UConn Professor Peter Turchin’s models are deeply pessimistic.
The year 2020 has been kind to Turchin, for many of the same reasons it has been hell for the rest of us. Cities on fire, elected leaders endorsing violence, homicides surgingâ€”ÂÂto a normal American, these are apocalyptic signs. To Turchin, they indicate that his models, which incorporate thousands of years of data about human history, are working. (â€œNot all of human history,â€ he corrected me once. â€œJust the last 10,000 years.â€) He has been warning for a decade that a few key social and political trends portend an â€œage of discord,â€ civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced. In 2010, he predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldnâ€™t let up until those social and political trends reversed. Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early â€™70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.
The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that canâ€™t cover its financial positions. His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But theyâ€™ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of â€œmegahistories,â€ such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari. …
â€œWe are almost guaranteedâ€ five hellish years, Turchin predicts, and likely a decade or more. The problem, he says, is that there are too many people like me. â€œYou are ruling class,â€ he said, with no more rancor than if he had informed me that I had brown hair, or a slightly newer iPhone than his. Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily â€œelite overproductionâ€â€”Âthe tendency of a societyâ€™s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologicallyâ€”think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites overÂproduce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Donâ€™t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who donâ€™t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.
In the United States, Turchin told me, you can see more and more aspirants fighting for a single job at, say, a prestigious law firm, or in an influential government sinecure, or (here it got personal) at a national magazine. Perhaps seeing the holes in my T-shirt, Turchin noted that a person can be part of an ideological elite rather than an economic one. (He doesnâ€™t view himself as a member of either. A professor reaches at most a few hundred students, he told me. â€œYou reach hundreds of thousands.â€) Elite jobs do not multiply as fast as elites do. There are still only 100 Senate seats, but more people than ever have enough money or degrees to think they should be running the country. â€œYou have a situation now where there are many more elites fighting for the same position, and some portion of them will convert to counter-elites,â€ Turchin said.
Donald Trump, for example, may appear elite (rich father, Wharton degree, gilded commodes), but Trumpism is a counter-elite movement. His government is packed with credentialed nobodies who were shut out of previous administrations, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes because the Groton-ÂYale establishment simply didnâ€™t have any vacancies. Trumpâ€™s former adviser and chief strategist Steve Bannon, Turchin said, is a â€œparadigmatic exampleâ€ of a counter-elite. He grew up working-class, went to Harvard Business School, and got rich as an investment banker and by owning a small stake in the syndication rights to Seinfeld. None of that translated to political power until he allied himself with the common people. â€œHe was a counter-elite who used Trump to break through, to put the white working males back in charge,â€ Turchin said.
Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commonersâ€™ living standards slipâ€”not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had beforeâ€”they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commonersâ€™ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising inÂsecurity becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebiesâ€”and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.
Turchinâ€™s prognostications would be easier to dismiss as barstool theorizing if the disintegration were not happening now, roughly as the Seer of Storrs foretold 10 years ago. If the next 10 years are as seismic as he says they will be, his insights will have to be accounted for by historians and social scientistsâ€”assuming, of course, that there are still universities left to employ such people.
Those models strike me as not wrong, but they do seem to overlook the unworthiness, incompetence, and childishness of the Establishment Elite.