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32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Will transform our analysis of societies, January 24, 2012
This review is from: Secular Cycles (Hardcover)
Peter Turchin is a highly respected evolutionary biologist who has specialized in the synthesis of theory and empirical data (see his book Complex Population Dynamics for his work in that area). He has now turned the skills he honed explaining animal societies to human societies, and particularly to explaining the rise and fall of empires. In broad terms I would describe his approach as Malthus meets Marx meets social constructionism meets evolutionary game theory. While his model is strictly applicable only to agrarian empires, his explanations of phenomena such rising income equality, intra-elite conflict, and even increased demand for university admissions, resonate so strongly with modern society that it is clear that a modified version of his model will go a long way towards explaining our current political and economic circumstances. There are few aspects of his work that are individually wholly new; Turchin's contribution is a rigorous synthesis of historical case-studies with evolutionary theory and quantitative empirical evidence. His work has the potential to transform our understanding of "macro" social issues in the same way that behavioral economics has transformed our understanding of decision making at the "micro" level. I'll go out on a limb and predict that Turchin will eventually win a Nobel prize in economics.

I'll provide a quick overview of Turchin's work, but this synopsis doesn't do it justice; if you find my overview implausible, please read his books for yourself.

How groups manage to escape the prisoners' dilemma and cooperate is a central question of evolutionary biology. Turchin argues that the social construction of "other" along meta-ethnic frontiers (which are often defined in terms of factors other than ethnicity, in particular religion), is necessary to enable group cooperation which allows empire building. This is why empires almost invariably arise along frontiers. A ruling class with a high potential for collective action ("asabiya" - a term Turchin borrows from the 14th century political philosopher Ibn Khaldun), will expand while financing its wars by taxing the peasants. In the early days of the empire, the elite are relatively austere warriors, and low population densities allow peasants to produce a significant surplus, so elite requirements do not overburden peasant production. As population densities increase, the surplus produced per peasant decreases because each has less land, but at the same time rents charged by the elites increase as land becomes scare. Peasants become poorer, though the elite continue to do well. Wealth inequality increases, and eventually the peasant base cannot sustain the high expectations of the growing elite population. Consequently, some of the elite class find themselves without land to sustain their lifestyle, while others become extremely wealthy due to control of scarce resources. This gives rise to intra-elite conflict. Social cohesion declines due to increasing inequality, both between elite and peasant classes and within the elite. The result is that peasants who are desperate and weakened by poverty are drawn into elite infighting. A combination of civil war, famine and plague reduces the population of the weakened state. The population decline ultimately leads to lower food prices and increased wages for the poor, but the loss of social cohesion is not so easily reversed. The recovery is thus impeded by continued infighting, and sometimes an outside group with higher asabiya takes over before another expansion phrase is triggered.

Turchin has three books developing his approach. "War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations" is the popular introduction. It describes the approach without any math or equations, and applies it to a range of historical empires. This is the place to start for a general introduction, particularly if you are not mathematically inclined. However, it is not formally rigorous and will not convince you if you are sceptical. "Secular Cycles" (with Sergey Nefedov) supports the theory with quantitative empirical data. It applies the model to two cycles in each of England, France, Rome and Russia. This is the book to read if you are comfortable with numbers and need to be convinced by empirical evidence. "Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall" provides the theoretical framework, discussing, for example, why an explanation of cyclical dynamics requires a feedback loop. It is quite mathematical, and while you don't have to work your way through all the equations, you should be comfortable with mathematical models generally. Turchin's model was inspired by Jack A Goldstone, "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World." This is also an excellent book. It is written in a more traditional historical style; the model is informal, rather than formal, and the argument is supported by historical analysis of particular revolutions, rather than by quantitative data. In these respects it is similar to "War and Peace and War," though it is substantially longer. If you are looking for an extended analysis in a more traditional style of social history, this a great book.

