There is a tide in the affairs of men. It cycles with a period of about three hundred years. During its flood, farms and businesses prosper, and great empires enjoy golden ages. During its ebb, war and famine stalk the land, and states collapse into barbarism.
Chinese population over time
At least this is the thesis of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov, authors of Secular Cycles. They start off Malthusian: due to natural reproduction, population will keep increasing until it reaches the limits of what the land can support. At that point, everyone will be stuck at subsistence level. If any group ever enjoys a standard of living above subsistence level, they will keep reproducing until they are back down at subsistence.
Standard Malthusian theory evokes images of a population stable at subsistence level forever. But Turchin and Nefedov argues this isn’t how it works. A population at subsistence will always be one meal away from starving. When a famine hits, many of them will starve. When a plague hits, they will already be too sickly to fight it off. When conflict arrives, they will be desperate enough to enlist in the armies of whichever warlord can offer them a warm meal.
These are not piecemeal events, picking off just enough of the population to bring it back to subsistence. They are great cataclysms. The Black Plague killed 30% – 60% of Europeans; the Antonine Plague of Rome was almost as deadly. The Thirty Years War killed 25% – 40% of Germans; the Time of Troubles may have killed 50% of medieval Russia.
Thus the secular cycle. When population is low, everyone has more than enough land. People grow rich and reproduce. As time goes on, the same amount of farmland gets split among more and more people. Wages are driven down to subsistence. War, Famine, and Pestilence ravage the land, with Death not far behind. The killings continue until population is low again, at which point the cycle starts over.
This applies mostly to peasants, who are most at risk of starving. But nobles go through a related process. As a cycle begins, their numbers are low. As time goes on, their population expands, both through natural reproduction and through upward mobility. Eventually, there are more nobles than there are good positions…
(this part confused me a little. Shouldn’t number of good positions scale with population? IE if one baron rules 1,000 peasants, the number of baronial positions should scale with the size of a society. I think T&N hint at a few answers. First, some positions are absolute rather than relative, eg “King” or “Minister of the Economy”. Second, noble numbers may sometimes increase faster than peasant numbers, since nobles have more food and better chances to reproduce. Third, during boom times, the ranks of nobles are swelled through upward mobility. Fourth, conspicuous consumption is a ratchet effect: during boom times, the expectations of nobility should gradually rise. Fifth, sometimes the relevant denominator is not peasants but land: if a noble only has one acre of land, it doesn’t matter how many peasants he controls. Sixth, nobles usually survive famines and plagues pretty well, so after those have done their work, there are far fewer peasants but basically the same number of nobles. All of these factors contribute to excess noble population – or as T&N call it, “elite overproduction”)
…and the nobles form “rival patronage networks” to fight for the few remaining good spots. The state goes from united (or at least all nobles united against the peasants) to divided, with coalitions of nobles duking it out (no pun intended). This can lead either to successful peasant rebellion, as some nobles support the peasants as part of inter-noble power plays, or just to civil war. Although famine and plague barely affect nobles, war affects them disproportionately – both because they were often knights or other front-line soldiers, and because killing the other side’s nobles was often a major strategic goal (think Game of Thrones). So a civil war usually further depletes the already-depleted peasant population, and finally depletes noble populations, leading to a general underpopulation and the beginning of the next cycle.
Combine these two processes, and you get the basic structure of a secular cycle. There are about a hundred years of unalloyed growth, as peasant and noble populations rebound from the last disaster. During this period, the economy is strong, the people are optimistic and patriotic, and the state is strong and united.
After this come about fifty years of “stagflation”. There is no more room for easy growth, but the system is able to absorb the surplus population without cracking. Peasants may not have enough land, but they go to the city in search of jobs. Nobles may not have enough of the positions they want, but they go to college in order to become bureaucrats, or join the retinues of stronger nobles. The price of labor reaches its lowest point, and the haves are able to exploit the desperation of the have-nots to reach the zenith of their power. From the outside, this period can look like a golden age: huge cities buzzing with people, universities crammed with students, ultra-rich nobles throwing money at the arts and sciences. From the inside, for most people it will look like a narrowing of opportunity and a hard-to-explain but growing sense that something is wrong.
After this comes a crisis. The mechanisms that have previously absorbed surplus population fail. Famine and disease ravage the peasantry. State finances fall apart. Social trust and patriotism disappear as it becomes increasingly obvious that it’s every man for himself and that people with scruples will be defeated or exploited by people without.
After this comes the depression period (marked “intercycle” on the graph above, but I’m going to stick with the book’s term). The graph makes it look puny, but it can last 100 to 150 years. During this period, the peasant population is low, but the noble population is still high. This is most likely an era of very weak or even absent state power, barbarian invasions, and civil war. The peasant population is in a good position to expand, but cannot do so because wars keep killing people off or forcing them into walled towns where they can’t do any farming. Usually it takes a couple more wars and disasters before the noble population has decreased enough to reverse elite overproduction. At this point the remaining nobles look around, decide that there is more than enough for all of them, and feel incentivized to cooperate with the formation of a strong centralized state.
This cycle is interwoven with a second 40-60 year process that T&N call the “fathers-and-sons cycle” or “bigenerational cycle”. The data tend to show waves of disorder about every 40-60 years. During the “integrative trend” (T&N’s term for the optimistic growth and stagflation phases), these can just be minor protests or a small rebellion that is easily crushed. During the “disintegrative trend” (crisis + depression), they usually represent individual outbreaks of civil war. For example, during the Roman Republic, the violence around the death of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC was relatively limited, because Rome had not yet entered its crisis phase. 40 years later, in the depths of the crisis phase, there was a second outbreak of violence (91 – 82 BC) including the Social War and Sulla’s wars, which escalated to full-scale (though limited) civil war. 40 years later there was a third outbreak (49 – 27 BC) including Caesar and Augustus’s very large civil wars. After that the new integrative trend started and further violence was suppressed.
In Secular Cycles, T&N mostly just identify this pattern from the data and don’t talk a lot about what causes it. But in some of Turchin’s other work, he applies some of the math used to model epidemics in public health. His model imagines three kinds of people: naives, radicals, and moderates. At the start of a cycle, most people are naive, with a few radicals. Radicals gradually spread radicalism, either by converting their friends or provoking their enemies (eg a terrorist attack by one side convinces previously disengaged people to join the other side). This spreads like any other epidemic. But as violence gets worse, some people convert to “moderates”, here meaning not “wishy-washy people who don’t care” but something more like “people disenchanted with the cycle of violence, determined to get peace at any price”. Moderates suppress radicals, but as they die off most people are naive and the cycle begins again. Using various parameters for his model Turchin claims this predicts the forty-to-sixty year cycle of violence observed in the data.
So this is the basic thesis of Secular Cycles. Pre-industrial history operates on two cycles: first, a three-hundred year cycle of the rise-and-fall of civilizations. And second, a 40-60 year cycle of violent disorder that only becomes relevant during the lowest parts of the first cycle.
This is all in the first chapter of the book! The next eight chapters are case studies of eight different historical periods and how they followed the secular cycle model.
For example, Chapter 7 is on the Roman Empire. It starts with Augustus in 27 BC. The Roman Republic has just undergone a hundred years of civil war, from the Gracchi to Marius to Sulla to Pompey to Caesar to Antony. All of this decreased its population by 30% from its second-century peak. That means things are set to get a lot better very quickly.
The expansion phase of the Empire lasted from Augustus (27 BC) to Nerva (96 AD), followed by a stagflation phase from Nerva to Antonius Pius (165 AD). Throughout both phases, the population grew – from about 40 million in Augustus’ day to 65 million in Antonius’. Wheat prices stayed stable until Nerva, then doubled from the beginning of the second century to its end. Legionary pay followed the inverse pattern, staying stable until Nerva and then decreasing by a third before 200. The finances of the state were the same – pretty good until the late second century (despite occasional crazy people becoming Emperor and spending the entire treasury building statues of themselves), but cratering during the time of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus (who debased the denarius down to only 2 g silver).
Throughout expansion and stagflation, the Empire was relatively peaceful (the “Pax Romana”). Sure, occasionally a crazy person would become Emperor and they would have to kill him. There was even one small civil war which lasted all of a year (69 AD). But in general, these were isolated incidents.
Throughout the expansion phase, upward mobility was high and income inequality relatively low. T&N measure this as how many consuls (the highest position in the Roman governmental hierarchy) had fathers who were also consuls. This decreased throughout the first century – from 46% to 18% – then started creeping back up during the stagflation phase to reach 32% at the end of the second century.
The crisis phase began in 165 AD at the peak of Rome’s population and wealth. The Antonine Plague ravaged the Empire, killing 30% of the population. Fifteen years later, the century-long dominance of the Good Emperors ended, and Commodus took the throne. Then he was murdered and Pertinax took the throne. Then he was murdered and Didius Julianus took the throne. Then he was murdered and Septimius Severus took the throne.
Now we are well into the disintegrative trend, and the shorter 40-60 year cycle comes into play. Septimius Severus founds a dynasty that lasts 41 years, until Septimius Alexander (the grandson of Septimius Severus’ sister-in-law; it’s complicated) was assassinated by his own soldiers in Germany. This begins the Crisis Of The Third Century, a time of constant civil war, mass depopulation, and economic collapse. The Five Good Emperors of the second century ruled 84 years between them (average of 17 years per emperor). The fifty year Crisis included 27 emperors, for an average of less than 2 years per emperor.
Finally, in 284, Emperor Diocletian ended the civil wars, re-established centralized authority, and essentially refounded the Roman Empire – a nice round 310 years after Augustus did the same. T&N mark this as the end of a secular cycle and the beginning of a new integrative trend.
T&N are able to tell this story. But they don’t just tell the story. They are able to cite various statistics to back themselves up. The Roman population statistics. The price of wheat and other foodstuffs. The average wages for laborers. They especially like coin hoards – the amount of buried treasure from a given period discovered by treasure-hunters – because they argue you only bury your money during times of instability, so this forms a semi-objective way of measuring how unstable things are.
They are at their best when presenting very broad summary statistics. For example, Roman industry produced vast amounts of lead, which entered the atmosphere and settled into the Greenland ice sheet. Here is Roman lead output per year as measured in ice cores:
This shows four peaks for the four cycles T&N identify in Rome: the Kingdom, the Republic, the Early Empire of Augustus (Principate, the one described above), and the Late Empire of Diocletian (Dominate). It even shows a sawtooth-y pattern corresponding to the shorter bigenerational cycles.
Or here is building activity in Rome, measured by how many buildings archaeologists have found from a given time:
This is a little less perfect (why is there a big gap in the middle of the Principate? I guess Augustus is a hard act to follow, building-wise) but it still looks good for the cycle theory.
And here is an Index Of Political Instability, which “combines measures of duration, intensity, and scale of political instability events, coded by a team of professional historians”:
Rome is the one on top. Instability clearly peaks during the crisis-depression phases between T&N’s secular cycles – again with a sawtooth pattern representing the bigenerational cycles.
Seeing patterns in random noise is one of the basic human failure modes. Secular Cycles is so prima facie crackpottish that it should require mountains of data before we even start wondering if it might be true. I want to make it clear that the book – plus Turchin individually in some of his other books and papers – provides these mountains. I can’t show every single case study, graph, and table in this book review. But the chapter above on the Roman Principate included 25 named figures and graphs, plus countless more informal presentations of data series, from “real wages of agricultural laborers in Roman Egypt during the second century” to “mean annual real land rents for wheat fields in artabas per aroura, 27 BC to 268 CE” to “imperial handouts per reign-year” to “importation of African red slip ware into the Albegna Valley of Etruria, 100 – 600”. And this is just one chapter, randomly chosen. There are seven others just like this. This book understands the burden of proof it is under, and does everything it can to meet it.
Still, we should be skeptical. How many degrees of freedom do T&N have, and is it enough to undermine their case?
First, they get some freedom in the civilizations they use as case studies. They could have searched through every region and period and cherry-picked eight civilizations that rose and fell over a periods of three hundred years. Did they? I don’t think so. The case studies are England, France, Rome, and Russia. These are some of the civilizations of greatest interest to the English-speaking world (except Russia, which makes sense in context because the authors are both Russian). They’re also some of the civilizations best-studied by Anglophone historians and with the most data available (the authors’ methodology requires having good time-series of populations, budgets, food production, etc).
Also, it’s not too hard to look at the civilizations they didn’t study and fill in the gaps. The book barely mentions China, but it seems to fit the model pretty well (“the empire united longs to divide; divided longs to unite”). In fact, taking the quotation completely seriously – the empire was first united during the Qin Dynasty starting in 221 BC, which lasted only 20 years before seguing into the Han Dynasty in 202 BC. The Han expanded and prospered for about a century, had another century of complicated intrigue and frequently revolt, and then ended in disaster in the first part of the first century, with a set of failed reforms, civil war, the sack of the capital, some more civil war, peasant revolt, and even more civil war. The separate period of the Eastern Han Dynasty began in 25 AD, about 240 years after the beginning of the Qin-Han cycle. The Eastern Han also grew and prospered for about a hundred years, then had another fifty years of simmering discontent, then fell apart in about 184 AD, with another series of civil wars, peasant rebellions, etc. This was the Three Kingdoms Period during which “the empire united longs to divide, divided longs to unite” was written to describe. It lasted another eighty years until 266 AD, after which the Jin Dynasty began. The Jin Dynasty was kind of crap, but it lasted another 180 years until 420, followed by 160 years of division, followed by the Sui and Tang dynasties, which were not crap. So I don’t think it takes too much pattern-matching to identify a Western-Han-to-Eastern-Han Cycle of 240 years, followed by an Eastern-Han-to-Jin Cycle of 241 years, followed by a Jin-to-Sui/Tang-Cycle of 324 years.
One could make a more hostile analysis. Is it really fair to lump the Western Jin and Eastern Jin conveniently together, but separate the Western Han and Eastern Han conveniently apart? Is it really fair to call the crappy and revolt-prone Jin Dynasty an “integrative trend” rather than a disintegrative trend that lasted much longer than the theory should predict? Is it really fair to round off cycles of 240 and 320 years to “basically 300 years”?
I think the answer to all of these is “T&N aren’t making predictions about the length of Chinese dynasties, they’re making predictions about the nature of secular cycles, which are correlated with dynasties but not identical to them”. If I had the equivalent to lead core readings for China, or an “instability index”, or time series data for wages or health or pottery importation or so on, maybe it would be perfectly obvious that the Eastern and Western Han defined two different periods, but the Eastern and Western Jin were part of the same period – the same way one look at the lead core data for Rome shows that the Julio-Claudian dynasty vs. the Flavian Dynasty is not an interesting transition.
A secondary answer might be that T&N admit all sorts of things can alter the length of secular cycles. They tragically devote only a few pages to “Ibn Khaldun cycles”, the theory of 14th century Arabic historian Ibn Khaldun that civilizations in the Maghreb rise and fall on a one hundred year period. But they discuss it just enough to say their data confirm Ibn Khaldun’s observations. The accelerated timescale (100 vs. 300 years) is because the Maghreb is massively polygynous, with successful leaders having harems of hundreds of concubines. This speeds up the elite overproduction process and makes everything happen in fast-forward. T&N also admit that their theory only describes civilizations insofar as they are self-contained. This approximately holds for hegemons like Rome at its height, but fails for eg Poland, whose history is going to be much more influenced by when Russia or Germany decides to invade than by the internal mechanisms of Polish society. Insofar as external shocks – whether climatic, foreign military, or whatever else – affect a civilization, secular cycles will be stretched out, compressed, or just totally absent.
This sort of thing must obviously be true, and it’s good T&N say it, but it’s also a free pass to add as many epicycles as you need to explain failure to match data. All I can say looking at China is that, if you give it some wiggle room, it seems to fit T&N’s theories okay. The same is true of a bunch of other civilizations I plugged in to see if they would work.
Second, T&N get some degrees of freedom based on what statistics they use. In every case, they present statistics that support the presence of secular cycles, but they’re not the same statistics in every case. On the one hand, this is unavoidable; we may not have good wage data for every civilization, and levels of pottery importation might be more relevant to ancient Rome than to 19th-century Russia. On the other hand, I’m not sure what prevents them from just never mentioning the Instability Index if the Instability Index doesn’t show what they want it to show.
Here are some random Rome-related indicators I found online:
None of them show the same four-peaked Kingdom-Republic-Principate-Dominate pattern as the ones Secular Cycles cites, or the ones Turchin has online.
Third, a lot of the statistics themselves have some degrees of freedom. A lot of them are things like “Instability Index” or “Index of Social Well-Being” or “General Badness Index”. These seem like the kind of scores you can fiddle with to get the results you want. Turchin claims he hasn’t fiddled with them – his instability index is taken from a 1937 paper I haven’t been able to find. But how many papers like that are there? Am I getting too conspiratorial now?
Likewise, we don’t have direct access to the budget of the Roman Empire (or Plantagenet England, or…). Historians have tried to reconstruct it based on archaeology and the few records that have survived. T&N cite these people, and the people they cite are at the top of their fields and say what T&N say they say. But how much flexibility did they have in deciding which estimate of the Roman budget to cite? Is there enough disagreement that they could cite the high estimate for one period and the low estimate for another, then prove it had gone down? I don’t know (though a few hours’ work ought to be enough to establish this).
I wish I could find commentary by other academics and historians on Secular Cycles, or on Turchin’s work more generally. I feel like somebody should either be angrily debunking this, or else throwing the authors a ticker-tape parade for having solved history. Neither is happening. The few comments I can find are mostly limited to navel gazing about whether history should be quantitative or qualitative. The few exceptions find are blog posts by people I already know and respect urging me to read Turchin five years ago, advice I am sorry for not taking. If you know of any good criticism, please tell me where to find it.
Until then, my very quick double-checking suggests T&N are pretty much on the level. But there could still be subtler forms of overfitting going on that I don’t know enough about history to detect.
If this is true, does it have any implications for people today?
First, a very weak implication: it makes history easier to learn. I was shocked how much more I remembered about the Plantagenets, Tudors, Capetians, etc after reading this book, compared to reading any normal history book about them. I think the secret ingredient is structure. If history is just “one damn thing after another”, there’s no framework for figuring out what matters, what’s worth learning, what follows what else. The secular cycle idea creates a structure that everything fits into neatly. I know that the Plantagenet Dynasty lasted from 1154 – 1485, because it had to, because that’s a 331 year secular cycle. I know that the important events to remember include the Anarchy of 1135 – 1153 and the War of the Roses from 1455 – 1487, because those are the two crisis-depression periods that frame the cycle. I know that after 1485 Henry Tudor took the throne and began a new age of English history, because that’s the beginning of the integrative phase of the next cycle. All of this is a lot easier than trying to remember these names and dates absent any context. I would recommend this book for that reason alone.
Second, I think this might give new context to Piketty on inequality. T&N describe inequality as starting out very low during the growth phase of a secular cycle, rising to a peak during the stagflation phase, then dropping precipitously during the crisis. Piketty describes the same: inequality rising through the peaceful period of 1800 to 1900, dropping precipitously during the two World Wars, then gradually rising again since then. This doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, since I’m not sure you can fit the post industrial world into secular cycles. But I notice Piketty seems to think of this as a once-off event – inequality has been rising forever, broken only by the freak crisis of the two World Wars – and it’s interesting to read T&N talk about the exact same process recurring again and again throughout history.
