It Ain’t Over, Folks

Peter Turchin


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Judging by the tone of discussions in the mass media and the social media, most people are heartily sick of this “Election from Hell” and can’t wait until it’s over. Well, folks, I have bad news for you (and yes, I know what happens to a bearer of bad news): It Ain’t Over. Whoever gets elected tomorrow, we are guaranteed to see more political dysfunction and social instability both in the short and medium terms.

The chances of impeachment proceedings (to repeat, whoever wins the presidency) in 2017 are very high. The relations between the POTUS and the Congress are likely to deteriorate even more. Proxies for political fragmentation, which I use in Ages of Discord, such as the frequency of filibusters and the percent of judicial nominations who are not confirmed; all will probably continue to spike. Incidentally, when are we going to have a nine-member Supreme Court again?

In the medium run neither of the candidates has a good program that could even start addressing the deep structural causes of our current troubles. As I said many times, this blog is fiercely nonpartisan. I have not endorsed, nor dis-endorsed, either of the candidates. But even their supporters admit that both major candidates are flawed, each in his/her own way. The presidential campaign of 2016 has been relentlessly negative. I don’t even remember any substantive discussion of how the current trends to popular immiseration are going to be reversed. And, of course, nobody is discussing elite overproduction. Well, very few people understand how serious a problem it is.

Yet elite overproduction has a lot to do with why we find ourselves in this Election from Hell. In Ages of Discord I discuss two proxies for current elite overproduction: overproduction of multi-millionaires, and overproduction of politically ambitious holders of advanced degrees, most importantly, law degrees (because a law degree is the best kind of credential to have if you want to become a politician).



As I pointed out in a previous post, Donald Trump is emblematic of the new crop of politically ambitious newly rich, who aim to translate their economic power into political office. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is emblematic of the Law School route to political office. As the number of multimillionaires and law degree holders per population capita exploded in recent decades, we now have an overly large pool of contenders for a fixed number of political offices (there is only one POTUS, only nine high justices, 100 senators, etc.). Structural-demographic theory posits that as competition for these offices becomes intense, so will intraelite fragmentation and conflict.

This is, really, why this election has been so nasty. It’s not just the personalities of Trump or Clinton. As intraelite competition becomes fierce, all methods of getting ahead become fair. Why should we expect that presidential candidates would compete on who proposes a better program to fix social ills? Smearing the opponent works much better.



What’s particularly worrying is how this no-holds-barred competition results in the unraveling of the social norms that govern the public discourse and the  political system in this country. Trump has refused to conform to one of the most important norms of democracy: to acquiesce to the election results. But (to be nonpartisan and even-handed in my critique of the two candidates), what was Clinton thinking about when she accepted a $1 million contribution from a foreign government during her tenure as Secretary of State?

Both candidates have been riding rough-shod over the social norms that have governed what is acceptable behavior of a member of the American political class. Such unraveling of social norms is what we see in the run-up to a major political rupture in historical societies that my colleagues and I have studied.


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Stephen Greenleaf

I’ve not yet read Ages of Discard (but I certainly will), and I agree that the current dysfunction will continue regardless of who wins. But I have to reject the idea that Sec. Clinton’s transgressions are anywhere near the magnitude of those of Mr. Trump. And more significantly, focusing on elite overproduction seems the wrong focus; without the tumult from below, the fight between the candidates would not have been so degrading. Past demagogues, like Coughlin, McCarthy, and Wallace, were not “elites” in any meaningful sense of the term, but each channeled popular fear and discontent. Given how many Republican elites (Kristol, Will, Brooks, Frum, Bartlett, Wehner, Powell, Rice, etc.) defected from the Republican standard bearer, suggests to me that (some) elites are willing to tone-down the fight, but the core of Republican voters don’t want this. Elites have made some serious mistakes & miscalculations, but they are not the greatest cause for worry that we should have.

Loren Petrich

I agree about Clinton vs. Trump. I also note that the Republicans have been much more nasty than the Democrats in recent years. Like doing a lot of gerrymandering, though Democrats have done some of that also, like in Maryland and Illinois. When Democrats filibustered in GWB’s Presidency, the Republicans threatened the “nuclear option” against them. But when Republicans filibustered more recently, the Democrats were totally meek about it until late in Obama’s Presidency, and even then, it wasn’t a full-scale “nuclear option”. Though Obama seemed obsessed with making deals with the Republicans, some Republican leaders pledged to make Obama a one-term President by obstructionism. They even turned against Romneycare when it became Obamacare.

