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

Summary and takeaways from the book.

As the world around us becomes increasingly un-inhabitable and dystopian, we are content to exist in a pretend world detached from reality.

The book "End Times" by Peter Turchin is a "terrifying analysis" of the "death spiral" of social-economic-political collapse that we see all over the world.

ISBN: 9780593490501
Published: June 13, 2023
Pages: 368
Available on: amazon

Peter Turchin is "Project Leader at the Complexity Science Hub–Vienna, Research Associate at University of Oxford, and Emeritus Professor at the University of Connecticut".

The book "End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration" by Peter Turchin is one of the most significant book of the year, if not the decade. If there is one book you read this year in 2023, let it be this one.

It is certainly essential reading for all who are interested in understanding our current "End Times".

Our social structures are broken. Dogs and cats have replaced children in majority households in USA. Loneliness epidemic seems to kills as many people as smoking. The elderly and the next generation will have much worse social life and social support than us. Our economy and political system are equally dysfunctional.

The book is a "terrifying analysis" of the "death spiral" of social-economic-political collapse that we see all over the world.

It also lists possible outcomes, and "collective choices" that individuals and communities can make to escape from this "death spiral" of worsening social-economic-political collapse that is happening now.

It is an easy to read book of just over 200 pages with another 150+ pages of supplementary content and appendices. An avid reader can read the book in one day, and then spend rest of the week in contemplation at the profound value of what he has read.

About this book

This book is about cliodynamics: "the science of change: particularly cycles of political integration and disintegration, particularly on state formation and state collapse".

Peter Turchin reminds us by quoting British historian Arnold Toynbee: History is "not just one damn thing after another".

This book is about cliodynamics: "the science of change: particularly cycles of political integration and disintegration, particularly on state formation and state collapse".

The book is about "important recurring patterns, which can be observed throughout the sweep of human history over the past ten thousand years" because "despite the myriad of differences, complex human societies, at base and on some abstract level, are organized according to the same general principles".

The book is a "best effort to explain this model in accessible, which is to say nonmathematical, terms".

"When the equilibrium between ruling elites and the majority tips too far in favor of elites, political instability is all but inevitable" and "when this state has been reached, societies become locked in a death spiral it's very hard to exit".

This book analyses the root cause of the death spiral of social-economic-political collapse that we see all over the world.

It also list possible outcomes, and "collective choices" that individuals and communities can make to escape from this "death spiral" of worsening social-economic-political collapse that we see all over the world.

As Peter says "A science of history is not only possible but also useful: it helps us anticipate how the collective choices we make in the present can bring us a better future."

"the central question of the book is about social power. Who rules? How do ruling elites maintain their dominant position within society? Who are the challengers of the status quo, and what is the role of elite overproduction in generating such challengers? And why do ruling classes, both historically and today, sometimes suddenly lose their grip on power and get overthrown?"
Peter Turchin brings science to history... everyone needs to pay attention to the well-informed, convincing and terrifying analysis in this book.

- Angus Deaton, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Universal and timeless appeal

Peter Turchin shows that the patterns are universal, and appear in small and large nations across history. America is no different from Kosovo or Argentina or Roman Empire or France in 1300-1400's. "United States as my empirical focus", but it applies to all nations and communities in our globalized connected world.

"Our societies are too complex, humans are too mercurial, scientific progress cannot be predicted, and culture is too variable in space and time. Kosovo is completely different from Vietnam, and antebellum America can tell us nothing about the America of the 2020s. This has been, and still largely is, the majority view. I hope that this book will convince you that this view is wrong."

"It became clear to us through quantitative historical analysis that complex societies everywhere are affected by recurrent and, to a certain degree, predictable waves of political instability, brought about by the same basic set of forces, operating across the thousands of years of human history."

"It is difficult for us to grasp that many consequential events happen not because they have been engineered by shadowy plotters but because they were driven by impersonal social forces."

Structure of the book

The book is divided into 3 parts:

Part 1: THE CLIODYNAMICS OF POWER: "the science of change, particularly cycles of political integration and disintegration, particularly on state formation and state collapse"

Part 2: THE DRIVERS OF INSTABILITY: what drives this instability

Part 3: CRISIS AND AFTERMATH: what happens when states breakdown

Indicators of political instability

Peter Turchin lists "stagnating or declining real wages (wages in inflation-adjusted dollars), a growing gap between rich and poor, overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees, declining public trust, and exploding public debt".

"In the United States, all of these factors started to take an ominous turn in the 1970s. The data pointed to the years around 2020 when the confluence of these trends was expected to trigger a spike in political instability."

Structure of the book

"Some people blame racists, white supremacists, and the rest of the “deplorables” who voted for Trump. Others blame antifa, the deep state, and “libtards.” The truly paranoid fringes imagine that the agents of Communist China have penetrated the American government at all levels or, alternatively, see the invisible hand of Vladimir Putin jerking Trump’s puppet strings. In the meantime, the deeper causes of our age of discord remain too little understood."

