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Book review: ‘End Times’ by Peter Turchin

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Published: 8 September 2023

“Happy countries don’t elect Donald Trump president. Desperate ones do.” From the French Revolution to Tucker Carlson, Peter Turchin leaves no stone unturned, and frightens us with what he finds underneath.

‘End Times – Elites, Counter-Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration’ by Peter Turchin

In brief

  • If like me you struggle to understand how Donald Trump ever happened,  this is the book for you.
  • Forget the history of great men and women, the so called ‘Cleopatra’s nose’ approach – one inch longer and the world would be a different place. Events merely reflect underlying trends.
  • We have entered an age of discord driven by mass immiseration and “elite overproduction,” both driven by a noxious ‘wealth pump’ that takes from the poor and gives to the rich.
  • The only way out of this is to turn that pump off, which requires tax and welfare reform, or….revolution.

Peter Turchin was a theoretical biologist using mathematical models before he “built out a flourishing field known as cliodynamics”. Don’t worry, I didn’t know what it was either. ‘Clio’ is the Greek mythological muse of history, and ‘dynamics’, the science of change.

Cliodynamics “uses the methods of data science, treating the historical record…as Big Data,” and has enabled him to discover important recurring patterns.

Principally, when a state “has stagnating or declining real wages… a growing gap between rich and poor, overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees, declining public trust, and exploding public debt…such developments have served as leading indicators of looming political instability.”

Sounds familiar? Turchin says we have entered an “age of discord”, especially in the US, and “Americans today grossly underestimate the fragility of the complex society in which we live”.

Most of the book concentrates on just two of these factors – “popular immiseration” and “elite overproduction”.

Popular immiseration

According to Turchin, the American social contract broke down in the late 1970s. “As a consequence, typical workers’ wages, which had previously increased in tandem with overall economic growth, started to lag behind.” Comparing 1976 and 2016, workers with high school degrees saw real wages decrease from $19.25 to $18.57 an hour, while for those who didn’t attend high school, wages shrank from $15.50 to $13.66.

“The startling conclusion…is that Americans without a four-year college degree—64% of the total population—have been losing ground in absolute terms. The result was a decline in many aspects of quality of life for most of the American population.” Even life expectancy. For a median worker to afford a median house, they must work 40% longer in 2016 compared to 1976. To afford a college education for their children, they would have to work 300% more hours than in 1976.

What’s going on? Turchin describes a noxious “wealth pump” sucking up wealth from the bottom 90% of the population and distributing it amongst the top 10%, or most especially the top 1%.

Elite overproduction

Turchin has no hesitation in labelling the US as a plutocracy, made up of “CEOs and board directors of major corporations, large investors, corporate lawyers, top elected officials and bureaucrats, and the members of the policy-planning network.”

The wealth pump – taking from the poor to give to the rich – has made this ruling class very wealthy. In 1983, there were only 66,000 households worth $10m, by 2019 their number increased more than tenfold to 693,000. An astonishing 0.54 percent of total US households. On top of this, the number of households worth $5m or more increased sevenfold, and the number of mere millionaires expanded fourfold. Around 10% of the US population are now millionaires. No wonder Americans dominate the world’s luxury hotels and restaurants.

In consequence, the author states the social pyramid has grown top-heavy. “We now have too many ‘elite aspirants’ competing for a fixed number of positions in the upper echelons of politics and business…elite overproduction.”

Things are worst for those just below the summit – a “credentialed precariat” who work hard to get degrees but soon realise “they were sold a lottery ticket and come out without a future and with plenty of deb”.

What’s next?

The obvious solution is to turn off the wealth pump, but this can only be done through drastic reforms or revolution.

Reform is a hard task, because “the plutocrats can use their wealth to buy mass media, to fund think tanks, and to handsomely reward those social influencers who promote their messages”.

Turchin hints at more generous welfare and a fairer tax system though he fails to bring in the role that the taxation of carried interest has played in enriching hedge fund and private equity managers.

Perhaps the most controversial conclusion by Turchin is that a lax immigration policy has been deliberately encouraged by a wealthy elite who benefit from the consequent supply of cheap labour, itself a further depressive element on wages.

An American revolution is a real alternative for Turchin, but it won’t be led by Leninists. Come in Donald Trump. The immiserated working class feel abandoned by the Democratic Party, and alienated by an almost religious fanaticism around gender and race. While “today… the Republicans are making a transition to becoming a true revolutionary party”.

He concludes with words from right wing media host Tucker Carlson.“Trump’s election wasn’t about Trump. It was a throbbing middle finger in the face of America’s ruling class. It was a gesture of contempt, a howl of rage, the end result of decades of selfish and unwise decisions made by selfish and unwise leaders.”

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