Peter Turchin: violence and social unrest in the U.S. and Europe likely by 2020

[ Peter Turchin, an expert on the cycles of history and the rise and fall of civilizations, has used mathematical models of complex systems to predict political instability. Debora MacKenzie at NewScientist interviewed him about his upcoming book “Ultrasociety” in the October 12, 2013 article “Pattern behind the shutdown“, and I’ve also drawn on another  article “Calculated violence: Numbers that predict revolutions” by Bob Holmes in 2012. I’ve taken excerpts and paraphrased both of these below.  Turchin is a mathematical ecologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.  Alice Friedemann ]

Turchin didn’t find the Republican minority in the U.S. House refusing to approve the budget even though it could bring on a global financial crisis at all surprising. It was a predictable outcome.

Turchin has found what he believes to be historical cycles, two to three centuries long, of political instability and breakdown affecting states and empires from Rome to Russia. In a book he is finishing, he argues that similar cycles are evident in US history, and that they are playing out to this day. He admits that his theory, built on a model that combines social and economic data, must be tested against real events – but unlike most historical theories, it can be. Meanwhile, he says, it “predicts the long-term conditions that led to this shutdown”.

Turchin has several books out on the 200-300 year cycles of history to make predictions about future political changes. If he’s right, there will bey civil unrest and political violence by 2020 in the United States. Turchin replies to those who disagree that his predictions are testable within the near future, and that if he’s right, measures could be taken to prevent instability from happening.

“Turchin put his reputation on the line by predicting publicly that political instability in the US and western Europe will shoot up in the coming decade (Nature, vol 463, p 608). In his new paper he provides more evidence for an impending crisis in the US, where both cycles look to be approaching a peak in 2020. Allowing for some imprecision in his calculations, Turchin says that if we make it to 2030 without major turmoil he will conclude that his prediction – and hence the underlying theory – is wrong. He doesn’t think that will happen, though, and estimates that he has an 80% chance of being right. The scale of the potential unrest, although more uncertain, also concerns him. “It is easier to predict timing than the height of the peak. My feeling is that it’s going to be worse than we expect. Hopefully I’m wrong – I have to live through this.”

Prevention remedies include increasing tax rates on high earners, reducing the rates of immigration, and fewer people getting a university education, since this is what increases the number of the elite. He notes that collective violence in Europe in the early 17th century and in pre-revolutionary Russia was closely correlated with an oversupply of graduates.

Turchin has used a mathematical approach to understand how religions spread, why empires arise on steppes near farmland, and why civilizations collapse.  He says that the reason there are over 200 reasons historians give for the fall of the Roman empire is due to constant new ideas yet no culling of old hypotheses.

But Turchin looks beyond individuals and the details of a particular empire to the big picture view that applies to any nation: social cohesion, collective violence, riots and civil wars, population biology, and so on. His model shows that “in a prosperous culture, population growth or advancing technology eventually leads to an oversupply of labor. That is good news for an expanding upper class who can more easily exploit an increasingly desperate labor force. Eventually, though, the society becomes so top-heavy that even some members of the elite can no longer afford the good life. Factionalism sets in as the upper classes fight among themselves, social cohesion declines, and the state begins to lose control of its citizens. Then, and only then, does widespread violence break out. Anarchy reigns until enough people fall out of the elite classes, at which point growth and prosperity can return.”

This is a testable theory, in that it predicts violence and collapse don’t happen at the first signs of harder times when workers’ first become unhappy.  Rather, it comes a generation or two later due to the time it takes to accumulate excessive numbers of wealthy educated elites.

And it is how events did unfold the Roman Republic, medieval Europe and Tsarist Russia, when he compared the timing of collective violence with  wages, social inequality and population growth – a measure of labour supply. In addition, the dates of coins in hoards unearthed by archaeologists are “an excellent proxy for political unrest, since their owners must have buried them in fear during dangerous times and then experienced some misfortune that prevented them from digging them up later. Again, he found that civil war lagged behind economic hardship by a generation or two. Moreover, the same pattern holds true for the US over the past 200 years, he reports in the Journal of Peace Research, vol 4, p 577)”.

Workers or employees make up the bulk of any society, with a minority of employers constituting the top few per cent of earners. By mathematically modelling historical data, Turchin finds that as population grows, workers start to outnumber available jobs, driving down wages. The wealthy elite then end up with an even greater share of the economic pie, and inequality soars. This is borne out in the US, for example, where average wages have stagnated since the 1970s although gross domestic product has steadily climbed.

This process also creates new avenues – such as increased access to higher education – that allow a few workers to join the elite, swelling their ranks. Eventually this results in what Turchin calls “elite overproduction” – there being more people in the elite than there are top jobs. “Then competition starts to get ugly,” he says.

The richest continue to become richer: as in many complex systems, whether in nature or in society, existing advantage feeds back positively to create yet more. The rest of the elite fight it out, with rival patronage networks battling ever more fiercely. “There are always ideological differences, but elite overproduction explains why competition becomes so bitter, with no one willing to compromise,” Turchin says. This means the squabbling in Congress that precipitated the current shutdown is a symptom of societal forces at work, rather than the primary problem.

In Turchin’s theory, such political acrimony is paralleled by rising discontent among workers left with less and less, and increasing state bankruptcy as spending by the elite who control the government coffers spirals. Ultimately, the situation gets so bad that order cannot be maintained and the state collapses. A new cycle begins.

Reality backs his theory up. Over the last century, labor supply, public health indicators, income inequality, and the numbers and behavior of the elite rose and fell in sync and as predicted by the theory. And with each glut of workers and peak in inequality came a surge in political violence.

Turchin finds that a simple mathematical model, combining economic output per person, the balance of labor demand and supply, and changes in attitudes towards redistributing wealth – the minimum wage level is one proxy for this – generates a curve that exactly matches the change in real wages since 1930, including complex rises and falls since 1980. Such close agreement between model and reality is exceptional in social sciences, says Turchin, and shows that all three factors control the rise of inequality, as predicted.

A set of 1590 instances of political violence in the US reveals peaceful periods around 1820 and 1950, with instability rising in between. Social data reflecting labor supply, inequality and elite overproduction match that basic fluctuation. Turchin thinks these changes explain the American civil war in the 1860s. The statistics also show that we are now in another phase of rising instability that began in the 1970s, just when, as his theory predicts, labor supply started outstripping demand.

In Turchin’s theory, this phase in the cycle should also be marked by political polarization and rising government debt – both current crises in Washington. Real wages, the minimum wage, trade union suppression, the share of wealth owned by the richest one per cent, even filibusters and fights over judicial appointments – all have changed at the same time in ways reflecting reduced social consensus. Meanwhile, the elite class has grown sharply. Between the 1970s and 2010, college fees rose, yet the numbers of doctors and lawyers qualifying per head of population nearly trebled. Workers have steadily lost out. The “real shocker”, says Turchin, is that the average height of Americans peaked in 1975. It has actually declined in black women since then – a fact that could be down to falling nutrition standards linked to lower incomes. None of the trends shows any sign of reversing.

Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agrees with Turchin’s finding of repeated cycles in history. However, he believes our current experience also reflects something new: technology has brought about the emergence of a complex, networked society, one that, he argues, existing democratic institutions are too simplistic to govern. “The fall of the Soviet Union wasn’t the end of the story,” says Bar-Yam. He says that the US government could also fall apart unless its citizens choose to adapt by evolving decentralized, networked institutions more suited to managing complexity.

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