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The Scientist Who Predicted 2020's Political Unrest Reveals What Comes Next

Catching up with Peter Turchin, whose theory predicted a period of unrest starting this year.
17 June 2020, 1:06pm
beirut protest
A man during protests in Beirut over the valuation of the country's currency plummeting. Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

In 2012, VICE published an article titled, "2012 Is Bullshit; 2020 Is When We'll Really Be in Trouble". That headline was fairly prophetic: while 2012 saw the embers of the Arab Spring uprisings and quaint fears of a foretold apocalypse, it had nothing on what we're experiencing now.

In 2020, the climate is on its deathbed. A global pandemic has killed almost half a million people and sent economies spiralling. The world is finally reckoning with centuries of entrenched racial inequality, with street protests met by a violent response from police and the far-right, exacerbated by an American president who intentionally stokes division to play to his base.

That 2012 headline was based on an interview with the scientist Peter Turchin, whose field of study, "cliodynamics", tracks "temporally varying processes and the search for causal mechanisms" throughout US history, to essentially predict the future. You can read his team's assessment of the last ten years here, and I recently caught up with him over email to ask what's coming next.

VICE: When we spoke in 2012, you explained that 2020 would see the next state of upheaval in the US. Do you feel validated? Or were you just always certain it was coming?
Peter Turchin: The theory that made this prediction was validated, rather than me. Of course, nobody could be certain it was coming – future cannot be predicted in any absolute sense.

Fair point. Was there any stage over the last few years where you began to see it coming, though, and could tell what it might be related to?
It is a cumulative thing. The structural trends driving up instability – falling living standards, increasing intra-elite competition and conflict – have actually been going in the wrong direction since roughly 1980, so by 2010, I and my colleagues saw three decades of these trends already.

Furthermore, there were no signs that our political elites were ready to take the appropriate action to reverse these trends. They still aren't. Then there was a growing wave of suicide terrorism, AKA rampage shootings. Life expectancies of large swaths of the American population actually shrank in absolute terms – I didn't expect that things would get so bad. The election of Donald Trump is a very good example of a political entrepreneur channeling mass discontent – there are lots of historical examples of this. So, as I said, it was a cumulative thing.

You also said revolutions start when "members of the elite try to overturn the political order to better suit themselves". Could you expand on that, knowing what we know now?
As I said, Donald Trump is a good example of intra-elite conflict. In terms of our theory, he started as a frustrated elite aspirant who was attempting to translate his wealth into political power. He was eventually able to do it riding the wave of mass discontent with the established elites in 2016. This resulted in even more polarisation and intra-elite conflict than what we saw before 2016.

Finally, your theory says these periods work in 50-year cycles, but does it predict when this specific period of upheaval will come to an end?
You actually didn't get this part right – the fundamental dynamic results in very long cycles. So in American history we had two broad cycles. First, there was a rising tide of prosperity and elite unity that peaked around 1820. From there, the crisis indicators rose sharply in the years leading up to the Civil War. Indicators of crisis conditions then dropped slightly from their peak but remained high until 1920 – the years of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Gilded Age and violent labour unrest, and the anarchists. This was our first Age of Discord.

Then the tide shifted; as a result of the reforms introduced during the Progressive Era and clinched in the New Deal, wages rose and political unity grew stronger. The 1950s were a golden age of worker progress and party cooperation. Things started to turn again in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the next two decades the crisis indicators rose just as sharply as they had in the decades before the Civil War. Median wages fell in relation to GDP/capita, and the polarisation of political parties surged to new highs. So we are now in the second Age of Discord.

The 50-year cycle overlays this longer dynamic. Because the two dynamics coincide in the years around 2020, it is now that our society is the most vulnerable to outbreaks of political violence.

To answer your question: such periods of turbulence continue until the structural trends driving them are reversed. In history, they typically go on for five, ten, 15 years. So I expect turbulence to continue beyond 2020.

Thanks, Peter.

@jamie_clifton

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