This review pertains to all three of Turchin's books, and I am posting the same review for all of them.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful, Generally Convincing; 4.5 Stars, June 8, 2010
R. Albin (Ann Arbor, Michigan United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Secular Cycles (Hardcover)
This well organized and written book is an effort to evaluate a general model of historical development for pre-modern states. Turchin and Nefedov elaborate a model developed originally by the political scientist Jack Goldstone. The authors refer to this model as a structural-demographic model because it combines demographic forces with conflicts latent or inherent in the structure of these societies. The Turchin-Nefedov-Goldstone (TNG) model is a semi-Malthusian model begins with a period of demographic and social expansion. During this phase, labor is dear, peasants have a relatively advantageous position and almost everyone does reasonably well because of economic expansion. As population approaches the carrying capacity, and Turchin-Nefedov make it clear that this is relative to the level of technology and available good quality farmland, labor becomes relatively cheap, land costly, economic growth begins to stagnate but the land-owning classes are placed in a privileged position. Seigneurial revenues increase, agricultural involution increases, some aspects of urban life and manufactures increase as landlords have more disposable income, and there is increasing stratifcation at all social levels. Eventually, however, elites populations approach saturation and there is increasing competition among elites for increasingly scarce resources to maintain their privileged positions. The resulting economic stagnation, demographic stress, and elite competition greatly descreases social stability, often leading to what may be reinforcing cycles of famine, increased susceptibility to epidemics, and intra-elite violence. State collapse is common in this phase, often followed by demographic and economic contraction, and reinitiation of the cycle.

Turchin and Nefedov explore this cycle in a variety of settings including medieval and early modern England and France, Republican and Imperial Rome, and Russia. They make a very good case for the existence of this pattern in a variety of settings. They are careful not to apply the model rigidly and equally careful to spell out the many contingent events that can modify the specific features of the cycle in different historical settings. For example, a major technological advance can increase carrying capacity, successful imperialism can increase access to land and provide considerable revenue for the state, etc. Despite all the different contingent events occurring in different historical settings, its impressive how well the basic TNG model works. For example, I suspect this model could be applited fruitfully to the first half of the 19th century in Europe.

While this model is developed for agrarian states, I can imagine that it would apply to an industrial society with a relatively low rate of technological innovation.

The book concludes with a short historiographic section on the role of theory on history in which they defend their approach as "scientific." I think the authors are unduly defensive in this section. Their theory occupies approximately the same role in their analysis of historical events as evolutionary theory does in much of biology. This is a significant achievement.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterpiece!, January 2, 2012
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This review is from: Secular Cycles (Hardcover)
Those cycles definitely exist.
Right now most of the planet is entering a Stagflation phase. Those cycles make understandable why the post 2nd world war generation of economists was saying things that are no longer applicable right now.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Innovative theory of history, December 26, 2010
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This review is from: Secular Cycles (Hardcover)
An excellent exploration of long-term cycles in agricultural societies. Even if you disagree with, or don't care about, the thesis, there is plenty of fascinating information about the structures of various European societies, from ancient Rome through Romanov Russia.

The general thesis of this book is that agricultural societies strengthen and weaken in multi-century cycles based on a modestly complex interaction of the population dynamics of the peasantry and the elite. Turchin and Nefedov provide quite a lot of data to buttress their case. One consequence of their thesis is that "golden ages" for the elites of a society are lousy times to be a peasant, while good times for the peasantry are usually times of stability, but only modest prosperity, for the nobility/elite of a society.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Makes You Think about the Big Picture, September 12, 2013
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This review is from: Secular Cycles (Kindle Edition)
Peter Turchin works on long-wave theories of history. This work refines his earlier views, and adds another layer of explanatory complexity to the basic theme. A great deal of it is devoted to illustrating how the theory played out across the centuries. From my wide, if non-specialist, reading, he has it mostly right, and all the detail gives the reader a solid sense of how the interplay of the various theoretical factors worked out in messy real life.

