Peter Turchin is not like most historians. For starters, he has an unusual background as an evolutionary biologist studying lemmings and mice. He says that analyzing the complexities of the natural world has allowed him to understand the most complex system of all: human society. He has pioneered a field of history that he calls cliodynamics that applies hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of historical data points to a mathematical model in order to understand the present and to predict future trends.
To start, a few of Turchin's main points are unarguable. The first is elite overproduction. There's no need to belabor that point: it's obvious. The absurdity of college graduate overproduction and explosion of expensive academic administration are just two symptoms. His theory of counterelites, while not completely original, is also on target.
That the big political and other changes are coming from the right is also unarguable. But it's not the Anglo-American libertarian-leaning conservatism that we grew up with, that founded by Buckley in the 1950s and represented by Goldwater, Reagan, and Thatcher. That kind of right effectively merged in the 1990s and 2000s with the neoliberal establishment that has dominated the Democratic Party since 1992. It's now gone. The "new new" right we see now had its avatars in the 1990s in Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, in opposition to globalization, deindustrialization, and top-down cultural revolution. In the 1990s, this movement split the Right into small-government and populist-nationalist wings and made the election of Clinton possible. But it's now inching toward majority status because of the growing defections of once-Democratic voters and the realization that much of the "conspiracy theories" and fringe doom-mongering of the populist right of the 90s has turned out to be right.
There are some other problems with Turchin's points though. The core problem with fiscal breakdown is not about taxation or Reagan or anything before the 1990s. The US was in decent fiscal condition as late as 2000. The core problem is the monetary revolution that quietly began in the late 1990s, of ultralow interest rates (almost a quarter century now) which has made asset bubbles possible and inevitable -- this is the origin of the explosion of unequal wealth. This disease led first to overindebtedness in the private economy and, then, in response to the 2008 recession and the 2020 pandemic lockdowns, fiscal extravagance on an unprecedented scale. One key difference between now and 1980, and why no Volcker-style rescue is possible, is that the US economy is far more indebted now. Interest rates simply cannot be raised much. Much of America's productivity problem is rooted in the squandering of capital in speculation enabled by ultralow rates. Nothing will really get productivity, labor, and wages back on track without investment instead of manias. To do that requires major changes to monetary and tax policies. (My recommendation is Karen Petrou's Engine of Inequality, a book on the modern Fed since the later Greenspan years.)
There have been multiple turning points in US history along the lines Turchin discussed, roughly 40-60 years. One thinks of the Revolutionary generation 1770-1790; the end of gentleman politics and the rise of popular democracy around 1830; the Civil War period (1850-1870); the WWI-WWII period (1917-1940); the breakdown of New Deal America (1965-1982). Only the Civil War period was truly world-historical in the deepest sense, the single most important turning point in the English-speaking world since the 17th century. It didn't just mark the victory of free soil over plantation slavery; it presaged the end of agricultural America and the rise of urban-industrial America and of America as a world power. That period in some ways was more important than even the Revolutionary era.
I doubt if we're in a period quite like that. However, it is comparable in my view to the 1970s and maybe to the 1930s. The collective politics that's coming will be populist, nationalist, protectionist, somewhat xenophobic, and hostile to immigration. It will encounter a lot of opposition from the newer neoliberal Democratic elite and what's left of the older Republican elite.
Interesting discussion, but I'm hung up on a data point that he uses to make his argument that seems suspect - average height in the U.S.
Does his analysis control for immigration? Over the last 100 years, Hispanics have gone from under 2% of the population to almost 20%. They are typically about 5 inches shorter than non-Hispanic whites.
Also, Nassim Taleb, who is likewise concerned about elite decision-making, argues that people are constantly moving in and out of the top income/wealth brackets, i.e. it's not static. So just arguing that wealth is concentrated is inadequate.
