“Cliodynamics” is a term invented by Peter Turchin to describe what he argues are “laws of history.”
It is one of those incredibly neat ideas that is heading in the right direction, but unfortunately falls well short of deserving to be called “science.”
History should be a science.
There are defined structural patterns visible in the historical record that do have extremely predictive value. The future can be known — or at least, reasonably well described.
But Cliodynamics fails to get the job done.
The primary reason for this is the fundamental weakness of what we call the “historical record.”
A secondary reason is the deeply ingrained “Western” bias of most popular scholarship. The mere fact that Turchin chose a Greek root, “Clio,” is evidence his work embraces the same myths of “Western” science that undermine so many fields and disciplines in social science and humanities.
For the first — here’s the issue in a nutshell.
Almost all the written historical records used to produce what historians accept to be history were produced by people. And people always have a reason for writing things down — rarely is it out of a sincere desire to leave an unbiased record of their thoughts and deeds.
Historians and social scientists who like to reference “historical facts” generally fail to admit the fundamental uncertainty surrounding their data. Unlike natural or “hard” sciences where a theory can be visibly tested and shown to be better than others, historical records are always subject to interpretation and debate.
Cliodynamics relies on creating historical databases and using them to generate predictive models to explain change over time. But in modeling, your results are only ever as good as your data — so accuracy is always going to be a problem in studies of history.
The second issue is a little more nuanced, but equally devastating. Simply put: the vast majority of what historical data exists is focused on certain times and places in European history. Events and personalities that are commonly held to be driving forces in European —and later the entire World’s, development.
Bottom line is that almost all history — especially the stuff that rises to general public awareness and gets referenced by politicians and academics — is a truncated story passed down by a group of people who usually had an interest in or opinion on how that story ought to be told.
And that’s not a criticism, but a simple natural fact. The universe is huge and individuals immensely small in relation. Everyone’s perspective is limited, and many things generally held by the educated to be facts are proven wrong in time.
So to make broad forecasts about the trajectory of future human history — the objective of cliodynamics and, really, all social science — using such horribly skewed data is pretty damn broken. Which is why, you’ll note, that most historians and other scholars who study human affairs in the macro scale are always quick to claim that the future is inherently unknowable.
Everybody in this business knows the limits of their science, but has no incentive to spoil a party that keeps on bringing in grant funding. There’s always a hidden asterisk by their results, but the need for some kind of scientific justification for government or corporate policy these days means steady demand.
And Cliodynamics is also — this is why you haven’t seen ideas like it gain mainstream traction among scholars yet — terribly pessimistic. Because the historical record is so skewed towards the objectively bad stuff — wars, famines, and other catastrophes — that any projections made using written historical records are bound to be terrible.
That’s why an improved version is badly needed. Because the thing about Cliodynamics is that while the specifics are incorrect, in general terms the underlying idea powering Turchin’s insights is sound. Even the timing he has been predicting for a major catastrophe in the world — the 2020’s — has been sound and confirmed by other works I’ve read over the years.
But knowing why is critical. And that requires an effective micro-level theoretical and methodological toolkit capable of scaling up to explain the dynamics of the world system.
The future is broadly predictable. There are defined systems ever at work, moving in regular cycles, that tend to drag and push the overall course of events in certain directions at certain times.
But no over-arching historical laws drive them — the system is controlled by actions taken by millions of individuals. They are following natural laws — the simple satisfaction of physiological and psychological needs.
To accomplish this, as a social species, humans live and work in groups. This requires communication, which necessitates the development of language, with the details varying from place to place. There are costs to communication, and the impacts are never felt identically across the group — nor are the benefits, no matter how hard people try to pursue perfect equality.
These inequities ultimately produce power differentials between individuals that tend to structure groups. When this winds up being adaptive in a given environment, groups survive — and their ideas survive too. They persist across time, and lineages develop with deep roots in a place and a way of life.
The world is full of networks of groups, each simply trying to maintain itself as its members feel appropriate. Power dynamics are crucial to understand, as is inequality. Cooperation is the default among humans of a particular group, and often between — but the greater the distance between peoples, the higher the average costs of communication.