Definitely worth reading, and I'll be interested to see if it makes any impact more widely.- on related fields.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well structured, clear and concise to an unfortunately rate degree., March 15, 2014
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This review is from: Secular Cycles (Kindle Edition)
The essential ideas are that particular factors cause societies to grow and prosper, then decline and finally to degenerate into internal bickering and even warfare. Eventually the disintegration ceases, and a new cycle begins. The stages of the cycle are: 1) expansion; 2) stagflation; 3) crisis and 4) Disintegration. During expansion the population grows and brings more land under cultivation – the authors examine mostly pre-industrial societies. Once the growing population’s needs exceed the productivity of the land, it has reached the second stage, wherein less land per capita slowly impoverishes the lower half of society. During stagflation, the elite continue to collect their rents and fees, so their lot does not worsen. In fact, because the lower strata of society are increasingly struggling, the labor pool expands, pushing wages down. During the stagflation phase, the elite increase in both number (often as a status reward in lieu of payments) and their per capita consumption. Impoverishment grows from the bottom strata up until it finally begins to digest the lower echelon of the elite, some of whom fall out of elite status. At this point we reach stage three – crisis. In this phase, economic pressures cause elite members to contend with each other; the rich use their influence to minimize taxes; and crime rises as the poor become desperate and the government, starved for funds, can no longer maintain order. This further reduces overall productivity. Finally, in the fourth stage disorder, disease, starvation and violence reduce population numbers in all strata of society. Eventually a strong leader arises and the population, now small enough to expand within available resources, begins the next cycle.

One of the aspects of this book that impresses me is the authors’ avoidance of doctrine. Unlike Toynbee or Spengler, they do not insist their cycle always proceeds in exact accord with a preformed structure. They acknowledge the influence of particular factors that make the cycles differ between countries and eras. Their arguments are convincing precisely because they acknowledge they are general principles and correlations, and that industrialization has changed the model in ways they have yet to consider.

However, I believe that can be done by considering farms and factories as different forms of resources for wealth production. Add in natural resources – water, minerals, energy, and the ecosystem’s ability to absorb pollution – and the implications of their model seems sensible and logical. For instance, factories are an employment resource for the lower half of society. As such, the factory has ‘shrunk’ – requires fewer employees to make the same number of widgets (even without outsourcing); but the corporation’s profit from the factory continues – for now. Another example: Oil becomes more difficult to procure and oil (and gasoline) prices rise. All resources can become over-exploited, and the Turchin / Nefedov model works well.

The one application of the model that is provocative is to the global economy: A few ‘elite’ countries (Western Europe, the U.S.) and the many less wealthy nations. The latter are holding the resources the former require; the former have the financial and military power. And perhaps this is one aspect that makes this book so interesting: Besides some great lessons of history, it changes the reader's world-view and provokes speculation on the future. Yay for gray matter!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How the world really works, March 22, 2013
Michael C. Trachtenberg (Lawrenceville, NJ United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Secular Cycles (Kindle Edition)
An excellent analysis of growth and decline in a variety of societies throughout history with particular reference to the differences in class values and behaviors. At times the book can be dry and academic, its intended audience.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent take on history. Must read., December 7, 2013
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This review is from: Secular Cycles (Hardcover)
I agree with the other reviewers; it is a masterpiece, as are his other books (War and Peace and War, Historical Dynamics). Really an eye opener. I think it explains history better than either Collapse (Jared Diamond) or Collapse of Complex Societies (Tainter). I read this along with Dirt (Montgomery) recently; they go well together. I especially like the idea of applying the mathematics of ecology to humans, and to economics. I think the ecological models that have been developed were created with more scientific rigor and objectivity than what is typically the case in mainstream economics.

I won't write 1000 words explaining what it is all about; others have done this already. I suggest you just buy the book and read it. Absolutely worthwhile.

Spoiler: Basically history seems to have a long-term boom/bust cycle, and we seem to be in the stagflation phase of the cycle (near the top), as other reviewers have noted. The book will explain how this works and what the rest of the cycle looks like, based on several historical case studies.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Uses scientific methods to examine the rise and fall of nations, and makes you wonder where our civilization is in this cycle., February 3, 2014
Alice Friedemann (Oakland, California) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Secular Cycles (Hardcover)
Turchin has found patterns to the rise and fall of dozens of nations over the past millennia. Of course, there are variations and outcomes given the geography and culture of a nation. A secular cycle takes centuries of oscillations that inevitably include stages of expansion, integration, then high-level stagnation, crisis, and conflict-ridden depression.

When the crisis phase and state failure happens, it can occur quickly -- within 20 years, a surprisingly fast time.

