Russian scholar Peter Turchin has developed a model of societal collapse that’s already yielded startingly accurate predictions. Acquainting yourself with his work is probably a good idea because, if he maintains his track record, we probably won’t be enjoying the next 5-10 years very much.
The year 2020 has been kind to Turchin, for many of the same reasons it has been hell for the rest of us. Cities on fire, elected leaders endorsing violence, homicides surging—to a normal American, these are apocalyptic signs. To Turchin, they indicate that his models, which incorporate thousands of years of data about human history, are working. (“Not all of human history,” he corrected me once. “Just the last 10,000 years.”) He has been warning for a decade that a few key social and political trends portend an “age of discord,” civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced. In 2010, he predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldn’t let up until those social and political trends reversed. Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early ’70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.
Current events certainly lend credence to Turchin’s prognostications. With the plague of sponsored insurrections, our elites have loosed a demon that’s not easily returned to its bottle.
The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions.
Most successful revolts throughout history weren’t peasant uprisings. Instead, they broke out when internal strife among the old elite, or rivalries with an upstart new elite, overflowed into the genpop. The ringleaders of the Reign of terror were lawyers and minor nobles, not farmers.
Turchin looks into a distant, science-fiction future for peers. In War and Peace and War (2006), his most accessible book, he likens himself to Hari Seldon, the “maverick mathematician” of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, who can foretell the rise and fall of empires. In those 10,000 years’ worth of data, Turchin believes he has found iron laws that dictate the fates of human societies.
The fate of our own society, he says, is not going to be pretty, at least in the near term. “It’s too late,” he told me as we passed Mirror Lake, which UConn’s website describes as a favorite place for students to “read, relax, or ride on the wooden swing.” The problems are deep and structural—not the type that the tedious process of democratic change can fix in time to forestall mayhem. Turchin likens America to a huge ship headed directly for an iceberg: “If you have a discussion among the crew about which way to turn, you will not turn in time, and you hit the iceberg directly.” The past 10 years or so have been discussion. That sickening crunch you now hear—steel twisting, rivets popping—is the sound of the ship hitting the iceberg.
Spend some time on social media these days, and you’ll see people on both sides of the political divide wishing for a new Caesar. But we passed the point when a Caesar could have done any good last decade. Even Trump came too late to right the ship.
Liberal democracy is built for deliberation and compromise, not drastic, swift, and decisive action. That’s in the best of times. Now we get to hear our rulers dither over Death Cult esoterica and tax codes while the West burns.
“We are almost guaranteed” five hellish years, Turchin predicts, and likely a decade or more. The problem, he says, is that there are too many people like me. “You are ruling class,” he said, with no more rancor than if he had informed me that I had brown hair, or a slightly newer iPhone than his. Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily “elite overproduction”—the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites overproduce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.
That’s the real story behind Donald Trump. He’s not a member of the elite. He’s an outsider tapped by a dissenting faction of the elite in a bid to overturn the existing order. Hence why the ruling faction among both parties fought tooth and nail to expel him.
Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising insecurity becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.
Turchin’s prognostications would be easier to dismiss as barstool theorizing if the disintegration were not happening now, roughly as the Seer of Storrs foretold 10 years ago. If the next 10 years are as seismic as he says they will be, his insights will have to be accounted for by historians and social scientists—assuming, of course, that there are still universities left to employ such people.
The collapse is coming. We’re not voting our way out of it. What each of us can and should do is draw close to Jesus Christ and grow in holiness.
Because there’s nothing they can do to touch you if you’re holy.
It’s worth noting that my military thriller series Combat Frame XSeed has proven rather accurate at predicting the course of the collapse. For a look at the possible post-future, read the first book in an all-new XSeed arc now!
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