End Times by Peter Turchin review – can we predict the collapse of societies?


By examining history through complex mathematics, the ‘collapsologist’ aims to show – somewhat persuasively – that there are cyclical trends in the narratives of human hope and failure

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.”

Though the methodology to arrive at such conclusions may be complex – and derive from examination of the late medieval crisis in France and the Taipeng rebellion in China and the American civil war and all points in between – the destabilising forces that Turchin describes often seem to be in plain sight. You might intuit most of them from reading this morning’s newspaper. The driving forces of negative trends in all societies are broadly twin-engined, he argues. One is the presence of a perverse “wealth pump” which, after years of more equitable wealth distribution, takes from the poor and gives to the rich. In 1983 there were 66,000 households worth at least $10m in the US. By 2019, that number had increased in terms adjusted for inflation to 693,000. But while those numbers of the super-rich increased so the income and wealth of the typical American declined.

This trend has coincided with the second major destabilising factor, what Turchin defines as the “overproduction of elites”, in which an ever greater number of people compete over a finite and increasingly corrupt structure of privilege and power. He offers four factions between which this competition for status is perennially played out: militaristic, financial, bureaucratic and ideological. As societies decline the balanced equation of these factions falls wildly out of balance. The forces of capital seek to destroy the voices of ideology – one “elite” arms itself against another in a series of real wars or culture wars – and things fall apart. The strength of applying these metrics in an “objective” way across a multitude of historical situations, Turchin argues, is that general principles emerge. “The goal of cliodynamics,” he argues, “is to integrate all important forces of history, whether they are demographic, economic, social, cultural or ideological.” If that ambition sounds a little reminiscent of Mr Casaubon and the doomed “Key to All Mythologies” then you might – or might not – take comfort in the fact that Turchin has outsourced his hubris, and his doubts, to the invisible hand of data analysis.

Not surprisingly, Turchin’s methods have some keen advocates among the new plutocracy of Silicon Valley – billionaires with an interest not only in complex mathematics, but in how to maintain all the zeroes attached to their outrageous fortune (“They get it,” Turchin has said. “But then they have two questions. How can they make money out of the situation? And when should they buy their plot in New Zealand?”).

If he trades in apocalypse, however, his hope is to identify the means by which some societies faced with these existential threats have managed to mitigate or dodge them. He examines the ways Britain escaped revolution with the 1832 Reform Act, and how the extreme indicators after the Great Depression led to “a prosocial faction” within America’s ruling elite, giving away a large proportion of its wealth in taxes to prevent catastrophe. (When the federal tax rate was introduced in 1913, the top rate was 7%. For two decades after the second world war, it remained above 90%.) “Complex human societies need elites – rulers, administrators, thought leaders – to function well,” Turchin writes. “We don’t want to get rid of them; the trick is to constrain them to act for the benefit of all.” Sadly, however, that particular algorithm is still under construction.