For as long as complex human societies have existed there have been people predicting their imminent collapse. In recent years, the apocalypse business has become far more scientific; animal entrails and planetary portents have given way to big data. Peter Turchin is a pre-eminent digital-age seer or, as he suggests, a collapsologist. He trained in biology, using statistical models to examine networks of relationships between predators and prey. In the 1990s, however, after witnessing first-hand the sudden unravelling of the Soviet Union, from which his father had been a dissident exile, he turned his analytical brain to a different set of questions. Turchin set out to discover statistical patterns in the great flood of historical data that might predict future instabilities in societies. Like all Cassandras worth their infamy, he came to his vocation at a fortunate time.
Turchin calls his method “cliodynamics”. In a series of books – War and Peace and War (2006) and The Ages of Discord (2016) – he has used his datasets to try to establish the basis on which all human civilisations in the era of cities and states have the mechanisms of their own destruction built-in. He not only endeavours to show that complex mathematics might unlock those derailing forces, but also how it might help to avert them.
In response, many historians, wedded to the idea that their discipline is an art rather than a science, have tended to disparage the notion that their life’s work might be better understood through a series of complex equations: there are, they argue, simply too many variables to explain crises, revolutions, wars, even everyday political shifts in society. This book is Turchin’s latest, somewhat persuasive, attempt to challenge that consensus.
Part of its authority lies in the fact that his datasets are growing enormously. In 2011 Turchin, a professor at the University of Connecticut and leader of the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, established a project called Seshat (named after the Egyptian goddess of archives). Seshat involves scores of expert collaborators – anthropologists, archaeologists, historians – in building the world’s largest collection of data on the prosperity and demise of societies from upper Egypt to lower Manhattan. While acknowledging that all findings are inevitably a work in progress, Turchin extrapolates certain cyclical trends in this great collected narrative of human hope and human failure.
The most common pattern he presents is “an alternation of integrative and disintegrative phases lasting for roughly a century”. His predictions have a special urgency because western societies, and particularly America, are, he suggests, very near the end of that latter disintegrative phase, which makes the likelihood of civil war or potential systemic collapse far more likely. His model attempts to weight certain factors to predict this social meltdown. Key among them are rapidly growing inequality of wealth and wages, an overproduction of potential elites – children of wealthy dynasties, graduates with advanced degrees, frustrated social commentators – and an uncontrolled growth in public debt. In the US, he suggests – and by association the UK – these “factors started to take an ominous turn in the 1970s… The data pointed to the years around 2020 when the confluence of these trends was expected to trigger a spike in political instability. And here we are.”