Hope in "End Times": Peter Turchin's analysis of our coming collapse could help us avoid it

Peter Turchin's data-driven analysis of our historical peril is compelling — and it's also a call to action

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published June 25, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Environmental activists protest against a planned oil pipeline in East Africa in front of the building where the annual general meeting of the French oil and gas giant TotalEnergies is to be held. (Rachel Boßmeyer/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Environmental activists protest against a planned oil pipeline in East Africa in front of the building where the annual general meeting of the French oil and gas giant TotalEnergies is to be held. (Rachel Boßmeyer/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The day Donald Trump was arraigned for unauthorized possession of national security documents — heightening his party's attacks on the nation's justice system — also saw the publication of Peter Turchin's new book, "End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration," arguably the most comprehensive explanation so far of the current and ongoing crisis of American politics. 

For all its breadth and depth, there's a simple message at the core of "End Times": At the heart of our problems, Turchin writes, is "a perverse 'wealth pump' ... taking from the poor and giving to the rich," and we have to find a way to turn it off. America has essentially done that before, during the New Deal era, and other nations and societies have done it as well. But only about one in five of the nation-states or empires that face cyclical crises like the one we're in today escapes it, Turchin reports. So the odds aren't great, unless we act fast and with purpose, making full use of what we now know. 

As I explained in my recent interview with Turchin for Salon, he was one of the few observers who saw this breakdown of political order coming. In a 2010 letter to Nature he warned: "The next decade is likely to be a period of growing instability in the United States… set to peak in the years around 2020."  

He was drawing on a model of cyclical integration and disintegration first introduced in Jack Goldstone's 1991 "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World." Since then, Turchin and his colleagues have created a database of roughly 300 cases of crisis, stretching from the Neolithic Age to the present, with what he calls "good data" on about 100 of them.

For example, their analysis codes for 12 indicators of negative consequences, such as population loss (which occurs in about half such crises) and ending in revolutions, civil wars or both (which happens about 75% of the time). Cases that avoid such outcomes obviously hold valuable lessons — especially since the sample size is just about big enough to guard against cherry-picking evidence to prove some cherished point. 

It should be no surprise that the Progressive/New Deal era in America, which produced decades-long high levels of social cohesion, is one such example. But "End Times" helps us understand that as one specific example of a broader genre of successful sociopolitical responses, some of which might be less obvious. That can potentially help us think more constructively about how to find our way out of our current crisis state — and mitigate the next one.

There's a central tension in "End Times" between the evidence about what works and the obstacles to executing those things, and that's also based on the historical record. On the one hand, Turchin's book strongly argues that something akin to New Deal reforms isn't just a good idea in moral or political terms but is an objective necessity to avoid disaster and rebuild social trust. But he's also clear about the deeply rooted forces that stand in the way of such reforms, casting them as damaging partisan politics or even an existential threat. In our interview, Turchin told me, "We don't have to do exactly the same thing the Democrats did in the New Deal,  but somehow we have to achieve the same result. And I just don't see that happening."

In elite discourse today, "extreme left" and "extreme right" are routinely equated as unreasonable extremes, in contrast to an ideal version of pragmatic bipartisanship that will somehow save us. somehow the source of our salvation. But most of what is commonly called "leftist" these days is just an expanded version of the progressive policy vision that resolved America's previous period of crisis during the Great Depression, and that vision has significant electoral support

My point is not to claim that all answers can be found on the left, which has its own internal conflicts and contradictions. But "End Times" offers a pathway toward a realistic focus on viable solution paths that elite compromise politics are doomed to obscure, if not destroy.  

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

In three appendices to his book, Turchin provides a non-technical explanation of his approach to understanding history and how it developed over time. Goldstone's book "was almost completely ignored" for a decade after its publication, he writes. His own experience was quite different: "To my surprise, the new science of cliodynamics, which I launched in 2003, started getting immediate traction." The reason, he says, was his use of data, which he discusses in detail.

Turchin doesn't even mention the biggest reason Goldstone's book was ignored: It defied the dominant zeitgeist of the early 1990s. It was published the same year as the Soviet Union collapsed, and the following year saw the publication of Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History and the Last Man," which argued that we had reached "the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution." There were no more revolutions to be had. It was a huge hit. Everyone wanted to believe it. By 2003, not so much.

One of Goldstone's key discoveries was this: "Before every major revolution or rebellion between 1500 and 1900, I found that indeed, population had grown substantially in the prior half century." But "population growth was almost nil" in periods when those explosive outcomes did not happen. His model was more complex than that, and  concerned not just the size and condition of the general population, but also that of elite groups who held social power.  

Turchin had been a mathematically-inclined biologist before turning his attention to human history (his PhD from Duke is in zoology), and understood how to use nonlinear models of processes in which small changes can produce large results, as can happen, for example, with modest changes in fertility rates. Goldstone's model, known as structural demographic theory (SDT), suggested that human systems could be modeled in similar ways. 

Of course revolutions and civil wars are complex phenomena, but Turchin's scientific experience led him to conclude that a "relatively small set of mechanisms can generate exceedingly complex dynamics." He sees four main drivers that lead to societal crisis, of which the most important is "intraelite competition and conflict," and the most variable is "geopolitical factors," which for large and powerful nations like the U.S. tend to be negligible. Another driver, "popular immiseration," increases as population growth drives down living standards, which leads to "elite overproduction," for example when too many middle-class college graduates compete for a stagnant number of well-paying jobs. The last driver, the "failing fiscal health and weakened legitimacy of the state," is exacerbated by both popular immiseration and elite overproduction, which are clearly the central features.  

Turchin also focuses attention on what he calls the "engine" at the heart of the model, the previously mentioned  "perverse 'wealth pump'... taking from the poor and giving to the rich." It intensifies and locks in popular immiseration and also drives elite overproduction, undermining social trust at both the top and bottom of the social pyramid. 

America since Reagan has fallen prey to "one of the most fundamental principles in sociology, the 'iron law of oligarchy,'" Turchin writes, leading to the "perverse 'wealth pump' ... taking from the poor and giving to the rich."

This reflects "one of the most fundamental principles in sociology, the 'iron law of oligarchy,'" he writes, "which states that when an interest group acquires a lot of power, it inevitably starts using that power in self-interested ways." For example, while wages fell far behind the growth of economic productivity from 1979 onward, Turchin cites analysis from the Economic Policy Institute indicating that three-fourths of that gap was due to elite-driven policy shifts: weakened labor standards, the erosion of collective bargaining, corporate globalization and so-called fiscal austerity.

That was all part of what Turchin calls the "Trend Reversal of the Reagan Era," when the broad-based well-being and social trust from the New Deal era dramatically reversed themselves:

Diminished economic conditions for the less educated were accompanied by a decline in the social institutions that nurtured their social life and cooperation. These institutions include the family, the church, the labor union, the public schools and their parent-teacher associations, and various voluntary neighborhood associations.

The importance of the wealth pump in driving instability, and the need to constrain it to avoid collapse, cannot be overemphasized. It's reflected in the last lines of Turchin's book: "Complex human societies need elites — rulers, administrators, thought leaders — to function well. We don't want to get rid of them; the trick is to constrain them to act for the benefit of all."

That's a lot easier said than done, of course. But clearly establishing the need, and showing that it's not just an ideological position but an urgent practical necessity, represents a huge step forward. That alone makes "End Times" required reading for all who are serious about saving or redeeming American democracy.  

By Paul Rosenberg

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

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Authors Books Commentary Crisis End Times Inequality Peter Turchin