Peter Turchin’s False Prophecy

Christian Parenti

Image for article: Peter Turchin’s False Prophecy
August 8, 2023
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration
By Peter Turchin
Penguin Press, 368 pages, $28

Over the past several years, the Russian-American scientist Peter Turchin has risen to prominence on the strength of a body of work that claims to be able to predict political violence and civilizational collapse. Back in the comparatively placid Obama era, a time when few would have foreseen tumultuous events like the 2020 George Floyd uprising or the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Turchin was warning that America was set to enter a period of instability and unrest. As these events were unfolding, he earned a reputation as something of a political prophet. The appearance of Turchin’s latest book, End Times, with blurbs from an array of luminaries, solidifies his status as an influential public intellectual.

Turchin’s main claim to originality comes from the quantitative approach he brings to historical topics. He began his academic career in theoretical biology, constructing models of plant and animal population dynamics in pursuit of universal patterns. Once tenured, he shifted his focus to subjects typically studied by historians and social scientists, but he continued building mathematical models. This approach became the basis of the new discipline he helped pioneer: “Cliodynamics,” so named after the Greek muse of history.

“The basic conclusion Turchin draws won’t be all that surprising to most readers.”

Despite his innovative methods, the basic conclusion Turchin draws won’t be all that surprising to most readers: that extreme economic inequality is dangerously destabilizing and precipitates civil war, revolution, and state breakdown. More novel is his claim that “elite overproduction”—a surplus of aspirants competing for a limited number of positions in the upper strata of society—is the key factor in these dynamics. It is here that End Times has the potential to offer important insights but fails to do so, owing to conceptual vagueness, methodological arbitrariness, and a lack of serious attention to competing versions of the history Turchin attempts to chart. The result is an account that obscures more than it reveals about elite power dynamics today.

Overproduction of elites, Turchin concludes from the troves of data he has gathered from different historical periods, tends to proceed in tandem with the immiseration of the masses, which, in turn, leads more of those of low station to improve their lot through education or training, compounding the problem. Amid this escalating competition, surplus elites threaten to become politically entrepreneurial “counter-elites” who capitalize on the broader discontents of the masses to foment political unrest.

Who exactly counts as an “elite” is a famously fraught question in the American context: For some, it conjures up images of private jets, private islands, and vast fortunes, while for others, it refers to egghead academics. Despite the centrality of elite overproduction to his account, and his claim to be rendering history into an exact science, Turchin doesn’t resolve the vagueness of the concept. At first, he defines modern elites in a straightforward numerical way, as the wealthiest 10 percent of the population. But he then expands the definition to include those who wield any one of four types of power: physical coercion, economic power, bureaucratic control, and ideological influence. At this point, the category stretches from the ultra-rich to politicians to government employees to the military, but also seems to encompass academics, journalists, and even online influencers.

End Times offers a solid enough account of contemporary class polarization. The American middle class has withered over the last 40 years, with many slipping into poverty, even as the ranks of the rich have expanded. It is common knowledge that the wealth of the top 10 percent, and even more so that of the top 1 percent, has grown enormously; less often noted is that the total number of rich households as a proportion of the population has also grown. As Turchin explains: “Starting in the 1980s, the number of super-rich in America—those worth at least $10 million—started to grow rapidly.” In 1983, only 66,000 households were worth that much, but by 2019, the figure had swelled tenfold to 693,000. As a proportion of the entire US population, decamillionaires are now 0.54 percent, compared to 0.08 percent in the early 1980s. Meanwhile, “households worth $5 million or more increased sevenfold” in the same period.

This absolute growth in the ranks of elites is surely politically significant. But at what point, and why, does this growth become unsustainable, as Turchin claims? That is, what exactly makes a “surplus elite”? “Elite overproduction develops,” he writes, “when the demand for power positions by elite aspirants massively exceeds their supply.” How do we know if that is happening? To answer this, he resorts to an analogy to the game of musical chairs, imagining a version in which the number of players increases each round even as the number of chairs remains constant. But the analogy only goes so far. Some elite positions are indeed fixed in number, like Supreme Court justice and members of Congress; others, like tech CEO or corporate lobbyist, aren’t.