Best of all, you will enjoy reading any history book even more in the future, as you see that time period within this larger framework of war and peace, rise and fall. I just read an outstanding book The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici that reverberated with the insights of Turchin, the details of history make abstract theories far more interesting (and Turchin has many of these details in the nations he describes cycles within as well)

History will never be a precise as physics

Turchin assures the reader he doesn't expect the use of scientific methodology and data will ever make history as clear as physics, but it enables him to back up his theories with strong evidence.

It can't be physics because social systems are too complex, single individuals can affect the whole system, outside armies invade, there's climate change, epidemics, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the chaos of interactions between of fathers-and-sons cycles plus all of the above factors and trends. That makes it hard to predict what will happen very far into the future.

The Crisis phase / State Breakdown

Although Turchin's theory is meant for agrarian societies, I think it's clear where industrial civilization is within the cycle. Sure, an industrial civilization is bound to collapse differently than an agrarian one given the many unique factors of our one-time only fossil fueled society.

At the start of the crisis phase, when the state collapses, the elites have very high levels of corruption. Sounds like our times too, huh.

Having read a great deal about this topic in general (see my amazon book list Fraud & Greed: Wall Street, Banks, & Insurance book list), it seems pretty clear that we are on the verge of a crisis phase. The wealthy are trying to blame the government (like they always have), make billions off of defense, Medicare, and other government contracts, have gotten their taxes dramatically lowered, and the distribution of wealth has never been more unfair in our nation's history. When you read the details about a nation, you can see that these same tactics played out in previous secular cycles.

Short summary of a typical cycle:

There is growth in the beginning. Everyone lives well. There's land and food for all, no need to work for someone else if you don't want to, and if you do, the wages will be high because workers are scarce. There's not a great deal of stratification of wealth yet consequently.
But that ends as available land is farmed, and there's not enough to pass on to all of the children. Peasants either need to find work on someone else's land, or go to towns and cities, where they'll also earn low wages as more and more people do so as well. Since cities are breeding grounds for disease, the death rate is high so for a while there is room for newcomers to continue to find work
The disparity in wealth grows. Wages go down and yet at the same time the wealthy can charge more in rent for land and homes as population grows. Worse yet, food prices rise as more people compete for the limited food that can be grown in an agrarian society.
It's not long before the poorest peasants become malnourished and vulnerable to disease. The elites and wealthier peasants can store enough grain to get past one bad season, but if there is a second bad harvest year, the numbers of workers dying grows.
As carrying capacity is exceeded even further, stagflation sets in. The wealthy elites have been able to afford to have many children, too many for them all to continue the lavish lifestyles of their parents. Elite families become poor, or wage war against other elite families to maintain their wealth.
This is destabilizing to society.
By the end of the stagflation cycle, wealth is concentrated in the elites, and even among them there are the very richest who have even more power and wealth. In an agrarian society, where there were such small middle classes, the elites oven only number one to two percent of the population but have most of the wealth and power.
The state's ability to maintain order is threatened. Armies and bureaucracies are expanded, but this costs so much money that taxes are raised, which makes both the peasants and nobility angry and leads to elite-driven popular uprisings.
A depression ensues, full of conflict.
This socio-political instability leads to more peasant deaths, so less food can be grown, which increases malnourishment, which leads to epidemics. Meanwhile, the elites are fighting and reducing their own numbers as well. This all leads to the state collapsing into bankruptcy and disorder, crisis, depression, and eventually the start of a new cycle.

The main factors of Turchin's theory

Carrying capacity overshooting the productive capacity of the land, overpopulation plays a key role in the rise and fall of civilizations
The stagflation that occurs when the elites get rich as overpopulation provides them with both cheap labor and the ability to charge lots of rent
Strength of state institutions
The role of socio-political instability.

How this unfolds and how long the phases last depend on many other factors. If there's a frontier with more land, or nations to be conquered next door, the nation can continue to expand. During a crisis though, outside nations may take advantage of the state's weakness and invade, quickly bringing on collapse.