Donald Trump appeals to people with strong authoritarian tendencies, unlike Hillary Clinton. At least as measured with four questions about parenting.

Since Donald Trump has gone on record as saying that he may not accept defeat, today might not be the end of the current War of the American Succession.


“But I have to reject the idea that Sec. Clinton’s transgressions are anywhere near the magnitude of those of Mr. Trump.”

lol. Of course you don’t. No doubt it’s useless to counter with Ms. Clinton’s decades of graft, poor decisions while in office, and general batshit craziness (read any first person account by White House staff).

Most of this is an emotional attachment with a tiny scaffold of logic to justify the allegiance. Now that the country lacks a strong central philosophical core, and we live in an age of irony and dislike towards tradition, the ‘deplorables’ represent potential energy for someone. It may well be that the plebs polish up their belief system a bit and produce a strong counter and control infrastructure to oppose the current ruling elite, although I’d say that most peasant revolts end badly.

This election has been interesting in the amount of fervor that the idea of Trump has brought up. If not him, some other Gracchus might well emerge. I can’t say if this situation has legs, but it might.

In the end, the two sides seem well matched. Most people appear to automatically know where their loyalties lie and is spoiling for a fight of some sort. It’s such a deep-seated need that I really wonder what the biology of that system might be.

Jan Musschoot

Peter, your model describes political polarization of past election cycles well. However, a number of prominent Republicans, including both former presidents Bush, have declined to support the nominee of their own party in 2016.

To me, the fact that high ranking Republicans would rather vote for the Democratic candidate indicates that a bipartisan elite feels threatened by the political outsider Trump.

I have made the analogy with the Duke of Orléans, who supported Enlightenment ideas fundamentally at odds with the interests of his own class. Similarly, billionaire Trump rails against “globalism”, the de facto ideology of Washington. He does this while the rich in America have thrived economically over the past two generations (as shown by rising income inequality). Trump leads a “peasant revolt” of “deplorables” whose voice wasn’t heard in politics.

The current situation is unlike elite infighting that disregards non-elites (e.g. past Democrat-Republican polarization or like civil wars between nobles, e.g. the Wars of the Roses) and is also different from non-elites rising up against the nobility without elite support (like the Jacquerie).

My attempt to classify these distinct scenarios (with some further examples) can be found at


“To me, the fact that high ranking Republicans would rather vote for the Democratic candidate indicates that a bipartisan elite feels threatened by the political outsider Trump.”

Absolutely. The lines between sides are being redrawn, perhaps permanently. Whether the glue that binds the deplorables is ethnonationalism, religion, or some sort of ‘Americanism’ remains to be seen.

I liked your blog post, although I tend to mine the Roman Empire for history-by-analogy a bit more. Government by a coalition of mafias is a good general model and is perhaps the logical endgame for any representative democracy, especially an increasingly diverse one.


“Nichol, I’ve written before that we cannot simply mine history for modern analogies.”

It seems to me unavoidable, to some extent, if you hope to backtest your theories. The main value I can see in historical analogy is not so much it’s predictive power, but it’s explanatory one. We all use the vocabulary of history to explain situations. Something like (for example) the term ‘representative democracy’ is not defined from the ground up, but by examining those places that claim to have such a thing in operation.

OTOH, on our walk yesterday, my wife and I were thinking about raw data approaches to defining civilization level by skeleton studies and were having a contest to come up with the most obscure concept. No doubt the presence of shoe wearing can be detected, but can the bone guys see the presence of pavement (or smooth walking surfaces of any kind) in human remains? My favorite was observing jaw development and the use of eating utensils over time (which my spouse claims can be detected).


Indeed, Bershidsky noted that the current situation of the US would be better handled in a parliamentary system. In that setup, the Clintonites (30%), Sandernistas (20%), and traditional Republicans (5%) may be able to form an uneasy coalition government to keep the Trumpers (30%) from power. Also the white Evangelicals (15%).

Vladimir Dinets

Switching from 2-party to multi-party system is long overdue, but is impossible without runoff elections, and that would require changing the Constitution. Without runoff elections, all attempts to introduce third parties result in Nader effect and nothing else.

Loren Petrich

There is something called Duverger’s Law which states that the voting system determines the party composition. First past the post or plurality voting produces a two-party system, and proportional representation produces a multiparty system. A two-ballot system or runoff elections produces an intermediate sort of system.

