‘American Empire to fall by 2020’ - pioneer of revolutionary cliodynamic theory
Peter Turchin, a Russian immigrant who is currently teaching at the University of Connecticut, has always been profoundly dissatisfied with the way historians treated ‘history’. Back in the 1990s Turchin contended that every-so-often the servants of Clio, the muse of history, were pathologically unwilling to do anything other than merely to theorise about the causes of historical events; they showed absolutely no desire to test their hypotheses rigorously. Frustrated by this state of affairs, Turchin invented cliodynamics, a revolutionary trans-disciplinary field of research that lay at the intersection of historical macrosociology, economic history, the mathematical modelling of long-term social processes and the construction and analysis of historical databases. The new approach allowed Turchin not only to make history an analytical and predictive science but also to discover general principles that govern the stability of human societies over time.
After studying various agrarian and pre-industrial societies throughout history, Turchin discovered two interacting trends that dominated the data on political instability. The first, which he called the secular cycle, usually extends over two to three centuries. The cycle starts with an egalitarian society, in which demand and supply for labour was relatively balanced. In time, the population grows, labour supply exceeds demand, living standards fall and people start competing for more power. At some point, the number of political entrepreneurs who are all trying to gain power becomes so great that the competition for power becomes violent. The elite becomes frustrated and seeks to overturn the political order to better suit themselves. As a result, political instability ensues, leading to collapse and, the cycle begins again.
The second cycle that Turchin discovered spanned over 50 years – approximately two generations – and was called “the fathers-and-sons cycle”. This shorter trend begins with the first generation in a family responding violently to a perceived social injustice. Subsequently, the second generation (the son) lives with the miserable legacy of the resulting conflict, however he abstains from the same violent route that the first generation took to fight the injustice. The third generation, however, does not abstain and the cycle recommences. Turchin compares this cycle to a forest fire that flares up and seems to burn out but only until sufficient underbrush embers accumulate to set off the fire again.
Turchin argues that these interacting cycles for patterns of instability exist not only across Europe and Asia but also in the US. Having studied American demographic, economic, and socio-political records over the past 230 years Turchin is certain that political instability and violence in the US peaks roughly every 50 years: in 1870 (during and after the Civil War when the wave of urban violence fuelled by ethnic and class resentment swept across the country); in 1920 (just after World War I when race riots, workers' strikes and a surge of anti-Communist feeling led many people to think that revolution was imminent); and in 1970 (during the Vietnam War and after a tumultuous decade of civil rights activism when violent student demonstrations, political assassinations, riots and terrorism became the new reality of American life). Following the trend, political instability would presumably peak again in 2020. Indeed, Turchin already sees various manifestations of violence that could potentially reset the cycle in seven-years time.
More specifically, Turchin refers to three distinct kinds of violence that will be on the rise in the US during the next seven years. The first is “group on group”, which, in the case of modern-day America, would mean riots. The most recent example of this is the “Occupy Wall Street” uprising. The second type of violence is “groups against individuals”. America has already seen such violence in the form of lynchings in the 1900s, and while lynchings are not common in 21st century America, Turchin expects this type of violence to re-emerge on US socio-political arena. Lastly, there is “individuals against groups” violence, or rampage killings. According to Turchin, there has been an almost twenty-fold rise in this particular variety of violence over the last twenty years. Columbine, Virginia Tech, and the Timothy McVeigh bombing are the most prominent examples of rampage attacks. They could in fact be called ‘terrorist attacks’, but, aware of national sensitivity to American-led terrorism, Turchin refrains from using the term.
Crucially, Turchin does not expect his cliodynamic theory to be able to predict the future with a hundred percent certainty. While Turchin’s colleagues in the scientific world assert that his model is highly likely to pass the empirical test in the nearest future, Turchin admits that accurate historical forecasts are often impossible because of phenomena such as mathematical chaos, free will and the self-defeating prophecy that interferes every-so-often with secular cycles. As a result, Turchin proposes to use his cliodynamic theory in another, what he sees as a more helpful, way. The scientist suggests that his model could be used for a particular type of ‘social engineering’ where it would be possible to calculate the consequences of specific social choices, to encourage the development of social systems in desired directions and to avoid unintended consequences. In this sense, Turchin’s cliodynamic model might give humanity a real opportunity to truly learn from history rather than merely drawing inferences from past events.