Top-­table clash


Too many graduates are chasing too few graduate jobs, with revolutionary implications


Many readers will remember learning at school about the great English victories in the Hundred Years War against France: Crécy, Poitiers, Agincourt. According to Peter Turchin’s new work of metahistory, End Times: Counter-elites and the path of political disintegration, those brave English archers were actually doing France a favour by culling its bloated noble class and ushering in a more stable, less top-heavy, French society. Elite over-production, the idea for which Turchin is already well known, can evidently be reversed swiftly and violently.


Turchin is a complexity scientist who has turned his hand to history, and the result is a study of Game of Thrones-style intra-elite conflict meets big data. The author does not quite claim to have produced a science of history that enables us to predict the future. But his cliodynamics theory, named after the Greek muse of history – an approach that combines history, sociology, anthropology and archaeology with mathematical modelling – is based on the idea of recurrent waves of stability and disruption. And if enough data is fed into the models of disruption (“End Times”) we might understand better how to nudge our way back to stability.


Periods of stability never last, and thanks either to external forces or the greed of elites – what Turchin calls “the iron law of oligarchy” – immiseration inevitably grows and leads to popular revolt, often led by counter-elites who have not found a seat at the table. This pattern sounds familiar enough and perhaps doesn’t require the sanction of Turchin’s scientific-sounding phrases – “structural-dynamic approach”, “political stress index”, “multipath forecasting”. But the Russian-born scholar can claim to have predicted, more than ten years ago, much of the recent disruption in US politics.


The book’s main focus is today’s United States, which Turchin regards as in a pre-revolutionary stage, but he also alights on the late medieval crisis in France, the Taiping rebellion in China and the American Civil War. His crisis database contains 300 case studies, and he sweeps confidently, sometimes overconfidently, over historical eras, explaining why his theory of immiseration via elite over-production led to bloody conflict, or how other places, such as mid-nineteenth-century Britain or New Deal-era America, avoided it.


In the case of mid-nineteenth-century Britain, there is an old debate about how the country avoided the revolutionary upheaval seen in Continental Europe. Indeed, Turchin rehearses all the key arguments I remember learning at…