As to doing proportional representation, one does not need a Constitutional amendment to do it in the House of Representatives in state-by-state fashion. One would need such an amendment to do nation-scale PR, however. PR requires multimember distrcts, and they make gerrymandering much more difficult than with single-member districts.

As to the Electoral College, it is an anachronism that has departed a long way from its intended function. It’s why Presidential candidates campaign in “swing states” rather than reliably pro-Democratic or pro-Republican ones. There is an effort called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact — — where participating states will give their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. It’s now got about half of the number of electoral votes needed to trigger it.

But ideally, one would want runoffs or preference voting to elect the President.


No, Maine just passed a referendum that enacts instant-runoff voting. The U.S. Constitution seems to decree a winner-take-all voting process for the electoral college when it assembles, but beyond that, I’m not aware of it describing any specific vote counting scheme.


Indeed, in the distant past, various states has multi-member house districts.

Senate seats would have to be winner-take-all, though (unless they were appointed by state legislatures again, and those state legislatures were not winner-take-all).

Anthony Maritato

I think in the last sentence you meant political rupture not “political rapture”

Anthony Maritato

But haven’t “the new crop of politically ambitious newly rich” aligned themselves mostly with the Democrats, i.e., the Silicon Valley elites, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.


“But haven’t “the new crop of politically ambitious newly rich” aligned themselves mostly with the Democrats, i.e., the Silicon Valley elites, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.”

Yes, but it’s interesting to consider why that is.

Keep in mind that ‘Silicon Valley elites’ is now companies made up of selling software and/or internet advertising (Apple excepted) rather than the former denizens (chip manufacturing and defense contractors). It *is* surprising how the new Masters of the Universe have made their fortunes by, largely, selling advertising space. Go figure.

Political belief systems, to the extent that they follow the source of fortunes, appear to be based on industry. Financial (especially the flavor that feeds off government money policy), entertainment/news, education, legal…the political left. Resource extraction, heavy manufacturing, agriculture…the traditional political right. This has exceptions of course, but I can’t help but wonder if working with symbols for a living, as opposed to the physical world, selects for philosophy.

Working with the physical world appears to be on the wrong side of history for now, as the tremendous wonders of the information economy enfold us, but that could certainly change over time.


Good call. People take the matter of which end you break a boiled egg quite seriously.

I’ll make sure and check out your taxonomy on the breaking up of US political parties, although darned if I can see a controlling elite at the head of the deplorables. On the other hand, as potential energy for a movement they are tailor-made.


Trump, Giuliani, and Gingrich most definitely are elites. Don’t know what else you would call them.

They’re certainly not part of the peasantry.


“Trump, Giuliani, and Gingrich most definitely are elites.”

As can Thiel, but I can’t see a handful of individuals as an elite.

Our good host here might disagree with me here, and we should use his definition in this context, but I don’t think of elites as a handful of people. I think of it as a complete command and control structure with political/business/financial oomph. A mafia crime organization is an elite, depending on it’s importance, but a successful bank robber is not.



It’s more than a handful of individuals. Trump was born in to wealth and all his friends are rich and powerful people from rich and powerful families. None of them are part of the peasantry. And Trump famously rewards loyalty (and punishes disloyalty); just like the Mafia. Now that he is President, he has a ready-made command-and-control structure which he will use to reward his ultra-rich friends and family like Mnuchin, Bannon, Kushner, Thiel, etc.and punish his enemies.

We have seen from his life history that Trump is a con man. And somehow, he has conned gullible saps who want to “drain the swamp” in to giving him an awesome amount of power despite that fact that he has been shady and unethical in his dealings his whole life (and has been far more opaque than any Presidential candidate in decades). What gives you confidence that he would not install a Mafia organization in charge of the US government and engage in corruption so massive that it would make the Communists leaders of China jealous?

Stephen Greenleaf

Now, about that avatar . . . .

Rich Howard

Loved your book and really appreciate solid modeling of social history.
You’re model shows there must be a rebalance of opportunities and elites to return to a healthy society. This is a scary finding. How can we avoid a modern civil conflict? It’s obvious to anyone we’ve been on a path to just that for over 50 years. Tell me why it can’t or won’t happen this time… please.


Why do you think the GOP dominated Congress whould try to impeach Trump aka. their own president?

