An Academic’s Grand Unified Theory on Why Things Are Getting Worse

Mother Jones; Courtesy of Peter Turchin

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.Pessimism is in. Swaths of the global elite are uncertain enough about the future to be fortifying their doomsday bunkers designed to evade both popular uprisings and climate catastrophe. “Billions must die,” a meme that germinated in alt-right, blackpilled internet communities that see mass death and depopulation as inevitable, is shared with only a note of semi-irony. Whether it’s making art about mass extinction events or taking part in ambiently self-destructive behaviors like smoking cigarettes, other expressions of pessimism’s cousin, Nihilism, are in vogue among segments of the cultural vanguard. 
Data backs up the notion a lot of people see gloom on the horizon. As of January, 63% of the country believes the economic outlook is worsening. Under a quarter of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction; over 40% believe that a civil war is at least somewhat likely within the next decade.
The Russian-American academic Peter Turchin doesn’t think this outlook is just a vibe. Turchin, who helped develop an area of study known as “cliodynamics,” which attempts to scientifically quantify how history moves forward, predicted in 2010 the US would see a significant uptick in political violence by 2020. Today Turchin’s cliodynamic models remain pessimistic. In his 2023 book End Times, Turchin says political violence and societal instability have already increased, a condition that is here to stay for another five to 10 years, even if we started trying to fix things.
Turchin posits that the operation of what he terms a “wealth pump” has disproportionately benefited the top sliver at the direct expense of every other socioeconomic band. With too many people aspiring to join the top echelons and not enough slots—as Turchin argues in End Times, citing an array of historical examples—the structures holding society together start to get a bit shaky.
People get more radical in the name of political ends: They do things like storm capitol buildings, threaten federal judges, and take part in ominous convoys. And if the conditions that are generating surges in violence are left unresolved, he warns they start to get substantially worse. Turchin and I spoke last month about this cycle of wealth capture and resentment that he sees at play not only across history, but in my generation.
Can you explain what cliodynamics is and what you were trying to achieve in developing it? 
We live in large-scale complex societies, which are quite recent in our evolutionary history. That’s one big question: How did this happen in the last 10,000 years? But also, the states in which we live periodically experience social breakdown and fragmentation, and even worse things like civil wars.  So the other question is: Why are our societies so fragile?
History has a long and detailed record of thousands of states over the past 5000 years. And historians, when they write books, they offer explanations. We can treat them as scientific hypotheses, but they are not compared with each other using data, which is the essence of science. Science is not only about erecting theories, it’s also about testing them and rejecting them, like in physics or other natural sciences. This is what cliodynamics does. 
Human social systems are complex systems with nonlinear dynamics and without mathematics, you cannot really understand what is going on in them. And why is that necessary? Because without understanding why societies go into these end times, periods of social instability and potentially political collapse, we cannot avoid them, or at least resolve them in a way that is less costly, in terms of human lives. 
You used cliodynamics in 2010 to predict political instability in 2020. What did you see in your models that forecasted this?
It was not a prophecy. Predicting the future with any accuracy is essentially impossible. What scientists use prediction for is to separate good theories from bad theories. Good theories make good predictions, bad theories make bad predictions.
What I did in 2010, there was a theory called structural-demographic theory. It has been built on studying about a couple dozen examples. In the past, it suggested the mechanisms of why societies go into social instability and potential collapse. In around 2007 and 2008 I looked at the trends, which by that point had been developing for a couple decades in clearly bad directions. 
I was drawn to your work because the arc of my life sort of falls onto the arc of your work. When you made that prediction, I was about to graduate high school. I don’t know if I was aware of your prediction at the time, but I remember listening to an NPR interview about how my generation will live in smaller houses and experience more economic uncertainty and inequality. 
There are tons of people like that who are your age, experiencing huge pressure and anxiety. Everybody I talked to in this generation is extremely, extremely stressed. I thought it was hard when I was in the job market in the 1980s. God, it’s just got so much worse.
A lot of my friends in college, the ones that could, just went into finance and consulting to avoid that uncertainty. To the point of End Times though, there weren’t enough slots in those secure, elite jobs for everyone that wanted in. Why is this kind of elite overproduction so destabilizing? Also, what is your definition of elite?
Elites are a small proportion of the population who have social power, which means that they have coercive power, economic power, administrative or political power, and ideological power. Typically, there are always more elite wannabees than there are positions for them. Some competition is good because it allows better people to move forward. But the problem that many people don’t realize is that excessive competition is extremely corrosive for social cooperation and for the capacity of a society to function well. 
