In the first part of my critique of The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith (BDM&S), I slammed the theoretical foundations of their argument. The book also has a lot of empirical content, and in Part II I want to talk about that.
The basic approach taken in the book is anecdotal. It’s not a substitute for rigorous analysis because of the ever-present danger of “cherry-picking”—selecting only the anecdotes that support one’s pet theory, while studiously ignoring any counter-examples (see also Technical Note at the end). But a series of well chosen and well presented illustrations of the theoretical ideas in the book from history, politics, and business could make for an enjoyable reading.
Unfortunately, BdM&S selection of examples exhibits an extreme form of cherry-picking, in fact even going beyond that, when they make out examples supporting their theory “from whole cloth.” For example, did you know what was the cause of the Russian Revolution? It turns out that Czar Nicholas II “foolishly cut the income from one of his major sources of revenue, the vodka tax, at the same time that he fought World War I. … With vodka banned, his revenue diminished sharply. .. Soon Nicholas was no longer able to buy loyalty. As a result, his army refused to stop strikers and protesters.” This is a remarkable story; unfortunately it has nothing to do with the real causes of the Russian Revolution (if you are interested in details, see Chapter 10 of our Secular Cycles).
Another new historical fact that I gleaned from The Dictator’s Handbook was that “Kerensky’s revolutionaries were able to storm the Winter Palace in February 1917.” Of course, it was not “Kerensky’s revolutionaries” but Lenin’s Bolsheviks, and the storm of the Winter Palace was not in February, but in October (old style). If the authors know history so poorly, why didn’t they employ a fact-checker?
These are just two examples out of many more. But more important is the extreme form of cherry picking that BdM&S practice in The Dictator’s Handbook. They only give examples of leaders behaving corruptly (by the way, this is the same criticism that Frederick the Great of Prussia leveled against Machiavelli in Anti-Machiavel).
Frederick the Great of Prussia as Crown Prince (1739), about the same time when he wrote Anti-Machiavel. Source
The very first example with which the book starts deals with one Robert Rizzo, who was city manager of Bell, California. There is no question that Bell was an extremely corrupt individual. In fact, he was the highest paid city manager in the entire US! I think it wouldn’t be unwarranted to conclude that Rizzo was in the top 1 percent, or even top 0.1 percent of the most corrupt American city managers. But what about the rest of them?
Remember that the main postulate of the BdM&S theory is that all politicians (as well as all business leaders; in fact all people) are only “motivated to do what is good for them, not what is good for others.” To illustrate this general idea with an individual selected from the top 1 percent of the corruption distribution, and not to balance it with a discussion of how typical this behavior is, is intellectually dishonest.
Now, I am not a starry eyed idealist. I know full well that there is plenty of corruption and self-dealing in our Republic. There are lots of egotistical people. It’s even quite possible that there is a selection process that ensures that the fraction of egomaniacs and narcissists among the political and business leaders increases as one goes up the hierarchy (although I’d like to see some data on that). Nevertheless, not all leaders are like that.
As an example, let’s consider such obvious example of prosocial behavior as volunteering for the army when your country is at war. Of course, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton would be fine examples for the BdM&S theory. But think about the previous generation, which Robert Putnam called the Long Civic Generation. Jack Kennedy fought in World War II, and his older brother, Joseph Jr, was killed in action in 1944.
George W.’s father, George H.W. Bush, was a naval aviator whose plane was shot down by the Japanese, also in 1944.
Shipmates of the submarine USS Finback rescue Bush Source
I return to my main critical point: people are different–some selfish others prosocial; and so are politicians. It is not surprising that The Dictator’s Handbook is so popular—our current generation of politicians may easily be the most miserable one in American history (although Gilded Age politicians could have been even more corrupt). What we need is a theory that would help us understand why there is variation between leaders, and why there is change with time: some generations of leaders behave more prosocially, others are more corrupt. Due to its theoretical and empirical flaws, BdM&S’s book does not advance us towards such an understanding.
