Monday, August 01, 2016

"Secular Cycles" - Peter Turchin

Amazon link

From this review:
"Turchin has found patterns to the rise and fall of dozens of nations over the past millennia.  Of course, there are variations and outcomes given the geography and culture of a nation.  A secular cycle takes centuries of oscillations that inevitably include stages of expansion, ..., high-level stagnation, crisis, and conflict-ridden depression."
A cycle is like a sine wave. The expansion phase is the start of the wave, followed by its topping out in stagnation and inflation; then we see the long crash as the crisis hits until we hit the trough - depression.

The depression can last generations until finally the conditions permit a new cycle to arise, and expansion begins again.

And here is energyskeptic's summary, lightly edited:
1. Expansion - the rise of the curve

There is growth in the beginning. Everyone lives well. There’s land and food for all, no need to work for someone else if you don’t want to, and if you do, the wages will be high because workers are scarce. There’s not a great deal of stratification of wealth.

But that ends as available land is farmed, and there’s not enough to pass on to all of the children. Peasants either need to find work on someone else’s land, or go to towns and cities, where they’ll also earn low wages as more and more people join them. Since cities are breeding grounds for disease, the death rate is high so for a while there is room for newcomers to continue to find work.

The disparity in wealth grows. Wages go down and yet at the same time the wealthy can charge more in rent for land and homes as population grows. Worse yet, food prices rise as more people compete for the limited food that can be grown in an agrarian society.

It’s not long before the poorest peasants become malnourished and vulnerable to disease. The elites and wealthier peasants can store enough grain to get past one bad season, but if there is a second bad harvest year, the numbers of workers dying grows.

2. Stagflation - the peak of the curve

As carrying capacity is exceeded even further, stagflation sets in. The wealthy elites have been able to afford to have many children, too many for them all to continue the lavish lifestyles of their parents. Elite families become poor, or wage war against other elite families to maintain their wealth. This is destabilizing to society.

3. The crisis hits and the long fall

By the end of the stagflation cycle, wealth is concentrated in the elites, and even among them there are the very richest who have even more power and wealth. In an agrarian society, where there were such small middle classes, the elites only number 1-2% of the population but have most of the wealth and power.

The state’s ability to maintain order is threatened. Armies and bureaucracies are expanded, but this costs so much money that taxes are raised, which makes both the peasants and nobility angry and leads to elite-driven popular uprisings.

4. Depression, the trough of the curve - full of conflict

As conflict ravages the country, the best farm land is abandoned, such as the bottom land of valleys with the richest soil. This happens because starvation and disease drive people away from cities and towns out into the countryside looking for food. Farmers have to contend with that, plus gangs trying to force them into slave labor, and local and external armies fighting and pillaging. So they flee and the land lies fallow. Food is mainly grown during these unstable times near towns and fortified areas where lookouts can spot attacking brigands and sound the alarm.

This socio-political instability leads to more peasant deaths, so less food can be grown, which increases malnourishment leading to epidemics. Meanwhile, the elites are fighting and reducing their own numbers as well. This all leads to the state collapsing into bankruptcy and disorder, crisis, depression, and eventually the start of a new cycle.
A secular cycle can take two or three hundred years to play out. In the authors' first example they
"... bracket the secular cycle of medieval England by two periods of intense and prolonged internal conflict: the Anarchy during the reign of Stephen (1138–53) and the Wars of the Roses (1455–85). Because this period, roughly 1150–1485, was spanned by the Plantagenet dynasty (including its Lancastrian and Yorkist branches), we will refer to it as the Plantagenet cycle."
Plainly 'Game of Thrones' is set in - and graphically portrays - a period of crisis/depression!

The main driver of the agrarian secular cycle is the Malthusian growth of population past the technological carrying capacity of the land. The gathering overpopulation initially facilitates an unsustainable growth in the numbers of militarily-capable elites while simultaneously undermining their finances.

The ensuing collapse is exacerbated by inter-elite warfare over the ever-shrinking spoils, and the final depression period cannot end until the elites themselves have been more than decimated and are thoroughly exhausted with war. Typical time frames are of the order of a century.

The post-agrarian capitalist world, as Turchin and others have frequently observed, exhibits similarities to the agrarian cycle. But differences are also plain, certainly in the advanced capitalist countries.

We have much more technology, we have many occupational niches for women and we have contraception. As a consequence the Malthusian overpopulation bomb doesn't detonate - more the contrary.

What we do have in plenty is elite overproduction (the new graduate 40%) which can never enter the real elite of the 1% bubble, where power and wealth is concentrated. This disaffected and mostly young middle class today inclines to leftism* (Sanders, Corbyn and similar European-continental movements) or more generally the cultural marxism of the SJWs.

A traditional Marxist might say that the leftist 'movement' at present consists in taking bourgeois ideology in a rather literal way at its own face value, its self-valuation as inclusive, globalist, tolerant, equal and individualist. The bubble-elite is then denounced for not living up to its own stated values. Naturally, in its egalitarian utopia of the imagination, the status and influence of 'movement' supporters would be considerably more exalted.

Such an old-school Marxist would also characterise this social layer as petit-bourgeois, febrile and subject to abrupt changes in mood.

The ancien-proletariat for the moment seems more at home with the UKIP/Trump/Le Pen populist right.

Where is all this going?

I'm really interested in what Turchin's new book, "Ages of Discord" (Sept, 2016) is going to say,

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* Poland appears an exception but see the map at the bottom, where Poland is in the centre (0.25, -0.6); it's not Sweden, that's for sure (more).



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