History, Fast and Slow

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Historians! Put down your tools! Your labors are at an end. The scientists have finally solved history, turning it from a jumble of haphazard facts (“just one damn thing after another”), into something measurable, testable and — most importantly — predictable.

That, in short, is the message of Peter Turchin’s provocative new book, End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration. A theoretical biologist by training, Turchin came to the study of history late, after decades spent developing mathematical models for interactions between predators and prey. At some point he realized those same models could be applied to the boom-and-bust cycles governing the fortunes of states and empires.

Blessed with tenure, Turchin thus made a risky midcareer move to a different field. Or rather, with the historical sociologist Jack Goldstone, he co-founded a brand new one, which they dubbed cliodynamics. This is meant to be a “new science of history” that exposes the hidden processes driving political instability in “all complex societies.” End Times is at once a primer on this “flourishing” new field, which has attracted considerable attention in recent years, and a direct application of it to the political landscape of the United States as it appeared in the last quarter of 2022.

Turchin promises at the outset of the book that, by treating history itself as “Big Data,” he and his collaborators can explain why everything that happened in the past happened, and tell us, with reasonable certainty, what will happen next. Tackling the past, present, and future is a big job. As a consequence, the pace of End Times is brisk, the arguments flashy, and the conclusions, for the most part, unsatisfying.

The overall thesis of Turchin’s book is disarmingly simple. History is shaped by interaction between the elites and the masses. When these two groups are in equilibrium, harmony reigns. But when too many people are vying for elite status all at once, things go out of whack, and instability becomes inevitable. At this point, there are only two real ways to bring the system back in line. The first is to turn off the “wealth pump,” Turchin’s term for whatever economic mechanism — technological change, tax policy, or even agricultural overpopulation in the case of medieval France — is at work in a given moment enriching the elites and depressing the relatives wages of the masses. The second is for the elites to physically eliminate one another in a revolution or civil war.

Elite overproduction is thus for Turchin what class conflict was for Marx and asabiyyah, or group cohesion, was for Ibn Khaldun: It is the engine driving history forward. However, over the course of End Times, Turchin never pins down what exactly defines an elite, or whether they come in different or competing forms. Are cultural elites, for instance, distinct from economic elites, or political elites from religious elites? His explanation that elites are “power holders” is not so much clarifying as circular. For Turchin, elites — whether they are English barons, Russian serf owners, or Southern planters — are a natural fact, like gravity or the rain.

Some elites are more dangerous than others, however. Unemployed degree holders, according to Turchin, have been responsible for most social upheavals reaching back to the Revolutions of 1848. The law, a magnet for the politically ambitious, has been a particularly hazardous profession; as Turchin notes, Robespierre, Lenin, Castro, Lincoln, and Gandhi were all lawyers. In his telling, elite colleges have become factories for the creation of counter-elites, waiting to destabilize existing institutions and usurp the role of existing elites. The most dangerous of these by far is Yale Law School, that “forge of revolutionary cadres,” having produced both left-wingers like Chesa Boudin and right-wingers like Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers.

Even if the remark about “revolutionary cadres” is made in jest, it is one of many moments in End Times that leads a reader to question the objectivity of Turchin’s take on American politics. Is the Republican Party really in the process of becoming a “true revolutionary party”? Maybe if you see Steve Bannon as its Lenin. Did “The Establishment” run a “counterinsurgency campaign” to get Trump out of office in 2020? Only if you think the election was rigged.

Some of the problem comes from his sources. Turchin intersperses the book with interviews with voters drawn from different rungs on the American social ladder. There is Steve, a blue-collar guy who thinks liberal elites are driving America into the ground; Kathryn, a Beltway 1-percenter who reads Steven Pinker to reassure herself that life has never been better than it is right now; and Jane, an Upper East Side Trotskyite hoping to bring the system down from the inside — which is why she’s a student at Yale Law.

The problem is that all of these figures are fictional, products of Turchin’s limited political imagination. Shorn of real-life interlocutors, his account of contemporary politics feels like the generic product of an ideological echo-chamber. This has an unfortunate effect on End Times’s predictions. Some of Turchin’s forecasts have already been disproved. Will Tucker Carlson be the “crystallization nucleus” for the formation of a genuinely insurgent, anti-establishmentarian Republican Party? Even a year ago, when End Times was published, that seemed like a stretch, but after Carlson’s firing by Fox News this past April, it seems about equal to my hopes of becoming starting quarterback for the Steelers.

Other predictions in End Times are more ominous, and even harder to credit. Turchin’s historical models predict that America will go through a spasm of political violence in the 2020s bad enough to thin the herd of elite aspirants and thus restore political cohesion, only for the violence to recur in 50 to 60 years. Only if wages can be brought up in the near term can this recurrence of violence can be avoided. However, even if this hypothetical New New Deal were to be implemented, it would not prevent a major internal crisis sometime later this decade.

Is America really on the cusp of a second Civil War? Perhaps, perhaps not, but no concrete piece of evidence presented in End Times would lead you to think so. Turchin has valuable things to say about rising inequality in the United States. But the connection between elite enrichment and popular rebellion is neither reliable, nor predictable — least of all in democracies.

In the absence of clearly drawn historical mechanisms, we have to trust Turchin’s models. But he never lets us see under the hood. For an approach to history that prides itself so much on quantitative rigor, cliodynamics — at least as presented in this book — seems strikingly low on actual data. Not a single graph or chart graces the pages of End Times. A pair of appendices do promise to explain the detailed workings of the databases and computations underlying Turchin’s predictions and pronouncements. But while this annex features a variety of things, including ruminations on Tolstoy, scenes from a science-fiction novel, and a rather charming thought experiment about social scientists orbiting Alpha Centauri, it does not clarify the inner workings of cliodynamics. All it offers are generalities along the lines of “one death is a tragedy … but a thousand deaths give us data” without ever explaining what it is that makes such data useful.

. . . .

Turchin is singularly ungenerous to professional historians. He rarely cites the work of scholars in the field, preferring to rely on his own summaries of major events or Wikipedia. Instead of crediting major historiographical concepts, such as the Military Revolution of the 17th century, to their original articulators, he refers readers to his own (often, forthcoming) books. At one point, Turchin even expresses his regret that so much precious historical knowledge is trapped in books and articles and — worst of all — in the “heads of individual scholars,” and fantasizes about a future in which spiderbots could automate the process of learning and harvest information directly from experts’ brains. One gets the feeling reading End Times that Turchin would like to do away with the messy business of human analysis and judgment entirely: all of the things that make history, from his perspective, such a frustratingly inefficient discipline.

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

2 thoughts on “History, Fast and Slow”

  1. Lord preserve the humanities from scientists who think they know everything. The only surprising part is that this guy is a biologist. Physicists are the traditional perpetrators of this kind of stuff.

  2. French elites would still be in power is they just shared a tiny bit of their wealth so that the peasants would have just a little bit more to eat.

    My knowledge of the French Revolution comes from Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlett Pimpernel, and from the painting The Death of Marat.

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