Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Secular Cycles - Bringing back the social aspect

Apologies for the length, but I just couldn't find a place to break this into multiple posts.

Over the past few series of posts, some of you may have noticed the similarity between Paul Colinvaux's ecological hypothesis and the ideas of Thomas Malthus. Malthus' ideas also revolved around demographics and the role they play in historical cycles, particularly concerning population increase. His ideas were later applied with more economic rigor to land and rent prices by David Ricardo.

A number of scholars have detected distinct historical cycles and attributed them to primarily demographic factors. German historian Wilhelm Abel compiled time-series information about prices, wages, rents, and population movements in Western and Central Europe from the thirteenth to the twentieth centuries, and concluded that fluctuations in the circulation of money were inadequate to explain the cycles he observed. Later Michael Postan, working in England, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, in France came to similar conclusions. Le Roy Laduries' The Peasants of Languedoc was a compilation of hundreds of years of precise historical data in which the same repetitive patterns could be seen: "Rents would rise first, with grain prices lagging behind rents, the price of industrial goods lagging behind grain prices, and workers’ wages bringing up the rear." On this basis he argued that rural France went through  a great Agrarian Cycle from the end of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, and that this cycle was essentially Malthusian in nature.

However, other scholars looked at this demographic determinism and argued that it neglected the sociopolitical aspect of history, without which we cannot explain historical cycles. They argued that sociopolitical factors such as  "growth in the size of the parasitic class and the increasing extravagance of noble consumption," were as much a factor in the historical cycles observed as were  demographic trends.

For example, they pointed to the fact that after the Black Death in Europe, societies went on very different trajectories. Some became more free, while others became more oppressive. Also, they pointed out that higher productivity, lower food prices and higher wages in the wake of the Black Death did not lead to population growth; instead the population stagnated from the mid-fourteenth century to the late fifteenth century. This prolonged post-Black Death depression phase was not predicted by Malthusian theory. Scholars such as Robert Brenner argued that these were due to established structures of class relations. Many of these scholars were associated with the Marxist school of thought.

However, an attempt has been made to resolve the "Brenner debate" by reconciling the two in a larger framework, and bringing the state back in as an actor. Rather than being in opposition, demographic factors and sociopolitical developments are intrinsically linked. Theories were developed to subsume the two in a larger framework, notably by Jack Goldstone, who termed his ideas demographic-structural. The theory argued that there is a causal connection between population growth and state breakdown. In this theory, population growth is not a direct cause of state breakdown, but affects the underlying social institutions, which in turn affects sociopolitical stability.

The concept of Secular Cycles developed by Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov is a more recent and rigorous attempt to reconcile both demographic and structural factors. Turchin, like Colinvaux, has a background in the natural sciences (zoology and biology). Their desire is to create a model of the rise and fall of complex agrarian civilizations sophisticated enough to have explanatory power, but not so complex as to be unworkable. Some simplification is required, of course, because history is neither linear nor predictable, something they freely acknowledge.
What we need is a synthetic theory that encompasses both demographic mechanisms (with the associated economic consequences) and power relations (surplus extraction mechanisms). In the dynamical systems framework, it does not make sense to speak of one or the other as “the primary factor.” The two factors interact dynamically, each affecting and being affected by the other. 
In this  book  we  examine  the  hypothesis  that  secular  cycles—demographic ­social-political  oscillations  of  very  long  period  (centuries  long)—are  the  rule rather than the exception in large agrarian states and empires.
Secular Cycles is not available at my local library and is prohibitively expensive (probably because it's a textbook). Thankfully, the introduction which describes the basic approach is available for free online.(PDF) I will use this as the basis of this blog post. Emphasis mine unless noted otherwise.