Finally, and most important: is there any sense in which this is still going on?
The easiest answer would be no, there isn’t. The secular cycles are based around Malthusian population growth, but we are now in a post-Malthusian regime where land is no longer the limiting resource. And the cycles seem to assume huge crises killing off 30% to 50% of the population, but those don’t happen anymore in First World countries; the Civil War was the bloodiest period of US history, and even it only killed 2% of Americans. Even Germany only lost about 15% of its population in World Wars I + II.
But Turchin has another book, Ages Of Discord, arguing that they do. I have bought it and started it and will report back when I’m done.
Even without a framework, this is just interesting to think about. In popular understanding of American history, you can trace out optimistic and pessimistic periods. The national narrative seems to include a story of the 1950s as a golden age of optimism. Then everyone got angry and violent in the early 1970s (the Status 451 review of Days Of Rage is pretty great here, and reminds us that “people have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States”). Then everything suddenly got better once Reagan declared “morning in America” in the 1980s, with an era of optimism and good feelings lasting through the Clinton administration. Then things starting to turn bad sometime around Bush II. And now everybody hates each other, and fascists and antifa are fighting in the streets, and people are talking about how “civility” and “bipartisanship” are evil tools of oppression, and PredictIt says an avowed socialist has a 10% chance of becoming president of the US. To what extent is this narrative true? I don’t know, but it’s definitely the narrative.
One thing that strikes me about T&N’s cycles is the ideological component. They describe how, during a growth phase, everyone is optimistic and patriotic, secure in the knowledge that there is enough for everybody. During the stagflation phase, inequality increases, but concern about inequality increases even more, zero-sum thinking predominates, and social trust craters (both because people are actually defecting, and because it’s in lots of people’s interest to play up the degree to which people are defecting). By the crisis phase, partisanship is much stronger than patriotism and radicals are talking openly about how violence is ethically obligatory.
And then, eventually, things get better. There is a new Augustan Age of virtue and the reestablishment of all good things. This is a really interesting claim. Western philosophy tends to think in terms of trends, not cycles. We see everything going on around us, and we think this is some endless trend towards more partisanship, more inequality, more hatred, and more state dysfunction. But Secular Cycles offers a narrative where endless trends can end, and things can get better after all.
Of course, it also offers a narrative where sometimes this process involves the death of 30% – 50% of the population. Maybe I should read Turchin’s other books before speculating any further.
This is a tangential nitpick, but something I hadn’t seen pointed out before: I think there are some numerical errors in the “Global deaths in conflicts since the year 1400” graph you linked. I downloaded the raw data from the “Conflict Catalog” on which that graph relies, and it lists 2 million deaths for the Taiping Rebellion. I believe this is a typo on the part of Dr Peter Brecke, as everywhere else I am looking (in a cursory Internet/Wikipedia search) is indicating that the Taiping Rebellion led to the deaths of *20* to 30 million people.
I checked out the Conflict Catalog data two years ago and it is bad.
1) It’s missing a lot of estimates for conflicts, so the graph just ignores them.
2) It contains multiple typos that throw off the estimates by orders of magnitude!
Don’t trust that data set! It is extremely sloppy. You might be able to improve it with a lot of effort, but everything would need to be double checked.
Yeah I’m curious about that data set because the takeaway from eyeballing the Global Conflict graph above is “wow, pretty steady rates of violent death over the centuries” whereas the main takeaway from Stephen Pinker’s graphs (and narratives) is “wow, pretty remarkable decline in rates of violent death over the centuries”, and without having time to go back and compare I’m not immediately sure what the explanation is for the contradiction.
I cannot fully express my appreciation for these review posts. I love how an extremely complex topic presented in incredible detail in a very large book I will never read is reduced to something understandable in a single sitting. There’s enough detail here to believe the argument, and Scott has built up enough trust with me and I hope most other readers that I know I’m not being misled.
I learned several new things and have more to think about. It’s great.
Appreciation of Scott + 1
Very strong ditto.
Hooray for Scott!
This is… a terrible proxy. The reason the number dropped was because of the Emperor favoring new obedient families over established, independently powerful ones. The number of new consular families increased sharply precisely when the elections stopped being about things like how powerful the individual person was and became about who the Emperor selected. Further, the position became significantly less important over time.
If you listen to Romans talk about inequality in their writings, they mostly express it in terms of small farms and land availability. On that record, they generally say the inequality started increasing after the Punic Wars and… just kept going up all the time. Their solution was a combination of welfare and taking other people’s land. But the Augustan period was not a time of great loss to the aristocracy. Indeed, it was during that period you get people like Columella writing about the best way to make money off of your vast estates and workers while the earlier period was full of agricultural paeans to small farmers like the Georgics. (In fact, Columella begins his book poking fun at these old books. He basically says, “Some people say the purpose of farming is moral virtue. I always thought it was to make money.”)
Further, Augustus and the early Principate represented a blow against social mobility. There’s some evidence he was the one who codified the equites class and he was much stricter about who got to be an aristocrat. People could rise higher by serving the Emperor but this was not a society-wide phenomenon.
This is a microcosm of my thoughts on this theory. If you zoom out enough, there probably is a cycle of boom, stability, and bust. But you have to smooth over a lot and the differences to the point that I’m not sure how much they can be effectively generalized. I’m open to the idea but I don’t feel the case very strongly. This is then mixed in with what looks like cherry-picked statistics.
Oh, also, keep in mind that Chinese censuses were always a tool of taxation and conscription. Whenever the state is gathering information for extractive purposes what you really have is a proxy for state power loosely coupled to real statistics. This is where you get ideas like half of the Chinese population died during the fall of the Han Dynasty. They didn’t but a large amount did die and many, many more lied on the census or lived out of the control of the census taking warlords.
If nobility is strictly followed by descent, you get a class of poor nobles. If not, you end up with Liu Bei, a descendant of the Emperor who was just from a reasonably prosperous (or poor in some versions) peasant.
I’d suggest what happens is that the elite is determined by the ability to provide what society wants from its elite. In times of crisis, that’s the ability to resolve the crisis. In an existential war, if you’re a good general you’re elite. Outside of periods of social stress, though, increasingly elites are determined by who can outcompete other elites in whatever social games the elites play. As each generation experiences one or the other, they ‘evolve’ to focus on that. A nobility that has been under existential threat for generations is intensely brutal and meritocratic. A nobility that hasn’t suffered an existential threat for generations is cultivated and scheming. If a nobility hasn’t suffered an existential threat in a long time or the existential threat changes rapidly, this transition will probably be dramatic and bloody.
Thanks, these are good points.
This reminds me of the idea that when a peacetime military gets into a war, all the generals need to be replaced.
I think Razib Khan has commented that it doesn’t make much sense to read a metahistorian like Turchin without personally having an immense base of facts at your command, so you can sanity-check as you read. If you read a survey like this without being familiar with the raw facts on a whole lot of ground beforehand, all you can really do is take the survey on faith. :-/
I once attended a fascinating lecture basically about how America not only replaced all the generals going into WW1 but then replaced many of them again going into World War 2. The central thesis was the military’s unwillingness to fire or court martial people due to considerations of the officer’s career was a reason for the US military’s lesser ability to deal with unusual problems in Afghanistan. Interesting theory, at least.
I limited myself to one case but I have a few others. But I agree with the idea generally. That isn’t to say wider patterns can’t be discerned or the ruffles can’t be smoothed over. But there’s a difference between small deviations and a plank of the theory being entirely wrong.
IIrc something similar happened in the Civil War. We went through several generals who made very pretty armies but wouldn’t do anything with them, before we settled on Grant.
What do you mean again? Those wars were separated by a quarter-century, which is only slightly shorter than the ~30-year career of a typical general officer. Most WWII generals were commanding companies in WWI. The only WWI general who was still on active duty that I know of in WWII was Douglas MacArthur, and he actually retired in 1937, then was recalled to active duty.
I don’t understand your point. Whether or not the generals would have lasted thirty years has little to nothing to do with whether the US military had waves of reassignments and firings in the lead up to two wars. At least from my perspective, again, I don’t think I understand.
I think you’re misinterpreting Erusian’s statement to mean that the generals that are replaced going into WW2 are the same ones that got put into place in WW1.
I interpret Erusian’s comment to mean that going into WW2 they ‘again’ replaced all of the generals, who are not necessarily the same generals from WW1.
I suspect it’s the “but” driving the misunderstanding? The “WW1 guys got sacked before round 2” is how I interpreted it on the first pass too.
The US went into Korea with a fairly poor army but came out with a strong one. It went into Vietnam with a strong one but came out with a poor one.
I just read this blog post about our elites being mad no one is listening to them anymore. They think it’s because lies or el falso newso or whatever, but if you asked the little people why they revile the elite they’ll tell you it’s because they’re not doing their jobs of being elite in ways beneficial to the hoi polloi. This essay argues it’s largely because they don’t want to anymore.
“Seething with repressed virtue” is a fun phrase.
“The decisive endeavor of our moment – far surmounting, I believe, any specific policy call – is the re-establishment of trust in the institutions of representative democracy”.
… would have been nice if he expanded a bit on that one… 🙂
Also – the elites don’t want to do their job b/c their job, right now, would demand they give back huge gobs of the money they accumulated. And, that, that is above their strength. Playing at being poor/normal or railing about Twitter and Trump is a good outlet – you vent, you show your “good guy/gal” colours but you don’t do anything that might upset your bank account.
It seems like these people know it’s better to be rich and unhappy about it than be poor (or even truly upper middle class)… 🙂
NB: Someone did say something about the choice between barbarism and socialism when capitalism fails… And a Marxist friend of mine just told me that, for the first time in his life, he feels like the revolutionary conditions are being met… I don’t really agree and anyhow I think fascism (of the Mussolini/Franco/Salazar type) is anyhow far more likely and easier to sell than socialism but… yeah. Lots of people think this is the 30s again.
Remember that many revolutionary socialists seem to see signs of revolution in the same way that some evangelical Christians see signs of the second coming.
Revolution requires faith in a specific solution, shared by a large minority, and an willingness to make large personal sacrifice. What we have now is a lot of apathy, uncertainty and fear of losing what you have.
There was more revolutionary zeal in the 70’s than now.
I disagree. What would be required of the ruling elite would be that they accept the responsibility of ruling, of maintaining the institutions, and do it, damn it, in the interests of all the little people who depend on those institutions instead of trying to tear them down or abdicate responsibility.
A good king rules and takes care of his subjects, but he doesn’t have to give away the crown jewels and become a pauper. Defend the people and take care of them. Guard the borders. Defend the faith. The subjects depend on the borders to keep them safe and the faith to keep them sane. Our elites want to throw open the borders and shred the faith.
We have noblesse malice instead of noblesse oblige. The king has gone mad, and the subjects would like a new king.
This strikes me as particularly insightful.
A lot of people say its ~Vietnam that trust in elites began to wane. Well let me point out one responsible thing an old elite did that almost none would do today: Nixon didn’t challenge the results in Illinois. Can you name a modern politician that has accepted such close and likely fraudulent results?
The elites wanted to fight in Vietnam, but when it got tough, they no longer wanted to fight in Vietnam.
Then they wanted immigration, but didn’t want to have to weave a social fabric.
Then they turned a blind eye to Islamic terrorism until they couldn’t, and then engaged in a series of half hearted engagements.
All the while running up ever increasing debts because they wanted to raise spending while cutting taxes because they didn’t want to have to admit the truth to people that they had to make hard choices.
I think that 1990 truly unhinged the elite. Before, they needed to compete with the commies and thus bind the lower classes to the project. Afterwards, they shifted to seeking legitimacy (not in the least in their own eyes) for taking more and more of the spoils.
Hence the old left elites care(d) very much about wealth inequality. The modern left elites care about having enough diversity so their spoils seem fairly earned by merit(ocracy).
That may be, but if so, it reveals another lack of understanding on the part of the elite. The people aren’t that jealous. They don’t really begrudge the billionaires their billions so long as they have enough. Case in point, working class support for Donald Trump.
There was an article I read in Time back during the primaries for the 2016 elections about Trump attending the Iowa State Fair. For non-American readers, this is one of the first big stops on the campaign trail, where every candidate comes to “bond” with the yokels and show off how down to earth they are. Hillary arrived in a modest car and wore simple clothes and ate pork chops on a stick and pretended she liked it and tried to be all folksy. Trump flew in on a damn helicopter with his name on the side wearing an expensive suit and tie, took one bite of the pork chop and threw it in the trash, then gave helicopter rides to kids and when one asked him if he was Batman he said “Yes.” Nobody cares*.
Nobody cares about the wealth. The people just want to be listened to. And they say they want their neighborhoods not to be flooded with foreigners, they want their jobs at the factory, the wife and the house and the 2.3 kids and the flag saluted and the soldiers thanked and their God praised and all that jazz. That’s the faith. Defend it. Don’t have to believe it. Just defend it and keep the money.
* I mean, I think the little people don’t care. This behavior is outrageous to the sort of elite described in the article who compete to see who can best pretend to be poor.
While is still don’t believe one whit in T&N, clearly some factors contribute to instability, and instability leads to revolts, wars, unlawfulness, and general bad outcomes.
Possible factors are: poverty, inequality, religious differences, and so on.
Yesterday, I read the major national intellectual newspaper’s multipage story on Claudia Rankine, who (more or less) claims racism was invented as a way for the white elites to make the white poor ally with them against the black.
I wonder if what US (and the West in general) needs, is an outer enemy? It’s an old trick, and after the fall of communism, there’s been a vacuum.
Maybe Trump is right in painting China or Iran as the devil, and starting, or at least encouraging a conflict? Trump is probably way too unpopular as a person to unite anybody, but Clinton appeared (to me, at least) to be more hawkish, and if she had managed to curb the dismissive arrogance and focused on building up rhetoric against some middle eastern country, she – or someone like her – could have brought the different political fractions closer together through conflict or war?
There are different definitions of fairness. One is equality of opportunity and another is a fair society to each. These are not the same.
For example, you can have a system where the commoners are worked to the bone for no more than subsistence wages, while most money goes to people higher in the hierarchy, far in excess to the value they provide. Yet if the hierarchy is fully determined by some form of personal merit, rather than (also) by parental wealth, gender, skin color, etc, then it is fully fair in the sense of equality of opportunity, although not at all in the sense of ‘you get what you deserve’.
But of course, fairness in the ‘you get what you deserve’ sense goes far beyond compensation (but doesn’t exclude it, like you argue) & includes things like culture.
People logically tend to assume that those like them share their sense of fairness, but this can be exploited by ‘commoner blackface,’ as politicians tend to do. Of course, when they go back to their community and wash off the black, this generates great cynicism.
Anyway, I think that the elites have increasingly adopted a sense of fairness that is not shared by much of the populace and respond to discontent by arguing a combination of:
– The populace is stupid/racist/sexist/etc
– The populace has a point in that equality of opportunity is lacking for some groups, so the hierarchy is unfair to those groups
– The populace has a point in that financial compensation is lacking, for the very poorest
– The populace has a point in that society is unfair for women, black people, etc
This doesn’t address many of the concerns of large segments of the population, who don’t aspire to being part of the elite and/or (know they) don’t have the abilities, but who want a pleasant middle class life.
Note that even there you’re already slipping cultural assumptions about certain things we’re born with (skin color, gender) being less fair than some other things we’re born with (IQ, focus, work ethic).
I think they’ve gone stark raving mad. The barbarians are through the gates, they’re setting up camp, they’re harassing the peasants, the peasants are miserable, the treasury is broke, the merchants are defecting to the enemy, and the king has locked himself in the tower and is exiling anyone who wears the wrong costumes to his fancy dress party.
I mean, I turn on the TV and I watch the Democratic debates and see Julian Castro arguing that what this country needs is to make sure we’re providing free abortions for illegal immigrant [sic] transwomen. Who came up with this as a talking point? This is the sort of thing I might expect to hear from a crazy hobo on the subway. But he says this on stage and is not laughed out of the room.
The king is mad.
There is also an important distinction, pointed out by Nozick, between entitlement and desert.
For a simple example, suppose we agree to bet a dollar on a coin flip. You win. You don’t deserve the dollar–your winning had nothing to do with any merit on your point. But you are entitled to get the dollar, because you got it by a legitimate process–our mutual agreement plus the fall of the coin.
In a world where outcomes depend to a significant degree on random variables, one might have a society where everyone got what he was entitled to, but few got what they deserved.
I think of these two views of justice as the God’s eye view—God knows what people deserve and has unlimited resources with which to reward them accordingly if he wishes—vs the human’s eye view. I can’t know if you deserve the dollar, but I can observe you making the bet and see how the coin fell.
Our moral intuitions involve both views, sometimes in conflict with each other.
I have not watched any of the debates, because I can’t be bothered, but I am extremely confident that this was not said, nor anything like it.
Yes, he did. In that one clip he says free taxpayer funded abortions, to trans[sic]women, and all of them agreed to free healthcare for illegals.
OK, yes, he did say that.
I’ve got an idea. Suppose we agree that transwomen can’t actually have abortions, not having wombs (which is nobody’s fault, not even the
RomansRepublicans, but that they can have the right to have abortions.
Yet I think that everyone is entitled to enough food to stay alive, regardless of their merit (and thus including people whose behavior I believe to have strongly negative impact on others). The entitlement also doesn’t result from the existence of a mutual agreement. If no one in grave poverty would get food, then you can’t argue that gravely poor people are entitled to food due to the existence of a mutual agreement.
Also, I think that merit is typically interpreted in a broader sense, which includes sacrifice (in part relative to the ability to sacrifice). The person who gives up a dollar for a chance to get two makes a sacrifice and deserves the outcome of the toss, just like I deserve ice cream, if I give the salesperson money.
However, if someone doesn’t have the ability to sacrifice, not having money and not being able to sacrifice to get it, then people typically think it is fair if those who can sacrifice for the person, do so.
Wouldn’t their cycle theory imply that population density would cycle up and down over these decades, even century long time periods. Yet AFAICanTell, world population over time has always gone up over a 100 year cycle, rather than dropping and just regaining the previous population. If the disruption cycles are widespread, wouldn’t there be at least one century where the trend was overall down rather than up? Are those numbers just wrong?
During long periods of no major technological improvements to subsistence, their theory implies there would be a population density cap, because once the population hits the limit for an area and a disaster hits, they theoretically drop down enough for decades of growth again. Yet I don’t see much evidence of such a cap.
Another difficult part of the theory is that it fits with the most recent past the worst, meaning the better the data we have, the less accurate the theory is. Not a good quality.
The other issue I have is that the theory appears to be based on Malthus, but his theory that scarce resources like food determine population growth has proven to be wrong:
– Ronald Bailey
So lots of fun in theory, but count me in among the very skeptical in reality.
Since the world contains many different civilizations at different points of the secular cycle, on average it should remain unaffected by cycles, and its population should follow the very long-term trend (in this case, upward). Keep in mind we have pretty strong evidence that eg the 30 Years War killed 20%+ of the German population, so that not showing up in the 1600 – 1700 world population numbers linked on your site means that demographic catastrophes for individual regions are absolutely compatible with overall growth.
