In February 2010, Peter Turchin, a relatively obscure researcher at the University of Connecticut, wrote a letter to the distinguished journal Nature. He was responding to their “2020 visions” issue – an upbeat dawn-of-the-decade exercise that collected predictions of progress from across science and politics. Turchin assumed the role of Cassandra. “The next decade is likely to be a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe,” he wrote, “which could undermine the sort of scientific progress you describe.” He pointed to waves of disruption that tend to recur every 50 years. “All these cycles look set to peak in the years around 2020.” There was still time to change course, though: with measures to improve wellbeing and reduce economic inequality, “records show that societies can avert disaster”.
Normally scientists enjoy being proved right, but for Turchin, the way the following decade panned out must have seemed a bit too on-the-nose. The response to the financial crisis wasn’t a New Deal-style rescue package as he’d recommended, but austerity and a widening of the gap between rich and poor. Frustration at the established order threw up Brexit in Britain and Trump in the US. Right on cue, 2020 delivered a pandemic, economic chaos and a president who refused to concede defeat at the polls. The following January saw the storming of the Capitol, and images of insurrection that seemed like a throwback to an earlier revolutionary era.
Now Turchin is having another go at explaining those cycles of disruption and what it might take to emerge unscathed (though he tells me that, unlike in 2010, it’s past time to avoid the consequences entirely: “We are in crisis – but it’s not too late to take a less bloody exit.”) His book’s title, End Times, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, but it does provide a clear theory about how we got into this mess, and how to get out of it. There are some familiar concepts here – falling living standards leading to mass discontent – but others, “elite overproduction” in particular, are much less widely recognised, and genuinely eye-opening.
For a global prophet of doom, Turchin cuts a surprisingly ordinary figure. He speaks to me over Zoom from the sofa in his modest living room in Storrs, Connecticut, essentially a village with a huge university campus attached. “We have a house in the woods,” he tells me, and praises the area’s “low population density” in a way that makes me wonder if he’s prepping for the apocalypse. The reality is less alarming. “You know, my wife has a garden, it’s very comfortable.” A bit like a dacha, he observes – a reminder, alongside his strong accent, that he was born in the USSR – “a country that doesn’t exist any more”. He emigrated with his dissident parents in 1977, when he was 20.
That background makes him less sanguine than others might be about the prospect of societal upheaval – even state collapse. “I went back for the first time since leaving in 1992, and I experienced a failed state. Now, when I’d moved to the United States in 1977, the [country] was really at the brink of several trends beginning to point downwards,” he says, tracing the path of a rollercoaster with his right hand. “I saw the end of the Golden Age – from the common people’s point of view – and it has been downhill since then. So I’m really worried about ending up in another failed state.”
I point out that this will seem like hyperbole to lots of people. “I don’t say that it’s 100% certain,” he counters – and notably refuses to be drawn on whether Trump will be re-elected in 2024. “The road out of crisis opens up a whole set of possibilities, from pretty mild instability all the way to collapse. At this point, pretty much anything is possible.”
What were those downward-pointing trends in the 1970s, then? That decade, Turchin argues, was when the social contract established in the 1930s – Roosevelt’s New Deal – began to disintegrate. For 40 years, America had effectively replicated the Nordic model under which the interests of workers, owners and the state were kept in balance (he’s careful to point out that a significant portion of the population – mostly Black Americans – were always shut out of this cosy arrangement). After that, things began to shift in favour of owners. The power of unions was eroded, as were labour rights. Typical wages started to lag behind economic growth, or even decrease. Quality of life suffered, and with it life expectancy. “Diseases of despair” such as opioid or alcohol abuse grew. Turchin even links the rise of mass shootings to a generalised hopelessness he refers to as “popular immiseration”.
At the same time, the rich got richer – far richer. A system of taxation that weighed most heavily on the highest earners, including a top rate of 90%, was dismantled. The number of decamillionaires, or households worth over $10m, increased from 66,000 in 1983 to 693,000 in 2019, accounting for inflation. The economy chugged along nicely, but the share of it controlled by the wealthiest got larger at the expense of the average earner. Turchin calls this the “wealth pump”. Things are now set up, he argues, so that money gushes away from workers and towards the elite, like a blowout from an oil well.
This has an interesting effect: so-called “elite overproduction”, a phrase coined by Turchin’s colleague, the sociologist Jack Goldstone. “The social pyramid has grown top heavy,” he explains, with rich families and top universities churning out more wealthy graduates than the system can accommodate. To illustrate this, Turchin describes a game of musical chairs with a twist. There’s always been a limited number of powerful positions, be they senator, governor, supreme court justice or media mogul. In an era of elite overproduction, rather than chairs being taken away whenever the music stops, the number of competitors increases instead. Before you know it, there are far more people than can realistically attain high office. Fights break out. Norms (and chairs) are overturned as “elite aspirants” – those who have been brought up in the expectation of a say in how things are run – turn into counter-elites, prepared to smash the system to get their way. This isn’t just a US problem, by the way; Turchin says that Britain is on a similar trajectory. In fact, among OECD countries, it’s next in line. Germany is further behind, but also on the same “slippery slope”.