Secular Cycles - phases

Turchin and Nefedyov divide secular cycles into two major phases: an integrative phase and and a degenerative phase:
...Politically the integrative phase is characterized by a centralizing tendency, unified elites, and a strong state that maintains order and internal stability. Internal cohesion often results in the vigorous prosecution of external wars of conquest, which may result in the extension of the state territory (assuming there are weaker neighbors at whose expense the state can expand).  
The disintegrative phase, by contrast, is characterized by a decentralizing tendency, divided elites, a weak state, and internal instability and political disorder that periodically flare up in civil war. External wars of conquest are much more difficult to prosecute during the disintegrative phase. If they happen, they usually take place during the intervals between civil wars and at the expense of equally weak opponents. More frequently it is the external enemies that profit from the internal weakness of the state and society, resulting in an increased frequency of raids, invasions, and loss of territory.
Secular cycles are also divided into a number of subphases. There is typically an expansive phase, a stagflation (stagnation plus inflation) phase, a crisis phase, and a depression phase. Each of these phases can last different periods of time, although some are typically more acute and shorter than others.
- Population growth is particularly vigorous during the first, expansion phase of the integrative trend. This is a time of relatively stable prices and modest real wage declines (if any). 
- [A]s the population density begins to approach the limits set by the carrying capacity, price increases or wage declines accelerate—this is the “stagnation” or “compression” or even more descriptively stagflation (stagnation plus inflation) phase. Although the majority of commoners experience increasing economic difficulties during the stagflation phase, the elites enjoy a golden age, and their numbers and appetites continue to expand. 
-The stagflation phase (and the overall integrative trend) is succeeded by a general crisis. Whereas expansion grades smoothly into stagnation, the transition between stagflation and crisis is often (but not always) abrupt. Discrete events signaling the arrival of crisis can be pandemics, extreme episodes of famine, or state collapse followed by intense civil war (or any such events in various combinations).  
The crisis phase in our terminology is not a discrete, brief event (which is one meaning of the word crisis) but an extended period that can last for one or more human generations. The decline of population numbers during a crisis results in a situation of plentiful per capita resources. However, this does not necessarily end the disintegrative trend, because there are usually too many elites and elite aspirants, and intraelite conflict continues to generate internal instability. 
-[T]he crisis grades smoothly into a depression phase, characterized by endemic civil warfare. The population may grow during the intervals between intense civil wars, but such increases typically do not last and are followed by declines (although not as a catastrophic as those typical of the crisis phase).  
The depression phase ends when the ranks of elites are pruned by internal conflict to the point where the disintegrative trend can reverse itself, and a new secular cycle begins. Alternatively, if no functioning state can get going, then the depression phase grades smoothly into an intercycle of indeterminate length.
The boundary between these phases is "fuzzy," and often times the authors round the transition periods to the nearest decade. Secular cycles are not regular, repeating rhythms, but rather events that play out along different timescales and are affected by a number of factors. These systems are complex, chaotic, and nonlinear, meaning they are not predictable. Agrarian states are affected by exogenous variables (coming from outside the system): "Exogenous factors, unlike endogenous ones, are those that are not part of feedback loops." And often the actions of even lone individuals can affect the system in unpredictable ways.

The Demographic Component

Like Colinvaux, Turchin and Nefedov examine the underlying demographic/Malthusian arguments:
The demographic component of the theory is based very much on the original insights of Malthus and Ricardo...The key variable is the population density in relation to the carrying capacity of the local region...The concept of carrying defined as the population density that the resources of the habitat can support in the long term...Resources usually refer to food, although in some environments the limiting resource may be the availability of water or fuel. Carrying capacity thus is an upper ceiling on population growth. From the point of view of economics, this limit arises because labor inputs into production suffer from diminishing marginal returns...
The carrying capacity of the land is determined by things such as temperature, rainfall, topography, water supply, soil type, and so forth. A forest can support more people than can a desert. It is also affected by climate, which means that the carrying capacity varies over time. This is important in understanding rise and fall.

Also critical is the idea that the carrying capacity can be affected by the level of technology employed. As Esther Boserup pointed out, increasing technology along with population growth can lead to intensification, which is the use of technology to increase the carrying capacity of a given piece of land (e.g. transition to agriculture from foraging). "As Ester Boserup famously argued, population growth can have a positive effect on economic innovation."  Not mentioned, though relevant, is William Catton's concept of ghost acreage, which is drawing resources forward in time or space to (temporarily) increase carrying capacity of a given area (fossil fuel, fossil water[aquifers], imports, etc.).

