📓 Book-Review--Secular-Cycles.md (text) by @houshuang
Book Review: Secular Cycles - link #instapaper
- And then, eventually, things get better. There is a new Augustan Age of virtue and the reestablishment of all good things. This is a really interesting claim. Western philosophy tends to think in terms of trends, not cycles. We see everything going on around us, and we think this is some endless trend towards more partisanship, more inequality, more hatred, and more state dysfunction. But Secular Cycles offers a narrative where endless trends can end, and things can get better after all.
- One thing that strikes me about T&N’s cycles is the ideological component. They describe how, during a growth phase, everyone is optimistic and patriotic, secure in the knowledge that there is enough for everybody. During the stagflation phase, inequality increases, but concern about inequality increases even more, zero-sum thinking predominates, and social trust craters (both because people are actually defecting, and because it’s in lots of people’s interest to play up the degree to which people are defecting). By the crisis phase, partisanship is much stronger than patriotism and radicals are talking openly about how violence is ethically obligatory
- But Turchin has another book, Ages Of Discord, arguing that they do. I have bought it and started it and will report back when I’m done
- Finally, and most important: is there any sense in which this is still going on?
- Second, I think this might give new context to Piketty on inequality. T&N describe inequality as starting out very low during the growth phase of a secular cycle, rising to a peak during the stagflation phase, then dropping precipitously during the crisis. Piketty describes the same: inequality rising through the peaceful period of 1800 to 1900, dropping precipitously during the two World Wars, then gradually rising again since then. This doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, since I’m not sure you can fit the post industrial world into secular cycles. But I notice Piketty seems to think of this as a once-off event – inequality has been rising forever, broken only by the freak crisis of the two World Wars – and it’s interesting to read T&N talk about the exact same process recurring again and again throughout history
- They tragically devote only a few pages to “Ibn Khaldun cycles”, the theory of 14th century Arabic historian Ibn Khaldun that civilizations in the Maghreb rise and fall on a one hundred year period. But they discuss it just enough to say their data confirm Ibn Khaldun’s observations. The accelerated timescale (100 vs. 300 years) is because the Maghreb is massively polygynous, with successful leaders having harems of hundreds of concubines. This speeds up the elite overproduction process and makes everything happen in fast-forward. T&N also admit that their theory only describes civilizations insofar as they are self-contained. This approximately holds for hegemons like Rome at its height, but fails for eg Poland, whose history is going to be much more influenced by when Russia or Germany decides to invade than by the internal mechanisms of Polish society. Insofar as external shocks – whether climatic, foreign military, or whatever else – affect a civilization, secular cycles will be stretched out, compressed, or just totally absent.
- in some of Turchin’s other work, he applies some of the math used to model epidemics in public health. His model imagines three kinds of people: naives, radicals, and moderates. At the start of a cycle, most people are naive, with a few radicals. Radicals gradually spread radicalism, either by converting their friends or provoking their enemies (eg a terrorist attack by one side convinces previously disengaged people to join the other side). This spreads like any other epidemic. But as violence gets worse, some people convert to “moderates”, here meaning not “wishy-washy people who don’t care” but something more like “people disenchanted with the cycle of violence, determined to get peace at any price”. Moderates suppress radicals, but as they die off most people are naive and the cycle begins again. Using various parameters for his model Turchin claims this predicts the forty-to-sixty year cycle of violence observed in the data.
- This cycle is interwoven with a second 40-60 year process that T&N call the “fathers-and-sons cycle” or “bigenerational cycle”. The data tend to show waves of disorder about every 40-60 years. During the “integrative trend” (T&N’s term for the optimistic growth and stagflation phases), these can just be minor protests or a small rebellion that is easily crushed. During the “disintegrative trend” (crisis + depression), they usually represent individual outbreaks of civil war.
Thus the secular cycle. When population is low, everyone has more than enough land. People grow rich and reproduce. As time goes on, the same amount of farmland gets split among more and more people. Wages are driven down to subsistence. War, Famine, and Pestilence ravage the land, with Death not far behind. The killings continue until population is low again, at which point the cycle starts over.
- This applies mostly to peasants, who are most at risk of starving. But nobles go through a related process. As a cycle begins, their numbers are low. As time goes on, their population expands, both through natural reproduction and through upward mobility. Eventually, there are more nobles than there are good positions
- At least this is the thesis of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov, authors of Secular Cycles. They start off Malthusian: due to natural reproduction, population will keep increasing until it reaches the limits of what the land can support. At that point, everyone will be stuck at subsistence level. If any group ever enjoys a standard of living above subsistence level, they will keep reproducing until they are back down at subsistence.
- There is a tide in the affairs of men. It cycles with a period of about three hundred years. During its flood, farms and businesses prosper, and great empires enjoy golden ages. During its ebb, war and famine stalk the land, and states collapse into barbarism
- First, a very weak implication: it makes history easier to learn. I was shocked how much more I remembered about the Plantagenets, Tudors, Capetians, etc after reading this book, compared to reading any normal history book about them. I think the secret ingredient is structure. If history is just “one damn thing after another”, there’s no framework for figuring out what matters, what’s worth learning, what follows what else. The secular cycle idea creates a structure that everything fits into neatly. I know that the Plantagenet Dynasty lasted from 1154 – 1485, because it had to, because that’s a 331 year secular cycle. I know that the important events to remember include the Anarchy of 1135 – 1153 and the War of the Roses from 1455 – 1487, because those are the two crisis-depression periods that frame the cycle. I know that after 1485 Henry Tudor took the throne and began a new age of English history, because that’s the beginning of the integrative phase of the next cycle. All of this is a lot easier than trying to remember these names and dates absent any context. I would recommend this book for that reason alone.
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