America is burning. Dozens of cities across the United States remain under curfews at a level not seen since riots following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Most commentary is focusing on the immediate causes of this wave of violence that has already continued for six days. And indeed, it is difficult to watch the video of George Floyd being slowly strangled to death without feeling rage and sorrow. But my job, as it were, is to look beyond the surface of the events to the deep structural causes.
Protesters overtaking and burning the Minneapolis Police’s 3rd Precinct Source
I have written elsewhere that the causes of rebellions and revolutions are in many ways similar to processes that cause earthquakes or forest fires. In both revolutions and earthquakes, it is useful to distinguish “pressures” (structural conditions, which build up slowly) from “triggers” (sudden releasing events, which immediately precede a social or geological eruption). Specific triggers of political upheavals are difficult, perhaps even impossible to predict with any precision. Every year the police kill hundreds of Americans: black and white, men and women, adults and children, criminals and law-abiding citizens. The US cops have already killed 400 people in just the first five months of 2020. Why was it the murder of George Floyd that sparked the wave of protests?
Unlike triggers, structural pressures build up slowly and more predictably, and are amenable to analysis and forecasting. Furthermore, many triggering events themselves are ultimately caused by pent-up social pressures that seek an outlet—in other words, by the structural factors. Readers of this blog are familiar with the chief structural pressures undermining social resilience: popular immiseration, intra-elite conflict, and the loss of confidence in state institutions. More details are available in my Aeon article and in The Double Helix of Inequality and Well-Being (and of course the most comprehensive treatment is in Ages of Discord).
These structural trends, that became obvious to me in the early 2000s, resulted in the forecast, which I published in 2010: “The next decade is likely to be a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe” (see also A Quantitative Prediction for Political Violence in the 2020s).
This forecast was not simply a projection of the contemporary (in 2010) trend in social instability into the future. Social instability in major Western countries had been, in fact, declining prior to 2010 (see the graphic below). Rather, the basis for this forecast was a quantitative model that took as inputs the major structural drivers for instability (immiseration, intraelite competition, and state (in)capacity) and translated them into the Political Stress Index (PSI), which is strongly correlated with socio-political instability. The rising PSI curve, calculated in 2010, then, suggested growing socio-political instability over the next decade.
Recently, Andrey Korotayev and I revisited my 2010 forecast (in a manuscript in review in a scientific journal). We analyzed the data on a variety of instability indicators and found that, indeed, the trends for almost all of them went up after 2010 (our data series stops in 2018, but the numbers for 2019 should be available soon). Here’s the result for the incidence of riots in six major Western countries:
Focusing on the United States and looking over a longer time period, we see that the current wave of instability has already reached similar levels to the previous one, which peaked in the late 1960s:
Our conclusion is that, unfortunately, my 2010 forecast is correct. Unfortunately, because I would have greatly preferred it to become a “self-defeating prophecy”, but that clearly has not happened.
What does it mean for the current wave of protests and riots? The nature of such dynamical processes is such that it can subside tomorrow, or escalate; either outcome is possible.A spark landing even in abundant fuel can either go out, or grow to a conflagration.
What is much more certain is that the deep structural drivers for instability continue to operate unabated. Worse, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated several of these instability drivers. This means that even after the current wave of indignation, caused by the killing of George Floyd, subsides, there will be other triggers that will continue to spark more fires—as long as the structural forces, undermining the stability of our society, continue to provide abundant fuel for them.