Around the world today you see societies in varying degrees of stability and instability. Looking back throughout history, we may be able to identify certain patterns in how societies develop, change, fall into crisis, and evolve into new phases of development. In this episode of the “Great Unraveling?” series, Daniel Hoyer joins Laurie Laybourn-Langton to explore these cycles and what they might mean for us in the coming years and decades.
Dr. Daniel Hoyer is senior project manager at the Seshat: Global History Databank, which is an international, multidisciplinary effort to gather information from historical societies in order to test different hypotheses about the rise and fall of large-scale societies across the globe and throughout history. Dan received his Ph.D. from New York University.
Around the world today, you see societies in varying degrees of stability and instability. Looking back throughout history, we may be able to identify certain patterns in how societies develop, change, fall into crisis, and evolve into new phases of development.
In this episode, we explore these cycles and what they might mean for us in the coming years and decades.
To do so, I’m joined by Dr. Daniel Hoyer, Senior Project Management at the Seshat Global History Databank, which is an international multidisciplinary effort to gather information from historical societies in order to test different hypotheses about the rise and fall of large-scale societies across the globe and throughout history. Dan, welcome.
Well, thank you so much for having me.
My pleasure. Let’s kick off with a big question, then. What does the data collected about past societies tell us about the main factors that determine their stability or instability? And is there a pattern that you can discern from that data?
That’s one of the main things that jumps out when you take a broad look at all of the data that’s available, is that there really are clear patterns. Societies around the world, regardless of what time period we’re talking about, pretty much all societies tend to go through these sort of common cycles.
We have an integrative phase, where things are kind of growing—there’s a lot of cooperation, a sort of cohesion in the society. This kind of scales off to a disintegrative phase, where there’s a lot of instability, infighting, and sort of fracturing. You sort of see this cycle repeated over and over again. Really, what comes across when you sort of look at each case, and actually then take a broad picture, is that a lot of it hinges on wellbeing, in all of its many components, and also the distributional factors of wellbeing—how material resources, how positions of prestige and power, are actually distributed within the society.
And one of the big lessons that may be surprising to people is that this works on all scales of the society. So it’s not only distribution and wellbeing among the masses, or the majority. It’s also of elites, those with wealth and power. Their distribution within that small group also matters a lot. Even the state itself—how robust, how healthy the state is, and its structures.
And what kind of process do you see playing out in different societies across history? Like how, what kind of cycles do these patterns go through, if they do and where do things end up?
Yeah, well, the common pattern, and this is a sort of assuming that the state is left to its own devices, more or less. Usually, there is, as I say, this integrative pattern where things are going pretty well—there’s a lot of growth, there’s often territorial expansion, there’s economic growth, productivity gains. And even though there may be inequalities within it, people are generally doing pretty well. Even those on the lower rungs of the distribution are fairly well off. Things are going well, there’s high cooperation, high cohesion. This looks pretty good.
Generally, what happens is that the economic growth and economic opportunities or other opportunities, level off or dry up, yet population continues to grow. And this leads to a couple of different factors that sort of interact, and this is the key part of this theory.
Usually, the first thing that happens is that as population continues to grow, real wages start to get depressed, as labor becomes cheaper. People are not earning as much. There’s higher competition over work. This leads to what we call popular immiseration, just the lessening of wellbeing for a large segment of the population—often the majority of the population.
This should kind of be a warning sign. But unfortunately, the elites—those with wealth, those with power, those who are sort of consumers of this increasingly cheap labor—do really, really well at this point. And actually most of the sort of golden or gilded ages throughout history, are a product of this sort of increasing popular immiseration.
What happens then is that even those with wealth, and those who aspire to have wealth and to translate that wealth into power, their numbers are also starting to swell. And then what happens is that they start to compete amongst themselves for, again, a finite number of positions of power, in positions of authority, and prestige.
This is what we call elite overproduction. There’s basically too many elites fighting over the same small number of powerful positions. This then leads to increasing polarization. The battles get stronger, the battles get fiercer. You see the rise of populist demagogue type figures who are trying to make a name for themselves in this crowded field.