Technical Note: Bueno de Mesquita and colleagues have also published a 2003 volume, The Logic of Political Survival. That book, among other things, presents a statistical analysis of predictions from the selectorate theory with Polity IV data. Unfortunately, their analysis suffers from fatal flaws, in particular, because they used a bizarre residualization procedure. In an article published in American Political Science Review, Kevin Clarke and Randall Stone show that this procedure leads to omitted variable bias. When the data are reanalyzed properly, as Clarke and Stone did, most of their important findings don’t survive.
One of my long-term interests is in the dynamics of leader-followers systems. Large-scale societies and other large groupings of people (including corporations) cannot be purely egalitarian. As I’ve written in another post, humans are not ants.
We must have leaders to organize large-scale cooperation. Inevitably, there will be elites (in the neutral sociological sense: simply a small proportion of the population who concentrates social power in their hands) and commoners (the rest of the population). The big question is how do (some) human organizations avoid, or mitigate (to a greater or lesser degree) the iron law of oligarchy – one of the most fundamental sociological laws (put simply, power corrupts).
Thus I looked to reading The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith with great anticipation. I had an inkling that I would disagree on much with the authors, but I was looking forward not to agree, but to learn.
I was mistaken. The book fails, and fails badly, on both theoretical and empirical grounds. It’s so bad, I almost decided not to review it. However, it has been enormously successful. It sold a lot of copies, and garnered more than 200 reviews on the Amazon, most of them glowingly positive (average rating 4.6 out of 5). It also inspired a very popular info-video by CGP Grey (over 6 million views).
Thus, I think it becomes my public duty to explain why the book is bad.
One of the few points in the book, with which I agree, is that our job as social scientists is to study how the world really works, not how we wish it worked, or as BdM&S say in the beginning of the book, “the world can only be improved if first we understand how it works and why.”
In the last chapter, the authors say, “After the past nine chapters of our cynical—but we fear accurate—portrayal of politics…” Cynical, yes. Accurate? Far from it.
The theory proposed by BdM&S is a very simple, even naïve, version of the rational-choice model so favored by economists and political scientists in the twentieth century. As the authors say early on in the book, “politics, like all of life, is about individuals, each motivated to do what is good for them, not what is good for others.”
It’s as though the book was written not in 2011, but thirty years ago, before the massive tsunami of evidence showing that this is not true at all.
People are different. Some (20-30% in most large-scale societies) are indeed pure rational actors who only maximize their personal utility expressed in purely materialistic terms. But the majority of population is motivated by additional considerations: desire to do good to others or for the society, loyalty, friendship, honor, sacred values, and many more.
The theory propounded by BdM&S, then, is pure Machiavelli, which they acknowledge by quoting him approvingly. Anyone seeking to become a ruler must give followers “castles and possessions, as well as money and subjects; so that surrounded by these he may be able to maintain his power, and that by his support they may satisfy their ambitions.”
I have debunked this theory at length in War and Peace and War, so I won’t do it here. What is startling is to see this bankrupt theory pushed so vigorously by seemingly competent academics. How could you possibly ignore I don’t know how many thousands of articles in experimental economics that have swept away the naïve, stripped-down version of the rational-choice theory?
You probably think I have presented a caricature of BdM&S’s theory. Not at all! Check the book, or watch CGP Grey’s info-video, which is a very accurate statement of what the book says. Here’s another direct quote: “Paying supporters, not good governance or representing the general will, is the essence of ruling.”
Just about the only elaboration of Machiavelli is BdM&S’s division of followers (a population of a country, or people working for an organization) into essentials, influentials, and interchangeables. If you are interested, read about it in this Wikipedia article—I don’t see the point of discussing it as the overall theory doesn’t make sense to me, because of its bankrupt model of human nature.
