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A couple of posts ago I made something of a snarky aside about violence.

Some of my readers have questioned where I expect the blood to come from; who I expect to take up arms. And it is a subject which deserves a deeper dive, and one where they probably have something of a point. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember how civilized everyone thought things were before World War I…

I was on the verge of putting in another, similar snarky aside in my last post, when talking about violence in the early 70s, but I ignored that urge, not because I don’t like snarky asides, or because the topic isn’t important, but because, as I said, what the subject really needs is a deeper dive. The question of “How does the bloodshed start?” is a complicated one, and not something that can be answered by a few asides here and there. And it’s possible that Pinker and some of my readers are correct and the answer is, “It doesn’t.” In any event, it’s something which definitely deserves a full post. 

This is that post, and any discussion of the potential for future violence has to begin by taking into account past violence. How did it start? How bad did it  get? How did it end? Are there any similarities between it and what we’re going through now?

All of which leads me to the idea of historical cycles, another topic I’ve been dancing around over the last several posts. In fact, in several cases I’ve had long sections about them which I ultimately decided to cut because they didn’t quite fit, but I think it’s finally time to dig into the idea that there might be cycles to history, particularly cycles of violence. And if that’s the case to examine where we are on that cycle. Is our current period of political strife a high point in some identifiable cycle? Or is it something new and different?

As is so often the case, I’ll start with Scott Alexander over at Slate Star Codex, who spent a few posts recently reviewing Peter Turchin’s theory of secular cycles. In particular I want to focus on his review of Ages of Discord because as part of that review he mentions two previous periods of massive unrest which have largely been forgotten.

The first of these periods was around 1920 and it included bombings by Italian anarchists, racial violence, and the Mine War. To give you a sense of the scale of the unrest, the anarchist bombings culminated with an explosion on Wall Street which killed 38. The racial violence included the Red Summer and the Tulsa Race Riot, two events, which combined to produce 1,300 fatalities and the destruction of entire black neighborhoods. I had heard of some of these things, for example I knew there was a wave of terrorism by anarchists (in particular the assassination of McKinley) and I had some familiarity with the Tulsa Race Riot, but I confess to being entirely unaware of Mine War. From Alexander’s review:

Although it started as a labor dispute, it eventually turned into the largest armed insurrection in US history, other than the Civil War. Between 10,000 and 15,000 miners armed with rifles fought thousands of strike-breakers and sheriff’s deputies, called the Logan Defenders. The insurrection was ended by the US Army. While such violent incidents were exceptional, they took place against a background of a general “class war” that had been intensifying since the violent teens. “In 1919 nearly four million workers (21% of the workforce) took disruptive action in the face of employer reluctance to recognize or bargain with unions” 

The first important point I want to draw your attention to is how unaware most people are of incidents of past unrest, even an extreme example like the Mine War. You might think that this ignorance wouldn’t be as bad with more recent events like those occurring during the unrest of the late 60s/early 70s, but Alexander includes a couple of quotes to point out that people are relatively ignorant about these events as well:

People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States. 

— Max Noel, FBI (ret.)

Puerto Rican separatists bombed NYC like 300 times, killed people, shot up Congress, tried to kill POTUS (Truman). Nobody remembers it.

Status 451’s review of Days of Rage

Of course this is not to say that people have entirely forgotten the turbulence of the late 60s and early 70s, but it does appear that most people have forgotten just how violent it got. For one thing, I’ve certainly never heard any mainstream pundits bring it up when discussing current violence or future potential violence. 

These incidents are included in Alexander’s review because Turchin is primarily a student (and advocate) of cycles, and in Ages of Discord Turchin makes the claim that these violent periods, with the first around 1920 and the second around 1970, were part of a 50 year cycle of unrest and violence. Which, if true, would mean that one explanation for the “carnage” we’re currently experiencing comes because we’re nearing the next peak in that cycle. Turchin expects this to be a particularly bad peak, so while the idea of a cycle would imply that things will return to normal after the peak, it’s by no means certain that this will happen. In fact, coincidentally (or maybe not?) after I started writing this post I came across the following letter to the editor in The Economist from Paul McVinney in Accokeek, Maryland:

The most compelling explanation for the rise of today’s populism can be found in the sociological study of structural-demographic theory. In the “Ages of Discord”, Peter Turchin described how America is going through a “disintegrative phase”, last seen in the 1860s. In this phase, political fragmentation grows, social democracy declines, elites take greater economic and political power (and seek more positions than the country offers), workers suffer from stagnant wages and inequality, authoritarianism grows, and the state is headed toward fiscal crisis. Mr Turchin’s book fully explains the dynamic factors at work and is supported by much empirical data. You actually described the disintegrative phase without recognising it for what it is. This phase may not be the end of some democracies (or democracy in general), but as Mr Turchin says, there is no guarantee a country will survive it.