Also, all estimates of world population before the Industrial Revolution are guesses based on assumptions, which sometimes include the proposition being debated.
There has definitely been a population cap on various regions for most of world history, although it has gradually gone upward as technology advances (I don’t think there are “major periods with no technological advance”, I think it’s a continuous process. But in eg the Bronze Age when technological advance was glacial, you would see areas keep the same populations for ages. I discuss some of this at https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/04/22/1960-the-year-the-singularity-was-cancelled/ , and Our World In Data has some good stuff on it here.
Ronald Bailey is talking about the demographic transition, which happened in the 1800s. I think it’s general consensus that Malthus was right about the pre-industrial world. See eg this infographic, although again keep in mind that all estimates of anything before the Industrial Revolution are guesses based on assumptions.
Thanks for the reply. I absolutely agree that the data for past centuries is scarce and tends to get scarcer for us as we go farther back in time.
I guess my main point regarding world populations is that I’d expect to see wilder swings and less consistency in direction, just based on a random walk pattern.
If I’m reading the theory right (and I’m not sure I’m getting the cycles correct, because I’m just reading your descriptions), the 300 year rise and fall cycle contains within it a ~50 year decline, with the decline being more rapid than the average growth back to technological “peak” of the other 250 years. So at any given point in time, 1/6 of the societies would be declining and 5/6 would be growing. Assuming it’s mostly random where on a cycle a particular somewhat self-contained area is, I’d expect to see those decline cycles line up occasionally where a big chunk of the world declines together. I guess you can call that the 1300s, or whatever.
Flip it around, I guess. If you picked ten random 50-year periods from history, would you intuitively expect 1/6 of the societies at each time to be declining in population on average? That seems awfully high to me.
So, I guess my final status is updated to a firm maybe, but my own feeble attempts to check things out are pretty fuzzy in terms of consistency.
I’d expect to see those decline cycles line up occasionally where a big chunk of the world declines together. I guess you can call that the 1300s, or whatever.
~1300…1900 had a cooler climate that may have force-aligned cycles in different areas, maybe through lowered malthusian population ceilings.
Unaffected by nation-specific cycles, yes. But there are other cycles that could very plausibly affect global populations, for example climatic ones. The Little Ice Age was a pretty big deal…
It was electrifying to European intellectuals in 1754 when Ben Franklin reported that the population of the American colonies was doubling every 20 or 25 years from natural increase. The population of Europe hadn’t been growing very quickly in living memory and scholars tended to assume that was natural: perhaps the life force just got tired and worn down or something.
Franklin, however, assumed in a sort of proto-Malthusian mode that of course population was going to grow if there were a lot of land.
Via Malthus, Franklin’s report helped inspire Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed
Sadly, I haven’t yet read this book, though it’s highly recommended by someone I trust. It’s my best guess for a period where you see decline more or less everywhere in the Old World at once, though. Huge disruption in the Mediterranean; huge disruption in the Middle East; potentially also huge disruption in China (the fall of the Shang dynasty is traditionally around ~1000 BC).
Decline everywhere would be expected to result from a global phenomenon such as unusually cool weather worldwide.
It’s a good book.
The title worries me though. We don’t have that level of Chronological accuracy for events before 1000 BC…. Things can be a century out anywhere that is not on the Nile or Euphrates.
1177 BC is the year the Pharaoh had a lament carved over the depredations of the Sea People.
Many of the other events associated with the Late Bronze Age Collapse probably happened within a few decades of that date, but are less surely dated than that one.
Thanks. Was wondering about that date.
My basic question with any collapse scenario incidentally is was the collapse a whole society thing or elite only, with a presumption of the latter.
Well if we follow James C. Scott civilisational collapse is always “only a elite thing”, and the common people vastly profit from loosing the none productive people that make up a states elite.
But even if 1177 BC’s title is exaggerated, there is clear evidence that everything we associate with civilisation (writing, urban areas, art, central administration) declined, (at least in the Mediterranean) some time around the 12th centruy B.C.
Professor Cline, author of “1177 BC”, explains his theories for the Late Bronze Age Collapse:
“… Of these, I would rank them in that specific order of importance: climate change; drought and famine; earthquakes; invaders; and internal rebellions. Although human beings have survived such catastrophes time and again when they come individually, such as rebuilding after an earthquake or living through a drought, what if they all occurred at once, or in quick succession?”
The concept of the Late Bronze Age Collapse was a new one to me when I first heard about it a few years ago: I don’t recall it as a Thing when I was studying 9th Grade World History in 1972.
But the large “palace civilizations” of the Near East appeared to have suffered major reverses soon after about 1200 BC.
My first thought was that this was due to the introduction of Iron Age weapons: iron was more widely available, so it reduced the palaces’ monopoly on violence.
But I gather there isn’t too much archaeological evidence for that.
The common people who survive, anyway. Even if the nobility suffer disproportionately, there just aren’t enough of them to move the needle much for “bignum% of the population dies” events; you still get ~bignum% of commoners dying and even more are dramatically worse off until the dust clears
1177 is a decent book. It is written by an archaeologist and there is an awesome amount of archaeology from this period available. If you know anything about archaeologists, though, it is that they are really bad prose stylists.
The best part of the period around 1177 is diplomatic tablets sent back and forth between the Hittites, Egyptians, and Mycenaeans showing how worried they all were.
I haven’t read the book (yet) but I did watch a video of Cline lecturing about the collapse on YouTube.
The result is the opposite of what Malthus predicted: the wealthiest nations with the greatest food security have the lowest fertility rates, whereas the most food-insecure countries have the highest fertility rates.
Mmm – I think Malthus would turn and say “This just bears me out. What are the countries with the greatest food security and wealth? The ones with low population. What are the ones scrabbling along at subsistence level? The ones with highest population”. This is a ‘chicken or egg?’ question – are they food secure because they have a low population, or have they a low population despite being food secure?
It seems to be taken as a given that you can measure development and wealth by seeing education increase particularly among women, which means population goes down (as those educated women now have more opportunities and are aware of how to control their fertility) and that reduction takes some of the pressure off resources such as land and food, and then the less numerous, more educated population can move to the cities to take up industrial jobs which drives the economy to prosper. Economic growth then absorbs the surplus population as it climbs back up, but the increase in numbers is reduced from what its natural level would be, as people are now expecting a higher quality of life which means they are having fewer children.
So it’s not so much denying Malthus as vindicating him: without external controls (such as contraception and abortion and social change in attitudes to child bearing, being a ‘stay at home’ mother, and ideal family size), you get your population increasing to the level your resources can support until it hits ‘scraping along at subsistence levels for the majority’. If you can lower your population and keep it lower than it would otherwise be, then the surplus gets converted to national wealth. Farmer John and Farmer’s Wife Joan had fourteen children because every hand was needed to work the farm, and they lived on porridge and buttermilk. But now tractors and farm machinery have been invented, so Farmer John only needs five children to work the land. He and Joan have eight children not fourteen, and the surplus three not needed decide to move to the Big City and get jobs in factories instead. They thrive, Farmer John and Joan and the kids at home thrive, and now instead of trying to feed sixteen mouths on what they produce, they only have to feed seven and so they can eat meat once every week and vegetables along with their porridge every other day.
Malthus was likely right there was an upper limit to population at any one time. He was wrong about it being fixed, since if I clear a new field or get a better plough next year we can produce more food, and no region has ever fully exploited its food-bearing capabilities. So whilst he might claim vindication here, he would be wrong: the evidence being that our population is much larger than he believed possible.
Malthus knew that the upper limit grew.
His argument was that it grew at a constant rate, while population growth is exponential.
Therefore, population would always eventually outstrip carrying capacity.
Apologies: I was unclear. I meant that the limit was fixed at a particular time.
Before the mining of fossil fertilizer sources, and later the Haber-Bosch process, the hard upper limit for farming was the nitrogen production of soil bacteria.
The people living at the time of Malthus didn’t really understand this, but they did know that there was a limit to how intensive agriculture could be, after which the yields would go down. As for exploiting available area, large portions of Europe were already using all available farmland for farming at the time.
It’s most useful to think of Malthus as giving to us a useful conceptual model of a single tendency: the world would work the way Malthus specified, except for Reasons A, B, and C (or whatever).
“Malthus” is a unique 7 letter term for a somewhat complex concept, so it’s handy to have in your mental toolkit.
I’ve always thought Malthus gets a bad rap. Maybe he failed to predict the future, because of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. But he has a great model of the past. Exponential population growth -> surplus population -> death. Sounds just like the cycles described in this book.
Is this actually true?
Nah, Japan has pretty high population density, and into “damn high” if you take out the mountainous area.
At micro level (where micro = within EU, or within individual countries) you see urbanisation = high density = prosperity. With the extra land being less and less used – Germany has lots of forests for example, and I doubt forestry is such a big part of its GDP.
The relevant variable is population density. I haven’t done the current figures, but back when overpopulation played the same role in popular discourse that climate change does now, I did.
Of the five most densely populated countries in the world, two were rich European countries (Belgium and the Netherlands), three were Asian countries in the process of becoming rich (Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore). Hong Kong had ten times the population density of the most densely populated country (Singapore) and was in the process of becoming rich, but it was a British Crown Colony, not a country. I don’t think I included microstates in my calculation.
Since then, the division of Pakistan provided, in Bangladesh, the one example of what people at the time assumed was the norm–a country dirt poor and densely populated. China and India had (and have) very large populations, but they are also very large countries.
Does the rapid development of modern Bangladesh then suggest that high population density is a good factor for development. I’m thinking that eighteenth-century Britain was for its time densely populated, and labour availability is presumably key to development?
Belgium, Netherlands, and Bangladesh are all river delta countries where multiple large rivers reach the sea. The silt washed down from mountains (Alps/Himalayas) makes good agricultural soil.
Nigeria is somewhat similar in being a rivers delta country, and it has a high population density for Africa. Most of Sub-Saharan Africa has mediocre soil, with certain exceptions such as Rwanda, which has volcano soil. (Down through human history, there has been an interesting tradeoff concerning how close you want to live to a volcano.)
It’s a dance with the devil, though. The water giveth and the water taketh away*.
* Unless you build dykes or such.
Birth control is more of an internal control than an external one. Given both the ability to control how many children one has and the confidence that most or all of one’s children are statistically likely to survive to reproductive age, the vast majority of women will choose to reproduce at below the replacement rate (hence the aforementioned demographic shift). Bearing and raising children is goddamn hard.
This is, of course, evolutionarily unstable and we are likely to either be replaced by populations of people who, based on genetic drivers, want to breed like rabbits, or with people whose culture demands that women do so whether they want to or not.
The first is possible if a genetic drive ro reproduce beyond normal levels exists, but I’m not convinced. The second is unlikely: every culture in the world has the same middle-class phenomenon of falling birth rates as middle classes become established. This can be seen in Latin America and the Middle East, and in Africa. Note also the smaller number of children means a cultural shift to greater freedom for women: your daughter is much more important to you as one of two children than one of eight, so she gets educated and more autonomy.
It doesn’t strike me as impossible or unlikely that there should be some heritable variation in the trait “desire to have kids”. Could be regulated by neurochemistry- oxytocin levels and suchlike? In real life I see ladies who honestly seem to like having children and produce four, five or ten of them. If this is at all heritable, this trait will of course become more common in our evolutionary future.
The genetic driver for having offspring has always be the appeal of having sex. Note that all animals, have babies because they like sex, not because they want to have babies. Rabbits would not have babies if they had an intelligence and choice. The current desire of humans to have babies is merely a left over cultural things due to its being inevitable. That is changing over time. I married in 1970 and never asked the question of “will I have kids”. But my kids ask themselves that question, and their kids will ask themselves whether they should get married. Every where in the world where there is effective birth control, births are below replacement level. I don’t see any genetic change that can kick in where people want babies enough to have that many. The ONLY reason people have babies today where there is effective birth control is for status…and that want be enough to drive reproduction because otherwise babies are just too costly to make any sense.
And the only reason you bother to post is the hope of gaining status by shocking people.
See. I can read your mind just as accurately as you can read the minds of all the people who say they like having children.
Which is not very.
Pity I can’t expose you to my daughter in law who, having had her first child, now plans three more.
And what would she give as her reason for having babies?
Can’t speak for Friedman’s daughter-in-law, but many people I’ve talked to agree that the best way to describe the experience of holding your own baby is delicious. In many ways, having a new baby is like being in love.
I know a few people who really seem to enjoy having children, who like the smell of a (clean) baby, who find baby giggles the best thing in the world, who love the random shit that comes out of toddlers’ mouths as they try to figure the world out, etc. That kind of appreciation of children is going to be highly, highly selected for now that actually having children is a choice.
Emperor penguins have such a high drive to reproduce that they will attempt to steal an egg if they can’t produce one themselves, and there are cases of penguins in captivity attempting to hatch dead fish when nothing else was available.
I discovered to my pleasant surprise that babies who eat only mother’s milk don’t stink even when, um, unclean. It’s only when they start eating other food, around six months, that there is a, erm, phase change.
Another idea for checking Turchin’s predictions is to read the work of other “big history” authors and see how much agreement there is. Here are some readings I’ve also filed in the “macrohistory” category (no idea how good they are, I haven’t read any of them yet!)
* Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny
* Books by Ian Morris such as Why the West Rules and War! What is it Good For
* Books on economic history: Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction, Power and Plenty, Handbook of Cliometrics
* Guns, Germs, and Steel? Diamond also wrote a book recently called Upheaval
* Book review from /r/TheMotte
* Elliot/Kondratriev wave theories
* Carlota Perez
* Better Angels of our Nature
* The Lessons of History by Will Durant (summary)
* The Square and the Tower
* Toynbee’s A Study of History?
* Yuval Harari’s books (note: one person I respect says he’s Gladwell tier; Auric Ulvin claims his books have a lot of overlap with each other in this thread)
Maybe read this post first though, to figure out if this is all a big waste of time.
Related: Scholar’s Stage recommends only reading “big history” books once you have a decent grounding in at least some area of ordinary history.
This is good advice which I appreciate you sharing.
Good advice, but on the other hand, some people might want to read granular histories to see if they support or undermine grand theories.
For example, being familiar with Malthus’s theory first makes Chinese history less of a one-damn-thing-after-another and more of an interesting set of facts of relevance to testing Malthus’s grand theory.
I think there’s a distinction between grand theories which are frameworks for interpreting history vs explanations which are sui generis. Malthus, Marx, Weber, etc have theories which can be applied generally & can make history less of one damn thing after another. However grand history regarding specialized topics, along “why the West got rich” sort of lines have exactly the drawbacks that Scholar’s Stage mentions.
This is one of those out-of-mind moments where I really get to see what it is like being other people, versus just me, judging the world from my own perspective.
Who the heck only wants to read 4-6 books on a period that interests you the most?
I took that Big History course on Coursera and really really enjoyed it. It’s probably my favorite (online) course so far, although I’ve only done about half a dozen. I would highly recommend it to anyone who’s even a little bit curious about the topic.
thanks for the recommendation:)
Incidentally, I was recently rereading “Why the West Rules”, and noticed that Morris gets the origins of Europeans completely wrong. He gives Renfrew’s theory that the Indo-Europeans were the first farmers. He mentions in passing that linguists dispute this, on the grounds that IE languages diverged more recently, but then completely fails to address this critique at all. Instead he turns to the debate between Sykes and Cavalli-Sforza over whether the farmers (IE in his telling) largely displaced the original hunter-gatherers. He claims that the two sides have recently converged towards only 25% replacement, and 75% HG adopting agriculture. He doesn’t even mention the Kurgan hypothesis (which we now know is correct — along with essentially complete replacement of original HG population).
Useful to keep in mind if you want to assess historians by how well they did on controversies in their field that have since been decisively resolved. “Not even mentioning the theory that turned out to be correct” scores pretty low in my book.
And it wasn’t impossible to get right — I recently cracked open an old illustrated history of the world I got as a kid (now giving it to my kid) and noticed they got the IEs right.
In The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson has his characters reflect on an imagined cause of cultural rot:
Malthusian population constraints no longer dominate, but perhaps the destruction of 60% of any given strong cultural subgroup is just as powerful in the modern era, and just as relevant to the cycles of attitudes that T&N are talking about.
And so perhaps the “Leader distills common feeling into movement” –> “Movement solidifies into cultural institution[s]” –> “Second and third generation adherents lack the context and experience of the founders” –> “Institution[s] fracture and die” cycle is a new engine driving the larger “Sometimes we’re optimistic and sometimes we hate each other” back-and-forth that we don’t seem to be able to escape.
When I was in Sunday School, this dynamic was accepted and talked about (with a religious and moral perspective) as the “pride cycle”.
Haha, the “pride cycle” is what came to mind for me while reading Scott’s post. Not sure where such a cultural cycle would fit in Turchin’s description. At least the cycles as described in the Book of Mormon don’t even seem to have consistent lengths. For example, the final destruction of the people is supposed to be a 400 year arc, while the entire cycle of (Gadianton robbers defeated -> prosperity and expansion -> pride and inequality -> break up of the church, call for monarchy, split into tribes -> calamities preceding Jesus) is supposed to take only 7 years. This suggests to me different phenomena being described by the same language.
Some China-related thoughts:
No opinion on the Jin, but if you believe The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han, the Early Han and the Later Han (same division, different terminology) are indeed very distinct. The early Han is more about producing guns, the later Han is more about producing butter.
This dynamic cycles back and forth right up through the Tang dynasty, as the various governments either (1) conquer a lot of territory and set themselves up in Chang’an, which is an extremely defensible location; or (2) realize they’re starving and it’s impossible to have enough food shipped in, so they move down to the plains and locate on an indefensible river hub. During the Tang dynasty, the capital whipsawed back and forth between Chang’an (militarily advantageous) and Luoyang (economically advantageous).
That huge population spike in the Ming dynasty? Most of it comes from the higher productivity occasioned by the Columbian exchange. America exported new crops to China, which meant the same land now produced a lot more food. America also exported incredible quantities of silver, causing a sustained economic boom. (Silver was the medium of exchange, and apparently the Chinese market was able to support a lot more silver than it actually possessed, pre-America.)
In this case, it seems obvious that, if the economic boom and the population boom coincide with a period of stability, the causality runs from the boom to the stability, and not the other way around.
This is a cheap shot, but the judgment of Chinese history was that the Sui dynasty was crap. There were two Sui emperors, and the dynasty had two accomplishments: (1) uniting China; (2) building the Grand Canal, which produced immense benefits for the next many centuries, but which was so far beyond Sui China’s means that forcing it through collapsed the government.
How much does Chinese history correlate with dynastic history?
If you look at Renaissance Italian history, there isn’t much correlation between political ups and downs and cultural ups and downs. Italy in 1500 is chaotic politically but accomplishing great stuff.
The Chinese tend to write their history in terms of the rise and falls of dynasties determining the happiness of the population. I’m not sure whether this is overstated or if China really did tend to have such big population booms due to earlier marriage than Europe that it really did need a unified, competent government to avoid Malthusian collapses.
Even taking that narrative at face value, that just seems like pattern matching to any sort of emotional cycle. Even a facsimile of the book’s mechanisms would be on a longer timescale and severity than the decade-ish swings you’re describing.
