I’ve been reading Peter Turchin’s “Ages of Discord”, which tries to look at patterns of societal strife that he found in previous, pre-industrial civilizations such as Rome and France, and examine how it holds up in a post-industrial era. It bears some resemblance to other cycle theories like Strauss and Howe’s “Fourth Turning” or other long-wave models like Kondratiev Waves (K-Waves). The basic premise behind these ideas are that societies undergo cyclical or pendulum-like dynamics between relatively steady states of prosperity and stability, the internal dynamics of which then produce the conditions that precipitate reversions into turbulent periods of strife and chaotic change.
The important thing to keep in mind is that to that the likes of Turchin and other historical statisticians, the periods of societal discord that they try to map may look like this:
But when experienced in real life look more like this
If there’s one thing in this highly polarized world that everybody probably does agree on it’s that we are almost certainly already in one of these periods of discord right now.
What I’m finding most interesting from Turchin’s take on this isn’t that periods of stability are not terminated by resource depletion (a la the climate alarmists), or any other “limits to growth” per se. While population growth in pre-industrial societies may bump up against “neo-Malthusian” limits, it sets up a counter-cyclical decline in population growth. How these forces interact in a transition from stability to chaos is that an over-abundance of elites creates a situation of the political class splitting into factions and fighting over the spoils of what is now a shrinking pie in terms of real economic wealth:
“According to this theory, population growth in excess of the productivity gains of the land has several effects on social institutions. First, it leads to persistent price inflation, falling real wages, rural misery, urban migration, and increased frequency of food riots and wage protests.
Second, rapid expansion of population results in elite overproduction—an increased number of aspirants for the limited supply of elite positions. Increased intra-elite competition leads to the formation of rival patronage networks vying for state rewards. As a result, elites become riven by increasing rivalry and factionalism.
The above passage made me think of the 2016 US election, one that was framed as a populist political outsider taking on the Washington DC swamp… however as Turchin notes, somewhat uncannily….
“all these trends intensify, the end result is state bankruptcy and consequent loss of military control; elite movements of regional and national rebellion; and a combination of elite-mobilized and popular uprisings that expose the breakdown of central authority.”
Democratic Socialism, BLM, whatever comes next all have in common extremely well off elites (millionaires and billionaires) talking up a populist game against some ostensibly amorphous “Establishment”, to which these crusaders are loathe to admit their own membership.
Regional governors and in increasingly more cases, entire police forces are essentially “going rogue”. It all sounds in the ballpark of what Turchin is talking about.
Then the media makes useful idiots of us all, reframing as existential battles between good and evil what are really just internecine conflicts between elites who regard everybody else as serfs (in much the same way that I have always privately thought that World War 1 was, at it’s core, a family squabble among a pan-European dynasty that ruled by divine right).
Which brings us to today, which Turchin doesn’t assert, but I couldn’t help but notice another eerily prescient remark:
“epidemics and even pandemics strike disproportionately often during the disintegrative phases of secular cycles”
Global lockdowns and fiscal stimulus are once again framed as public safety and societal stabilizing measures. However as some commentators (thinking specifically of Danielle Di Martino) observed: The financial system was coming unglued, and the central bankers needed Covid because they were about to pull a Hail Mary to save a rapidly deteriorating globalized economy.
The Great Pivot: Covid-to-Climate
What’s probably coming next: ubiquitous climate change alarmism, can be understood to mean there aren’t enough private jets to go around, and it was even getting crowded in First Class.
Everything coming out of unaccountable policy institutes like the WEF and the mainstream media are just reframings of what Turchin calls “elite overproduction” such that the rabble believes the revocation of their civil liberties and the decline in their living standards is necessary and just.
What are the alternatives?
Maybe neo-Malthusianism has its place, given The Climate? This is an important question because the signs are already around us that as the pandemic fizzles The Great Pivot will be from COVID-to-Climate.
For starters, numerous environmental and ecological scholars and thinkers who are concerned about humanity’s effects on the ecosystem are vehemently opposed to climate alarmism, finding it destructive and self-defeating. This warrants multiple separate articles but I’ll mention Michael Shellenberger’s “Apocalypse Never” and former Under-Secretary for Energy under Obama, Steven Koonin’s “Unsettled Science”. The latter isn’t out until next month, but Demetri Kofinas just had him on Hidden Forces, I strongly suggest listening and sharing it.
