This is why we're so f*cked: Our politics are only going to get worse

We'd like to be optimistic. But Democrats' demographic dream is just that. We'll need a nightmare for real change

Published November 23, 2015 10:59AM (EST)

Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz            (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Joe Mitchell)
Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Joe Mitchell)

With almost total gridlock in Congress, and a couple of rank amateurs dominating the GOP presidential primary, you can be forgiven for thinking that America has reached a record peak of political dysfunction—especially considering how weak the Democratic Party has been in response, as seen in the recent off-year elections. But if you think we've reached a peak, you might want to think again, according to Peter Turchin, a former theoretical biologist who turned his attention to studying human history more than a decade and a half ago.

As a biologist,Turchin wrote "Complex Population Dynamics: A Theoretical/Empirical Synthesis," which the publisher, Princeton University Press, said, “integrates theoretical and empirical studies into a major new synthesis of current knowledge about population dynamics,” adding, “It is also a pioneering work that sets the course for ecology's future as a predictive science.” But then,Turchin told Salon, “I got a little bit bored, because I didn't feel much challenge.” Having modeled complex population dynamics in nature, his move wasn't as surprising as it might seem. “I started casting around, and I thought it would be interesting to study history, from that dynamical point of view,” he said. “So that's what led to Cliodynamics, basically, trying to treat history is a dynamical science.”

Turchin has written several books on the subject, both academic, "Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall" and "Secular Cycles" (with Sergey Nefedov), and more popular works, "War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires," and the just-published "Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth." And he's still interested in advancing predictive science.

As with any study of dynamical systems—from the simplest to the most complex—it's logical to focus on critical indicators of when such systems shift from one regime (stability, say, or expansion) to another (instability, or decline). So it was perfectly apt that Turchin wrote a 2010 letter to  warning of “growing instability” over the next decade, citing a number of “leading indicators of looming political instability” including “stagnating or declining real wages, a growing gap between rich and poor, overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees, and exploding public debt.”

“These seemingly disparate social indicators are actually related to each other dynamically,” he wrote, going on to say that “In the United States, 50-year instability spikes occurred around 1870, 1920 and 1970, so another could be due around 2020,” with all the relevant cycles—including a “youth bulge” of people in their 20s—“set to peak in the years around 2020.”

The timing isn't exact in any complex dynamical system, nor is it predetermined how the instability gets worked out—history will always be full of surprises. But Turchin's work strongly suggests things will get even more stressful and chaotic for at least a few more years—and that something much deeper and more profound than normal politics is needed to get our country back on track again, something akin to Bernie Sanders' calls for a “political revolution,” perhaps. In fact,Turchin argues that what we're seeing now represents an unraveling of what makes civilization possible.

“We live in huge societies of hundreds of millions of people, and we don't really understand what makes them function,”Turchin said. “What makes them function is cooperation, and so what we know from studying history, is that cooperation tends to go up and down in cycles. So right now all the indicators we have, we in the United States, and also if you look at the European Union, we are in a down cycle of cooperation, and cooperation is unraveling.”

This is a simple statement, but the reality it points to is far from simplistic. “Cooperation is unraveling at several multiple levels,” he said. “First of all there is much less willingness to cooperate between the rulers, and the ruled, you can see that expressed in the declining measures of the public trust, for government, and similar things. But more critical is what's happening to our elites,” what's known today as the 1 percent. “The 1 percent are not evil people at all, they're critical,” Turchin said. “Complex societies cannot be governed without elites.” But they can act in helpful or destructive ways. “When the elite are prosocial, when they're cooperative, the society is governed well; and when the elite eventually become less prosocial, that's when all kinds of troubles happen.”

This is arguably the heart of Turchin's approach, what he calls “structural demographic theory,” the recognition that inter-elite dynamics are crucial determinants of how well mass societies do, and that they are linked to the population dynamics of the broader society in multiple ways, all of which can be modeled and measured. But it's actually a bit more complicated than that.

“We think of it is a system of three components, the general population, the 99 percent, the elites, the 1 percent in power, and the state,” Turchin said. “The state has its own agency. This is where Marxists are not quite right, because they attempt to treat the state as merely the ego for the elites. But that's actually not a good idea because the states have their own agency. They are interconnected with the elites, but we have to treat them as a separate quantity.”

