Learning from the cycles of history

A Liberal Dose


I appreciate those of you who humored me over the summer as I did a historical and sociological deep dive on these pages. I will soon get back to responding to current political events, but there is one more “history nerd” topic I want to discuss first. To wit, a new book that is making a lot of waves: “End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration” by Peter Turchin.

Back in 2010, several media sources were asking scientists to predict what the next decade would bring. Most of the prognostications were pretty rosy, but Turchin’s stood out as different. He predicted that, according to his calculations, the U.S. was due for a major political upheaval. By 2020, he said, there would be an “unprecedented collapse of social norms governing civilized discourse” leading to a decade (the 2020s) of violent rhetoric and action.

I’d say he called it.

Turchin was born in the Soviet Union, and his family defected to the U.S. when he was young. He grew up to be a professor specializing in environmental mathematics. Specifically, early in his career, his work consisted of looking at population trends of predators and prey to see what that could tell us about a specific environment. After the USSR’s collapse, he started wondering if the same principles could apply to human societies. In the late 90s, he and several colleagues started working on a project that involved building a massive database of historical facts concerning nations and states around the world, over thousands of years. They were then able to use computers to determine trends.

We’ve all heard the expression “history repeats itself.” I prefer another quote: “history doesn’t really repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” That is, history never repeats itself in the exact same way, as there are too many variables (see “chaos theory”)… but, in the aggregate, you can often discern themes and trends (see “complex system theory”). That is what Turchin and company endeavor to do. The book is an explanation of their methodology, and - of more concern to the lay reader - what they discovered.

Every society has elites and non-elites (common folk, if you will). There are four kinds of elites: military, political, economic, and ideological. Societies function well when there are a small number of elites, working toward the benefit of the common people. Things start to fall apart when the elites take more for themselves, thus depriving the common people and causing them to suffer. Turchin calls this a “wealth pump.” It causes increasing discontent among the people. At the same time, as more resources flow to the top (and away from the bottom), there is not enough to go around to keep everyone at the top happy, leading to an “overproduction of elites.” When these two factors both happen - discontent and “immiserated” common folk and a class of wannabe-elites for whom there are not enough elite spots to fill - things fall apart. Turchin argues that our current situation of income inequality (almost at the level it was right before the great stock market crash of 1929) paired with overproduction of law degrees, proliferation of social media political figures, and other factors, has set the stage for discord. He also argues that this tends to happen about every 50 years: one generation experiences it, the next generation learns from it, and the next generation forgets all about it and repeats the same mistakes.

By the way, I hate to keep harping on Bacon’s Rebellion, but… angry poor people and some frustrated rich guys who were cut out of what they considered their rightful due led to that incident. Just saying.

The bad news is, when societies reach this stage, they usually either topple or have to weather a destructive period, even civil war. The good news is, it can be avoided if people listen to the warning.

Which no one ever does. 

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.   


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