Monday, December 21, 2020

War as Incubator

Author Graeme Wood interviewed ecological biologist-turned-historian Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut and writes about his views for The Atlantic. Turchin applies mathematics to history - something he calls clioanalytics - and has reached controversial conclusions which you’ll find interesting, if not necessarily convincing. For example:

One of Turchin’s most unwelcome conclusions is that complex societies arise through war. The effect of war is to reward communities that organize themselves to fight and survive, and it tends to wipe out ones that are simple and small-scale. (snip) Darwinian processes select for complex societies because they kill off simpler ones.

The notion that democracy finds its strength in its essential goodness and moral improvement over its rival systems is likewise fanciful. Instead, democratic societies flourish because they have a memory of being nearly obliterated by an external enemy. They avoided extinction only through collective action, and the memory of that collective action makes democratic politics easier to conduct in the present, Turchin said. “There is a very close correlation between adopting democratic institutions and having to fight a war for survival.”

Turchin finds a 50 year cycle predicting upsurges of violence in the United States, with spikes in 1870, 1920, and 1970. If he is correct we are due for another and, he says, they last several years.

Turchin also believes we’ve overproduced people with credentials to join our elite, without similarly amping up the number of elite jobs for these individuals to fill.

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.

Shut-out elites become counter-elites, two examples he identifies are Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. The obvious allusion to the French Revolution suggests he believes civil war is one possible outcome .