Now, whenever a historian offers predictions, check your wallet, and whenever someone talks about the “laws” of history, find another conversation—quick!
I have to say that I share Turchin’s medium-term pessimism about US society and global economic and ecological outlooks. However, having read some of his other work, I don’t share his methodology or certainty.
In fact, when I first looked at this article about Turchin and predictions, I immediately thought of Gavrilo Principe, the Serbian assassin of Archduke Ferdinand, whose pistol provided the spark that set off World War I. It is not too much to say that if the ‘barista’ at the Sarajevo Starbucks (avant le lettre) had taken an extra couple of minutes preparing Principe’s macchiato, then Principe would not have been in a position to shoot the Archduke when the latter’s car stopped to back up after making a wrong turn, right on the corner where Principe was sipping his brew. Then: no July Crisis, no mobilizations, no war (at least not the one we got and any other would have sent the world in quite another direction). It was, in short, a fluke. No “laws” of history, psychohistory, or cliometrics (statistical analysis of history) could have predicted it.
Similarly, if you had asked a hundred political scholars and pundits in late 2014 who would be elected President two years later, a certain orange-coiffed individual would have never been mentioned. Nor, to take our immediate situation, were any of the prognostications about 2020 made just a year ago worth the electrons they are printed on. In fact, (as was much noted at the time) a shift of only 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin would have swung the 2016 election. And, as an echo (though much less covered in the media), a shift of about 42,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin would have re-elected the President. That is not to say that Clinton’s election in 2016 would have disrupted Turchin’s diagnosis, nor that the Biden victor will do so; merely to note that a swing of 3% of 1% of the vote certainly qualifies as a contingency, which sends the universe barreling down a different course.
Is it possible to extrapolate trends and find some patterns as bases of prediction? Sure. But, as I have said in other contexts, “The only thing we know about a strategic plan is that it’s one thing that won’t come to pass.” Can bright people, working at a sufficiently large scale, find some useful insights about the nature of human development? Absolutely. However, to project these into the future is another matter. There’s a big gap between plausibility and likelihood; a few seers are ever audited.
All these predictions depend on the (often unspoken) principle of “ceteris paribus,” a delightful Latin phrase which we know “all else being equal.” Great for economists and other simplifiers; but, history is replete with contingencies, personalities, and other surprises that have laid around every corner. And, if a contingency doesn’t show up, then the predictor is more likely to be right, at least directionally. I can think of a dozen plausible contingencies—some good, some bad—that would toss every prediction of the next twenty years into the garbage. So can you.
Moreover, projecting cycles of history (as Turchin does) is a practice as old as the Mayans and Tibetans. It doesn’t take much to look backward and see a rich list of “the rise and fall of ____.” Paul Kennedy did much the same as Turchin with historical grounding and considerable insight in his Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in 1987. (It’s all just an analogy from Newton: gravity, inertia, and all that.) Rejecting rigid cycles as a historical model is not to embrace the Enlightenment-driven contrary view that we are on an inexorable path to the “sun-lit uplands” of human civilization (to steal Churchill’s phrase). Perhaps, as Steven Pinker has argued in a couple of recent books, things have been getting better (civilizationally) for the past several hundred years. Will it continue? No one knows.
I was glad to see that Turchin acknowledged his intellectual debt to Isaac Asimov, whose sci-fi Foundation series (1950-52) included a character named Hari Selden. Selden, too, claimed to have discovered the laws of human behavior on a universal scale which enabled him to predict the course of developments far into the future. This science of “psychohistory” worked for a while, but then got knocked off course in a big-and-dramatic way by a mutant fluke, until some new heroes came to save the day. Perhaps Asimov was trying to re-establish Enlightenment optimism after European civilization had been knocked off course by Gavrilo Principe and Adolf Hitler.
Turchin may be right about his theory that our society will crash under the weight of too many in the “elite” class, or Piketty may be right that the cause will be that group having too much money. But we don’t need history to teach us the morality of inequality or social distension. We should fix them on our own, even if they won’t drive us over the cliff. Ditto on climate.
History, as I have argued several times in this blog, is great for many purposes (and it’s fun, too). But the future,… it’s a mystery.