End Times (2023) by Peter Turchin makes the case for ‘Cliodynamics’, which is a data-driven approach to history. This method has been used to identify moments of important change, especially ones leading to societal catastrophe.
Turchin is essentially arguing for history as a department of the human sciences. Evidence based data as the critical indicator of societal change: the average height of a population, the average wage, inflation, and so on.
Cliodynamics brings to mind the psychohistory of Isaac Asimov’s novel Foundation, and the kind of social-science that was prevalent in the Soviet Union – and that latter point is my main issue with it.
In the Soviet Union everything was subservient to perpetuating Marxist-Leninist thought, especially ‘the truth’. History and the social sciences were used as weapons of propaganda, backed up with bogus, pseudo-scientific data. In Marxist-Leninist thought the world is burning, capitalism is evil and about to collapse – socialism will usher in a new paradise. Everything is prejudiced by this lens. With hindsight, we know that the Soviet Union was heavily into self-justification, covering up its own failings in order to appear successful, and maintaining a propaganda war against the west. People, as the cliché goes, become victims of their own propaganda. While Soviet thinkers were predicting the west’s collapse the Soviet Union fell apart. I’m not saying that Turchin is an old school Soviet style thinker, but his method and prognosis is much the same.
Turchin sees two main factors as indicators of societal collapse:
- Elite over-production
- Popular immiseration
When society becomes top heavy – elite over-production – elite wannabes recklessly break the established rules to take power and maintain their power. Think of ‘stolen elections’, and colluding with state enemies in order to gain an advantage over their opponents. The result is a civil war within the elite, which makes the nation ungovernable. Trump is an obvious example that fits into this picture. He’s willing to break the rules to gain and retain power, even if it means doubting the justice system and the democratic process.
When Turchin uses the term ‘popular immiseration’ he’s talking about large numbers of people seeing their living standards drop. This might be due to inflation, climate change, war, heavy taxation, or bad economic management. Arguably, the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, and the Antebellum Period that led up to the American Civil War both had elite over-production and popular immiseration. The question is, do we really need Cliodynamics to ‘prove’ what we already know?
There’s no doubt that Cliodynamics is a fascinating and intriguing method. But End Times feels like an over-simplification for the sake of presenting a neat argument to a broad audience. Imminent ‘societal collapse’ is a dangerous thing to predict. Turchin believes that western civilisation is in the ‘end times’ phase right now. The world is changing. The dynamics of power are changing, but this doesn’t mean that the west is facing imminent social collapse. On the contrary, it highlights the unhealthy relationship between so-called ‘evidence based’ prediction, overly-dramatic agendas, and outright wish fulfilment.
The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class
If imminent societal collapse isn’t enough, Joel Kotkin’s The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (2020) argues that we’re living in a new era of NeoFeudalism.
What does that mean? It implies the concentration of wealth by a new elite, a ‘big tech’ elite with a technocratic approach. This new order, like feudalism itself, has a neo-clergy, an ‘enabler’ or maintainer class whose role is to pacify the masses, shaming and demoralising them into submission through the use of guilt and sin.
Joel Kotkin identifies digital entrepreneurs as the new aristocracy, its their corporations, he predicts, that will annihilate the middle class (this is the American definition of ‘middle class’, which includes most people who work). He talks about California as the model for Neo-Feudalism. The tech robber barons preside over a pauperised population suffering from extreme levels of homelessness, social deprivation, declining services, broken infrastructure, and lawlessness. Those in the middle class who can leave, move elsewhere. Meanwhile the tax base dwindles and government struggles to pay for public services. This situation echoes the middle class flight of 1970s New York. It results in a highly polarised society of the rich and the poor, with very little in-between, much like the feudal pyramid model. It’s a bleak, but believable, vision of the future.
- Stephen Kotkin on Stalin, ‘the gold standard of dictatorship’, and on US China relations.
- Where Joel Kotkin tries to argue his case from a non-partisan point of view, Yanis Varoufakis works from an overtly Marxist-Leninist perspective. In his book Technofeudalism: What Killed Capitalism (2023) he says that capitalism has been replaced with technocratic neo-feudalism in the west. In essence we live in a world of landlords demanding rent, from simple things like having to take out monthly subscriptions to access services instead of buying them outright, to people servicing high levels of debt. The book is written as an imagined conversation with the author’s father, which can feel a bit contrived at times. I don’t agree with everything Varoufakis says, but the argument is lively and passionate. My main issue is that ‘Capitalism’ or the business of making a profit is constantly changing, and much of that occurs through happenstance and people spotting opportunities and acting on those possibilities, rather than some kind of sustained and conscious social reordering. Where I do agree with him is that the end result, however you get there, leads to much the same place – the gradual erosion of liberal democracy, and a shift towards autocratic government.
- Niall Ferguson’s Doom covers a variety of catastrophes from the plague, to natural catastrophes, nuclear power disasters, and political populism. He argues that governments need to act faster if they’re going to successfully avert tomorrow’s catastrophes.
- The Western was at a low point in the early 1980s, the disaster of Heaven’s Gate made anything set in the Old American West a toxic business proposition. Outland (1981) tried to avoid the whole Western stigma by setting a Western in outer space, and Three Amigos (1986) turned the genre into a parody. But, there were two people who still had faith in the genre, Clint Eastwood and Cormac McCarthy. Eastwood came out with Pale Rider (1985), and McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian (1986). I have always struggled to understand the grimness of The Road, but seen in the light of an author who wrote a Western, complete with graphic 1970s style cinematic violence, it makes complete sense. Blood Meridian presents an amoral world of raw power backed up with extreme violence. It’s a kind of hell on earth that reminds me of the Lao Tzu quote: ‘Heaven and earth are impartial; they treat all things as straw dogs.’
- Leave the Word Behind (2023) (trailer) will be available on Netflix 8 December. Judging but the trailer it has a different vibe to the novel, which is quite literary and atmospheric. This, in contrast, has all the makings of a mainstream sci-fi thriller. The notable clue is how the Netflix trailer explicitly reveals things that are only suggested in the novel, but never directly shown. This kind of negates the whole point of the novel: the psychological grey zone (bad things happen without ever knowing exactly what’s causing them).
- ‘How Did Marvel Become the Biggest Name in Movies?’: New York Times Book Review podcast. ‘Host Gilbert Cruz is joined by writers and podcasters Joanna Robinson and Dave Gonzales to talk about their new book MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios.’
- ‘Exposing a multibillion-pound cover-up at HS2’ The Times Stories in our Times podcast. ‘As the cost began to spiral, HS2 bosses allegedly shredded documents, sacked whistleblowers and used misleading projections to keep the scheme alive and the cash coming.’
- The Killer (trailer) (2023), streams on Netflix from 10 November. With David Fincher directing and Michael Fassbender in the lead role – a promising combination.
- Andrew Marr: War, conspiracies and the ‘cloud of unknowing’ (New Statesman). Welcome to the dark cloud of fake news, social media bots, AI deep fakes, and ‘bullshit news’. (Podcast includes adult language.)