Have We Entered the Ages of Discord?

Peter Turchin, of Secular Cycles fame, predicted that political violence and discord in the United States would reach a peak in 2020 (or thereabouts). He even put that prediction in writing in a book entitled Ages of Discord:

In 2010 I made the prediction that the United States will experience a period of heightened social and political instability during the 2020s…Structural-demographic theory (SDT) suggests that the violence spike of the 2020s will be worse than the one around 1970, and perhaps as bad as the last big spike during the 1920s. Thus, the expectation is that there will be more than 100 events per 5 years. In terms of the second metric, we should expect more than 5 fatalities per 1 million of population per 5 years, if the theory is correct.

And there you have it. If violence doesn’t exceed these thresholds by 2025, then SDT is wrong.

A Quantitative Prediction for Political Violence in the 2020s (Cliodynamica)

And the 1970s were pretty bad. From a review of Ages of Discord at Slate Star Codex:

The 1970s underground wasn’t small. It was hundreds of people becoming urban guerrillas. Bombing buildings: the Pentagon, the Capitol, courthouses, restaurants, corporations. Robbing banks. Assassinating police. People really thought that revolution was imminent, and thought violence would bring it about.

Book Review: Ages Of Discord (Slate Star Codex)

See also Coronavirus and Our Age of Discord (Cliodynamica)

There are several general trends during the pre-crisis phase that make the rise and spread of pandemics more likely. At the most basic level, sustained population growth results in greater population density, which increases the basic reproduction number of nearly all diseases. Even more importantly, labor oversupply, resulting from overpopulation, depresses wages and incomes for most. Immiseration, especially its biological aspects, makes people less capable of fighting off pathogens. People in search of jobs move more and increasingly concentrate in the cities, which become breeding grounds for disease. Because of greater movement between regions, it is easy for disease to jump between cities.

Elites, who enjoy growing incomes resulting from low worker wages, spend them on luxuries, including exotic ones. This drives long-distance trade, which more tightly connects distant world regions. My 2008 article is primarily about this process, which we call “pre-modern globalizations.” As a result, a particularly aggressive pathogen arising in, for example, China, can rapidly jump to Europe.

Finally, when the crisis breaks out, it brings about a wave on internal warfare. Marauding armies of soldiers, rebels, and brigands, themselves become incubators of disease that they spread widely as they travel through the landscape.

This description is tailored to pre-modern (and early modern) Ages of Discord. Today, in 2020, details are different. But the main drivers — globalization and popular immiseration — are the same…

Right now Turchin is starting to look like Nostradamus. He hasn’t addressed this so far on his blog, but I’m interested to hear his take.

One thing I wonder about though: the police state is so much more powerful than it was in the 1970s due to digital surveillance technology. I mean, everyone carries around a device that tracks all their movements all the time, and the few who don’t will be noticeable by their absence. Cameras are everywhere. Our online presence is constantly monitored, as Edward Snowden revealed (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that laws prohibiting government monitoring of the citizenry have been repealed just in the last few weeks). Plus, the systems of cybernetic control for managing large populations are so much more sophisticated, as Adam Curtis described in All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. I think these cybernetic systems also foment discord as well, since they allow segments of the population to live in completely separate realities managed by different sets of elites—there is no consensus reality anymore, as responses to the pandemic showed.

But it does seem like an alarming number of people have been disenfranchised and have no constructive outlet for their anger, and no effective recourse for changing the system anymore. Add to that Great Depression levels of popular immiseration while elites are being bailed out with unlimited funds. This is what happens when you make peaceful revolution impossible—violent revolution becomes inevitable.

UPDATE: Turchin’s latest post (June 1)

What is much more certain is that the deep structural drivers for instability continue to operate unabated. Worse, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated several of these instability drivers. This means that even after the current wave of indignation, caused by the killing of George Floyd, subsides, there will be other triggers that will continue to spark more fires—as long as the structural forces, undermining the stability of our society, continue to provide abundant fuel for them.

One thought on “Have We Entered the Ages of Discord?

  1. There are too many people and too much easy access to social media that shows how high status people live. Rich white girls, it’s not smart to brag on Instagram while wearing a BLM shirt. They take it seriously, they don’t see it as a luxery signal like you do. Not everyone can gain that much status and there really isn’t that much room in the nicer areas. The bottom really doesn’t understand the social mannerisms of the umc and often times can’t even mimic the mannerisms of the (shrinking) middle. It’s time to stop pretending that everyone deserves an easy office job in the media.

    Libtards still niavely believe spouting off empty platitudes and abstractions will calm this. They’re that immersed in their bubble thinking. Blacks will probably be worse off after all of this and policed more!

    The simple reality is that Democratic politicians, journalists, and pundits are petrified of questioning any of the dogmatic ideological assumptions underlying these protests/riots. Because they will be immediately ripped to shreds. Don’t even try to pretend this is not the case.

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