At the bottom of the cycle, the best farm land is abandoned

Turchin mentions that the best farm land is abandoned, such as the bottom land of valleys with the richest soil. This happens because starvation and disease drive people away from cities and towns out into the countryside looking for food. Farmers have to contend with that, plus gangs trying to force them into slave labor, and local and external armies fighting and pillaging. So they flee and the land lies fallow. Food is mainly grown during these unstable times near towns and fortified areas where lookouts can spot attacking brigands and sound the alarm.

If you're ever unlucky enough to be alive during a crisis phase, you'd want to live in a town large enough to defend nearby farms, but not so large the population has gone past carrying capacity. Isolated farms are vulnerable to invasion and plunder.

Disintegrative Trends: The Crisis and Depression phases

It can take several iterations for an empire to completely fail.
Within the disintegration, there are also "fathers-and-sons" cycles war and peace and war. These civil wars consume a nation until the survivors and their children are so tired of war that peace and stability finally return. But the grandchildren who never experienced the reality of war start new wars. This cycle tends to happen every 40 to 60 years.
Climate change has the least effect when there's a low population and lots of land, and the most effect if a society is in the disintegrative phases.

Competition between groups

One way of looking at history is competition between different groups, with those who have the highest level of cooperation having an advantage over other groups. Ethnicity and religion are very important to creating in and out groups as well as cohesion. Other groups might be divided by language or dialect. Differences can also be what race you are, what rituals you engage in, or your appearance: clothing, tattoos, hairstyle, etc.

Imperial nations have high levels of cohesion, especially at the edges of the empire where conflicts are greatest.

Secular Cycles take place over two to three hundred years. Within the same nation, different regions can be in different phases.

A more detailed list of the phases derived from the table at the end of Chapter 1 in Secular Cycles:

Expansion Phase (growth)

Stability and peace leads to prosperity
Grain reserves are high, so crop failures don't have much effect
Wages are high, commoners can rent farmland cheaply
Cities are small, artisans few, trade level low,
Prosperity leads to population growth
The elites exist but there aren't many and they have a pretty modest lifestyle because there are peasant wages are so high.
The number of towns and land farmed grows
The elites don't own large amounts of land yet
The state government is well financed from increasing taxes and ideas about going to war are growing
The overall outlook is one of optimism

Stagflation phase (compression)

Population growth continues, but the rate slows down, yet still overpopulation is reached, just as Malthus predicted, and the carrying capacity - the number of people who can occupy the land - is exceeded.
This problem is "solved" by the excess children without land moving to towns and cities.
Cities are cesspools of disease and many die, but no problem, there are always excess children from farms to replace them
Towns and cities grow, craftsmen and trade flourish
The Elites -- the top one to two percent of the population -- enter a golden age because they can charge high rents for all of the basic necessities: food, housing, land, etc., and at the same time, pay low wages. No wonder the wealthy elites in America are so pro-immigration and against birth control and abortion. In every civilizations that has ever existed, without exception, the elites only grow fabulously wealthy at this point in the cycle when they can pay low wages and charge high rents.
The amount of land owned by the wealthy is increasing
Some segments of the elite consume conspicuously.
Meanwhile the commoners in towns, cities, and on farms are all experiencing decreasing wages and increasing costs of living. Land prices are high. Misery, the homeless, debt, and poverty are increasing. Grain reserves are declining.
The rich and powerful over-reproduce too, so there are fewer lucrative opportunities for their children
The rich start to compete with each other. How this happens varies. In some there might be more duels, or more lawsuits. If there are government jobs that are especially lucrative, the competition to get into the best schools and to get the best government jobs grows intense.
The elites also try to get the government to give them money, to stop taxing them at all or lower their taxes
Which results in the peasants being taxed even more to make up for the lowered taxes on the rich
The government and internal order is till okay but starting to unravel, the general outlook grows more pessimistic and critical.
The government may try to solve these problems by invading nearby countries, or provide more food by building irrigation and roads
There is often a rise in the rate of crime in this pre-crisis period

Crisis Phase (state breakdown)