Diminishing marginal returns means that if you have a fixed variable, adding more and more inputs will generate increasingly smaller outputs over time. It is a core concept in economics. for example, adding more and more workers to a task does not work if there is some limiting factor (and there always is). For more on the concept of diminishing returns, see here. The law of diminishing returns mean that surpluses will reach a maximum and then decline over time:
One important consequence of the law of diminishing returns is that the amount of surplus produced by cultivators is nonlinearly related to their numbers. Surplus is the difference between the total production and what is needed for subsistence...The amount of resources needed for subsistence increases linearly with population, while the total product grows slower than linearly as a result of the law of diminishing returns...Thus, when population increases from a low level, initially the amount of surplus increases (more peasants means more surplus). At some intermediate density, however, the surplus reaches a maximum: this is where the effects of diminishing returns on labor inputs into agriculture begin to be felt. After that point, the surplus begins to decline.
While Boserup's insights are considered to be a refutation of Malthus, suggesting that innovation and intesification can solve any predicament, in fact they are complimentary. Intensification was simply a factor that Malthus missed; incorporate it and you still have a valid theory:
Although Boserup is widely regarded as being anti-Malthusian, both her insights and those of Malthus can be comfortably combined within the same general theoretical framework. Thus, adverse effects of population growth on the standard of living can provide strong inducements for the adoption of new means of production. However, in agrarian societies, economic change can win only a temporary respite from marginal immiseration.  
For example, a society that approaches the current limits of population growth can invest in clearing forests, draining swamps, irrigation, and flood control. All these measures will result in an increase in the carrying capacity. However, at some point there are no more forests to cut or swamps to drain, and if the population continues to grow, eventually it will again begin pressing against the Malthusian limits.
As a society approaches the carrying capacity of the land, there are a number of immediate and measurable effects on the underlying social structures of that society:
...There are shortages of land and food, and an oversupply of labor. As a result, food prices increase, real wages decline, and per capita consumption, especially among the poorer strata, drops. Economic distress leads to lower reproduction and higher mortality rates, resulting in a slower population growth. Should population density reach the carrying capacity, there would be just enough food to sustain and replace one individual; birth and death rates would equalize, and population density would be at an equilibrium...
What happens to the underlying social structure when diminishing marginal returns start to set in, and productivity gains can no longer keep pace with population growth? Some very distinct things, which we can see in the historical record:
The typical changes accompanying population growth are high rents and land prices, increasing fragmentation of peasant holdings or high numbers of landless peasants, and increased migration of landless peasants to cities...Cheap labor results in a flowering of trades and crafts. The demand for manufactures increases, because the elites profit from high rents on land and lower labor costs. 
Increased urbanization and conspicuous consumption by the elites promote regional and international trade. The gap between the well-to-do and the poor grows. In rural areas...[c]hronic undernourishment creates conditions conducive to the spread of epidemics...The cities accumulate landless peasants and jobless artisans, who join the growing ranks of paupers and vagrants. Food riots and wage protests become frequent. Eventually, deepening economic misery leads to peasant and urban uprisings...
This very much in line with Colinvaux's theories. One critical difference is that in secular cycles, as the population of commoners becomes immiserated, the fortunes of the wealthy actually increase, because increasing population means more and cheaper labor, and it is the elites who exploit that labor who benefit from the situation.

Thus, rather than being hostile to population increase, increased population is temporarily beneficial to elites, because it affords them access to cheaper labor (one reason why elites always advocate for natalist policies, and see population decline as a "crisis"  to be solved).

Increased elite wealth is also a driver for foreign trade, because there is a greater market for luxury goods thanks to elite wealth accumulation. This fits with Colinvaux's model for trade, where it is used as a way to create niche space for upper-class buccaneers in a time of population growth, while providing expanded niches throughout the trading society. Thus, increasing population drives trade in two ways: increasing fortunes for the rich and increased competition for niche space (about which more below).

The law of diminishing marginal returns means the surplus declines as population increases, since more and more people does not equal more and more surplus after a certain point. That surplus is appropriated by elites:
The surplus produced by peasants is not made available to the elites (and the state) automatically; left alone, peasants would happily consume it themselves (or simply work less, “consuming” it as extra leisure time). How much of the production ends up in the hands of the elites depends on many economic and political factors. One important dynamic is that the elites are usually able to extract a larger amount of surplus during the late stages of population growth...In a serfdom-based system lords can set the level of extraction almost arbitrarily high, because oppressed serfs have nowhere to flee—the whole surrounding landscape is at the saturation level, and the only alternative is the life of a vagabond or a bandit, which has always been brutish and short. 
Thus, most serfs have no realistic alternative to submission...Oversupply of labor leads to depressed wages and chronic unemployment or underemployment for a substantial part of population. On the other hand, employers, both rural and urban, profit greatly from this economic situation.
This ties in with Carneiro's circumscription theory - an idea of early state formation. This idea is that elites grow powerful enough to form a coercive state in societies which are circumscribed, i.e. there are no more places where dissidents and rebels can flee to. This allows elites to successfully remove resistance to their authority, and become more powerful and more rapacious. Redistributive chiefs can make the leap to kingship in places which are circumscribed by oceans, seas, rivers, mountains, valleys, deserts, jungles, or hostile tribes (for more, see this).

Compare this also to the view of mainstream economics, who insist that there can be no such thing as unemployment, because increasing the population causes more goods and services to be demanded, which will employ the surplus labor (supply creates its own demand, aka Say's Law). We see that this view is simply historically false.

