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About the Author

Peter Turchin is professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and adjunct professor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Connecticut

Includes the name: Peter Turchin

Works by Peter Turchin


Common Knowledge



[4.25] If the torrent of turmoil, divisiveness and twists over the past decade have subjected you to a severe case of mental whiplash, Turchin’s book could be the perfect potion for helping you to make some sense out of the chaos. As someone who knew little about cliodynamics (an effort to make history a predictive, analytical science), I found most of this book fascinating. True, a few sections might a bit too “academic” for a mainstream audience. But the author wisely weaves in lively historic anecdotes that span centuries, keeping most “End Times” moving at a nice clip. Some readers might disagree with a number of Turchin’s theories and conclusions, but the book is timely and thought-provoking.… (more)
brianinbuffalo | 1 other review | Aug 4, 2023 |
It is fashionable to talk of the 2020s as a time of upset, instability, turmoil, revolution and war, all without any factual basis, just gut feeling. What is really shocking is that science and math show that it is all true. In End Times, Peter Turchin describes how countries come to this point predictably, and how all of it can always be traced to two factors: elite overproduction, and the concomitant immiseration of the 99%. In the regular cycle, the time for overturning everything is now.

This is quite possibly the most important book of the decade, and affects absolutely everyone. It explains precisely where we are and where we’re heading, based on thousands of years of the same cycles. Unfortunately for the USA, this knowledge comes too late.

To make a long, detailed, involved and complex story short, as the rich grow their families, their children want power and money. They take it from the poor, in low wages, low taxes on capital, removal of rights, reductions in aid, and increases in incarceration and fines (the “wealth pump”). They achieve their goals through a direct line to power, bypassing normal channels. As the poor get poorer and the rich get richer and more numerous, protests begin. They are chaotic, leaderless and without clear goals. They evolve into bloodletting, literal or physical, which ultimately greatly reduces the number of the elite. Basic wages go up as fewer workers survive and are available, and equality reaches a high point.

And the cycle begins again.

The Chinese have seen this cycle endlessly: “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” But Turchin can say this definitively because of a giant database called CrisisDB. It goes back thousands of years, through all kinds of societies and nations. And everywhere he researches, it is the overproduction of elites that strains the system. And causes its demise.

It has long been proclaimed that human society, being composed of individual humans, is far too complex for any kind of model to operate consistently and successfully. But the data say that in high level, general sweeps, patterns and waves occur regularly and predictably. The differences make no difference.

With war, the generation of the war cries loudly – Never again! The next generation enjoys some level of peace, but by the third generation, all is forgotten. People are emboldened again, and ready for the “glory” of another war.

So with politics. Equality reigns for a couple of decades, then distortions begin to appear. Larger numbers of people become fabulously rich, and all their circle want to have their say in power. There aren’t enough positions in government or influence for them, so they become frustrated and embittered. The demands of the rich flood the halls of government. They fund radical candidates, arrange for removals and assassinations, and in general, darken the outlook. Laws begin to dramatically favor the rich at everyone else’s cost.

The 99% become outcasts (flyover country, deplorables, welfare queens, poor, homeless). They look back at their parents, who had decent jobs, decent pay and decent households, and wonder how and why all that went away.

This is exactly what Donald Trump tapped into, even though he clearly had no desire to change any of it. His actions enriched the richest, and his plans were to further impoverish the poor, but his words were to Make America Great Again. That appeal rang truer than anything today’s 99% had ever heard, and they bought into it, hook, line and sinker. But Trump was never going to be the solution. He would only speed up the process to disaster.

Wages had been going down since the 1970s. Unions were shoved out of action. Universities became laughably unaffordable. So did housing. Even life expectancy dropped. Child labor laws are being softened to help suppress minimum wages. This is exactly the configuration of pretty much every civil war and revolution: the rich want their power, and the rest want decent conditions. Something has to give. And it is usually the floor, not the ceiling.

