Civil war coming?

Preface. I read Turchin’s latest book which attempts to show why his past theories about the rise and fall of agrarian nations also applies to our modern civilization.  But there was not one mention of fossil fuels, natural resources, or Limits to Growth.  His focus is economics (wages, taxes, and so on), yet I’d expected that since there has never been a fossil fueled society and there will never be one again, that he’d add that to his analysis.

But I did find what he had to say about the Civil War of interest.

You can see my summary of his theory on how nations fail at this link: Book review of Turchin’s “Secular Cycles” and “War & Peace & War”

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]


Peter Turchin. 2016. Ages of Discord. A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History.  Beresta Books.    

Multi-Secular Cycles in Historical and Modern Societies Introduction: Human Societies Are Fragile

For the first 80 years of the American history, democratic institutions sufficed to resolve the inevitable clashes of interests found in any large society. Political crises were defused within the constitutional framework without violence. But in 1861 democratic institutions failed catastrophically. American political elites had lost their ability to cooperate in finding a compromise that would preserve the commonwealth. And instead of defusing the crisis, popular elections in which Abraham Lincoln won the presidency triggered the conflagration. What is particularly astounding is how myopic the American political leaders and their supporters were on the eve of the Civil War, especially those from the Southern states. They gleefully wrecked the Union, without realizing what a heavy personal cost that would mean for most of them.

One wonders what they thought of their initial eagerness to join in the conflict four years and 620,000 corpses later. In the 1860s, Americans learned that large-scale complex societies are actually fragile, and that a descent into a civil war can be rapid. Today, 150 years later, this lesson has been thoroughly forgotten.

The degree to which cooperation among the American political elites has unraveled during the past decade is eerily similar to what happened in the 1850s, the decade preceding the Civil War. The divisive issues are different, but the vehemence and the disregard for the consequences of failing to compromise are the same. Of course, nobody expects another Civil War. But the political leaders of antebellum America also could not have imagined in their wildest dreams the eventual consequences of the choices they made during the 1850s.

Just because we cannot imagine our actions leading to disaster, it doesn’t mean that such a disaster cannot happen.

How nations fail

My focus is on why we sometimes see waves of sociopolitical instability that may, when extreme, cause state breakdown and collapse. Recent research indicates that the dynamics of sociopolitical instability in pre-industrial states are not purely random; history is not just “one damned thing after another” as Arnold Toynbee famously said.

One of the factors in the fall of a nation is that increasing population drives wages down, which leads to declining living standards for most of the population, but increased wealth for the elites. They then gain social status by conspicuous consumption, which further exacerbates inequality as they eat huge portions of the economic pie.  At some point this goes too far, and the elites begin competing with one another.\

The losing elites grow more likely to fight back with violence to gain back their former wealth rather than accept downward mobility, causing those in power to close ranks to keep aspirants out, making it all the more likely that the loser elites will team up with the even more miserable and downtrodden populace to take violent actions.  If the state is tries to prevent this by creating employment for more elites, that just tips finances further into the red, and doesn’t solve the problem.

Population growth in excess of the productivity gains of the land has several effects on social institutions such as price inflation, falling wages, rural misery, urban migration, and more food riots and strikes. Population growth also leads to expansion of the army and the bureaucracy and to rising real costs.

States have no choice but to seek to expand taxation, despite resistance from the elites and the general populace. Yet, attempts to increase revenues cannot offset the spiraling state expenses. Thus, even if the state succeeds in raising taxes, it is still headed for fiscal crisis. As all these trends intensify, the end result is state bankruptcy and consequent loss of military control; elite movements of regional and national rebellion; and a combination of elite-mobilized and popular uprisings that expose the breakdown of central authority.

Sociopolitical instability resulting from state collapse feeds back on population growth via depressed birth rates and elevated mortality and emigration. Additionally, increased migration and vagrancy spread the disease by connecting areas that would have stayed isolated during better times. As a result, epidemics and even pandemics strike disproportionately often during the disintegrative phases of secular cycles.

Instability has a negative impact on the productive capacity of a society. Lacking strong government to protect them, peasants cultivate only fields that are near fortified settlements or other strong points like hilltops. Without a strong state, the population  is vulnerable to banditry, civil war, and other threats.

How long does this take?

These data and analyses suggest that a typical historical state goes through a sequence of relatively stable political regimes separated by unstable periods characterized by recurrent waves of internal war. The characteristic length of both stable (or integrative) and unstable (or disintegrative) phases is a century or longer, and the overall period of the cycle is around two to three centuries.

Historians’ time divisions tend to reflect these secular cycles. Roman history is usually separated into Regal (or Kingdom), Republican, Principate, and Dominate periods. Transitions between these periods, in all cases, involved prolonged waves of sociopolitical instability. The Germanic kingdoms that replaced the Roman Empire after it collapsed in the West went through a sequence of secular cycles that roughly corresponded to the dynasties that ruled them.

Secular cycles are also observed in other world regions: in China with its dynastic cycles, in the Middle East, and in Southeast Asia. In fact, it is a general dynamic pattern that is observed in all agrarian states for which the historical record is accurate enough.

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