Thus, we see that the elites grow ever wealthier as the society approaches the carrying capacity, and they demand ever more consumption even a time of diminishing returns and increasing poverty for the masses:
...during the late stages of population growth, when commoners are already suffering from economic difficulties, the elites are enjoying a golden age. Both the reproduction of the existing elites and the recruitment of new elites from commoners will be fastest when the amount of extractable surplus is greatest. The expansion of elite numbers should take place...when fast-rising prices and land rents offer the greatest opportunities for rapid accumulation of wealth by current and aspiring elites, and when state fiscal problems lead rulers to increase the sale of privilege and rank; both factors tend to accelerate social mobility into the elite ranks. As a result, the peak of elite numbers often lags behind that of the general population.
Note that this implies an increasingly "two-tier" society of lords and serfs; a sort of "hourglass" shaped social structure, rather than pyramidal or diamond-shaped (albeit with a much larger bottom portion).

The good times roll, for the rich. But it cannot last for long (compare the Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression, for example). Incomes for elites start to fall:
Such a happy state of events (for the elites) cannot continue for long. First, expansion of elite numbers means that the amount of resources per elite capita begins to decline. This process would occur even if the total amount of surplus stayed constant. But, second, as general population grows closer to the carrying capacity, surplus production gradually declines. The combination of these two trends results in an accelerating fall of average elite incomes.
We judge our standards not by some absolute level of consumption, but relative to our peers and our parents' generation. Everyone wants to live better than their parents. Even as society becomes poorer, elites want to live better. They look around and set their level of consumption based on people around them. They also set it based upon their parents. They demand more than the people who preceded them, and they are accustomed to getting it:
...Modern studies of consumption level expectations suggest that people generally aim at matching (and if possible exceeding) the consumption levels of their parents. Thus, what is important is not the absolute level of consumption but the level in relation to the previous generation...If we can extrapolate results obtained by studying modern consumers to preindustrial elites, then we would predict that during the good times the elites would easily become accustomed to elevated levels of consumption...By contrast, should their level of consumption decrease in relation to the previous generation’s, the elites would be expected to react vehemently to this development. This argument suggests there is no contradiction between the bitter critique of the elites for their luxurious and wasteful way of life by contemporary social commentators and the equally bitter complaining of the elites themselves about their poverty and indebtedness.
It's become common to see stories about how "poor" people who make combined six and seven-figure salaries feel in places like Manhattan, the Beltway, the Hamptons, Beverly Hills, Orange County, Silicon Valley, and other wealthy, exclusive enclaves. Now we can understand why they feel this way. Increasing amounts of elites bid up the cost of everything, and elites demand to live better than their parents did, leading to an inflation of expectations (compare their lifestyles to a generation ago). It's worth noting that the predatory behavior of elites was at the core of a study which predicted a civilizational decline which received significant attention a couple years back.

As elite competition intensifies, those who play their cards right can be the beneficiaries of elites who have less wealth to deal with the declining resources per capita. We see this in business where the big fish gobble up the little fish. Business owners who do not have the resources to hold out against larger competitors, or hold on through a downturn, have no other choice than to sell out to those who can. The winners of this competition can then buy up the losers, further cementing their position, increasing their wealth, and driving out-of-control inequality (while creating ever more frustrated and angry losers under this system):
The deteriorating economic conditions of wealthy elites during the late stagflation phase of the secular cycle do not affect all aristocrats equally. While the majority are losing ground, a few lineages, by contrast, are able to increase their wealth. The growing economic inequality results from the operation of what some sociologists call the “Matthew effect.”
Poor aristocratic lineages tend to get poorer because they attempt to maintain their elite status on an inadequate economic basis...A wealthier lineage, by contrast, can maintain the level of consumption necessary for preserving its elite status and have some resources left over to acquire land from its impoverished neighbors. As a result, the poor get poorer while the rich get richer.
During periods of economic hardship, poor peasants must sell land or starve. As a result, at the same time that the majority are sliding into absolute misery, a small percentage of thrifty, hardworking, or simply lucky peasants are able to concentrate increasing amounts of land in their hands. At some point, such successful peasants usually attempt to translate their wealth into higher social status. This demand for upward social mobility is an important factor contributing to the elite overproduction that develops towards the end of a prolonged period of demographic expansion.
Again, ripped from the headlines: We've consistently seen stories about how the one percent is losing out to the .01 percent, and even the .001 percent! We see above that this is a real and logical phenomenon.