Turchin illustrates the “game of aspirant chairs” by referencing the growing number of self-funded political candidates who spend $1 million or more on their own election campaigns. There were 36 such candidates in 2020 alone, up from a total of one throughout the 1990s. But it remains unclear that this phenomenon demonstrates an “overproduction of elites.” Indeed, one might well draw the opposite conclusion: Perhaps the fact that more and more wealthy Americans are opting to spend their money on running for office indicates they enjoy more options than ever. Multimillionaires wishing to run for office today don’t need to raise money, win the favor of party bosses, or embed themselves in local political networks. Instead, they can just withdraw money from the bank, hire campaign staff, and hit the road. Doesn’t this fact suggest the rich today are more capable of political self-actualization than in earlier periods?

Turchin is on firmer ground when discussing case studies such as Egypt in the years leading up to the Arab Spring. In the decades before the revolt that ousted him, former President Hosni Mubarak oversaw a massive expansion of enrollment in universities in the name of modernizing the country, even as his government failed to provide posts for the new graduates due to austerity and economic stagnation. As Turchin notes, underemployed credentialed young people played a major role in the Tahrir Square protests. The example seems to correspond closely to his model.

At this point, though, we are faced with another question: Did frustrated young surplus elites play the politically decisive role, as Turchin’s account implies? As he notes, their allies in opposition to Mubarak included a far larger mass of rural religious Muslims. According to his model, it is the combination of elite overproduction with “popular immiseration” that creates the most combustible political situations. But in such cases, how do we know that counter-elites cause a political crisis, as opposed to capitalizing on movements that bubble up from below? Turchin’s emphasis on counter-elites tends to elide or minimize the agency of the popular classes.

For instance, he largely reduces the causes of the American Civil War to intra-elite conflict, despite the fact that large portions of the Northern working and middle classes were bitterly opposed to slavery. Indeed, the war started when Lincoln, for whom many of them had voted, blocked the westward expansion of slavery. The slavocracy found itself compelled to secede because its slavery-dominated mode of production was dependent on geographic expansion. The sunk costs of buying human labor power upfront—in the form of slaves—militated against investment in labor-saving technology, i.e., mechanization. Unable to intensify production in this manner, the plantation economy could only reproduce itself and grow by pushing the slave mode of production ever further west. Moreover, the monocropping of tobacco, cotton, and sugar cane created a crisis of soil depletion and erosion that compounded the pressure to acquire fresh land.

Opposition to the westward expansion of slavery wasn’t confined to abolitionist activists and Northern capitalists, whose economic interests were only sometimes at odds with those of the planter class. Working people within the Northern economy of commercialized, diversified, and increasingly mechanized small family farms and their attendant proto-industrial workshops felt profoundly threatened by the geographic expansion of slavery, which meant less space for the expansion of the Northern mode of production and more political power, particularly in the Senate, accruing to slaveholders. Many Free Soilers worried that with enough political power, the Southern ruling class might even lead to the enslavement of the mechanic and farm hands of the North.

There were multiple forms of coerced labor short of chattel slavery already operating in the antebellum North, so this prospect didn’t seem outlandish at the time. Hard-line Southern ideologues like John C. Calhoun and George Fitzhugh, moreover, openly advocated ownership of labor as more moral than mere exploitation of labor power, triggering genuine horror among Northern workers. In short: Working-class Northerners’ hatred of slavery wasn’t necessarily “anti-racist” or humanitarian; it was defensive, self-interested, and deadly serious. Most importantly, it was a mass popular ideology, and it helped deliver Lincoln to the White House. In Turchin’s version of the story, this sort of mass agency is sidelined in favor of a focus on Northern elites.

Even if we accept that elite agency is more decisive, other questions arise about Turchin’s model. Are counter-elites who lead rebellions always or even usually frustrated elite aspirants in a world that offers no path forward for them? Turchin’s historical examples of supposed surplus elites who become revolutionary counter-elites don’t always add up. Take Fidel Castro, whom he name-checks several times. The son of a successful Spanish-born sugarcane planter, Castro was educated as a lawyer—a profession Turchin identifies as particularly likely to generate revolutionaries, as it did in this case. But love Castro or hate him, it is difficult to see how he was ever a thwarted man. As a law student and lawyer, he was successful, and had he not developed revolutionary ideas, might well have become one of the leaders of a capitalist Cuba.