That aside, I dunno if you’ve got the popular narrative correct. And popular narratives have a notoriously shaky connection with the actual ground reality, which is what we’d care about if we’re looking for Secular Cycle parallels. In particular I’m kinda skeptical this is an actual low in U.S. optimism/politics compared to even your optimistic eras, like goddamn we’ve had some pretty deep pits.
(Also wait do you consider Sanders a notable negative sign, or were you trying to catch the narrative there?)
My takeaway was that condensing the cycle to decades for American history is a big mistake, when the century-timescale trends are lining up nicely with the dynastic cycles. USA generally has had growth for 200 years, and now we’re starting our transition into the stagflation years.
Do they do any Fourier analysis?
It sounds suspiciously as though their prediction is “lines go up for a bit and then down for a bit”, which is the nature of lines; I wouldn’t take this claim seriously no matter how many graphs I’m shown.
If you want to have a claim of cyclic or periodic structure in your data taken seriously, I think you have to take a Fourier transform and illustrate.a genuine peak. Do they?
This! Where is the statistics showing that the distribution of cataclysmic events is significantly different from random? What happened to Occam’s razor?
I think the relevant statistic to be computed here is the distribution of the time intervals between the catastrophic events: if it is exponentially distributed then it’s evidence of a Poisson process: events occurring randomly and independently from each other with a constant average rate, if instead the distribution has a clear mode, then it’s evidence of a periodic mechanism.
Does anybody here who is good with Excel/R/whatever want to test this?
I should know this, but I don’t, and I lack the math background to figure it out: doesn’t the analysis you’re suggesting kind of boil down to something equivalent to a Fourier analysis?
Qualitatively, sort of, but not in terms of the actual mathematics.
If you have a series of discrete events at particular times with gaps between them, you could do a discrete Fourier transform on that data set, but a Fourier transform just projects a function onto a series of sinusoidal functions, and because your data is mostly zeros and not really sinusoidal, it would probably give you a bunch of noisy peaks that you’re not interested in.
If you’re just considering the distribution of intervals between neighboring events, you could bin those differences nicely and, if they really occur with any periodicity, you’d probably get nicer peaks in your distribution at those intervals.
Not really, but you could also do Fourier analysis on the continuous variables, although this would be complicated by the fact that there is an overall growing trend and you are considering a finite time series.
With a long time series and no overall growth, memory-less noise will show up in Fourier analysis as flat power spectrum, while a periodic process will show up as a power spectrum with a finitely-many peaks.
Thanks to both of you!
Alternative theory: most of the time, things go well and population and the economy grows. Then, in the manner of Taleb’s black swans, something happens: war, civil war, pestilence, drought. Bad things may cluster, either by chance or because the first event decreases stability and prepares the ground for other events – war destroys farmlands and power structures, economic downturns result in unpaid an rebellious soldiers, plundering lead to hunger, weakened nations are tempting targets for conquest or revolt, and so on.
So what, exactly, are the predictions from the T&N model, compared to the null hypothesis that wars and pestilence just happen, black swan style? Lead production and similar data don’t support their theory of cycles at all, it just shows that after a civil war, economic output suffers. Well, doh.
The mongols conquered everyone they attacked across two continents over a century – did all these countries just happen to be in a stagflation state at exactly that moment the mongols knocked on their gates?
The black death…happened because there were too many sons of nobles for the available titles? Wasn’t it a rat borne disease after all, or is a population somehow immune as long as it has few nobles around?
I’m currently listening to Mike Duncan’s “Revolutions” podcast on the English civil wars, there is a lot of religious differences, power struggle between crown and parliament, nationalism, and so on. Where are the factors T&N talk about? Can’t an arrogant and sovereign ruler overestimate his power and make a mess of it, without it being part of some kind of magical circle of life process?
The thirty years war is usually considered to be about religious conflict, why is it unthinkable that this couldn’t happen to a country in the growth and prosperity phase?
In short: I don’t buy it, these guys are shoehorning selected data into a narrative they like and which makes them famous.
One question is whether Turchin’s generational patterns are important enough to not be swamped by random events like epidemics, barbarian invasions, volcanoes changing the climate, powerful personalities like Charlemagne, Napoleon, and Hitler, etc.
If he’s figured out 20% of the variance, that would be impressive, but it would still be hard to see in graphs.
But the plague has been endemic in Eurasia and Africa since prehistoric times, so the question is why major outbreaks occur when a society seems to be in the “stagflation” phase.
The hypothesis is that it’s a combination of high overall population density, high urbanization (cities become infection hubs), high trade (moving infected people and rats all over the place), dietary protein deficiency (most land is used for cereal farming to feed the large population, meat, both farmed and game becomes a luxury, protein deficiency reduces immune function).
I’m trying to associate the Justinian plague (the previous major epidemic to hit Europe in the 540s), which was in a period of Byzantine growth (they’d just reconquered Africa, the Iberian coast and not quite enough of Italy to say they’d won…) with this and failing. It also hit Gaul during a period of growth and stability under the early Merovingians, and Britain and Ireland during a phase where an elite culture was emerging (alongside the early Irish monastic culture).
Looking at your hypothesized criteria:
Population density: unknown.
Urbanisation: outside of Byzantium itself, this was minimal.
Trade: a few long distance routes, but otherwise local, and in places such as the British Isles likely rare. Certainly less than in Roman period.
Diet: early-medieval diets were in the west at least better than Roman or high-medieval ones. Elites were smaller and less extractive due to their small-scale. This might not hold for the Byzantine empire but even there the elite was smaller than say in the dominate period.
So of the two major European plagues of the medieval period (can we really say something is endemic with that sort of occurrence rate?) one (the Black Death) fits your hypothesised characteristics well, the other (the Justinian plague) badly. I’d suggest plague occured due to epidemiological considerations, not social ones. However relatively healthy a pre-modern society was, it wasn’t going to be able to shrug off a plague epidemic, so looking for social causes seems unnecessary.
I was thinking of the Antonine plague mentioned by Scott here (although Wikipedia says that it probably wasn’t the actual plague but more likely smallpox or measles).
I agree that the Justinian plague doesn’t seem to fit the pattern, and in Wikipedia’s list of epidemics, even restricting to epidemics with > 1 million death toll, there doesn’t seem to be any clear pattern.
Plagues might be related to problems like the breakdown of rat control and the like in big cities. Giant cities take a lot of administration to provide clean water, get rid of waste, keep down vermin, and the like. They might be random, but they might also be related to the decay of order.
epidemiologically, many outbreaks occur in cycles a little like the naïve/moderate cycle described above, except applied to individual immune systems and herd immunity. When a plague happens, almost all of the survivors afterward are immune to it and even when the infectious agent escapes its reservoir, there just aren’t enough people with vulnerability left for it to spread very effectively… until either a lot more people are born, or immunity wanes (age), or the causative agent mutates (influenza). This is especially applied to infections where the reservoir is outside of humans (like plague), but also to places where an infection can slowly rotate through sub-populations/towns with limited but reliable interactions with each other.
For organisms that are easily spread by humans and for which humans are the primary reservoir, survival of the pathogenic species requires a balance between completely subverting the host’s system into pathogen reproduction, basically rendering the host a prostrate and/or dead sack of highly infectious liquid (a bad cholera), but limiting the amount that the host can travel to spread the pathogen, OR less effectively subverting the host but allowing it to travel and spread the infection to new hosts (the common cold). This is, tangentially, why closed sewers are so important: when people are basically vomiting and defecating into the streets, a pathogen can basically liquefy your innards into intensely infectious swill and it will all run out into the street and contact lots of other people, but if the sewers are closed it has to evolve into a mild case of the runs so that you still go about your daily chores, failing to wash your hands and touching doorknobs all over town. Population density acts as the evolutionary pressure equivalent of bad sewers, because the host does not have to travel as far to encounter another potential host for the organism to spread to, meaning that it can evolve to higher virulence.
This. I don’t have the skills to dispute the statistics in the book, but too many disparate events are being conflated and too many statistics are being treated in isolation. The “income inequality” argument particularly seems pretty tenuous:
That doesn’t seem a good way to measure income inequality. Mike Duncan’s History of Rome as podcast (I’m listening to Revolutions now, too! I’m in the French Revolution. It’s even crazier than I thought) described income inequality under the emperors as being on a logartithmic scale, involving five groups of people, leaving out the slaves:
Group 1: By far the largest group at the bottom – the horde of poor citizens that lived off the grain dole
Group 2: A 10 times smaller than Group 1 – call it the lower middle class – whose main distinguishing characteristic was making just enough money not to be eligible for grain subsidies (he estimates that it cost about 60,000 sestertii a year for a family to survive, though he doesn’t say that these guys actually made that)
Group 3: 10 times smaller than Group 2, primarily made up of the Equestrians, with an income of about 400,000 sestertii a year
Group 4: The senatorial ranks, who politically and economically dwarfed the equestrians, and made a minimum of a million sestertii a year (an actual minimum – for a long time a million sestertii a year was required to be counted among the senators).
Group 5: The upper ranks of the senatorial class, that was to the rest of the senators as the senators were to the esquestrians, worth 100 million sestertii each. These were the first guys in this pyramid with real power.
And above them all, the Emperor, with a fortune that was essentially limitless, and who dwarfed Group 5 in both power and money. A guy that could purchase multiple armies across continents, owned Egypt (at one point senators weren’t even permitted to set foot in the province without the Emperor’s permission) and all the other Imperial provinces.
Leaving aside the weird citation of father-to-son consulships, and leaving aside the fact that the actual power and importance of the consulship varied wildly over the time period we’re talking about – the Senate under Commodus was pretty insignificant – what does it mean to say that “income inequality decreased” when this is the basic structure? What change in the income distribution in Roman society could possibly have been meaningful between Augustus and Commodus? Once you hit the third century and the Roman emperors become a succession of generals, some of whom spent their entire reigns in the field leading armies and never even visited Rome, I guess maybe the emperors’ wealth wasn’t infinite, or at least couldn’t be readily accessed. But I don’t see how that fits into this “cycle” argument (and it might not even be accurate; I’m raising an issue I’ve always wondered about rather than stating a fact). I’m looking at the list of Roman emperors, and I can’t think of anything going on in the second century that would have meaningfully altered income inequality. What am I missing?
The consul data is obviously a measure of “upward mobility” rather than inequality.
I don’t think that’s obvious – Scott lists it as the measure of both. But again, leaving it out, I still don’t see income inequality decreasing during the period in question. Maybe at the very end of the Western Empire, but that’s hundreds of years in the future.
I could be missing something, obviously – I’m not an expert. I’d be interested in knowing what.
One HUGE problem is that you can’t just look at numbers like you quote and assume them to map onto modern wealth, because the way wealth is used and the expectations surrounding it, its social role, are different.
When you say that the Emperor has unlimited wealth, you’re actually saying that the STATE has unlimited wealth. But the President’s wealth is not the same as the US’ wealth. Now of course there are legal differences, the Emperor has somewhat more leeway as to how to spend the wealth, etc. But all that money is not his to do whatever he likes with, in the way that Trump’s personal fortune (whatever it may be) is his to do what he likes with. There are limits to how much waste will be tolerated, and there will be a severe problem if that Emperor money runs out and everyone from the guards to the army to people shipping grain from Egypt don’t get paid.
And it continues downward. Those group 5 folks are less Bill Gates sitting on a pile of loot, and more Satya Nadal in charge of Microsoft. Sure, again, some leeway. But that money runs a machine that employs a vast number of people and fuels a vast number of expectations. And dashing those expectations will cause the guy controlling that money to find (one way or another) he has rather less control…
And so it goes further down the pyramid. Even at group 3 or so, you’re somewhat commingling the personal finances of a family (and remember it’s always a family, not an individual) with the finances of a small business, but still small businesses can be large; think, say, an auto-dealer. Once again we now have clear lines of demarcation between these, and you don’t get to use the auto-dealership money to do what you like. (Well, the Bluths might; but that’s presumably illegal given that they have a board of outsiders, so presumably have outside investors.) Once again in Rome things are fuzzier, but even at the group 3 there are stakeholders who have implicit rights and who will likely cause trouble if those rights are trampled; and concerns like cash flow are as important as they are to an auto-dealer today.
I’m not sure this is right.
If the thesis is correct then it would apply to any strongly linked bloc where nobles and commoners can move reasonably easily within the block
if you’ve got nobles swapping back and forth and commoners moving back and forth then it shouldn’t matter much if they’re 2 countries on paper.
If one subsection suffers a cull of nobles or a cull of commoners then people would flow into the gaps from the other parts of the block.
If everyone in california gets killed by a tsunami while there’s a lack of land and noble positions in new york… then the land gets filled up with formerly destitute new yorkers.
So one way for an empire to maintain stability is conquest: find a vulnerable neighbor, wipe out their nobility, some of their population and most of their upper class and now the nobles of the empire have positions into which they can slot their kids.
We don’t quite have the same noble classes now… but the management classes and ultra rich aren’t far off.
Or in more modern terms, bomb the shit out of some country with resources, hunt down the former leaders of it’s dominant political party and major industries and install your own companies and power structures. Shuffle the positions around a bit to leave space back at home and now the senior people at major multinationals then have extra positions to slot their kids into.
I don’t think that there have been many pre-modern societies where commoners moved en masse to another country. (Unless you are… the Mongols). English peasants wouldn’t move to France no matter how cheap land got, for many reasons. They would struggle to afford the journey, they relied heavily on trusting their neighbours, and in the feudal period serfs were legally bound to the land.
Nobles however, might be able to do as you said, as an English lord might have allies and relatives in France, the Holy Roman Empire, etc. But it’s not exactly as simple as shipping all the second sons to the continent.
May I introduce you to the fact Latin Christendom had a colonial frontier on its boundary with the pagan groups of the eastern Baltic (people always forget that the last major group to convert to Christianity were the Lithuanians in the fifteenth century). Peasants were encouraged by the local nobles and church to emigrate to what is now eastern Germany, northern Poland and the Baltic states as a colonial exercise.
Likewise the English settlement of Ireland (and to an extent Wales and north-west England) involved peasant colonists as well as nobles. The entire historiography of the Spanish reconquista is about how much this was a colonial movement. Peasants even moved to the Crusader kingdoms from western Europe. Internal colonisation of new lands in say the Netherlands or the uplands of Burgundy were also common.
I don’t know other societies well enough to be sure, but I guess this was the norm not the exception.
Yes, but how many people actually migrated there is an open debate.
Find two German historians (one conservative, one progressive) two Polish hisorian (also one conservative, one progressive), ask them that question, lock them in a room, and you probably get 6 opinions, and at least a bit of physical violence.
Genomic data from grave robbing cemeteries should be able to answer many of these questions in the next few decades.
You need an archaeologist for violence. Historians just don’t talk to each other over minor slights.
The issue of how many is the age old problem of data deficiency as much as anything.
Orthodox Christendom had a colonial frontier also, as their nobles were able to beat back the pastoral (Mongol) rulers of the southeast. There were large-scale peasant migrations into those areas once sufficiently pacified
When? What do you mean by “the southeast”?
Post-Nevsky Russia, presumably, though I agree the description is a stretch even then.
I encountered Turchin when I ran across his War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires. I think he is intellectually honest and his other books are worth reading.
Scott’s observation that he makes history much (easier – more interesting) is very true. I recently read his Ages of Discord. The surplus of elites is obviously a major driver of a lot of history. Turchin compares this period to the 1850’s. I recently read Madness Rules the Hour: Charleston, 1860 and the Mania for War. The mindset of a large number of the southern elites in that period is very similar to what is going on in the blue states today.
Interesting in our time is the belief that we are living in a simulation (Elon Musk, Scott Adams, Monroe Institute followers, Tom Campbell, many more). I am a retired electronic designer and programmer. The rapid growth of this belief among my professional group is noteworthy.
The explosion of technology, photo-realistic computer games, AI creating AI, and soon inexpensive virtual reality available to everyone makes this seem possible.
I think Turchin doesn’t get much attention because his books are too reasonable to be easily debunked and too enormously detailed to be easily digested and too ambitious to be easily trusted. I’ve given him a moderate amount of publicity over the years, but haven’t really gone into great detail about him lately because he’s more or less over my head.
He could be the Real Deal. On the other hand, he might wind up as forgotten as famous synthetic historians of the past like Toynbee. He’s playing in the big leagues.
By the way, Turchin has made a number of predictions for the near future, such as 2020 being a turbulent year. So we may have a better idea of how much to laud him in 18 months.
In general, while I am positive toward many of Turchin’s ideas, his confidence that he can put Hari Seldon-like dates on future cycles strikes me as over-ambitious. For example, I have a pretty good track record of foreseeing the ideological evolution of the American Establishment, but I almost never try to put dates on when I think things will happen, because I’d probably be embarrassingly wrong.
A lot of times things just bump along in the same old rut for longer than observers can imagine. I suspect one of the skills of Tetlock’s Super Forecasters is that when making forecasts for the next 12 months, they are less likely to assume that something that is likely to happen eventually will happen right now. For example, the South China Sea might well be a big crisis someday, but the can could also get kicked down the road for quite some time before something big happens.
For example, this October with be the 25th Anniversary of “The Bell Curve” Controversy, with nothing all that exciting having happened over the last 24 years. I could imagine an 85-year-old me writing a 50th Anniversary essay on “The Bell Curve” in 2044 with more scientific data in hand, but nothing much having shifted ideologically over a half century. Eventually, this controversy will be resolved one way or another, but eventually can take a very long time.
Ian Morris, from “Why the West rules…for now”, puts the date at 2100 for the East taking over, although he gives a lower bound of 2045.
You mean more turbulent than the Trump reelection year is obviously going to be?
(Actually curious where he said this… Googling “turchin 2020” just gets me stuff about him saying that the 2020s will be turbulent)
Given the sort of time-scales Turchin is dealing with in the examples, even narrowing it down to a decade seems like spurious precision.
Correct. And that he (apparently) made such a prediction lowers my confidence in him.
Yeah. It does NOT take any kind of cyclical hypothesis to predict a turbulent 2020. If he had predicted it, say, 15 or 20 years ago it would be more impressive.
Well if he predicted it in the book our host wrote about, he is predicting it for at least 10 years.
But people are predicting a crisis in the US in the next decades, at least since the third Gulf War (i.e. for almost 20 years) so even that isn’t a new hypothesis.
IIRC he made the same prediction in War and Peace and War, which Amazon says was published in 2007.
No, but I still think that accurately predicting that would be a point in favour of Turchin’s theory (not a proof of it, of course).
May also want to compare and contrast with Strauss-Howe Generational Theory. I find this about as compelling as Scott finds Turchin. This is also where Steve Bannon gets his worldview from and his desire to help America resolve the coming “crisis.”
I don’t know. Every ~80 years stuff blows up big. 1776…1861…1941…2020?
Just dropping WW1 and the great depression for reasons?
Yes. Also I kind of lump the depression in with WWII.
But the gist is that you start off with strong institutions, the institutions decay or corrupt, no one has faith in them anymore, calamity happens, and then strong institutions are reestablished.
So at the revolution, the colonists had lost faith in the institution of the crown. War, and the creation of new institutions. Leading up to the Civil War, southerners lost faith in the federal system to resolve their conflict with the north over slavery. War and the reconstruction of the institutions.
