Cliodynamics is a new field which attempts to put the study of history on a sound scientific footing. And what do new fields need first? You guessed it. A Muse. Let me introduce you to Clio, the Muse of history. Like all good muses Clio comes to us from Greek Mythology. The “dynamics” part I assume refers to system dynamics which for some reason never chose a muse. This term was coined by Peter Turchin. a professor at the University of Connecticut who is a co author along with Sergey Nefedov of a book I recently read entitled Secular Cycles.
It is a new slant on an old theory , that of Social Cycles, the notion that history repeats itself in a repeating sequence of dark ages and golden ages, booms and busts. Turchin and Nefedov’s achievement is applying a number’s based analytical approach to history utilizing a set of variables which they saw as common to eight civilizations they studied from early Roman to late Tzarist Russia. They named this approach Cliodynamics and dubbed their model a demographic/structural theory. The key variables they emphasized were population, income inequality between elites and commoners, wages and prices, and sociopolitical instability. They called their approach semi-Malthusian. They could just as easily have called it an ecological approach as a good part of their discussion related to carrying capacity of rising and declining populations in the face of disease, famines and wars. They they were looking for patterns in the population and instability oscillations experienced by these eight civilizations. They acknowledged standing on the shoulders of the thinkers and philosophers who preceded them from the 14th century Tunisian Ibn Khaldun, the17th century Neopolitan Giambattista Vico up to contemporaries like Oswald Spengler in the last century. They give particular praise to their associate Jack Goldstone at George Mason University, a sociologist and political scientist specializing in rebellions and revolutions. Goldstone has worked as a consultant to the Federal Government on a variety of projects dealing with implications of rebellions and instability in relation to US foreign policy.
Their model described four phases which the civilizations cycled through:Expansion, stagflation, crisis and depression . The time span for a full cycle varied but seems to have been around 300 years. The authors emphasize that their study was of agrarian civilizations but most reviewers and others who have commented on the book understandably jump to the applicability of the model to current civilizations. In their conclusion they address this issue with a variety of caveats including a willingness to modify the model to fit contemporary applications. One highly regarded energy and economic blogger, Gail Tverberg described the phases as follows:
- Expansion phase (growth) – Increasing population, relatively low taxes, political stability, low grain prices, and high real (inflation-adjusted) wages.
- Stagflation phase (compression) – Slowing population growth, much heavier taxes needed to support a growing elite class, low but increasing political instability, rising grain prices, declining real wages for most workers, increasing indebtedness, and increasing urbanization.
- Crisis phase (state breakdown) – Population declining from the peak (typically by disease or by deaths from warfare), high income inequality, political instability increasing to a peak, high but very variable grain prices, high urbanization, tax system in a state of crisis, peasant uprisings.
- Depression/inter cycle – Low population, attempts to restore state, declining economic inequality, grain prices decreasing but variable.
Clearly Dr Turchin is thinking about the fit of his model to our society. He posted a recent paper this month dealing with this very point. I found a posted graph very interesting which I reproduce here:
Income inequality was a key variable in Secular Cycles. I have corresponded with Dr Turchin on this graphic which by the way was not his. I felt it understated current income inequality which is a subject much in current news and opinion. Clearly US well being is negative and inequality is growing.
If I were sitting down with Turchin and Nefedov right now I would be asking how their analysis would apply to the industrial civilization that has blossomed in the past 200 years. I have spent some time pondering just the fossil energy contribution to the trajectory of our civilization. Energy has been the catalyst that has driven exponential growth in some of Turchin and Nefedov’s fundamental variables such as population and carrying capacity and food availability.Elite overproduction has clearly been magnified by the enormous wealth conferred on oil consuming societies both directly and indirectly. It has certainly fueled sociopolitical instability. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred as a response to the US and Britain cutting off petroleum access to Japan. If my catalyst assumption of energy’s contribution holds, how might the variables respond in magnitude, amplification and direction.? Might fossil energy be its own independent variable? And let’s not forget the elephant in the room: Globalization. We have an interlinked industrial civilization and if there were to be collapse of one nation, multiple collapses would almost certainly be likely.
I have found negative comments about Cliodynamics from historians skeptical that there are universal laws underlying social behavior, Many historians consider historical processes non-linear and highly complex and equally skeptical that it can be put on as sound a footing as the empirical sciences
. They point to economics which has tried to emulate and ape the physical sciences by employing complex mathematical formulas and modeling techniques with generally dismal predictive results. In economics the situation may be improving with the work of Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart looking at 800 years of financial missteps in their book: This time is different:Eight centuries of financial folly. History and economics are pretty closely wedded. Turchin’s work is retrospective and correlation is not the same as causation , but some of the correlations seemed pretty stunning. His observation that elite overproduction preceded the crisis phase in all cases is notable. I think it is healthful that Turchin’s background as an ecologist and statistician has wafted some beneficial cross pollination into the historical field. Whether it can be transformed into a science remains to be seen. Double blind testing, the gold standard of scientific inquiry, will be difficult.And as Niels Bohr said “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.”