TEN YEARS ago Peter Turchin, a scientist at the University of Connecticut, made a startling prediction in Nature. “The next decade is likely to be a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe,” he asserted, pointing in part to the “overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees”. The subsequent surge in populism in Europe, the unexpected votes in 2016 for Brexit and then for President Donald Trump in America, and a wave of protests from the gilets jaunes to Black Lives Matter, has made Mr Turchin something of a celebrity in certain circles, and has piqued economists’ interest in the discipline of “cliodynamics”, which uses maths to model historical change. Mr Turchin’s emphasis on the “overproduction of elites” raises uncomfortable questions, but also offers useful policy lessons.
As far back as ancient Rome and imperial China, Mr Turchin shows, societies have veered from periods of political stability to instability, often at intervals of about 50 years. Consider America. Every pundit knows that Congress has become gridlocked, with Democrats and Republicans unwilling to compromise with each other. Fewer know that it was also highly polarised around 1900, before becoming more co-operative in the mid-20th century.
What causes these lurches from calm to chaos? Mr Turchin views societies as large, complex systems that are subject to certain patterns, if not laws. That is an entirely different approach from much of academic history, with its preference for small-scale, microcosmic studies, argues Niall Ferguson of Stanford University. In a paper published this year Mr Turchin (with Andrey Korotayev of the Higher School of Economics in Russia) examines the prediction of instability he made in 2010. His forecast model contains many elements, but like Karl Marx Mr Turchin seems to believe that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Where Marx focused on the proletariat, though, Mr Turchin is more interested in the elite—and how its members struggle against each other.
Who counts as the elite, and how competition manifests itself, varies from place to place; one example could be a large number of highly educated folk relative to the number of government offices (and therefore jobs). But a struggle is most likely when economic inequality is high. The rewards for being at the top are then especially lucrative, both in terms of earning power and political influence, and those who miss out feel their loss more keenly. The feeling of resentment is particularly strong among people brought up to believe that they ought to be in the elite. Worse still, societies tend to produce ever more would-be elites, in part because access to education tends to improve over time. Mr Turchin sees all this as a recipe for political chaos. Articulate, educated people rebel, producing a scramble for political and economic power. Elites stop co-operating, counter-elites emerge, and order breaks down.
2017: West High Reading Interventionist Teacher’s Remarks to the School Board on Madison’s Disastrous Reading Results
My Question to Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers on Teacher Mulligans and our Disastrous Reading Results
Booked, but can’t read (Madison): functional literacy, National citizenship and the new face of Dred Scott in the age of mass incarcerat