25 January 2024

Complex dynamics don’t need to have complex causes

“Most of the time, something dire happens, but there is no such thing as a ‘typical collapse’. Like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way, and every collapse is actually a collapse in a different way”, says Peter Turchin, complexity scientist and author of “The End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration” in an interview with Hanna Stähle, Philea’s Head of Foresight and Innovation, discussing the causes of crises past and present, and the importance of better forecasting them in the future.

Could you please tell us about yourself? What shaped you as an individual, and your values?

Well, I grew up in the Soviet Union, a country that does not exist anymore. My father was part of the human rights movement. And that’s how we ended up in the United States, because he was essentially exiled. Initially, my interests were in theoretical biology. That’s what I eventually gained my PhD in. And I was working as a complexity scientist focusing on population dynamics. But then, about 10 or 15 years into my career, I decided that I wanted to study more challenging systems, and I switched from studying biological systems to social systems.

What have you found from analysing thousands of years of society and states dealing with crises?

We focused mostly on the last 5,000 years, when complex societies, organised states, have appeared. One important trend over these 5,000 years is that the states have taken over the world. So today, nearly everybody lives in states, but what we have found is that states tend to perform adequately and functionally for some period of time, maybe a century or so – sometimes longer, sometimes shorter – but then inevitably, come ‘end times’: times of instability, and sometimes social breakdown and even utter collapse. The question then becomes: why do such end times always come? What is it about complex societies that doesn’t allow them to continue working in a functional, peaceful way forever?

What is the essence of complexity science?

Complexity science is a collection of different kinds of tools, primarily mathematical, computational, and statistical. Let’s take a state, like the United States, for example. It’s a complex system with different actors interacting with each other; it has many moving parts, so to speak. The essence of a complexity systems approach is to take a look at how various parts interact, and then try to simplify things. Complex dynamics doesn’t need to have complex causes. In order to study complex systems, you actually want to generate simpler models and ways to understand them.

In your book, you say that we need to move away from studying inequalities to studying instability…

Yes, everybody talks inequality – but it’s a very abstract thing. It’s very difficult for us to estimate the degree of inequality. Inequality cannot really be a driver… what people feel is what becomes a driver. And there are several factors driving inequality, but let’s start with the first one. We call it popular immiseration, [in other words where] the well-being of a large proportion of the population is stagnating or even declining. This well-being has many dimensions: there is economic well-being such as wages and incomes, but also biological well-being such as life expectancy, and freedom from disease and other things, or even height. Height has a strong genetic component, but when you look at the whole population over time, it turns out to be a very sensitive indicator of declining living standards when people’s height shrinks. For example, in the United States the population height stopped growing over the past 30 or 40 years, and for some, especially disadvantaged parts of the population, it has even declined in the last decade.

Beyond popular immiseration, you also speak about elite overproduction. Could you touch upon that? 

Elites are simply the small proportion of the population who concentrate social power in their hands. Social power is our ability to influence other people’s behaviours, and it comes in several different varieties. There are essentially four types of power:  coercion or military power, economic, administrative and ideological power. So that a small proportion of the population that controls power is a necessary condition for complex societies to function. We need elites, we need hierarchies, because that’s how humans cooperate and that’s how governments can increase the well-being of their populations. However, sometimes in human history, there are periods when cooperation among the elites starts to break down because there are just too many aspirants… too many “elite wannabes”. Why does this happen? And why is it bad?

Well, let’s first talk about why it’s bad. Some competition for power position is good because it allows better, more able people to rise to positions. But it turns out that when there are too many elite wannabees, the competition becomes so extreme that it actually becomes counterproductive. And this is not when the better people rise, but people who are willing to break rules. In my book, I use the example of a game of musical chairs. But unlike the typical game of musical chairs, instead of removing chairs, we just keep adding players, you can imagine the kind of chaos that starts to happen. And that’s what we see in real life. When there’s elite overproduction, of people who are competing for such positions, that is when cooperative norms, social norms that govern societies, both democratic societies and even other societies, start to break down.

What were the biggest signs for you that this was actually happening?

In the United States, which I know best and for which we have gathered data for all the important indicators, what we see is that starting in the 1970s, the wages of American workers, which had prior to that grown together with their productivity, and also GDP per capita, suddenly these two curves have departed –  their GDP per capita continues to increase, but the wages of workers stagnated and even declined. That had three different consequences. First of all, it resulted in immiseration, and we can measure it, especially by looking at biological factors, as the average life expectancy of Americans started to decline even before COVID. And now we have lost 20 years of gains, life expectancy now is what it was like in the early 2000s.

The second consequence was that this money, which did not get paid as worker wages, had to go somewhere. And of course, it went to economic elites. This created conditions for a kind of a ‘wealth pump’, which was taking the wealth from the majority of the population and giving it to the 1%. And suddenly, you see the numbers of uber-wealthy, millionaires and billionaires, their numbers explode. And what’s wrong with that? The problem is that many of these people have wanted to convert their economic power into political power. So they ran for office. Donald Trump is the foremost example of this.