Now, I would be the first one to admit that there are a lot of dictators, democratic politicians, CEOs of big corporations, and even leaders of ostensibly charitable organizations who are reasonably well described by the Machiavelli model. But not all leaders are like that. We know empirically that leaders are a mixed lot. Some, like Idi Amin, are really close to the Machiavelli end, while a few are closer to—let’s say—the Gandhi/Mandela end. And most are in between. Why do we see such heterogeneity is a very interesting question, and I will talk about it in Part II.
The last installment in this series (first one here) adopts a more critical stance towards the article by McConnell et al., Lead pollution recorded in Greenland ice indicates European emissions tracked plagues, wars, and imperial expansion during antiquity. As I said in the second post, the only quantitative part of this study was coming up with the lead pollution curve, while all the comparisons between the lead curve and historical events in Rome and elsewhere in the Western Mediterranean were qualitative (with silver content of the Roman denarius the only exception). Here’s the relevant figure:
Figure 3 of McConnell et al. 2018
The problem with an “eyeball” comparison between a quantitative curve and a set of qualitative events is the danger of confirmation bias. Or put simply, cherry-picking of data. It’s way too easy to find an explanation for any uptick and down-tick in the curve when one has a large list of events to choose from. McConnell et al. appear to be guilty of this.
One of the major messages of the article is that wars in the Western Mediterranean, and especially those affecting the Iberian Peninsula, have a depressing effect on silver production (which lead emissions proxy). But the authors also use the opposite effect to explain one of the upticks:
Longer-term declines possibly were linked to disincentives to investment in war-torn regions. For example, lead emissions dropped notably at the outbreak of the first Punic War (264–241 BCE) but rose in the later years as Carthage increased its minting of silver coin to pay mercenaries.
What we need is an objective quantitative method to test the hypothesis of a negative correlation between silver production and warfare. Fortunately, there is such a proxy.
I have literally tons of data on the incidence of coin hoards. It turns out that the overwhelming majority of the hoards we find in modern times are “emergency hoards.” These are buried stores of wealth that people hide during times of danger. And then if something terrible happened to them–they are killed, or enslaved, or driven into exile–the hoards are not recovered by the original owners. Thus, the fluctuations in the frequency of coin hoards per decade provide us with a very useful proxy for the intensity of warfare.
Some years ago Walter Scheidel and I published an article (also in PNAS) which capitalized on this relationship to resolve a long-standing debate in Roman demography. Here I plot the data from that article on coin hoard frequency and and index of war intensity in Italy, derived from textual sources:
The three periods of intense warfare that are prominent in this figure are the Second Punic War and the two rounds of civil wars during the crisis of the Roman Republic (for details, see Chapter 6 of Secular Cycles). So, what happens when we compare the hoard index of war intensity with the lead emissions index? Here’s what:
A correlation coefficient between these two curves, equaling a measly -0.09, confirms that there is no apparent relationship here.
Could it be because the hoards come from Italy, while the hypothesis is that it is warfare in Spain that should depress silver production? We are fortunate to have an Inventory of Greek Coin Hoards that covers all of Mediterranean, and beyond, published by Margaret Thompson and colleagues in 1973. Focusing on the Western Mediterranean, we see the following pattern:
These curves decline shortly after 200 BCE, because the Roman denarius becomes the main means of exchange in the Western Mediterranean (note that Italian Hoards above are largely based on the silver denarius, with a few bronze coin hoards early in the sequence).
Let’s compare the total hoards in West Mediterranean and just hoards in Spain to the lead emissions curve:
The correlation coefficients between the lead curve and either of the hoard curves is actually slightly positive. Thus, I conclude that the hypothesis of McConnell and co-authors, that warfare corresponds to downturns in lead emissions, is not supported.
While I am certainly very grateful to the team of authors of Lead pollution recorded in Greenland ice indicates European emissions tracked plagues, wars, and imperial expansion during antiquity, it is curious that the only quantitative part of their study was coming up with the lead pollution curve. All the comparisons between the lead curve and historical events in Rome and elsewhere in the Western Mediterranean were entirely qualitative. Yet the greatest strength of employing quantitative proxies results when we examine different proxies against each other.
