cover image End Times: Elites, Counter-elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration

End Times: Elites, Counter-elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration

Peter Turchin. Penguin Press, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-593-49050-1

Poverty at the bottom and cutthroat elitism at the top breed disaster, according to this scintillating theory of history. Complexity scientist Turchin (Ages of Discord) deploys “cliodynamics”—the study of historical change—to survey revolutions, civil wars, and other upheavals, and assess the likelihood of such unrest in the U.S. in coming decades. His scholarship involves datasets and mathematical models, but he boils it down to a few lucid principles centered around socioeconomic “wealth pumps” that shunt resources from the working class to the rich, resulting in “popular immiseration” and discontent, along with “elite overproduction” of privileged people squabbling over a finite pie of power and status. Turchin applies this framework to many historical settings, including 14th-century France, as well as contemporary American politics, where he explores the resentments of blue-collar white men with declining incomes; the frustration of swelling numbers of college grads who can’t land jobs commensurate with their elite diplomas; and the opportunism of “counter-elite” political entrepreneurs like Donald Trump, who radicalize working-class populists from the right or degree-hoarding progressives from the left. Turchin’s elegantly written treatment looks beneath partisan jousting to class interests that cycle over generations, but also yields timely policy insights. It’s a stimulating analysis of antagonisms past and present, and the crack-up they may be leading to. (June)