And in the naked light I saw ten thousand people, maybe more. People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening. People writing songs that voices never share. And no one dared disturb the sound of silence. “Fools” said I, “You do not know, silence like a cancer grows. Hear my words that I might teach you. Take my arms that I might reach you.” But my words like silent raindrops fell and echoed in the wells of silence. Within the sound of silence. So ends the song written by Paul Simon in 1964 and recorded by Simon and Art Garfunkel in March of 1964, and re-released overdubbed with electric instruments and drums the following year.
Something is going terribly wrong with not only the economy, but with society in general, and amazingly most people are silent about it. In its 2020 global peace index, the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP) ranked the United States 121st out of 163 countries. This places the Good ol’ USA in between Azerbaijan and Burkina Faso, and below such notably peaceful places as Honduras, Guatemala and Haiti. The US ranks just above the peaceful paradise of the Republic of the Congo.
These figures should be taken with a grain of salt because the index is stacked against countries like the US, since its extensive military commitments, count against it. The US scores right alongside North Korea in this category. But even looking at the US in terms of Societal Safety and Security, the IEP ranks the country below nearly every other Western democracy.
Other data from the IEP shows that the current decade is going to be the most politically violent since the post WWI period (which barring the Civil War was the most violent in the country’s history). The level of political violence is expected to be greater than the late 1960s and early 1970s, when assassinations were rampant, racial violence led to the burning of many US cities, and anti-war protests were at their height.
There has been a lot of popular literature about historical cycles. The most famous theory The Strauss–Howe generational theory, also known as the Fourth Turning theory, describes a theorized recurring generation cycle in American history and global history. We have discussed this on these pages in the past. According to William Strauss and Neil Howe, historical events are associated with generational change and ever 80 to 100 years a crisis occurs.
Other authors have also examined these generational patterns. The most recent edition of The Atlantic featured an interview with Professor Peter Turchin, a Russian born entomologist and zoologist who has turned his attention to studying the behavior of human beings. Turchin predicts that the world is about to go through five hellish years based on the generational patterns that he has observed. His focus is on population dynamics, something he calls cliodynamics after Clio, the ancient Greek muse of history. Turchin focuses on demographic cycles and how they lead to wealth inequality, that eventually leads to violence. There seems to be a disconnect in his theory but in short, he suggests that inequality is brought about through an increase in the supply of labor, which leads to a reduction in wages (simple supply and demand). This has happened in historical cycles at least as far back as the Egyptian period. As wages fall, payments to capital rise, and the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.
This makes sense, and the historical record shows it to be the case. Turchin then adds another layer. He writes, … most people are stuck with stagnant or falling real wages. Upward mobility for a few hollows out the middle class and causes the social pyramid to become top-heavy. Too many elites relative to the general population (a condition I call ‘elite overproduction’) leads to ever-stiffer rivalry in the upper echelons. And then you get trouble. So as the rich become richer, (and frankly as more people move into the elite class) trouble ensues.
According to Turchin, there is a close connection between wealth and power. Since the number of political offices is fixed, as the ranks of the wealthy swell, so too do the numbers of people who think they can lead a society than are needed to lead that society, and there are not enough roles for them to occupy. This can be seen over and over again in developing countries, where economies do not generate enough jobs in business and industry and the government is forced to employ thousands of college graduates in do-nothing bureaucratic positions.
As a read this interview I went back to a history lecture on the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages, there were three classes of people. Those who fought, those who prayed and those who worked.
The vast majority of people in society were those who worked. They could be farmers or traders, but they were people with no noble title and that had to earn a living, while of course supporting the other two classes.
Of course, the number of people who fought (the kings, the knights, the ruling class in general) was a very small part of society. But they were also the best fed, the cleanest, and the most likely to have children that survived into adulthood. Since there were not enough leadership positions for the children of the kings, the second class, those who pray, was used as a backstop. This class consisted of the Popes, the Cardinals, the priests and monks and nuns. Most of these people did not come from the bottom of society but rather were the sons and daughters of the ruling class that did not have a role to play. One only needs to look at Queen Elizabeth’s extended family to see what happens to excess nobility with little to do.
While Turchin suggests that rivalries between elites lead to political instability, this is likely only partly true. Sure most leaders of revolutions are part of the elite class (Vladimir Lenin was the child a moderately prosperous middle-class family and was a lawyer, Mao was the son of a prosperous peasant and worked at Peking University, Jose Marti was a poet, and Berine Sanders became a revolutionary while enrolled at the University of Chicago) but it requires more than inter-elite conflict to get people to put their lives on the line to ferment political violence.
But the cliodynamics model does not break down because of this inconsistency. Going back to the class model, when the ruling class becomes too large for the people who work to support, then the structure of society breaks down. The rulers can try to placate the masses with slogans and trinkets (think Green New Deal, or Obama-phones) but in the end, it is impossible for those who work to make ends meet when all of the benefits of their efforts accrue to a small elite.
Turchin argues that unequal societies generally turn a corner once they have passed through a long spell of political instability. Governing elites tire of incessant violence and disorder and their fear of revolution restores some level of equality. He suggests that this is precisely what happened in the US around 1920.
Remember outside of the Civil War this period was the most violent in US history, much worse than even the 1960s. In 1921 and 1924, Congress passed legislation that effectively shut down immigration into the US, which had the effect of reducing the labor surplus and led to rising wages, other laws legalized collective bargaining through unions, introduced a minimum wage, and established Social Security. In effect, the elites changed the relationship with the working classes starving off revolution and establishing a political-economic system that distributed the fruits of economic growth more evenly among labor and capital.
Today, the country is back to the 1920s and the elites are still attempting to lead the population down a road to serfdom. The government-imposed shutdowns have made matters even worse as they have led to a huge reduction in the number of small businesses and have created even more inequality. It is unlikely that this will be able to continue much longer, as the level of political violence is rapidly spiking. It is unlikely that even a one-party government in Washington is going to do much to change this. As Paul Simon wrote, silence like a cancer grows. Let’s see how long it takes the political elites to understand the forces of history.