In this second installment of the series (first installment here) I will compare the lead curve to a quantitative measure of building activity in Rome. I will focus on religious buildings (pagan temples and Christian churches), because they typically represent a substantial investment of resources and because they can be often accurately dated. I have used this building index in several case studies described in Secular Cycles. For this post, the list of temples was taken from Richardson, L. 1992. A new topographical dictionary of ancient Rome. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore; and churches are from Ward-Perkins, B. 1984. From Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages: Urban public building in northern and central Italy, AD 300-850. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Here I plot these data in two ways:
The tan vertical bars tell us how many temples (or churches) were built in Rome in each decade. The thick brown curve smooths over short-term fluctuations, helping us to visualize longer (secular) dynamics. As we see, the curve generally traces out the four secular cycles in Roman history. One partial exception is the building activity gap in the middle of the first century, which divides the Principate cycle into two phases. One possible explanation of this interruption is that there was a short-lived outbreak of internal violence during the first century (the deposition of Emperor Nero followed by the Year of the Four Emperors).
Now let’s plot the building curve against the lead pollution curve:
What we see is that there is a lot of difference in detail. But there are also shared features. The secular cycles in both curves tend to have peaks and troughs at roughly similar times (except for the “double-headed” Principate cycle in the building data). Additionally, the overall heights of each secular peak are similar in the two curves. The overall correlation coefficient is a respectable 0.62. This is not a bad result, considering that the two curves were derived using completely different methodologies, and that they reflect very different socio-economic processes. On top of that, the first cycle in the pollution curve is not even due to Rome, since the mines during the early period were operated by the Carthaginians.
When I started 20 years ago on the research direction that eventually became Cliodynamics, I thought that getting data to test theories about historical dynamics would be tough. Within a couple of years I realized that actually it’s not true. There is an enormous amount of quantitative data about all kinds of aspects of past societies. It’s true that we often don’t have direct measurements of things we want to know about the past. But if one is willing to keep one’s eyes (and mind) open, one constantly encounters quite good data that can serve as a useful “proxy” for a variable of interest.
This week an interdisciplinary team of climatologists and archaeologists published an article, Lead pollution recorded in Greenland ice indicates European emissions tracked plagues, wars, and imperial expansion during antiquity. The main source of lead particles, deposited on Greenland ice during Antiquity, was a result of smelting silver in Iberian silver mines. The amount of lead deposited in Greenland can be resolved down to the year. As a result, Greenland ice contains an excellent quantitative proxy for the intensity of silver production in Western Mediterranean, which in turn traces economic booms and busts in this part of the world.
I downloaded the raw data, smoothed it using kernel regression with bandwidth = 50 years (if anybody cares for such technical details), and here is the trajectory (concentration of lead in Greenland ice) during the period when Rome was one of, or the dominant power in Western Mediterranean:
What we see here is yet another illustration of one of the most pervasive macrohistorical generalizations: all complex societies go through multi-centennial (“secular”) cycles (see our book Secular Cycles). Ancient Rome went through four such cycles of alternating integrative (“good”) periods (indicated with green-colored labels in the figure) and disintegrative (“bad”) phases (indicated with red-colored labels).
Actually, the first cycle probably has more to do with Carthage, which owned Spanish silver mines at the time. In the last cycle (the Dominate), the center of gravity of the Roman Empire shifted east, and that’s probably why the fourth century’s peak is quite modest.
Note that I did the periodization of Roman history into secular cycles before the Greenland ice data were available. It was based on a series of quantitative proxies that are entirely separate from the lead pollution data (and there are many such proxies — in the next post I’ll look into how they correlate with this one). In other words, these new data provide an independent test of the secular cycles theory.
You can read about these Roman cycles in the already mentioned Secular Cycles, and in my popular book War and Peace and War (in particular, Chapter 6, Born to Be Wolves, on the early history of Rome. For the last cycle (the Dominate) there is an article in Cliodynamics by David Baker.
