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20210502 Turchin, Peter – Ages of Discord



The main idea of this book is to use variation of specific parameters such as state power, population wellbeing, and elite internal conflict to demonstrate cyclical character of society development when periods of stability follow by periods of disintegration and back to stability and prosperity. Then these ideas applied to specific case of USA, which is currently seems to be moving now into period of discord.


PART ONE A Theoretical Introduction
1: Multi-Secular Cycles in Historical and Modern Societies
Author starts by using American Civil war as an example of fragility of human societies, the example that is currently nearly forgotten. Then he discusses new approach to history – Cliodynamics, which evaluates historic events based on measurable parameters and using this evaluation to predict future events. Author provides example for use of such parameters to calculate Index of Political Instability as applied to history:

PART TWO Overview of Structural Demographic Variables: 1780-2010

Part II presents a systematic survey of time-series data on the overall dynamics of the fundamental variables of the structural-demographic model over the entire history of the United States.

3: Demography and Wellbeing
In this chapter author discusses demographical parameters that have impact of societies development such as Labor supply, Economic Wellbeing as it is expressed via real wages, physical stature of population as function of of food availability and environmental conditions, life expectancy, and age at first marriage as a proxy for Social mood. The author synthetizes it for United States as it is presented in a graph:

4: Elite Dynamics
Here author analyses the second component – American elite. Author defines it as combination of bureaucratic elite and wealth elite, the division specific for USA because in great many other countries like Russia or Chine, the bureaucracy runs supreme. Author then discusses number of elite members and their proportion in population mainly on the basis of wealth. Here is the relevant graph:

For purposes of estimation of society’s stability it is important to analyze intraelite data, which are not normally available, so author uses proxies such as data for law and business students. He then analyses levels of elite fragmentation by using as proxy levels of political fragmentation. Here is graph of polarization based on the US House data:

Overall author concludes that there is clear elite overproduction:” The empirical survey in this chapter, thus, suggests that between 1780 and 2010 the factors reflecting elite overproduction moved cyclically and were positively (if imperfectly) correlated. What is particularly interesting is that the overall curve reflecting elite overproduction was negatively correlated with the average wellbeing curve. Over the course of American history elite overproduction and popular wellbeing have moved in opposite directions…”  Here is the graph:

5: The State

Here author discusses the growth of state power in USA as force parallel to elite, and while intermixing with elite, but not exactly the same. Here is his synthesis of growth of the state combined with cyclical character of support for the state:” The history of the American state in the longue durée is characterized by two trends. The first was the shift from a minimalist role of the state that prevailed in the nineteenth century to a more activist state of today. The second trend was a cyclic one that conforms quite well with the pattern predicted the Structural-Demographic Theory. Integrative periods (with peaks in 1820 and 1960) were periods of national consolidation and patriotism, territorial expansion, and high state legitimacy. In contrast, disintegrative periods—or Ages of Discord—were characterized by particularistic mood, an inward rather than expansionist focus, and low state legitimacy.”

6: Dynamics of Sociopolitical Instability

In this chapter author reviews patterns of political instability and violence in USA based on number of event and fatalities:

12. From the New Deal to the Reagan Revolution: A Dynamical Model
In this chapter author:” will follow in the footsteps of Chapter 9 by developing a quantitative model (using the conceptual framework of Chapter 2). A major focus will be the dynamics of general population and wellbeing since 1930 and why real wages stopped growing in the 1970s.”

13. Social Pressures towards Instability: From the Reagan Revolution to the Troubles of Our Times
Here author:” focus on elite overproduction, intensified intraelite competition and conflict during the 1990s. I combine the trends in wellbeing and elite overproduction with state variables (public debt and trust in the state institutions) and bring the three major structural-demographic components (population–elites–state) together in a single measure of the Political Stress Indicator”

14: Conclusion: Two Ages of Discord
In conclusion author summarizes content of the book and provides prediction of increase instability of American society in near future, which will continue for quite a few years ahead before it would arrive to the next period of stability and prosperity. Here is the summary graph for secular cycles:


This is one more book that looks at cyclical character of previous development and predicts period of trouble for American Society in 2020s. So far, these prophesies proved to be correct based on events of year 2020. I actually completely agree with these predictions, but not because of cyclical character of history. I think that period of trouble comes from society’s outgrowing existing methods of human interactions, exchange of goods and services, and cooperation. We are not any more in agrarian society when 90% of population had to work on land to produce food or even in industrial society when 90% of population had to work in industries selling their labor to produce goods and services. We are quickly moving into automated production society when only small minority would be actually busy controlling production of goods and services by machines. So, neither agrarian models of independent farmers or plantations with slaves, nor industrial model of managers and worker would do. Sure, automated production would produce more than enough of goods and services, but it could not possibly produce psychological satisfaction for majority of population. I think this problem could be resolved by changing of method of resource allocation and exchange rules, but it would still take quite a bit of time to overcome Age of Discord II.

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