Why Don't the 1 Percent Feel Rich? (The Atlantic)

We're also constantly subjected to "Horatio Alger" stories about how people are able to amass enormous fortunes during this period and slip into the ranks of the super-rich. Many of the Silicon Valley titans fit this pattern, as do many elites from places like Russia and China who are the beneficiaries of ultra-cheap labor, expanding economies, and extreme inequality in their home countries. This is sold to the public in the media as a way to say, "see, anyone can make it!" and "inequality doesn't matter-only social mobility does!" even as the majority gets poorer and poorer. But these are related! The poverty of the masses leads directly to the emergence of super-rich elites. Making them richer will not solve poverty, despite what elite apologists in politics, economics and the media assure us.

Toynbee would describe this as the transition of the creative majority to the dominant majority. He would also note the emergence of the sullen internal proletariat. Thanks to secular cycles, we can see, although Toynbee could not, how both these events are related population growth.

What is the reaction from the dominant majority? It's obvious: take even more from the internal proletariat!  Thus population growth => diminishing marginal returns => elite greed and rapacity. The relation between elites and population growth is in my opinion one of the most interesting parts of secular cycles (and missing from Colinvaux and Malthus).

The problem is, the elites are trying to maintain their lifestyles in a time of growing  immiseration for the general public due to diminishing marginal returns. This leads to growing social conflict, and even revolutionary sentiment:
The declining incomes of the majority of aristocrats have two important consequences: intensifying oppression of the peasants by the elites and increasing intraelite competition for scarce resources. The elites will attempt to increase the proportion of resource extracted from the producers by whatever means that are available to them, both economic and extraeconomic (coercive). 
Their success will depend on the structural characteristics of the society: the relative military strength of the elites with respect to the producers and the state, legal and cultural limits on surplus extraction, and so forth. If successful, elites may not only deprive the commoners of the surplus but may also cut into the subsistence resource, resulting in a negative growth rate for the commoner population... 
The second consequence of plunging elite incomes is increased intraelite competition. The forms that this competition takes will depend (again) on the structural characteristics of the society. Probably the most important factor is the capability of the state to suppress overt violence. Here we consider the forms of intraelite competition in the presence of the state when internal order is maintained. The situation after the state collapses or is seriously weakened is considered later.
Turchin and Nefedyov want some sort of metric for their model of intraelite competition, and some of the things they use are increased applications for higher education certifications and increased civil lawsuits (in societies which maintain social order, that is). More recently, Turchin has looked at the number of applicants to law schools, and the bifurcation of lawyer salaries:
Increasing inequality leads not only to the growth of top fortunes; it also results in greater numbers of wealth-holders. The “1 percent” becomes “2 percent.” Or even more. There are many more millionaires, multimillionaires and billionaires today compared with 30 years ago, as a proportion of the population.

Rich Americans tend to be more politically active than the rest of the population. They support candidates who share their views and values; they sometimes run for office themselves. Yet the supply of political offices has stayed flat (there are still 100 senators and 435 representatives -- the same numbers as in 1970). In technical terms, such a situation is known as “elite overproduction.”

A related sign is the overproduction of law degrees. From the mid-1970s to 2011, according to the American Bar Association, the number of lawyers tripled to 1.2 million from 400,000. Meanwhile, the population grew by only 45 percent.Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. recently estimated that twice as many law graduates pass the bar exam as there are job openings for them. In other words, every year U.S. law schools churn out about 25,000 “surplus” lawyers, many of whom are in debt. A large number of them go to law school with an ambition to enter politics someday.

So why is it important that we have a multitude of desperate law school graduates and many more politically ambitious rich than 30 years ago?

Past waves of political instability, such as the civil wars of the late Roman Republic, the French Wars of Religion and the American Civil War, had many interlinking causes and circumstances unique to their age. But a common thread in the eras we studied was elite overproduction. The other two important elements were stagnating and declining living standards of the general population and increasing indebtedness of the state.

Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions...
Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays (Bloomberg)

"Startup culture" is a clear manifestation of intraelite competition in the modern-day U.S.

Note how similar this is with Colinvaux's theory regarding increasing competition for broad niche space as a fundamental cause of social conflict and unraveling. Increasing elites caused by population growth is the driver for many of Colinvaux's prime movers: wars, colonization, foreign trade, and technological innovation. It's also fundamental to the establishment of caste systems and police states (due to elites feeling more threatened by commoners).

I would also link it to debasement of currencies and increasing indebtedness at all levels. As peoples' living standards start to decline, they attempt to use debt to compensate. Increasing indebtedness leads to more wealth bifurcation as the lenders benefit from increased demand for their money and can use interest to redistribute income upward. Currency is debased as money is printed as means for elites to increase their wealth and status apart from any useful contribution to the economy. I would also point to financialization as another means of elites to hold onto their wealth--the wealth of elites in declining empires typically comes from putting the rest of the society in hock to them, along with illusory Ponzi schemes and hallucinatory paper wealth (Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, etc.).

