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15 June 2023

Is another American revolution inevitable?

An interview with Peter Turchin.

By Will Lloyd

Peter Turchin was born in the Russian city of Obninsk on 22 May 1957. His father was a physicist by education, who became a mathematician and, eventually, a dissident. The Turchins were expelled from the USSR in 1977, when Peter was enrolled at Moscow State University’s Faculty of Biology. The family moved to the United States, where Turchin continued his studies in biology at New York University. He made his living studying the population dynamics of beetles, butterflies, mice and deer. In 1985 he received a PhD in zoology from Duke University.

In the late 1990s Turchin did something unusual. By then Turchin felt, he writes in his new book End Times, that the “interesting questions” in animal ecology had been answered. He switched disciplines, to history: “I began to consider how the same complexity science approach could be brought to the study of human societies, both in the past and today.”

Turchin and his colleagues call this approach “cliodynamics”. They believe they have discovered recurring patterns that can be observed throughout human history. These include cycles of integration and disintegration; state formation and state collapse. There was an implicit question running alongside their work. If you could identify recurring patterns in human history, did that mean you could predict those same patterns before they happened in the future?

The scientific journal Nature asked Turchin (alongside other academics) to make predictions ten years into the future. It was 2010, and the political mood in the West was not as dark as it is today. Turchin said that, according to his model, a sharp peak of instability was due in the United States in the early 2020s. What was that model, which incorporates thousands of years of data about human history? In his own words: “When a state, such as the United States, has stagnating or declining wages, 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.” 

When social disorder did spike in the United States in the summer of 2020, Turchin was hailed as a prophet. Whether cliodynamics was a fad or a tool that could revolutionise the study of history was a question more people began to take seriously.

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I met Turchin last week at a hotel in central London to discuss End Times, his new book. Turchin drank sparkling water and was dressed in muted browns and greys. He discussed promotional activities for the book with as much calm as he considered the coming downfall of the American republic. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

[See also: The history of the American South is as contested as ever]

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Will Lloyd: People have used your work to suggest that the United States in 2023 is like the Soviet Union in 1987.

Peter Turchin: Well, I don’t know many people actually say that.

WL: Perhaps not that explicitly, but they say it in the sense of “here we have an empire that is wheezing on its last legs”.

PT: All human complex societies eventually experience periods of turbulence. They get into end times. Only in this respect can we make the comparison between the USA and the USSR. In both countries, they share the common feature of developing a serious problem with elite overproduction. But the mechanisms leading to elite overproduction in the late Soviet Union was different. In the Soviet Union there was serious overproduction of technical degrees, especially engineers. Sociologists have explored this with studies. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, if you went to a demonstration in order to see who was actually participating in anti-government protests, the huge majority of them were people with engineering degrees.

WL: What would the equivalent be in the United States today?

PT: Well, no, no, the most dangerous degree is law.

WL: Why is that?

PT: Because there are two ways you can get into political office in the United States. You either have wealth, or you have the right credentials. The best credential to have is a law degree. That’s why people who want to become politicians go to law school. Such schools are the biggest producer of both elites and counter-elites. I forget his name, but the leader of the Oath Keepers [Stewart Rhodes; the Oath Keepers is a far-right militia] is a graduate of Yale Law School.

WL: You mainly locate threats to American democracy from the political right. And you locate it specifically with the National Conservative movement in America. You argue that a radical revolutionary sect is taking over the Republican Party. That’s where the counter-elites are gathering and this is where the potential political engine of a second American Civil War is…

PT: Yes, I agree. But it doesn’t mean that I am a conservative or liberal or anything like that.

WL: You’re a scientist.

PT: Yes, I’m a scientist. I’m pro-truth, I’m not pro one of the parties. Yeah. So, in fact, the science leads you in directions that some people object to and call Marxism, right? Several people have suggested that I sound like a Marxist in the book.

WL: Is it not the case that you will find historians in every generation saying they have worked out what the pattern of history is? We can go back to Machiavelli, to the Romans, the Greeks…

PT: Oh yeah, of course.

WL: How do you know you’re not just telling a wonderful story in the same way that thinkers always have done? I love these stories, but they are stories. I know you have your data and you have your machines, but could you just be putting too much confidence in them?

PT: Well, let’s take a step back. I just want to emphasise that my theory – the theory that I think is the best empirically supported right now – is actually a synthetic one. It takes from Marxism, it takes from Max Weber and Émile Durkheim and even Thomas Malthus. There are elements of all of that in there. The theory gives you answers that may be displeasing. Some of the answers are displeasing to the liberals, others are less pleasing to conservatives.

WL: Can you give examples here?

