Review: Peter Turchin’s “War and Peace and War”

by Miles Raymer

War and Peace and War

I am the kind of person who is always seeking a set of abstract principles within which to contextualize my experience of events and information. This characteristic has often dampened my enthusiasm for the study of history, since my encounters with history books usually amount to poring over lists of occurrences with only the occasional idea or theme that ties everything together. I’m also aware that my predilection for abstraction is a potential handicap when applied to history; it can be intellectually dangerous to reduce the past to a mere set of rules or lessons, and this activity usually steamrolls the complexity of real life in favor of easy explanations.

My ideal historian, therefore, should represent the best of both worlds––a mind steeped in the rich diversity of historical events that is also capable of distilling those events into evidence-based concepts that withstand serious scrutiny and hold up across time. I am aware of no author who accomplishes this with greater success than Peter Turchin in War and Peace and WarI consider this the single best history book I’ve read to date.

Turchin is the creator of a new field of study called “Cliodynamics,” which he defines as “a new science of historical dynamics” (10). Cliodynamics is a cyclical interpretation of history that focuses on the relationship between three core types of historical cycles: asabiya cycles (this wonderful term originates from 14th-century thinker Ibn Khaldoun), secular cycles, and fathers-and-sons cycles. Out of respect for the richness of Turchin’s theory, I will quote him at length in order to demonstrate how these cycles are distinct from as well as interactive with one another:

A general theory for the rise and decline of empires we have. The crucial variable in it is the collective capacity for action, the society’s asabiya. Competition between societies leads to asabiya increase, whereas competition within a society causes its asabiya to decline. As we have seen in Part I of this book, metaethnic frontiers, where groups and civilizations clash, are the crucibles within which high-asabiya societies are forged. The almost inevitable consequence of high capacity for collective action, however, is territorial expansion that pushes the frontiers away from the center and removes the very forces that fostered high asabiya in the first place. Thus, success breeds eventual failure; the rise carries within it the seeds of the fall––peace brings war, and war brings peace. In the language of nonlinear dynamics, rise-and-fall phenomena are explained by negative feedback loops.

Decline of asabiya is not a linear process. As we now know, empires go through long––secular––cycles of alternating integrative-disintegrative phases. Within-society competition wanes during the integrative phase and waxes during the disintegrative phase. It is during disintegrative phases when the asabiya of the society takes a big hit. Furthermore, one disintegrative phase is usually not enough to completely degrade the cohesion of a high-asabiya society. It typically takes two or three secular cycles for an imperial nation to lose its capacity for concerted action.

However, even this portrayal is an oversimplification. Disintegrative phases are also not uniformly bad. Because people get fed up with constant instability and insecurity, civil warfare during an instability phase tends to skip a generation––the children of revolutionaries want to avoid disorder at any cost, but the grandchildren of revolutionaries are ready to repeat the mistakes of their grandparents all over again. As a result, disintegration phases tend to go through two or three “fathers-and-sons” cycles before a renaissance can take hold and the society can enter a secular integrative phase.

The dynamics of imperial rise and decline, therefore, are like a mechanism with wheels within wheels within wheels. The waxing and waning of asabiya is the slowest process, taking many centuries––often a millennium––for a complete cycle. Secular cycles occur on a faster time scale. A typical imperial nation goes through two or three, and sometimes even four secular cycles during the course of its life. Finally, the disintegrative phase of each secular cycle will see two or three waves of political instability and civil warfare, separated by periods of fragile peace. The characteristic time scales, therefore, are a millennium for the asabiya cycle, 2 to 3 centuries for a secular cycle, and 40 to 60 years (two generations) for fathers-and-sons cycles. These are just orders of magnitude; there is no exact periodicity in any of these processes. (285-6)

While Cliodynamics has significant implications for many areas of historical study, Turchin restricts War and Peace and War to an examination of empires, which he defines as “large, multiethnic territorial state[s] with…complex power structure[s]” (3). The vision is grand, but Turchin is careful to repeatedly point out the limitations of his arguments, and also considers alternative explanations even when he finds them unsatisfactory.