You can also trace the evolution of the Roman polity from the Roman Kingdom (716–509 BCE) to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (395–476) on the just published beta-version of the Seshat visual data site.
Yesterday the top science journal Nature published a bomb-shell article, but my feeling is that biologists haven’t yet realized the explosive nature of the report. I’ll explain, but first we need to make a lengthy excurse into the history of the group selection idea.
Whether group selection is an important evolutionary force, or not, is a highly controversial question in evolutionary science. A substantial proportion of evolutionary scientists still think that it is not. The stakes are high because I and many other proponents of Cultural Evolution think that group selection (or, as we prefer to call it, multilevel selection—selection acting simultaneously on individuals and groups) provides the key to our understanding of the evolution of human ultrasociality—the capacity of human beings to cohere and cooperate in huge societies (millions and more of people).
Actually, the best theory that enables us to understand ultrasociality is “Cultural Multilevel Selection” (see my book Ultrasociety about how human societies evolved from small bands of hunter-gatherers of 10,000 years ago to the huge megasocieties of today by the process of multilevel selection acting on cultural traits). I tend to agree, to a certain degree, with the critics that genetic group selection is not a commonly encountered evolutionary mechanism in the field, although in the past it was clearly hugely influential. Because how would, otherwise, we get multicellular organisms? And genetic multilevel selection provides the best explanation, in my opinion, of other “major evolutionary transitions”, which include, in addition to multicellular organisms, such epochal events in biological evolution as the rise of the eukaryotic cell and social insect colonies.
The first proponent of genetic group selection was Charles Darwin himself, who wrote about it in his second major book, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, which was published 12 years after On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s ideas on group selection remained very influential for about a century. One of his well-known followers, the English biologist V. C. Wynn-Edwards, became an advocate of the idea that individual behaviors can evolve not just because they help individuals, but for the good of the species as a whole. In other words, Wynn-Edwards and other adherents of what later became known as “naïve group selectionism” thought that evolution could operate at the level of really large groups—whole species.
I attach the label “naïve” to these views because arguments of Wynn-Edward and others relied on simply pointing out the importance of a trait at the level of a group (or a species) without considering carefully how such traits affected individuals. Incidentally, this is why I prefer “multilevel”—because our current theories explain much better the evolution of behaviors that have opposite effects at different levels (e.g., favor the group but at the expense of individual fitness). It’s not a trivial question, and it requires non-trivial math to figure out when either the group-level or individual level force dominates.
In any case, by the 1970s the tide turned against group selection. The key thinker in this reversal was George C. Williams, and his ideas were popularized by Richard Dawkins in his wildly popular book The Selfish Gene. When I studied biology in graduate school in the early 1980s, nobody believed in group selection, apart from a few “heretics” like my good colleague and friend David Sloan Wilson.
In the last decade or so the tide started turning back. In particular, the hugely influential social biologist Edward O. Wilson (no relation to David) “flipped” from a critic to an adherent of group selection. But many, if not most, continue to reject it (for example, the geneticist Jerry Coyne or the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker).
Getting back to Darwin, it is not a coincidence that his second major book, in which he wrote about group selection, has the subtitle Selection in Relation to Sex. Here’s a fun example illustrating this connection, which I have recently used in a lecture in my cultural evolution class last week.
Many of my readers know that there was a species of deer in which males grew astoundingly huge antlers—the Irish Elk. It roamed Eurasia from Ireland to China during the Pleistocene, and went extinct around 8,000 years ago. Why did Irish Elk males sport such spectacular antlers?
The reason, as Darwin explained, is the sexual selection. Every fall male deer (including elk and moose) participate in jousts, with winners getting to mate with females. The larger is the weaponry that you bring to the contest, the better are your chances of winning it, which means mating and passing your genes to the next generation. So natural selection favors males with larger antlers (as they say, “size matters”).
