can still be a path to a full and worthwhile life with an interesting career and a life of learning. Just make sure your kids don’t end up in debt for it, or come out being entitled @$$holes :)

      But we still need engineers, lawyers, artists, accountants, and lots of other trained people. If those paths are interesting to your kids, there aren’t a lot of options besides college.

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  3. Steve H.

    A couple of thoughts, nothing here I disagree with. ‘Turchin’s big database, like a kind of social science MacGuffin’ is likely exactly what this book is meant to avoid explaining, with no charts & tables. A combination of ELI5/dumbdown and a play at the bestseller list. Similar to Hudson’s interviews about the archaeological work with many collaborators.

    The most concrete definition I saw for ‘elite’ in his work was ’employers’, but the practical usage is broader. This is in part due to looking for well-documented data surrogates, when the family offices ain’t opening up their books. Lawyers are a prime example for modern society.

    The cyclic framework follows Sorokin, who was also monumentally documented. But Sorokin preceded external destabilization from climate change. Turchin does use local cases like the Anasazi, but his methods are more epidemiologic. His comments on ideology seem to be new, if he’s out over his skis it’s in this area.

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  4. KLG

    Cliometrics was all the rage for a while when I was an undergraduate, something practiced by “cliometricians.” Time on the Cross by Fogel and Engerman was the key text among my historian friends. I always thought the better term would have been “cliomeretricians.” Cliodynamics seems to be similar? But YMMV.

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  5. The Rev Kev

    To me it sounds a bit like a stripped down version of Hari Seldon’s Psychohistory. He takes into account the human factor – or he thinks that he does – but you have to put humans into the context of the natural world to get a truer representation. So what happens if a massive drought hits or perhaps something rare like an earthquake. Maybe a population boom due to the presence of abundant resources. What about cultural factors such as the fact that Japanese behave differently to Mexican peasants. Unless such factors are taken into account, his ideas ore of only limited value.

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    1. albrt

      Turchin talks about Seldon and other fictional theorists of history. Turchin is allegedly attempting to take cultural factors into account, but he doesn’t really explain how that works in End Times. Turchin’s models apparently include random impacts from non-societal variables, but again he doesn’t really explain how that works in End Times.

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  6. IEL

    I have followed Turchin’s work on and off for years but have not read End Times. This seems like a fair assessment of his work in general – his general theory seems correct enough to a be useful, even if it has clear limitations.

    The three factors I would like to see him wrestle with are climate breakdown, peak (or at least no longer cheap) oil, and the increasingly obvious fragility of American hegemony. Not that I would expect him to be able to wrap all that into a neat bow, but I think he is smart enough to make some interesting musings in that direction.

    Dmitry Orlov’s early work comparing the fall of the USSR to the possible future collapse of the US makes a nice pairing here, since he discusses specific material and cultural factors that shape the path of each country.

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    1. John Steinbach

      Have’t read Turchin’s book but, like IEL, to me what differentiates his analysis of the rise & collapse of previous civilizations/societies with the present is the size and integration of the global economy in the face of accelerating ecological collapse and resource depletion. I’m not certain how predictive his observations are in this context. Also, there are over 10,000 nukes world-wide that may make all this mute if the elites decide to push the nuclear “button”.

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  7. Kontrary Kansan

    Re: Turchin–
    . . . it seems pretty clear Turchin is trying to reach a demographic that is a rung or two down the ladder from the elites mentioned in the subtitle. Attempting to write for the working class can be a noble endeavor.”

    No middle-brow reader will find this patronizingly classist. Hard to tell how many working-class readers will do a mental a*s-kicking and decide middle-brow is a PMC t*rdburger. I intend this in tje best posdible way.

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  8. lyman alpha blob

    Great review, thank you. I had this one on my reading list but hadn’t got to it yet.

    I do like the idea of the overproduction of elite aspirants, probably because it jives with my notion that we do not have a worker shortage like we keep hearing about in recent years, but instead we have a business surplus. How many tech companies with apps that let people communicate over the interwebs instantaneously do we really need, to list just one example. Email took care of that decades ago, and all the other apps that do the same thing are just reinventing the wheel to some extent.

    What I don’t like about Turchin’s framing though is the idea that a college education makes one an elite, or at least an aspirant. I always liked Thomas Jefferson’s idea of educated farmers, and would like to see everyone get a higher education.

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  9. JE McKellar

    Team Educated’s ideology strikes me as oddly religious, an echo of Calvinist Original Sin. Say 100 straight-A students apply for a position, one gets it, and 99 get rejected (along with the many less-then-perfect). Those 99 think that they did something wrong to deserve such rejection, and try even harder to perfect themselves before the next application. The one that got the position knows that many equally-qualified didn’t, and that makes them feel like some kind of fraud, that either their own privilege or a mistake by the selection committee caused them to be selected.

    The result is an omnipresent sense of guilt and unworthiness, sometimes projected outwards upon the “deplorables” or their own bosses, but usually festers as self-loathing. Their actions, both political and economic, are all about covering up that sense of self-loathing with some sort of virtuous public performance. But no mere performance can remove that sense of being a fraud; no figure exists that can grant them forgiveness or absolution. Ain’t no magic n magic enough to do that for them.

    I wonder if the cycles match up with the Protestant Reformation and then the English Civil War. I know the American Civil War had it’s own Great Awakening, Camp Revivials, and of course John Brown and the Abolitionists.

