Another theory of everything

End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration

By Peter Turchin

Published by Allen Lane, 2023, £25

Reviewed by Dave Murray

You don’t have to be an Einstein to have worked out that the world is in a difficult place at the moment, and there are plenty of people writing about it. On the far right we have people like Douglas Murray (Magdelen College, Oxford, reading English) writing books like The Strange Death of Europe and on the liberal end we have people like Nouriel Roubini (Harvard, International Economics) with Megathreats, and if you ask it nicely there’s an AI that will write you a volume entitled Yes, You Are All Screwed. What, then, makes Peter Turchin (NYU, biology; Duke University, Zoology) and his book End Times worth a read?

Thankfully, End Times is not advocating the American pseudo-Christian theory of the rapture. Unlike many social commentators, the author’s background is in science – in particular in predator/prey relationships. He has taken the data analysis techniques developed in the study of populations of woodland insects, lemmings and the like, and applied it to society through the ages. In doing so, he and others have developed what they call ‘Cliodynamics’, not an exercise system but a new field of social science purporting to be based on the scientific analysis of datasets relating to social change in historic societies.

Practitioners of this new ‘science’ have even developed ‘Crisis DB’, a database relating to ‘scientific’ indicators derived from a hundred socio-political crises as various as the nineteenth century Tai Ping rebellion in China and the Russian revolution. The spoiler is in the title – he thinks we are all screwed.

Of course, there are many reasons to think that this could be true – not least the complete refusal of capitalist governments and the corporations that they serve to take their foot off the climate change accelerator. Turchin’s focus is not on the climate, though, but on the extreme political instability that he thinks is beginning to unfold. It’s not just his scientific credentials that give him credibility; it is said that he predicted the Trump ‘insurrection’ ten years before it happened. He is predicting much worse to come.

No matter how gloomy Turchin’s predictions may be, there is something refreshing about reading an account of the world which soberly and seriously attempts to assess where our society is going. We Marxists do this as a matter of course, developing perspectives to guide our political practice, but much of the mainstream commentariat is primarily engaged in masking the real nature of the capitalist system. Turchin is very clear on this. America – and by inference the rest of the capitalist world – is a plutocracy. His account of how, in what is formally a democracy, the wishes of the vast majority are completed ignored or subverted and their interests sidelined in favour of the tiny minority of wealthy people who control the economy, the state and the media, is pretty accurate.

One of the features of crisis-bound societies, he says, is a “wealth pump” which gifts the elite with mind-boggling wealth at the expense of the immiseration of the mass. Another is the process of “elite overproduction” – the presence of an excess of educated people who might want to, but can’t, enter the elite. These people are the malcontents, the “counter elite”, who will destroy the society that sent them to college (yes, Lenin does get a mention here). No one reading this will be surprised to hear that on the stats and examples presented by Turchin, there is no doubt that these features are strongly present right now.

To an extent, Turchin maintains that societal breakdowns, revolutions, civil wars etc, fit into a cyclical pattern of what he calls ‘integrative’ and ‘disintegrative’ phases, and that we are in a disintegrative phase right now. Some critics have said that this is a similar conception to the historical materialism of Karl Marx – they are quite wrong, of course; most critics of Marxist ideas do not understand them and generally engage with a vulgarised ‘straw man’ version of Marxism which is mechanistic and dogmatic.

Turchin’s cyclical theory is more akin to that of dim-witted nepo-baby Laurence Fox – “Hard men make good times, good times make soft men, soft men make bad times, bad times make hard men”. Turchin may very well not have heard of Fox, the actor, ex-GB News presenter, and founder of the right-wing Reclaim Party, but like him he has no real understanding of capitalism, or of the inner logic which brings about periodic crises – particularly that of the class struggle. For Turchin, class is not defined by a relationship with the forces of production, but by education. Equally, and in contradiction to this, he maintains that it is the failure of graduates to get graduate-type jobs that is one of the engines of social upheaval.

Like many well-intentioned and essentially liberal commentators Turchin wonders how it is that we forgot how to moderate the behaviours of the elites in the way that we used to, for instance, in the developed capitalist world following world war two. Somehow, apparently, we lost the trick and “America’s current economy is so lucrative for the ruling elites that achieving fundamental reform might require a violent revolution”.

In some ways it is surprising that Turchin doesn’t understand, as Marxists do, that the fall of the USSR in 1990 removed one of the important factors that created what he calls the “Great Compression” (the era of relatively egalitarian, redistributive regimes in the USA and Europe in the mid-to-late twentieth century) – the existence, albeit in an extremely distorted form, of an alternative social system. He was, after all, born and brought up in the USSR.

Because of his lack of understanding of the true nature of capitalism and the social classes it rests on, he has a utopian remedy for the ills he describes extremely well – he thinks the rich should be nicer. “Complex human societies need elites – rulers, administrators, thought leaders – to function well, we don’t want to get rid of them; the trick is to constrain them to act for the benefit of all”. That is some trick.

Unfortunately, there is no section of the elite that has any inclination to perform it. In The Guardian last May, Turchin was reported as describing the ‘Techbro’ wing of the elite in the following terms: “They get it, but then they have two questions. How can they make money out of the situation? And when should they buy their plot in New Zealand?” For the Techbros and billionaires, as for Turchin himself, it is still easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

Fortunately, we are not so lacking in imagination, and, despite its limitations, End Times is still worth a read; for its overview of our times, from the ‘Great Compression’ to the age of permanent austerity, for confirming that capitalism is politically unsustainable as well as ecologically bound for disaster. Obviously, we won’t waste our time appealing to the doomed aristos of end-stage capitalism, and we’ll take the prescriptions of even the ‘scientific’ section of bourgeois academia with a pinch of salt, but this book confirms that we are entering the era of revolution.