Coronavirus and Our Age of Discord

Peter Turchin

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As readers of this blog know well, I don’t claim to be a prophet and I think that prophecy is, in any case, overrated. But I make predictions. A scientific prediction, unlike a prophecy, is not about a future, but about a theory — it’s a way to find out how good is our understanding of the way the world works. I explain more in my 2013 post Scientific Prediction ≠ Prophecy.

As an example of this general philosophy, here’s what I wrote in the final paragraph of an article published in 2008:

Are there any lessons from this history for the current globalization through which we now live? I think there may be, but with two very important caveats. First, as I emphasized repeatedly throughout this chapter, we still have very sketchy understanding of the causes underlying previous world-system pulsations. Much more modeling and empirical research is needed before we could determine just what the history’s lessons are. Second, the world has changed dramatically over the last two centuries. Thus, our understanding of pre-industrial globalizations cannot be mechanically transferred to make predictions about the current one. Our models will have to be greatly modified in order to apply to the modern world. Still, several of the empirical trends associated with the globalization of the twentieth century bear an uncanny resemblance to what has come before. Most obviously, the second half of the twentieth century was a period of massive population growth that has slowed down in the last decade, suggesting that we may be approaching the peak of global population. On the epidemiological front, human emerging infectious diseases have dramatically increased in incidence during the twentieth century, reaching the peak during the 1980s (Jones et al. 2006). The cholera incidence has been on the rise (Figure 11). The AIDS pandemic (Figure 11), as terrifying as it has been, may be the harbinger of even worse diseases to come. These and other trends (for example, the growth of the global inequality of wealth distribution during the last two decades) raise the possibility that studying previous globalizations may not be a purely academic exercise.

For better or worse, these predictions I’ve made have a tendency to eventually become realized (the biggest one is, of course, A Quantitative Prediction for Political Violence in the 2020s). When I wrote of “even worse diseases to come” twelve years ago I, of course, had no idea of Covid-19, or that it would coincidentally hit in 2020, just as other pressures for a structural-demographic crisis are building up to a peak. Rather, this prediction was based on a strong macrohistorical pattern: major pandemics tend to happen during Ages of Discord. For details, see the 2008 article; here I will summarize the main ideas in a nontechnical way.

There are several general trends during the pre-crisis phase that make the rise and spread of pandemics more likely. At the most basic level, sustained population growth results in greater population density, which increases the basic reproduction number of nearly all diseases. Even more importantly, labor oversupply, resulting from overpopulation, depresses wages and incomes for most. Immiseration, especially its biological aspects, makes people less capable of fighting off pathogens. People in search of jobs move more and increasingly concentrate in the cities, which become breeding grounds for disease. Because of greater movement between regions, it is easy for disease to jump between cities.

Elites, who enjoy growing incomes resulting from low worker wages, spend them on luxuries, including exotic ones. This drives long-distance trade, which more tightly connects distant world regions. My 2008 article is primarily about this process, which we call “pre-modern globalizations.” As a result, a particularly aggressive pathogen arising in, for example, China, can rapidly jump to Europe.

Finally, when the crisis breaks out, it brings about a wave on internal warfare. Marauding armies of soldiers, rebels, and brigands, themselves become incubators of disease that they spread widely as they travel through the landscape.

This description is tailored to pre-modern (and early modern) Ages of Discord. Today, in 2020, details are different. But the main drivers — globalization and popular immiseration — are the same.

In my 2008 article I discuss previous waves of globalization (although the early ones are better called “continentalizations” as they primarily affected Afro-Eurasia, rather than the whole world). There is a very strong (although not perfect) statistical association between these globalizations, general crises, and pandemics, from the Bronze Age to the Late Medieval Crisis. The famous previous pandemics such as the Antonine Plagues, the Plagues of Justinian, and the Black Death all coincided (and, typically, helped trigger) prolonged secular crises.

The last two complete crisis periods, the Crisis of the Seventeenth Century and the Age of Revolutions, were truly global in nature. As our data become better for the Early Modern period, we can trace the two pandemics more quantitatively:

The first cycle is traced by resurgent plague, but it should be supplemented by the devastation of the Americas due to such diseases as measles. The second cycle reflects the recurring pandemics of cholera. According to the Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, the great cholera epidemic of 1849 carried away up to 10 percent of the American population. And we shouldn’t forget the Spanish Flu Pandemic, which hit in 1919.

And now it looks like our Age of Discord got its own pandemic.