    There’s some Russian novel about a disillusioned noble who takes to farm work to get out of this kind of mess, like the turn back to the trades and authentic craft we see today.

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  10. Sub-Boreal

    My thanks to albrt for doing such a thorough job of reviewing Turchin’s book.

    I’d read it earlier this winter, and it was my first exposure to his ideas. I had some misgivings – perhaps an allergy to Big Systems That Explain Everything – but also found it quite fascinating. There is often a lot of value to be found when scholars trespass into other fields – getting out of ruts etc. – and Turchin is someone whose other work I will explore.

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  11. James Blum

    In regards to the elite overproduction of polygamous cultures, the present day candidates for testing this hypothesis would be the gulf monarchies. Historically, the Persian model of succession always produced instability whether Xenophon’s Cyrus hiring Xenophon and 10 000 of his closest friends to go after his brother Artaxerxes (and fail) or similar episodes from the Arsacids and Sassanids. The Ottoman harem also led to fratricide at each succession. But that’s rather narrow in scope. Elite overproduction is surely more of a problem where elites get vaccines against childhood diseases and antibiotics againat strep infection–and also where elites dont have the decency to impale themselves on Flemish pikes or English arrows as did the flower of mediaeval France.

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  12. bayoustjohndavid

    Seems to me like there’s an easy link to make between the Wall Street Journal article about Gen Z taking up trades in today’s links and this post. No matter what the job market looks like now, there aren’t enough skilled positions for all the non-college educated. As long as low skilled to somewhat skilled blue collar jobs can be made more dangerous with lower pay because…(I don’t want to get into a debate about migrant workers), immiseration and precarity will increase among non-college educated. So, will high prole overproduction generate its own problems, or will it just increase the anger of non-elites?

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    1. bayoustjohndavid

      I didn’t mean to imply that migrant workers were the only reason why work place conditions are deteriorating. But migrant work contributed. I knew lots of people who made decent pay and almost never had to work weekends are holidays working for small local housing contractors (basically entry level construction jobs when I was younger. Those jobs seem to be longer hours with fewer days off now, just from what I see in my neighborhood. I suspect the pay is lower.

      It was interesting to hear Ryan Grim in near total agreement with the libertarian on “The Hill: Rising”, and in vehement disagreement with the (American Compass) conservative on “Breaking Points” when he gave the “progressive” view on immigration

      Reply
  13. bwilli123

    Interesting article in RT on
    How financialization delays the inevitable quoting the work of the Italian political economist and historian of global capitalism Giovanni Arrighi (1937-2009).
    “Arrighi, who is often simplistically pigeonholed as a Marxist historian, a label far too constricting given the breadth of his work, explored the origins and evolution of capitalist systems dating back to the Renaissance and showed how recurrent phases of financial expansion and collapse underpin broader geopolitical reconfigurations. Occupying a central place in his theory is the notion that the cycle of rise and fall of each successive hegemon terminates in a crisis of financialization. It is this phase of financialization that facilitates the shift to the next hegemon.”

    …”However, the corrosive nature of financialization is not immediately evident – in fact, quite the opposite. Arrighi demonstrates how the turn to financialization, which is initially quite lucrative, can provide a temporary and illusory respite from the trajectory of decline, thus deferring the onset of the terminal crisis. For example, the incumbent hegemon at the time, Great Britain, was the country hardest hit by the so-called Long Depression of 1873-1896, a prolonged period of malaise that saw Britain’s industrial growth decelerate and its economic standing diminished. Arrighi identifies this as the ‘signal crisis’ – the point in the cycle where productive vigor is lost and financialization sets in.

    And yet, as Arrighi quotes David Landes’ 1969 book ‘The Unbound Prometheus,’ “as if by magic, the wheel turned.” In the last years of the century, business suddenly improved and profits rose. “Confidence returned—not the spotty, evanescent confidence of the brief booms that had punctuated the gloom of the preceding decades, but a general euphoria such as had not prevailed since…the early 1870s….In all of western Europe, these years live on in memory as the good old days—the Edwardian era, la belle époque.” Everything seemed right again.
    Why Fed rate hikes used to cause the classic emerging-market crisis but now seem to boomerang on the US READ MORE: Why Fed rate hikes used to cause the classic emerging-market crisis but now seem to boomerang on the US

    However, there is nothing magical about the sudden restoration of profits, Arrighi explains. What happened is that “as its industrial supremacy waned, its finance triumphed and its services as shipper, trader, insurance broker and intermediary in the world’s system of payments became more indispensable than ever.”

    In other words, there was a large expansion in financial speculation. Initially much of the expanding financial income derived from interest and dividends being generated by previous investments. But increasingly a significant portion was financed by what Arrighi calls the “domestic conversion of commodity capital into money capital.” Meanwhile, as surplus capital moved out of trade and production, British real wages began a decline starting after the mid-1890s – a reversal of the trend of the past five decades. An enriched financial and business elite amid an overall decline in real wages is something that should ring a bell to observers of the current American economy.

    Essentially, by embracing financialization, Britain played the last card it had to stave off its imperial decline. Beyond that lay the ruin of World War I and the subsequent instability of the interwar period, a manifestation of what Arrighi calls ‘systemic chaos’ – a phenomenon that becomes particularly visible during signal crises and terminal crises.”


    https://www.rt.com/business/594432-financialization-death-empires/

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