Excerpted from Peter Turchin:
“The US political system has been under the influence of wealthy elites ever since the American Revolution. In some historical periods it worked primarily for the benefit of the wealthy. In others, it pursued policies that benefited the society as a whole. Take the minimum wage, which grew during the Great Compression era and declined (in real terms) after 1980. The proportion of American workers who were unionised changed in a similarly cyclical fashion, as the legislative field tilted first one way then the other. The top marginal tax rate was 68 per cent or higher before 1980; by 1988 it declined to 28 per cent. In one era, government policy systematically favoured the majority, while in another it favoured the narrow interests of the wealthy elites. This inconsistency calls for explanation.
It is relatively easy to understand the periods when the wealthy bent the agenda to suit their interests (though of course, not all rich people care exclusively about their own wealth). How, though, can we account for the much more broadly inclusive policies of the Great Compression era? And what caused the reversal that ended the Gilded Age and ushered in the Great Compression? Or the second switch, which took place around 1980?
History provides another clue. 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. They realise that they need to suppress their internal rivalries, and switch to a more co-operative way of governing, if they are to have any hope of preserving the social order. We see this shift in the social mood repeatedly throughout history — towards the end of the Roman civil wars (first century BC), following the English Wars of the Roses (1455-85), and after the Fronde (1648-53), the final great outbreak of violence that had been convulsing France since the Wars of Religion began in the late 16th century. Put simply, it is fear of revolution that restores equality. And my analysis of US history in a forthcoming book suggests that this is precisely what happened in the US around 1920.
These were the years of extreme insecurity. There were race riots (the ‘Red Summer of 1919’), worker insurrections, and an Italian anarchist terrorist campaign aimed directly at the elites. The worst incident in US labour history was the West Virginia Mine War of 1920—21, culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain. Although it started as a workers’ dispute, the Mine War eventually turned into the largest armed insurrection that the US has ever seen, the Civil War excepted. Between 10,000 and 15,000 miners armed with rifles battled against thousands of strikebreakers and sheriff deputies. The federal government eventually called in the Air Force, the only time it has ever done so against its own people. Add to all this the rise of the Soviet Union and the wave of socialist revolutions that swept Europe after the First World War, triggering the Red Scare of 1921, and you get a sense of the atmosphere. Quantitative data indicate that this period was the most violent in US history, second only to the Civil War. It was much, much worse than the 1960s.
The US, in short, was in a revolutionary situation, and many among the political and business elites realised it. They began to push through a remarkable series of reforms. In 1921 and 1924, Congress passed legislation that effectively shut down immigration into the US. Although much of the motivation behind these laws was to exclude ‘dangerous aliens’ such as Italian anarchists and Eastern European socialists, the broader effect was to reduce the labour surplus. Worker wages grew rapidly. At around the same time, federal income tax came in and the rate at which top incomes were taxed began to increase. Somewhat later, provoked by the Great Depression, other laws legalised collective bargaining through unions, introduced a minimum wage, and established Social Security.
The US elites entered into an unwritten compact with the working classes. This implicit contract included the promise that the fruits of economic growth would be distributed more equitably among both workers and owners. In return, the fundamentals of the political-economic system would not be challenged (no revolution). The deal allowed the lower and upper classes to co-operate in solving the challenges facing the American Republic — overcoming the Great Depression, winning the Second World War, and countering the Soviet threat during the Cold War.
It almost goes without saying that there was a racist and xenophobic underside to all this. The co-operating group was mainly native-born white Protestants. African-Americans, Jews, Catholics and foreigners were excluded or heavily discriminated against. Nevertheless, while making such ‘categorical inequalities’ worse, the compact led to a dramatic reduction in overall economic inequality.
The ‘New Deal Coalition’ which ruled the US from 1932 to the late 1960s did so well that the business community, opposed to its policies at first, came to accept them in the post-war years. As the historian Kim Phillips-Fein wrote in Invisible Hands (2010):
Many managers and stockholders [made] peace with the liberal order that had emerged. They began to bargain regularly with the labour unions at their companies. They advocated the use of fiscal policy and government action to help the nation to cope with economic downturns. They accepted the idea that the state might have some role to play in guiding economic life.
When Barry Goldwater campaigned on a pro-business, anti-union and anti-big government platform in the 1964 presidential elections, he couldn’t win any lasting support from the corporate community. The conservatives had to wait another 16 years for their triumph.
But by the late 1970s, a new generation of political and business leaders had come to power. To them the revolutionary situation of 1919-21 was just history. In this they were similar to the French aristocrats on the eve of the French Revolution, who did not see that their actions could bring down the Ancien Régime — the last great social breakdown, the Fronde, being so far in the past.
The US elites, similarly, took the smooth functioning of the political-economic system for granted. The only problem, as they saw it, was that they weren’t being adequately compensated for their efforts. Feelings of dissatisfaction ran high during the Bear Market of 1973—82, when capital returns took a particular beating. The high inflation of that decade ate into inherited wealth. A fortune of $2 billion in 1982 was a third smaller, when expressed in inflation-adjusted dollars, than $1 billion in 1962, and only a sixth of $1 billion in 1912. All these factors contributed to the reversal of the late 1970s.
It is no coincidence that the life of Communism (from the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989) coincides almost perfectly with the Great Compression era. The Red Scares of, firstly, 1919—21 and then 1947—57 suggest that US elites took the Soviet threat quite seriously. More generally, the Soviet Union, especially in its early years, aggressively promoted an ideology that was highly threatening to the political-economic system favoured by the US elites. Reforms that ensured an equitable distribution of the fruits of economic growth turned out to be a highly effective counter to the lure of Bolshevism.
Nevertheless, when Communism collapsed, its significance was seriously misread. It’s true that the Soviet economy could not compete with a system based on free markets plus policies and norms that promoted equity. Yet the fall of the Soviet Union was interpreted as a vindication of free markets, period. The triumphalist, heady atmosphere of the 1990s was highly conducive to the spread of Ayn Randism and other individualist ideologies. The unwritten social contract that had emerged during the New Deal and braved the challenges of the Second World War had faded from memory.
What, then, explains the rapid growth of top fortunes in the US over the past 30 years? Why did the wages of unskilled workers stagnate or decline? What accounts for the bitterness of election rhetoric in the US, the growing legislative gridlock, the rampant political polarisation? My answer is that all of these trends are part of a complex and interlocking system. I don’t just mean that everything affects everything else; that would be vacuous. Rather, that cliodynamic theory can tell us specifically how demographic, economic and cultural variables relate to one another, and how their interactions generate social change. Cliodynamics also explains why historical reversals in such diverse areas as economics and culture happen at roughly similar times. The theory of secular cycles was developed using data from historical societies, but it looks like it can provide answers to questions about our own society.
Our society, like all previous complex societies, is on a rollercoaster. Impersonal social forces bring us to the top; then comes the inevitable plunge. But the descent is not inevitable. Ours is the first society that can perceive how those forces operate, even if dimly. This means that we can avoid the worst — perhaps by switching to a less harrowing track, perhaps by redesigning the rollercoaster altogether.”