I understand the argument, if Clinton would have won, but otherwise…

Ross Hartshorn

It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine a Republican Congress trying to impeach Trump, but then he got into a pretty public spat with the Speaker of the House, and said nasty things about Cruz and Rubio (two Senators), so it’s not totally out of the question.

I think the real question will be how well Trump’s (I think empirically demonstrated) skill as a salesman will enable him to work his will on a recalcitrant Congress that wants to preserve the pro-globalization status quo. Assuming that he even wants to.


Hope not.

Hard to have authoritarian rule without a unified party.

But GOP leaders who actually have power have shown a disturbing lack of spine so far.


“I don’t think we can assume there is a unitary Republican Party any more.”

There have always been factions, but my underlying assumption is that it hasn’t existed (for either party) since the mass marketing of Presidential candidates began in earnest. Consider the way that party nominees were chosen 100 years ago and compare to the modern era. Given regional, ethnic, economic differences between masses of voters, I’d say that a lot of the unity is illusory.

The Democrats are a more pure play in non-monolithic politics as they definitely appear to be a coalition of more diverse special interest groups.

The pivoting (or repivoting) of both parties will be an interesting thing to watch. My own personal bet is tendency away from arguments on economics and the welfare state, and one towards increased grouping by feelings of belonging. Regional interests, ethnic and cultural binding, protection of or tearing down of Western culture, those will be the battlefields of the future. Whether existing elites run out in front of the pitchfork-wielding crowds or a largely new elite comes into existence isn’t clear to me. My guess is that Dr. Turchin would press for the notion of a pre-existing elite to run both (or all) sides, I’m not so sure.


Everyone who will be in the Trump administration will be an elite, so what are you unsure of?

And yes, I believe identity politics will be the main driving political force as well. Unfortunately, that also means corruption will be high, because if identity is strong enough, even a completely corrupt guy from your in-group is preferable to a more scrupulous leader from an out-group (and more so in a Trumpist GOP because they have one main group rather than a coalition of many smaller groups, as you accurately describe the Democrats).
This would lead to more frustration, but then common people will tend to turn on each other.


“Now that he is President, he has a ready-made command-and-control structure which he will use to reward his ultra-rich friends and family like Mnuchin, Bannon, Kushner, Thiel, etc.and punish his enemies.”

My main point of disagreement is that that’s a darned small group of people (with their staffs) to take on the huge and well-established opponents. I’m still waiting for something with real power to swing into place behind him.

You do have to admire the few that hung their hopes on Trump’s banner. Giuliani,etc., could just have easily committed utter and complete political suicide with this move. I wish them luck, it should make life more interesting if nothing else. Alea iacta est.


How does the President of the United States not have “real power”?


turchin comment

— I read your manuscript when you posted it. I will read the published book but this reaction is based on your ms

— in the ms you excluded homicides from incidents of sociopolitical instability which struck me as arbitrary since i think you include rage killings or what ever. Did you ever do a robustness check by including homicides in your index ?

— your metric for elite fragmentation is too narrowly political. if you simply go by the owners of capital, then they are now showing unprecedented unity. that’s why inequality is up in the 1st place: there’s more collusion, more monopoly, more mergers, less competition amongst firms. That’s not intra elite fragmentation and competition, that’s elite unity. there’s no elite fragmentation except amongst politicians who are mostly fighting over cultural issues, because the elites are largely agreed on the economics. they agree mostly on taxes, income redistribution, regulation, etc.

Anyway the proof will be your prediction for 2020. I’m sure nothing will happen. If anything the labour force participation will have risen from the combination of the recovery already under way and the massive fiscal stimulus which apparently Trump is expected to inject. Nobody except academics and intellectuals will be talking about inequality in 2020.

Rich Howard

“your metric for elite fragmentation is too narrowly political. if you simply go by the owners of capital, then they are now showing unprecedented unity.” Isn’t that proposing an even simpler metric?
Also isn’t the insight not just defining who is an elite, its that elites seem to need an outlet for action. This is what I’m thinking about right now. Does this connection really say you must either lower elite numbers (no matter how they are defined) or increase places to express. This sounds like a mechanism to me not just empirical observations.


“How does the President of the United States not have “real power””

Oh, don’t get me wrong, he does. I’m thinking more about defining the elite that is swinging into power….or will it just be organically formed over time. Chicken and egg. Does the ‘movement’ cause the elite or visa versa. No doubt some existing organizations (the military or intelligence services) may swing into line naturally.

