Historian Peter Turchin casts a whole new light on doom scrolling — the roll toward annihilation. He wants to invent a thermometer for human societies that will measure when they are likely to boil over into war.
Turchin has tapped into history as a giant data set, using mathematics and technology to analyze how the past could help save the future, or at least predict it.
Turchin fled Russia with his family in 1978, moving to the U.S. as a political refugee. He studied biology at New York University and earned a zoology doctorate from Duke University. After he’d learned he ever wanted to know about beetles, he turned to human history, seeking to understand historical dynamics and what he describes as “mathematically preordained disasters.”
In an interview with Graeme Wood for The Atlantic, Turchin predicts the fall of America and an “almost guaranteed” hellish five years coming.
Turchin founded a journal, Cliodynamics, dedicated to “the search for general principles explaining the functioning and dynamics of historical societies.” Clio is the muse of history. To seed the journal’s research, Turchin masterminded a digital archive of historical and archaeological data.
Historians of religion have questioned what is the relationship between the rise of complex civilization and the belief in gods—especially “moralizing gods” — the kind who scold you for sinning, Wood wrote.
In 2019, Turchin and a dozen co-authors mined the records from 414 societies spanning the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and four measures of supernatural enforcement of morality to try and answer the question.
They concluded that complex societies arise through war. Democratic societies rise because they remember being almost wiped out by an external enemy. They avoid extinction only through collective action, and the memory of that collective action makes democratic politics easier to conduct in the present, Turchin said. “There is a very close correlation between adopting democratic institutions and having to fight a war for survival.”
Turchin concluded that civil unrest might soon erupt and could reach the point of shattering the U.S. In 2012, he published an analysis of U.S. political violence using a database. He classified 1,590 incidents—riots, lynchings, any political event where at least one person was killed—from 1780 to 2010. He identified a 50-year cycle of peaks of brutality in 1870, 1920 and 1970.
The worst-case scenario for all-out civil war, Turchin said, would result from a bloated elite class with too few elite jobs to go around, declining living standards among the general population and a government that can’t cover its financial positions.
Looking at at 10,000 years’ worth of data, Turchin said he believes he has found “iron laws that dictate the fates of human societies.” The fate of our own society, he says, is not going to be pretty, at least in the near term.
“It’s too late,” Turchin told The Atlantic. “The problems are deep and structural—not the type that the tedious process of democratic change can fix in time to forestall mayhem. Turchin likens America to a huge ship headed directly for an iceberg … you will not turn in time … That sickening crunch you now hear—steel twisting, rivets popping—is the sound of the ship hitting the iceberg.”
Turchin predicts five hellish years, “almost guaranteed” and likely a decade or more. The problem, he says, is three factors driving social violence.
He stresses “elite overproduction”—the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. In the U.S., he said elites overproduce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility. More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. That’s what we all want, right?
“The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.”
Turchin noted that a person can be part of an ideological elite rather than an economic one. Elite jobs do not multiply as fast as elites do. There are still only 100 Senate seats, but more people than ever have enough money or degrees to think they should be running the country.
“You have a situation now where there are many more elites fighting for the same position, and some portion of them will convert to counter-elites,” Turchin told The Atlantic. Donald Trump, for example, may appear elite (rich father, Wharton degree, gold-painted toilets), but Trumpism is a counter-elite movement, Wood wrote. “His government is packed with credentialed nobodies who were shut out of previous administrations, sometimes for good reasons.”
For example, Trump’s former adviser and chief strategist Steve Bannon is a counter-elite. He grew up working-class, went to Harvard Business School, and got rich as an investment banker and by owning a small stake in the syndication rights to ‘Seinfeld’, Wood wrote None of that translated to political power until he allied himself with the common people. “He was a counter-elite who used Trump to break through, to put the white working males back in charge,” Turchin said.
“Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners,” Wood wrote. “If commoners’ living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency.
“At some point rising insecurity becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.”
Turchin calls for an end to “the runaway process of elite overproduction, but I don’t know what will work to do that, and nobody else does,” he told The Atlantic. “Do you increase taxation? Raise the minimum wage? Universal basic income?”
Eventually, Turchin said he hopes our understanding of historical dynamics will mature to the point that no government will make policy without reflecting on whether it is hurtling toward a mathematically preordained disaster.
He says he could imagine “an agency that keeps tabs on leading indicators and advises accordingly,” Wood wrote. “It would be like the Federal Reserve, but instead of monitoring inflation and controlling monetary supply, it would be tasked with averting total civilizational collapse.”
The 2020 election was not about health care or taxes, climate change, education or housing. “It was a civil war, with Trump leading Red State America in a crusade against the rest of the nation,” wrote David Corn, Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones and an analyst for MSNBC.
“In his four years as president, Trump did all he could to sharpen the divisions to prepare for his reelection bid. He took few steps to reach non-Trump America. During the pandemic, he refused to evince empathy or use the ongoing tragedy to call Americans together. He politicized an emergency and undermined the basic steps that had to be taken to slow the spread. He wanted this civil war.
As hard as it was to get rid of Trump, it will be much harder to get rid of Trumpism, Corn wrote. “This other killer virus threatening the U.S. will not be easily defeated.”
The French prophet Nostradamus of the 1500s understood that history repeats itself. He earned fame and a loyal following during his lifetime. Turchin wants to invent a thermometer for human societies that will measure when they are likely to boil over into war. Let’s hope his prediction of a hellish five years is wrong.