This becomes vividly clear when it comes to identifying sources stress leading to instability, as Turchin did, for example, in the paper “Modeling Social Pressures Toward Political Instability.” Each of three components has its ways of contributing to instability as conditions worsen.

The easiest to grasp is that coming from the broad population, which can be clearly seen in premodern societies, an early point of focus for Turchin and other pioneers of this approach, such as sociologist Jack Goldstone, author of "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World," published in 1991, a decade before Turchin became active in the field. “The Malthusian dynamic is that population increases to the point where it starts pressing on its resources, and large segments of the population become immiserated. So their incomes decline, sometimes even below the level that they need to survive. And so that creates a lot of potential for mass mobilization against the existing system,” Turkin said. It's a slow process, generally speaking. “These cycles are very long, typically—roughly speaking a century for the positive side, and the same for the negative turn.”

“As a result if you look at this, that's not the main thing that goes on,” Turchin pointed out. “In complex societies the typical component are the elites, people with power. So as long as the elites are reasonably unified, and reasonably happy, they basically can control their population,” even in formal democracies, like the US and Western Europe. “Three people start plotting a revolution, one of them is an FBI informant,” Turchin said. “So the critical thing is what's happening to the elites, and interestingly enough, it's a very similar dynamic.”

But not identical. When the general population pushes its limits, “the elite actually enters a golden age, because what they consume is human labor; human labor becomes cheap because there is an oversupply.” As a result, “Immiseration for the population means it's actually good news for the elites. And this principle works both for the agrarian societies, and for post-industrial societies, although it's much more complex in postindustrial societies.”

But the golden age for elites causes their population to grow as well—both through reproduction and through social mobility. As a result, “The class of the wealthy and powerful expands in relation to the whole population,” which eventually creates scarcity for them. In particular, “There are not enough positions, power positions governing, in business and government, to satisfy all elite aspirants. And that's when inter-elite competition starts to take uglier forms.” That can be measured in terms of “overproduction of law degrees, because that's a direct route into government, or the overproduction of MBAs,” and, higher up, in the increased competition for House and Senate seats, where the money spent on such contests spirals ever upwards.

“So the competition intensifies, and when competition intensifies, there are losers. There are many more losers now than there were 40 or 50 years ago,” Turchin said, and “Many of them are not good losers,” meaning they devote themselves to frustrating others, further eroding the cooperative ethos societies need to keep functioning.

This in turn connects with the role of the state in moving toward increased instability. “During this pre-crisis phases of the secular cycle, the governments tend to get more and more indebted,” Turchin said. “The reason is, most simply, the inter-elite competition becomes very hot. You have a lot of frustrated elite aspirants, and the states try to respond by providing them with jobs.... even in the historical societies... they would expand the army, so that offices could serve.... That puts a lot of pressure on the state coffers.” (Even nowadays, when elite opinion rallies around the idea that “middle class entitlements” are the great threat to fiscal solvency, Thomas Ferguson and Robert Johnson have pointed out that the actual primary threats are "the excessive costs of oligopoly in health care and defense spending" plus "the contingent liability of another financial crisis," all of them rooted in elite special interest demands on the state.)

At the same, the state also loses revenues, “As the population immiserates and they also become dissatisfied, they become much less willing to pay taxes, or even less able.” The dangers of state indebtedness can play out in different ways, Turchin notes, “But one of the most common routes to crisis is that the state goes bankrupt, and loses the capacity to control their police and army.” Elite factions, already warring with each other, can then drag the county into outright civil war.

The above destabilizing forces are merely the easiest to describe and explain. Turchin's actual model is more complex, as described in “Modeling Social Pressures Toward Political Instability.” Each component—the general population, elites and the state—can be characterized in terms of size or numbers, economics, and culture (most broadly, cooperative-vs-competitive norms, etc.)