Some great comments here. Kudos to 'Not from Texas'. He did the hard work for me. I would add a couple of other points that struck me. While I do agree, or at least my gut agrees that we're in an end point of civil society and a Republic as we knew it, I'm not sure I agree with Prof. Turchin's view on some of the data points leading to his overall thesis. He definitely has a soft spot in his heart for the collectivist approach, giving much love to FDR's New Deal as a saving force, not only for the US, but the world. It's not that easy. Those years were marked by an elongated depression, made even longer by FDRs fingers in the marketplace. His fondness for the economic views of Robert Reich caught me as well. I find Reich to be an old Statist and nothing more.
Bari questioned his seeming attitude toward individuals or individualism. He came back a bit on that, but still maintained that it is the collective of some sort that pulls society one way or the other. I think it is and has always been the individuals who pull a society, kicking and screaming in one direction or another. It starts with the one. And from there, we can either reach great heights or repeat human errors. We tend to repeat ourselves.
I chuckled that Turchin calls himself an optimist. No Russian is an optimist, at least not by Western standards (I'm sure there's a scale somewhere that can measure Russian optimism).
One comment was made (in the comments) about the US becoming more xenophobic. I don't think we are currently, or we'll become a xenophobic nation. That's too easy a label to put on people who want some control over immigration. And I strongly believe that is all the masses in this country want: not an end to immigration, but a control over it. It is without control now and has been for years. No economy or nation can absorb that and remain an intact nation and/or a strong economy.
But overall, a great interview. Thank you, Bari for asking the good questions and pushing back when a push was called for. Prof. Turchin is an extremely interesting man and the kind of thinker we need in this world. We don't have to fully agree with anyone, but we need the food of new ideas to push us- hopefully forward.
Just came here to say that I love that too many lawyers is a sign of the end times. 🤣🤣
I love the fact that the link to the book goes to bookshop.org instead of Amazon.
This was such a great convo. He's 100% right that the Democrats are now the elites - you can tell because they 1) defend the security state, 2) are in alignment with corporate America...So yeah. They can't reform themselves. They have to be taken out of power.
This was one of the more intriguing Honestly podcasts to listen to. On the one hand, Bari pushed Turchin hard to clarify his positions. On the other hand, some of those positions were a bit confusing (everyone's a revolutionary unless they are a (certain kind of) elite)!
Am I the only one that was hearing Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series during this discussion? Pyschohistory essentially equals cliodynamics, at least at a surface level. As another science fiction hero might say: fascinating! :)
Whenever I see theories that are clearly backed by data, they are at least worth listening to. It feels like Turchin's Russian background is naturally driving much of his thinking - it feels like if he chose to take sides, he would be a proper socialist. So, that's sort of a problem but that doesn't invalidate the process, just the conclusions.
Anyway, if elites have all of the money and political power, one way to fix the politics is to somehow get the money out of politics. If you can't buy your president (looking at you, Zuck) or your prosecutors (Soros), then you'll have to rely on old-fashioned merit and hard work to convince people that you can lead them in a direction that is more prosperous for most if not all people.
In my humble thirty years on this earth, this is my theory: when individuals begin to think of themselves more than they do others, a society begins to decline. As humans we are not made to live for ourselves. Evolutionarily we have been made to live with others, we could not survive on our own. Turchin raises some interesting theories, but I think it really is quite simple.
I’m not sure what to think about this interview. Turchin raises some interesting points but some insights he brought up weren’t new, like class struggles and why Trump was elected. I’m still trying to figure out the correlation between height and economic growth. His views also seem to favor more of a pro-collective European mindset, while taking a dim view of capitalism and individuality; I see this more of a qualitative approach vs a quantitative approach that he touts.
Interesting conversation, and as a biologist I found the idea of applying the scientific method to history really interesting. I agree with others though, I’m not very convinced. But I am interested enough to read the book!
Dear Bari, I just need to pull you up on your views around meritocracy. There has been a lot written in that space and if you need me to share that I can
All this talk of dissident elites or rogue elites or whatever other name you’d give them seems to elide the pressing concern that information technology will allow a level of totalitarian control in which there may not be any real dissent. China may already be there. We may not be that far behind.
His comments about aristocracy seemed funny given the dominance of the Kennedy, the bush, the Clinton, and the Trump families we've had in the last 50 years to top of our food chain