What I think is lacking, at least in anything I’ve seen, is some way to define the power and cohesion of an elite group. By that, I mean applying some sort of metric to the organization, the rest is just hand waving.

It sounds like a problem well-suited to the guys who designed turn-based strategic board games (Dunnigan and the like). How do you assign, with some kind of rigor, cohesiveness and power values to a group of people? Stress on the system is less hard to quantify, coin hordes (or quality and debasement of currency), war, quality of pottery over time, but defining measurements for an elite strikes me as the crux of a problem here. (another one, is to avoid one’s own bias when building a model. Politics is essentially an emotional reaction and makes it hard to think clearly).


“your metric for elite fragmentation is too narrowly political. if you simply go by the owners of capital, then they are now showing unprecedented unity. that’s why inequality is up in the 1st place: there’s more collusion, more monopoly, more mergers, less competition amongst firms.”

100% agree.

There’s something of a perfect storm going on right now. Between globalization (and the natural tendency for manufacturing to metastasize in order to reduce cost), the currently allowed financialization and problem of large banks, and the natural monopolies encouraged by the internet (partly due to networking effect), the centralization of capital continues apace.

With Clinton as a creature of monopoly, I suppose that Trump might act as a sort of trust buster, but I doubt it happens. My guess is that there’s no political solution to centralization of ownership, it continues until the next interregnum.


Prof Turchin:

Seems like several people agree with you that Trump will be impeached:

What’s notable is that Michael Moore and Lichtman both also predicted that Trump would win the election (though in fairness, I found some of Lichtman’s criteria to be so subjective that they could be interpreted multiple ways and Moore also predicted that this is the last time we elect an American President; which I hope is not the case).

I can see it happen (and thus disagree with the New Republic). Most GOP leaders stuck by Trump like an abused wife with Stockholm Syndrome throughout the campaign because they were afraid of the Trumpists who now form the bulk of the GOP voting base, But it isn’t too hard to imagine Trump screwing up some many things so badly (the guy exhibited a ton of incompetence during the campaign and went bankrupt a bunch of times) that he loses the Evangelicals (especially after they get enough Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe vs. Wade) and his own anti-elite/racialist Trumpist core dwindles down (especially since many of them aren’t core conservatives or Republicans and in fact use to be Democrats) so much that the GOP leaders in Congress feel comfortable enough to impeach him.

Ross Hartshorn

Interesting quandary: do the Democrats want to see Trump impeached and replaced by Pence? They might, upon reflection, prefer to have President Trump to campaign against, rather than an orthodox Republican president with a majority in both houses. It would be awkward for them to oppose a Trump impeachment, but they might show a curious lack of enthusiasm once the opportunity presents itself.

Or, who knows maybe not. But Trump may show an Erdogan-like talent for switching who his supporters-vs-enemies are depending on the situation.

By the way, I’m curious if anyone has done a Structural-Demographic Theory analysis of Turkey/Ottoman Empire’s history. It would be interesting to see where they are in the cycle.

Somehow, I am also blanking out on where Dr. Turchin has said that Russia is in the integrative/disintegrative cycle per SDT. I’m sure he has, but somehow I can’t recall where.


Electorally, Democrats probably want to run against Pence.
They can win vs. a standard right-winger who holds social views far out of the mainstream.

The problem is that whenever Trump is backed in to a corner, he scapegoats and really turns on the nastiness. Expect ordinary citizens to suffer if Congress tries to impeach him.
So yes, Erdogan is a decent (and frightening) example. However, Erdogan had the benefit of massive economic growth. Trump? Doubtful.

Vladimir Dinets

If I remember correctly, Peter said in War and Peace and War that the future of Russia as an empire depended on its ability to prevent Chechnya’s independence 😉
Since the book was published, Russia subdued Chechnya militarily (at a great cost that included killing 10% of Chechnya’s population) and installed a puppet dictator. The dictator, however, increasingly looks like a puppet master rather than a puppet, the huge donations Russia has to pay increasingly look like tribute, and the only thing Russia gets in return is 100% of pro-Putin vote in Chechnya as local elections are totally fake.
Of course, the big question is whether maintaining Russia in its current imperial form is a good thing to begin with. I personally think disintegration is Russia’s only hope, but that’s a different topic.


Trump has spoken about term limits for congressmen. Would that make any difference?