The general population's overall size isn't the only salient feature—age structure and urbanization also play important roles. “Age structure is affected by fluctuations in the population growth rate,” which matters particularly because “Youth bulges tend to be politically destabilizing,” while “Urbanization dynamics is in many ways similar to age structure, as rapid population growth also drives rapid urbanization with large groups “concentrated in a structural setting that facilitates collective action.” Hence, Turchin notes that “rapid population growth in excess of employment opportunities can lead to declining standards of living, appearance of a youth bulge, and rapid urbanization,” all of which help drive instability.

Elite numbers are driven by demography—the balance of births and deaths—as well as social mobility. Elite composition refers to established vs. new elites, as well as aspirants elites and counter-elites, described as “radicalized aspirant elites, whose aspirations to secure an elite position/status have been frustrated.” Elite incomes are affected by class relations (less for workers more for them), elite numbers and state expenditures, but wealth is a better, more stable indicator of elite status and power. Elite overproduction increases inter-elite competition and conflict, leading to unraveling of cooperative norms.

The state subsystem is also characterized by size (number of employees or proportion of GDP), economic health (most succinctly, the debt/GDP ratio), and by “an ideological aspect (state legitimacy as measured, for example, by the degree of trust in the state and national institutions).”

Even instability itself can be considered as a component in the model. Although it's a process, not a social subsystem, Turchin notes, “it also has a ‘size’ aspect (the frequency of comparatively minor forms of political violence such as terrorism and riots; and the magnitude of more serious forms such as revolution and civil war, which could be measured by the number of casualties) and a cultural/ideological aspect (growth or decline of radical ideologies).”

This more elaborate model can be much more rigorously tested against historical data, and the paper referred to examines two such examples from American history: the 19th century leading up to the Civil War, and the 20th century from the progressive era through the current state of rising instability. One thing that struck me in particular was how the debt/GDP ratio had actually been decreasing until Reagan took office, when it started rapidly rising, at the same time that trust measures of legitimacy were falling—not just for government, but for institutions across the board.

“The late 1970s is the turning point for literally most of the structural demographic variables,” Turchin pointed out. “In many ways, the coming of Ronald Reagan to power was emblematic of this change. If you think about it, there were people like him even before, like that guy from Arizona, Senator Goldwater in the 1960s, you know. But he got no traction. So why did Reagan get traction? I would argue that [it was] because in the 1970s, the social mood of the elites turned away from this more cooperative stance, to a less cooperative stance.”

One striking indication of this changing mood Turchin cites in his paper is United Auto Workers president Douglas Fraser's resignation letter to the Labor-Management Group, in which he wrote:

I believe leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war today in this country—a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society. The leaders of industry, commerce and finance in the United States have broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a past period of growth and progress.

Turchin then notes, “What is remarkable about the letter is that it was written in 1978—the year when real wages stopped growing.... In other words, the cultural and ideological shift that Fraser describes preceded the shift in economic and state-related structural demographic variables. This observation is consistent with the idea that cultural factors were one of the causes of the 1970s trend reversal.”

But it wasn't just “the fragile, unwritten compact” that business leaders were breaking. Increasingly, they were breaking the law outright, firing prounion workers during organizing drives, a violation of the National Labor Relation Act. “Between the 1950s and 1980s the probability that a pro-union worker would be fired during a union drive increased more than 10-fold,” Turchin notes. Such widespread elite lawlessness also clearly reflects the change in mood.

A decade earlier than real wages peaked, the real minimum wage also reached it's highest level. Considering its rise and fall over time, Turchin noted that “the smoothed trend of the real minimum wage may serve as a reasonable proxy for the hard-to-quantify effect of the non-market forces,” and he proceeds to show just how reasonable it is. Turchin shows how three quantitative measures—GDP per capita, the labor demand/supply ratio, and the minimum wage as a proxy for non-market forces—can be combined in a statistical analysis to explain real-wage trends over a period of eight decades (1930-2010). He builds the model in steps, adding each variable in turn, and showing the results of the model's prediction versus the historical record. The last thing he does is add a time lag of 5 years, reflecting the fact that wages are “sticky,” whether formalized in a labor contract or not. The result is a stunningly close fit between model and data, a striking confirmation of the soundness of his approach.

Another trend Turchin points to as a sign of growing instability is the dramatic ten-fold rise in the number of indiscriminate mass murder incidents—events like the shootings in Columbine or Newton, where the identities of those murdered were not important, one victim was as good as another. After Newton, he blogged about it here.

