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Sticking My Neck Out

When 15 years ago I started working within the scientific discipline that eventually became Cliodynamics, my initial plan was to concentrate entirely on past societies. Of course, history doesn’t end in, say, 1800. But there are dangers in pushing a historical analysis all the way to the present day. First, we are too close to the societies we live in. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that the American empire might collapse tomorrow. I am not saying it will, but I imagine ancient Romans also did not think that the Roman Empire would collapse around their ears. Yet it did. In any case, it is hard to be a dispassionate analyst when you are analyzing something that will have a huge effect on your personal life.

The second danger is politics. Few people really care about why the Roman Empire collapsed. But any conclusions you reach about our own society are certain to tick off either conservatives, or liberals (and sometimes both).

So for many years I went happily refining my ideas, models, and empirical analyses of pre-industrial societies. But when I started giving talks about the decline and collapse of historical empires, I would almost invariably be asked, “so where are we?”

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Eventually, I broke down and started a project on the cliodynamics of the American republic, beginning with its inception around 1780 and to the present day.

This project took more years than I thought. Partly it was for a good reason – there are much, much more data on America, even for the earlier historical periods than I was used to when I worked on long-term cycles (‘secular cycles’) in pre-industrial England, France, Russia, and Rome.

But also I have been mindful of how the results would be interpreted, so I wanted to make sure that I’d do the best job I can. I am not near that point, by any means, but the project has reached the stage where I need feedback to move forward.

Yesterday I posted on my Cliodynamics site a draft which will eventually be developed into a book describing the results. I welcome comments and suggestions on all aspects of it.

A fair warning: it’s not going to be a popular book. On the contrary, the text is very dense and there are lots of graphs and tables (and equations). This draft also needs a lot of work. But even after the book is finished, it will not be intended for most readers of this blog. Think of it as the foundations on which I will later base more popular articles or, perhaps, a book.

Actually, I am planning to blog about some of the most striking findings in near future, so stay tuned.

But let me talk briefly about one general result right away. Things are changing in America, and there is a lot of discussion of various trends. Some commentators talk about the growing inequality and the hollowing out of the middle class. Others wonder why political polarization is reaching extreme levels and why the national government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. Yet others debate the causes of waning social capital and cooperation.

Usually all these, and many other trends (why fewer young adults marry? Why is the distribution of law school graduates’ salaries bimodal – yes, it is!) are discussed in isolation from each other. Or, perhaps, some of them are connected, but in a cursory way. This will sound hubristic, but the structural-demographic model (the theoretical engine driving the American project) says these trends are not developing separately from each other. They are, rather, all parts of the dynamical system that is our society. There are deep, subterranean processes that explain these trends. They also explain why the trends all date from roughly the 1970s. Much of the book is devoted to tracing out these deep interconnections.

But enough of this introduction, and I am looking forward to exploring some of these interconnections in future blogs.

Again, all comments and suggestions are welcome (this is why I am posting this unfinished product, after all). You can leave comments here on the SEF or send me an e-mail.

PDF of the book draft here


Notes on the Margin: I will be off the grid for several days, because my wife and I are moving to Denmark where I took a visiting professorship at Aarhus University. So there will be a short break from blogging while we are making the transition and getting set up there.


Join the discussion


  1. Igor Demić says:

    I hope I’m not asking too much, but it would be great if you could post the list of references. I don’t manage to find all of them by searching for author’s last name and the year of publishing. It’s become (psychologically) hard for me to read a scholarly book without the list of references. Although it prolongates my reading of a book it usually helps me put theories and ideas in broader context.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Igor, in fairness to the publisher, I only post a limited version of my book on line. They do, after all, want to sell some copies… so not providing the full bibliography is one way to induce people to buy the book once it is out.

      • Igor Demić says:

        Thanks for noting that. I actually thought that the draft versions of books are not affected by publisher’s policies. And I thought I knew much about publishing industry! Live and learn. This has more to do with some of your earlier posts 😉

        • Peter Turchin says:

          Absolutely. But when I negotiate with academic publishers my first goal is to keep the cost down – you can see that all m y books published by traditional publishers are very reasonable. And when publishers behave well, we should support them.

  2. James says:

    I confess to being one of the shirkers who will likely wait for the popular version, which will no doubt storm the Amazon bestseller lists. You could be the next EL James 🙂

    Re Rome:
    ”It’s hard to imagine, for example, that the American empire might collapse tomorrow. I am not saying it will, but I imagine ancient Romans also did not think that the Roman Empire would collapse around their ears.”

    I feel the way the comparison between the US empire — and kudos for calling it by its proper name — and Rome is set up is perhaps a little unfair to the old Romans. After all, the Res Publica didn’t fall in a day either. It declined for sure, then revived quite strongly, and then, in the West at least, went into another more terminal decline. Even after the collapse of its fiscal base in North Africa, it clung on for decades and only went down fighting.

    In other words, it took about 250 years to collapse. I guess, if anything, that makes the comparison with the USA more apt, given the role of the elite, in particular its self-interested behaviour, in slowly undermining the basis for Roman unity.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      True, ‘collapse’ suggests something rapid and abrupt. In the Roman case there were several episodes of disintegrative dynamics: the first century BC, the third century AD, and the final decline during the fifth century. And each of these ‘collapses’ actually developed over the course of many years and even decades. So perhaps it would be better to talk in terms of ‘instability waves’ that develop gradually, then suddenly crest.

  3. Ugh. There goes my weekend, as I will have to read this ASAP. But, I’m psyched! I have been waiting to see when you would “stick your neck out” in this particular way.

    Of course, it’s completely a coincidence that you do this and immediately leave the country? 🙂

  4. Sir Nemesis says:

    I tried to reopen the draft today and got a 404 error.