The roots of the current American predicament go back to the 1970s, when wages of workers stopped keeping pace with their productivity. The two curves diverged: Productivity continued to rise, as wages stagnated. The “great divergence” between the fortunes of the top 1 percent and the other 99 percent is much discussed, yet its implications for long-term political disorder are underappreciated. Battles such as the recent government shutdown are only one manifestation of what is likely to be a decade-long period.
How does growing economic inequality lead to political instability? Partly this correlation reflects a direct, causal connection. High inequality is corrosive of social cooperation and willingness to compromise, and waning cooperation means more discord and political infighting. Perhaps more important, economic inequality is also a symptom of deeper social changes, which have gone largely unnoticed.
Turchin puts for the view that times of intense social conflict (e.g., the Civil War) come about as the result of an “overproduction” of elites, who turn on each other. We’re there now, he says. More:
We should expect many years of political turmoil, peaking in the 2020s. And because complex societies are much more fragile than we assume, there is a chance of a catastrophic failure of some kind, with a default on U.S. government bonds being among the less frightening possibilities.
Of course, catastrophe isn’t preordained. History shows a real indeterminacy about the routes societies follow out of instability waves. Some end with social revolutions, in which the rich and powerful are overthrown. This is what happened to the Southern elites — decimated in the Civil War, beggared when their main assets, slaves, were freed, and excluded from national power in Washington. In other cases, recurrent civil wars result in a permanent fragmentation of the state and society.
In some cases, however, societies come through relatively unscathed, by adopting a series of judicious reforms, initiated by elites who understand that we are all in this boat together.
An interesting theory. I appreciate the way of analyzing the role elites and elite competition plays in the unraveling. But what I don’t see in Turchin’s analysis is the role that social unraveling at the lower end — e.g., the abandonment of marriage and family norms — play in creating the conditions for instability and conflict. To be sure, I’m not blaming Turchin for limiting his analysis. My point is simply that there are many forces working against a free, ordered, and thriving society. Blaming the rich exclusively, or blaming the poor exclusively, is only part of the story.