Turchin also spends several pages discussing Tucker Carlson, who has become famously critical of the American status quo. According to research by The New York Times cited by Turchin, Carlson mentioned the “ruling class” (usually critically) in 70 percent of his shows between 2016 and 2021. The “disintegration of society” was a close second. It seems reasonable to call Carlson a “counter-elite”—but a thwarted “elite aspirant” or “surplus elite” he never was. An heir to the Swanson frozen-food fortune, Carlson has had an extremely successful career in journalism, and in the wake of his departure from Fox, he is apparently starting a new media company.

Ultimately, Turchin’s reliance on predictive model-building leads to a conceptual dependency on big, blunt, generalizable categories (like “elite” and “counter-elite”) and a flattening of the specificities and vagaries of climate, geography, personality, individual genius, charisma, mass morale, popular ideology, convictions, and chance. Leaning on his models and database of historical variables, which he calls CrisisDB, Turchin is prone to announcing conclusions as if they were oracular truths produced by the data and assumptions he has fed into tabulating machines, rather than making arguments by way of detailed history.

“More often than not, what the model generates are dire prognoses of doom and gloom.”

His justification for this approach is the promise to reboot historical analysis as a predictive science that can inform policymakers on how to forestall catastrophe. But recent events offer ample grounds to be wary of such promises. The Covid crisis—by which I mean the political hysteria and state repression that accompanied the virus—began with the flawed mathematical models of Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London. In 2002, Ferguson badly overestimated the spread of mad cow disease and its risk to humans; he later issued dire prognoses about swine flu and bird flu that proved far off the mark. Undeterred by his previous record of failure, he also made wildly pessimistic projections about Covid mortality in early 2020. These since-discredited predictions led governments worldwide to discard the public-health consensus that quarantining whole societies doesn’t work and would lead to greater harm than it prevents.

From its origins, mathematical modeling has been intimately bound up with unaccountable and authoritarian forms of power. One thing modelers know, we have seen again and again, is that they know best. When a White House aide had the temerity to describe the Vietnam War as a doomed failure, then-Secretary of Defense and fanatical modeling devotee Robert McNamara replied: “Where is your data? Give me something I can put in a computer.” In a forthcoming book, the University of Virginia’s Justin McBrien draws a clear line from modeling the allied fire-bombing campaigns of World War II to Cold War-era modeling of a “survivable” atomic war to McNamara’s modeling of the path to victory in Vietnam, all the way up to our current era of climate and pandemic modeling. The alchemy of modeling, as McBrien tells us, works like this: Considerable amounts of data are mixed with necessarily limited assumptions about highly complex phenomena. More often than not, what the model generates are dire prognoses of doom and gloom—which suits modeling well to elite mythmaking and governance by fear.

More charitably, mathematical models of complex phenomena can arrive at the same general conclusions that have already been offered by ancient philosophers, or even by the loquacious fellow sitting just down the bar from you. That’s where Turchin’s modeling lands: on the undeniable observation that things aren’t going well, and they are likely going to get worse.

The problem at the heart of End Times is a well-known and much-discussed story: the collapse of the old postwar compromise that led to “the great compression” in the decades after the New Deal, when American class inequality greatly diminished. How and why did that arrangement end, opening up the still expanding gap between the rich and everyone else? The weakness of Turchin’s answer comes from his superficial economic history of the United States since 1945.

Relying on the work of the economist Thomas Piketty, Turchin makes reference to what he calls the “wealth pump”: a self-reinforcing dynamic of upward economic redistribution. But he basically ignores much of the literature on postwar political-economic history that explains how and why the New Deal compromise ended. Beginning with old books Capitalism Since 1945, by Philip Armstrong, Andrew Glyn, and John Harrison, and Barry Bluestone’s and Bennett Harrison’s The Deindustrialization of America, and carrying on with works by David Harvey, Peter Gowan, Robert Brenner, and Bob Pollin, heterodox political economists have produced an increasingly detailed picture of what happened and why. Turchin’s book would have been stronger had he absorbed this literature and incorporated its conclusions into his analysis.