Rich Howard

If elites really have to find a way to express their power, then they will move on to another avenue. And there are plenty. PACs anyone?
I still think the fundamental question is this: Is there really a behavior mechanism that demands we express power when we have it? Or is the elite hypothesis an indicator of other underlying mechanisms? That Peter has a great model with this elites being a major component no one can argue. But is it just “empirical luck” that it models our history so well?
Why does it matter? Because a behavioral mechanism of this sort is probably an modern expression of survival mechanisms learned through evolution. And evolution is a slow slow process.


An alternative to PACs as an elite mechanism in a term limit world is the increased movement of power to congressional staff. Even more than now, they would become the domain experts and power network within the community.

Weakening in the legislative branch also merely serves to strengthen the executive, all else staying equal. I’m not at all certain how to measure it, but it appears that the heavy hand of government is applied increasingly via regulation and executive orders with a teensy bit of Supreme Court action on the margin.

As government becomes increasingly Byzantine, I expect there’s a natural movement of power to congressional staff, lobbyists, and civil service in any case. No congressman, especially one concerned with election cycles, can hold much of this in his/her head.

Rich Howard

Bigger government for sure means more places to express need for power. But more places for elites to feel competitive pressure.
If we are up against an evolutionary adaptation to survival threats, then I don’t see any answer but elimination of the threat. Maybe, maybe we can eliminate the competitive pressure without violence but where are the examples from history? Maybe we are missing them because of the same survival bias blinds us to non violent methods.
Again, the elite hypothesis is biological, a violent correction may be the only future we are capable of.


The US faced the exact same situation in the original Gilded Age. Huge inequality, bitter partisanship, and lots of elites.
Pressure was released in the Great Compression with higher taxes on the wealthy, stronger unions, trust-busting to break up monopolies, protection of local businesses (and also imposing glass ceilings like the Ivy League Jewish quota and, even more disturbing, Jim Crow laws and lynching).


This business with riots has got me to thinkin’.

In the large scale, do warring elites always build a full spectrum of power projection? By that, I’m asking whether it’s possible to successfully acquire and hold power in a state without a top-to-bottom organization which includes street soldiers in the mix?

It appears that the political ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are shifting definitions, but I’ll stick to those terms for now.

Given that the political Left has a natural ability to field troops given that it contains the most volatile mix of constituents (urban dwellers + young + ethnic minorities), and that the military tends towards neutrality at this point, what is the counter move? Does internal security, such as the police, become whole subsumed into the Right, or is there a natural tendency to organically form assets in the street?

It could be that the group’s search for social cohesion, in an era when the general society is disintegrating, leads it to build a full and separate set of specialized roles. Media, financing, security, leadership, etc.


Uh, the Right in the US owns a ton more guns than the Left (and police and military are now decidedly right-leaning), so what are you talking about?


Looking at my post, I did mention that police/military are perhaps ‘right’ (what that means) leaning and perhaps were sufficient in terms of providing a security arm for a break-up of a part of society…OTOH, they might merely produce their own ‘party’, it’s been done before.

I can’t say that gun ownership is sufficient in the sense I mean. Until I see a Right equivalent in terms of street protest and force, that shoe hasn’t dropped yet. That was my question really, if and when that will happen.


Rich Howard said in response to my comments:

“your metric for elite fragmentation is too narrowly political. if you simply go by the owners of capital, then they are now showing unprecedented unity.” Isn’t that proposing an even simpler metric?”

No. I think the metric I used is more consistent with Turchin’s own demographic-structural theory.

I love his book “Secular Cycles”. The data in support of the theory are a little patchy, but it’s still convincing nevertheless because the theory is logically quite compelling and fits the economics and sociology of agrarian societies quite well.

In an agrarian society, elite wealth was based on land, more specifically, on extracting a fraction of the output of the commoners working the land. When there was a demographic crisis (land-labour ratio fell and immiseration set in), elite incomes fell, and elites sought to maintain their lifestyles by increasing the rate of extraction. But squeezing peasants even more when there’s already a demographic crisis only exacerbates popular immiseration. At some point the only way for elites to increase, or even just preserve, their incomes was at the expense of other elites. Thus you have elite fragmentation and internecine competition. And thus sociopolitical instability. Makes a lot of sense. It fits a lot of historical cases.

However, this theory makes no sense in modern industrial societies.