Nothing really happened like that with WWI, and there wasn’t much difference in American institutions pre-WWI as post-WWI. Then you get to the depression when Americans lost faith in the institutions of the free market, we get the New Deal and the establishment of the military-industrial complex with WWII.
Today we have very weak institutions. There is little trust in the media, in academia, in religion, in (some? many? social?) sciences. Congress is miserably unpopular, and I might have heard some rumblings about people not liking the president or the electoral system?
Anyway, I’m not saying it’s true, but it is interesting. Also kind of a formalization of “bad times make strong men, strong men make good times, good times make weak men, weak men make bad times.”
there wasn’t much difference in American institutions pre-WWI as post-WWI
That’s so wrong. Admittedly, many of the formal changes occurred right after WWI, but the Wilson administration was a huge change. Income tax, prohibition, the beginning of the surveillance state (Wilson sent Pinkertons to spy on Lutheran churches during the war), segregation of the Federal civil service, repurposing rather than shutting down the wartime bureaucracy, etc.
Okay, I should modify that. People did not lose faith in the institutions around WWI.
Arguably WWI&II weren’t America’s cycle. Waterloo-WWI can almost fudge to fit, and WWII is broadly a continuation of the first getting botched so badly.
If you swap out 1941 for the Depression it kinda works for an American timeline – and then ~80 years from from the 30s… Trumpocalypse!
Right. WW1/GD/WW2 were global events. US was non-central to the wars; arguably central to the GD. But at a minimum the global nature of these events should give one pause in utilizing a theory based purely on internal processes.
If you’re looking for a pattern that includes the causes of World War II, you need to look at European and Japanese history rather than American.
Please Scott stop using graphs from the War and Peace page of OurWorldInData (your third figure). The data source (the conflict catalogue ) is quite incomplete and has very strong differences with agreed figures for large conflicts in the time period.
Just look at the graph with a critical eye. No Russian Civil War, no XXth century Chinese Civil Wars, Taiping rebellion smaller than the Shoah, no other Chinese major catastrophes, *nothing* on South Asia, etc.
I like macro-history but, like Ketil above, I don’t think I truly buy T&N cycle per se. The general idea (that overpopulation and income inequality is a major motor for history), I am a lot keener on.
For example, I tend to believe in the Black Death hypothesis : https://dailyhistory.org/How_did_the_Bubonic_Plague_make_the_Italian_Renaissance_possible%3F
I’m also presently reading Global Crisis : https://www.amazon.com/Global-Crisis-Climate-Catastrophe-Seventeenth/dp/0300153236
Both events – a pandemic and climate cooling/changing – are outside of human control and have nothing to do with the amount of nobles available at the time (though, crusades likely did start ‘coz Norman second sons were hungry for land and glory: https://digitalcommons.unf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1118&context=etd) but they are interesting inasmuch as you can see the drop in population and recovery periods as propelling Western Europe onwards to modernity.
Today, I would argue that income inequality is indeed a magnifier of problems and make our societies a lot more fragile. How many people voted for Trump and said on TV “What have we got to lose?” In reality, they have plenty to lose but they don’t feel that way. And thus the system is made more fragile until catastrophic losses may well arise.
tl; dr : #thanoswasright… 🙂
Eventually, there are more nobles than there are good positions…this part confused me a little. Shouldn’t number of good positions scale with population?
You’re forgetting about all the second and third and subsequent sons who were having second and third and fourth sons of their own who ended up as landless nobles due to primogeniture. John Clay is the grandson of a royal duke but he has no title or standing himself, you can’t just invent a new barony or marquisate for John to handily step into (indeed, the opposite tends to happen, with various titles clustering around the main heir as power, land and wealth is consolidated). There’s a reason for the pattern of “first son inherits, second son goes into the Army, third son goes into the Church” that happens quite a lot with English upper and upper-middle classes. This is how you end up with “American retired grocery worker could be next Earl of Essex” due to such scattering of younger sons to make their own way in the world.
Look at Edward III – he had eight sons and five daughters (not all of whom survived infancy) and the Wars of the Roses were fought between his various descendants (from the lineage of his third son, John of Gaunt) as to who would get the throne; John of Gaunt himself had three wives (the third one formerly his mistress whom he married after his second wife died) and at least one other mistress, by all of whom he had fourteen children and this is how he is an ancestor of the kings of Portugal and of Castile and, of course, England.
As for the rest of it, I think that seeing recurring patterns is a human disposition that we tend to fall into, whether it’s there or not. Much of what is described – population increases, crashes due to natural or other disasters, rebuilding again – does indeed happen, but maybe not in such a handy cycle that we can point to and say “Ah yes, we are now in the X part of the cycle”.
Look at the Great Famine, this describes it handily: the worst hit are the ones at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, the ones existing at a subsistence level. Estimates for Irish population at the time are little better than useless, but if we take an estimate at the higher bound of eight million for the entire island, then even in 2019 we still aren’t back at that level – between the Republic and Northern Ireland, it’s about 6.8 million. By contrast, the population of England alone was 13.6 million in 1841 and is 56 million today. Famine, disease and emigration distorted the culture of the country and completely changed everything from age of marriage to inheritance patterns to land usage.
But that’s not the whole story, of course, and we can’t map it onto a neat 300 year cycle.
[quote]As for the rest of it, I think that seeing recurring patterns is a human disposition that we tend to fall into, whether it’s there or not. Much of what is described – population increases, crashes due to natural or other disasters, rebuilding again – does indeed happen, but maybe not in such a handy cycle that we can point to and say “Ah yes, we are now in the X part of the cycle”.[/quote]
Yes! I was trying to express that but didn’t do a very good job. There’s something to the central thesis, I feel, but nothing you could properly map out. It depends. Which doesn’t make thinking about what fragility our system may have useless.
For example, Scott says we’re no longer in a malthusian world with land productivity/food production capping our population. Sure. But the number of jobs available and the income you can derive from them seem like good substitutes for land/food.
I think that ‘land’ is basically a proxy for ‘limiting resources.’
I’m going to push back a bit against the claim that Turchin has not been cherry picking his data to suit his needs, because there’s a bunch of ways in which this seems really, really off.
It’s good for Turchin’s case that he’s using central examples rather than exotic tribes to prove anything about human nature, but there’s still a lot of history for them to pick from. England, France, and Rome have histories long enough that they span more than a thousand years each, and Russia is no slouch in that department either. I don’t know about the Russian and French cases he illustrates, but the Roman and British ones you cite leave me very doubtful.
For Britain, really? The Plantagenets? 1100s and 1400s troubles aside, are we supposed to believe that the 1300s is some manner of high point for their dynasty? The century in which they’re fighting an immensely costly war – successes in battle despite? The hundred years war was fought at great monetary cost on both sides, and I find it very doubtful that it can have been very good for the economy.
Even if you grant that it’s a good example, the history of England from there doesn’t add up. After the late 1400s, the very first so-called crisis point should be due somewhere in the 1700s.. Except the only civil war we see is in the 1600s. Furthermore, I see no period of decline anywhere near the three centuries you’d expect, with England doing extremely well for itself all the way through the late 1500s to the early 1900s – what gives? I don’t know that Turchin has a response to this issue, but it certainly looks like a strike against his theory.
Rome, too, doesn’t convince me much. He mentions the period from Augustus to Constantine, but are we supposed to completely ignore what happens after that? A century and a half after Constantine, the Western empire it utterly conquered between various tribes, whereas the Eastern one is still doing fine. I don’t buy the preemptive explanation that it’s external factors, because Rome has had hostile neighbors since the dawn of its existence, so if there is no good way Turchin adresses this it’s another harsh blow to his theory.
The average age of first marriage for an English woman from 1200 to 1800 was 24 to 26. This population helped England avoid the worst of the Malthusian cycles. Chinese women, in contrast, tended to marry at 17 or 18, so population grew much faster, but then crashed hard during periods of poor government (e.g., c. 1960).
It’s interesting to speculate about whether, if this hypothesis is true, the decreasing fertility of women in advanced countries will stretch out the time between crashes, or whether the increased use of limiting resources will speed it up.
Our limiting factor is currently less about land than energy, since we use stored sunlight (in the form of fossil fuels) to produce fertilizer and pump water to make every last inch of land produce beyond what it normally would, so we might start to see the cycle take hold as sea level rise eats arable land along the coasts or as fossil fuel depletion raises the price of nitrogen fertilizers. Supposedly there’s an impending phosphorus shortage coming, too (also fertilizer).
The high end of the IPCC projection for the end of the century on the high emissions scenario is about a meter of SLR, roughly half the difference between high tide and low tide.
There are a few places, such as the Nile Delta, where that could be a significant problem, assuming no diking against it. But on a geographical scale, the loss of land is invisibly small.
On the other hand, warming pushes temperature contours towards the pole, making usable large amounts of land in Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia. I haven’t seen any careful calculation of the numbers, but I did a back of the envelope calculation and found the increase in usable land due to warming to be two or three orders of magnitude larger than the loss due to SLR.
To be fair, I didn’t make any allowance for land loss due to warming. The equator is heavily populated and productive and greenhouse warming tends to be less in warm times and places than in cold, so I don’t think that would be a significant issue, but I don’t really know.
A disproportionate amount of arable land is on relatively low coastal plains that are already at risk of flooding, and an even greater disproportionate fraction of humanity lives relatively close to the coast. Arizona and Colorado are not at risk of flooding, but who gives a damn in terms of crop yield? (edit: a quick google search suggests that, globally, I have been biased by my life on the west coast, where most of our farm production happens on low coastal plains that flood regularly anyway. You appear to be correct wrt. sea level rise not having as dramatic an impact on arable land as I had supposed).
As for new lands being opened up to the north, you may be correct but the soils there tend to be peaty due to the lack of decomp for the last several thousand years, or overly gravely and think due to retreating glaciers; there have been many studies suggesting that climate change will decrease crop yields. Some of this could be alleviated by just moving crops around – what was once the staple in one area might no longer grow there, but might be a new staple somewhere else. The US administration crowing about the loss of agricultural scientists seems especially stupid in that light, as does the idea that we will be able to feed the world without fertilizers or pesticides on the left.
(about general land loss, not sea level rise)https://www.climatecentral.org/news/earth-has-lost-a-third-of-arable-land-19785
Given a lot of uncertain effects in both directions, there’s a lot of flexibility to let a study produce the result its author wants—just make generous estimates for negative effects, conservative for positive, and miss some of the latter because you aren’t looking for them.
A couple of points:
1. To see just how tiny the effect of a meter of SLR (the high end of the range for the high emissions scenario for the end of the century) is, take a look at the flood maps page. Or think about the fact that we are talking about a change less than the difference between high tide and low tide.
2. CO2 fertilization is the most certain part of the story. The effect is well established by experiment, since people have been pumping CO2 into greenhouses for a long time to increase yield. The effect depends only on the first step of the causal chain, the increase in CO2 that drives the rest, so doesn’t depend on uncertain estimates of climate sensitivity and the like.
Doubling CO2, which is about what the IPCC is projecting, increases the yield of C3 crops (everything important but maize and sugar cane) by about 30%, increases the yield of C4 plants by a smaller amount, and reduces water requirements (less air has to go through the leaves to get the needed carbon). What unambiguous negative effect of climate change produces a balancing reduction on that scale?
I looked briefly at your three links. Unless I missed it, none of the three mentioned CO2 fertilization. Given that the bottom line was reduction in crop output, don’t you think ignoring a large and well established effect in the opposite direction suggests a certain bias in the article? And the piece on North Carolina mentioned sinking land once but never told the reader that the majority of the SLR on that coast is due to subsidence, which has nothing to do with climate change.
I’m dropping out of this discussion now, because it’s edging into CW, will be happy to return to it in an appropriate thread.
Couple of points, and then I will also drop out. First, you keep on saying ‘less than the difference between high and low tide’ as if that is supposed to be reassuring, but it just makes me think that you probably haven’t actually been to many coastlines. Where the continental slope is shallow, ‘the difference between high and low tide’ is quite a long distance, and definitely enough land to inundate a significant proportion of many of our coastal cities and farmlands, many of which are already experiencing periodic flooding. That’s a meter *on top of* two daily high tides, and we don’t all have venice’s experience in dealing with that (venice itself, obvioulsly, will lose the lower story of pretty much every building in the city, not counting storm surges that will occur on top of the 1-meter-higher high tides). Second, so far the predictions of the IPCC are being met ahead of schedule and worse than predicted, and the worst predictions suggest well over a meter of rise, on top of current high tides. And the IPCC estimates left off Greenland and Antarctic melting.
Wrt. CO2 fertilization, I have indeed seen articles discussing this and pretty much all of them suggest that the effect will be overruled by droughts, flooding, and sheer unpredictability. I didn’t include links on that hypothesis because it wasn’t the one I was looking for. Just as one example, decades-old cedar trees are dying all over Oregon due to drought stress or disease, I haven’t heard a definitive diagnosis yet; forests all over California are being denuded by insects that have more reproductive cycles every year and are able to move higher up the mountains due to warmer temperatures. CO2 fertilization doesn’t help dead plants and trees.
With regard to how much land is lost by a 1 meter SLR, I again refer you to the Flood Maps Page, which lets you zoom in on the map and see the effect.
I haven’t seen a comparison of IPCC SLR projections to what has happened, but I did look at the temperature predictions, and (as of 2014—I haven’t updated my figures) the IPCC had consistently projected high.
Happy to return to this in a more appropriate thread.
Re the cherry-picking critique, Turchin launched the Seshat Global History Databank to address this.
You may also be interested in Volkmar Weiss’s The Population Cycle Drives Human History.
Doesn’t that sound a lot like academia?
“Social trust and patriotism disappear as it becomes increasingly obvious that it’s every man for himself and that people with scruples will be defeated or exploited by people without.”
That’s my worldview in a nutshell. It never occurred to me that it is an observation about our current time. I always thought of it as the reason ethical frameworks built on self interest are a con, and would be in any time period.
This is Ibn Khaldun’s complaint about North Africa seven centuries ago.
This is a graph of the population (in 100,000s) of Persia relative to its AD0 population.
It looks pretty encouraging for this, right? We’ve got a long-term underlying growth trend during the local golden age, coupled with an internal cycle: 200 is higher than we expect based on the long-term trend, 400 is lower, 600 is higher, 800 is lower, 1000 is higher again.
Unfortunately, I lied. This isn’t a graph of the population of Persia. It is one of the first results on a Google Image search for ‘random walk’.
A lot of the graphs I see in this (e.g. the one with all the wars on it) look an awful lot more like random noise than they do like an actual cycle.
Reading this comment inspired me to recall a trick that I forgot to apply when first reading this post: Every time you see a scatter plot with a trend line overlayed on it, try to visualize what the graph would look like with the trend line. Seeing only the dots, what sort of pattern would you see? Are they the same patterns the the trend lines are showing? For example, in the graph of Chinese population, do you see any cyclical patterns? To me it just looks like linear growth with noise, and a sudden acceleration at the last two data points.
I suspect we’d be better off if it stopped being a common practice to overlay trend lines on graphs. It’s so much easier to use trend lines to deceive than to illuminate. If the data really shows a trend, we should be able to see it without someone drawing it, but if it doesn’t, it’s much easier for us to imagine a false trend when someone adds a suggestive line.
+1 for bringing up random walks–they’re the null hypothesis here.
A long time ago, I wrote some computer programs to go with my price theory textbook. I later designed some more, but never completed them.
One of them was a program that generated either a sine wave plus random error or a random walk. You played the game by trying to see how soon you could figure out which it was.
The economic context was the question of whether there was, as generally believed, a business cycle or merely economic ups and downs due to random events.
As one with a basic undestanding of Chinese history, this does not surprise me in the least. I thought the idea that the 300 year average dynasty length was Malthusian was common knowledge.
It seems like industrialization and the demographic transition has firmly broken the Malthusian cycles that previously dominated human history. The First World at least has enjoyed unbroken growth since the 1700s.
In the modern era, there are also many examples of crises leading to further crises rather than rejuvenation, as well as success leading to success. For example, many developing countries impoverished by colonialism turned to socialism and communism which made things worse. On the other hand, the US, which has always been prosperous, was able to invest in technologies and develop restrained institutions which grew our prosperity further.
Overall, I find the standard trend narrative to fit the modern era (post-1700s) better than the old cyclical narrative (even though there is something comforting in the cyclical narrative, that the first will be last and the last will be first).
It seems to me the extra “degree of freedom” would be the invention of a technology that no one, even the smartest person on earth, could have anticipated. Did Malthus predict genetically engineered crops? You don’t know what you don’t know, and technology is developing so rapidly that all bets are off the table.
(Edited to add: of course this only applies to the last part of the post, looking to the future, and not to any of the historical data.)
Another degree of freedom would be some sort of weird unexpected human genetic mutation (a la The Mule in the Foundation trilogy), but let’s not go there, no matter how much this post reminds me of the work of Hari Seldon.
Do these punctuated-equilibrium cycles have to be regular? A lot of Scott’s efforts go into checking that assumption (presumably because the book makes the assumption and so it’s a fair test of the book’s claim).
But nobody thinks that punctuated equilibrium in, say, science has a regular period, just a regular pattern. Even Thomas Kuhn never proposed a regularity constraint. The regularity is a potent constraint, making narratives much more regular and really holding the theory to account, so it would be a shame to lose it but I just can’t justify it, personally.
It seems like a more plausible mode is that Malthusian population loading doesn’t cause any particular failure, but instead makes the system more fragile to randomly-arriving failures. Because meteors and volcanos and tsunamis presumably don’t wait for babies, even if somehow plagues do, but those disasters can wreak havoc on this civilizational scale all the same. And this framework makes the mode more accommodating of technology changes, because all technology does is tweak the fragility parameters and their rate of change.
Modern markets have a similar, twenty-year-ish cycle of catastrophe, remorse, and then increasing risk-taking right up until the next catastrophe. But each one is caused by a black swan, an unknown unknown, and it would seem a tall order to claim that those are on any schedule.
As a followup thought, the Book of Judges records a period in ancient Jewish history of a shorter catastrophe cycle, on the order of a generation or two. These cycles were typified by a heroic leader, a Judge, who arose to address the catastrophe, uniting Israel in doing so. After each crisis Israel slowly went back their separate ways.
The cycle was broken by asking the priesthood to appoint a permanent kingship, which proved even more fragile and violent than the judgeships, despite a number of big ticket accomplishments (Solomon’s Temple first and foremost).
So perhaps these cycles are universal, but particular cycle lengths are typical of particular cultural, political, and technological realities; that is, the nations that are robust enough to have cycles that last more than one hundred years are the ones that are currently capable of running the world.
Ancient Egypt seems like the obvious comparison case for a Westerner to look at. Mostly uninterfered with by outsiders, their cycles seem MUCH longer (the Old and New Kingdoms each lasted about half a millennium). What other observations would Turchin and Nefedov predict based on this?
But the nobles can only tax the surplus derived from agriculture which in a Malthusian society increases linearly with time, while the number of nobles increases exponentially, hence at some point you have lots of people who are noble on paper but less wealthy than a typical merchant or a high-performing farmer and might be forced to work, which they will consider extremely humiliating. These people, who still think of themselves as part of the warrior class, will be willing to join factions and fight each other until their population is sufficiently culled.