Note “larger”, not huge. What’s important is not an absolute size, but a relative advantage. In the land of small-antlered, the medium-antlered elk is king. But then, in a few generations, everybody has medium-sized antlers, and so to get ahead of the crowd you need large ones. And so on. As the arms race continues, eventually only those elk with gigantic racks have any chance of reproducing. Growing huge antlers is energetically expensive, and a huge risk—whether getting tangled in the branches, or not being able to escape predators due to their heavy weight.
If only elk males could get together and agree to put a limit on the size of their antlers… Everybody would be much better off. Instead, each individual strives for advantage, resulting in a collectively suboptimal outcome. One could say that the Irish Elk went extinct as they literally collapsed under the weight of their antlers.
We don’t really know why the Irish Elk went extinct. Perhaps the reason was the run-away competition between males, resulting in unsustainably gigantic antlers. Or there could be another reason. And here’s why the Nature article, to which I referred in the beginning, is so interesting: High male sexual investment as a driver of extinction in fossil ostracods by Maria João Fernandes Martins and co-authors.
Ostracods are small crustaceans, shrimp-like creatures that protect themselves with bivalve carapaces (shells). These shells are well preserved as fossils, and so we know quite a lot about their evolution.
Fernandes Martins and co-authors analyzed the paleontological data on 93 species that lived in the area that is now Mississippi state between 84 and 66 million years ago. They assessed the strength of competition between males by how much males invested in reproduction, which you can tell by the shape of the shell (e.g., how long it is). Basically what they did was similar to estimating the strength of between-male competition in deer by looking at how large their antlers are. Then they did a statistical analysis on how the strength of sexual competition affected the probability of extinction of the species.
They found that the probability of extinction of the species in which males competed most intensely was ten times higher than in the species in which males did not compete very hard. This is a huge difference, and it lends credence to the idea that the Irish Elk went extinct because of intense between-male competition necessitating high investment by males into growing big antlers.
The implications of the study by Fernandes Martins and co-authors, thus, go far beyond an obscure group of shrimp-like organisms. What we have here is a clear example of multi-level selection. The individual level selection forces each male to invest into sexual competition as much as possible. But at the species level, those species in which between-male competition goes too far, has an order of magnitude higher chance of going extinct. As a result, most species find themselves at an intermediate level of male sexual investment.
It’s interesting that the authors of the Nature article do not even mention multi-level selection, nor do they talk about the broad implications of their study, as I have done in this blog. They are either not aware of them, which seems unlikely, or they simply didn’t want to enter the highly contentious debate about group selection. Equally interesting, Nature apparently did not deem this study to be important enough to devote a News-and-Views article to it. But I think that the implications of the study are explosive. If Wynne-Edwards were alive, he would feel vindicated.
Last week Tyler Cowen published an essay in Politico, No, Fascism Can’t Happen Here. He argues:
My argument is pretty simple: American fascism cannot happen anymore because the American government is so large and unwieldy. It is simply too hard for the fascists, or for that matter other radical groups, to seize control of. No matter who is elected, the fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, they cannot control all the branches of American government, they cannot control the judiciary, they cannot control semi-independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and they cannot control what is sometimes called “the deep state.” The net result is they simply can’t control enough of the modern state to steer it in a fascist direction.
I think Tyler is right, but for a wrong reason.
Before I explain, however, I’d like to step away from loaded terms like “fascist”, “Nazi”, etc., which lost most of their meaning and, instead, became an insult to be leveled at your political opponent. Let’s use, instead, the Classical Greek terms for different forms of government, such as those found in Plato or Aristotle. These terms are not perfect, as the meaning of many of them changed across the intervening two millennia, but let’s see how it goes.
Plato thought that there is a regular progression of regimes, starting with the best (Aristocracy) and then passing through increasingly “degenerate” forms of Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny (check out this Wikipedia article for details). Interestingly enough, Plato’s ideal forms map pretty well onto phases of secular cycles that I and others have studied within the framework of structural demographic theory (see Secular Cycles).