Since he didn’t, here is a thumbnail sketch. The great compression was rooted in the reforms of the New Deal and the expansion of union power, but it was World War II and the subsequent American-led global effort to rebuild that sustained the relatively egalitarian boom of the postwar decades. American industrial capacity doubled in the five years between 1940 and 1945. In 1946, the United States produced half the world’s total output. By the 1950s, America still produced one-third of global economic output. The historically unique conditions of this Golden Era meant that American industry could pay high wages and high taxes yet still book high profits.

However, by the mid-1960s, Germany and Japan had recovered. Their labor costs were much lower than those in the United States, and their capital stock tended to be newer and more efficient. Not only were the Europeans and the Japanese supplying their own domestic markets, they were also ramping up their exports. At the same time American consumer spending began to level out by the mid-1960s. Once-exotic luxuries like full-size refrigerators and electric vacuum cleaners had become commonplace. The postwar shopping spree was winding down. By the early 1970s, therefore, the growth and industrialization of earlier decades had led to a classic crisis of overproduction and overaccumulation. Suddenly there was too much production capacity, too much capital, and too many commodities already in existence, and not enough opportunities for profitable re-investment. American capitalism was suffocating from industrial success.

As Marx put it so long ago: “Modern bourgeois society … that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” During the inevitable crisis of overproduction, there was suddenly “too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they … endanger the existence of bourgeois property.” By the early 1970s, this expressed itself as “stagflation” or rising prices combined with high unemployment and sluggish growth. Most importantly, the crisis of overaccumulation expressed itself as a collapse in average after-tax profit rates. By 1973, average profit rates were only about a third what they had been in the mid 60s. When business attempted to restore profits by cutting wages, it was thwarted by a massive, militant trade-union counteroffensive; 1974 saw more work stoppages than any year since 1953.

The resolution to the crisis, in the end, came in the form of a new class war waged from above. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were its charismatic leaders, and Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve, was the financial executioner. By 1980-81, Volcker had jacked the federal funds rate to 20 percent, from around 9 percent in 1979. This massive contraction in credit triggered what was at the time the worst recession since the Great Depression. Unemployment soared above 10 percent. Simultaneously, Reagan, Thatcher, and their imitators across the globe cut taxes on the rich, raised taxes on working-class consumption, deregulated whole industries, and eviscerated health and safety regulations. Financial speculation boomed, which, in turn, drove deindustrialization as firms merged and rationalized. It was at this point that the American class structure began its radical bifurcation as the middle class was hollowed out.

What Turchin really seems to have in mind when discussing surplus elites in the American context—and what many readers seem to take him to be referring to—is the growing class of proletarianized knowledge workers who form an influential but increasingly beleaguered stratum. These downwardly mobile members of what Barbara and John Ehrenreich called the “professional-managerial class” (PMC) possess some bureaucratic and ideological power but have been losing autonomy and economic power along with the rest of the middle class.

As the Ehrenreichs explained in a 2013 pamphlet, “Death of a Yuppie Dream”: “By 2010, more than half of practicing US physicians were directly employed by hospitals,” compared to only “24 percent of doctors who were salaried employees in 1983.” The situation for lawyers is similar: Around 1960, most were sole practitioners or worked for small firms, “fewer than forty law firms” employed “fifty or more lawyers.” Six decades later, “42 percent of all practicing lawyers work in one of the biggest 250 firms or in other institutional settings (corporations, government, or the not-for-profit sector).” In other words, the old petty bourgeoisie, which enjoyed economic autonomy through the ownership of small businesses, has been increasingly absorbed into large organizations owned and controlled by wealthier and more powerful entities, and has seen its working conditions and economic status degraded in the process. 

The PMC fits Turchin’s definition of elite because, to varying degrees, it wields bureaucratic and ideological power. But the members of the PMC increasingly do so as precarious workers saddled with educational, housing, and medical debt, bullied by employers, and bereft of any resort to the social safety net. These downwardly mobile professionals have degrees and social capital, and often have boutique tastes in music, food, clothing, and art that reflect their cultural capital, but they are nonetheless members of the struggling middle class. In classical Marxist political economy, they aren’t even that: They are just workers who, despite advanced training, don’t own the means of production and therefore must sell their labor to survive. Crucially, this distinguishes them from the old petty bourgeoisie who did own small businesses or operated as independent lawyers, accountants, engineers, architects, and doctors.

