Ages of Discord—review

Ages of Discord. A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History. Peter Turchin. Beresta Books, 2016.

Are we headed towards a new civil war? Can we learn from history? Peter Turchin thinks so, and his recent book Ages of Discord is a reinterpretation of American history, coming right down to the present day. Turchin has an interesting and insightful twist on the American Civil War of 1861–1865, which has parallels with our situation today.

In case you’re new to Peter Turchin, check out my review of his previous book Secular Cycles or his blog. Ages of Discord does for the United States what his earlier book Secular Cycles, co-authored with Sergey Nefedov, did for ancient Rome, and medieval Europe and early modern England, France, and Russia. Civilizations go in cycles; they rise, and then they decline. A word of warning: like Secular Cycles, Ages of Discord is totally academic. If you don’t love the subject, you’ll never get through it! If you want to read something of Turchin that is more accessible, I’d suggest his books Ultrasociety or War and Peace and War.

Turchin sees the United States falling in the same general pattern as other civilizations. As the country is established, initially everyone is prosperous, and population expands. But eventually, as population increases, Malthusian pressures catch up and the conditions of the ordinary people decline. There are just not enough jobs or resources to keep the workers happy. There is a rise in popular discontent.

The Marxist twist to Turchin’s theory of history is that declining conditions for workers is great news for the elites. The elites see their labor costs falling (“labor oversupply”), so they can make more profits than ever. The elites, therefore, do nothing to ameliorate conditions, because from their point of view things are going great.

Eventually, this doesn’t turn out well for the elite class, of course. There is a rush to join the elite class; “everyone wants to be a millionaire.” But because of resource limitations, this can be pushed only so far. Now there is an oversupply of elites, competition among the elites, and an increasing polarization of society. The fiscal condition of the state weakens, as there’s less that it can tax, and public debt rises — “increasing national debt.” These structural and demographic pressures will continue to worsen until a crisis is reached. Either a civil war, a revolution, or some other disaster will restructure society, or the society will just collapse under a combination of internal and external pressures.

Does this sound like anything that applies to the United States situation today? The rich are getting richer, there’s increasing polarization, and there are lots of greedy millionaires? Read on.

The Battle of Gettysburg (Currier and Ives)
The Battle of Gettysburg (Currier and Ives)

According to Turchin, it’s already happened at least once. We’ve already gone through an entire secular cycle in the United States: from the founding of the country up to the Great Depression, roughly from 1787 until 1930. His take on the American Civil War was especially interesting. From an economic point of view, it had less to do with slavery or a “battle cry of freedom,” but was about competition between elites. Forty years after the Constitution, there is an “era of good feelings.” But by 1860, there were two huge elites in American society — northern industrialists and southern plantation owners. Actually, most of the wealth of the elites in America was in the South, not the North! Of course, the South thought that it would win the Civil War, because from their vantage point, they had most of the wealth in society, although the North was catching up. Like the English Civil War (which Turchin discusses in Secular Cycles), the South won a lot of early battles but couldn’t keep up in the long run. And like the English Civil War, it dramatically reduced the numbers of the elites. Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee didn’t lose their heads, at least, but the economic power of the South was smashed.

So from a structural and demographic point of view, what the Civil War really accomplished was not to liberate the slaves. Rather, it forcefully reduced both the numbers and wealth of the elite class. It forever destroyed the southern plantation owners’ wealth. While there was a brief period during Reconstruction where these events actually changed the status of the former slaves, it didn’t last for very long. Eventually, the old southern elites re-emerged, much impoverished, and the whole South sunk into a deep and decades-long depression. The former slaves were hardly better off after the Civil War as before, and neither were most whites. The South didn’t recover the economic position it had in 1860 until after 1920.

But the civil war was an equal opportunity disaster. This is another surprising interpretation that Turchin suggests, with data to back it up. We think of the post-Civil War era as a period of expansion; but for the ordinary worker, this wasn’t the case. The condition of ordinary workers in the North, like that of their counterparts in the South, also continuously declined. This explains both the rise of strikes and industrial disorders, the frequent recessions or depressions (“panics”), with the westward expansion as a kind of “pressure release.” The only people whose lives materially improved were those of the Northern elites. All of this lasted until the Great Depression, at which point we went through a re-orientation of the entire social order.

Turchin has produced an interesting, provocative, and persuasive re-interpretation of American history. The main adjustment that I would suggest would be to reinterpret demographic pressures as implying resources as well as population. Resource depletion could produce the same general kinds of demographic pressures as overpopulation. Conversely, new technology and new resources could have the opposite effect. If America had not been in transition from wood to coal during this period, the pressures would have been even more acute. And much of American prosperity after 1930 came from the increasing utilization of a new energy resource — oil. Oil has transformed American life and increased general prosperity in a way difficult to imagine if (say) we imagined that there was no oil to be discovered, and if at that point we had to continue to rely on coal.

But what about the period since 1930? What about America today? Are we in the middle of some new structural and demographic crisis? Turchin has much to say about that, too, which I’ll cover in a future post.

3 Replies to “Ages of Discord—review”

  1. If the author has not included a thorough analysis of the history of the nation’s land policies this is a serious flaw in the book. From the moment Europeans arrived in North America, speculation in land was at the center of economic behavior and determined the character of the systems of law and taxation. The result was and continues to be that the distribution of income and wealth in the United States is determined by rentier and monopoly privilege.

    1. How might such a “thorough analysis” alter Turchin’s conclusions? Turchin’s writing is all about numbers. He is measuring (or claims to measure) the average wage, wherever that comes from, the numbers in the elite classes, and polarization, in more-or-less objective ways. He’s not just ruminating based on his impressions of the period. Obviously this has quite a bit to do with land ownership.

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