Turchin’s distinct ability to lay out an ambitious and expansive theory while remaining appropriately humble is most likely a result of his interdisciplinary approach. It’s up to each reader to decide if this methodology confers special legitimacy or reveals a lack of sufficient commitment to the traditions of academic historians, but I found myself squarely in the former camp. In a daring feat of intellectual synthesis, Turchin shores up his historical research with evidence from myriad areas of science, including but not limited to evolutionary theory, economics, statistical mechanics, nonlinear dynamics, geopolitics, social psychology, demographics, chaos theory, and physics. His numerous applications of modern discoveries to historical documents and datasets is engrossing and unique compared to other historians I’ve read. As he notes more than a few times, “History is too complex for single-factor explanations” (29). War and Peace and War bears out this creed, proving itself a true marriage of modern and ancient wisdom.

The basics of Cliodynamics are enough to make this book a worthwhile read for anyone, but there are many additional insights that Turchin manages to cram into this dense but digestible text. The resurrection of Khaldoun’s concept of asabiya is invaluable. Turchin acknowledges that a group’s asabiya is a “dynamic quantity” that “cannot be observed directly, but it can be measured from observable consequences” (6). This is unlikely to mollify hard-nosed evolutionary biologists seeking an ironclad mathematical model to verify or deny asabiya’s existence, but it does represent a beautiful articulation of a missing link in our evolutionary thinking that has only recently been revitalized by proponents of multilevel selection.

The application of asabiya to our understanding of identity and citizenship holds tremendous potential for community building on every level of human organization. Turchin observes that “A nation with high collective solidarity can lose many battles and still prevail in the end,” but this clearly seems to hold for human groups across the board (103). This profoundly humanist idea reminds us that, while the differences between individuals and groups should never be ignored, they should also never be allowed to blot out the deeper truth that all human undertakings are inherently collective, with the best societies achieving solidarity over time by harnessing diversity’s upsides and declawing its downsides. Getting along with others isn’t just nice––it’s essential for survival.

One critical aspect of asabiya that Turchin examines is how “symbolic markers––language and dialect, religion and ritualistic behaviors, race, clothing, behavioral mannerisms, hairstyles, ornaments, and tattoos” can either bring people together or keep them apart (5, emphasis his). All symbolic markers play a dual role of (1) providing a space in which solidarity can be discovered or embellished, and (2) signaling indifference or outright hostility to members of out-groups. Over time, and given sufficient survival pressures, certain markers can leap the chasm between us and them, often acquiring new powers of influence in the resolution or incitement of disputes.

Another of Turchin’s fascinating findings involves the characteristics of “metaethnic frontiers”––tense borderlands that serve as make-or-break points for rising or declining empires. Turchin shows how borderlands provide a dramatic stage on which one of two basic dynamics will prevail: (1) the empire’s centralized government will bolster its most vulnerable citizens by helping them absorb or dispel “barbarians”––thereby reinforcing or expanding its capacity for asabiya––or (2) those same “barbarians” will successfully challenge the empire’s claim to fringe territory––thereby diminishing the empire’s asabiya. If this latter dynamic persists long enough, new bonds of identification and mutual understanding can arise between the empire’s disenchanted subjects and the “barbarians,” generating a new locus of asabiya that may ultimately subvert and/or rise up to destroy the empire and give birth to a new one. Turchin’s granular focus on Roman history is the main arena where he illustrates this dynamic, but he also pulls effective examples from the histories of the United States, Russia, China, the Middle East, and others.

Turchin is keenly aware that empires do not rise and fall purely because of external factors. In fact, Cliodynamics argues that internal factors are often more important when an empire’s fate is decided. Central to this view are the tensions that arise between as well as within classes in any given empire. The integrative phases of secular cycles tend to be more egalitarian, with relatively equal wealth distribution and higher rates of social mobility. Disintegrative phases, by contrast, are marked by increasing inequality and intense inter- as well as intra-class competition. Turchin explains:

When rich get richer and poor get poorer, cooperation between social classes is undermined. But the same process is operating within each class. When some nobles are growing conspicuously more wealthy, while the majority of nobility is increasingly impoverished, the elites become riven by factional conflicts. Within the secular cycle, as the disintegrative phase follows the integrative one, inequality rises and falls. A life cycle of an imperial nation usually extends over the course of two, or three, or even four secular cycles. Every time the empire enters a disintegrative secular phase the asabiya of its core nation is significantly degraded. Eventually, this process of imperiopathosis reaches its terminal phase––the imperial nation loses its ability to cooperate, and the empire collapses. Most empires, therefore, fall for internal reasons. (281)

Fluctuations in population and economic markets, the development of new technologies, political revolutions, and forces of nature such as climate and disease can slow down or speed up these processes, but the general trends of the secular cycle tend to reliably recur over time.

While I consider War and Peace and War to be a superb book, there are a few areas where I think Turchin’s perspective is incorrect or needs augmentation. Turchin fumbles badly when it comes to the matter of physical determinism and free will, falling prey to the all-too-common conflation of randomness and freedom:

Particles at the subatomic level behave in a stochastic––completely erratic and unpredictable––manner, and modern physics has been unable to reduce their behavior to the action of deterministic laws. It is quite possible that the universe, at some very basic level, is not deterministic at all…At a lower level, quantum physics tells us that the behavior of subatomic particles cannot be predicted; that is, they have a kind of “free will.” (311, 317)

In my view, randomness denotes the limit of humanity’s ability to make precise observational predictions, and not a fundamental breakdown of deterministic physical laws. The randomness of quantum activity is, therefore, completely compatible with determinism, even if it thwarts our predictive efforts. Randomness is not compatible, however, with free will. The fact that an outcome can’t be predicted from an external perspective does not mean any kind of “choice” or rupture in causality is happening––either at the subatomic level or any other. So, while I disagree with Turchin’s contention that people have free will, I heartily agree with him that “free will in this context is a red herring. Whether people have free will or not…has nothing to do with our ability to understand and predict historical dynamics” (317). This makes one wonder why Turchin bothered to include any discussion of free will in the first place.

Turchin’s fortifications are also lacking on two other fronts, but both are errors of omission rather than misinterpretation of facts. In his final chapters, Turchin invites us to consider the implications of Cliodynamics for modern empires. It is an enlightening and generally well-framed discussion, but Turchin ignores two game-changing modern developments: artificial intelligence/automation and anthropogenic climate change. It is possible he sidesteps these topics because they represent unprecedented challenges that preclude credible prediction based on past events, or perhaps AI/automation and climate change weren’t as front and center in the mid-2000s as they are now.

All of these faults are easily forgiven in the greater context of Turchin’s laudable contribution to the discipline of historical analysis. It follows that his assessment of modernity deserves our careful consideration. He claims that the era of empires is certainly not over, and makes a strong case that the United States, the European Union, and China all qualify as contemporary empires (Russia is a borderline case). Turchin is forthright regarding the possible flaws in his theories that will need correction by others, and eschews fatalism by remaining open to the possibility that humanity may one day escape the historical cycles that have dominated our story thus far. To that end, he gestures toward a host of recent developments––our move away from agrarian economies, the development of the Internet and mobile phones, and the invention of heterarchical (nonhierarchical) power structures, amongst others––that may compound or subvert the patterns of Cliodynamics.

Like any great thinker, Turchin knows he is but one tiny incarnation of humanity’s intellectual potential, seeking merely to make a worthy contribution. This he has certainly achieved, and in doing so he has also illuminated each person’s mysterious but undeniable potential to do the same:

Micro actions, by most people most of the time, have no effect whatsoever on the behavior of the system as a whole––they are completely dampened out at the macro level. But sometimes an individual acts in a place and at a time where the macrosystem is extremely sensitive to small perturbations. Then a little act of a little individual can trigger an avalanche of consequences, and result in a complete change of the course of events. The childhood rhyme “For want of a nail” illustrates this idea perfectly.

This is an optimistic conclusion, because it suggests that not all individual action is doomed to be futile at the macro level of social systems. There is no excuse in not trying to be good, because even if most of such actions would probably dissipate without any lasting effect, once in a while a small action will have a large effect. (319-20)

Rating: 10/10