I use the game of musical chairs in my book as a metaphor for elite overproduction. But instead of removing chairs, you keep the number of chairs the same and you keep increasing the number of players. As the number of players becomes 2, 3, or 4 times as many as there are chairs somebody is going to start breaking rules. Then the rule-breaking spreads. In history, that typically escalates into a spiral of violence and counter-violence that ends up in some kind of revolution or civil war. 
But until that happens, as long as elites are unified and the state strong, states can endure very large levels of popular discontent. In the past, peasant rebellions would be easily destroyed by a small number of mounted and armored knights. Today, you have all those robocops in the streets that look like Martians who quite handily disperse demonstrations and things like that. That’s why intra-elite conflict is the most important ingredient in predicting social fragmentation and social collapse.
Even if there is tremendous economic inequality, unless you have an immiserated elite class, it’s not possible to pull off revolution or civil war?
In our theory, inequality is not the driving force, because 99.9% of people cannot measure the degree of inequality. How do you experience a Gini index of whatever, right?  The actual driver is something that people need to feel on their own skin.
There’s a semi–fictional character in my book who basically grew up in a household with parents that were lower middle class, but were doing quite well. But he cannot approach that status. That’s how people become disenchanted and even radicalized. They see that they’re living worse than their parents. They feel a sense of injustice as society becomes wealthier and wealthier, but they’re falling. It’s not just a rational-agent type thing, although some people are rational agents. They are the ones that become revolutionaries, because a revolution is 10,000 new positions. But most people are driven by emotions.
To come back to your question, what is important is not economic inequality itself but how it creates the feeling of immiseration in the majority. And then via intra-elite competition, it creates huge winners and huge losers. Inequality strikes in between the elites as much as it does between the elites and the rest of the population. That’s even more important. That is what creates the feelings of injustice and a burning desire to set them right.
So then they become counter-elites and revolutionaries. Is economic inequality necessary at all for the counter-elites to have a mass to tap into to help with revolutionary activity?
Let me introduce another key concept from my book: the wealth pump. It’s the perverse mechanism that takes the riches from the poor and gives them to the rich. In medieval societies, this would be accomplished by means of coercion: the lords would just extract wealth from the peasants. In capitalist societies, it is done in a more gentle way.
It happens when the wages of the median, typical American, or a member of some other population, starts to decrease with respect to the overall level of wealth, which we can measure with GDP per capita. When this measure of relative wage declines, that creates the wealth pump, because all that extra wealth that society is producing goes right up to the economic elites.
This has three bad consequences for society, particularly in regard to stability. First of all, it creates immiseration, and the majority of the population loses faith in institutions and the governing order. 
Secondly, it bloats the number of wealth holders. From 1980s, in the United States, the numbers of deca-billionaires—people who have $10 billion or more—increased tenfold. I mean, it’s unbelievable. The population only grew by 40%.
The third consequence is people in your situation. When you grew up, you had a choice, you could have gone to work in some not terribly demanding profession. You could have worked your 40 hours, come back home, raise a family. At least that’s what people did, one or two generations ago. The problem is that because of the general immiseration, many people realize that they cannot do this if they just go in the normal way. They will not do as well as their parents. So you have to escape precarity. 
How do you do that? You obtain an education. Which college did you go to for your degree?
This was also a big point of stress. I went to the University of Texas at Austin, but I was weighing private schools where I would have incurred lots of debt.
Okay, that’s actually a good school. But if you went to Stanford or Yale, then clearly you would have a much better gig. The way to get out of precarity, if you don’t inherit a lot of wealth, is to go the education route. That’s why the number of of high school graduates who expected to go to college exploded. That creates an overproduction of degree holders.
All three of these are consequences of the wealth pump. They’re all destablizing and they all work together. In history, societies ended these periods by turning the wealth pump off. Unfortunately, in many cases, this was done by a revolution or a civil war that exterminated a substantial chunk of elites, or produced downward social mobility. This is a process that is often very painful for elites. 
One thing that especially free market-minded people might struggle with is the idea that money is not zero-sum. Some might push back and say, “Well, the wealth pump is something that can benefit everyone, not just elites.” How would you respond?
Before the Industrial Revolution, the economy had grown so slowly that it was essentially a zero-sum game. Now it’s a positive sum game. If all segments of the population, including the owners and managers of corporations and their workers, if their wages grow together with the economy—this is what happened in the thirty glorious years, from 1945 to 1975—everybody is happy.
Even though it’s a positive sum game, since the 1980s all of the gains have gone to the top 1%, or even the 0.1%. This tide did not raise all boats. In fact, many of the boats have been sinking, especially for those of the 10% of the poorest, less advantaged segments of the population. We see this very vividly in the explosion of deaths of despair and also in biological standards. Disadvantaged segments of the population have been shrinking. Life expectancy is shrinking, especially in disadvantaged segments of the population. This is a Malthusian factor that I did not expect to see in this world. So most of the population is becoming immiserated, despite the whole economic pie growing. 
