A short history of civilizational collapse: Are we next — and how can we prevent it?

Peter Turchin's theory of history helps explain that we're in big trouble — but it's not too late to change course

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published July 2, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Charles I on his way to be executed, 30 January 1649 (Culture Club/Getty Images)
Charles I on his way to be executed, 30 January 1649 (Culture Club/Getty Images)

Last week I published a Salon review of Peter Turchin's new book, "End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration," which I have described as the most comprehensive explanation so far of the current and ongoing crisis of American politics. (My interview with Turchin for Salon appeared two weeks earlier.) 

But there's much more to "End Times" than could possibly be covered in a normal book review, both in terms of Turchin's cyclical understanding of political history and the interaction of elite groups and counter-elites in what he calls "structural-demographic theory," or SDT. I believe that the better we understand how everything fits together in Turchin's system, the firmer our foundation will be in terms of moving forward and saving democracy. 

Admittedly, Turchin's concepts and references can feel abstruse as first. A section of his book entitled "Contagion and Dynamic Entrainment" refers to a phenomenon observed in physics: "Dynamic entrainment" is what happens when you put several metronomes, swinging out of sync, together on the same board. After some time, Turchin notes, they "all start swinging together in perfect synchrony," as first observed by Dutch scholar Christiaan Huygens in 1665.

Turchin's analogy here is that transcontinental waves of instability can sweep around the world. "Why did the English Civil War, the Time of Troubles in Russia and the fall of the Ming Dynasty in China happen at roughly the same time?" Turchin asks. Indeed, that period was known as the "Great Crisis" of the 17th century. On the other hand, he asks, why was the 18th century "a time of internal peace and imperial expansion in all three countries?"

One key factor in both cases, intriguingly enough, was climate. "If one empire is 'ahead' in its cycle, a period of good climate will allow it to last a little longer before it spins into crisis. A stretch of bad climate, to the contrary, will push an empire that is behind into crisis earlier." 

The second synchronizing force, which Turchin calls contagion, is "even more potent." (He addressed this specifically in an April 2020 blog post, "Coronavirus and Our Age of Discord" which I discussed here.) His analysis, he writes, "indicates that major epidemics and pandemic are often associated with periods of major sociopolitical instability. We observe this pattern for at least the last two thousand years." Furthermore, he explains why: as popular immiseration rises due to population pressure, people flee the land for the cities, where the elites' rising fortunes generate demand for urban labor "in crafts and trades but also as servants for the wealthy" as well as for luxury goods. "These trends make the appearance of new diseases and the spread of existing ones more likely," he continues.

Turchin goes on to describe the specific examples of France and England in early medieval history, and especially how those two powerful nations how interacted with one another. "When France broke down in the 1350s," he writes, "all the English surplus elites — and there were huge numbers of them in England, just as in France — followed their king across the Channel." There's a general principle at work here: "By exporting instability to France during the Late Medieval Crisis England was able to delay entering its own time of troubles," or to return to his guiding metaphor, this averted "dynamic entrainment" rather than causing it. 

There are four major kinds of governing elites in Turchin's system: "militocracies," administrative or bureaucratic elites, ideological or religious elites, and plutocracies. Guess which one dominates the United States of America?

The sheer number of crises Turchin documents allows him to make crucial observations about elites, specifically meaning those groups who concentrate most social power in their hands. There are four major kinds of elites, each of which may dominate a given society. Early states were usually "militocracies" dominated by warrior-kings. But naked force ultimately isn't very efficient, he argues. Ideological power — usually in the form of state religion, as in pharaonic Egypt — is much more effective.

But as populations cross a certain threshold — around a million or so, he argues — civilizations "either acquire a civil service" or collapse into a "bureaucratic empire" run by administrative elites. This "switch from militarized ruling classes to administrative ruling classes is a general rule in history," Turchin argues, at least for large states such as China, which has been a bureaucratic empire for two millennia — a continuity unbroken by multiple revolutions, including the overthrow of imperial rule, the triumph of Mao Zedong's Communist Party or the more recent turn to state capitalism.

