We are at a pivotal, fascinating and dangerous moment. Let me explain in 550 words.
The polymath Professor Peter Turchin of Duke University takes the study of society to a new more scientific level. As a mathematician his goal is to use data analysis to disclose deep patterns in human history and from this to offer reliable predictions. Right now he is reducing the odds on collapse or revolution.
In essence, Turchin argues that civilisations and eras go through cycles in which levels of inequality grow, driven by a combination of changes in power and population. This in turn leads to a decline of public consent and some kind of transformational shift. He argues that we are nearing the peak of one of those cycles marked by massive inequality, falling living standards and high levels of public anger.
The week’s stark evidence of declining incomes and rising poverty levels in the UK go alongside further evidence of collapsing public trust in the political class.
In a recent RSA talk about his book ‘Austerity: the history of a dangerous idea’ economist Mark Blyth points to similar evidence on living standards and inequality. Austerity, he says, is the misguided attempt to deal with the economic crises by punishing the victims - those already poor and in debt - but as this doesn’t work (either economically or politically) sooner or later the only alternative is to take money off those who continue to hoard or accumulate it. This is why David Cameron, a Conservative Prime Minister who is instinctively hostile to both business taxes and international policy co-ordination, is touring the world trying – unsuccessfully it seems – to win support from the G8 to tax the income of our largest corporations.
In the terms of my three powers framework, the forces of hierarchy (Government) are realising that their ultimate priority – the maintenance of order – means that they must respond to the growing solidaristic backlash of resentment from an immiserated population by taking on the individualistic, free riding ethic of global capitalism. Nor are Prime Ministers alone; some of the world’s richest individuals – people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are also aware of the crisis and the need to squeeze the ‘fat cats’ to save the system.
Turchin describes the historical precedents:
Unequal societies generally turn a corner once they have passed through a long spell of political instability. Governing elites tire of incessant violence and disorder. They realize that they need to suppress their internal rivalries, and switch to a more co-operative way of governing, if they are to have any hope of preserving the social order. We see this shift in the social mood repeatedly throughout history — towards the end of the Roman civil wars (first century BC), following the English Wars of the Roses (1455-85), and after the Fronded (1648-53), the final great outbreak of violence that had been convulsing France since the Wars of Religion began in the late 16th century. Put simply, it is fear of revolution that restores equality.
Mr Cameron’s equivalent of ‘suppressing internal rivalries’ is trying to persuade Canadian PM Stephen Harper and the other G8 leaders to back a global tax regime. But the possibility that the global political elite has the commitment, insight and unity to head off disaster seems slight.
We need change and for the cycle of growing inequality to reverse, but revolutions are dangerous things. For the sake of peace, justice and progress I hope the Prime Minister’s briefing pack contains some powerful history lessons.