Posted on January 22, 2021

We’re on the Verge of Breakdown: A Data Scientist’s Take on Trump and Biden

Edward Helmore, The Guardian, January 17, 2021

Peter Turchin is not the first entomologist to cross over to human behaviour: during a lecture in 1975, famed biologist E O Wilson had a pitcher of water tipped on him for extrapolating the study of ant social structures to our own.

It’s a reaction that Turchin, an expert-on-pine-beetles-turned-data-scientist and modeller, has yet to experience. But his studies at the University of Connecticut into how human societies evolve have lately gained wider currency; in particular, an analysis that interprets worsening social unrest in the 2020s as an intra-elite battle for wealth and status.

The politically motivated rampage at the US Capitol fits squarely into Turchin’s theory. In a 2010 paper, Dynamics of political instability in the United States, 1780-2010, Turchin wrote that “labour oversupply leads to falling living standards and elite overproduction, and those, in turn, cause a wave of prolonged and intense sociopolitical instability.”

Turchin’s Cliodynamics, which he describes as “a more mature version of social science”, rests upon 10,000 years of historical data, as such there is, to establish general explanations for social patterns. He predicts that unrest is likely to get worse through this decade, just as it has in roughly 50-year cycles since 1780.


Explicitly, then, Turchin explains current political warfare as a battle between an overpopulation of elites to some degree exacerbated by a decline in general living standards or immiseration, and financially overextended governments. Initially, Turchin applied the theory to pre-industrial societies, but a decade ago he travelled forward in time, predicting unrest – Ages of Discord – that would intensify in 2020 and endure until reversed.

“Societies are systems and they tend to change in a somewhat predictable way,” Turchin told the Observer. “We are on the verge of state breakdown where the centre loses hold of society.”

In the US, he points out, there are two political chief executives, each commanding his own elite cadre, with nothing yet being done at a deep structural level to improve circumstances. “We’ve seen growing immiseration for 30 to 40 years: rising levels of state debt, declining median wages and declining life expectancies. But the most important aspect is elite overproduction” – by which he means that not just capital owners but high professionals – lawyers, media professionals and entertainment figures – have become insulated from wider society. It is not just the 1% who are in this privileged sector, but the 5% or 10% or even 20% – the so-called “dream hoarders” – they vie for a fixed number of positions and to translate wealth into political position.

“The elites had a great run for a while but their numbers become too great. The situation becomes so extreme they start undermining social norms and [there is] a breakdown of institutions. Who gets ahead is no longer the most capable, but [the one] who is willing to play dirtier.”

Turchin’s analysis, of course, is readily applied to Donald Trump who, spurned by mainstream elites, appealed to a radical faction of the elite and to the disaffected masses to forward his political ambition. A similar case could be made for leading Brexiteers.


In the professor’s reading, the incoming administration, notwithstanding the diversity of its appointments, is representative of mainstream elite power. {snip}


Turchin says he feels “vindicated as a scientist who proposed a theory, but I have some consternation that we have to live through this. It may not be very pretty. I’m worried about a state breakdown. Mass shootings and urban protests are the warning tremors of an earthquake. Society can survive, but problems are likely to escalate.”