Trade starts to decline due to political unrest
Cities are at their highest levels of population
A few large landowners own most of the land. Sounds like now: In America (2013), the top 10 landholders own 2% of the land. In California (1973), just 25 landowners hold 16% of the land.
Debt is high, the price of food is high, and the grain reserves are gone
Very high inequality between the rich and poor, subsistence crises increase as food shortages happen more often
The populace, weakened by malnutrition and hunger, easily succumbs to epidemics (i.e. anti-biotic resistant diseases in the future like TB, etc).
In the country and city, peasants rebel, demand reforms such as land redistribution
The elites have very high levels of corruption.
The elites may begin to wage wars against each other
The population starts to decline
The government goes bankrupt since no one is paying taxes, and loses control of the army and other institutions
The government collapses


At the bottom the population is low, there's lots of free land or cheap land, grain and other food vary in availability and price
The depression goes on for a long time because social cohesion has been lost and isn't easily regained, fighting continues, and this is often when outside conquerors invade and conquer
The rich have gotten their comeuppance and declined from civil wars between themselves and are consuming a lot less, own less land than before, lots of downward mobility with the elite becoming commoners again
The state keeps trying to reinstate order but usually fails, and this is often when nearby nations invade to take advantage of the collapse
Trade is local, long-distance networks are broken
The outlook is very pessimistic
After enough time, stability and peace come back and the cycle starts all over again.

Farmers and nomads hate each other and always will: Russia vs the Tatars.

Since the beginning of agriculture, nomads have seen farmers as cowards doing women's work, and stole their grain and captured farmers to turn them into slaves. For example, in 1521 the Crimean Khan Mohammad-Girey invaded Russia with 100,000 men and captured 300,000 people and killed another half a million at a time when there were 7 million people in Russia. And of course, farmers thought the nomads were uncivilized murderers.

Tatar warriors - perhaps 80,000 of them plus 200,000 horses -- typically penetrated a settled area up to 240 miles, spread out up to 36 miles, turned around and systematically swept through taking back any booty, animals, and people they could capture. Resistors were killed.

Russian peasants learned to create fortified defense lines of small military towns, and trees were cut to create obstacles. Each was felled so it landed to the south, and their fallen branches were intertwined so the horsemen couldn't penetrate them. While the invaders spent hours untangling them, the defense forces got ready. The trees also made it harder for the Tatar retreat with all the loot, cattle and captives, giving pursuers enough time often to rescue them. Grasslands were also burned so the Tatar horses had nothing to eat. Beyond this first line of trees was an even more massive defensive line that stretched over 600 miles built by tens of thousands of people.

Peasants in Russia kept settling beyond the defense lines. They all demanded their defense, and boundaries kept growing outwards. Mongols crushed Russians when no collective defense emerged, eventually an "us vs them" glued by Christianity led to collective action, the willingness to endure hardship and do the right thing became deeply ingrained.

Other motivations were getting to loot, or being paid in cash, grain, or land for fighting, and punishment for not fighting. It also helped that at the frontier edge, an egalitarian way of life was common, there weren't large differences in wealth. Cooperation is not all "sweetness and light" - there has to be policing and punishment. (pp 41-45).

The dividing line between the Russians and Tatars was religion, not ethnicity. About 17% of 17th century Muscovite gentry were Tatars - but they were Orthodox Christians not Muslims, so they were accepted. (p 54)

Miscellaneous notes

Tribes in Europe and Middle East often had separate "chiefs" for military, religion, and the economy. To take on a neighboring empire, someone had to assume all 3 roles to unify tribes in the region. This happened various ways, i.e. in Germany, the cult of Odin gave military chiefs religious legitimacy, in Arabia, religious leaders gained military power (p. 96).

Aristocracies broke into factions, which led to civil war and armies plundering cities, then plague killed a third of the people - only nomads escaped. When people are exposed to years, decades, of chaos, they yearn for stability. Any message of hope, even if only a better afterlife, is attractive. Monotheistic religions satisfy that need, which is why Muslims were able to unify tribes in Arabia. Mohammed was one of over 6 monotheistic prophets. The sudden appearance of prophets in bad times happened when people were ripe for their appearance. Polytheism can't unite people, because accepting the Gods of the "lucky" tribe isn't something freedom loving tribespeople want. One of the functions of religion is "us versus them". Converting to Islam meant submitting to God, rather than a particular leader. Islam welcomes all, regardless of social status or tribal origin. (pp 97-99)

Machiavelli taught rulers to be feared more than loved, and that people were motivated solely by desire for gain and fear of punishment. His ideas were at odds with the prevailing wisdom. P 108-109

Adam Smith was the founder of the "greed is good" philosophy that every one of us is pursuing our own interest and that will eventually be good for society too. And there are many other "rational choice" types of ideas out there, Turchin thinks that cooperation can't be brought about by force, and no one would pay taxes, there'd be a war of all against all if these ideas were correct. He points to evolutionary biology and kin selection, which favors reciprocal altruism.(111-113).

