Cycles of War & Empire

I’ve just read five of Peter Turchin’s books: Historical Dynamics (2003), War & Peace & War (2006), Secular Cycles (2009), Ultra Society (2015), and Ages of Discord (2016). Four of them in the last week. I did this because I love careful big picture thinking, and Turchin is one of the few who does this now on the big question of historical cycles of conflict and empire. While historians today tend to dislike this sort of analysis, Turchin defies them, in part because he’s officially a biologist. I bow to honor his just defiance and careful efforts.

Turchin’s main story is a modest variation on related farmer-era historical cycle stories, such as by Jack Goldstone in 1991, & Ibn Khaldun in 1377 (!):

Different groups have different degrees of cooperation .. cohesiveness and solidarity. .. Groups with high [cohesion] arise on .. frontier .. area where an imperial boundary coincides with a fault line between two [ethnic] communities .. places where between group competition is very intense. .. Only groups possessing high levels of [cohesion] can construct large empires. ..

Stability and internal peace bring prosperity, and prosperity causes population increase .. leads to overpopulation, .. causes lower wages, higher land rents, and falling per capital incomes. At first, low wages and high rents bring unparalleled wealth to the upper class, but as their numbers and appetites grow, they also begin to suffer from falling incomes. Declining standards of life breed discontent and strife. The elites turn to the state for employment and additional income and drive up its expenditures at the same time that the tax revenue declines. .. When the state’s finances collapse, it loses the control of the army and police. Freed from all restraints, strife among the elites escalates into civili war, while the discontent among the poor explodes into popular rebellions.

The collapse of order brings .. famine, war, pestilence, and death. .. Population declines and wages increase, while rents decline. .. Fortunes of the upper classes hit bottom. .. Civil wars thin the ranks of the elites. .. Intra-elite competition subsides, allowing the restoration of order. Stability and internal peace bring prosperity, and another cycle begins. (pp.5-8 W&P&W)

Turchin (& coauthor Nefedov) collect much data to show that this is a robust farmer-era pattern, even if there are many deviations. For example, in Europe, 33 of 43 frontier situations gave rise to big empires, yet only 4 of 57 of non-frontier situations did (p.84 HD). “Secular cycles” vary in duration from one to four centuries; Western Europe saw 8 cycles in 22 centuries, while China saw 8 cycles in 21 centuries (p.306,311 SC). During the low instability part of each cycle, instability shows a rough “alternating generations” 50 year cycle of conflict.

I’ll grant that Turchin seems to have documented a reasonably broad pattern, containing most of his claimed elements. Yes, empires tend to start from frontier groups with high cohesion, and core cohesion changes slowly. First there’s war success and a growing area and population, and bigger cities. Eventually can come crowding and falling wages. Inequality also grows, with more richer elites, and this is quite robust, continuing even after wages fall.

While the amount of external war doesn’t change over the cycle, success in war falls. Many signs of social cohesion decline, and eventually there’s more elite infighting, with crime, duels, misspending state revenue, mistreatment of subordinates, and eventually civil war. Big wars can cut population, and also elite numbers and wealth. Eventually war abates and cohesion rises, though not to as high as when the empire started. A new cycle may begin; empires go through 1-3 cycles before being displaced by another empire.

Just as science fiction is often (usually?) an allegory about issues today, I suspect that historians who blame a particular fault for the fall of the Roman Empire tend to pick faults that they also want to warn against in their own era. Similarly, my main complain about Turchin is that he attributes falling cohesion mainly to increased inequality – an “overproduction” of elites who face “increased competition”. Yes, inequality is much talked about among elites today, but the (less-forager-like) ancients were less focused on it.

As Scheidel said in The Great Leveler, inequality doesn’t seem to cause civil wars, and civil wars tend to increase inequality during and after the war (p.203). External wars reduce inequality for losers and increase it for winners, without changing it much overall. It is only big mass mobilization wars of the 1900s that seem to clearly cause big falls in inequality.

In biology, over multiple generations organisms slowly accumulate genetic mutations, which reduce their fitness. But this degradation is countered by the fact that nature and mates select for better organisms, which have fewer mutations. Similarly, it seems to me that the most straightforward account of the secular cycle is to say since empire founders are selected out of a strong competition for very high cohesion, we should expect cohesion to “regress to the mean” as an empire evolves.

That is, in order to predict most of the observed elite misdeeds later in the secular cycle, all we need to assume is a random walk in cohesion that tends to fall back to typical levels. Yes, we might want to include other effects in our model. For example, civil war may allow a bit more selection for subgroups with more cohesion, and humans may have a psychological inclination to cohere more during and after a big war. But mostly we should just expect cohesion to decline from its initial extreme value, and that’s all a simple model needs.

Yes, Turchin claims that we know more about what causes cohesion declines. But while he goes to great effort to show that the data fit his story on which events happen in what order during cycles, I didn’t see him offering evidence to support his claim that inequality causes less cohesion. He just repeatedly gives examples where inequality happened, and then instability happened, as if that proves that the one caused the other.