 

 

 

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David Vognar

Peter, you were a year off. It was 2019 when the threat of political violence was highest. And I fended them off. What we have hear is a psychic release valve, a mass patho/psychogenic illness related to mass panic. It’s is an echo of what would have happened in 2019. Those who read/watch/panic the most about coronavirus aggravate their immune systems to be overactive in their response to the virus, which by all accounts is novel and thus provokes a novel immune response. Some psychophysically react with panic and have worse outcomes.

Ryan

It’s hard to see how the economic damage caused by this pandemic won’t lead to increased conflict around the world. I think we should be looking to the Great Depression in the 1930’s for parallels, as this will likely make the 2008 financial collapse look like a simple market correction.

Key questions-

1) How long until we have an *effective* vaccine? Keep in mind, the CDC lists the effectiveness of the seasonal flu vaccine and it typically ranges from 20-50% in any given year. Obviously the mutation rate of Covid-19 will have a significant effect on this number. And remember, it could mutate into a more or less deadly form, further complicating vaccine effectiveness.

2) How long does a recovered patient’s antibody response confer immunity? Reportedly, 2003 SARS immunity lasted 2-3 years. There seems to be a large amount of variability and overall lack of knowledge regarding this topic.

MERS-CoV has been around since 2012, and we still have no vaccine. Granted, there has been nowhere near the level of priority for developing that vaccine as we currently have for Covid-19.

Decent article here:
https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/03/20/819038431/do-you-get-immunity-after-recovering-from-a-case-of-coronavirus

“Almost everybody walking around, if you were to test their blood right now, they would have some levels of antibody to the four different coronaviruses that are known,” says Ann Falsey of the University of Rochester Medical Center.

After infection with one of these viruses, she says, antibodies are produced but then the levels slowly decline and people become susceptible again.

“Most respiratory viruses only give you a period of relative protection. I’m talking about a year or two. That’s what we know about the seasonal coronaviruses,” says Falsey.”

That doesn’t exactly lend itself to an optimistic outlook. I don’t know how well the modern economy can tolerate stop and start lockdowns, but judging by the high level of fragility across modern systems, I’m going to say, not very well.

Ryan

Here’s an interesting article regarding the potential timetable and efficacy of a vaccine, it’s more optimistic than my speculations… author trained in Virology, says coronaviruses mutate more slowly than influenza, asserts that effective vaccine should be doable within 12 months.

I’ll assume this expert knows what he’s talking about, despite the number of other credentialed “experts” I have seen speak total bullshit (Fauci’s prediction in February that the risk to America was “very, very minor”).

https://www.city-journal.org/coronavirus-vaccine

Ryan

The same author wrote an article a week before saying “It will probably take at least 18 months…”

https://www.city-journal.org/covid-19-our-attitude-toward-vaccines

Wonder what made him change his mind in a week.

Here was the quote from the more recent piece: “We’re now inventing new vaccines from scratch and could plausibly go from nothing to a marketed vaccine in about a year.”

Vladimir Dinets

That’s true, coronaviruses don’t generate long-term immunity. MERS and SARS immunity lasts 1-3 years, for other coronaviruses it’s just a few months. There is still no vaccine for SARS, the new MERS vaccine might only offer protection for 1-3 years, and I think it will be the same with COVID-19. I wouldn’t pin too much hope on herd immunity, either. What I think might happen is that the virus will keep circulating and everybody will simply have to get used to increased mortality and shorter life expectancy. Eventually highly susceptible people will die off and severe cases will become rare, but that will take a long time.

J. Daniel

Just another dip in life expectancy to reinforce the trend of shorter lifespans during discordant periods of the cycle.

Ross Hartshorn

Interesting! I can think of several other factors that make our current wave of pandemics likely to be more frequent:
1) higher total population (more humans for a new virus to start in)
2) higher percentage of the population in cities than ever before
3) higher percentage of the population that is elderly (not all viruses hit the oldest the hardest, but most do, the 1918 flupandemic being a prominent exception)
4) higher percentage of the population with weakened immune systems, simply because such people died earlier in the past
5) air travel moves them around the planet faster than cruise ships

But, another factor that occurs to me is, we can detect them better. In 1600 or even 1900, I’m not sure that the Covid-19 pandemic would even have been recognized as a new disease. Even in the mid-20th century it likely would have been mistaken for a bad flu. So, in addition to the biological effects of disease, the psychological (and hence economic and political) effects might be amplified by the fact that the public is made aware of new, lethal diseases more frequently than ever before.

Interesting stuff!

