Monday, March 6, 2017

Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History by Peter Turchin

History through a different lens
One of the oldest and most common endeavors of those who have thought about the long arc of history has been to discern the long trends—sometimes expressed as “laws”—that govern history. The earliest theorists discerned a cyclical pattern, from the earliest myth-histories to the Greeks, and then the great North Africans, St. Augustine and then Ibn-Khaldun. With the Enlightenment, the idea of unending progress arose and even the concept of an “end of history.” But in the 20th century, with the works of Spengler, Toynbee, and Sorokin, the ideas of cycles once again gained traction. Of course, it’s possible to argue that there is progress in history that is marked by cyclical patterns (a “spiral dynamic” as one viewpoint labels it). Both the march of progress perspective and the cyclical perspective have proponents and persuasive arguments in their favor. I adhere to the aphorism that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes” (misattributed to Mark Twain, but worthy of him). And I’m just not sure where the long arc of history will take us.

Foremost among those exploring the rhymes of history today is Peter Turchin. I’ve enthusiastically reviewed his work here and here, so I won’t repeat too much in the way of background. In his most recent book, Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History*, Turchin delves into a major issue that he left hanging in his previous work. That is, whether the cyclical patterns that he and his confederates identified in a broad range of pre-industrial societies apply to modern, industrial nations. The work of Thomas Malthus and demography as a field of knowledge play a crucial role in his pre-industrial models. In brief, a national or regional population would overshoot the available food supply, leading to widespread immiseration and discontent among the non-elites. In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, food supply has not been an acute issue in industrialized societies. The expansion of European culture and science into the Americas and other locales around the world opened up new sources of food, and science devised new, more efficient means of agriculture that created unprecedented food supplies and food security. So, would this end the cycle that Turchin explained to the general public in War and Peace and War?

Turchin puts to test his structural-demographic theory by examining the history of the U.S. Does his theory hold in this modern, industrial land with abundant food? The short answer is “yes,” a cyclical pattern can be identified following a template established by older societies. A new ingredient replaces the Malthusian trap. Instead of population per se, immigration comes to play a crucial role. In short, while food and even land were widely available in the U.S., there were still stressors placed on most individuals by relative wage stagnation. With population growth from both fertility and immigration, there were periods, notably in the 19th and early 20th century, when virtually unlimited immigration caused wages to stagnate. The “give me your tired, your poor” meant that wages would remain lower as the nation’s reservoir of wage labors kept filling to the brim. Given the current political conflict about immigration, Turchin’s statistics provide a bracing reminder of the complexity of this issue. I’m a descendent of Calvinist immigrants from around the time of the Mayflower and the late 19th-century Irish immigration. I’m the product of both the long-established and the newcomer. Xenophobia and ethnic stereotypes are not the only—or the most cogent—grounds for imposing limits on immigration. However, I hasten to add that after the limitation of immigration in adopted in the early 1920s, when the Red Scare and widespread unrest were causing alarm among elites, led to a drastic decline in the number of immigrants. And from this point forward, Turchin does not identify immigration as a significant factor in the down cycle that began in the Regan era. (Turchin also notes that the Red Scare of the 1920s with the Palmer Raids and like instances were not the result of imagining bogeymen in the closet. The revolutionary potential in the U.S. was serious. Even paranoids have enemies. (The same can be said of the McCarthy Era; for all the paranoia and desecration of fundamental standards of decency and lawfulness, Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were Soviet spies. Despite our desire to uncomplicate it, history remains complicated.)

