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Elite Overproduction and the End of Empires


Peter Turchin, whose website describes him as "a scientist working in the field of historical social science, which he and his colleagues call cliodynamics." Cliodynamics is a relatively new field in which historical examples and variables associated with measurable economic factors are combined to identify broad, large-scale trends in human history and their refraction in public policy.

Turchin applies cliodynamics in an attempt to apply the observations of the exact sciences to the more relativistic field of the humanities. During his unique career, Turchin published many books on cyclic patterns of history. His latest work, The End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration, is the most recent summary of his thoughts.

The main idea of the book can be summarized as an exploration of the boom and bust cycles for societies based on the interaction of growing class inequality and the increasing mass proportion of administrative elites. In terms of foreign policy and national security, Turchin found that the failure of a state begins with tearing apart the goals of the ruling elite and the interests of those tasked with making them a reality, whether it be fighting the economic consequences of sanctions or participating in military operations.

According to Turchin, when the ruling consensus in society collapses, wealth, due to the fact that the elites preserve and expand their sources of enrichment, is concentrated in one hand. This negatively affects the viability and legitimacy of the state, which leads to destabilizing results.

As the number of educated elites produced by society grows over time, the number of opportunities for the elite to move up in terms of wealth and status either stagnates or shrinks. Frustrated by their dwindling prospects, a new counter-elite is rising to challenge the very society that created them. In doing so, they often find volunteers among the disgruntled non-elite.

While the interaction of these two factors is the most important element of destabilization, Turchin emphasizes that elite overproduction is the more dangerous variable in the social equation. If this process goes unchecked, it may be followed by the disintegration of the state and civil war. However, some societies have seen this danger on the horizon and have reformed to avoid this fate—at least for the time being. One such example is the New Deal era in the United States.

However, failure to avoid disaster is a more common scenario for most societies. Falling living standards and rivalries between rural and urban elites, similar to what happened between North and South in the decades leading up to the Civil War, are more common. In these upheavals, one faction of elites solves the problem of overproduction by simply removing their rivals from power.

Often these upheavals are fatal or destabilize much of the rest of the population, leading to a growing consensus around a new order and a desire to maintain stability. But this can only continue until the process is repeated.

Turchin's theory of elite overproduction and the ideological extremism it engenders among competing nations vying for dominance in a closed system could eventually turn into a purge within the establishment, leaving no room for prudence, restraint, or tolerance.