The actual number of people killed in such incidents is “a very small proportion of deaths,” Turchin noted. “They are more a sign, they're canaries in the coal mine.” Their purpose is institutional destruction—to destroy the workplace as a whole, say, rather than the person in charge—and there's been a significant evolution over time, with incidents first focused on the workplace, then spreading to schools, and more recently the government. “That actually fits the progression that structural demographic theory suggests,” Turchin said. The workplace is the focal point of mass immiseration, schools and univeristies are sites of inter-elite competition, and finally attacks on the state reflect state weakening. “So that's why I think this is symptomatic,” he said. Folding this progression into the larger picture is what Turchin finds really worrying, though. “If and when the fiscal disaster strikes and then you have no functioning police... that's when we really will have problems, some serious social dissolution event.”

So, what can be done to avoid such a future? “The best way to prevent it is to act on the deep social processes,” Turchin said. “Everybody now is talking about inequality, although economists actually have no idea why inequality goes up, and especially why it goes down. We need to not really do something to reverse inequality, we need to reverse the situation with the oversupply of popular immiseration and inter-elite competition. These are the deep factors that drive everything else.”

Turchin looks back to the structural-demographic crisis of the early 20th century. “It was resolved quite nonviolently, essentially through reform,” he said. “The New Deal is really the culmination of trends that basically are rooted in an earlier progressive era. So, first of all, all those laws that made worker organizations, worker trade unions, legal and effective, and also the change of the mood on the part of the owner, the capitalists, who basically learned that negotiating with workers is actually a pretty decent way of solving the problems.” These were crucial changes that reoriented the path that society was on, leading to other developments which strengthened the working and middle class base of society, while elite power and influence waned. “The Great Depression was a shock, but afterwards it was that particular dynamic, that was preventing the growth of huge fortunes, so basically, it's really making sure that fruits of economic growth are spread evenly, amongst everybody,” Turchin said. “I'm not saying here that we should take money from rich and given it to the poor. It's basically that we have to make sure that wages grow together with productivity. So, by doing that, you already reverse many of these bad trends.”

But he mentioned something else, as well. “There has to be a new social mood, that has to appear in which you banish people who are actually troublemakers,” such obstructionists in Congress “who are actually destroying cooperation rather than cooperating, those basically have to be ostracized,” Turchin said. In the 1950s and '60s there was substantial cooperation between Democrats and Republicans, but, “Now, of course, instead of Republican versus Democrats, Republicans are also split between the Tea Party and Traditional Republicans. It's this disorientation which leads to a very scorched-earth policy, that's what has to be reversed.”

Easier said than done, perhaps. But it helps enormously to recognize that our current political dysfunction has a great many antecedents, most of which ended very badly, but that we Americans have such a clear example in our own recent history of how to resolve this crisis peacefully. The dramatic spread of concern over inequality spearheaded by Occupy Wall Street, but now even getting sporadic lip service from the GOP is indicative of how shared public awareness can change. “The way to change the situation is precisely to change the social mood and to increase the understanding by both the public and the elites of what kind of predicament we are in,” Turchin said. “This is where our science can really help, not by giving specific policies, because specific policies will have to be worked out in the political process.”

This segues into the subject at the heart of his new book, "Ultrasociety." “There are two kinds of competition. The internal competition destroys cooperation, but competition between groups, external competition, actually nourishes cooperation,” driving it to ever-higher levels. “In that book I actually try and explain how humans evolved to be a highly cooperative species, and what role competition fits into, what role it plays,” Turchin said. The book starts with the example of the International Space Station, an effort ultimately involving the cooperation of over a billion people on three continents. “That’s at least three orders of magnitude greater than the population base of a Gothic cathedral. Quite a shift, isn’t it?” Turchin writes. The book seeks to make sense of how that shift, and earlier ones preceding it, were possible over such a brief span of time in the cosmic scheme of things. The fact that we, as a species, have come so far so fast is the perhaps the most potent argument for optimism we have. In turn, that optimism should make us eager to take on big challenges, like the ones that Turchin describes.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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