As with environmental collapse, we can’t say there is no understanding of what is driving political turbulence and social breakdown worldwide. Many regions of the world look to be on shaky ground, but do we have the necessary knowledge to restore the balance if we choose?
For decades now, complexity scientist Peter Turchin has undertaken a systematic analysis of human history, with the aim to understand how societies evolve. Are we ready to learn from this analysis of 10,000 years of human activity Turchin and other have developed?
In an article Turchin wrote for The Atlantic he says, “All human societies experience recurrent waves of political crisis, such as the one we face today. My research team built a database of hundreds of societies across 10,000 years to try to find out what causes them. We examined dozens of variables, including population numbers, measures of well-being, forms of governance, and the frequency with which rulers are overthrown. We found that the precise mix of events that leads to crisis varies, but two drivers of instability loom large. The first is popular immiseration—when the economic fortunes of broad swaths of a population decline. The second, and more significant, is elite overproduction—when a society produces too many superrich and ultra-educated people, and not enough elite positions to satisfy their ambitions.”
So, the type of crisis happening now has obviously been seen many times before. But some of the solutions from the past are no longer available.
For example, the elite overproduction in Europe of the 19th century could be solved by separating competing elites by colonising the world. In the past when there wasn’t enough opportunity to fulfill the ambitions of all a country’s elite, they could be paid or enticed to conquer the rest of the world.
This had dual benefits – they maintained their status and as they exploited faraway places, they also increased the wealth of the mother country (at least for its elites). That this immiserated the local first nations people as the Europeans became a parasite on the world was never a concern to elites preoccupied with fulfilling their own ambitions, status needs and wealth.
With the discovery of fossil fuels and the development of industrial mass production the growing number of elites were able to fulfill their ambitions without moving far away from home because so many new opportunities for wealth opened up. But elite competition did not die, it just morphed into status competition quickly followed by status anxiety.
Elite desire for social status and differentiation was translated into the size of their houses, the suburbs they lived, which car they bought, what designer fashion label they wore and where they went on holiday. They became addicted to consumption and compliant to the prevailing political and economic ideologies pushing for constant growth.
And now we are reaching the end of this economic cycle. Elite overproduction means that a small number of wealthy have become wealthier, while the prosperity of most stagnates or declines. An Oxfam report, Survival of the Richest, published earlier this year, found that the richest 1 percent grabbed nearly two-thirds of all new wealth worth $42 trillion created since 2020 and billionaire fortunes are increasing by $2.7 billion a day.
The economic and social pyramid has become top-heavy as more people compete for high-status positions and to buy the ever more expensive items to set them apart from their peers.
As we reach this End Times described in Turchin’s book and final stages of the current secular cycle, we have additional problems to face. Why? Because our overexploitation of nature is not just about running out of oil. We have been equally reckless about biomass extraction; of all the mammals on earth 36% are human, 60% are livestock (cows, sheep etc) and only 4% are wild mammals.
This time around, it isn’t only the social immiseration of society, it is also the immiseration of the natural world, the collapse of the precious ecosystems which have provided the us with the Goldilocks (Holocene) period we have lived in for the past 12,000 years and the one which, if the elites hadn’t been so greedy and desperate, was predicted to last another 50,000 years at least.
As predicted by Turchin, divisions between the elites are deepening, with infighting accelerating. Just one example of this is the mess that is Brexit, with the exit from EU driven by a handful of elites who didn’t want the European Commission to curb their ability to make evermore money.
The immiserated masses mean trust in institutions has collapsed completely. Paul Tudor-Jones, an American billionaire hedge fund manager, said that such divides have historically been resolved in one of three ways: Wars, Revolutions or Taxes. Turchin confirms that the crisis stage, at the end of the cycle, is usually violent. Historically, wars have been by far the most ‘popular’ option.
Given Tudor-Jones’ remark about taxes, wars or revolution, it is interesting to note an observation Rutger Bregman, a Dutch journalist and historian, made at the 2019 WEF. Bregman lambasted the rich attendees for failing to talk about the one thing known help redress the balance of societal instability, namely raising taxes. Bregman said: “It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water. Just stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes. That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit in my opinion.”.
In Oxfam’s Survival of the Richest Report, their analysis concludes, a tax of up to 5 percent on the world’s multi-millionaires and billionaires could raise $1.7 trillion a year, enough to lift 2 billion people out of poverty. Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International at the time of the report said, “Taxing the super-rich and big corporations is the door out of today’s overlapping crises. It’s time we demolish the convenient myth that tax cuts for the richest result in their wealth somehow ‘trickling down’ to everyone else. Forty years of tax cuts for the super-rich have shown that a rising tide doesn’t lift all ships —just the superyachts.”
With this in mind, it is useful to remind ourselves that the top income tax rate used to be 91% after the New Deal in the US in response to the Great Depression. The New Deal also included new constraints and safeguards on the banking industry. Taxation was also used to rebuild a fairer society throughout Europe after the second world war; progressive taxation was used to Build Back Better not rising nationalism!
Investing in understanding these patterns not only gives us clarity on where we are now, it helps us plan for what is to come. At present that unfortunately looks to be more wars because as one social commentator observed “There is nothing more dangerous than broken men with power”.
Lynn Johnson is a physicist by education and has worked as an executive coach and a strategy consultant for over 20 years. In her work she pushes for systemic change, not piecemeal solutions, this includes campaigning for modernising the legal trade in endangered species, to help tackle the illegal wildlife trade.