Social and political turbulence in the United States and Western European countries has been rising over the past decade. My research, which combines analysis of historical data with the tools of complexity science, has identified the deep structural forces that work to undermine societal stability and resilience to internal and external shocks. Here I look beneath the surface of day-to-day contentious politics and social unrest, and focus on the negative social and economic trends that explain our current “Age of Discord.” One of the most important, but little appreciated, such hidden forces is a perverse “wealth pump” that, under certain conditions, begins to transfer wealth from the “99 percent” to “1 percent.” If allowed to run unchecked, the wealth pump results in both relative impoverishment of most people and increasingly desperate competition among elites. Since the number of positions of real social power remains more or less fixed, the overproduction of elites inevitably leads to frustrated elite aspirants, who harness popular resentment to turn against the established order. In America, the wealth pump has been operating full blast for two generations. In historical terms, our current cycle of elite overproduction and popular immiseration is far along the path to violent political rupture.
About the speaker
Peter Turchin is Project Leader at the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, Research Associate at University of Oxford, and Emeritus Professor at the University of Connecticut. Trained as a theoretical biologist, he is now working in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating CrisisDB, a massive historical database of societies sliding into a crisis - and then emerging from it. His books include Ultrasociety, Ages of Discord and, most recently, End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration.
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