There has already been an uptick in the kind of political violence you talk about, mostly from the right. Not from counter-elites or the elite aspirants, but from this group of people who are often from the interior of the country. Some are local elites, and some aren’t. What’s happening there?
On the path to social breakdown, we see these conflicts happening at all levels. For example: the late medieval crisis in France. At first, there was a whole bunch of very local violence. Knights were killing each other. In a province, two contenders would fight for a count position. And then at the top, there was a conflict for the crown. 
What we see now looks very much like that. The first time I wrote about the epidemic of indiscriminate mass killings in the US was in 2008. This was a very clear sign of growing social pressures because it’s essentially suicide terrorism. People would go out and kill random people—or random people in their firm, or random people in their school—and then either commit suicide or get killed by cops. I saw designs of this social pressure building up back then. We are now having a breakdown at the very top level. 
In the past, elite aspirants would actually kill each other. One of the hopeful signs is that people now use character assassination instead of actual assassination. And instead of bringing your followers to go kill your rival and their followers, what we see now is lawfare.
You’re saying when like Chrissy Teigan gets canceled, or Bill Ackman tries to get Claudine Gay fired, that’s a sublimated duel?
Yeah. Much of the me-too culture has been canceling rivals. Not necessarily directly rivals, but it has often been directed at people who already work in an established elite position. You cancel them and then that position becomes available.
I’m having a little bit of trouble seeing it in cases where they’re not direct rivals. Claudine Gay and Bill Ackman aren’t in competition. I guess they’re sort of in competition for the ideology of Harvard. I don’t think that Harvey Weinstein’s accusers are aspiring to take his position or anything like that.
No, I agree. I think that in the majority of cases, what drives counter-elites are is not a calculation that “Okay, I’m going to free up so many vacancies in positions.” It’s the sense of injustice. The injustice has been taking the form of a struggle against racial, sexual, and other types of inequalities. But I believe that at the base of it is the feeling amongst the great majority of elite aspirants that they are losing ground, and somebody has to be blamed, instead of realizing, what are the deep causes, like the wealth pump.
I looked at your Twitter, and the many people that are following you that I also follow anecdotally are people who are dissident-elites and counter-elites. 
I follow a lot of counter-elite journalists, people like Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Aaron Maté. I think you’re making a very interesting general point here. Let me step back. One of the ways we can get out of this situation is to use modern technology more intelligently. Glenn Greenwald left his job at The Intercept and now he is extremely successful, and this is thanks to new technology. 
I wrote a popular book in 2015 called Ultrasociety. I went to several different agents, nobody wanted to take me on, and no publishers wanted it. So I started I started my own imprint, it’s called Beresta Books, and published it. This new technology is actually really empowering people to achieve things without the gerontocratic, set in their ways established elite. Now with End Times I have an agent and a publisher, but I’m not going to abandon my business either. 
Are you a dissident-elite?
No, no. I’m not a counter-elite. My role to be dispassionate and nonpartisan because I want my message to reach all the different factions. 
To do that, I have to stay very strictly neutral in this in this struggle, so, I’m not either elite or counter-elite. 
Don’t your affiliations with the University of Oxford sort of make you some kind of elite?
Let’s go back to the definition. Elites have social power. I wield no coercive power. No economic power. And no administrative power. My only power is ideological. And here, yes I admit that one of the reasons I wrote the book is because I want its message to influence people and that is the definition of power. 
What you advocate for, I assume, is something that would dissent against establishment views, in at least the United States?
America’s established elites actually go through these cycles. We had a really great set of elites, especially from the New Deal, but actually even a little earlier. By the ’70s all of that was gone. Yes, today, in order to speak truth to power, you sort of have to become some kind of a dissident. But my message is very much to the established elites also: don’t bring things to the point where you will have a revolution, where you to lose your power, and maybe even worse.
What is the way out of impending violence? In the book, you talk about how this is a cycle that we’re sort of damned to for at least a decade, but it’s reversible.
I have no detailed agenda because detailed agenda would have to be hammered out in the political process, and I’m not a politician. I can only point to the root problem: the wealth pump, which we need to turn off.  There are many different ways to do that: giving more power to workers, maybe taxing wealth more, increasing the minimum wages, changing social norms, and so on and so forth. And we should not expect quick results. I already have a computational model that suggests it takes five to 10 years once the wealth pump turns off before positive effects start.

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