States run by ideological elites (most often religious in nature) are relatively rare in history, Turchin argues, as are those run by the fourth kind of elites: plutocracies. Those would include the Italian merchant republics of Venice and Genoa in the late Middle Ages, the Dutch Republic of the 17th and 18th centuries — and the present-tense United States of America. 

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Yes, really. Turchin devotes a full chapter to his definition of the U.S. as a plutocracy, starting with the European history from which colonial America and then the independent republic emerged. Around 1500, Europe comprised a dizzying array of some 500 states and statelets, nearly all of them either militocracies or plutocracies, the latter particularly common, Turchin writes, "in the more urbanized swath that ran through the middle of Europe from Italy to the Rhine Valley and then along the Baltic littoral."

Over the next four centuries, however, the subcontinent was utterly reshaped, with he number of states falling by more than 90 percent, to roughly 30 or so. Most of the plutocracies died out, conquered in the "Military Revolution," including the development of gunpowder weapons and oceangoing ships which brought the major European nations (and later the U.S.) global dominance by the beginning of the 20th century. 1900. That also "triggered a revolution in governance and finance because successful states had to learn how to efficiently extract and use wealth from their populations," Turchin writes. The military elites of the Middle Ages evolved into "ruling classes that combined military and administrative functions."

Venice, the Netherlands and Britain were outliers during this period, due to their protection by water. The so-called English squirearchy, which began as a military class, gradually became a landowning caste from which the members of Parliament were elected. Over time, a merchant class evolved as well, and Britain's ruling elite came to combine economic and administrative functions. America's ruling class, both during the colonial period and the early decades of independence, was a direct offshoot of English squirearchy.

The American South, after all, was largely settled by "Cavaliers," meaning the supporters of King Charles I, who was defeated in the English Civil War and executed by the parliamentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell. (To this day, the University of Virginia's athletic teams are known as the Cavaliers.) They "brought with them their aristocratic ways and indentured servants," Turchin writes, although the latter were "soon replaced by imported Africans," with enormous historical consequences.

America thus "inherited plutocracy as part of its 'cultural genotype,'" Turchin argues. In practical terms, the United States was essentially an island nation, vastly larger than Great Britain but not categorically different. So at least after the War of 1812, no external military threat was plausible. 

America "inherited plutocracy as part of its 'cultural genotype'" with 17th-century English settlers, Turchin argues — and we've never quite been able to get rid of it.

But its continuing survival of the newborn American state depended on race and ethnicity. Turchin contrasts the example of Denmark, whose first social-democratic party was founded in 1871 and came to power roughly 60 years later, laying the foundation of what became known as the the Nordic Model: "tripartite cooperation between labor, business, and government working together for the common good."

For a relatively brief period through the middle of the 20th century — that is, during the Progressive and New Deal era — America seemed to follow a similar trajectory. But that model in the U.S. never included the Black population, except at the margins. "In order to push his agenda through," Turchin writes, Franklin D. Roosevelt made "a devil's bargain with the Southern elites, which essentially made the South immune from the tripartite bargain among workers, business, and government." That excluded the majority of Black workers, but also millions of southern whites as well. 

That began to change when post-World War II prosperity and the geopolitical competition of the Cold War empowered the civil rights movement to become "an irresistible force for social change." But that in turn opened the door for a plutocratic backlash, using the Republican Party as a vehicle and dividing the Democratic coalition by way of the "Southern strategy." No such thing was possible in a nation like Denmark, where (at the time, before recent waves of immigration) the working class was ethnically homogeneous.

Although plutocrats never lost their dominant position in the U.S., in effect they voluntarily switched off what Turchin calls the "wealth pump" — which transferred wealth upward from workers to elites — in the early 20th century, as other elites have sometimes done in response to prolonged periods of political instability. Labor conflicts grew increasingly intense in the 1910s and early '20s, as did racial conflicts, such as the infamous 1921 "race massacre" in Tulsa. There were also electoral challenges from socialists and populists of the left and right, "as well as external threats resulting from the rise of communism and fascism in Europe." Progressive ideas first proposed in state and local governments finally became national law after the Great Depression had shaken the confidence of capital to its core. The result of that was clear and indisputable: a two-generation period, sometimes dubbed the "Great Compression," in which extremes of wealth and poverty in America significantly declined.