I would be remiss, however, if you came away thinking that Turchin’s work is only about population and immigration. Turchin’s formula includes a variety of variables. (He expresses his theory via mathematical algorithms, but don’t let this deter you, as Turchin expects it might. He explains it all very well in plain English in addition to providing the mathematical models.) And Turchin, experienced historian as he is, also recognizes that stochastic variables (unanticipated and unmodeled factors) can affect turn of events and the course of trends. (Turchin emphases that he seeks only to identify and track trends, not forecast events.) In addition to population and labor supply issues, Turchin identifies “elite overproduction,” youth bulges in the population, the fiscal soundness of the state, and “cultural factors” as other key ingredients in identifying what overall trends of well-being and stability (or ill-being and instability) the nation will likely experience. Using a variety of databases, Turchin follows the course of U.S. history from the founding of the republic up to the publication of his book in 2016. Along each step of the way, he draws upon quantitative data supplemented by a narrative of events to further his thesis. For anyone acquainted with U.S. history, it’s an intriguing review from a new perspective.

But like most of us, I’m most interested in what’s happening around me. The incredible turn of events surrounding the 2016 election and initiation of the current presidential administration were particularly intriguing. And here, Turchin does not disappoint, and he offers no comfort. In short, beginning around 1920 and continuing through the Great Depression, WWII, and into the post-war era, the U.S. went through what Turchin labels “The Era of Good Feelings II,” named after the first era in the early 19th century, when the nation was young. But by 1970, cracks in the foundation of this era began to appear, and by the beginning of the Reagan presidency, a deterioration becomes apparent (although Reagan’s charm and optimism hid a great deal, I might add). One of the most widely identified factors in the current phase is the stagnation of wages, which affected voters’ choices in recent elections, especially in 2016, when voters decided to gamble on a complete outsider. But elite overproduction has also continued, and social norms have continued to deteriorate. Statistics about the polarization of Congress are shocking but not surprising. Based upon the trends, which events could alter, we won’t hit a peak of social and political disintegration (that certainly entails violence) until after 2020. In other words, hard times lie ahead.

Turchin’s analysis and perspective on the current trend in America provides a needed contrast or at least a supplement to other diagnoses. For instance, I recently finished reading Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger. In that work, Mishra argued that what we in the U.S. are experiencing, as well as many other nations, is a continuing rebellion against modernity.  In other words, a continuation, after a brief reprieve, of the social, political, and economic unrest that the world experienced in much of the 19th and early 20th century. But the shortcoming of Mishra’s analysis is that it does not explain what turns-on or turns-off this discontent.  Modernity, while new to some parts of the world, is certainly not new to the U.S. Turchin’s analysis suggests that the turmoil and political upheaval that we’re now experiencing are a part of a much longer term trend.

Turchin offers us one ray of hope. By identifying these trends, by obtaining this knowledge, he suggests that we can intervene to alleviate the bad times that we seemed destined to endure. Alas, I believe that we as a nation and as a species are too stuck in our ways, too myopic, to take advantage of our knowledge. As reflected in St. Paul’s lament, “for the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do,” aligning human knowledge and will is terrifically difficult and usually occurs only under duress. What might that duress be? It would have to be some “exogenous event,” something outside of Turchin’s model. An alien invasion? A dramatic and devastating change in the climate? Or perhaps some new, emergent property will manifest. The history of the universe is the story of one emergent property unfolding after another, which we can come to understand in hindsight but that we cannot forecast. The cultural evolution of humankind, the development of language, writing, and mathematics; developments of technology and the accumulation of scientific knowledge; the ability to live in cities and vast societies—all are properties and traits that emerged from generations before us. But the hardest change to manifest is within the species itself, within the individual and collective consciousness. And when under threat and stress, more often than not devolution replaces evolution. Can we avoid this? Can we start to navigate our own ship? It’s something that we have to strive for even as the likelihood of success remains low. And Peter Turchin has provided us with useful guidance for our endeavor.   


*Turchin just announced that the book is now available on Kindle. He initially declined Kindle publication because of the number of table and charts included in the book, but feeling assured that these could be properly presented, he authorized a version. My reading of the book was delayed until my courier (daughter) brought me the paperback version at our Christmas visit. Thus, my delay in completing and reviewing this book that I had been looking forward to reading. The Kindle version is good news. 

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