PT: So my theory says that massive immigration in the absence of institutions that protect workers’ wages is actually a bad thing. That’s one of the ways widespread immiseration is created. That’s obviously displeasing to the left end of the political spectrum. But on the other hand, if you want to control the wealth pump, it will probably involve higher taxes on the wealthy, and that’s displeasing to conservatives. So I’m in the happy situation where everyone is displeased with me.

WL: Does irritating everybody make you feel like you’re probably right?

PT: No. So let’s get back to why I think I’m on the right track.

[See also: Peter Turchin’s empty prophecies]

WL: What is the difference between cliodynamics and older theories of historical change like Polybius’s? You’re saying similar things, aren’t you? The conclusion you reach with “the science” is not so different from Polybius’s conclusions.

PT: Well, we’ve got three big differences. First of all, this isn’t just one theory, many scientists and thinkers in the past have proposed a variety of explanations [for the rise and fall of civilisations]. In our approach, we are looking at each of these potentially different, alternative theories to see which one is correct. That’s point number one. Secondly, we translate those verbal theories into mathematical models. This is a very necessary step, because human societies are nonlinear dynamical systems. You have to have mathematical apparatus to trace the different feedback loops that can affect each other. And the third thing is that Polybius and all the way up to Marx just did not have the amount of data we have. Because once you have translated different theories into models, we can run models formally, and identify where models disagree with each other, then we look for the type of data that can adjudicate between different models. All right, so, for example, if one model says that it’s climate that creates social crisis, right, we need climate data. And we see whether climate has a predictive effect on the crisis. Right. And it turns out that the answer is that when societies don’t have those structural drivers for instability – elite overproduction, immiseration – societies can adapt to a bad climate without serious disruption. So this is the good old scientific method. That’s why I know that we are on the right track – even though we don’t have it perfectly – because the data sometimes disagrees with even the best theory, which means that there is more work to be done.

WL: What I’m driving at is, though I enjoyed the book, I felt like it was telling me something I already knew. For instance, Ibn Khaldun tells us similar things about civilisation to what End Times tells the reader. The question becomes: you have your machines, your data, your numbers, but what original conclusions can we draw from their output?

PT: Think about it. When you want to build a bridge, right, you don’t just ask me, you go to people who know what kind of measurements and what calculations are needed. If you want to fix our societies, you have to do it the same way. You cannot just, say, increase the taxes. Because there are many potential problems. For example, what if the wealthy just leave to go somewhere else? So you need to be able to calculate the possibly unintended consequences of your actions. Just think about it as an engineering problem.

WL: But human beings have a tendency to not operate by the same rules that building a bridge requires.

PT: Well, if we tax gasoline, people will drive fewer miles. So people do respond…

WL: …so you can nudge them around? So is the answer that America needs some nudging?

PT: This is a very simple-minded example, because you’re nudging individuals. What we need to do is do something more complicated, which is why we need the science of history. A society is like a ship. And you can see that it’s going to the shallows. But we need to calculate the course that will move the whole society in the right direction.

WL: Isn’t one of the difficulties with big history like this, which operates via analogies, that it can lead us down the wrong road? So, what can we really learn from a cliodynamic approach to 19th-century Britain carrying across the United States currently? Can we really compare these societies? And then compare them in turn with medieval France? I think it’s fun; I enjoy reading it. But in terms of a science of history that could help us steer society away from the shallows, is it really that helpful?

PT: Remember that End Times is a book which has no equations, nor graphs in it. That’s why I’m using those examples to illustrate various parts of the theory, but they are not the proof that the theory works. The way we can determine that the theory works is by building massive historical databases. And then testing different theories against the same large data set. This way we avoided two major problems of historical comparisons when they’re done by pundits and politicians. First of all: cherry picking. You can always find some example [to fit an argument] from ancient Rome. The second problem is massaging the data: the procrustean bed. So you have to gather as much data as possible in order to get a representative sample of past societies. Then by analysing them in a transparent manner, critics can go in and say, “OK, if you are guilty of cherry picking or the procrustean approach, then it will be visible, because the work is transparent.” That’s essentially how we can be certain that we are on the right track [with cliodynamics].

WL: I read somewhere once that Bill Gates’s ratio of wealth to the average US citizen today is roughly the same as the richest Roman aristocrats to a pleb’s in 400 AD. I could be getting that slightly wrong, but the point is that it is an obscene figure.

PT: I use that device, I measure the top wealth in the number of annual median salaries. This is another way you can trace these cycles.

WL: So when we look at America, in the early 2020s, give us a sense of why these indicators are flashing red. We have elite overproduction. We’ve got what you call the “wealth pump”. We’ve got the migration issue and we’ve got political dysfunction. But can you break these down so that we can understand why you are a predicting that this will be a decade of violent social upheaval in America?

