June 10, 2023

Why do even the mightiest societies collapse? In his new book End Times, complexity scientist Peter Turchin blames both “elite overproduction” and a malign “wealth pump” that funnels spoils to the super rich. His theory of societal apocalypse is rooted in science: using mathematical models drawn from vast datasets of human history, he claims to be able to predict future tumult. He has been proved right before: in 2010, in an article for Nature, he predicted the West’s decade of populist instability.

This week, he spoke to Mary Harrington at the UnHerd Club about populism, Tucker Carlson, and how to swerve the next big catastrophe. Below is an edited transcript.

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Mary Harrington: Peter, tell us the thesis behind your fascinating new book.

Peter Turchin: Ever since the ancient Greek historian Polybius wrote about how the Roman Empire was able to grow quite so relentlessly, people have also tried to explain why societies collapse.

There are many different theories, but the only way to adjudicate is with mathematical modelling. First of all, you translate those theories into mathematical language, so that the predictions follow inevitably from their premises. Then you bring on lots of data to work out which theory best fits the reality.

My colleagues and I are currently working on building a large historical database — our “Crisis DB” — in which we log incidents when past societies got into a state of crisis. What we have found is that all complex societies in the past 5,000 years have experienced an integrative phase, when peace and order reigned — and then an inevitable descent into an “end times”.

I hope that, with all this information, eventually we will make it possible for society to escape this cycle. But why do these end times happen at all? One common theme that we see over and over again, in all of the different routes to crisis, is a condition that we call “elite overproduction”.

Let me explain what I mean by that. First of all, who are the elites? Put simply, they are neither good people or bad people, they are simply a small proportion of the population who concentrate social power in their hands — whether that’s in the military, economic, political, or ideological sphere. In medieval times, the elites were the military nobility of England or France, for example; or in Imperial China, they were the class of mandarins. In the United States, where I live, simply put, it’s the proverbial 1%.

Of course, it’s all a bit more complicated than that. Complex human societies are organised as pyramids, and so there are different levels of elites; the 0.1% rule within the one-percenters, and so on. There are no sharp boundaries necessarily, unless you live in a society like medieval France, where legally you were either nobility or a peasant.

The next big question is how are elites produced and reproduced? They’re reproduced by ambitious young people, or, to use the technical term, “elite aspirants”, who want to gain positions of power. Elite overproduction occurs when, during some historical periods, we get too many elite aspirants for the slowly changing number of power positions. That creates intense competition, and while some competition is very helpful and good, excessive competition is harmful as it corrodes the social norms and institutions of the society.

When you have huge numbers of losers in this game, a proportion of frustrated elites will decide to break the rules. We saw that very clearly in the 2016 US presidential election. At that point, the number of candidates in the Republican primaries was the largest in history.

Disgruntled elite-wannabes are far more threatening to societal stability than disgruntled workers. In England during the Middle Ages, there was a huge peasant uprising led by Wat Tyler. And what happened? A small group of armoured knights on horseback destroyed them without raising so much as a sweat, because non-elites are not organised. As long as the state is strong and the elites are unified, they can keep a lid on popular discontent.

MH: In the book, you use the arresting phrase “the iron law of oligarchy” to describe why we end up producing too many elites. Once you have a bunch of people in charge of the levers of power and money, they will start funnelling resources towards themselves because they can.

PT: Exactly. What we see in the historical record is that all complex societies go through periods of good times, maybe a century or so long on average, and then periods of disintegration. During the good times, after a couple of generations, the elites get used to the fact that life is good and stable, and that’s when the iron law of oligarchy kicks in. The elites are very strongly tempted to convert their power into goodies for themselves — and if there’s nothing stopping them, that’s what they do. They basically reconfigure the economy in a way that depresses the wages of workers and creates a “wealth pump” that funnels riches directly to the owners and managers of corporations.

MH: You’ve described this happening under Thatcher and Reagan, after several decades of the post-war consensus.