Peter van den Engel

Of course macro effects are very interesting but somtimes looking at micro causes as well.
This virus just as aids sprang from eating meat caught in the wild, which somehow got popular with elites in the west, or was a basic necessity in getting food for local people.
Aids came from eating chimpansee and corona from eating bat. Bats are around in a variety of a 1000 species as a mamal, where in total there are 5000 mamal species, so it represents 20% of the whole and offers a welcome base for virusses, because of the spread (source Bret Weinstein).

The conflict is people living in very different domesticated environments are not used to these micro organisms and get sick. A local tribe in the Amazon hunting monkey would not.
So it depends on a very silly habbit which like the butterfly effect has enormous consequences.

It happens a group of scientists working at the bio lab in Wuhan China published a paper about the risks of bat and virusses only weaks before the outbrake… which happened on a wet market (market selling wild meat, like in soup) in Wuhan.

Loren Petrich

Here in the United States, what to do about the virus has been caught up in the culture wars. Many Democratic politicians have been more willing to shut down large gatherings and make people stay home than many Republican ones. Trump and the virus – that will likely make future generations assess him as the worst US President ever.

All this talk of “reopening the economy” makes me sick – it won’t succeed with healthcare systems getting overloaded and a lot more people dying.

J. Daniel

Interesting graph showing the pandemic index over time. But it ends circa 1950. What has the index done since then? It should also be mentioned that COVID-19 is nowhere near as lethal as these earlier pandemics. Other coronovirus diseases are either mild cold-like illnesses, or are SARS and MERS which are very lethal but were controlled and thus did not become pandemics, and now COVID-19 which is not that lethal. However if a SARS- or MERS-like coronavirus also had the transmissibility of COVID-19 that would affect the world order enough to make the COVID-19 responses hardly even worth mentioning to future historians. That may happen.
It would also be interesting to consider how COVID-19 will impact the course and schedule of the current age of discord. This pandemic seems to be causing destruction of a lot of wealth now, and the governmental relief expenditures will need to be paid back, one way or another, later. In dollar terms, that has to affect the elite significantly if only because the masses don’t have that much money to lose (they can “pay” with being unable to make ends meet, but that won’t help the elites prevent themselves from losing money). And that can only lead to more intra-elite conflict. So one might predict a hastening of the cycle.

Makerbot

Let’s speculate a bit further. Let us divide the US elites into those affiliated with the new, upstart information economic sector, the old industrial sector, and the traditional agricultural sector. The industrial sector – the most powerful sector of the late 20th century – is taking it on the chin. Imports of manufactured goods are high, with COVID-19 people can’t/aren’t buying as much, and workers can’t work from home. In the information sector, services are relatively unimpeded by recent events. The agricultural sector? Relatively small perhaps but people still have to eat, and rural agricultural states are way over-represented in the government. I’d have to conclude (admittedly by armchair reasoning alone) that industrial interests in the US are experiencing the most heartburn. Trimming of the elites due to COVID-19-related wealth destruction will affect industrial interests the most.

asparagus

Comparing the present episode with previous ones is misleading: there is no impact on demography despite the hysterical press reporting. Disaster capitalism is a good name for what we are about to see in the US. But today’s plague is a pretext that will be creatively exploited as it is already happening in the ex-Eastern block. Neoliberalism has run its course and the elites are tempted by a Chinese model of state capitalism.

ROBERT SYKES

“…rural agricultural states are way over-represented in the government.”

I suppose that is a lament that the US does not have a pure democracy. Of course, that would only be possible if there were only a single ethnic group across the whole continent, and one which agreed on all the basis issues and religious ideas. Once the Germans came in that was over.

When the Constitutional Convention met to devise a replacement for the Articles of Confederation, the smaller states made it clear that they would not join a new, more highly centralized government unless there were specific protections against domination by the big states, then Massachusetts and Virginia. The compromise included equal representation in the Senate (originally appointed by state legislatures, and still the best idea), the Electoral College, and the Bill of Rights. Later, Chief Justice Marshall arrogated/usurped the right of the Supreme Court to adjudicate the Constitutionality of Congressional acts, and Congress acquiesced, even though the Constitution does not grant the Court that power.

The Founding Fathers were anti-democratic, because they feared mob rule. So the original Constitution has all those anti-democratic features.

And the fears of domination by a few large states were/are well-founded. If California’s vote is removed from the 2016 Presidential election, Trump wins the popular vote. If New York’s vote is also removed, Trump wins the popular vote by a substantial margin. By what right should one or two States rule the rest? Especially one or two States notorious for their lunatic governments.