The history Turchin surveys here is relatively well known, but the degree to which it reflects larger historical patterns is much less widely understood. The same can be said of his description of how American elites asserted their self-interest once again, beginning in the 1970s and leading to the "Reagan revolution" of the 1980s. "Unfortunately, modern democracies are not immune from the iron law of oligarchy," he notes. "The United States successfully shut down the wealth pump during the Progressive Era/New Deal but then allowed self-interested elites to turn it back on in the 1970s."

American elites reasserted their self-interest aggressively in the 1970s and beyond, turning back on the "perverse wealth pump." As Turchin notes, "modern democracies are not immune from the iron law of oligarchy."

He cites the role of right-wing foundations that push "extreme ideological agendas," which sociologist William Domhoff calls a "policy-obstruction network," noting that unlike more mainstream think tanks, "which develop policy proposals and help steer them through the legislative process, the goal of the policy-obstruction network is to 'attack all government programs and impugn the motives of all government officials.'" Ultimately, Turchin argues, this nihilistic right-wing network has contributed to "the decline of trust in public institutions and of social cooperation in American society," trends he says have recurred repeatedly as major states head toward catastrophic crisis. 

Another factor was highly significant: The Democratic Party's retreat from supporting a working-class agenda, which Turchin dates to Bill Clinton's presidency, noting that it was part of a much broader global political trend:

When political parties abandon the working classes, this amounts to a major shift in how social power is distributed within society. Ultimately, it is this balance of power that determine whether the selfish elites are allowed to turn on the wealth pump. ... [D]emocracies are particularly vulnerable to being subverted by plutocrats. Ideology may be the softest, gentlest form of power, but it is the key one in democratic societies. The plutocrats can use their wealth to buy mass media, to fund think tanks, and to handsomely reward those social influences who promote their messages.

This is reflected in how internal dissidents — meaning those who oppose or resist the current system but stop short of advocating revolution — are treated in America today:

On the ideological front, left-wing dissidents get very different treatment depending on the content of their critiques. Cultural left issues — race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+, intersectionality — occupy large swathes of the corporate media. Populist economic issues and, especially, critique of American militarism, much less so. The situation is different with right-wing dissidents.... [T]oday, as I write this book, the Republicans are making a transition to becoming a true revolutionary party. (Whether this transition is successful or not, we will find out in the next few years.)

Donald Trump himself is no revolutionary, though his erstwhile chief strategist and leading propagandist Steve Bannon would certainly like to be. Turchin defines both as characteristic examples of counter-elites through the ages, who trace two distinct paths: "Trump's evolution to becoming an anti-regime warrior followed the wealth route, while Bannon's followed the credential route."

Turchin also considers recently-fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson and newly-elected Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio as examples of right-wing populist counter-elites. Without his platform, Carlson now seems unlikely to become "a seed crystal around which a new radical party forms," as Turchin wrote late last year, although he immediately qualifies that: "[A]nother figure could suddenly arise — chaotic times favor the rise (and often rapid demise) of new leaders."

As you may have gathered, Turchin's "End Times" is not an optimistic book. The odds that a given state or society can escape such a crisis relatively unscathed are not good, nor does Turchin perceive many signs of hope on the horizon. As he told me in our interview, "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."

I remain somewhat more optimistic, and often reflect on what Amanda Littman of Run for Something told me in an interview earlier this year:

I think that democracy is at a breaking point. If we can get through the next couple of years, the next three years, then the next five years after that are going to be unbelievably good. 

Getting through the next two or three years is the real challenge, right? I believe that David Pepper's approach to reinvigorating democracy offers real reasons hope, as do the arguments of Anand Giridharadas in "The Persuaders," while the focus on the importance of public goods in "The Privatization of Everything" helps point us in the right direction. None of these things, on their own, will be enough. But add to them the shared big-picture understanding of what we're up against and how to fix it that Turchin provides in "End Times," and I think there's reason to hope. 

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.

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