Barbara Ehrenreich titled her 1989 book on the professional middle class Fear of Falling, and since the neoliberal assault began, that fear has been absolutely rational. Politically, Ehrenreich found these downwardly mobile professionals to be increasingly resentful of the poor and working class while also hewing closer to the cultural and political sensibilities of real elites. As the American class structure began to polarize, middle-class tastes increasingly imitated those of the rich. Out went Budweiser and tuna casserole, in came Merlot and Camembert.

These tendencies are also in evidence in the political domain. Across the most recent election cycles, the professional class leans increasingly toward the Democratic Party—in the same period it has evolved into the party most closely aligned with the true elites of the Davos class. A recent Pew survey found: “White voters with college degrees [who are far more likely to vote Republican than people of color with college degrees] had tilted Republican for several decades, but in the past four elections have favored Democratic candidates (52 percent to 47 percent in 2022).” The alacrity with which much of this class has, especially in the age of Trump, embraced fear-mongering about the white rabble of the heartland while aligning itself with elite preferences has made it an ideal constituency for an emerging authoritarian politics of the center.

This brings us to perhaps the greatest weakness of End Times: Turchin never attempts to theorize the state. In America, there now exists one of the most powerful states in human history. It is so well-funded, amply and ably staffed, technologically sophisticated, and legally empowered that its methods and means of social control are qualitatively different than they were even in 1980.

Instead of the sort of truly destabilizing political upheaval Turchin has long been predicting, the 2020s have seen the rise of a new, seemingly apolitical totalitarianism, in which mostly Democratic politicians and closely aligned private and public entities have massively expanded the surveillance and censorship apparatus built up under the Bush administration in the name of combating foreign terrorism, and turned this apparatus against the American citizenry. This has involved novel forms of cooperation between private corporations, nonprofits, and government, but in the lead are the state’s security, intelligence, and policing agencies.

Worse yet, as surveillance, censorship, and repression increase, so, too, has consent for such measures. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that “65 percent of Americans support tech companies moderating false information online, and 55 percent support the US government taking these steps … even if it limits people from freely publishing or accessing information.” As recently as 2018, Pew found that only 39 percent of Americans supported government censorship. What explains this drastic shift towards acceptance of censorship? It seems likely that the successful propaganda campaigns of successive administrations—stoking fear of terrorism, misinformation, viral infection, and other dangers—played a pivotal role.

“The danger comes not from surplus elites, but from super-empowered elites.”

If war is the health of the state, it would seem that domestic political unrest can justify growth of the domestic security state. It is hard not to worry that the structural tensions described by Turchin, rather than laying the groundwork for eventual regime change, are doing just this. In this case, the danger comes not from surplus elites, but from super-empowered elites who, in the face of extreme inequality, feel their privileges threatened and through the bloated security state are seeking to rule in an increasingly undemocratic and unaccountable fashion—and succeeding. 

The PMC’s “fear of falling,” rather than prompting revolt, fuels the politics of elite social control. If downwardly mobile professionals see themselves as cultural elites because of their tastes and degrees, and see a threat to social stability as coming from the growing ranks of those immiserated and left behind by the current economic order, then siding with state repression may seem quite rational. This formula can work for both the left and right branches of the professional class: Right-wingers can fear immigrants and urban black people, liberal professionals can fear the white, gun-loving deplorables; in the end, it all adds up to the same old reactionary middle-class politics that endorses the repression of the many in the interest of the few.

The fatal flaw of Turchin’s work is his emphasis on the struggling PMC at the expense of a deeper understanding of the real ruling class. Who are they, where are they, how do they rule? None of this is addressed. In this, Turchin makes an error common on the political right, where the “elite” are cast as pampered professors and snobbish yuppies, and not as rapacious, bailout-addicted billionaires. But the problem goes deeper than this. It is no coincidence that Turchin’s favored methodology, mathematical modeling, is beloved of contemporary authoritarians: It’s because it so often predicts a catastrophe that only a more empowered version of current institutions can avert. Likewise, Turchin unintentionally ends up offering a de facto rationale for yet more censorship, social control, and state violence. After all, what are most people going to support if they accept his prediction that America is on the verge of civil war?