Vladimir Dinets

The larger states pay most of the taxes; the smallest states are largely parasitic, with economies based on subsidies and huge percentage of the population living on foodstamps and faked-disability payments. The Electoral College in its present form is basically affirmative action for white trash; it should have been abolished decades ago.

Vladimir Dinets

As for lunatic governments, with an occasional exception of Illinois all recent lunatic governments have been, and still are, in red states. Just compare the coronavirus responses in California and New York vs. Florida, Texas, Louisiana etc.

Loren Petrich

Robert Sykes, that is a VERY dangerous game to play. If one omits Texas, then Hillary Clinton would have had even more of the popular vote. If one omits the entire ex-Confederacy, then Hillary Clinton would have won both the popular vote and the electoral vote.

It’s people that count, not states. Alexander Hamilton proposed in Federalist Paper 68 that the Electoral College would be a search committee of political experts that would be able to resist demagogues and foreign meddling. The EC quickly turned into a rubber-stamp body, and with Trump’s election, its failure became complete.

I like what his namesake Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said about it – that it’s “bogus”, a “scam”, and electoral “affirmative action”. Without any hint as to what makes its recipients so deserving. They are rural, but only some rural people get this boost. Rural people in states with big cities are disenfranchised by the EC. What makes a farmer in Kansas or Nebraska much more worthy of representation than a farmer in California or New York?

Loren Petrich

It’s rare to see anyone in public office take a long view, but here is one:
https://twitter.com/justicedems/status/1242055479380996097
“What Coronavirus has done is pour gasoline on every slow-rolling crisis that we’ve been experiencing in the United States and set it on fire for everyone all at once.” -@AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, US Rep. D-NY-14)

She then described a big problem with employer-provided medical insurance: one loses it if one loses one’s job. This is becoming a big problem because a large number of people are losing their jobs.

Vic K

Loren Petrich

“that is a VERY dangerous game to play”

And isn’t that what an “age of discord” is all about?

“What makes a farmer in Kansas or Nebraska much more worthy of representation than a farmer in California or New York?”

Well, ultimately political power grows out of the barrel of the gun… presumably the nebraskan farmer will become more inclined to political violence if you reduce his power? Who knows… It might be a dangerous game to play.

Vladimir Dinets

Under this logic Alaska should have the largest representation because it has the highest gun ownership. But you have to keep in mind that people in blue states are generally better off than those in red states, so they can gun up faster and better if it comes to that.

Vic K

“Under this logic Alaska should have the largest representation because it has the highest gun ownership.”

Perhaps Alaska is special in some ways? Geographically, historically, something like that?

“But you have to keep in mind that people in blue states are generally better off than those in red states, so they can gun up faster and better if it comes to that.”

Maybe. Hopefully we’ll see that, I’m curious myself.

Vladimir Dinets

The reason Alaska has such high gun ownership is that it has more wildlife to hunt. You think it qualifies them to have more representation?

Vineyard

A bit late into this discussion:

I’m not focusing o nthe Virus in general, since imo. it only accelerates what was going to come i nthe first place.

In terms of what’s next, well:

– About three years ago, Peter gave an interview to an Austrian Newspaper calling for this potential scenario, if Trump loses the 2020 election:

(translation done with DeepL)

” It’s hard to say what exactly will happen, but if you draw historical analogies, it’s likely that the next time the election outcome will not be accepted by the losers and that violent means may be used to assert themselves. Imagine: Trump loses and his followers march on Washington. Many of them are armed, which is a specific feature of the United States. That would be very dangerous. This is, of course, only one possible scenario.”

– As for if Trump wins, I lately stumbled on anothe rpotenial scenario:

https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/4/9/1935371/-Newsom-Hints-at-California-Independence

What if some (blue) states,say: “Fuck this riggered game, we’re out.”?

Yes, it sounds like a bit of a stretch. But who would have thought that a thing like Brexit could happen a decade ago.

And heck, the last Civil War in the US happend, when some States said “Fuck this shit, we’re out”.. but only for another reason…

Mark Lytle

When I see the animus on this site towards Red States, it’s easy to see why they tend to be armed.

Loren Petrich

As if red-staters are innocent victims in all of this.

Vladimir Dinets

Mark, you are right. The reason people in red states are gun-crazed is that all of them read this blog and it triggers them all the time. If only we could persuade Peter to embrace Trump and fascist values in general, the problem of gun violence in the US would fade away faster than coronavirus in a nuclear reactor.