The third factor is that the majority of the population is losing ground, which creates the push factor for many of them to try to get out of this immiseration. How do you do that? Well, you get a college degree. And a college degree has become really quite devalued as a result of that. So now you need to get an advanced degree. So we have a huge overproduction of people with advanced degrees. And the most dangerous of them are the lawyers. Lenin was a lawyer. Castro, Robespierre and Gandhi, and Abraham Lincoln were. So most of the famous revolutionaries were actually trained in law. Teachers are the second most dangerous! In the United States, we are currently over producing lawyers, with three times as many lawyers graduating as there are jobs for them. So many of them have become dissident leaders that have been undermining the stability of the United States…

What is your take on what is happening in Europe – and is there enough data?

Yes, well, there is enough data, but it has to be collected and organised, which is what my group is doing, but we need more resources to do it more efficiently. Many European states followed the same road to crisis as the US, but they stepped on it at different times. Maybe Europe on average is 20 years behind the United States – it’s actually good to be behind on this, because it gives us more time to try to figure out how we can defuse the crisis. If we measure instability in terms of anti-government demonstrations, or violent riots, that reminds us that this is now happening very frequently.

If you look at data, you’ll see that starting about 10 years ago, numbers of both anti-government demonstrations and violent riots started to increase dramatically, so that gives us a warning sign. And in terms of the drivers, one useful way of looking at the overproduction of wealth holders is to simply look at how the numbers of billionaires on the Forbes list increase. For example, Sweden used to have 4 billionaires [in 2001], now it has 40. It’s a small country, and it used to be an example of social democracy in action, but something happened to Sweden in the last 20 or 30 years. And now they are overproducing billionaires. Where did this wealth come from? Is there a wealth pump operating in Sweden? If yes, then that has bad consequences.

How did the number increase?

Over the last generation, it’s actually a worldwide phenomenon, the numbers of uber wealthy people have been growing everywhere, but not everywhere at the same rate. So Sweden actually has more billionaires, than the US, per capita or per GDP dollar, however you measure it.

One issue you’re not addressing explicitly in your book is the issue of climate crisis. And just recently, Geoff Mulgan has published an article writing about the billionaire class – as a social group, as a force. And he’s also writing about overconsumption as a problem. What is your take on that?

I talk about it in the book, and we have studied that because we have gathered data on past crises. These are preliminary analyses, but what they show is that climate shocks tend not to be deep drivers but they can be triggering forces. What happens is that the forces that we’re talking about – immiseration and elite overproduction – develop slowly, and they are undermining the resilience of our societies to external shocks, such as the climate crisis. What we are seeing today is not unprecedented. One of the signs that societies are losing resilience is that the degree of social cooperation goes down.

As social cooperation declines, our ability as societies to deal with climate change becomes undermined. We have both the understanding of the causes and how to deal with it, but we cannot do that collectively because of the lack of cooperation. And that is the result of those deep forces, deep social forces I’ve been talking about.

So, what can we do?

There is bad news and good news. The bad news is that most of the time, something dire happens, not as bad as the Taiping Rebellion [which killed 20-30 million], but typically there is some kind of a social breakdown. There is no such thing as a ‘typical collapse’. Like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way, and every collapse is actually a collapse in a different way. But the good news is that we do also have historical examples where the elites pulled together, cooperated amongst themselves, and with the population, and have resolved crises. The elites need to shut down the wealth pump. And that’s really difficult to do, because the wealth pump is very lucrative for the elites, right? They must forego their short-term interest.

Examples that we have studied carefully are the Progressive and New Deal eras in the United States. That’s exactly when they managed to shut down the wealth pump. Other examples include the Chartist period in the British Empire, the reform period during the 1860s in the Russian Empire, which postponed the crisis by 50 years or so. And there are some other examples going all the way back to even ancient Rome. So essentially, in all of those cases, their elites understood the problem and agreed to forego their short-term advantage in order to resolve the situation.

If you look at Europe today, and you shared the good news that we’re perhaps 20 years behind the United States, we seem to have a bit more time even though it seems like everything is literally collapsing. And there’s a lot of discontent…

Yes, there is a lot of discontent. But it would be too much to say that everything is collapsing. My feeling is that we have time. Things are not as dire as they have been in the past. That actually focuses people’s attention on the crisis and the causes. The most important thing is we need to shut down the wealth pump. What we need to do is find various ways for the 90% to get back to growing together with the overall productivity, the GDP per capita.

How is it in line with the climate crisis, where a lot of people started discussing a model of economic degrowth?

I think degrowth is non-starter because it’s easy for us, the wealthy countries, to say to the rest of the world, “stop growing”, but they won’t. I think it’s a mistake. Until recently, there was a strong correlation between energy consumption and economic growth, but it started to break down. We see in many countries, that they have economic growth without fossil fuel consumption. Remember that we know all the technologies to get as much energy as we need, without pumping carbon into the atmosphere. That’s one thing. And secondly, that the relationship between GDP and energy has been also breaking down. So, there is no need for us to focus on degrowth, what we do need is smart growth, the green economy, and that is entirely possible to do.

What are you passionate about?

I’m actually passionate about stopping people killing each other. Everybody talks about global climate. I agree that it’s an existential threat to humanity, but the second existential threat to the humanity is warfare. And we have not been able to stop wars. In fact, right now, as we speak, there are several new hot wars going on killing hundreds of thousands of people. Secondly, it can kill all of us, because it can escalate into a nuclear holocaust. This problem can be solved only at the level of humanity as a whole, you need a global organisation that will have enough power to actually discipline different members of the international community. Including my own country, the US, which has started more wars than anybody else…

Fascinating conversation, thank you so much!


Peter Turchin
Team Leader, Complexity Science Hub Vienna