"But the truth lies not in conspiracies plotted by shadowy domestic groups or foreign agents". The bulk of what we need to know has nothing to do with the shenanigans of evil or corrupt individuals. "

"we need complexity science to make sense of all the data and analyses"

"Cliodynamics is different. It uses the methods of data science, treating the historical record, compiled by generations of historians, as Big Data. It employs mathematical models to trace the intricate web of interactions between the different “moving parts” of the complex social systems that are our societies."

"My narrative is an effort to explain how impersonal social forces push societies to the brink of collapse and beyond. I will look across human history for examples, but my primary goal is to speak to how we have slid into our current age of discord, with the United States as my empirical focus."

"for roughly fifty years the interests of workers and the interests of owners were kept in balance in this country, such that overall income inequality remained remarkably low."

"This social contract began to break down in the late 1970s. As a consequence, typical workers’ wages, which had previously increased in tandem with overall economic growth, started to lag behind. Worse, real wages stagnated and at times even decreased."

Peter Turchin calls this The Weath Pump. It is The System. When the system becomes a wealth pump to transfer wealth from the working majority to the 1%, political stability declines leading to social-economic-political collapse.

Can this "death spiral" of societal collapse be stopped?

The system is hijacked, corrupted, and broken beyond repair. Can it be fixed? Peter Turchin's research leads to a resounding No.

The system is indeed broken beyond repair.

Peter Turchin built a statistical model - a Multipath Forecasting(MPF) - to use statistics to determine when a supporter of the system can intervene and what to do. "Perhaps the most important insight from the MPF model is that it is too late to avert our current crisis."

"political and civic unrest in the United States would continue regardless of the party in power until a leader took action to reduce inequality and improve the social indicators that are tracked in their research."

Prof. Kishore Mahbubani also talked along these lines and said USA should take care of its people rather than fund its grandiose visions of world domination and even more wealth accumulation for the "elite" 1% by the government.
"he recommends that the US should cut its military spending by half, and invest in the wellbeing of American society, notably the 50 percent who have seen their incomes fall over the past 30 years"
This is unlikely to happen. To quote Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu:
An evil man will burn his own nation to the ground to rule over the ashes.

- Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu.

The ruling classes will continue as they have done so. "no existential challenges to the current ruling class are going to arise within it, at least not in the near future."

So, the death spiral will continue.

"Civilizations die by suicide, not murder".

But things are not so bad. Are you exaggerating?

If you have $1-2m net worth, you are in the top 10%. You are the "comfortable poor". You have control over your life, and maybe even a comfortable life.

Life is precarious for the other 90%.

However, thanks to the "Wealth Pump" built into our current system, the position of bottom 99% - which likely includes you - is very precarious and full of uncertainty. All it requires is one crisis for you to move to the bottom 90%.

There is the constant low level stress even for the well off - the precarious elite that are one crisis or sickness or job loss or interest rise away from poverty.

Governments all over the world have perfected the art and science of "perception management".

Inflation is under-reported. Fall in wages never discussed. This hides the true scale of the pain the masses; specially the young generation, minorities, and the less-educated go through.

"The process by which government economists construct and adjust the basket of consumables is somewhat opaque and, as some critics claim, vulnerable to manipulation."

The book "Deaths of Despair" by Nobel prize for economics winning Prof. Angus Deaton is recommended reading for those who think things are not all that bad.

The declining value of education

In the past, those with good education, graduate degree or advanced degree were relatively immune from decline in wages. This is no longer true.

Rising cost of education, rising student debt, high cost of living, and decline in real wages even for those with higher education is the reality.

Peter Turchin talks about over-abundance of "elite aspirants" - too many highly educated people competing for a few jobs. Turchin explains that this phenomenon has happened before several times in the past including the time of Stalin and medieval England. These elite aspirants could not rise due to their abundance and a fixed number of positions for them. This led to elites gaming the system, cheating, and vicious competition.

"The parents have a sense that their kids will be emerging into a bleaker landscape than they did. The brutal, winner-take-all economy won’t come for them—they’ve been grandfathered in. But they fear that it’s coming for their children, and that even a good education might not secure them a professional- class career."

The outcome is increasing number of frustrated number of elite aspirants who could potentially become "counter elites" who turn against the system, and use their knowledge of the system to destroy it. Peter Turchin calls them the "credentialed precariat", or the "frustrated elite aspirant class"

"And popular immiseration breeds discontent, which eventually turns to anger. Popular discontent coupled with a large pool of elite aspirants makes for a very combustible combination."

The elites literally or metaphorically culled these elite aspirants by sending them to the gulag in Stalin's Soviet Union, or banishing them to the colonies in the British Empire.

This is a fascinating insight into the role of over-abundance of educated elite aspirants in our end times.
"Today an advanced degree is not a perfect, or even reasonably effective, defense against precarity."

Who rules the world?

"at the top of the power pyramid in America is the corporate community: the owners and managers of large income- producing assets, such as corporations, banks, and law firms."

"the corporate community rules America indirectly. Its “structural economic power” allows it to dominate the political class through lobbying, campaign finance, businesspeople running for political office, appointments of corporate leaders to key government positions, and the “revolving door”—the movement of individuals back and forth between government and industry positions. In fact, the two power networks, economic and administrative, are joined at the hip in a very thorough fashion, but the economic network is the dominant one."

