Some Thoughts About Secular Trends

In his book Secular Cycles, Peter Turchin lays out his theory of demographic-structural dynamics. This models the rise and fall of agrarian societies based on the interaction between population levels, elite dynamics, and state stability. The following table is copied from his book, as I often find myself wanting to refer to it. The reader is strongly encouraged to buy the book for themself.

Table 1.1: Empirical predictions of the demographic-structural theory
Integrative Secular Trends Disintegrative Secular Trends
Expansion phase (growth) Stagflation phase (compression) Crisis phase (state breakdown) Depression / Intercycle
Fundamental variables
Population dynamics Population increases from nadir; rate of growth accelerates Population is high and continues to increase but rate of growth decelerates Population declines from the peak; the rate of decline accelerates Population is low; it either declines at a decelerating rate or stagnates; periods of increase possible but do not lead to sustained growth
Elite dynamics Low to moderate numbers; decline in elite/commoner ratio; modest consumption levels “Golden age”: increasing numbers; increased competition for elite positions; conspicuous consumption by some segments; appearance of counter-elites High numbers; factional­isation and conflict; high corruption; high income inequality; impoverishment of service elites Reduction in elite numbers as a result of civil war and downward mobility; collapse of elite consumption levels
State strength and collective solidarity Increasing; social unity among the elites that may extend to commoners High but declining Collapse; social disintegration Periodic attempts to restore state, followed by repeated breakdown
Sociopolitical instability Instability decreases to a low point Instability is low but increasing Instability increases to its peak Instability is high but begins declining
Other endogenous variables
Number of rural settlements Increases Slow increase or stagnation Decline; settlement abandonment Lack of increase
Land, cultivated Increase; assarting¹ Slow increase or stagnation Decline; settlement abandonment At a low equilibrium
Land, free Initially abundant but decreasing In short supply Increasing Abundant
Land to peasant ratio High but declining Low Low, increasing High
Land prices Low, increasing High Falling Low
Grain prices Low Increasing High, very variable Decreasing, variable
Real wages High Declining to the lowest point Increasing, but with much variability High, but variable; contingent
Rents Low High; high exploitation by the land-owners Declining, but with fluctuations Low, but variable; contingent
Personal consumption; subsistence level High; infrequent crop failure incidents have no lasting effect Declining; poverty, misery, vagrancy Subsistence crises Contingent (depends on instability levels)
Grain reserves High Declining Non-existent Variable
Urbanisation Low Increasing, growth of cities High High but declining
Artisanship and handicrafts Low Increasing; landless peasants become artisans High Declining
Trade At a low level, local trading networks Increasing in volume and spatial scale Declining, variable, interrupted by political unrest Local; long-distance networks disrupted
Usury Absent Increasing peasant indebtedness High Declining
Large private land-ownership Absent, low, or medium Increasing High concentration of land in the hands of few large landowners Declining
Economic inequality Low Increasing High High but declining
Incidence of epidemics Rare; population bounces right back Increasing; post-epidemic population increases sluggish Often catastrophic; population does not make up losses High but declining
Internal peace and order Increasing; a golden age High but gradually unravelling; increasing resistance to taxation Crisis: peasant uprisings, urban uprisings, inter-elite conflicts, regional / nationalist rebellions Recurrent civil war, political fragmentation; high susceptibility to external invasions
Incidence of coin hoards Declining to low levels, unless there is a catastrophic external invasion Low, unless there is a catastrophic external invasion Rapidly increasing to a peak owing to state breakdown and civil war Peaks when state breakdown and civil war recurs
State finances Increasing revenues and stable expenditures, leading to budgetary surpluses Declining real revenues; increasing expenditures due to growth of the army and bureaucratic apparatus State bankruptcy; loss of control over the army and bureaucracy Finances generally in poor state, but high variability and contingency
Taxes Increasing Stagnant or even declining in real terms; heavy tax burdens on the peasantry Tax system in a state of crisis Variable; periods of high taxes alternate with collapse of the tax system
Ideology Positive, optimistic ideologies rule the day Growth of social pessimism; criticism of powers-that-be; ideological and social conflicts Popular movements for social justice and abolishment of debts, and for land distribution Pessimistic ideologies; the cult of death
State policy Internal policy is non-interventionist, laissez faire; externally, increased interest in conquest Increasing attempts at social reforms, construction of irrigation and other infrastructure; colonisation of borderlands; external aggression for acquisition of new territories Social reforms, sometimes leading to social revolutions Retrenchment; weakening of the state often results in external invasion

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