Branko Milanović – Peter Turchin: End Times

For almost two decades, Peter Turchin has been involved, with many colleagues and co-authors, in an epochal project: to figure out, using quantifiable evidence, what are the forces that lead to the rise, and more importantly, to the decline of nations, political turbulence and decay, and revolutions. This has resulted in the creation of an enormous database (CrisisDB) covering multitude of nations and empires over centuries, and several volumes of Turchin’s writings (e.g., Secular Cycles (with Sergey Nefedov), War and Peace and War; I have read the former, not the latter).

End Times is Turchin’s attempt to break to the broader public what he has learned from the complex work in the field (that he calls) Cliodynamics. It is a work of “haute vulgarisation” even if the adjective “haute” is sometimes inapplicable since, in his attempt to reach the broadest possible audience, Turchin has at times stylistically gone much too low assuming almost no prior knowledge amongst his readers. But this is a question of style.

What is the substance? To simplify, in my turn:  Turchin’s model of decay has one variable: inequality in income or wealth. That variable which is often adduced as a source of political discord is given a very concrete meaning by Turchin. (Here, I have to mention the often uncomfortable personal experience when people keen to praise my work on inequality would claim that it is important because high inequality leads to social conflict, yet without either them or me being able to pinpoint exactly how it does it. Now, Peter Turchin comes with an explanation).

Rising inequality means by definition that the median-income person will fall further behind the mean-income person, and increasingly behind the top 10% or the top 1 percent. The median-income person could be, as in today’s United States (a county to whose analysis most of the book is dedicated), an insufficiently credentialed manufacturing or service sector worker; or it could be a semi-skilled laborer in the 19th century Great Britain, or a small landholder in the 1830s France and 1850s Russia.  Thus, precise occupation or class does not matter: income position does.

What happens on the top of income distribution? Increased inequality means, again by definition, that people at the top are getting richer compared to the rest, or put differently, that the advantage of being in the top decile or top percentile is increasing. This, as every economist knows, implies that the “demand” for such top slots will go up. If the elite (the top decile or the top percentile) is composed, as in today’s US, of executives, investment bankers, corporate lawyers there will be an increasing attempt to study the most lucrative fields and to adopt the type of behavior (including the beliefs) most likely to lead to joining the elite. If more people do so than there are numbers of elite positions, a game of empty chairs follows. Not everyone among the aspiring elite will make it. The split in the elite, created by the disappointed would-be elite fighting for top positions, comes next.

In conditions where (a) the distance between the median and the top goes up (what Turchin calls “immiseration” although it is important to note that this is a relative immiseration; i.e., the median-income person can in real terms become better off), and (b) there is elite overproduction, a pre-revolutionary situation ensues.  Immiseration is not enough. To produce a breakdown, we have to have different elites fighting each other, with one of them enlisting the support of the “people” (or others) in order to win.

Even passing knowledge of the backgrounds of the most important revolutions in the modern era shows that Turchin’s simple model provides a good fit. Take the French revolution: stagnation of income and recurrent famines occurred simultaneously with a divided elite (aristocracy and part of the clergy against the rising city merchant class); in Russia in 1917, it was one part of aristocracy against another which lost its landholdings and wealth after the abolition of serfdom and could not compensate it with well-paying state jobs. (The statistic of the number of revolutionaries who were themselves, or their families, the impoverished nobles is striking.) Or take the 1979 Iranian revolution: the sidelined clergy against the bourgeois elite, which, like in the Russian case, produced through its offspring the future revolutionaries.

The model fits well—almost too well—the current American reality. The median person is the “deplorable” (to quote Hillary Clinton), a populist (to quote the mainstream media), a Hillbilly (to quote J. D. Vance) or one of the candidates for the deaths of despair (to quote Anne Case and Angus Deaton). The disaffected, disenchanted American lower middle class has been studied extensively after Trump came to power. The current elite, whom Turchin dissects in an almost forensic manner, is composed of CEOs and board directors, large investors, corporate lawyers, “policy-planning network”, and top elected officials (p. 203), that is, of all those who have money and who use it to gain voice and power. (Not unexpectedly, Turchin argues that the United States is a plutocracy that uses the tools of the general right to vote as a way to legitimize its power).

But that elite is not monolithic. An aspiring elite (“credential precariat”) has been constituted. It has failed so far to reach the top and has ideologically defined itself in opposition to immigration, globalization, “woke” ideology. Turchin argues that this aspiring or would-be elite is in the process of taking over the Republican party and thus creating a political tool for an effective intra-elite competition. This is, of course, resented by the ruling elite that enjoyed an extraordinary good run between 1980 and 2008 as its view of the world (neoliberal capitalism, “credentialism”, and identity politics) became espoused by both mainstream parties. Turchin regards the present political struggle in the US as the ruling class trying (desperately) to fend off an assault on its ideology and, more importantly, on its economic position, by an aspiring elite that is enlisting the support of the disaffected middle class.

It seems to be a battle of epic proportions. Many of the pre-revolutionary signs are there: dysfunctional political system, strong interparty splits, lack of political representation for the outsiders. Turchin approvingly quotes the seminal empirical work by Amory Gethin, Clara Martinez Toledano and Thomas Piketty arguing that in all Western democracies, the left-wing or social-democratic parties have become parties of the educated credential elites, while the working and middle classes have lost their influence and even representation.

Turchin is agnostic—as one should be—regarding what the outcome of the American political crisis will be. The American political system has shown itself to be extraordinary flexible and able to withstand serious shocks. In some ways, one could even think that Trump’s various conscious and unconscious “subversions” redounded precisely to the advantage of the system because they showed system’s resilience even when the President tried to “overthrow” it. But on the other hand, deep incomprehension and lack of interest in the other side’s view is precisely one of these characteristics of pre-revolutionary times and the US has plenty of evidence of this.

Turchin’s model applies to China (not discussed in the book) probably as well as to America. The relative immiseration of the median class has gone on for the past forty years. Indeed, it went hand-in-hand with its phenomenal increase in material well-being, to the clip of almost 10% per year, and is thus less noticeable. At the top end of the distribution, the political/administrative class that has historically ruled China is opposed, still very cautiously, by the rising capitalist/merchant class.  In a paper by Yang, Novokmet and Milanovic, we have documented and analyzed probably the most radical change —short of a revolution—in the composition of the elite ever. That has occurred in China between 1988 and 2013. Economic growth has displaced the administrative class in favor of those linked with the private sector (capitalists).

Turchin’s model of internal breakdown thus acquires a geopolitical dimension.  The struggle for global supremacy between the US and China can then be visualized as the question of whose political system will crack first. If China’s does, it will have to scale down its foreign ambitions, and accept the role of a subaltern power (to the United States) even in Asia. If the American political system collapses first, the US would move toward isolationism and would have to acquiesce into Chinese rising power in Asia, thus losing controlling role in the most dynamic part of the world.

Will Turchin’s model’s predictions turn out to be correct? We do not know, but I think, it is important to focus on the logic of the mechanism proposed by Turchin and to see the next couple of decades as a period of difficulties rather than to think, as some people who popularized Turchin’s views did in the Summer of 2020, that social processes can be predicted with a precision of movement of celestial bodies.

Turchin’s is a fascinating thesis worth reading about, and then either witnessing the chronicle how it unfolds, or perhaps participating in bringing about the outcome or staving it off —because Turchin does show that there the cases when the elite foresight and well-understood self-interest enabled it to ride off the time of troubles.

This book review is cross-posted from Branko’s Substack blog

End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration by Peter Turchin

Publisher: Penguin Press

ISBN: 978-0593490501

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