I would also use bubbles as a clear indicator of elite overproduction: prices are irrationally bid up when a lot of wealthy elites want to hold onto their money.

Societies at this point reach what they call a bifurcation point, leading of one of two paths: either an increased freedom for the majority, as with the decline of serfdom after the Black Death in Western Europe, or an increasingly repressive police state, as under the Malmuks in Egypt. The Magna Carta or the Iron First.

The behavior of elites matters. If elites are so rapacious that they take so much surplus from the underlying population, the underlying population will not even be able to reproduce itself. Turchin uses the contrast between post Black-Death England and Egypt. In England, there were plenty of places to hide, and the longbow served as a force equalizer. In Egypt, the elites trying to maintain their living standards were the specialized slave-warriors known as Mamluks, a particularly cohesive and militarily capable group of elites, and there was no place for peasants to hide due to the surrounding deserts. Thus, England recovered demographically and economically; Egypt did not.

Turchin also notes that in Islamic societies such as the Maghreb, polygyny led to faster elite reproduction since multiple wives boosted the genetic fitness of elite males and hence led to more claimants for elite positions. Too many princes led to more social conflict and sped up the secular cycles compared to Western Europe. In Ottoman societies, by contrast, even though the Sultan had a harem, only one son could succeed him and all other claimants were killed off. This slowed down the cycle.

In some Islamic societies, the administrative classes were slaves recruited specifically for this purpose (e.g. the Malmuks and the Ottoman devshirme). Thus the amount of elites was controlled by the state rather than biology, and the children of these administrators could not inherit their parents' position and dropped out of the ruling class. This decreased intraelite competition and made the secular cycles move more slowly in these societies.

Elite overproduction leads to the creation of counterelites, who are the failed aspirants to elite positions. These dissident elites desire nothing more than to bring down the system that has no place for them. This ties in with Colinvaux's (and others) observation that revolutions come from the ranks of the disaffected upwardly mobile classes whose aspirations are thwarted, rather than from the bottom strata who are accustomed to lower living standards:
As a result, the elites tend to lose their unity and split along numerous fission lines: new elites versus old, one religious faction against the other, regional elites against the center, and so on. Because there are not enough resources for everybody, certain segments of elites, or groups aspiring to elite status, inevitably end up as the losers. We refer to them as the counterelites, or dissident elites. Usually, the counterelites do not constitute a true sociological group, because there is little that unifies them apart from hatred for the existing regime and a burning desire to bring it down. Incidentally, we are not implying here that the motivations of the counterelites are purely economical. The late stagflation typically characterized by a harsh oppression of the productive segments of the society and extreme social inequality, offering ample ideological justification for revolutionary action.
State Collapse

The above dynamic leads to the next phase, which is social breakdown.

