Clio, Muse of History, Charles Meynier (1768–1832)

Peter Turchin, author of End Times: Elites, Counter-elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration, (2023), is one of the founders of the new ‘science’ of cliodynamics, a discipline which coalesced in the 1990s, statistical juggling ‘facts’ from the past, stitched together from bare bones (literally) of archeology, climate, geopolitics, crimes, arrests/ executions, wine imports, lots and lots of numbers. There’s probably even a case for kitchen sinks. Think: weather forecasting. My favourite historian, Arnold Toynbee, when asked by a critic what the secret of history was, answered: Just one damned thing after another. Well, it seems Turchin has finally trumped the great master.

We can use computers to plumb the depths of human civilization for social darwinian ‘laws’ for how societies form, how individuals develop within family and state structures. We have even revolutionized astrology, churning out detailed astrological charts that connect each of us to the planets (especially the gas giants). Just as stunning is how we can now look back at the rise and fall of civilizations and detect ‘laws’ for how and why they collapse. I put quotation marks around laws, as we all know there is no Absolute Truth, only relative truths, truths for each individual universe/ bubble that each of us lives in, only generalizations in human knowledge, even so-called science.

Turchin was born Soviet, emigrated as a teen to the West, and as a math whiz and biologist, found the perfect niche: exploring the collapse of civilizations, in the first place his own, which he surely mourns, though his deadpan style and mordant sense of humor tempers any hint of nostalgia. Another Soviet emigre whiz kid, Dmitry Orlov has made a career out of predicting US collapse along the lines of the Soviet one.1 But Turchin’s work is more serious, dare I say scientific?

Axioms: 1) Our main engine for civilizations is power. Power comes from force, wealth, bureaucracy, ‘soft’ ideology.

2) Turchin doesn’t come out and say it in so many words, but the natural state of civilization is plutocracy, rule by the elite. It’s possible to keep this in check (Mamluks in Egypt) but there are always external factors that undermine the best of intentions (Ottomans with gunpowder). Democracy is no magic bullet as it is easily subverted by elites.

Laws: 1) Revolution arises only from immiseration and elite overproduction.

2) The iron law of oligarchy: where an interest group acquires a lot of power, it inevitably uses this power in self-interested ways.

If whoever ‘wins’ just replaces the old elite with a new elite, this creates a wealth pump, which syphons the society’s wealth from the poor to the new elite, over time creating more immiseration and more useless elites, leading to collapse and the cycle repeats.

3) There are only so many places for elites. When the wealth pump is active, it creates more elites and more immiseration, leading to collapse.

4) The rise-collapse is generally in long cycles of 200+ years. (100 years for polygamy.)

Revolutions should be a last resort. They are never pretty, and usually end up at a place no one expected or wanted. Except for the handful of conspirators that end up on top and can create a new elite before the masses figure out what has happened. Occasionally, the revolution works beautifully, at least in the short term. Russia 1917, Cuba 1959, Egypt 1952, Libya 1969, Iran 1979, Venezuela 1999. Those were the ‘easy’ ones. Then there’s China 1948, which took 20 years of hell. Vietnam, ditto. Ditto hegemon. Let’s not even mention poor Afghanistan. Or Cambodia.

Our above select revolutions all took very different but equally nasty turns, sometimes internal (not controlling the wealth pump), all face(d) fierce efforts to undermine them by the ruling world hegemon, that have left revolutionaries bitter and disillusioned.

Case studies

Turchin focuses on France, where the state was flourishing in the 13th C but collapsed in the 1350s as elite factions fought among themselves and with the English, massacring each other until Henry V’s iconic battle of Agincourt in 1415 and a second collapse till 1453, as the English soldiers stayed behind for the pickings. That saw the population fall by half to 10m. The ‘good’ news was the quantity of nobles fell by 3/4, leaving room for the next cycle to begin.

The rise-collapse is generally in long cycles. France went through cycles of 250, 210, 210 years. England had its own glitches, so its cycles are less uniform. Civil war anarchy under King Stephen 1150s, then 1315+ famine, Black Death and the (civil) War of Roses 1455+. it was able to export its surplus elites to 14th c France but they returned and then there was the peasant revolt of 1381. For history nuts, all this turbulence is heady stuff which makes great swashbuckling. Game of Thrones. Richard II deposed by Lancaster (Lannister). Turchin identified the fall of elite status by English wine imports. By the end of the War of Roses 1490, there were few wine-drinkers.