But isn’t this choice a bit tautological? These civilizations are very interesting because they follow the classical pattern of rapid expansion, hegemony, decadence and collapse.
There are possibly societies that never became major superpowers but also were not satellites of more powerful neighbors and remained relatively stable for many centuries. Switzerland seems to be an example of this: it has been an independent, prosperous and internally peaceful country for almost 500 years (with the brief parenthesis of the Napoleonic occupation that lasted about 5 years).
Declaration of interest here: I have a PhD in history and still occasionally publish papers. I might therefore be seen as having a vested interest (God knows what this would be though – I tend towards attacking established orthodoxies so I’m hardly status quo, and I oppose the professionalisation of history), but I’m still going to attack this.
This is pattern matching, pure and simple. Detailed and apparently well-written pattern matching, but pattern matching all the same. It is not history any more than another (less scrupulous to be fair) pattern-matcher, Erich von Daniken’s work is history. Whilst this sums up my feelings, I can substantiate this.
The first objection I have is the use of data here. Let’s take the Roman Empire, which is nowhere near as well-documented as people often tend to believe. Other than the consular records, none of the Roman evidence cited has data on a year-to-year basis available, but rather a number of discrete data points, from across an area the size of Europe, which have to be combined. “Wheat prices stayed stable until Nerva” for example seems a reasonable statement until you remember the following:
1. This is based on a small number of mentions of the price of grain almost all in official decrees.
2. These decrees generally only covered one province. The series of data points do not relate to one province (although I bet a lot come from the Egyptian provinces and Africa Proconsularis). The price of grain in Britannia in a system that only had mass transit to Italy and later Istanbul was probably unconnected to that of Armenia, or of Hispania even.
3. These are decrees setting the price of grain. They are not market prices, but rather the price the emperor and governor want to see. The implication is therefore that this was not the actual price of grain which was either higher or lower than the price that the decree was setting. Nerva may just have thought grain should be far cheaper than the market price.
4. This was not disinterested. The largest purchaser of grain was the imperial government, for feeding the capital and the army. Being both the largest customer and able to set the price might be seen as giving motivation for a low price being required.
5. I bet the figures are just those recorded and not taking into account inflation. But prices go up in a healthy economy, and for all its imperfections the Roman Empire had a healthy economy (we can tell – it only collapsed at some point between the fifth and eighth centuries). So we should be very suspicious that over 100 years’ grain prices stood still without economic stagnation.
6. Back to the isolated data points. How do we know a smooth curve linking them is acceptable?
A statement that recorded wheat prices as decreed by emperors stayed stable till Nerva from the limited evidence we have might be accurate, but that shows you the flaws in the data. From this evidence, I’d be equally happy arguing the blatant exploitation of grain producers by the imperial bureaucracy caused the downfall of the stability of the principals as accepting this as evidence of a cycle. And the problem is that this is not a unique situation: all reconstructed historical data is contextual, and you need to understand this context. Much isn’t even dated: pottery as evidence requires knowing archaeological context, production sites and usage patterns; people spend their entire careers working on aspects of these problems. To try and then treat it as some form of economic data without engaging with these debates is futile: pottery tell us things, but only if we understand the context.
Then we get to the deliberate use of bad data. A good example here is the use of a paper from 1937 showing social satisfaction. A paper which is 82 years old! Which was written in an era when imperialism, facism and communism were all still generally regarded as not awful. You can guess the underlying assumptions here will be questionable. But even if it was done by one of the 1930s rare methodological historians, he (almost certainly – do we really think female experience gets a consideration here, or in this whole debate?) didn’t have the data and improved understanding we have now. Historians discover new evidence, identify forgeries, improve contextual understanding and many other things over time. As with every other subject. Would we use a satisfaction index from 1937 in psychiatry? If not, why would we use one in history?
It might be argued bad data is all we have. I wouldn’t disagree. But if all you have is bad data why are you using it? Short of trying to fight a war, is there any situation where deliberately progressing knowing all your data is bad for your purposes makes sense? If your likely level of epistemological accuracy rates alongside an early-morning text from President Trump then maybe you need to work on your data. This looks to me like writers ignoring the issues with the data (or being unaware of them, which is worse) in order to concentrate on their patterns.
Then we have the issue of generation lengths not being consistent. Generally it seems the wealthier a society the later people marry and have children, so generations will possibly get longer in good times. And the lack of female view is again apparent here: female nobles existed, and (contra my above statement, in what is a recognised exception) they generally married young, often around 15. So a grandfather-grandson gap might be fifty years, whilst grandmother to granddaughter might be thirty years. The importance of this is that mothers were almost always responsible for basic cultural education, so the two-generation gap for the 40-60 year cycle is questionably linked to cultural mores which might well be on a shorter cycle, if the entire idea is not built round a vastly oversimplified model of rebellion and conformity on a generational scale.
And to pick up on Scott’s (presumably light-hearted) view that the Plantagenets had to last 330 years, he is aware that the Tudor’s got the throne because Richard III died in battle yes? That’s not a sign of a social cycle for a medieval king: it’s an occupational hazard. The Capetians in France also lasted about 330 years until they had no direct male heir: a cadet line (Valois) took over, with little real difference but it looks a nice 330 year cycle. As with death in battle, all your surviving children being girls is not really an indication of any social trend. Returning to the Plantagenets, it’s also worth pointing out that the Wars of the Roses were not a hugely destructive civil war or even a major winnowing of the nobility. The Tudors inherited a strong kingdom with a disunited nobility, not a kingdom having a social crisis. The social crisis was the fourteenth century, with a major famine c. 1315-20, economic stagnation (as judged from the market price of bread and wages, amongst other indicators) and the Black Death in 1348, with later peasant unrest. The Plantagenets managed normal dynastic succession through this; Edward II was deposed and killed with a red-hot poker (allegedly) but that’s occupational hazards again, and no-one disputed his son as the next king. If we’ve got cycles going on here, the royal dynasty was somehow half a cycle off the social one.
As you might guess, I think this idea is methodologically weak and an attempt to force evidence to do something it never needed to do. It has presumably been ignored by most historians for the same reason I ignore people claiming the Picts were descendants of Scythian tribes: yes, it fits some of the evidence, but only if you don’t understand the evidence first. Historians tend to work from the bottom up, from contextualised data, because otherwise they are building houses of sand. Turchin and Nefedov appear not to have done this.
And this leads to an explanation of Scott’s point about the link to Piketty. This is probably not a coincidence: Turchin and Nefedov appear to be working in the Marxist historiographical tradition of undertaking broad analyses of social history to identify moments of revolution and change, in particular a Russian school that doesn’t seem to have adapted to criticisms about source-handling that the western schools had to deal with. Piketty is a much more explicit Marxist theorist, so his underlying assumptions match well with those in the the book. It might be objected that Turchin was educated in New York, but that was as a biologist and his historical training was in the Soviet Union (his family was exiled after he went to university), as it appears was Nefedov’s. That two examples of works developed due to Marxist influence agree is probably not a surprise; considering the narrow focus of much Marxist intellectual thought it’s probably not significant either, being a relic of methodological assumptions as much as a research output.
I think that Turchin would reply to this with “Refusal to quantify is usually the last refuge of those who don’t want to see their pet theories rejected.”
My objection is he is basically quantifying qualitative data though. And because he hasn’t done the basic building work he is unaware of this. Kaj Sotala provides a helpful quote upthread which characterises Turchin’s work as social science rather than history. I feel this is unfair to many social scientists, but the worst of that field do similar pattern matching exercises with poor data, creating much of the bad impressions people have of social science.
Historians do quantify when they have enough evidence to do so. But since the material of history is primarily documents and artifacts, interpreting these correctly is an essential first step before implementing economic theories or game theory or statistical analysis.
You can’t just through the kitchen sink of various scientific methodologies at history and call it “history as a science.”
In what sense is Piketty “Marxist theorist”?
His underlying economics are rooted in Marxist interpretation, albeit he is not necessarily Marxist himself.
Which underlying assumptions of his are Marxist?
Snidely I’d say his attempt to use inequality as a political tool…
More basically, his attempt to establish a difference in the trends between classes over a long duration is pretty classic Marxist thought. Not sure whether this is something relatively direct or a feature in macroeconomics more generally though.
I don’t think that Capital in the 21th century is about “trends between classes” except in very loose and almost meaningless sense. It is about trends in income and wealth inequality over the long term, but labeling it Marxist leads to very extensive definition of Marxism.
Marxism as an intellectual tool, not a political alignment. I’m fully capable of using Marxist historical methods if I want to, despite my opposition to Marx’s political descendants.
Ok, but I am trying to pin you down on which methods you consider “Marxist”.
Ah. The analysis of data over a long duration looking for signs of class conflict, with a tendency to consider the argument more important than the data.
Ok, but then Piketty does not fit into that definition, since he is not especially concerned with class conflict.
I may be cheating a bit, but I always see inequality (as opposed to absolute poverty) as a proxy for classes.
I am always unsure how to deal with such arguments. Simply put, theory of class conflict and theory of income inequality are two different things. Asserting that one is proxy for the other is a bit analogous to asserting that chair is proxy for table, or something like that..
The purpose of both though is to show a social injustice against the bulk of the population with the aim of helping change in society. I’d point out pure Marxist economists are pretty much a vanished species, with newer macroeconomic theories occupying this space, but the ideology behind these theories is still generally that of radical socialism.
Aha, so I agree that Piketty could be characterized as a socialist. Radical socialist? Well, no, or at least he is noncentral example of radical socialism.
But now it seems that “Marxist economist” in this definition would be everyone who is an economist and subscibes to certain political worldview, i.e. broadly defined socialism. Of course it could be argued that it is the case only if his worldview in some way shows in his academic work, but I am firmly of the opinion that when comes to social scientists, almost every one of them is in some way influenced by their political worldview in their work.
His underlying argument is based on math: the value of capital increases faster than the value of labor, so those who inherit capital from wealthy parents will tend to establish dynasties unless they are completely hopeless at managing capital.
Yet we live in a time, sometimes called late stage capitalism by commies, where top incomes are immense, while interest rates are very low. Capital seems relatively worthless right now, while some labor is gaining value rapidly (while other forms of labor are losing value).
The actual way in which modern dynasties form is not so much by managing estates, but mainly by the children from the rich getting much better access to high-value jobs.
Aside from being falsified by reality, Marx’ argument is also wrong because it presumes that people have the sole goal of passing on wealth to future generations, which most do not (anymore).
People can be completely competent at managing capital to maximize their future wealth or at least, calling upon people who are competent at it, yet choose to not maximize their future wealth, because they have different goals in life.
The 15th Century English War of the Roses was less cataclysmic to the rural gentry than it looked in Game of Thrones. It was more of a tournament among the top stratum of society.
In general, English society wasn’t that erratic, in part because poor Ireland served as a punching bag for the tensions within England. In the two English civil wars of the 17th Century, for example, the winners in England then went to Ireland to put down rebellions and stayed to steal Irish land, while English property rights remained more or less sacrosanct.
One flaw in Game of Thrones (at least the TV series) is indeed that armoured nobles die easily. Good fifteenth-century plate could protect you from most things.
It should be pointed out that the War of the Roses wasn’t just a noble conflict. It had one major battle in the middle of the town of St Albans (no-one’s choice particularly) and the Nevillea and Percya certainly had their estates and tenants attacked at times. But it wasn’t a harveat-destroying, manpower-draining war, so much as a series of short campaigns basically involving professional warriors. It also lacked dragons (although it was won by a welshmen) and white walkers (Scottish intervention was of limited relevance).
Just commenting to agree with Watchman’s comment. I’m finishing a PhD in classics, and the section on the Roman empire sets all kinds of alarm bells ringing. A lot of the things that T&N seem to think are solid and quantifiable are actually much less certain.
First, figures for deaths from various plagues and wars are very uncertain. A lot of the time the numbers come from writers saying things like “Half the people in the city died.” But is this because actually that many people died, or because it seemed that way? Or maybe because the author wants to sound like another author, such as Thucydides’ account of the Athenian plague? A good example of the uncertainty of our evidence is the current controversy over the Justinianic plague (there’s been some fierce backlash from ancient historians over Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome and exactly this sort of positivist attitude to the evidence).
I’m also sceptical of the data on wages for Egyptian agricultural laborers. While Egypt would be the best place for this sort of evidence, it’s difficult to argue that it’s really indicative of the larger Roman empire, since it’s an anomaly in a lot of interesting ways.
There’s a lot more that makes me uneasy, but I haven’t read the book, so I’ll leave it there.
I’m really struggling to see how one would falsify this theory.
Yes, if you put one or two thousand years on the x-axis, there will appear to be 2-400 year cycles. If you plug in two to four hundred, the you will see cycles of 40-80 years. That is exactly what you expect from a random walk, as others have pointed out. That’s certainly my null hypothesis here. What other shape could these graphs possibly have? Things go up a bit, then they go down a bit. If they go up twice in a row, it still just looks like one ‘up.’
The fact that something caused those swings doesn’t really prove much beyond ‘if it was actually aliens, they hid their tracks well.’ Pointing out that an empire was sailing down wind as it waxed and facing hardships as it waned is not really saying anything at all. It certainly doesn’t move my needle in terms of the causality here.
I don’t deny that Malthusian forces are probably real. But I agree with the consensus view that they’re probably not the main driving force in human history. Turfin & Nefedov seem to indirectly claim that, but for Malthusian pressure, the Black Death or Time of Troubles would have been no big deal. Yeah, maybe. But maybe not. I don’t see compelling evidence here to make that inference.
I really want to like this theory, but having taken a few historiography courses, I’m a little leery of anything that veers too closely into cliometrics. Cliometrics is the application of statistical or economic methods to history. My takeaway from this is that it can certainly be useful to apply quantitative analysis to historical research, but you have to be really careful what data you look at, how much of it there is, and how you interpret it. Historians, when they even have anything like a surviving historical data set, usually have to rely on far less data than we’d consider due diligence for a modern scientific study. Stuff like lead in the ice sheet and archaeological finds are probably the best kind of data for this purpose, and if anything they tend to demonstrate how unreliable historical sources (stuff people wrote down) can be. And so much archaeological evidence just doesn’t exist at all- a single find can still change our entire understanding of a period. Basically, your data is a mess and the experiment is never reproducible.
These authors seem to be bringing their a-game to the extent that is possible, and like all good historians, they hedge their bets. I want to like them, because my own theory of history involves living memory and the idea that information directly transmitted from those who experienced it. I think personal accounts told in person are psychologically different from knowledge of the past learned in other ways and that this influences how a generation thinks and how prone it is to instability. “Secular Cycles” seems to have noticed this as we’ll, though maybe from a different angle. So they’ve got me personally at least on the level of confirmation bias.
I have a history MA and in grad school I was struck how many failed attempts there have been to make history more like a science seemingly without much grasp of what scientists actually do. You definitely need to be informed of scientific discoveries relevant to your field and try to incorporate them as much as possible, but you also have to respect that history can never be a true science. My feelings about the field were that it is fundamentally a humanities subject, centered on storytelling, with a responsibility to the factual but unavoidably subjective. “Secular Cycles” at least seems responsible in the sense that it seems to present its theory as one possible path, something that can recur under the right conditions.
Is it just me or does the subjective crackpottishness of the theory go way down if you remove the claim that the cycle is there hundred years long everywhere (except the Maghreb)?
Yes. But the theory doesn’t then work due to this major exception…
I think I focused more on that number than the authors did. They used more graphs about how population and inequality and inverse wages all increased together up to a point, then some plagues and wars happened, and then they all went down together. It usually took around 300 years, but I don’t think this is the most important part of their theory.
Let’s say we throw away the 300 year part. You could restate it as “history is slow and steady growth, broken up by the occasional sharp decline from war or plague.” That makes intuitive sense- you can kill people a whole lot faster than you can grow them.
That would be true, but it’s uncontroversial and doesn’t make predictions and thus not interesting.
Unfortunately it’s hard to find theories that are both interesting and true.
Turchin offers a number of rules of thumb, such as “overproduction of elites,” that could be useful. It’s been about a decade since I read that phrase in Turchin and I haven’t forgotten it because it seems relevant.
Turchin’s proposes a causal mechanism for these historical observations. His mechanism is essentially a carrying capacity model with momentum, which results in cycles of overshoots and die-offs, something like this or this.
These momentum-based mechanisms per se are not particularly unexpected, Turchin’s thesis however is that they explain major events such as civilization collapses. The competing hypothesis is these events are instead driven by unpredictable chaotic processes that behave, for all practical purposes, mostly like memory-less random processes (e.g. Poisson or Wiener).
Because memory-less random processes can generate time series that look superficially periodic, especially since we are hardwired to find patterns in observations, it’s not easy to distinguish between the two hypotheses.
Regarding how this framework applies to the modern era, I see three possibilities:
1.) The first cycle, the 250-350 year Malthusian cycle, is no longer happening. However, the second cycle, the 40-60 year cycle of social radicalism, is still continuing. This is the simplest explanation, as well as the most optimistic: it means that, while we will continue to see periods of unrest every 2-3 generations, they’ll most likely remain fairly minor, since they won’t accompany a Malthusian crisis state. If that’s the case, then the current period of political instability is a minor blip, and we can expect a return to stability soon.
2.) The Malthusian cycle is continuing, but modern technology is preventing the mass casualties that usually conclude it. This means that we don’t need to worry about 30-50% of the population dying off any time soon, but it also means that we’re effectively stuck in the late stagflation/early crisis phase indefinitely. If this is the case, then it’s anyone’s guess what will happen: Perhaps the population will eventually reach a point where even modern technology won’t be sufficient to prevent mass casualties; if that’s the case, then the cycle has merely been lengthened, not averted. Or perhaps there’s a way for the growth phase to start up again without a massive die-off; for instance, sufficiently major technological advancements could increase society’s total carrying capacity, or various social, cultural, and technological factors could lead to people voluntarily choosing to reproduce less. Alternatively, maybe neither of those things will happen and this halfway-to-the-bottom phase will become a new self-sustaining equilibrium, with civilization lingering on in this diminished state forever (or at least until some massive external event finally disrupts it).
3.) This one is more of a perspective than a theory: Given developments in communications and transportation technology, perhaps we should be looking at the entire planet as a more-or-less unified civilization and applying this framework to humanity in general, rather than a specific country or region (e.g. the United States, the Western world). If this is the case, then even working-class and middle-class residents of developed nations should be viewed as ‘nobles,’ with the lower classes of developing nations comprising the modern era’s ‘peasantry.’ After all, it’s largely the middle class who are becoming academics and bureaucrats here in the developed world, not merely the wealthy. This is not necessarily incompatible with either of the two previous ideas, although it’s also compatible with an unmodified version of the Secular Cycle, so alternative variants of it may not be necessary. I’ll leave it to others to draw what conclusions they will from this possibility.
Malthusian theory, that population growth outrunning agricultural productivity leads to famine which leads to pandemics and or social unrest, seems like appealing explanation of Black Death and French Revolution. Superficially it also seems like good explanation of Chinese history, thought I don´t know enough about it to have informed opinion. But its application to Roman Empire is problematic.
I mean, if Roman Empire in 2nd century AD really struggled with overpopulation, why didn’t they expanded to available lands beyond their borders?