Social trends resulting from demographic growth—declining surplus production, popular immiseration, and intraelite competition—have a profound impact on the ability of the state to maintain internal order, or even to survive. As Colinvaux pointed out, increasing bureaucracy is an inevitable consequence of the loss of freedom accompanying population growth:
Population growth leads to expansion of armies and bureaucracies, resulting in rising state expenditures. An increased number of aspirants for elite positions puts further fiscal strain on the state. Thus, states have no choice but to seek to expand taxation, despite resistance from the elites and the general populace. Yet the amount of surplus production declines (as discussed in the previous section), and the state must compete for this shrinking surplus with increasingly desperate elites.  
As a result, attempts to increase revenues cannot offset the spiraling state expenses, and even though the state is rapidly raising taxes, it is still headed for fiscal crisis. Note that declining real revenues may be masked by persistent price inflation, and it is therefore important to express all fiscal flows in real terms...After a certain lag time, the negative effects of population expansion begin to affect the elites, who become riven by increasing rivalry and factionalism.  
Another consequence of rapid population growth is the expansion of youth cohorts. This segment of the population is particularly impacted by lack of employment opportunities. Finally, growing economic inequality, elite competition, and popular discontent fuel ideological conflicts. For example, in early modern Europe, dissident elites and dissatisfied artisans were widely recruited into heterodox religious movements... 
As all these trends intensify, the end result is state bankruptcy and consequent loss of the military control, elite movements of regional and national rebellion, and a combination of elite-mobilized and popular uprisings following the breakdown of central authority. Internal war among political factions is only one aspect of increased interpersonal violence. A breakdown of social order is also accompanied by increased banditry, homicides, and other kinds of violent crimes. On the ideological level, the feeling of social pessimism is pervasive and the legitimacy of the state authority is at its lowest point. The society approaches a condition that may appropriately be called “Hobbesian” (Hobbes himself lived during such a period). We refer to these conditions collectively as high sociopolitical instability.
Now here is a really interesting point: these trends feed upon themselves. In other words, demographic increase leads to sociopolitical changes, which in turn affect population growth. Feedback loops are formed where one variable affects the other. Growing elite rapacity and overproduction and diminishing marginal returns for the peasants (the Malthusian and Marxist schools), leads in turn to changes in the underlying demographics which brought this situation about: does instability affect population dynamics? We can envision two general (and, actually, interrelated) ways: by affecting demographic rates and by affecting the productive ability of the society. 
...when the state is weak or absent, the populace will suffer from elevated mortality due to increased crime, banditry, and internal warfare (civil war)....When the state is strong, warfare is directed outward, and the areas that suffer most are the state frontiers, as well as areas outside, which are targeted for conquest. Collapse of the state and the ensuing civil wars reduce the resistance of the society to external invasion...As a result, internal warfare and external invasions by groups ranging from small bands of raiders to rival great powers can become hard to separate...
 Disease epidemics, which decrease population numbers, may be seen as unrelated. But, in fact, unceasing state breakdown leads to factors which increase the spread of disease vectors: armies on the move, vagrants drifting from town to town, bandits raiding the countryside, increased migration and long-distance trade as people seek out new niches:
Warfare has also an indirect effect on mortality, because movements of rebel or invading armies spread epidemics...The times of trouble also cause increased migration: refugees flee from war-afflicted areas or areas whose productive potential has been destroyed. Migration has several effects. First, it can lead to emigration (and we can simply add that to mortality). Second, people on the move cannot afford to have children. Thus, birth rates decline. Third, migration leads to epidemics. Increased vagrancy spreads the disease by connecting areas that would stay isolated during better times... 
Additional factors facilitating the spread of disease are the movements of armies and the expansion of international trade. The latter factor should be qualified by noting that international trade expands in the precrisis period (stagflation phase) and then gradually declines after the society has descended into anarchy. Thus, the rise of widespread epidemics—pandemics—is most probable during the late stagflation phase. In fact, the arrival of a pandemic is one of the most frequent triggers of the demographic-structural collapse. 
Finally, political instability causes lower reproduction rates, because personal consumption plummets as a result of lowered production capacity. In the absence of organized ways to store surplus, peasants are unable to weather short-term subsistence crises. What stores are accumulated by individual households are easy prey to the marauding armies and other predators. In addition, during times of uncertainty people choose to marry later and to have fewer children. Incidentally, people’s choices about their family sizes may be reflected not only in birth rates but also in the rates of infanticide. Thus, family limitation practices may be disguised as increased infant mortality.
Strong central governments contribute to population growth. As Colinvaux noted, the very existence of the state itself can increase birth rates. Governments can ration and hoard. They can promote trade through uniform systems of laws and money, and maintain roads, trade routes, and so forth, increasing prosperity for all. They can offer protection from pirates and bandits. They can organize labor on a large scale, increasing intensification of systems such as agriculture. They can build and invest in new technology. This leads to more prosperity. When the state breaks down, these all go away, leading to less wealth, and hence lower population growth rates. For example, during the Roman Empire, people lived in productive lowlands. After the collapse, people had to live in hilltop forts to protect themselves from raiders. During the Middle Ages, people needed to live close to town walls in case of attack, leaving much of the countryside fallow. Or, more recently, look at the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse:
The second and perhaps even more important effect of sociopolitical instability is on the productive capacity of the society (the carrying capacity). Vigorous states often invest in increasing the agricultural productivity by constructing irrigation canals and roads, implementing flood control measures, clearing land from forests, organizing the colonization of underpopulated regions, and so on...The other general mechanism is that the state offers protection. In a stateless society, people can live only in natural strongholds or in places that can be made defensible, such as walled cities...  
In other words, lack of effective suppression of internal violence by the state imposes a “landscape of fear,” in which a large proportion of agriculturally suitable lands is abandoned because they are too far from a place of security. By contrast, the strong state protects the productive population from external and internal (banditry, civil war) threats, and thus allows the whole cultivable area to be put into production.
Although these effects of social breakdown hit the commoners more acutely, elite numbers are also reduced:
...a number of social mechanisms exist by which elite surpluses can be reduced: (1) deaths resulting from civil war, (2) deliberate purges of elites by new rulers, (3) limitations imposed on heir production (celibacy, primogeniture), (4) downward social mobility, voluntary or forced by the state, (5) increased material resources resulting from conquest or improvements in agricultural productivity, and (6) the development of a new political order that directs a greater share of resources to the elites. Several such mechanisms are usually operating in combination; the specific mix depends on cultural peculiarities of societies and historical accidents.
Hitting bottom

In order for this degenerative phase of the cycle to end, the fundamental problems of overpopulation, elite overproduction, and state insolvency must all be dealt with in some way. The ways in which these are dealt with vary greatly from society to society, and Turchin and Nefedov refer to these  bifurcation points as causing societies to evolve in radically different directions.

