A period of social instability is coming to the United States, and it was predicted years ago according to a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who specializes in Cliodynamics at the University of Connecticut.
To those who see the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States as a sign of the apocalypse, the idea that America might be headed for a bit of social instability probably does not seem that insightful. However, if you warned people it was coming 10 years ago and even laid out the evidence explaining why, then you might deserve a little credit of the “I told you so” variety.
That is kind of what Professor Peter Turchin says in a recent article posted to Phys.org. But the article isn’t a hindsight account of current affairs based on what has come to pass in recent months. Instead, it is a review of the work Turchin has published in recent years that predicted many of the types of social change we are currently experiencing.
— Indigenous (@AmericanIndian8) January 4, 2017
For instance, Turchin opened a brief 2010 article published in the journal Nature with the line, “The next decade is likely to be a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe.”
Granted, that is a rather vague prediction, but England’s “Brexit” vote and the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the alt-right/neo-Nazi movement in the United States have unquestionably caused a higher-than-usual degree of social instability and unrest. And while the conflict in the Ukraine could be described as an Eastern European affair, it and the subsequent NATO realignment in the region have definitely caused some social anxiety in Western Europe. That’s not to mention the political challenges caused by tensions over immigration and the ongoing threat of terrorism (not to link the two causally) in the United States and Western Europe.
Turchin did offer some specific indicators that lead him to believe we were headed for a period of social instability in his Nature article.
“In the United States, we have stagnating or declining real wages, a growing gap between rich and poor, overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees, and exploding public debt,” Turchin wrote.
“These seemingly disparate social indicators are actually related to each other dynamically. They all experienced turning points during the 1970s. Historically, such developments have served as leading indicators of looming political instability.”
If we didn’t know better, we’d say the parts about declining real wages, the gap between rich and poor and the growing number of college graduates (with the implication that they cannot find adequate jobs) all sound like they were torn straight from Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign stump speeches, except Turchin published them years prior.
Turchin employees the study of Cliodynamics, which he describes as “a new ‘transdisciplinary discipline’ that treats history as just another science,” to predict social shifts in the United States. He began applying this approach to his research on social and political trends in the United States ten years ago.
“What I discovered alarmed me,” he admits in the Phys.org article.
— Peter Turchin (@Peter_Turchin) January 3, 2017
Turchin predicted that social instability would reach a peak in the 2020s in the United States, and he now says that the election of Donald Trump does nothing to change this trajectory and may even exacerbate it. What concerns him most is the threat of what is known as “elite overproduction.”
“[T]here is another important development that has been missed by most commentators: the key role of ‘elite overproduction’ in driving waves of political violence, both in historical societies and in our own,” Turchin says, referring to a previous article he wrote for Bloomberg titled “Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays.”
Turchin notes that between 1983 and 2010, the number of American households worth $10 million or more grew from 66,000 to 350,000. Because wealthy people tend to be more politically connected, this growing number of wealthy elites creates intensified competition among them for political and social dominance.
“Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class,” Turchin says.
“This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.”
In other words, it won’t just be the economically underprivileged, the working class and the middle class who will increasingly feel frustrated in the coming years. There will also be a growing number of the 1 and 2 percent competing with each other and pulling the social and political levers that they have greater access to. This, in turn, could lead to increased levels of social unrest.
Here’s to hoping Turchin is wrong, but it definitely feels like we are entering a phase of social instability.
[Featured Image by Scott Olson/Getty Images]