When I decided to switch from population dynamics to historical dynamics — Cliodynamics — my main interest was to understand the past. But every time I gave a talk about secular cycles and structural-demographic dynamics in such societies as medieval and early modern England, France, and Russia, someone in the audience invariably asked, “And where are we?” So I started gathering data for the United States and I modified models, which were developed for agrarian states, to fit the social structures of industrializing and post-industrial societies. This was many years ago.
By 2010 it became clear to me that the structural-demographic theory (SDT) generalizes very well. Essentially, it’s about complex large-scale societies that can be represented as a population-elites-the state system. Agrarian versus industrial distinction is important but doesn’t affect the basic logic of the model. In the United States we have common people, or the 99%, the elites (the 1%), and the state, just like in the Roman Empire. Yes, the Romans did not have smartphones, but the power relations in complex human societies are surprisingly durable.
It also became clear that the answer to the question, “And where are we?” is: in the pre-crisis phase of the secular cycle. Thus, when in 2010 Nature asked me to comment on the coming decade, I wrote “Political instability may be a contributor in the coming decade.” Six years down the road, I am afraid to say, my gloomy forecast is developing right on schedule.
I’ve been working on a book-length manuscript that explains these ideas, models, and data analyses for years. Some of my readers know that I posted a draft manuscript on my web site three years ago. There are two reasons why the gestation of this book was so long. First, it’s much easier to write about the past because we know how it turned out. Once a secular cycle has gone through its integrative and disintegrative phases, and enough time has elapsed to see that it’s truly done and dealt with, it becomes immovable past. Future research can bring to light new details, but the general outlines of the cycle have been fixed. Of course, nothing about the future is fixed.
Second, once you engage with the present you cannot avoid politics. Some of the SDT’s insights will anger the conservatives, others will anger the liberals. It’s a minefield. The pressure is on to check and re-check one’s data and analyses.
But now we are in 2016, and all the trends I’ve been writing about are accelerating. I feel it’s time to publish this book, come what it may.
The book should be out in early September. Below is the “blurb.” Comments are welcome.
Ages of Discord
A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History
by Peter Turchin
Things are off on the wrong track.
A growing proportion (currently 70 percent) of Americans think so. The inflation-adjusted wage of American workers today is less than 40 years ago—but there are four times as many multimillionaires. As inequality grows, the infrastructure frays and the politics become more poisonous. Every year, more and more Americans, armed with guns, go on shooting rampages killing strangers and passers-by—and now, increasingly, the representatives of the state.
Troubling trends of this kind are constantly discussed by politicians, public intellectuals, and social scientists. But most commentators talk only a small slice of the overall problem. Indeed, what do increasing shooting rampages have to do with the polarization in Congress? Is there a connection between too many multimillionaires and government gridlock?
Analysis of historical states shows that in complex, large-scale human societies long periods of relative equity, prosperity, and internal peace are succeeded by protracted periods of inequity, increasing misery, and political instability. These crisis periods—“Ages of Discord”—tend to share characteristic features, experienced by many societies in different historical eras. In fact, America today has much in common with the Antebellum America of the 1850s and with Ancien Régime France on the eve of the French Revolution, to give just two examples. Can it really be true that our time of troubles is not so new, and that it arises because of similar underlying reasons? Ages of Discord marshals a cohesive theory and detailed historical data to show that this is, indeed, the case. The book takes the reader on a roller-coaster journey through American history: from the Era of Good Feelings of the 1820s to our first Age of Discord, which culminated in the American Civil War, to the post-war prosperity and, finally, to our present, second Age of Discord.
Unlike historical societies, however, we are in a unique position to take steps to escape the worst. Societal breakdown and ensuing wave of violence can be avoided by collective, cooperative action. The structural-demographic theory, explained in this book, helps us answer why demographic, social, and political trends changed direction from favorable to unfavorable in America around the 1970s. Such understanding is the key to developing reforms that would reverse these negative trends and move us to a more equitable, prosperous, and peaceful society.