A secular cycle starts with an “expansion” phase, during which societies enjoy internal peace and order, population well-being is relatively high, the elites are small in numbers, modest in consumption, and reasonably prosocial in their attitudes. This phase can be compared with Aristocracy (especially in Aristotle’s definition, when the ruling elites govern to increase public good). The next phase (which we called “stagflation”) is when the well-being of the majority of the population collapses, while elite numbers and wealth continue to grow and their prosociality declines. The corresponding regime in the Ancient Greek scheme would be Oligarchy. Next comes the “crisis” phase with its rebellions, revolutions, and civil wars. The Greek equivalent is Democracy (remember that both Plato and Aristotle used this term in a very different way than us today; for them Democracy was not a good thing). The final phase of the secular cycle is “depression.” This is when we see an alternation of roughly generation-long periods of civil war interspersed with generation-long periods of fragile order, often resulting from regimes established by new leaders, whom one could call “tyrants.”
Both the Greek scheme of regime progression and secular cycle phases are, undoubtedly, highly stylized – one even could think of them as “caricatures” (or “models”). There is a lot of variation among different societies and eras. In fact, my next big project will be to collect detailed data on hundreds of societies sliding into structural-demographic crises (and then emerging from them). It will allow us to much better characterize both the general features of such societal dynamics, and variations on general themes. For now, my argument is based on roughly 20 or so cases studies that cliodynamicists studied in detail, and on my general reading of history.
The famous tyrants in history – think Caesar, Napoleon, Mao – all mobilized broad popular support in their struggle against the “oligarchies,” or the established elites representing pre-revolutionary order (the senatorial class, the Ancien Regime nobility, and “bourgeoisie”). These tyrants were supported by new elites, recruited from the masses of elite aspirants whose quest for elite positions had been frustrated by the established elites.
What I see as key in the rise of “tyrants” is that they always come after a prolonged period of social instability and political violence. Their appeal is, first, based on their promise to restore internal order and to end violence. Their suppression of the old and discredited old-order elites is of secondary importance (and may be absent in certain cases, such as in the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany – of course, this case is also different because political turbulence in Weimar Germany was brought about not by a structural-demographic crisis, but by a catastrophic defeat in an external war).
Returning to the question of whether a tyrant can arise in the United States in the near future, my analysis suggests, most emphatically, “no.” A tyrant-wannabe lacks most elements on which to base his or her power. We haven’t experienced a long civil war (at least, not yet), or a catastrophic defeat in an external war. The established elites, while fragmenting, are still very strong. Here I agree with much of what Tyler says in the paragraph I quoted above. An aspiring tyrant has to deal with the deeply entrenched bureaucracy, the powerful judicial system, and the mighty coercive apparatus of the American state (the FBI, the CIA, the military). Also important is that the frustrated elite aspirants are not organized in any coherent social movements. Tyrants never rule alone, they need an organization stuffed by dedicated cadres (a desirable feature of which is the animosity towards the old-order elites).
In my opinion, the greatest danger for us today (and into the 2020s) is not the rise of a Hitler, but rather a Second American Civil War.
On Tuesday I am traveling southwest to visit several universities in Arizona and Southern California. Here’s the schedule of lectures that I will be giving:
Wednesday Feb. 15 at 12:00 noon: Colloquium on Evolution of Social Complexity (Arizona State University)
Tuesday Feb. 27 at 3:00 pm: Marschak Colloquium (UCLA)
Thursday March 1 at 12:30 pm: Sociology Department (UC Riverside)
If you happen to be in the vicinity, I’ll be happy to see you at one of these events!
The lecture I will be giving is brand-new (in fact, I am still finishing the statistical analyses on which it is based). Here’s the title and abstract:
Over the past 10,000 years human societies evolved from “simple”—small egalitarian groups, integrated by face-to-face interactions, —to “complex”—huge anonymous societies of millions, characterized by great differentials in wealth and power, extensive division of labor, elaborate governance structures, and sophisticated information systems. One aspect of this “major evolutionary transition” that continues to excite intense debate is the origins and evolution of the state—a politically centralized territorial polity with internally specialized administrative organization. Different theories proposed by early theorists and contemporary social scientists make different predictions about causal processes driving the rise of state-level social organization. In my talk I will use Seshat: Global History Databank to empirically test predictions of several such theories. I will present results of a dynamical regression analysis that estimates how the evolution of specialized governance structures was affected by such factors as social scale (population, territorial expansion), social stratification, provision of public goods, and information systems.