PT: OK, so let’s start with popular immiseration. People have stopped growing taller in America. And they live shorter lives. Meanwhile Europe continues to grow in life expectancy. This was a shocker. Life expectancy started to decline [in America] even before Covid. In immiseration terms, everything is moving in the wrong direction. And there are no signs yet that any of these indicators, like median salaries, are recovering. On elite overproduction, actually, things may be taking a turn. So, for example – although this is not necessarily a good thing, it just shows how horrible the situation is – the proportion of high school graduates that immediately go to college was like 67 per cent five to seven years ago, now it’s like 62 per cent. Is this really a good thing? The number of lawyers is still very high…

WL: You just don’t like lawyers do you?

PT: They are very important to my model.

WL: Keep your eyes on the lawyers!

PT: Yes, keep your eyes on the lawyers, keep your eyes on the wealth.

WL: We have a huge number of lawyers in Britain. In Shakespeare [Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV, Scene 2] there’s a line: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”. So what do we do with the all lawyers?

PT: Well if you want to be Prime Minister in the UK, you don’t have to go and become a lawyer. You don’t have to get a law degree. You just go to Oxford.

WL: You do PPE at Oxford. But Tony Blair was a lawyer of course. I suppose I should ask how Britain fits into your model today?

PT: Remember that there is the general principle of elite overproduction that is the same everywhere. But the critical question is: how is the elite produced? What do elite aspirants have to do if they want to get into political office? So in France, for example, it’s not law, you have to attend one of the elite schools. In China it used to be passing several exams in order to become a mandarin. There is a lot of variation within this particular parameter. You have to tailor your study to each society.

WL: What is it about this particular moment that is making us spend so much time talking about elites?

PT: All complex human societies have elites. They are not necessarily bad. People say they are not part of an elite because it feels as if you are admitting to some sort of guilt.

WL: You’re an elite and you’re crushing the poor… But why this endless sociology of the elites now?

PT: I don’t see that. In the United States, sociology of power has been discouraged. Because, clearly, the elites did not want it to be an important subject. And American elites have been very secretive. They like to keep to their own gatherings. So sociologists of power are working against that trend.

WL: Your work has been popular in Silicon Valley. It’s had some take up among a certain class there.

PT: Yes, it’s been talked about. I have a very good friend who is a member of that elite. He’s retired now. He started several startups and he knows all these people.

WL: Why might people like him embrace your ideas?

PT: Well, because if they’re quants, then it makes sense to them.

WL: OK, but I was thinking a bit more abstractly. Bear with me. I was thinking about medieval churches. I was looking at a medieval church in Stratford-upon-Avon a few months ago. There is this impressive pre-Reformation church mural there; the colours have faded but you can still get a good look at it. And the mural is an enormous depiction – right by where the wealthiest people in Stratford would sit every Sunday in the church – of hell. People getting stuffed into pyres with pitchforks, the full Hieronymus Bosch thing. And I wondered reading your book: well, maybe it’s popular in Silicon Valley among the wealthy for the same reason medieval burghers liked that mural? Perhaps they really like to torture themselves with fantasies of collapse? Does it give an extra frisson to their lives to think “I have it all, but I could lose it”? And actually, maybe it’s all a fantasy. Maybe things will keep going in a normal way?

PT: I’m not a psychologist, but I do talk with my friends. Essentially, they don’t really like my conclusions. Because very frequently their reaction is: “Oh, shit.” And then, essentially, they have strategies where they individually will avoid it.

WL: How will the end times end? The coming collapse of our society?

PT: Yes, things like moving to New Zealand, which I talked about in the book, that’s definitely one of the preferred strategies. Or some of them buy property in the United States away from the cities, things like that.

WL: Do you think they’re right to do this?

PT: No, because when society goes through a revolution it doesn’t make a difference. Since I grew up in the Soviet Union, I can quite imagine the leather-clad commissars with Mausers coming to your retreat in Montana and taking it away from you.

WL: How likely is that though?

PT: Who knows? That is actually a scientific statement. We know that the road to crisis is fairly channelised. It’s like a narrow valley. But then you get to the crisis itself and all kinds of roads are possible. So I would certainly not put a probability of zero to a social revolution happening in the United States. Maybe it’s not 50 per cent. Maybe it’s somewhere in between. These things always come unexpected.

WL: OK, so we have a non-negligible chance in the next ten years of serious violence in the United States?

PT: Yes, but maybe the elites will come together and put us on the right track. And there are other possibilities, and the most likely is the country separating along red and blue lines.

WL: A formal divorce settlement?

PT: Yeah, I think that’s a realistic scenario, where there will be two countries or even three countries; the West Coast and East Coast separate from the middle.

WL: Is that something that’s talked about in the United States as a real possibility?