PT: Precisely. Those elites in the US and the UK had 30 glorious years. But by the late Seventies, they started getting selfish. That’s when we began to see the separation between worker productivity and worker compensation. And immediately — within another 30 years — the numbers of uber-rich people exploded in the United States. The number of decamillionaires, those with $10 million or more, increased tenfold from the Eighties to 2010.

That’s the wealth pump at work. And that’s what drives one part of elite overproduction in the US, which is the overproduction of wealthy people who try to become candidates for political office. That’s one of the reasons why the cost of campaigning for political office has completely exploded.

MH: You say in End Times that “America is in a revolutionary situation”. In your view, is it too late to avert the predicted crisis?

PT: We are in crisis, but it’s not too late to avert the worst outcomes. I’m not a collapsologist. The possibility of a social revolution in the US seems to me outlandish. But the Ancien Régime nobility in France could not imagine that in 1789 they would be put under the guillotine, just as antebellum Americans could not imagine a bloody war that would leave 600,000 dead. It is typical that we cannot fully see the possible nastiness of a situation before it unfurls.

We have close to 200 cases of societal crisis right now, and the majority are fairly severe — some leading to outright collapse. But there are also maybe 10-15% of cases where the elites pull together and, cooperating with the rest of the population, they find the right mix of reforms and avoid the worst outcomes. For example, in the mid-19th century, the British Empire was the only large European state that was not affected by a revolution. Of course, there were bad moments, like the Peterloo massacre, but there was no civil war. That’s partly because a group of social elites got together and convinced the rest of their number of the need to reform.

MH: What about elite dissidents today? In your book, you give a fictionalised example of a young, far-Left, woke, upper-middle class revolutionary who wants to smash the system from within. She joins Antifa, the autonomous anti-fascist movement, and wants to abolish the police — even if that makes life worse for the working class. But is she really a revolutionary at all if none of her opinions have any resonance with the working class?

PT: She is a failed revolutionary, clearly, because she cannot harness popular discontent. In fact, it’s the populists on both the Left and the Right who resonate far more with the working class in the United States.

Antifa is really quite ineffectual, except at beating up Right-wing extremists and smashing things. That’s why Jane, this character in my book, grows disenchanted after some years in the Antifa movement because it’s not going anywhere. She then realises that the way to get ahead in the US, if you want to have a revolution, is through the legal channels because the state is very strong. I am Russian, and I can tell you that nothing like a Bolshevik Party is possible in the US. We don’t want a violent revolution, really. Instead, people on both the Left and Right work their way through the structures of power.

MH: Do you think the elites who want to abolish the police are genuine believers?

PT: Yes. Antifa is fairly secretive, and for good reason, because they don’t want to be penetrated by the FBI. So let’s look back 50 years, at the Marxist militant group the Weatherman Underground, because many of those people have now written memoirs, and we have a pretty good idea of what motivated them. They were clearly fighting against what they saw as an unjust American society, where the poor went hungry and where minorities and women were oppressed. They had a genuine cause — but they were completely unrealistic about their ability to start a revolution. And so they started blowing up monuments, killing people, all because they wanted to trigger the outpouring of popular anger against the elites.

But there was no popular anger at that time. This was before the wealth pump got turned on: American workers were doing very well, and every new generation was doing better than the previous one, so they were completely turned off by these wannabe revolutionaries. Just because somebody is a revolutionary doesn’t mean that they are going to be a successful revolutionary.

MH: You say in your book that the Republicans are on their way to becoming a revolutionary party. And, as we saw with Brexit and long before that — with the repeal of the Corn Laws — that alliances between political elites and a disaffected working class are often somewhat cynical. Is revolution more likely to come from the Right? 

PT: We have to remember that there’s not just one counter-elite party; they’re all splintered. It is a constant struggle between the different radical groups. That’s why, in the US, we have Left-wing populists and Right-wing populists who cannot work together, even though Bernie Sanders sometimes says things that are identical to Republican Senator J.D. Vance.

MH: In your book, you note that Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News commentator, represents a kind of lightning rod for some of these dissident forces on the conservative side, and that he actually has quite a coherent ideology. You also say that Rupert Murdoch appears to care more about his bottom line than about the interests of his class. So why did he fire Carlson?