And distance also exacerbates power dynamics, allowing certain powerful groups greater freedom of action. In some cases, these groups become so dominant they begin to structure life for everyone around them — States, in the Westphalian and International Legal sense, are an end-result of this process, explaining their fundamental self-interest, and their dominance by a particular group that carefully manages its membership.
To really understand history and the future, you have to model society from the ground up using agent-based models that treat individuals like electrons — partially unknowable but bounded by firm rules — and groups like cellular organisms. Modeling humans at the local and global level looks more like biochemistry bound to ecology than techniques used in economics, sociology, or political science — all tightly bound to the historical record.
As in any ecosystem, there are two critical players to consider: Agent and Environment.
Agents are the groups acting on the landscape to preserve themselves, however they feel they can best do so. They invest in adaptations in anticipation of future returns of some kind. When expectations deviate from results, they become upset, and tend to take more drastic actions to redress the balance.
The Environment is shaped by Agent actions, but there are also global variables that are either impossible to change, like the amount of sunlight available for photosynthesis or solar panels, or changed only by such diffuse action that no one individual has much effect, like greenhouse gas emissions. These global variables affect everyone in many ways, so changes tend to have magnified impacts.
And on Earth, a planet with strong seasonal variation in most places, these seasons are critical drivers of a basic cycle that is common to both purely natural and purely human systems. This is the Adaptive Cycle, a four-stage process that most complex, agented systems see again and again, at small scales and large.
All these systems tend to change over time, each at their own rate, but following a basic pattern: exponential growth, linear growth, collapse, reorganization.
It is when either global level variables shift or enough lower-order systems enter a particular phase of the cycle that you see sudden global shifts. And in human affairs, this synchronization tends to occur and have its most sudden, seemingly inexorable impacts when generational norms, economic paradigms, and political relationships shift all at once.
What we are all living through right now is a global level collapse and reorganization driven by the natural decay of the Postwar Order that evolved after the last time humanity went through this cycle as one world, the period lasting from 1914–1945. That had the effect of comprehensively synchronizing political, economic, and social dynamics across the planet and at both the macro and micro levels.
Then the Internet came along and lowered the global cost of communications, terminally destabilized it. We now get to live through the consequences — and define the shape of what comes next.
It is vital to remember that at each turning of the wheel, so to speak, how bad things get is a function of how hard people fight to prevent change.
Naturally, people fear change. Expectations fail in times of change, and life is disrupted. People’s changes in behavior begin to have knock-on effects, things get destabilized, and above all else contradictions are revealed and become intolerable.
Covid-19 has completely collapsed the postwar order. Major changes are on the way — and there is a serious risk of the entire thing collapsing into the kind of brutal conflict people like Turchin look back on history and naturally see as inevitable in the future.
The possible futures at this point range from a long-lasting, brutal Third World War that savages global society to a global unification movement determined to bring democracy and prosperity to every corner of the planet for the first time. The actual future will probably be somewhere in between — but its shape will be determined by the outcome of struggles underway right now.
And given that it is a major global parameter that has been altered — the cost of communication — there are two key questions that will likely determine the exit trajectory from this collapse:
- Will fragmentation predominate over consolidation?
- Will violence or non-violence prevail?
It is entirely possible for a system to collapse and reorganize without descending into a nightmare scenario. The first step in productively managing a system is comprehending it. And if people can comprehend something, they are remarkably capable of organizing to manage it.
Look at climate change — you’ve got teenagers sparking global demonstrations that, if nothing else, have made governments pretend to care about stopping humans from screwing with the global thermostat. Out of that may come organizations with the funding and knowhow to start forcing meaningful actions.
The ability to communicate and organize globally is totally new. Bad actors are fast learning how to exploit it, but their techniques can be mined to teach better actors how to take advantage.
Probably the most important thing to do right now is accept that the old world is dead.
Even if much of it will wind up resurrected and even renewed, to understand what needs to be preserved requires accepting that not everything can be.
Fighting over the past is precisely what keeps the past alive. History itself is an enemy in this phase of the cycle, when the only thing anyone should be concerned with is building a more just future.
So while heeding the warnings of Cliodynamics — things may get very bad this decade and even beyond — it is important to also recognize its basic limitations.
Which are, in the end, the limits of history.