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I have just read a recent journal article by the brilliant scholar Peter Turchin, in which he elaborates on his theory of the dynamics of social instability over time and tests it on the United States from 1780 to 2010. Put briefly, his theory holds that one can expect a society to suffer greater social violence (such as riots or lynchings, as opposed to routine crime) in a relatively predictable cycle. The larger “secular” cycle occurs every 150 years; a smaller cycle of violence occurs roughly every 50 years, superimposed on the secular cycle. Thus in the United States, we had peaks of societal violence near the years 1870, 1920, and 1970, with the Civil War being the peak of the secular cycle. Turchin forecasts that the next secular peak should hit sometime around the year 2020. Turchin’s previous work has detected the same sorts of cycles in societies from ancient China to revolutionary France.

Of course, detecting a pattern does not tell you what has caused it. Turchin’s theory for when violence intensifies depends on two major factors. Both of these factors might derive from excessive population growth; in the early version of Turchin’s work, he was focusing on agrarian societies in which population growth leads directly to food shortages. But now that he is considering Industrial societies, Turchin is focusing more on the immediate causes laid out below.

First, whether from excessive population growth or technological disruption or whatever, there emerges a labor glut. The average wage drops in response, leading to diminished standards of living. Thus you see larger segments of the populace who are in a precarious situation, with the potential for violent outbreaks such as labor struggles, or ethnic competition with minorities, or political upheaval.

Second, there emerges “an oversupply of elites.” This can happen for a few reasons, and Turchin focuses on the economic one. The low cost of labor means that it is easier for those on the top to become far wealthier than they might have done in a more normal setting, leading to the accumulation of vast fortunes and a polarization of society. A consequence of this is that there is much more competition for the leadership positions in society, such as control of government offices. Politics becomes more nasty and partisan, leading in extreme cases to violent rivalries between elite factions struggling to secure their hold on power. Such violence is made easier by the larger number of poor, desperate people in society who can serve as a demagogue’s muscle.

In Turchin’s research, he finds that oversupply of elites has the strongest association with societal violence. This is easy to understand when one looks at places like the Philippines, in which politicians routinely employ armed militias to attack competitors (a horrifying example was the Maguindanao Massacre of 2009), or the Congo, which has been wracked with coup after coup. But even in the United States, a surplus of would-be leaders will tend to produce extreme ideologies, such as militant unionism in the 1920s, or the present upsurge in eco-terrorism.

I think many people, writers among them, mistake the relationship between cheap labor and exploitative rich. Often, a super-wealthy class emerges as a result of lots of poor people, who make it easier to be rich—that is, to benefit from the production of lots of other people. This is not to say that an exploitative class won’t try to keep everyone else poor, once it emerges. But the dynamics are complex here, and societal violence is one of the things keeping them in check.

(How might such violence be averted? Full discussion will have to wait for another post, but I find it rather interesting that the Biblical institution of Jubilee, in which land was returned to its ancestral owners and debts forgiven, follows a 50-year cycle.)

(Have I mentioned lately that my new book is available on Amazon Kindle? It’s called The Best Congress Money Can Buy: Stories of Political Possibility. You can read the first story for free here, and then buy it if you like. Enjoy!)