PT: Well, I’m not a Freudian psychologist, but let me reconstruct what I think happened. Rupert Murdoch, who really does care about his bottom line, is embedded in a network of like-minded, wealthy people, and he must have been growing tired of them carping on for years about Tucker Carlson and how he is undermining their interests. Finally, Murdoch broke and fired him. It’s not a matter of money — they’re still paying his salary — they just wanted to shut him up.

MH: In cases where the elite view is in conflict with the popular view, do the elites always win?

PT: The great political scientist Martin Gilens conducted some fascinating research into the legislation passed through Congress. He found that 90% of the American population had zero effect on the actual legislation that passed — zilch, nada. Their technique was not fine enough to distinguish between the final 10 percentiles, but they suspect that it’s really the 1% who drives everything. This is why I argue in my book that the US is not a democracy anymore, it’s a plutocracy.

MH: Did those liberal democratic norms ever do anything in the first place? What’s the point of democracy at all?

PT: Democracy works — just look at the quality of life in Denmark and other socially democratic Nordic countries. Of course, it’s all comparative: autocracies are even more dysfunctional than democracies. But even the US plutocracy has, in the past, been capable of pro-social action. During the progressive era, reformist American elites persuaded and browbeat their cohort into passing the New Deal reforms, which essentially shut down the wealth pump for three glorious decades.

MH: Can you envision a coalition in the present day with the capacity to hold the elites to account — and perhaps even frighten them into shutting off the wealth pump?

PT: Let me first say that I am completely non-partisan, and regularly criticise both the Republicans and Democrats. I think that the populist factions, both on the Left and the Right, often talk a good talk, but they have not yet delivered.

There was an American populist party in the 1890s, which never won elections but did put pressure on the establishment at a time of political tension. Riots and insurrections were becoming more frequent. By the early Twenties, it seemed to many that America had reached a revolutionary moment, especially with the Soviet Union presenting an alternative model to the US system. The first Red Scare broke out in 1921, when a segment of American elites were convinced that a Bolshevik Revolution was imminent.

It was this combination of internal and external pressures that propelled Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reforms. He must have realised, like the Russian tsar Alexander II before him, that you either make reforms from above or you end up having revolution from below.

MH: The entire thesis of your book is that we have always had elites — and, in fact, the important thing is not to get rid of them, but to hold their feet to the fire to make sure they’re behaving. But it’s my observation that the current reigning elite is overtly anti-hierarchical, and that we must get rid of hierarchies, wherever there are, wherever they exist. Where do you stand on the sacred values of anti-hierarchicalism?

PT: For 95% of our evolutionary history, we humans lived in small-scale societies, which were very egalitarian — unusually egalitarian — when you compare us to the great apes, for example. The first elites appeared about 7,500 years ago, in chiefdoms. My argument is that a large-scale society can only function in a reasonable way if we have hierarchies of managers and administrators, because we are not ants. We cannot deal without elites. Elites are necessary because, without them, we wouldn’t be able to cooperate and coordinate in large numbers.

But let’s separate their managerial needs from huge differences in wealth. In principle — and, in fact, in history — many elites who start at the beginning of those integrative eras, they’re fairly unselfish. They live quite modestly. Just think about Republican Rome and the senator class: they were just farmers that were somewhat a little bit wealthier than the citizens. The economic differences were quite minimal.

In principle, it is possible to have elites and have them act in procedural manners. But it is like riding a bicycle: you have to balance all the time. So in order to keep elites from acting in selfish ways, there have to be constraints on them. Democratic institutions provide a set of such constraints, but they have to be supplemented — by other things that we have not yet evolved. Because, inevitably, even democratic society gets into a situation where inequalities start to grow.

My main point is that we can separate the managerial parts of the elites from their accumulating huge wealth and unfettered power.

MH: But what do you make of this societal insistence that we must abolish all hierarchy?

PT: Okay, you want to abolish hierarchies? First, pay yourself the same salary as the median worker in your 500 Fortune company. Put your money where your mouth is.