"The corporate community also controls the ideological basis of power through the ownership of mass media corporations and a policy-planning network made up of private foundations, think tanks, and policy-discussion groups. "

"The remaining source of social power, the military, has been thoroughly subordinated by the political network throughout American history. Future officers are indoctrinated into a culture of obedience to their commanding political leaders, and at the highest levels, generals and admirals look forward to occupying well-compensated post-retirement positions on the boards of the companies that live off government contracts."

Noam Chomsky also supports this role of "Large corporations, rich investors, and oligarchs of USA" in ruling the world.

What happens when states breakdown

People or citizens don’t overthrow states or create new ones.

Only “organized people” can achieve both positive and negative social change.

"People or citizens don’t overthrow states or create new ones. Only “organized people” can achieve both positive and negative social change".

When they are "unable to agree among themselves, they required an external manager to set a common agenda". However, this agenda by external manager will be for their own benefit, not ours.

Nothing is certain. States continue as low achievement states for decades, perpetually existing in end times if the "counter elites" are not able to organize.

"Nero moment": The moment when states breakdown, and the "Day after the Revolution"

"Public intellectuals, politicians, and, well, people in general frequently and severely overestimate the power of rulers."

"State collapse, when the central authority suddenly and catastrophically disintegrates, is a frequent occurrence in history."

"The political authority governing complex human societies is much more fragile than it may appear at a cursory glance."

It is also called the "Day after the revolution" moment. What happens the day after the revolution when the state has collapsed? How will a new state and system emerge out of the anarchy? Again, nothing is certain. Revolutions fail. The incumbents regain control. It all depends on whether the counter elites are organized in advance or not.

"Social Action Needs Organization"

"a successful revolution requires a cohesive and organized revolutionary party with deep popular support."

Outcomes of crisis and state breakdown

Peter Turchin has provided examples from state breakdown and what the ruling powers have done and will do to avert or postpone state breakdown:

Infiltrating the organization of change, effectively sabotaging the revolution from within. "The surveillance and coercive apparatus of the state is just too strong.". The book uses example of very recent Oath Keepers uprising and says "as soon as there are three people in the plot, one of them is an FBI informant".

Emigration: "Millions of commoners emigrated from England during the Chartist period, primarily to possessions like Canada, Australia, and the (then already independent) United States of America. This was driven partly by the demographic and economic pressures facing a large segment of the population. The state also facilitated this outward movement by lifting emigration restrictions, starting in the 1820s, and subsidizing travel to areas seeking colonists, notably Australia and New Zealand". This effectively ends the "popular discontent" - one of the most powerful trigger for societal collapse.

Minor reforms: to give illusion of change while buying time.

Robbing the middle class: this is done via taxes and inflation. The money is intended to help the poor but goes to the elites. Middle-classes are always a convenient scrape-goat during end times. What starts as "tax the rich" ends as "tax the doctors, lawyers, engineers and nurses".

Institutional reforms: "From the 1820s onwards the British elite showed a remarkable ability to reform its institutions and move from a fiscal- military state to an administrative state capable of meeting the needs of an increasingly complex commercial and industrial society". This is the path most of Europe took.

Bribes and minor leadership positions to leaders of the revolution, effectively stopping the revolution.

Confiscation of assets and income of counter-elites: as seen with cancel culture, sanctions of individuals, no-fly-lists and fake litigation. The purpose is not just to hurt the counter-elites but also to scare any elite-aspirants from becoming counter-elites.

Assassination of leaders of the revolution, effectively ending the revolution.

Call to action

Takeaway from the book:

"All we can do is to recognize this death spiral, understand the root causes of this death spiral, and take "collective action" to escape the social-economic-political collapse that is happening in front of us now".

Time for change will come sooner than we expect.

"Social Action Needs Organization". This is what we should focus on.

The death spiral of social-economic-political collapse cannot be stopped. There is no need to confront it, stop it, criticize it, or sacrifice for it, or try and profit from it.

There is over-abundance of "elite aspirants"; and vicious and intense "intra-elite competition" where rules are bent, and the elite aspirants game and cheat the system. It is not easy to profit from it.

Related work by Thomas Pikety has shown that most of the Western world is an oligarchy where the returns from labor are exceeded by returns from capital investment. This favours those already invested and are incumbents. New players or elite aspirants have no chance.

"Civilizations die by suicide, not murder".

All we can do is to recognize this death spiral, understand the root causes of this death spiral, and take "collective action" to escape the social-economic-political collapse that is happening in front of us now.

Peter Turchin also warns with a caveat: "Prediction is overrated. What we really should be striving for, with our social science, is ability to bring about desirable outcomes and to avoid unwanted outcomes. What’s the point of predicting [the] future, if it’s very bleak and we are not able to change it?"

"Social Action Needs Organization". This is what we should focus on.

* * *

Peter Turchin ends his book with a poetic note:

"We are now again in the disintegrative phase of this cycle, but while we live through our own age of discord..., when selfish ruling classes run their societies into the ground, it is good to have alternatives—success stories. And it falls to us, “the 99 percent,” to demand that our rulers act in ways that advance our common interests.

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