And, of course, because the majority of the population is immiserated, they are ripe for revolution. They’re sort of ready to follow these different factions. You get a lot of fracturing of the society and typically this is the disintegrative phase. If left unchecked, you just get increasingly fierce, increasingly tense competition leading to increasing violence. You get civil warfare—often this is when the sort of state will be taken over by another state that’s in its own integrative phase. And in some cases, this leads to just complete societal collapse.
And so it’s not a great story, but it is a very common one throughout history.
What happens after that point? Because, you know, societies have then continued to evolve throughout history or, or new ones have emerged. After that point of disintegration, breakdown, even collapse, as you describe it, presumably, there are a range of different things that can happen then, even different levels of severity of how the disintegration is occurred. And then what happens after?
Yeah, again, unfortunately, it’s not a great story. In the vast majority of the cases it is fairly catastrophic loss of life. And this kind of resets the demographic pressure. Or the territory, the stage, is taken over by somebody else that, again, is sort of in an integrative phase, and is not quite experiencing these traumas yet.
But a lot of it is actually that the loss of life takes away some of pressures. It’s often very catastrophic, it’s very violent, but then it kind of resets and you see this as a new society will emerge, and start to grow, and go through the growth phase.
Are there instances of a preemptive recognition of this, and then measures being taken to move to a next stage of the evolution of the society without having as bad a disintegrative element?
Yeah, there are, fortunately, some cases where the violence, the catastrophe isn’t quite as severe. Usually, when it gets to the state of large polarization, elite overproduction, most of the time it ends up being pretty bad. But there are a few examples of at least lengthening out the cycle and making it a little bit less severe. Generally, again, the key factors that we talked about are the inequality the lowering of the real wages, the popular immiseration, while the elites are doing really well… that’s the sort of key marker.
And if you can recognize that, if you can actually redistribute not only the materials or resources, but also open up the playing field, and share power, make some sort of the positions of authority a little bit more inclusive, that takes the bite out of a lot of this elite competition that drives the fracturing.
So it’s really that kind of redistribution of wealth, and power in positions of prestige and authority, through various kinds of institutional reforms. That is really the key and the societies that have been lucky or pressured enough to do these kind of policy, institutional reforms, those are the ones that tend to have a longer integrative cycle, and tend to experience sort of less catastrophic violence when they’re going through this disintegrated phase.
And when you look around at the world today, in the multitude of societies with varying degrees of connection to each other, what kind of trends and patterns are you noticing now, based upon those you’ve identified from historical societies?
Well, what we’ve been able to see is that for the last several decades… I mean, we’ve done a lot of work that sort of showed that these issues were rising. And in many Western industrialized states—especially in Europe, and America and Canada—you did see this kind of rising inequality.
Even though there was overall growth, and a lot of people were sort of happy with the state of the global economy, globalization, and everything was going well, GDP rising, there was a lot of inequality. There were signs of popular immiseration rising.
You could see even two decades ago warning signs were there. Again, it was hard to get that message across. And now what we’re seeing today is that this has translated sort of predictably into this elite overproduction, and you’re seeing more and more competition, factionalization, polarization, the sort of rise of nationalist populist leaders. This is all very predictable, based on what we’ve seen in the historical record.
So what you’re seeing, especially in parts of Europe, and the US, very much fit with this pattern. And unfortunately, as I said, most of the time, when you get to the state, it ends in sort of large scale, destabilizing violence. But there are ways out of it. I am convinced. I have hope.
And let’s finish on that note, what are the kind of ways out of it that the top of your mind?
Yeah, well, I mean, really clear policies like fiscal reform, to redistribute some of the wealth and put it directly into programs that increase the wellbeing, especially in those at the sort of bottom rungs. As well as sort of, I guess, political reform—to share power in positions of authority more. Somewhat ironically, if you actually increase the number of positions, it sort of diffuses the competition over them. And if you open it up to more people then are typically holders of certain positions.
So there are clear policy reforms that can be put into place. It’s just a matter of the political will to do so.
Yeah. Well done. That’s time for us. But thank you so much for joining us today and for giving us everything you’ve got.
Absolutely. Thank you.
Thanks a lot. Bye bye.