Turchin, who was a mathematical ecologist before turning to history in the mid-2000s, brings a numbers approach to his adopted subject. He was able to predict the turbulent 2020s by looking at economic and social indicators from 100 historical crises, gathered together in a database called CrisisDB. They range from medieval France to 19th-century Britain, and show that periods of instability are pretty consistently preceded by a decline in wages, the emergence of a wealth pump, and most combustibly, elite overproduction.
Why is the latter so important? Well, the masses may be miserable, but without someone who has the status and resources to organise them, they’ll simply languish. Their revolutionary potential is only realised once a “political entrepreneur” – usually a frustrated elite aspirant – gets involved. Robespierre, Lenin and Castro are all examples of highly privileged individuals who felt excluded from existing power structures and led popular movements to overthrow them. In 19th-century China, a young man from a well-to-do family failed the exams that would have enabled him to become a top flight imperial administrator four times. Hong Xiuquan went on to lead a rebellion in which at least 20 million died.
Things may not be quite as bad as that yet, but it’s not hard to identify modern-day figures who fit the elite aspirant mould. Donald Trump is the most obvious, a beneficiary of the wealth pump whose only route to power was as a political entrepreneur stoking grievance. Nigel Farage? “He’s a good example. He’s personally wealthy, a member of the economic elite. And he has been channelling discontent.” Sometimes counter-elites mount their takeover from the inside. With Brexit, “there was a traditional segment of the Conservative party, but then there was an insurgent part. And they were [also] using this discontent. What we see in history is that one segment of the elite channels popular discontent to advance their political careers. This happened in Republican Rome 2,000 years ago, and it happens now.”
Another distinctive feature of elite overproduction is the fierce ideological competition it generates. Turchin believes we’ve transitioned from the pre-crisis period, where political entrepreneurs largely attacked the established order, to a phase in which newly powerful factions are fighting among themselves. This, he argues, is one of the mechanisms behind “cancel culture”. “Such vicious ideological struggles are a common phase in any revolution,” he writes. There is a race to the extremes, with denunciations becoming more and more intense. “In the struggle between rival factions, the ones willing to escalate accusations win over the moderate ones.”
So how do we fix things? It strikes me that there are some pretty obvious political conclusions to be drawn from Turchin’s research, but he’s reluctant to be led too far down the road of punditry. “I don’t want to enter into the political infighting,” he says. “One thing that we know about historical exits from crisis is that at some point the elites and population have to pull together … the different factions have to be reconciled. That’s why I try to stay away from taking sides.”
He will, however, admit to “several recommendations”, saying that “some of them will please liberals, others will please conservatives”. Liberals, presumably, will be heartened by the idea that “we need to give workers more power”. In order to turn off the wealth pump you have to increase labour’s share of the pie at the expense of business. Partly by redistribution, but partly by beefing up workers’ ability to demand higher pay.
What kind of thing would please conservatives? Here he seems to hesitate slightly. “Let’s say … massive immigration does depress the wages of common workers. Actually, this is a paleo-left position. It’s just now the new left is focusing more on cultural issues, and they are all for immigration, but conservatives are now against immigration.” He elaborates, saying it’s an “iron law” of economics that if you increase the supply of something – in this case, labour – then its price will decline. “But,” he points out, “it won’t happen if workers have enough social power, if there are good labour organisations and, also, if the elites internalise the need for dividing fairly the fruits of economic growth. So if you have those institutions, then immigration is not a problem.”
And what about those surplus elites? Well, if you happen to be one, look away now. Halfway through End Times Turchin remarks, somewhat blithely: “In order for stability to return, elite overproduction somehow needs to be taken care of – historically and typically by eliminating the surplus elites through massacre, imprisonment, emigration, or forced or voluntary downward social mobility.” In fact, CrisisDB allows us to be even more precise: in 40% of crises, rulers were assassinated; 75% ended in revolutions or civil wars (or both), and in 20%, those civil wars dragged on for a century or longer. Sixty percent of the time the state in question disappeared, either through conquest or disintegration.
It would be nice to avoid a century-long civil war. Perhaps instead we can select “voluntary downward social mobility” from Turchin’s grisly menu. This would require elites to be persuaded to give up some of their wealth, or to decide to do so off their own backs. Patriotic Millionaires, a pressure group made up of rich people, including members of the Disney family, who “share a profound concern about the destabilising level of economic and political inequality in America” is probably unrepresentative of the class as a whole. More likely, things will have to get so bad that a new social contract becomes the only alternative to levels of discontent that would threaten private fortunes in any case. That’s what happened in the 1930s. It also happened in Britain in the 1830s, when the prospect of a revolution like the ones sweeping Europe was kept at bay by the Great Reform Act and the repeal of the corn laws (it also helped that frustrated elite aspirants could try their hand at running distant parts of the empire).
In any case, it seems we’ll know what the denouement is before too long. “The nice thing about CrisisDB is that we now have statistics on how long these periods last,” Turchin tells me. “Roughly speaking, it’s 10 to 20 years. Very few shorter, some much longer. But for those who think that we’re [already] out of it in the United States? That’s not very likely.” I nod, and make a mental note to speak to him again in 2033.
• End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration by Peter Turchin will be published by Allen Lane on 13 June. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.