Mark Lytle

Part of the reason that large states and blue states tend to do better is NOT because the people there don’t have a work ethic.

Much of it is due to the benefits of being on a coast involving international trade, and a lot of it is due to having the Federal Government bless these areas with LOTS of Government contracts.

Federal Contracts are payed out of tax dollars from EVERYONE in the country, and deficit spending.

The more rural states simply don’t have as much of that man made redistributed business sunshine raining down on them.

https://gsa.federalschedules.com/resources/most-profitable-states-for-government-contractors/

Wiser

As a group red states get more tax dollars than they pay, while blue states get less.

Mark Lytle

Logical outcome. If you send all the business to the red states, then the blue states require aid.

That’s the point.

Sergio

Your right, the virus was a economic reset but China’s lockdown decision was well played. Demonstrating, Fist wave effective virus control Countries were forced to follow. Understanding the WTO warning against the global business lock down. So then what? In the neoliberal global competition Countries tried be the business running. Which lead to high rates of infections. Why did Government choose this method? Issues with population, wage insecurity, food insecurity, and increased mass fear allowing motivated state control expectance. Then pushing of Industries with strong lobbying to make their way to the front of the line for “bailouts”. In Alberta Jason Kenny fired teachers, decreased Doctors wages and have 1.7 billion to Big Oil. This is what most interpret as “Disaster Capitalism”. So then what happens what is the prediction? Major industrial “bailouts” will occur. Cuts to Health Care, Education, and Climate are realized as a “must”. But then the 2nd wave hits of the virus. Now all business are in panic mode full lock down happens. This time business crash for real. Mass Depression hits society and the peak is unmeasurable because modeling doesn’t understand the effects of the government cuts have of the population. China raises again with the Virus at bay but promotes Cuba as model of Social stability over economic prosperity through health care as the leader in the world. Universal Health Care becomes the new currency for Global stability and the markets will adjust. The age of “Safer is better” emerges as the new economic power house. Personal, Business, Climate, combines together for a new health society and Education adapts to the new lessons learnt. Banks change their risk protocols to mirror global health for market stability.

Sergio

If no vaccine.

The Corona19 virus was a economic reset but China’s lockdown decision was well played. Demonstrating, First wave effective virus control Countries were forced to follow. Understanding the WTO warning against the global business lock downs. So then what? In the Neoliberal Global competition Countries tried be the last business running for economic success. Which lead to high rates of infections. Why did Government choose this method? Issues with population, wage insecurity, food insecurity, and increased mass fear allowing motivated state control expectance. With the new Emergency Government in place the pushing of Industries with strong lobbyist make their way to the front of the line for “bailouts”. In Alberta Jason Kenny fired teachers, decreased Doctors wages and gave 1.7 billion to “Big Oil”. This is what most interpret as “Disaster Capitalism”. So then what happens? What is the prediction for these policies? Major industrial “bailouts” will occur. Cuts to Health Care, Education, and Climate are realized as a “must” to control inflation. But then the 2nd of 3rd wave hits of the virus reaching higher peaks. Now all business are in panic mode full lock down happens. This time business crash for real. Mass Depression hits society and the peak is unmeasurable because modeling doesn’t understand the effects of the government cuts have of the population. The causation of mass Desperation in mental health. China raises again with the Virus at bay but promotes Cuba as model of Social stability over economic prosperity through health care as the leader in the World. Universal Health Care becomes the new currency for Global stability and the markets will adjust. The age of “Safer is better” emerges as the new economic power house. Personal, Business, Climate, combines together for a new health society and Education adapts to the new lessons are learnt. Banks change their risk protocols to mirror Global health for market stability.

If the US has a vaccine for the evolving form of covid. Then the US will become the most crucial Empire the the Earth has ever witnessed. Climate Emergency will be sped up and Global disparities will rise beyond all models.

Loren Petrich

The US is clearly in a disintegrative phase when we see stuff like this:

Washington, Oregon and California announce Western States Pact | Governor Jay Inslee
https://www.governor.wa.gov/news-media/washington-oregon-and-california-announce-western-states-pact
WA, OR, CA – the west-coast states

Pennsylvania One Of Seven States To Work Together On COVID-19 Plans For Reopening | WPSU
https://radio.wpsu.org/post/pennsylvania-one-seven-states-work-together-covid-19-plans-reopening
MA, RI, CT, NY, NJ, PA, DE – some northeastern states

Mark Lytle

Probably right.

We were designed from the beginning to be decentralized.

We all know that empires often do disintegrate when they reach the end of their profitable period.

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