That the lot of the 99% has not and will not improve fits totally into Turchin’s research. Unless someone comes to their aid and reduces the glaring inequality, governments will fall, constitutions will be tossed, domestic terrorism will increase, and civil wars will break out. And elites will light the match. In this decade. The Chinese knew it. So did Tsars Alexander II and III. Yet we keep falling into the same trap.

Turchin has been working at this a long time. His team has built a remarkable dataset. It extends to the point of revealing that:
-When societies are in equilibrium, human height is measurably increased. Americans were the tallest in the world in the 1700s. And before a civil war, people don’t grow nearly as tall; they actually, measurably shrink. It is plain for all to see.
-Life expectancy changes as the cycle approaches the chaos stage. He says American life expectancy has never fallen three years in a row since the Great Depression of 1933. But it has just done so. And Covid-19 is far from exceptional. Major epidemics “are often associated” with these periods.
-“Nearly half of the millionaires who thrived during the Roaring Twenties were wiped out by the Great Depression and the following decades, when worker wages grew faster than GDP per capita.” It was the greatest leveling ever seen in the USA.
-“In one-sixth of the (global) cases, elite groups were targeted for extermination. The probability of ruler assassination was 40 percent. Bad news for the elites. Even more bad news for everybody was that 75 percent of crises ended in revolutions or civil wars (or both), and in one-fifth of cases, recurrent civil wars dragged on for a century or longer. Sixty percent of exits led to the death of the state –it was conquered by another or simply disintegrated into fragments.”
-The “CrisisDB confirms that rise-and-fall cycles in societies with polygamous elites are substantially shorter than such cycles in monogamous societies.” In English – nuclear families produce fewer children, delaying the inevitable competition for power.

In other words, the data has a lot more to tell us than we even know to ask. This is a whole new way to look at the world.

It happens the same way all over and throughout history. Turchin examines not just the US, as it approaches this low point right now, but also England at several points, France, Russia, the Roman Empire and China, which has the longest record of it.

The commonalities occur at every stage. When the cycle is fresh and people are equal, they co-operate. The common good is an important value to them. But as the rich grow in numbers and in wealth, and pull away from the pack, “the sense of national cooperation with which states quickly rot from within” takes over, Turchin says. This is as precise a summation of the US today as I have seen. It is shockingly true. People begin to fear and hate institutions. They want to seal the borders to keep what little is left for themselves.

Turchin points out that it is the ruling class that wants open borders. They mean more competition for jobs, so lower wages and more government aid programs they can manage for profit. He cites Bernie Sanders saying open borders is “a Koch idea” and nothing he supports. But the ruling class always gets its way – until the end. It has been decades since voters had any real say in government. Legislators bow to rich donors. Voters only count during elections, not in legislatures. A billionaire has purchased himself a Supreme Court justice. The rot has become glaringly visible.

It is the ruling class that scares off equalizing legislation, by say, calling inheritance taxes a death tax, even though it only applies to them and not the 99%. They are also behind denying climate change, calling it a hoax, in order to deflect attention from the ever increasing rates of fossil fuel consumption. In this environment, “money is free speech” Turchin says. Let there be no doubt who is leading everyone down the path to self-destruction. For Turchin, the “wealth pump is one of the most destabilizing social mechanisms known to humanity.” And unfortunately, “it is too late to avert our current crisis.”

Elite overproduction has taken many forms. In many cases, it was military. The rich sent their children to the armed forces, to serve as admirals and generals. In religious societies, they became cardinals and high priests. Under royalty, they became governors, given stipends and pensions for life. Today, they are CEOs and kingmakers, buying elections to get pliable officials who will increase their wealth. In China, Turchin says, for two thousand years it was the educated. They had to take difficult civil service exams to get into government. To fail the exam meant a peasant’s life. Today, the Communist Party of China still operates this same way. If the Chinese can’t get into the party and pass the tests, they are doomed to have zero power or respect.

