Peter Turchin is the author of Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History, a professor at the University of Connecticut’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology, and the leader of a research group on social complexity and collapse at Complexity Science Hub Vienna.
Ten years ago, I predicted that 2020 would mark “a new peak of violence” in the United States and Western Europe. It may have seemed like an unusual call, at the time; Western countries had actually been enjoying more stability prior to 2010.
But even I didn’t imagine that things could be as bad as they’ve gotten.
Political polarization and “rampage killings” – what have since been redefined as “domestic terrorism” – have risen dramatically. Accelerating climate change has exacerbated crises around refugees, food security, housing and more. The COVID-19 pandemic has left half a million people dead and shuttered economies. Anti-government demonstrations and violent riots, sparked by a Minneapolis police officer’s killing of George Floyd, have swept the U.S. It’s all added up to the worst outbreak of social instability since the 1960s.
Historians like to say that failing to understand history dooms us to repeat it. There is truth in that axiom, but it tends to assume that cycles will just happen, without analyzing their causes using the rigorous scientific method. So if we don’t know which parts of history do repeat, or why – that is, which social theories about underlying causes are correct or not – the axiom falls short: We remain doomed.
That’s why scientists such as myself make scientific predictions based on theories, to test which ones turn out to be right; the theory that results in an accurate prediction is much more likely to be true than the theory that makes a poor one. This, effectively, is the field of cliodynamics. That’s where my 2010 forecast came from: It was a test of a theory that my colleagues and I developed by studying past societies, to determine what factors are responsible for historical states falling into crises, such as revolutions or civil wars.
From our research, we had a question we wanted to answer: Does inequality breed instability?
Granted, some degree of inequality is probably unavoidable, and may not even be bad; for example, most human beings agree that those who work harder should be rewarded for their efforts. The problem arises, we theorized, when inequality increases beyond the level that most people would consider fair.
As scientists do, we used our theory to make predictions about other historical societies, and they were borne out when we looked at ancient Rome and medieval France. However, predictions about the future are hard to make, since bygone eras do not always make for fair parallels to modern day.
During the past four decades, while the U.S. economy has grown very substantially, wages of most Americans stagnated and even declined. If we look at the median wage – how much a “typical” worker makes – and divide that by the GDP per capita, this indicator has been declining for decades; it has now fallen to historically low levels. This means that economic growth is not benefiting the majority of the American population. And it’s not just economic well-being that has been declining: Life expectancies of large swaths of the American population have started to decline, as well. Is it surprising that a feeling of pessimism now pervades our society?
Yes, the U.S.‘s economy grew significantly over the past four decades, but one outcome of that is the creation of three to five times as many millionaires, billionaires. Many – including the new millionaires, naturally enough – don’t see this as a problem. And they could have a case, had the wealth of the top 1 per cent grown in parallel with the wealth of the median earner. But that’s not what happened.
There is another, subtler and even more serious problem with too many millionaires. Our theory suggests that a certain proportion of people with great wealth will decide to convert their economic power into political power at some point in their lives; in other words, they either run for office themselves or invest in candidates of their choice. Four times as many millionaires, compared with 40 years ago, means that four times as many are now involved in politics. There are many more candidates, but the number of power positions hasn’t changed: There are still 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, 100 senators and just one U.S. president. When intra-elite competition reaches such a feverish pitch, it generates many more losers than before. Cutthroat competition corrodes the co-operation on which our societies are based, while the social norms that govern the smooth functioning of a democracy unravel. Ultimately, increasing numbers of those who cannot get ahead by legitimate means feel abandoned by the institutions, often becoming radicals and revolutionaries who aim to overthrow the unjust regime, as they perceive it, by any means necessary.
This was our theory of how revolutions are made – in ancient Rome, medieval France and now, the modern-day U.S. It requires high levels of discontent among the masses, but also leaders – and now there are many, thanks to the abundance of intra-elite competition and conflict, perhaps expressed most clearly by President Donald Trump, who spun his personal wealth into a divisive presidency.
In the U.S., we are getting awfully close to the point where a civil war or revolution becomes probable. Such “revolutionary situations” don’t always end in an actual revolution, however: Our historical analysis indicates that in some cases, wise leaders and prosocial segments of the elites, backed by broad-based social movements, are successful in adopting the right set of reforms to turn things back to stable waters. One familiar example from U.S. history is president Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Another is the series of political reforms adopted in Britain under the pressure of the Chartism movement, which enabled it to escape the revolutions that swept continental Europe from 1848 to 1849.
But as far as prescriptions for avoiding a second civil war? That goes beyond the ken of my scientific study. Furthermore, from studying past examples, I know that even successful solutions to previous crises were a result of messy, chaotic and unpredictable political processes involving myriad compromises by human beings, all while those who personally profited from high inequality and discord fought tooth and nail to protect their privileges.
Nevertheless, ours may be the first society with the opportunity to perceive the deep underground currents underlying the current crisis. Complex systems, such as our society, resist simple linear solutions, which often make situations worse through unintended consequences. We need to use the novel methods of complexity science, translating our analytical insights from studying past and current crises, into evidence-backed, probabilistic and scientifically rigorous computational models that leaders and the public can use.
Imagine, if you will, that you’re steering an ocean liner. You project its course, taking into account various complicating factors such as ocean currents, reefs and the coastline, and you find out that if you follow your route, you’ll end up crashing ashore. So you change the course to avoid this outcome. Such a prediction is known as the “self-defeating prophecy.” The hope is that, as more theories become confirmed, predictions about future periods of social turbulence become self-defeating prophecies, too. After all, I don’t want to live through them any more than you do.
So yes: In a way, the science that I worked on successfully forecast our current moment of unrest. But the fact that our scientific theory was validated is far more significant than that prediction itself, because rather than just knowing the future, we will be able to truly choose a better future out of many possible ones. We can steer this society of ours to avoid the shoals.
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