Dynamics of rise-collapse

Clidynamics was in fact invented in the 14th c by Ibn Khaldun who proposed cycles of 4 generations which then replace their elites, stabilized for a new cycle. But he was writing for the polygamous Muslim world, which shortens the cycle, as new elites grow rapidly and need replacing more often. And without the masses of statistics and computers, Ibn Khaldun was limited in what could be done with his insight

Another curiosity is dynamic entrainment, as observed when metronomes, randomly started, eventually come into sync. Instabilities sometimes coincide. The 17th C English civil war, the Russian time of troubes, the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Then followed the 18th c time peace and imperial expansion, excess elite population, the wealth pump shifting wealth to the elites leading to immiseration and the rollicking 19th C.

Of course the elephant in the room is the hegemon. Where one size is made to fit all, the Roman/British/US steamroller flattens most bubbles, making our cycles fit its cycles. Whether there is positive feedback, increasing the violent swings of rise and collapse, I’m not sure. Probably. Turchin doesn’t go that far. But it seems likely, especially when an angry hegemon and global warming are put into the same equation.

Where are we today?

In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), Steven Pinker is optimistic about the world, seeing a bright future of tech blessings lifting the poor out of poverty. Turchin sees our present world as one of turmoil, with far too many elite wannabees, the masses revolting. Most of Pinker’s decline in poverty since 1970 is from China. Median wages have hardly increased, the lowest wages even fell since 1970s. Numbers are easily cooked so Turchin looks at the most important ‘basket of goods’: education, home, health. Tuition has increased 10x or more; it is impossible to buy a house; life expectancy is falling most for white males 30–50 (dropped by 1.6 yrs from 2014–2020.).

The last quasi-collapse for the US was, like in Europe, in the mid-19th C, culminating in the civil war, when US average height fell by 4+ cm 1830-1900. In the US, after the civil war, the elites managed to pull together to stave off revolution, reducing the immiseration during what’s called the Progressive era and then New Deal reforms. The elites paid for all this. The number of millionaires plummeted. Corporations paid 90% of profits to the public good till 1960. The post-WWII prosperity was based on an unwrtten contract among workers, business, and the state.

But the next generation of elites didn’t remember. The turning point into chaos was 1980, Reagan’s ‘greed is good’ neoliberalism. The 1970s sharpened the struggle with new eager elites sharpening their knives, creating an age of discord, as the pillars of postwar prosperity were dismantled. Wages stagnated, institutions eroded. The happiness quotient has dropped from 2000 on. The wealth pump was shifting wealth to the overproduced elite.

As in the 19th C, US height stopped increasing in 1960 (now the tallest humans are in the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany). Real wages stopped growing in the late 1970s. There is even a new term for the sharp increase in suicides among the nonelite (i.e. no college education) in America: deaths of despair. Now for women too. And the mad rush to join the elite is at fever pitch (note: cheating on entrance to elite universities).

So it’s pretty clear that the 2020s are crisis time in the US, and all of the collective West, like dutiful metronomes, coming together in one big rave. (Nothing like war to line the dominoes up.) Immiseration and elite overproduction. Roll out the ‘red’ carpet. But remember revolution is deadly business. Look for off ramps.

What about the tragedy of Ukraine?

The US, Ukraine and Russia are classic plutocracies, Belarus far less so, having avoided the privatizing/looting that both Russia and Ukraine suffered in the 1990s. So no oligarchs. A benign, stable dictatorship. No collapse imminent despite lots of external shenanigans.

Russia managed to bring the oligarchs sort-of into line. Not Ukraine, where the state is powerless over the oligarchs and fell prey to external forces (the US State Department) to govern among the feuding oligarchs in the 2000s.

Belarus, surprise, has been the big winner. Lukashenko was elected with 80% of the vote in 1994 with the promise to keep Soviet system as much in tact as possible. No mass privatizations. No billionaires. Strong links with the military.

The Ukraine oligarchs were never overthrown. Ukraine had a higher GDP per capita in 1990 than either Belarus or Russia, but by 2013 was less than half ($7,400 vs Russia $18,100, Belarus $16,100). All elected Ukrainian politicians just filled their pockets, divided oligarch spoils. All were western-oriented as ther stashes were in western banks, their kids at Oxford, Stanford.

By 2014, it was run by proconsul Victoria Nuland, who came with $5b to tame the oligarchs. Ukraine had/has three ‘classes’: the masses, oligarchs and the State Department. Elections were/are a joke, so immiserated masses change leaders each time, producing only new scandals. Only the first leader Kuchma served two terms. It’s as if Turchin’s laws are working at warp speed, with elites slogging it out and masses more and more immiserated with each election, until the current collapse in war.

