“History is not just one damn thing after another,” British historian Arnold Toynbee once quipped in response to a critic. For a long time, Toynbee’s opinion was in the minority. Historians and philosophers vehemently insisted that a science of history was impossible. I hope that End Times will convince you that this view is wrong. A science of history is not only possible, it is useful: it helps us anticipate how the collective choices we make in the present can bring us a better future.
Over the past quarter-century, my colleagues and I have built out a flourishing field, known as Cliodynamics (from Clio, the muse of history, and dynamics, the science of change). We discovered that there are important recurring patterns, which can be observed throughout the sweep of human history over the past 10,000 years. Remarkably, despite the myriad of differences, at base complex human societies, on some abstract level, are organized according to the same general principles.
From the beginning, my colleagues and I in this new field focused on cycles of political integration and disintegration. This is the area where our field’s findings are arguably the most robust—and arguably the most disturbing. It became clear to us through quantitative historical analysis that complex societies everywhere are affected by recurrent and, to a certain degree, predictable waves of political instability, brought about by the same basic set of forces, operating across the thousands of years of human history. It dawned on me some years ago that, assuming the pattern held, we were heading into the teeth of another storm. In 2010, the scientific journal Nature asked specialists from different fields to look ten years into the future, and I made this case in clear terms, positing that judging from the pattern of US history, we were due for another sharp instability spike by the early 2020s.
What, then, is the model on which this forecast was based? When a state, such as the United States, has stagnating or declining real wages, a growing gap between rich and poor, overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees, declining public trust, and exploding public debt, these seemingly disparate social indicators are actually related to each other dynamically. Historically, such developments have served as leading indicators of looming political instability. In the United States, all of these factors started to turn in an ominous direction 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.
Sadly, nothing about my model has been disproved in the intervening years. End Times is my best effort to explain this model in accessible, which is to say non-mathematical, terms. It builds on an enormous amount of important work in a variety of different fields; I make no claims for radical originality. What I will say is that we should all take heart from the fact that societies have arrived at this same crossroads before, and while sometimes (even most of the time) the road has led to great loss of life and societal breakdown, at other times it has led to a far happier resolution for most people involved.
What leads to political turbulence and social breakdown? In what ways do elites maintain their dominance? And why do the ruling classes sometimes lose power suddenly? In this article, CSH team leader Peter Turchin presents his groundbreaking theory of how society works and introduces us to his upcoming book, End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration. The book will be published on June 13.