Elite Over-Production (Peter Turchin)

Below is an excerpt of an article in The Atlantic from late last year about Perter Turchin, the Russian ecologist-turned-historian who wants to apply mathematical rigor to the study of human history. You can read (and listen to) the complete article here.


“‘There is a longstanding debate among scientists and philosophers as to whether history has general laws,’ he [Turchin] and a co-author wrote in Secular Cycles (2009). ‘A basic premise of our study is that historical societies can be studied with the same methods physicists and biologists used to study natural systems.’ Turchin founded a journal, Cliodynamics, dedicated to ‘the search for general principles explaining the functioning and dynamics of historical societies.’ (The term is his coinage; Clio is the muse of history.) …

“In 2010, he [Turchin] predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldn’t let up until those social and political trends reversed. Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early ’70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.”


“The fate of our own society, he [Turchin] says, is not going to be pretty, at least in the near term. ‘It’s too late,’ he told me … The problems are deep and structural—not the type that the tedious process of demo­cratic change can fix in time to forestall mayhem. Turchin likens America to a huge ship headed directly for an iceberg: ‘If you have a discussion among the crew about which way to turn, you will not turn in time, and you hit the iceberg directly.’ The past 10 years or so have been discussion. That sickening crunch you now hear—steel twisting, rivets popping—­­is the sound of the ship hitting the iceberg. …

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions.

“Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily ‘elite overproduction’—­the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. … In the United States, elites over­produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.

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. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.

You can read (and listen to) the complete article here.


Turchin actually describes two different cycles of rise and decline. A lot of attention has been given to the short cycle, because of Turchin’s 2010 prediction of social unrest in the 2020s. However, it’s the longer cycle that concerns me more. From another article in Big Think:

“One is a short cycle that occurs about every 50 years, with peaks in 1870, 1920 and 1970 [and 2020]. Turchin calls this oscillation the ‘father-son’ cycle: the father perceives a social injustice and revolts, while the son’s generation deals with the aftermath and abstains from revolution. Then, the third generation repeats the cycle.

“The second cycle is much longer, peaking once every two to three centuries. The cycle begins with a society that’s roughly egalitarian, but over time its population increases, labor supply outpaces demand, and wealth inequality becomes increasingly intolerable. Eventually, societies tend to collapse or suffer widespread political instability.”

“A decade ago, this scientist predicted 2020 would bring ‘peak’ chaos to the U.S.” (Big Think)

This elite over-production has two effects. First, it exacerbates wealth inequality. As the number of elites grows, the gap between the elites and the commoners grows, which fosters frustration among the commoners. Second, some of the elites turn against the system and defect to the side of the commoners.

As an elite-turned-counterelite myself, I find Turchin’s theory fascinating. I wonder what this means for those socialists and Marxists who are still looking to the working class for revolution. If Turchin is right, then the disillusioned elites will play at least as important a role as the immiserated masses.

As Mark Mizruchi observes in a recent Guardian article, “I think he’s [Turchin’s] got a point, because a significant component of the reasonably far left are highly educated but with blocked opportunities.” And as Dorian Warren observes, Occupy Wall Street, was not a working-class movement, but consisted of “mostly disaffected, white college graduates. That was a preview of what we’re seeing now. … It’s mostly white elite fighting among each other, while the elites of colour are trying to break into the hierarchy.”


For Further Reading

“Return of the Oppressed: History Tells Us Where the Wealth Gap Leads” by Peter Turchin (Aeon)

Published by John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of *Another End of the World is Possible*, in which he explores what it would really mean for our relationship with the natural world if we were to admit that we are doomed. John is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is a co-founder of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the Statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

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