The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse (Graeme Wood/The Atlantic) – Peter Turchin, who teaches at the University of Connecticut, claims to have mathematically analyzed 10,000 years of human history, and to be able to predict when societies will collapse. He’s not real optimistic about the US.
Turchin cites “elite overproduction” as a cause of civilizational decline – when there are more people in the national elite than there are jobs for them to fill. In past centuries, the elites were nobility; in the US today, the elites are people educated at top colleges, expecting jobs in business and government, and not getting them.
Lawyers in particular are members of the elite.
Trump himself is a member of the old-stye elite – he inherited a fortune. But his administration is staffed by products of elite overproduction, people who graduated from the best schools and found themselves locked out of government. Many for good reason, but others because there simply weren’t jobs for them.
Steve Bannon is a prime example. A blue-collar kid who went to an Ivy League school, he made a fortune in investments (including part ownership of the TV series Seinfeld), but then found he had nowhere to go and nothing to do with his money, until he latched onto Nazism.
Turchin claims to have developed a mathematical science of history. He explicitly compares himself to Hari Seldon, the main character of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. The data he analyzes include the numbers of elites, and rates of violence.
And Turchin says the US is on the verge of crisis – 2020 is just the beginning. Best-case scenario is social unrest akin to the riots and bombings of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Worst-case scenario: Collapse.
This all sounds like crackpottery, but Turchin doesn’t sound like a crackpot. That doesn’t make him right either.
Even if Turchin is wrong, he’s right to pursue data-driven studies of history. Traditional history, which is based on stories, is great, but data can yield insights. Another researcher working along similar lines mines texts, for example, millions of words of parliamentary debate to study land use in the final century of the British Empire.
Turchin calls his science “ciodynamics,” from Clio, the muse of history.
Cliodynamics is now on a long list of methods that arrived on the scene promising to revolutionize history. Many were fads, but some survived that stage to take their rightful place in an expanding historiographical tool kit. Turchin’s methods have already shown their power. Cliodynamics offers scientific hypotheses, and human history will give us more and more opportunities to check its predictions—revealing whether Peter Turchin is a Hari Seldon or a mere Nostradamus.