Some sobering outcomes of past crises:

  1. Population declines are common—through history, half of the exits from crises resulted in population loss. Ukraine’s population has fallen by about half, like France in the 15th C.
  1. 30% from epidemic
  1. 16% with extermination of elite groups
  1. 40% with ruler assassination
  1. 75% of crises ended in revolutions or civil wars
  1. 20% recurrent civil wars dragging on for a century
  1. 60% of exits led to the death of the state. Conquered or simply disintegrated.

1830-70 was spectacularly turbulent. All major states have had revolutions or civil wars, including the US and China. France managed to get three revolutions—in 1830, 1848, 1871. Japan’s regime felll in 1867.

Some conclusions:

1) Success stories: US Progressive era and New Deal, Chartist Britain, Russian reforms of Alexander II. The US and Britain avoided revolution. Russia didn’t. We can be optimistic if it is possible to shut down the wealth pump and rebalance the masses-elite division without resorting to revolution or catastrophic war. We can use cliodynamics to predict coming collapse and the policies necessary to remedy and bring the society back into balance.

2) There is no permanent solution. Beware the iron law of oligarchy. We must constantly fine-tune the system to shut down the wealth pump and avoid unstable disequilibrium.

  • The early Russian empire was a service state with the elite serving in the army and as administrators, but the nobility subverted the tripartite compact by freeing themselves from service, turning on the wealth pump to oppress the peasants and becoming a parasitic class.
  • The Progressive era/New Deal stopped the slide down the slippery slope, but the elites turned the pump back on in the 1970s. The Democratic party by 2000 was now the party of the elite. Piketty studied hundreds of elections and found that political parties all increasingly cater to the well-educated and rich.

3) Money allows the plutocrats to plan and then implement their plans for the long term. Only immiseration and intra-elite squabbles can undermine them. The share of income to the top 1% since 1945 was 10%, but rapidly increased after 2000. In Germany to 13%. In nice Denmark it went from 7% to 14%. In the US it started shifting in 1980 and is now a whopping 19%. In contrast, in France it is still a modest 10%.2

We are living through a real-life experiment to see how the different strategies pan out. We all are now in the disintegrative phase of the clio-cycle, our own age of discord, entrained by multiple crises. It’s hard to just wipe out the excess elite these days, although the war in Ukraine is helping. Complex human societies need rulers, administrators, thought leaders to function well. The trick is to constrain them to act for the benefit of all.

4) Democracy is usually a plus, but the fate of Ukraine is a stark reminder of its inherent weakness. If the elites are too greedy and too powerful, they subvert democracy through soft power, their control of the bureaucracy, and their wealth. When that fails, war.

19th C Britain gets the Nobel prize for social change, avoiding the dreaded, inevitably violent revolution that came to France in 1871 and more fatefully, Russia in 1917. The Chartist period 1819-1867 saw a breakdown of elite solidarity, hurried liberal reforms to mitigate the immiseration of the masses, the export of surplus elites and workers by opening the floodgates to emigration, even subsidizing travel to the new colonies. There was just enough unrest, demos, riots, deaths to persuade just enough of the political elite to undertake critical reforms, repealing the Corn Laws, allowing trade unions, the vote, etc. Workers regained their physical height, lost since the rise of industrial capitalism. Britain moved from ‘a fiscal-military state to an administrative state capable of meeting the needs of complex commercial and industrial society.’3

Sadly, Turchin doesn’t mention basic income. It is increasingly promoted by worried elites. This is surely a kind of magic bullet to deflate the wealth pump, if used in conjunction with a new resolve as in WWII, when corporations were harnessed to produce for society, and were taxed at 90+%, turning off the wealth pump. Cliodynamics provides a powerful tool to support it.

Turchin doesn’t dwell on the Soviet experience, but there the wealth pump was directly in the hands of the state. It was stable but finally it too overproduced elites and, at the same time stagnated without democracy to keep renewing the elite in balance with the interests of society (i.e., Belarus today). His prescription is the cruder version of ‘basic income’: bringing the relative wage up too the equilibrium livel, shutting down elite overproduction.

We now face a massive overproduction of elite wannabees at the same time as we are confronted by the need to cut back on consumption to meet external threats (climate). It certainly looks like socialism is the only way out. The most elegant and transparent mechanism to get there is the basic income and higher corporate taxes. As for excess elites, we must educate ourselves away from snobbism, find other ways to keep humans busy, engaged, developing, sans money/status.


  1. Dmitry Orlov, Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects, 2011.
  2. Imagine what the riots earlier this year in France would have led to if the immiseration was US-style.
  3. Turchin, p. 228.
Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism and Postmodern Imperialism. His most recent book is Islamic Resistance to Imperialism. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.