Unlike medieval Christendom, I do not believe that Roman Empire would be blocked from doing that by powerful neighboring powers. Emperor Traian actually conquered lands of Mesopotamia in the Fertile Crescent and added them as a provinces to the Empire, but his successor Hadrian relinquished imperial sovereignty over them, supposedly because he figured out that it is better for Rome to have them ruled by friendly local client regime than to maintain them under occupation. This does not make sense if Empire struggled with overpopulation and needed new land to colonise.
Also, before Antonine plague, Rome didn’t try very hard to conquer and colonize German lands beyond Rhine and Danube, which seems like thing that would totally be in their power – after the plague, Marcus Aurelius led invasion of Germania, as a retaliation for German invasion of Roman territory, and despite Roman armies being (supposedly?) weakened by the plague, they crushed the Germans.
My guess (which I admit is about half out of my ass) is that it’s hard not only to conquer but to defend territory if it doesn’t have good transportation to the rest of your realm. Even with excellent roads armies don’t move very fast on land, and ships at the time couldn’t handle the Atlantic and North Sea as well as they do now. I suppose they could have sent excess population into territory they couldn’t hold just to get rid of them, but it would reflect poorly on the Emperor to get that many of his subjects killed.
It is possible, but also pure speculation. My point is that Malthusian explanation of Roman breakdown at the end of the 2nd and in 3rd century has this enormous problem, and unless there is some evidence how it could be reconciled, I consider it unsatisfactory, i.e. falsified. It doesn´t appear that Turchin and Nefedov really grappled with this question.
I don’t think the Roman Empire saw much mass settlement of conquered lands like in 19th Century America. Probably more conquered people moved to Rome than Romans moved to conquered lands. There weren’t big die-offs in conquered lands due to new diseases being introduced, as in the Americas 1500 years laters. Also, settlers moving to higher or lower latitudes is a challenge due to different crops requiring different growing seasons. Farmers did best expanding at roughly similar latitudes.
Romans did build lots of towns in the provinces, but you are probably right that colonisation wasn´t on the same scale as in Americas. That is further argument against Malthusian explanations for Roman breakdown in 2nd century.
Generally, most of the land conquered by Romans was well-populated, so it made more sense to tax the locals than to resettle Romans. Moreover, Roman patricians didn’t feel that much loyalty to Roman plebes. Also, Romans mostly loved urban life, unlike, say, the much later English, and wouldn’t have felt at home moving to a rural frontier.
I think that those are just another speculations. There is much about society in Roman times that we simply do not know.
There were cities in the provinces, like Augusta Treverorum, now known as Trier, with 75,000 to 100,000 inhabitants in the 4th century. It was the capital of the Gaulic prefecture for a long time.
Trier has some nice Roman buildings, like the black city gate (Porta Negra), a large bathing complex (I was very impressed by the brickwork), and an Amphitheater with cellar (where an elevator could lift things and people directly into the theater).
The French have their own comic books about the Roman occupation of Gaul, with superheroism fueled by magic potions, akin to American superhero comic books.
I mean, if Roman Empire in 2nd century AD really struggled with overpopulation, why didn’t they expanded to available lands beyond their borders?
I’ve read that other than the border with Persia, the maximal borders of the Roman Empire are also pretty coincident with the limits of the usefulness of their agricultural technology. That’s why they never conquered Scotland, even though they eventually (sort of) subdued the Celts of northern Hispania, who were better fed and better organized.
I find this explanation suspiciously convenient. Sure, it seems plausible for Scotland or Sahara, but there is large area between the Rhine on the west, the Danube on the south and the Elbe on the east, which is similar in climate characterics to areas which Romans settled.
The surface level answer is that they tried, but the ambush at Teutoberg Forest scared them off for the rest of antiquity.
Just to be unreasonably nitpicky, I should point out that while Teutoburg disaster scared Romans pretty good, it didn’t quite marked the end of their ambitions to conquer Germania. Marcus Aurelius intended to add parts of German territory as provinces to the Empire after his aforementioned victory, but this plan was shelved after he died (my source for this is Tim Duncan ́s History of Rome podcast). This was after the Antonine plague.
Regardless, this surface level explanation doesn’t work imho. If Romans would be desperate for new land outside the Empire in order to prevent mass starvation, they wouldn’t give up on Germania for 150 years after Teutoburg setback.
It’s odd they didn’t manage to take any more of the big, flat North German Plain, but did occupy the hilly, forested Schwarzwald and Suebian Jura.
The Romans were very good at building defensive structures, so having lots of wood close by was a big advantage for them.
Re: “Degrees of Freedom”
I think you’ve mischaracterized a bit the issue with researcher degrees of freedom here. It’s not that anyone’s nefariously picking and choosing which data to use. It’s just the natural human tendancy towards confirmation bias that leads us (as researchers) to focus on the data that that best confirms our hypotheses. (This has been on my mind lately after hearing Yoav Benjamini speak about multiple testing and p-values.)
One example is the time periods at question. According to your post (I haven’t read the book), there’s no theoretical basis for the main cycle and only a weak theoretical basis for the secondary cycle. This means that the authors has basically infinite degrees of freedom from the perspective finding time periods that match with the data. The note about Ibn Khaldun is relevant here, since this is held up as evidence with the caveat, “polygamy means cycles go at triple speed”, which sounds arbitrary AF to me. Lacking some theoretical framework predicting how long the cycles “should” last, you’re left with the double wammy of showing why the periodicity claimed is accurate and why any other periodicity would be equally as plausible given the data shown and the data not shown.
I think its much more interesting to make the case that cycles exist at all in history rather than trying to claim that they last such and such a time period. But even if you want to make that weaker claim, you still have to show why your data looks discernibly different from some some autoregressive time series with power-law-distributed shocks.
We should all start with a strong prior that “patterns” like these are just the human brain mis-firing, trying to see patterns where there are none.
The problem is that while there are patterns in history, they are hard to figure out what to do with.
A student of history will recognize the pattern when they read history and see it disrupted, confirmed, reconfigured, and played out in kaleidoscopic variety. What does the pattern do? It’s not really a proper theory of history, but it’s the recognition of a dynamic. Some dynamics should be grouped because they are interdependent and fluctuate at about the same rate. The takeaway is that recognizing dynamics is not a THEORY of history; it’s an elucidating and valuable way of seeing cause and effect in history – but just a slice.
Try Fernand Braudel if that’s what you are interested in.
This reminds me, vaguely, of Strauss and Howe’s books on generational character. They are not quantitative, but painted a compelling enough picture that I guess I had better read Turchin. I wish my library had any of his books.
If, as I assume we must believe, we are in the stagflation part of our cycle, whence comes the 30% – 50% disaster? As Lady Jane says above, public health seems to prevent traditional plagues (though I have to say the big Ebola outbreak a couple years ago had me worried). But it’s still not hard to imagine a nuclear exchange or a bioengineered plague, in which case the question arises of what holds the casualty rate down to only 30-50%. Maybe the Sweet Meteor of Death will actually and not ironically be our savior.
Turchin’s “War and Peace and War” is quite good as well. However, his “UltraSociety” is one of my favorite books of the decade. It is about how internal cooperation is driven by, and requires, outside competition.
He also has a blog called Cliodynamics. Here is the link
My concerns with Turchin are with his understanding of markets. An example of this is the chapter on markets in the above mentioned “UltraSociety”. This one chapter is the only bad spot in the book. He literally forms his opinions on how markets and business work from careful reviews of Oliver Stone Movies and Gordon Gecko quotes. In general, he is a bit of a socialist (you can take the boy out of Russia but…) and his ideological blinders interfere with his views on the present. For example, his newer work includes the “double Helix of Inequality” where he supposedly portrays equality and discord as being inversely related, yet if you look at his math, he uses indices which are by definition inversely related and which therefore have to produce the trends he shows as a matter of definition. IOW it is about as useful as showing that the rate of employment and unemployment trend inversely to each other over time!
Do they have to? What matters for Turchin & Nefedov’s theory is not the absolute number of people, but the ratio of people to productivity, labor to capital. In an agrarian society with fixed borders and no great improvements in agricultural technology, capital is fixed and people are what matters. The axis runs from “more people than the land can feed no matter how hard everyone works” to “any runaway peasant can find his own isolated corner of Eden”. And with land fixed, only megadeaths can shift a society from the former to the latter.
If land is not fixed, or if there are meaningful forms of capital other than land, you can maybe get the same dynamic without the megadeaths. The discovery of the New World and the various stages of the Industrial Revolution translate to “we just doubled the number of ways/places our people can be productive”, and that may have a similar effect to “half our people just died but we’ve still got all the farmland we used to”.
Similar, but not identical – in particular, megadeaths decrease the number of slots for happy productive nobility, whereas new land and/or new forms of capital may increase them at precisely the time T&N expect such slots to be diminishing. Need to think about this some more, to see if there’s anything useful here. Certainly the rate of productivity increase and the rate of population increase are not neatly synchronized in the modern world, so we can expect to see things roughly similar in effect to megadeath economic realignments without the actual megadeaths.
And yes, this is probably just overeager pattern-matching. But if any part of it is real, it doesn’t stop working just we’ve stopped killing off large chunks of our population every few centuries.
This is me nodding. What you suggest is really the same thing as the commonplace claim that the industrial revolution shifted us into a regime of ever-increasing productivity, which frees us from the Malthusian cycle, but you have described it within T&N’s paradigm. Nice.
Hypothetical alternate model: rather than a coherent cycle of rise & fall, suppose a civilization can withstand a finite number of simultaneous crises, which occur randomly & independently (e.g., Poisson distributed). The interval between periods in which an above-critical number of crises co-occur will be predictable but variable; throw in variation between regions in the base crisis rate and/or the threshold and you get similar patterns across the world with differing timescales.
On why it doesn’t match to Poland, I guess that this cycle works for basin-encompassing civilizations.
Or ‘ “Poland” is not a coherent enough civilization for long enough to have civilization-level cycles’, the same reason it doesn’t work for Paris.
(I’m assuming; if it does work for things in the reference category of Paris, then it works too much.)
The thing is, at a rough glance it does match to Poland, at least if by Poland we mean not only the modern ethnostate, but its historical predecessors in medieval Piast kingdom and the Polish-Lithuanian Union/Commonwealth. Especially the latter was self-contained, locally hegemonic and its history exhibits pretty much all the patterns described in part I.
>And the cycles seem to assume huge crises killing off 30% to 50% of the population, but those don’t happen anymore in First World countries
“Haven’t happened recently” is not the same thing as “don’t happen anymore”.
What was the last world event that killed 30%-50% of a first world country?
I think deciusbrutus means that just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t.
Serbia lost ~25% (at least by some estimates) during WW1, then throw in Spanish Flu.
Poland is ~17% in WW2, Lithuania similar. (These two cases don’t include excess civilian deaths due to just lack of food and medicine, just obviously military and military adjacent, like concentration camp, deaths.)
And as per the cycle model, those first world countries were all in the growth portions of the cycle.
Arguably, what helps enable the huge crisis stems from a breakdown in the institutions that upheld that growth.
For example, our healthcare systems have prevented widespread plagues, but if that system was to start breaking down because people can’t afford it, or supply lines are disrupted by corruption / trade war / natural disasters, or people voluntarily stop using medical technologies like vaccinations because they don’t trust it anymore, then there are avenues for a disease to have more impact where they would have been squashed before.
I wonder how China’s historical opium crisis matches to the opioid crisis…
This reminds me a lot of a book I read in college (Generations – I’m 99% sure it’s this one).
The book describes a cycle of 4 generation types and how they lead to certain types of history happening – with each generations’ traits being a somewhat reaction to their parent’s traits.
The framework felt true (which obviously means that it is, right?!) and I’ve had to burned into my subconscious for some time. The mental model I retained still feels relevant as I’m pretty sure that today’s iGen (or Gen Y) matches the Boomers (hippies, etc) which seems like a good match to me..
It’s been on my list to go back and re-read it to check if this is all selective matching or if it ended up being predictive at all.
pseudoerasmus: “On Peter Turchin’s “Structural Demographic Theory”
Helpful perspective. Do click.
Any decently accurate scheme that claims to explain history going forward in time should also be able to a) be run in reverse, with the signs inverted, and explain history going backward in time, and b) used to simulate toy societies.
For instance, you could flip around the over-production of elites idea to describe how when reversed societies are under-elited, they tend to produce more of them suddenly, followed by a slow decay. Scott, your overview of the Fathers-and-Sons cycle didn’t have the same level of depth as your explanation of the first cycle, and thus I can’t describe what its inverse would be. Can you explain it a little more? Clearly, any literal “Parents-and-Children” cycle is actually not a cycle and instead continuous in a population — groups of people do not conveniently have children once every 20 years.
My understanding is that both Turchin et al., as well as Strauss and Howe only back-fit their theories to retroactive data. They don’t, to my knowledge, use the dynamics they identify to simulate societies. The research scheme suggested by both theories (i.e., identifying relatively precise dynamics that govern how societies / social networks evolve over time) seems like a great case for what we might call human population dynamics, computational sociology, or what Asimov called psychohistory.
(Speaking of population dynamics, Malthusian Growth is a simple exponential model that seeks to explain the size of populations, rather than those populations’ experiences of stability and economic growth. I’m not an expert in population dynamics, and I don’t know if it has been empirically verified for describing, say the population of fruitflies. Can anyone comment on that?)
It is hard for me to believe that two principles (both of which can be described in about a paragraph each) are enough to explain the rise and fall of empires. The computational complexity of human society is decidedly non-trivial; the size of the computer program that could accurately simulate a society is not small. Turchin and Nefedov are arguing that this isn’t the case. And if we were to continue this line of thinking, we’d get into a meta-ontological discussion about what it means to really explain and understand something, all of which seems to be unaddressed by Turchin et al.
In terms of over-pattern-matching, finding patterns in broad shapes of curves by eye is fraught with error, especially without some agreed-upon way of calculating “the distance from a reference curve at which point the target curve is no longer in the same category as the reference class.” In some sense, every data point in a curve represents a set of degrees of freedom. The question is just how much wiggle room one wants/needs before the theory breaks down. (This is assuming that the graphs are all plotted with the same scale X-axis, which is not the case above.)
In the graph of “Rome’s Index of Political Instability,” there are 36 data points that cover a span of 900 years. Let’s leave the question of how adequately 25 years (900/36) of political and economic conditions for an entire nation-state can be reduced to a single number aside for now. If we assume that the Index of Political Instability can take on integer values from 0 to 200, then there are 82235259486027235213933829995832012184270450326653370748675067205483419745145207201 possible curves (201**36). Without better definitions, it is impossible to say just how many of these follow the pattern “predicted” by Turchin et al.
So there’s an interesting point here that I had never considered.
50 years ago if you were disgruntled and wanted to kill a lot of people you reached for explosives. Now it appears the weapon of choice is some form of firearm. Why? What changed?
My bald guess would be tightened regulation around explosives however I’m certainly not confident that explains things.
I believe most of the 1970s bombings were with improvised or semi-improvised (e.g. firearms propellants being retasked as bursting charges) explosives or explosive stolen from industrial sites rather than professionally manufactured and legally purchased high explosives. And the changes in explosives regulations haven’t been that great. So I’m skeptical of the increased-regulation hypothesis.
But we already know most mass shootings are copycats. Klebold and Harris brought guns and bombs. Their bombs were duds, their guns weren’t. From then on, CNN et al were telling everyone who would listen that the way to get even with society and get your name on TV was to use a gun. And everyone who listened, gave them an excuse to reinforce the lesson.
Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols
Five years earlier, when the stars had not yet properly aligned. And perhaps more importantly, presented sympathetic to absolutely nobody, whereas Klebold and Harris were presented as a Tragedy of the Bullied Nerds where the “right” solution was to be glad those two particular kids were dead but also to pay attention to what they had been trying to say and make it so that nerds wouldn’t be bullied so much any more (and/or should be feared as a mighty and terrible power in our schools).
That may have been a mistake.
Except Klebold and Harris were the bullies. And I mean before the shooting.
And I don’t think the media response was to make people stop bullying, but to watch out for the weird loners and report them to the authorities.
Similarly today we’re hearing about “incels” and shootings. Incels are low sexual market value men who are essentially outcasts. The response from the media is not, “gee, how can we get these guys laid?” but “how can we cast these people further out?”
I do think it’s a little interesting though that back when ISIS-inspired terrorism was big* I remember media takes that, for instance, attacks in France were not because of Islam but because Muslims were marginalized, so the real solution is for French society to be more welcoming to Muslims to better integrate them. No such calls for integration for the incels, though.
* Isn’t it bizarre just a few years ago we had almost monthly Islamic terror attacks in the west with scores of victims and now almost nothing?
I think we’ve discussed this before, but attacks from the outgroup on the ingroup always get a response of “CRUSH THE OUTGROUP, SALT THE EARTH!!!” whereas attacks from the ingroup on the ingroup or the outgroup get a response of “we must understand and alleviate their suffering”.
The media perceived “bullied kids” (Harris and Klebold weren’t, but that was in fact the early narrative) as the ingroup, Muslims as the ingroup and cetera. Incels are the outgroup for a variety of reasons, so the response is to burn them.
I don’t know. I have sympathy for them but they’re not my ingroup. I was a little awkward in high school but I still got dates then and I started getting laid soon after getting to college.
I meant that they’re the media’s outgroup, which is the relevant issue here.
Remember that all people are not part of exclusively two groups. One of the problems incels have is that they’re the outgroup for both Red Tribe and Blue Tribe.
I guess they would be fargroup to me then.
Objectively true, but that wasn’t the media narrative at the time. And it’s media narratives that drive copycats, not objective truths.
Bombs are a much better method if you want to survive your attack. Which the 1970s terrorists did and most modern lone wolf style mass shooters don’t seem to. In the Iraq war where terrorism was organized by groups, bombs were the dominant method.
It’s trivial to arrange to not survive your own bomb attack, if that’s what you’re after. Fortunately, we haven’t had any high-profile examples of that within US culture for people to copy.
Perhaps the proliferation of cameras has greatly reduced the ability for people to get away with bombings? It used to be that the police would have to look at the bomb parts and try to figure out where the bomber bought the materials. After the Boston Marathon bombings, the authorities could find the bombers and track their movements using a ton of video and pictures.
What changed was the construction of a widely understood story of “this is how we do public anger violence in America”
We’ve seen this happen in our lifetimes as new elements are added; now the mutterings on 8chan and the live streaming are canon. At some point someone will figure out an especially impressive looking getup to wear, or some way to play a soundtrack, and that too will become canon.
I agree with others here that something like a random walk (or at least random negative shocks) should be our null hypothesis here and if trends don’t match that then we should make sure that simpler explanations which already have widespread support don’t work before even looking at something so complicated. In particular I’m attracted to the idea of a simpler Malthusian cycle where major negative shocks (long civil wars, volcanic eruptions and to an extent plagues) will reduce the population a lot only if the region is already close to the Malthusian limit, and complicating the story by talking about dynamics within the elites or guessing the relationship between war and wealth, which don’t seem to predict much that we can measure properly.
But for the chart of European lead production does seem awfully like a random walk and it’s a real stretch to call the Dominate era the start of a new cycle like the Principate given its peak is lower than the worse of the crisis of the late republic. The Chinese population looks even more like a random walk, and I suspect the acceleration of the last two points can pretty easily be explained by the adoption of new world crops or the underlying trend being exponential or hyperbolic.