And in all these cases, when there are more candidates than positions (Musical Chairs, Turchin calls it), there will be unrest among the elite. And it is the elites who will undermine the system before the 99% get organized. In Turchin’s terms: “The most important driver is intraelite competition and conflict, which is a reliable predictor of the looming crisis.” Today’s clue is rich parents bribing school officials to get their (apparently unworthy) children into top universities.

But even that is no guarantee of success, as newly minted lawyers find they begin with a quarter of a million in debt and few prospects to rise to the top in an overstuffed industry.

The civil service figures in another way as well. Smaller societies are not subject to the same cycle, because they might not have an administration, “but once you have a million or more subjects, you either acquire a civil service or suffer from such inefficiencies that your polity sooner or later collapses. Or loses in competition with bureaucratic empires.” Overpopulation has essentially eliminated that marker, making it merely an interesting footnote.

As I read, my own warped mind kept sliding way out of scope of this book, to ecology. Because just when we’re beginning to understand what needs to be done to save the human race and its ecosphere, civil wars and wartime governments will have no time, no inclination and no money to deal with trivia like climate change. Power itself will be at stake. The 2020s could be the final nail in more than one coffin.

In an appendix, Turchin salutes Isaac Asimov, whose 1960s era Foundation trilogy centered around “psycho-history”, the science fiction notion that the whole galaxy operates on a clear cyclical pattern of governance and inevitability (Turchin calls the real thing “cliodynamics”). Would that Asimov were around today to reflect on that as actually true.

End Times is a six star book, not because of the writing style, which is friendly but a little flabby, but because Turchin pulls together a vast jigsaw puzzle and changes the face of history with it. It is dramatic. Every page is a revelation. Dots are connected. Questions are answered. Relevance gets established where no real importance had been noted before. It is important because it determines, reveals and reinforces a universal truth: it is the lack of governance over the rich that causes all the cyclicality of society. Instability, turmoil and wars can be seen as failure to control the elites from their corrupting influence in society after society, era after era. That is a significant step in our understanding of history and ourselves.

This is a whole new way to see how the human world works. And we should be embarrassed that we didn’t realize it a lot sooner. Because we’re about to pay the price. Again.

David Wineberg
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1 vote
DavidWineberg | 1 other review | May 30, 2023 |
The primary argument of the book is that powerful states arise on frontiers between different cultures or civilisations because frontiers are environments with pressures that force and select for communities that cooperate strongly in self-defence and expansion. One chapter seeks to bolster this theory by reviewing group-selection theory from evolutionary biology. This group-selection argument fails: Turchin actually skips over without explaining how a pro-social mentality can out-compete an egoistic mentality within a group. Steven Pinker lays out in this article what is wrong with group-selectionism: Even more relevant to this book, Pinker in that article attacks the idea that powerful societies are more cooperative, suggesting that they are usually in fact just more able to control and indoctrinate people into fighting on behalf of the ruling elite. Turchin may be right about frontiers producing powerful states, but he does not really delve as deeply as he might into the historical processes that promote state formation, relying on very general, mostly primary source histories. For this, readers will have to get stuck into the history of particular states.

His secondary theory, essentially a Malthusian model of the oscillation of economic prosperity and collapse, is very interesting especially in the way he shows the opposite trends among the lower and upper classes. Again, however, the evidence adduced for the political impact of these trends is very general and under-analysed. History is complex and more argument is needed to clearly link these trends with political events. Perhaps though these weaknesses are inherent to the project of detecting deep causal trends below the multitudinous personalities and events of history.
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fji65hj7 | 9 other reviews | May 14, 2023 |
Quirky self-published book about the cultural evolution of social cooperation by a professor at UConn. I enjoyed reading it and it had a lot of interesting ideas, but I think it wants to be taken with a grain of salt.
steve02476 | 1 other review | Jan 3, 2023 |


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