We already have good reasons to expect new empires to start with a small area, population, and inequality. And this by itself is enough to predict growing population, which eventually crowds to cut wages, and increasing inequality, which should happen consistently in a very wide range of situations. I don’t see a need for, or data support for, the additional hypothesis that inequality cuts cohesion. We may of course discover more things that influence cohesion, and if so we can add them to our basic secular cycle model. But we don’t need such additions to predict most of the cycle features that Turchin describes.

In his latest book, Turchin points out many U.S. signs today of rising inequality and declining social cohesion, and at the end asks “Will we be capable of taking collective action to avoid the worst of the impending democratic -structural crisis? I hope so.” But I worry that his focus on inequality leads people to think they need to fight harder to cut inequality. In contrast, what we mostly need is just to fight less. The main way that inequality threatens to destroy us is that we are tempted to fight over it. Instead, let us try more to see ourselves as an “us” contrasted with a “them”, an us that needs to stick together, in part via chilling and compromising, especially regarding divisive topics like inequality.

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  • stobiepole

    Uh, I think you need to develop a better understanding of social class. I don’t think anyone with any sort of perception of class could have written that last sentence. You’re in a bit of a bubble, matey. Try getting out more.

    • You’ll have to say more if you want me to understand you.

      • An Ironic Take on Pseudonyms.

        Your normative recommendation at the end assumes (if it is meant to be taken seriously) that it is possible for humans to ignore strong feelings of indignation and injustice, which a great many clearly feel today at the state of inequality. But I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that the millions of people who do feel strong feelings of indignation and injustice at the state of inequality in the ‘West’ (eg Sanders supporters) would be willing to repress what they see as the monstrous injustice of the status quo. It will only be possible for the people who do not feel such things, who are thinking far into the future, as you perhaps are, or for the completely ignorant, or for the totally amoral. I suspect that the indignation of these people would only subside if a war broke out with another power, or if someone like Sanders was elected and began to enact some palliative reforms.
        My hypothesis: the way in which moral norms, education and information-availability have changed since ancient times probably affects the relevance of inequality as a cohesion-corroder.

      • Sondre R.

        So the sentence is
        “Instead, let us try more to see ourselves as an “us” contrasted with a “them”, an us that needs to stick together, in part via chilling and compromising, especially regarding divisive topics like inequality.”

        You assume that the only method of sticking together is to ignore feelings of injustice. But can’t there be other ways?

        I agree an external war is a way of creating internal cohesion. But that is just an easy method. Some of the most cohesive societies in the world, like Sweden or Switzerland, haven’t been involved in a war for centuries. So it seems to be that war is something countries tend to do when they aren’t doing cohesion right using more peaceful methods.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    A lot of typos in the transcription. Also “issues today issues” in the main body.

    • Thanks – I’ve fixed the errors I see.

  • Four of them in the last week.

    Have you ever measured your reading speed? If not, can you give an approximation? Maybe pages per hour? Just curious.

  • Sid

    Right. You are probably right that regression to the mean is sufficient for the prediction of lower cohesion and hence civil war, but perhaps what Turchin shows—I haven’t read the books, so I might be wrong—is that inequality is the dominant mechanism that erodes cohesion gains from empire founders. To extend the analogy with genetic mutations, perhaps what he is showing is that most mutations arise from, say, UV radiation.

    But you do add that you don’t see sufficient data evidence for inequality being the main erosion mechanism, so you probably know more and better.

    • I see Turchin making the claim, but not offering evidence for that claim.

  • mlouis

    Experience has taught me to hold my wallet tight when someone comes along pretending to care about “us.”

  • Lord

    Inequality is a blanket term. Those with foresight, typically those who create it, recognize it as good fortune, grace, and a pubic trust, and often use it boost cohesion, whether through benevolence, charity, institutions, or patronage. Those without see it as their own, and an object in itself, with the power to extract more in a relative sum social competition. It becomes the chief object fought over, so the only way not to fight over inequality is to not fight over the power it is based on, either through self disarmament or through institutions able to disarm before the power has become too great to do so.

  • AB

    Great post, which Turchin book would you recommend the most among the five you’ve read ?

    • Secular Cycles is best academic book. W&P&W is best popular book.

      • AB

        I will start with SC then, many thanks

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  • Sondre R.

    Excellent post. And combined with your warning a while back of pretending that this is the end of the world, I think Hanson is nearing a model of social cooperation and coordination.

    But what I miss and hope to see in future posts is: what’s next?
    What can realistically to be done to stop population growth / leeching / growth of unproductive elites taxing people etc.
    And what could the “big story” be to coordinate people in that direction, reduce conflict, build cohesion?

    • Not clear population growth is a problem today. And to limit unproductive taxes, limit taxes.

      • Sondre R.

        Yes. But currently cohesion doesn’t seem to be improving. Are there more strategies than asking people to cool it from history?

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  • nevertaken

    Fascinating stuff. I have a question. From this post I take it that – prosperity leads to population growth then overpopulation – is part of the causal chain in the cycle.