Last week I wrote about Jack Goldstone’s article, which introduced the most recent issue of Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution celebrating the 25th anniversary of Jack’s book Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. In today’s post I want to discuss an equally interesting article by Oscar Ortmans and co-authors.
The central question of the Ortmans et al. article is: Is Structural-Demographic Theory (SDT) predictive? In the Introduction they cite from the review of Goldstone’s book by a well-known scholar of revolutions Timur Kuran (Kuran, T. 1992. Contemporary Sociology 21:8-10). According to Kuran, the SDT is merely a tool to “reconcile exceptional cases” and was bound to “fail as a predictive tool.”
Twenty-seven years have passed since the publication of Goldstone’s book—enough time to evaluate its potential as a predictive tool. In the United States, for example, the negative structural-demographic trends began developing in the late 1970s, and by 1991 someone who understood the theory could already see that the country was moving in the wrong direction. The section in Goldstone’s book (remember, published 27 years ago) about the contemporary US (the US of 1991) reads eerily prescient today.
I’ve written elsewhere about my path to the same realization during the early 2000s. By that time, the writing was literally on the wall.
Using Cross-National Time-Series Data, Ortmans and co-authors plot the incidence of anti-government demonstrations in the United States, to which I have added arrows indicating the publication of Goldstone’s book and my Nature piece on the political instability during the decade of 2010–2020:
I think this graph speaks for itself.
But what about other countries? Previously a group of researchers, led by Andrey Korotayev, a cliodynamicist based at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow (Andrey is also one of the “et al.” in the Ortmans article), published a series of analyses of the Arab Spring revolutions. Incidentally, Andrey speaks Arabic fluently and visits Arab countries, like Egypt, regularly. In particular, he was on Tahrir in Cairo during some of the key moments of the Egyptian revolution. But what’s more important is that his group’s research shows that the Arab Spring fits really well into the general framework of the SDT (for example, see this article).
In the latest article, Ortmans et al. apply the SDT to the case of the contemporary United Kingdom. Of course, the US and the UK share the same Anglo-Saxon culture, but it is still remarkable to see the degree of parallelism in the structural-demographic dynamics of these two societies. The personalities are different, but they play very similar—one may even say identical—roles. The administrations of Reagan and Thatcher signaled the dramatic abandonment of the post-war concensus on social cooperation between employers and workers. Blair and Clinton cemented the shift by moving their formerly left-leaning parties to the center-right. Of course, UK doesn’t have a Trump (unless one counts Boris Johnson). On the other hand, the 2016 presidential elections in US and Brexit in UK both were both a surface manifestation of deep structural-demographic trends, which I have documented for US in The Ages of Discord, and Ortmans et al. document for UK in their Cliodynamics article.
In both countries the oversupply of labor developed at about the same time and for similar reasons. In both countries the spread of the Neoliberal ideology and the suppression of labor unions removed restraints on the downward pressure on the wages, which resulted from the unfaborable balance of labor supply in relation to demand. Relative wages (wages in relation to GDP per capita) started declining about the same time.
We now have two case studies of structural-demographic dynamics in economically developed mature democracies. These results show that such societies are not immune to the disruptive social forces that have caused innumemrable revolutions and civil wars in past societies. My guess is that other European democracies, in particular, Germany, are also not immune. However, based on what I read in the newspapers, Germany is about 20 years behind the US (and UK). Other parts of Europe, in particular the Nordics, may have even more time before they are faced with a full-blown structural-demographic crisis. There is time to take steps to avert the worst, but are our political elites capable of learning the lessons of the SDT?
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