(1) Wealth is no longer fixed in the long run. Modern economies reliably grow at 1-2% rates. Much of that growth is concentrated at the top, even when measured income inequality is relatively low. So the competitive pressure within elites is much less than in any agrarian society governed by Malthusian-Ricardian-Brennerian-Goldstone-Turchin cycles.

(2) Besides, in a modern society, you need *more*, not less, intra-elite cooperation (a) in order to increase economic inequality; (b) in order for the elites to capture a greater share of the economic growth; (c) in order for capitalists reduce the bargaining power of labour; and (d) in order for elites to capture the state.

In fact, politics in a modern society is a pretty small part of the field in which elites can play compared with anti-competitive practises — i.e., collusion, mergers, monopolies, trusts, and other ways of reducing competition and concentrating power in the supply of goods and the demand for labour. These are all acts of elite cooperation. Capitalists are, right now, in unprecedented unity. They agree on unions, immigration, wages, trade, regulations, etc. That unity is necessary to generate the inequality in the first place.

Therefore, state capture and rent-seeking are now *cooperative*: conspiracies to rig the rules and increase markups against the public interest require collusion. Owners of one mobile telephony operator don’t have to clash with the owners of another mobile telephony operator: they can band together to lobby the government. Compared with the rise of monopoly concentration, elites wrangling over Trump or Brexit is a sideshow.

Almost everybody who is concerned about rising inequality implicitly recognises this: from Krugman to Stiglitz to Milanovic to even Turchin’s friends at Evonomics, they have argued that inequality stems in great measure from anti-competitive practises.

It’s contradictory to bemoan the spread of the ‘neoliberal’ ethos, and simultaneously talk about elite fragmentation. The evidence Turchin marshalls for elite fragmentation is basically the bimodal distribution of lawyers’ incomes, and the degree of legislative polarisation. He ignores the much wider evidence of capitalist unity and concentration in support of ‘neoliberal’ policies.

Peter Turchin said:

“Data rules. If things get back to “normal” by 2020 and stay there to 2024, I will agree that you are right.”

Well, I don’t think anything will happen in 2020 or 2024. But even if it did, it still doesn’t prove anything. You basically have 2 historical cycles in the USA that you’re projecting from, and that’s not enough cycles. (But you knew that already, based on the scepticism the vast majority of scholars have about things like Kondratiev Waves.)

The first cycle is strongly associated with sectional conflict in the USA between North and South, which was racial but also agrarian vs. industrial. The second cycle is strongly associated with industrialisation and agrarian and industrial unrest. The industrial unrest obviously has something to do with inequality. But agrarian unrest was once again sectionalism between different regions (industrialising v farm states). What was in the manufacturers’ interest (protectionism, gold) was against the interest of the agrarian (free trade, silver). And in the 2nd cycle you already overstate elite fragmentation because the robber barons were the original monopolists and trusts.


That’s an excellent post, and I’ll reread it.

As an aside…

“…Krugman to Stiglitz to Milanovic to even Turchin’s friends at Evonomics, they have argued that inequality stems in great measure from anti-competitive practises.”

It always strike me as funny when certain members of the more visible chattering classes who are against metastasized companies can’t see that same behavior in either government or the labor monopolies called ‘unions’. I wonder sometimes what theories of sociology or economics might be cooked up by someone who truly is unbiased in approach. Perhaps AI will provide that opportunity.


Except that unions have been losing power in recent decades. You can argue about governmental power, but it’s clear that government has also been favoring Big Business more in recent decades.
Furthermore, you can argue that unions are monopolies if you want, but in terms of immiseration, they must be a good type of monopoly because in the decades when unions were gaining power, common folks became less immiserated, and in the decades when unions were losing power, common folks became more immiserated.


Union membership rosters now account for a single-digit percentage of the total American work force. It’s ludicrous to imagine that they have anything close to the clout they once did, not to mention anything close to the clout that the owning class has.

Gotta say that looking over your comments, I think you’re less interested in what’s developing than trying to add some gloss to your own preconceptions.


“It’s ludicrous to imagine that they have anything close to the clout they once did,”

They certainly do to the company that they provide a single-source supplier to. Unions, even the government employee variety, definitely provide a form of market distortion. Monopolies appear to be desirable depending on the type and your own emotional attachment to a political position. My guess is that you are mostly seeing the result of labor oversupply rather than any kind of evil doings by large corporations if you really care about this sort of thing.

