American Decline

End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration

New book from Peter Turchin. To be published on June 13, 2023 by Penguin Random House

“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.


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