As other have pointed out, it’s very dangerous to conflate the survival of dynasties, general political instability and population/economic/state collapses, and it amplifies the degrees of freedom issue for choosing end points that fit their time-span.
A comment on a couple of the graphs. Firstly the ‘Roman’ lead one. I’d quite like the y axis labelled as I have no idea what we’re looking at here. Grams per kilogram? Parts per million? Also, how do we know this is Roman lead: the Celts and.Germans (to use horrible labels) had metal working as well, and they were closer to Greenland. And other nearby civilisations also could contribute: Carthage was as close to Greenland as Rome, and the eastern Mediterranean and Euphrates civilisations are closer to Rome than Rome is to Greenland. Without knowing more about how the lead got to Greenland can we rule out lead from China being here: the dominant wind direction in the northern hemisphere is westerly after all. Bluntly, how do we know this isn’t telling us more about prevalent wind direction than Roman lead production? Also, what is the significance of lead production anyway, as the assumption here seems to be it is a direct proxy for industrial activity, for which there us presumably a justification.
The religious buildings in Rome chart uses of a smoothed curve (in a brighter colour than the data…) to obscure the picture. Why do we need a smoothed curve here? This is discrete data well portrayed by a bar graph. The curve is over-smoothed as well: for the 330s and 340s it is a building a decade too high, whilst it underplayed the two major peaks of imperial building and the small peak on the kingdom period. Frankly looking at the actual figures, they’re a decent fit for a bell curve rather than three peaks. You might make the same case for the lead and political instability indices maps as well: a single major peak of activity with a lot of noise on either side.
For the religious buildings the pattern here is incidentally the development of civic religion, with a peak in the Republic as Rome became rich and dominant, then relative neglect as conflict became about military power rather than expressions of civic mindedness. The Augustinian peak reflects his deliberate policy of grounding his power in the civic, with a long tail as successors continued with decreasing frequency to promote civic cults. The third century saw emperors who never went to Rome (maybe never saw it in their lives) and eventually the development of new capitals, so inevitably less building as the civic cults were neglected. The small revival of building in the dominate is basically Christian churches, mostly built by senators, and probably reflects a different set of stimuli in action.
Another approach would be to look at the quality of buildings. For example, the Pantheon in Rome is awesome. It was completed in 126 AD under Hadrian, who, from literary sources, often seems like the best combination of competence and prudence among Roman emperors.
It could be that I am projecting backwards: If the Pantheon and the Parthenon are the best Roman and Greek buildings, then maybe I am assuming unrealistically that Hadrian and Pericles were the peak respective rulers.
But maybe not.
Yes, I was wondering the same thing — how do we know this was Roman lead? In the time represented in the left hand side of the graph, it definitely wasn’t Roman lead: Rome in 450-350 BC was a tiny little polity, and it didn’t become a sort of hegemonic Mediterranean power until it destroyed Carthage in 146 BC (just in time for lead to start dropping like, well…). So whatever was causing the steep decline from 450-350 BC, it wasn’t events in Rome. In ~430 the Peloponnesian War broke out and the plague hit Athens, but Athens was a relatively small polity also. So maybe the plague was a Europe-wide event?
I’m remined that the Romans had their own theory of the rise and fall of civilisations, driven by luxuria. A civilisation starts out young and dynamic, turns their energy into power, turns their power into various self-indulgent excesses, which grow and grow until it saps all of the dynamism and leaves the civilisation vulnerable to attack by those not so afflicted. Possibly this is a “we beat the Greeks, who seemed so mighty in their day, will the same happen to us?” thing.
Another thing: lead. I’m reminded of the great acetonitrile shortage of 2009 or so. Acetonitrile is basically a by-product of less specialised stuff – at the time I remember it being the manufacture of things like furniture and fittings, a market that did badly amidst a housing market collapse. It’s a useful solvent for some scientific techniques – I went through a lot of it in my lab days (which ended in 2005) – but the scientific market isn’t big enough to have facilities for making acetonitrile directly. A general downturn in the economy as a whole turned into an acute shortage of one particular good. I don’t know enough about the Roman economy and how in was plumbed (pun initially unintended, but hey) to know whether lead manufacture and the market for lead was particularly sensitive to certain sorts of economic disturbance, but it might well indicate some sorts of disturbance strongly and ignore others.
Random guess: I’m guessing that lead was mined by slaves, and the availability of the right sort of slaves controlled lead output. When Rome fought wars againsts foreigners, especially wars of conquest, that lead to the capture of lots of suitable mining slaves, when Rome was more busy fighting itself, not so much? So a civil war might produce a merely large economic disturbance in the economy as a whole, but a massive huge disruption in lead mining and smelting? I’m guessing wildly here.
EDIT: Problem with the wild guess; the late republic was not exactly famed for a lack of conquests. See for example Gaul. In fact, looking at the comment above, maybe the late republic conquests knocked out a lot of lead production in the more northerly parts of Europe which gradually recovered over time. Wild guesses again.
My memory of a discussion of the lead evidence, I think here some time back, is that it was a byproduct from refining silver.
That’s my understanding. Native silver is incredibly rare, but small fractions of silver often appear in common ores of lead, and chemical processes for separating the two got figured out quite early.
So there’s this other comparative cyclical history theory with a mountain of stats data — even a Russian author. Fomenko’s New Chronology, unlike (trusting you) this one, is *cask strength* crackpottery, but very impressively mathy crackpottery. Also a pretty good RPG setting.
There’s a lot out there about how to tell Accepted Scholarship from cynically-motivated pseudoscience written by people trying to sell you pills, but not as much on how to tell specuIative-yet-plausible scholarship from the ultra-sincere ravings of a madman who is genuinely quite good at math. They’d make for a really fun comparison.
>but not as much on how to tell specuIative-yet-plausible scholarship from the ultra-sincere ravings of a madman who is genuinely quite good at math.
The trouble is the tendancy for red-shifted spectral lines or a global layer of iridium to coma and turn the latter into the former.
How well could all of this be mediated by Joseph Tainter’s ‘declining marginal returns’ and ‘energy subsidies’ on the benefits of complexity from “The Collapse of Complex Societies”? – The periods of Roman Success begin during periods of conquest and expansion with slaves and loot paying for the increasing complexity of society. The periods of Roman decline happen when something interrupts this process and a new ‘energy subsidy’ has to be found – generally for the Romans through internal consolidation and then external conquest. Eventually though, the massive complexity of the state is subjected to declining marginal returns and in the case of the Romans became a negative and their collapse was inevitable. The ‘Malthusian’ trap is currently escaped merely because we have managed to develop new technological energy subsidies – coal, steam, petroleum. However, Malthus always has a chance to return with a vengeance if we are unable to find a new energy subsidy to support the increased population and the developed social complexity.
Turchin and Nefedov’s 300 year cycle could be seen as the time term of pre-modern society’s limit of complexity given pre-industrial energy subsidies (conquest and loot). However it has to be noted that modern social evolution occurs faster, so it is entirely possible that the development of complexity to the point of declining marginal returns accelerates despite the technological advantages we currently enjoy and so the 300 year cycle may yet still hold for the world in synchronicity.
Tainter believed that the external pressure of peer states means that societies will take all measures possible to avoid collapse, acting in increasing desperation until the entire peer group collapses in exhaustion. This is because the collapse of a complex society with an equivalent peer means it will merely be absorbed by that peer. Given the state of the world entirely patched with modern societies, he was sure that we will all stand in some fashion together and either develop new energy subsidies or collapse together.
The link between the two is that both population and over production of elites is reflected in the relative complexity of the society – And the reason the crisis cycle doesn’t always cause a big crisis is that the society still has enough energy to deal with the crisis during times of increasing benefit/complexity, by investing in further complexity. The big crisis happens when the benefits of complexity are declining and leads to collapse if a new energy subsidy is not found.
Came here to say this. This model feels like a slightly different way of packaging the work of Tainter and his intellectual progeny. See, e.g., this video and this article.
Just adding one more to the pile of cyclical theories of history: Polybius’ anacyclosis.
I found this nice visualization of stochastic models used in finance. Note in particular Geometric Brownian Motion and Merton Jump-Diffusion: both these models combine constant-rate exponential growth with memory-less random noise.
Qualitatively the curves look very similar to those in this post: there are apparently periodic growth and collapse phases with high-frequency oscillations on top, yet there is nothing periodic in the actual dynamics of these processes: collapses happen at random independent of each other.
Not sure if this has been mentioned yet, but if Turchin would expect the Maghreb to go through the cycle in fast-forward due to having higher fertility, wouldn’t he expect today’s post-demographic-transition countries to go through this cycle in slow motion?
I guess the larger objection that prompted this thought is that I don’t think we’re in a post-Malthusian regime, and that we can’t claim immunity to scarcity issues just because we’ve had steady growth for 300 years. Land is still finite. The fossil fuel products that make land more productive (both by increasing agricultural output and by permitting cities to sprawl) are also finite. We’ve had enough technological boosts recently to push the limit out comfortably far, but it’d be silly to think this could go on forever.
There’s Turchin on history and Turchin as interpreter of the present. Let’s go with interpreter of the present, informed by history:
“since I’m not sure you can fit the post industrial world into secular cycles”
“First, some positions are absolute rather than relative, eg “King” or “Minister of the Economy”.”
This is their most important point.
I assume you’ve seen the “US population keeps growing but numbers of senators stays constant” point. But the larger point is one of expectations. I think it’s reasonable to say, from history, that people can grow up into almost any sort of social expectations — peasants may not have been wild about the peasant lifestyle in 1300, but what they wanted, mostly, was a better peasant life, not to be king.
You hit a problem when ever more people are raised with the assumption that they deserve (or at least have a reasonable chance at, or at least should structure their lives around a chance at) one of those few positions.
Historically you CAN deal with this through things like primogeniture. As long as it’s understood from birth that son#1 gets the rare thing (the estate, the title, the kingdom) and the daughters (and other sons) need to figure out their own backup plan, the system actually works OK. At the very least it slows things down.
Compared with non-primogeniture societies where the estate gets diluted to nothing, but everyone still continues to call themselves noble and to believe they have noble rights… (Obviously France before the Revolution, but also Poland).
One problem is that, even in primogeniture societies if Noble marries non-noble (or just has a bastard) the kids will certainly try to be classified as Noble, or at least some sort of above average elite. And in many ways they’re the most troublesome of all, precisely the group that feel they deserve the perks of Nobility, (and they have the connections, training, knowledge, … of Nobility to get things done), but the Nobles won’t acknowledge them. Hell, this is most of the troublemakers of history.
But once you start telling everyone they have a chance at something only 1 in a hundred (or worse, much worse) has a chance at, you have a real problem. That’s true whether “everyone” is just every member of well-known Roman family, or is the entire US population…
In a sense that’s their argument for both now and then. Not everyone can be king/senator/consul/partner/CEO. And once a society starts down the path of promising everyone (or at least enough people) that they have a chance at being king, that can only end one way, once enough people are angry enough that don’t have what they were promised as kids. Most revolutions are fomented by, and led by, the petit bourgeoisie, in particular lawyers. This is not a coincidence…
(I suspect most of what is happening in Hong Kong essentially reflects this. The superficial arguing about laws controlling the Police and relations with China and so on are language that sounds good, that attempts to rationalize emotions that come from a different place.
And don’t get me started on the way you can get any US journalist eating out your hand just by mouthing a few words. A dozen revolutions just in the 21st century, starting with the catastrophe of Iraq, and STILL you just have to tell US media “democracy” and “liberty” and you are, uncritically, the good guy in the fight. You would have thought they’d learn something after ten repetitions, but no…)
Note BTW that Turchin is not the only one saying this. Eric Weinstein makes essentially the same argument (look up Embedded Growth Obligation) if you want to see essentially the same argument, but arrived at by a different person on different grounds.
You should also read Turchin’s argument for why mass killings seem to be a particularly US phenomenon and to be increasing:
(scroll down to “Indiscriminate Mass Murder as a Form of Political Violence”)
And once again it’s interesting to see that another author (Malcolm Gladwell) again looking at the subject from a very different direction, arrives at essentially the same point.
In all these cases, it’s remarkable to see the level of vitriol thrown at the various authors, how (regardless of how idiotic the claim) they’re considered to be traitors to the cause. It really makes clear just how little interested most of the US is in understanding its problems, as opposed to slotting them into an ideology dating from 150 years ago, and using that to attack the out-group.
How would we go about confirming that, in reality, there really are an increasing number of Americans (or westerners in general) who really do think they have/deserve a good chance of becoming a powerful politician? Most people, including most lawyers, don’t expect to wind up becoming a senator and frankly don’t even try to follow that path.
The problem of elite overpopulation is well known in Dwarf Fortress:
As a macroeconomist who’s familiar with the history of people trying to find regular cycles in historical time series (what is it with Russians?), all I can say is, AAAAAAAAAAAAAA.
I’m very much in favor of quantifying history and analyzing it through the lens of Malthusian theory. But not like this. Not like this.
I believe there’s a hint of a point to the argument – things tend to get better slowly (because growth runs at a limited speed, especially in a pre-industrial society) but can get much worse really quickly (because stuff can be destroyed and people killed at a vastly higher rate than the growth rate), and also, once things get worse quickly, it can have a cascading effect.
Everything beyond this, such as identifying cycles of a fixed time period such as THREE HUNDRED YEARS, is just cherry-picking and curve-fitting, though.
This idea reminds me a bit of Peter Thiel’s notion of a meatspace stagnation happening since the early 70s:
The most important fact about Turchin is that his theory is a syncretistic Marxist-Malthusian theory. The Marxists ascribed everything to institutions, narrowly defined as people’s relations to the mode of production. This does a reasonable job of predicting why feudal societies look feudal, etc but a bad job of predicting why conflicts would happen at one time than at any other. The Malthusian theory ascribes standards of living to population density: This matches the premodern historical record very well but doesn’t describe most political crises, which are elite affairs. (It predicts plagues and the like fairly well however).
“Elite overproduction” is the concept which links the two theories in Turchin’s thought. He explains political crises through population growth as mediated through its effects on institutions. The core of his thesis then is that if you know the general institutional framework of a society, the general population density, and the population density of the elites you should be able to make a reasonably informed guess as to the political stability of the polity. (So he reduces history to these three major variables). The dating of the length of cycles is slightly crankish and much less important than the general idea of how to combine Marx and Malthus into one framework of analysis.
This is a really helpful comment which does a nice quick and dirty about how Turchin’s understanding of causes in history.
However, Turchin does not hesitate to bring up other sorts of dynamics when discussing history at a more granular level in for example War Peace War. So I still feel like he is cheating by not being explicit about the assumptions behind his theory, which are something like: Institutions, Population, and Elite Competition encompass the Outside View of a society. But Geographical particulars, Technology, Personalities, and whatever else is needed for the occasion constitute the Inside View.
The problem I have with this is that real Theories of History should allow us to adjudicate between Turchin and Diamond. Diamond’s GGS view being that Geography determines Population. Population determines Technologies determines Civilizational Power. Diamond’s Collapse then turn towards how Culture determines Civilizational Stability, and in Upheaval available Conflict Resolution Strategies determine Peace.
Are these really competing theories? They seem more like competing stories, helpfully making history come alive, drawing our attention to real dynamics, but not explicit enough to build models from.
So I read the review you linked to of Days of Rage…
And it occurs to me that once you get past the actual review, to the “conclusions” part…
The whole thing is heavily spiced with predictions that didn’t come true. They were predicting a civil war that didn’t happen, they were predicting an organized body count by left-wing terrorists that didn’t happen. They were expecting mainstream right-wingers to start loving neo-Nazis because neo-Nazis were wiling to protect them from Antifa groups that would otherwise beat them up, which, uh… does not seem like a fully accurate description of processes that are going on.
I fully agree that it’s interesting and relevant and important to be aware of the nature of ’70s domestic terrorism, the existence of the Puerto Rican separatists of the 1940s-70s, and so on. But I also think it’s important for us to look carefully at people who interpret past events in certain ways, use them to make predictions about future events… and then get something wrong.
We might speculate as to the discrepancies between davidzhines’ expectations of how political events would unfold after January 2017, and what actually happened. And to the reasons why events did not unfold as predicted.
(To clarify, I am discussing the review linked in the main article above, not the actual book. The book, as far as I know, is an OK piece of historiography. The review, meanwhile, attempts to generalize from left-wing radicalism in in the 1970s to the present-day United States and predict a left-wing terrorism campaign against the right, expected to start shortly after Trump’s inauguration.
A similar approach is taken in Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Scheidel’s focus is narrower: he argues that when times are good, inequality grows. More equality is achieved only through collapse, total war, plague, or the Russian or Chinese communist revolutions. There is a lot of data.
I’d enjoy a comparison of the cycles of inequality he documents with the secular cycles presented here.
Thanks for the reference to Scheidel’s book, I just ordered it. The reference also made me think of the ancient Hebrew Jubilee Year, when all slaves were freed and debts erased on fifty year cycles. That seems to have been an attempt to prevent the build up of inequality?
I also want to express gratitude for Scott’s work in creating these reviews. I found SSC through a reference someone made to his review of Albion’s Seed. I enjoyed the review and enjoyed the book, which I somehow had missed and might never have encountered otherwise.
That seems pretty similar to Piketty
It occurs to me that I also have what might be considered a grand theory of history, or at least one feature of it, in my first econ journal article. Some here may find it of interest.
This seems like a spoiler for Snowpiercer
This book is an outgrowth of a lot of European work. Braudel, among others, started studying the material culture of the European past in the 1960s and 1970s. The idea was to get some numbers, prices and quantities, from the past rather than looking at narratives of kings. It was tedious work, going through ancient mill ledgers or tax rolls. of defunct kingdoms. By the 1970s, there was some sense of a cyclic price structure.
I first got interesting in this reading a Forbes article on 1000 years of inflation, for indeed, there had been an overall increase in prices over the last thousand years. Then I read some Braudel in translation. It was fascinating, but fragmentary. Then, in the 1990s, I picked up a copy of Hackett-Fischer’s book, The Great Wave. Apparently European historians had developed a theory of history with waves of pricing structure running over roughly two century intervals. H-F is noted for trying to introduce historians on one continent or another to things they may never have heard of. For example, his book on Paul Revere’s ride was aimed at European historians who had never heard the story. His book on pricing wave structure was aimed at Americans.
Secular Cycles attempts to understand those pricing waves. There has long been a distinction between two types of price increase, fames and cares. In the former, there is a short term shortage that raises prices. In the latter, prices seem to rise of their own accord. Secular Cycles ties this in with a theory of social structure, commoners and nobles, along with elements from Malthus. The good things is that SC starts with empirical data, price records, birth registers and so on. Then it moves on to theorizing. Is it correct. Well, it is better than a lot of other theories, especially all those theories too easily contradicted by the evidence.
Hey Scott, thanks for writing this review! Check out the Four Horsemen documentary for another analysis of these “secular” cycles. Also, Donella Meadows on The Long Wave goes into great explanation of the 40-60 year bigenerational cycle. Lastly, look up the adaptive cycle from the ecology/biology field to see how this over-expansion-collapse cycle exists in ecosystems as well. I guess it’s all just Karma or something?