Three different ways are generally seen. Overpopulation generally takes care of itself via what Ian Morris calls "the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse:" climate change, migration, famine, epidemic and state failure. An alternative is to find ways to increase the carrying capacity through migration of the surplus population, or through technological innovation and intensification, as happened during the early days of the Industrial Revolution:
An alternative to population collapse is an increase in the carrying capacity—after all, overpopulation results not from the absolute numbers being too large but from too high a population density in relation to the carrying capacity. The carrying capacity can increase as a result of technological progress. This is probably what happened in early modern England. During the crisis of the seventeenth century, the English population hardly declined, while the average yield of grain per acre probably doubled. The end result was a twofold decline in the population pressure on resources. 
The carrying capacity may also increase as a result of the conquest of new underpopulated territories...Theoretically, the carrying capacity can also increase as a result of a substantial amelioration of the climate, although at this point we cannot point to a well-documented, convincing example of this mechanism in action.
Elite overproduction can be dealt with by the means seen above. An elite that is not militarized can be expropriated easily. High elite turnover generally results in a short-term period of instability. A rapid elite turnover can also be possible where are there a lot of potential external elites waiting in the wings (an external proletariat). By contrast, an elite that is militarily strong and unified can not be easily overthrown, but can only be reduced through a long, grinding period of internecine fighting and civil war. According to Turchin, societies condemned to this fate are destined to enter prolonged depression phases.

Sometimes, a new integrative cycle never begins, and the society remains stuck at a low level permanently (Toynbee would say the challenges were too great for a society to overcome, and got stuck in the interrupted phase):
Thus, for a new secular cycle to get going, the pressures of the general population on resources and of the elites on commoners must be substantially reduced from their precrisis levels. There is also a third condition. Not all societies are capable of the broad-scale cooperation that is required to construct a functioning state, and some societies with a previous imperial history can also lose this ability with time. Thus, it is entirely possible for the civil warfare to gradually die out but a centralizing, integrative trend nevertheless failing to take hold. In this case, the area in question may persist indefinitely...
The timing of the cycles varies based upon various factors:
...we do not expect a strict periodicity in secular dynamics. Instead, dynamics should have an average period, a characteristic time scale, with a substantial degree of variation around this average... 
...the typical length of the expansion phase is primarily determined by (1) the per capita rate of population increase and (2) the population density in relation to carrying capacity at the beginning of the cycle...Expansion phases are also affected by geopolitical environment...Abnormally long expansion phases result from successful territorial conquest, especially when it is accompanied by colonization of conquered territories, which serves to reduce population pressure in the metropole. 
The length of the crisis phase is much less predictable, because while there is a definite biological limit on how fast a human population can grow, there is no comparable limit on how fast it can decline...pathogens afflicting historical populations varied in their lethality. A relatively mild pathogen could drive population down slowly...A severe epidemic, on the other hand, would lead to a very short period of drastic population decline, and also to a deeper degree of social disintegration and longer depression phase (as happened in post–Black Death Europe). 
The characteristic lengths of the stagflation and depression phases depend more on the state and, particularly, on elite dynamics than on what the general population does. In particular, the military strength of the elites has a large effect on the length of the depression phase, or even if there is such a phase at all.
Secular cycles provides a very good addition to the previously examined ecological hypothesis, and fills in many of its gaps. It brings back the sociopolitical aspects, as well as the role of the state. I find it complementary rather than contradictory. We can see very clearly how these cycles are playing out in our own time, and it allows us to make sense of current events without buying into the nonsense perpetrated by the media and our current elites.

Incidentally, the cyclical nature of various social phenomena is being noticed by more and more people; here's economist Branko Milanovich on "Kuznets waves".

Blogger note: After getting mercilessly spammed over the past months with up do a dozen messages per day for "escorts in dubai," I have had no choice but to disable anonymous comments and require signing in. Hopefully that will deal with the problem. It's too bad it's come to this, and sorry for any inconvenience.


  1. You're an architect? Your line of thinking (or query) is up my alley, and I'm digging it. Shine on, you crazy diamond.

  2. Meanwhile, I'd add something like this from Dave Cohen:

    Fuggedabout "More humans equals more ingenuity. The more the merrier."


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