OTOH, the tendency towards monopoly is real, given the push for gigantism in business (especially on the internet) and in intellectual property. Breaking monopolies is an area that the US national government has largely failed in, and given a Presidential campaign fought between a major real estate developer and the Senator from Goldman Sachs, I can’t say that you’ll see much change.

Considering that the US has had 0% union membership for most of it’s history (and was mostly made up of family businesses), it’s hard to say what is ‘normal’.


Nichol: Labor unions started forming about a hundred years after the US became independent in 1776. It’s been almost 250 years since independence now, so what you said about the US having 0% union membership for most of it’s history is factually untrue.

Furthermore, the period when union membership was 0% (or close to it) was when common folks in America became more and more immiserated When unions became more powerful, ordinary Americans became less immiserated.

So yes, when you accuse me of emotional attachment to a political position, that position being the alleviation of immiseration of ordinary Americans, you are in fact right on target. That begs the question, though: Do you support a political position that furthers the immiseration of regular Americans?


“Gotta say that looking over your comments, I think you’re less interested in what’s developing than trying to add some gloss to your own preconceptions.”

Like anyone, I have emotional attachments to modern politics, but I also see that they are largely non-rational. Without actually working in the belly of the beast, it’s hard to see how things really are…although the Drudges and CNNs of the world are happy to help. Good public policy is hopefully the result of good predictive models, even if they are only instinctive. About the best that the public can do is show their primary concerns, but there’s only so much political capital in the world. The ponderous beast that is government can only hold so many things in it’s collective head at the same time, whether it’s avoiding war with the Russians or LGBQT bathroom privileges.

In any case, the ‘way things oughta be’ is boring, usually inexact, and typically comes from people with no experience in the matter. It’s more interesting to think about civilizational phases and just where we might be at this point.

If the US is in a tendency towards disintegration, just how to do you define the groups? The recent election was a good indicator, but it doesn’t produce the clean boundary lines like you might find in a religious or ethnic conflict. As the 60 Blue counties form up lines against the 3100 Red counties, how does everyone tell each other apart? What positions are negotiated away, for unity purposes, within the two groups? Are there standalone sub-groups?

As a side note to Dr. Turchin (assuming he reads these), in countries with fractious politics (I’m thinking something like modern Turkey, where mustaches indicate affiliation), are there separate-but-equal lines of commercial life? You can see that beginning to happen here with various companies forming alliances with Team Red and Team Blue. It isn’t like New Balance or Pepsi can help themselves, but even a small crack in a company’s facade of neutrality can result in the mob beating them up.


a quick aside…

If anyone runs into a 2016 map of this type:
comment image

I’d appreciate it. It seems like one of the better visualization tools.

That map begs the question whether you couldn’t view politics as a branch of epidemiology


For someone wanting to know more about the current state of affairs in the US, Chris Arnade (and his articles) are a must-read:


“Nichol: Labor unions started forming about a hundred years after the US became independent in 1776. It’s been almost 250 years since independence now, so what you said about the US having 0% union membership for most of it’s history is factually untrue.”

Alright, not 0%, perhaps 1% for the first half of the country’s life. Consider that the vast majority of Americans were small family farmers with some individual tradesmen thrown in. Farmers made up 2/3 of US workers up until the US Civil War. Under 10% union membership until WWII. I think we can agree that unions are essentially a 20th C concept, which was really what I was getting at.

Looking at the chart, you can make the argument that the concept of a worker’s union might be a temporary phenomena. I have no problem with them as a concept, aside from the potential abuse of monopoly (especially in public safety jobs), but find them rather unfortunate in that they imply a lack of self-employment. If freedom is a desirable trait, working for others applies a certain rot to the soul.

I did have the county count wrong upstream. Team Blue acquired ~1/5 of US counties in the Presidential race. There is some disagreement on the news sites. Not surprising considering they are all (and I mean *all*) cheerleaders for one side or the other.


Unfortunate you may find it, but the fact remains:
When unions increased and were strong in membership and power, life got better for the masses, and as they have declined in membership and power, life has gotten worse for the masses.

Do you find improvement of the lives of common people unfortunate as well?


While poking around looking at union membership, I got interested in the distortions you might see in public vs private sector percentages. They tend to be conflated, but are really quite different beasts.

I hadn’t really thought about this kind of chart before:

As someone who has largely made a living from various forms of signal processing/analysis, that fairly screams out to you.


Yep, it screams that when unions increased and were strong in membership and power, life got better for the masses and as they have declined in membership and power, life has gotten worse for the masses.

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