Does History Cycle?



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In the Economist’s World in 2013 issue there is an article, The Cycle of History (thanks to John McGonagle for bringing it to my attention). The author, Max Rodenbeck, discusses the recent events of the Arab Spring from the point of view of Ibn Khaldun’s theory. Ibn Khaldun, as many of my readers know, was concerned with understanding the waxings and wanings of collective solidarity, or asabiya. Among other things he made an observation that the dynamics of asabiya tend to move in cycles.


His theory was formulated by observing historical dynamics in his native Maghreb (North Africa west of Egypt). The cycle begins when Bedouins, who have a lot of asabiya, erupt from the desert and establish a new ruling dynasty in the coastal area with cities and other trappings of civilization. The dynasty lasts for about four generations, but eventually it loses asabiya and becomes corrupt. At this point, a new group of Bedouins erupts from the desert and establishes the next ruling dynasty. And so on.

Max Rodenbeck uses this theory in an attempt to understand what goes on in the Arab world:

The recently toppled regimes of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya were not, strictly speaking, dynasties. Yet the autocratic shape of those states (and in fact of nearly all the 22 member-countries of the Arab League) did take form around three generations ago when most Arab countries gained independence and when wealth from oil began to accrue for many. Egypt, the most populous Arab state, served as a model: the army officers who grabbed control in a 1952 coup established an autocratic regime, in effect a dynasty of fellow soldiers, that survived until 2011.

And this is where he, according to my book, goes wrong. It may come as a surprise to some of my readers, but actually I don’t think history moves in cycles, at least in the sense that is illustrated in the above quote. The common understanding of a cycle is that there is some kind of timing mechanism that ticks and ticks, and then boom! it rings the bell and the show is over.

But that is not how cycles (or better, oscillations, but my editors told me not to use this word too much) work in dynamical systems. The reason you have ups and downs in dynamical systems is that there are internal feedback loops, not because there is some exogenous pace-setter.


For example, in a predator-prey cycle, such as mice and weasels or hares and lynx, the reason why populations go through periodic booms and busts has nothing to do with any external clocks. As mice become abundant, weasels breed like crazy and multiply. Then they eat down most of the mice and starve to death themselves, at which point the few surviving mice begin breeding like crazy and the cycle repeats. So if your really want to know when the mouse population will start collapsing, you want not to keep track of time (how long ago the last outbreak was), but you want to know how many weasels there already are. If a lot, then the collapse is imminent. If a few, it will be some time before they increase to the point where they will start slaughtering the mice.

The same principle applies to revolutions in human societies. It is not particularly helpful to keep track of how long has it been since the previous time of troubles. You want to know what structural variables are doing. What is the state of that hidden variable, which is part of the feedback loop that will bring about the collapse – e.g., what is weasel density? (Don’t take this too literally, I am not saying that human revolutions are a result of predator-prey dynamics.)

This also means that in order to understand the fragility, or otherwise, of any particular social system we need to know what the hidden variables are, and they will vary from system to system. For example, I have argued that Ibn Khaldun’s cycles are driven by the generic process of elite overproduction. But if in monogamous societies elites grow in numbers relatively slowly, in Islamic societies with widespread polygamy among the elites, this problem can develop much faster. This is why Ibn Khaldun cycles in Islamic societies are much faster – a century or less, compared to structural-demographic  cycles in Christian societies that were two-three centuries in duration (this theory has been proposed in my book Historical Dynamics).

The present-day society that approaches the Ibn Khaldun’s ideal the closest is Saudi Arabia. Some years ago I even published a paper on it. The main worry for the Saudi regime should be the  exploding numbers of the descendants of Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, the founder of the Saudi dynasty. Basically, when their numbers multiplied by their appetites (the annual allowances that they require) exceeds the oil revenues minus the funds needed to keep Saudi commoners content, the dynasty will fall.
saudi_princesBut situation in Egypt is quite different. In principle, “a dynasty of fellow soldiers” could go on indefinitely, especially if they prevent their children from becoming part of the elites, instead recruiting new soldiers elsewhere. This was the social arrangements that stopped Ibn Khaldun’s cycles in Egypt for three centuries. I am referring to the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt (1250-1517), which was a highly stable regime. The Mamluks, who were the militarized elite that ruled Egypt, were recruited by buying Kipchaqs, Circassians, etc from slave markets. The sons of Mamluks couldn’t become Mamluks. So the elite numbers were regulated by how many military slaves were purchased on the market. There was no problem of elite overproduction, and the Mamluk regime was extremely stable to internal perturbations (it even weathered the disaster of the Black Death in 1346 that killed off more than half of the Egyptian population). Their power was only broken by an overwhelming external force (the Ottoman Turks).

Returning to the modern Egypt, the dynamic that led to the revolution last year had nothing to do with the military, and everything with the rest of the society. The Egyptian government encouraged and funded higher education, but the economy could not provide jobs for all recent graduates. Between 1995 and 2010 the proportion of young people with college degrees increased from less than 2 percent to 10 percent. The unemployment rate for college-educated was much worse than for the rest of the population. This was elite overproduction in spades, and the rest is history.

To conclude, cycles in history are not clocks, but feedback loops. This is why you cannot expect strict periodicity. There is a whole lot of reasons that could advance or delay the action of the feedback loop, and so there could be no strict mathematical cycles in the dynamics of human societies. Whenever you see somebody who ‘proves’ that human history moves in rigidly fixed cycles, you may safely dismiss it as pseudoscience.

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Gene Anderson

Actually, Ibn K brilliantly anticipated the resilience cycle now a huge (and overblown) fad in ecology, thanks to C. S. Hollings et al. Khaldun did a better job, coupling individual agency with macro-processes; Hollings can’t get out of the macro level and thus can be accused of mysticism. Ibn K works perfectly for the US (1776, 1861, 1932, 2012), China (trust me–I have a whole essay on this somewhere), and plenty of other places. it isn’t a clock ticking–China’s IK cycles varied from a generation to several generations. But it does happen. Asabiyah weakens, venality takes over, the poor get screwed, while–as you say–the rich multiply, the rich get out of touch with the poor, and the system collapses. Just like a Hollings ecosystem.

Peter Turchin

Can you dig up that article of yours? (On China). Sounds very ineresting!

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