    But today when I look at the developed (most prosperous parts of the) world, I see the lowest native birth rates. Without immigration, the populations of almost all prosperous nations would be in decline.

    The question is: is today different because of modern, effective birth control? Or am I missing/oversimplifying something? And (another question) to what extent could developed nations avoid/slow this cycle with restricted immigration?

    Please note that I’m not trolling for some anti-immigrant argument here. It seems to me that prosperous Japan is not currently in any part of the cycle described here, and that may be because they have very restrictive immigration combined with effective birth control. But as their population tumbles into absolute decline, it is not obvious to me that wherever they are on a path to is any better.

    • Turchin is mainly trying to explain farming era cycles. Whatever theory you use to explain that has to be modified to understand cycles today.

  • Swami

    I have read W&P&W, and Ultra Society. Both were excellent, and I would go so far as to say Ultra was my favorite book of the year last year. That said, his chapter on economics and business in Ultra was embarrassing and even cringeworthy. For some reason he felt he could accurately represent the ethos of capitalism by using Gordon Gekko as a model. A bad chapter in a terrific book.

    I also follow his blog, and agree that he has (what I would call) an unhealthy fixation on inequality combined with a lack of clarity on the topic. Specifically, he doesn’t seem to get the distinction between 1) Rule Egalitarianism, 2)Results Proportionate to Contribution, and 3) Results Proportionate to Others Regardless of Contribution. He is totally focused on the problems that go with the third (income equality for example) to the point of being dismissive of the former two. Unfortunately in many cases getting more of the third comes at the expense of rule egalitarianism and the justice of rewards commensurate with contribution.

    Based upon this, I have chosen not to read his latest book.

  • Rafal Smigrodzki

    Some folks are obsessed with status. They can hardly think about anything else. They fret about who has more money than they do and they call this situation “inequality”. We reasonable folks call these people “leftists”. While we may be occasionally consumed with greed, leftists are always consumed with envy. From my reading of Ultrasociety I gather Turchin is a leftist. He just can’t help it.

  • I really like Peter Turchin as well but I also think he tends to overdo the inequality thing, esp. wrt today.

    For a more technical intro to cliodynamics that I suspect would be more up your alley, I’d recommend “Introduction to Social Macrodynamics: Secular Cycles and Millennial Trends” by Korotayev (the guy who pretty much founded cliodynamics along with Turchin), Nefedov (Turchin’s frequent co-author), and Khaltourina.

    I have a brief review/summary of it here:

    Two points I’d make specifically on cliodynamics and inequality:

    (1) Rising inequality as something associated with fragility was a feature of Malthusian-era economies, but not because of inequality *per se*, but because said inequality was usually the result of Malthusian stresses (and the banal consequences of Ricardo’s Law of Rent). Once populations bumped up against the land’s carrying capacity, surpluses were very low to non-existent, so shocks such as droughts, a succession crisis, a nomadic incursion, etc. that could have been (and were) weathered easily in the earlier days of the cycle could now instead translate into cascading collapses.

    (2) The post-industrial system is a very different ball game and little of the patterns of Malthusian cliodynamics apply to it (for now, anyway… heh).

  • ThaomasH

    I like the idea of “fighting less” over inequality, but the problem is what is “fighting.” The losers in recent trends seem to think that the “elites” have declared war on them and have decided to fight back. Does “not fighting” mean going along with proposed decreased in taxes on high income people or not proposing decreased taxes on high-income people?

  • Tyrrell_McAllister

    Instead, let us try more to see ourselves as an “us” contrasted with a “them”

    Who would you suggest to fill the role of “them”?

  • K

    Hello Mr. Hanson,

    I just stumbled up on this blog and find it really great. I want to subscribe to the blogposts so that I get the posts in my inbox whenever there’s a new post.

    Unfortunately, the RSS feed shared on the top right of the home page isn’t working. Can you please look into that? A simple “subscribe by email” option would help.

    Thank you

  • But mostly we should just expect cohesion to decline from its initial extreme value, and that’s all a simple model needs.

    Mere regression to the mean doesn’t explain cycles! It explains that nothing lasts forever, but how does it explain cycles: cohesion and equality not only falls – but rises again!

    I haven’t read Turchin’s book, so I’m grateful for Robin’s recommendation about where to start. But even the short (excellent) essay in Aeon ( ) makes it obvious that Turchin provides evidence for the role of wealth inequality.

    [As to Turchin’s political sympathies, if he has any, I would point to his attributing the lessening of inequality in the 20s to two developments: progressive taxation and immigration restrictionism. If he’s a leftist, he’s not in the business of value advocacy; the main reforms that lessened inequality occurred under conservative administrations.]

    [I just came across an essay by Scheidel: . His theme, that violence and catastrophe are great levelers, doesn’t seem to comport with Robin’s extract from Scheidel’s book.]

    Does unchecked inequality ineluctably lead to civil war? One doesn’t need to read a book to know that it does not. But cyclical inequality is a different matter. Rising inequality is different from habitual inequality. It is the unfavorable change in the level of inequality that propels revolt.

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