He cites several studies that point to trust and moral punishment being hard-wired in our brains. The capacity for cooperation exists, Machiavelli was wrong. The good guys pressure the "knaves" and "free-riders" to cooperate, like in WW I women put white feathers on men who hadn't joined the military yet. (120)

Group Selection. Not many examples in non-humans. We are different because of thought, communication, culture. Cultures with harmful practices are weeded out in group competition - warfare may be one of the most important forces of group selection (p. 127).

Spartan men trained to fight from age 7 onwards away from home. They enslaved the Messenians to grow food and do other chores so they could dedicate themselves to fighting. But the Messenians kept revolting and finally succeeded when Sparta faltered. Rome on the other hand, welcomed those they conquered (164-5).

France and England medieval times: the top 20% owned most everything and benefitted the most from overpopulation: grain prices were high, labor cheap, land rental prices high, manufactured goods cheap since labor was paid so little. The rich spent money on imported luxuries, more churches, etc. (216-28)

Wheel of fortune: too many nobility - their numbers rose faster than the rest of the impoverished population. More people could become noble than historians realize - a city merchant often bought land with his wealth which allowed him to become a noble. Peasants could too by lending money, buying more land, hiring more labor and so on. Nobles sank back to being small farmers when they ran out of money to live the good life. In one case where nobility numbers rose over 40%, the oppression of peasants to maintain their lifestyle was enormous. When the peasants rebelled, this usually ended in peasants being hung by the thousands by the nobility. (218-222)

The rich escaped plagues by going to their country estates. The best place to be was far from roads, have a water supply from a well, and lots of wine. In England 8% of the wealthy died from plague, lesser nobles 27%, and 40% of the general population. (222)

After the plague die-off, the worst hit then were the low and middle landowners who used hired labor to farm their large properties. Laborers insisted on more money, but didn't get it, because the landowners had armed retainers who forced peasants to accept low wages, captured runaway serfs, and made examples of them. But eventually after enough rebellions and runaway serfs, the wealthy started to lose money having so few employees left (223).

The only way to get money was to attack other nobility, so they preyed on each other, and the social fabric unraveled in feuds and private wars. (224)

Violent crime rose between 1350 and 1450 due to huge numbers of destitute, but armed and dangerous nobles, who fought duels, ambushed each other, and this upward cycle of violence led to nobles becoming the criminal underclass.

In agricultural societies, the rich always get richer. Consider this, let's say everyone is equal in generation 1, all have the same amount of land. But some have more children. If just the first-born gets all of the land, then there are a lot of kids with no property. If the land is divided among all the children, it won't take many generations for there to be too little land to feed a family and many people without any property at all. Meanwhile, the rich only marry the rich, increasing the amount of property they own, and they don't have to do any work at some point, because they can hire the landless so cheaply (p 263).

Of course, in the beginning the rich have a hard time earning any income from the poor - there are so few poor, and you have to pay workers high wages. If the peasant doesn't like the work, they can afford to buy land of their own. Once the population goes up, the rich only need to pay the workers enough so that they don't starve. Where money is required to pay taxes, farmers either have to sell their land to feed their family or starve. Wealth concentrates. The rich use their income to buy more land. The poor often use land as the collateral to borrow money to get past a bad season - if there's another bad year, then they lose their land (264).

Therefore - within just one generation inequality will occur unless no private property is allowed or there is no inheritance. (265).

Other ways landowners grew richer were death taxes, so that when a peasant with land died, the lord got the best beast (perhaps the ox used to plow the land), the parish priest got the 2nd best animal, and if there were no oxen left, the son couldn't plow his fields (267). So he probably left for the city and abandoned his land.

