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?