The coming New Green Deal style clampdowns will make global lockdowns look rather benign, despite an abundance of evidence that lockdowns did nothing to change the actual trajectory of COVID.
The coming Climate Emergency will embark on some fool’s errand like “15 months to cool 1.5C”, and it will probably be announced from some Davos-style ecological summit on Richard Branson’s private island that all the participants arrived at via super-yachts.
Because as per Turchin, this is final stage that transitions us into a period of chaos and instability:
‘First, the elites become accustomed to ever greater levels of consumption. Furthermore, competition for social status fuels “conspicuous consumption” (Veblen 1973 ). Thus, the minimum level of consumption necessary for maintaining the elite status exhibits runaway growth. Second, the numbers of elites, in relation to the rest of the population, increase.
The third consequence is that the twin processes of declining living standards for the commoners and increasing consumption levels for the elites will drive up socioeconomic inequality. As a result of the growth in elite appetites and numbers, the proportion of the total economic pie consumed by them will increase. However, there are limits on how far this process can go. Eventually, increasing numbers of elites and elite aspirants will have to translate into declining consumption levels for some, leading to the condition that has been termed elite overproduction (this is reminiscent of population growth leading to overpopulation). Intraelite competition for limited elite positions in the economy and government will become more fierce.
I emphasized the part that provides the most telling signal of them all. If you pay attention to the argument Turchin has been laying out, left to itself, an expanding population with expanding consumption will hit some sort of Neo-Malthusian limit and then begin to reverse under its own constraints.
But this dynamic doesn’t happen at the elite level. The capstone class of society simply continues getting larger and consuming more of the economic pie and owning more of the wealth, exacerbating wealth inequality. The elites are not constrained by limits, until there is nothing left to strip from the underclass and they come into conflict with each other.
Then, well, things need to get serious. We need a world war, or a global lockdown, or a climate emergency to keep the rabble in line so that the people on top can finish sorting out the spoils.
(It is important to note: I’m not saying this is all planned. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy. It’s a dynamic. The people impelling these shifts probably really do think they’re benefactors of humanity and that they deserve to sit atop of it. Divine right persists to this day.)
How about this instead?
What would restore a semblance of natural constraints around both overproduction and overconsumption (and with it externalities like pollution and habitat destruction) would be lifting all artificial attenuators on market signalling. That means: subsidies, bail-outs, governments picking winners and losers, central planning and management by “experts”, all of it has to go.
We have to deal with reality as it is, not as our models insist it is supposed to be. We have to re-gear public policies as responses to facts on the ground as opposed to doubling down on failed models (lockdowns aren’t slowing the spread? Lockdown harder! Masks don’t work? Double masks!)
How about seeing a governor or a premier come out and say this:
“Neither lockdowns nor masks seem to be working, for the next six weeks we want as many people as possible to load up on Vitamin D and Zinc”. We’re going to greenlight Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, and we’re going to launch an operation Warp Speed to study any and all alternative approaches”
In any society in which the incentives were such that the ruling class was really trying to solve the problem at hand, this would have happened without any prompting.
Any business or any tribe that has to weigh trade-offs and can’t externalize their failures would have looked at alternatives to failed models because they would have no other choice.
But the elites and the political class? They get paid either way. They get exemptions. They get priority. And when their “public service” is over, they walk through the revolving door into Big Corporate directorships, lobby firms and think tanks.
All they have to do is get the public to ratify their own servitude every few years, and the elites have the entirety of Big Tech and the Corporate Media to brainwash the public that it’s in their best interests to do it.
In our current age, the dynamics Turchin explored were not mathematically precise and he acknowledged that there would be nuances and subtleties in applying these to a post-industrial age:
While the overall dynamics are complex, the dynamical feedbacks between variables, that is, mechanisms that generate the dynamics, are often characterized by a high degree of determinism.
He is probably onto something that these societal dynamics have set an age of discord in motion, one myself among others have been saying for awhile will be remembered as the end of the age of the Nation State.