PT: Quite a lot – it’s a real possibility. So after [Donald Trump’s election in] 2016 it was mostly in the liberal states that [people talked about] leaving and joining Canada. And after 2020 it was mostly in the red states – there is a movement in Texas to secede, and there is a similar movement on the West Coast in California.

WL: Even something like the collapse of the Soviet Union, which looked positive in 1989, now, in 2023, with the war in Ukraine, has to be seen in a different light.

PT: In Moscow in 1993 remember the tanks were shooting at the parliament. There were a whole series of bloody wars, ethnic wars, the latest one going on right now between Armenia and Azerbaijan; horrible wars in the Central Asian republics. It was not a springtime of peoples.

WL: But it was for Western European liberals. I mean, they used to talk about the 1989 generation, and as if [the end of the USSR] was an unadulterated good…

PT: Well, I left the USSR in 1976. The first time I returned was in 1992. And it was a failed state, it looked like a failed state, and everything was broken. There was a huge amount of misery. So it’s only people who sit outside of those state collapses who can think it was unadulterated good. Well: it was unadulterated good for American elites, because suddenly their geopolitical competitor had disappeared…

WL: How do you think about something like artificial intelligence at the moment? Would you see that as an integrative force, or something that’s going to further add to disintegration? If this is a technology that puts a lot of white-collar workers out of a job – say AI puts me out of a job, and instead of me interviewing you, I bring a chatbot to you, then I just wait outside and you have a thrilling conversation with the chatbot.

PT: You know the worst thing with this is that the editor wouldn’t need you if the chatbot was good. You will end up employed sweeping…

WL: … chopping trees.

PT: The story, essentially, if you look at the professions that are going to be disrupted in the UK, white-collar workers will hate it. In order of professions that could be disrupted, lawyers come second… According to some estimates, like 45 per cent of what lawyers do can already be automated at the current level of ChatGPT. All right, so we are currently producing three times as many lawyers in the United States as there are jobs for them. So once half of the jobs go, you will have six times as many lawyers as jobs… These people are going to be very upset. And they’re very smart. They’re well connected. They are ambitious. And they’re good at organising. So this is a recipe for disaster.

WL: AI is something that could push us towards some of the more malign outcomes that you talk about in the book.

PT: All technology depends on how to use it. The internal combustion engine came along, and it resulted in a genocide for one class of workers: horses. So horses have no power to prevent themselves from being taken to the glue factory. Society needs to take appropriate collective steps to make sure that, actually, it’s a good thing: automation is a good thing. There are lots of dirty jobs and dangerous jobs that we don’t want people to do. So you should automate them, and also with your job, if there’s some boring parts of it that can be automated, that’s good. Rather than race against the machine, we should race with them. But individually we cannot really do it, it has to be a collective process. We have to create something like a ministry of automation. That would actually make sure that automation is for the benefit of all, rather than for the benefit of just one small proportion of the population.

WL: How are you feeling about the presidential election in 2024?

PT: With trepidation. Both parties are dysfunctional. But the Republicans are really two parties for reasons that I discussed in my book, and the Democrats have successfully suppressed their Bernie [Sanders] wing, but I don’t understand what’s going on in their minds. There are lots of ambitious and good people; why can’t they come up with somebody who’s better?

WL: You predict a violent interlude, but not actual disintegration in America in the 2020s.

PT: What I’m saying is that if you don’t turn off the wealth pump, yeah, disintegration is a possible outcome. There are cases, from our database, where violence is avoided. Reform stopped upheaval. So the Chartist period in Britain is just one example. There is the US from the 1920s onwards. The reform period in Russia, which postponed the Russian revolution by about 50 years. And there is another example in Republican Rome, during the early Republic, which resolved issues in terms of the wealth pump, and a very similar situation to the United States today.

WL: Do you think the elites in the United States are capable of realising how dangerous this situation is, and then pushing through serious reforms?

PT: So there’s two separate questions: are they realising it? And are they capable of solving the problems? Yes, they’re capable if they realise what the situation is, and become really convinced that the alternative [to reform] is a social revolution. But I don’t see any evidence that they have yet understood their situation. They think that they just have to suppress Trump and then things will go back to normal. But Trump is still there, and if not Trump there will be JD Vance, and he, by the way, is much, much better at being a right-wing populist than Trump. There is a big supply of right-wing populist leaders in America.

WL: Are you pessimistic about the United States’ future?

PT: Well, yeah. By nature I’m an optimist, but I’ve lived enough of my life to become fairly pessimistic. But of course, there is also the possibility that my theory is wrong and things will somehow magically resolve. Who knows? The United States is in spin. I saw this 15 years ago. And it’s like that horror movie, you know, where the ball is rolling towards you, and it’s rolling and rolling and there is no place to divert it. It’s just going to smash you.

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