Even though we abolished slavery long ago, it has effects to this day on "social capital". The more virulent slavery was in a region, the less civic the state is today. Even in the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville observed that "As one goes farther south, one finds less active municipal life; the township has fewer officials, rights, and duties; the population does not exercise such a direct influence on affairs; the town meetings are less frequent and deal with fewer matters." Turchin then goes on to explain in greater detail why slavery was so corrosive and the way that the wealthy also divided free men from slaves to prevent any kind of networking and eventual rebellions, and how slavery was a key factor in the decline of the Roman and other empires - after all, part of what holds a society together is group cooperation and equality - slaves can't be included in that. (294-5)

Some ideas to think about

There are new factors to consider in an industrial society cycle.

There has never been a civilization that totally depended on oil for transportation and fossil fuels in general to grow food and do all the other work of society. It used to be people and animals and wood. The planet had reached the limits to growth at about a billion people. Fossil fuels have temporarily expanded carrying capacity to around 7 billion people, by far the largest overshoot in all of human history.

And it's not just resources. The Limits to Growth model and other economists have written how it doesn't matter if there are more resources left to exploit, once the financial system collapses, the credit to finance such enterprises doesn't exist and collapse ensues. Worse yet, the easy resources are gone requiring spectacularly expensive projects to get at the remaining low-grade ores and remote fossil fuel resources. Most people who study both ecology and finance believe there is a Perfect Storm of factors arriving around the same time, which will exacerbate and exaggerate each other into a potentially fast crash, faster than previous agrarian cycles.

But as Turchin points out, different regions of a nation can be in different phases. San Francisco, California, with the central valley nearby that feeds one-third of America, with the nearby Oakland deep water port to continue trade with the rest of the world, especially Asia, might do better than parched Phoenix or the ten states dependent on the Ogallala aquifer, which is within a decade or two of drying up across large areas. Until the next earthquake along the Hayward or San Andreas, which is past due. All the freeways and airports are on land-fill and will be destroyed. If this happens after the oil shocks have begun and the financial system or energy resources to rebuild aren't there, millions will move to the central valley, joining those from the parched Southwest and freezing midwest.

How will most American households owning guns affect collapse? In the past, if the elites and state were united, they could crush peasant rebellions. But now that just about anyone and everyone will be armed, how will that play out? Are the Hells' Angels going to enslave people?

If there are places that do well, will they be swamped by refugees? Or will various levels of government and citizen roadblocks prevent massive migrations towards food and away from no-longer fixable natural disasters?

We aren't going to invent our way out of our situation with Fusion power or some other fossil fuel alternative, it's too late to scale up. But I do have hope that the ingenuity locally will help some regions suffer less. I can imagine thousands of bicycles carrying goods around cities in light-weight aluminum trailers and all sorts of other small scale projects and victory gardens, sharing of cars and tools - but the problem is that you would have wanted to start doing this a long time before collapse, whether panic and fear and distrust will prevail if this all happens in sudden oil shocks is a big question. I would guess that large cities won't cope well, though they have the population and weaponry to commandeer whatever they want from the surrounding areas nearby. Think twice about living near a large city once the oil shocks come.

If China collapses inwardly, that will be a huge sigh of relief for Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the west coast of the United States, to name just a few nations. But they've stolen billions of dollars worth of research and the actual design plans for building undetectable submarines, a Blue Water navy, and just about anything else you can think of via cyber attacks or private companies and our government. The Chinese have caught up to us, giving us less of an advantage than we'd expected. They have enough cyber traps embedded in our infrastructure to take down our electric grid and other infrastructure without even firing a shot...

You can read the first chapter of "Secular Cycles" free at the Princeton University website The last 2 pages have a summary of their theory and the progression of trends across various variables. Some of the above came from War & Peace & War as well
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A credible theory, but not for the general reader, November 29, 2012
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This review is from: Secular Cycles (Hardcover)
Prof. Turchin's premise seems sound. Not being a historian, let alone a specialist on any of the periods he writes about, it's difficult for me to fully evaluate his arguments and data.
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Secular Cycles
Secular Cycles by Peter Turchin (Hardcover - August 9, 2009)
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