Whatever the utility of Turchin’s theory, and whatever it’s specificity as far as time, it doesn’t seem to be very specific on how this unrest will manifest. To be clear, I’m actually a big fan of the idea of historical cycles, and in general I think we should pay more attention to the possibility that something like that is going on, but I don’t think, even if Turchin is on to something, that his theory does much to answer our central question, “How does the bloodshed start?” It may tell us to expect it’s arrival, but it doesn’t do much to pin down what direction it’s arriving from.

The examples from the 20s and the 70s are useful guideposts, even if we end up rejecting the idea of historical cycles, but these examples only get us so far since it’s already clear that the discord we’re currently experiencing is different in many important respects. In both of the past situations you had a lot more violence than we’re currently experiencing but the unrest itself was confined to a much smaller space. You might say the discord was very deep, but not particularly wide, and as I pointed out in my last post, current political unrest appears to be exceptionally wide, but not particularly deep, at least not yet, a fairly large difference.

The other difference which occurs to me might best be understood by referring to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow imagined that people worked first to satisfy physiological needs like air, food and water before moving on to needs related to safety like shelter, and from there to “higher level” needs like love and belonging or esteem. It appears that throughout history, not merely in the 20s and 70s, that unrest has generally been creeping up this hierarchy. Giving us a difference not only between those periods and our own situation, but between each other

During the unrest of the 1920s, most of the unrest revolved around people who legitimately feared for their lives, or at a minimum were losing access to shelter. For example here’s how Wikipedia describes the Mine War:

Striking miners and their families were prohibited from using company bridges and roads, as well as utilities like running water. Company guards killed several miners over the first few months of the strike, and constructed a machine gun equipped armored train known as the “Bull Moose Special”, which they used to fire upon the tent camps of striking workers.

If we move forward from there to the unrest of the late 60s and early 70s the grievances appear to be higher on that hierarchy. I agree that fear of dying in Vietnam complicates things, but domestic terrorism and Puerto Rican separatism would appear to have very little to do with that, and additionally very little to do with physiological needs or even anything related to safety. Unlike what we saw in the 20s.

This takes us to our own day, and I fear I’ll get into trouble if I spend too much time talking about the relative merits of the injustices underlying whatever current unrest exists, but I will venture to say that by any objective criteria it would fall even higher on the hierarchy than the injustices of the 70s. And much much higher than the injustices of the 1920s

I began by saying that we needed to take into account past violence, and thus far you could be forgiven if you thought my survey of past violence has been overly narrow, but I wanted to focus on more modern violence because that’s the form any violence which might erupt in the near future is likely to take. Also, I don’t think anyone questions that there was a lot of violence historically, but they do seem to forget how recent and extreme some of that historical violence was. Both of which speak to the question of how new bloodshed might start.

With all of the above out of the way I think it’s time to make a list of four possibilities for how things could go in the future:

1- There are cycles of unrest and violence and currently we’re nearing the peak of one of those cycles. However, since it’s cyclical, while there will be problems, they’ll go away (similar to the 60s/70s) and “politics” will go back to “normal”.

2- There are cycles and this one will be a doozy. So much so that things will never completely return to “normal”, and the country might not even survive. (See the letter to the editor above.)

3- There aren’t cycles, but neither is bloody political unrest a thing of the past, and sooner or later we’ll have something similar to the 70s or the 20s or heaven forbid the 1860s, it’s just a matter of time.

4- We have, for the first time in history, passed beyond violence and bloodshed. And either politics and disagreement will never get so acrimonious that people feel the need to resort to violence and bloodshed or somehow everyone has (off the record) mutually forsworn mass violence in pursuit of political ends.

Going forward we’ll spend the most time on possibility four, since that’s the basis of the original question, but the other three are interesting from the standpoint of mitigation.

Starting with possibilities one and two the answer to the question of how the bloodshed starts is the same, it starts because civilizations, in particular the United States, go through relatively predictable cycles and we are nearing the point in the cycle of peak unrest. From a mitigation standpoint the fact that unrest is cyclical is good news. Any trend is easier to deflect if you can see it coming, and if this is truly part of a cycle one might hope that we can use that knowledge and the various elements people like Turchin have identified to lessen the impact of the cycle’s peak. 

This question of mitigation is also why I separated possibilities one and two because while the cause is, in theory, the same, the outcomes are vastly different. One might be considered “tolerable” for the majority of people, while I don’t think the same can be said of possibility two. If we think the country may legitimately end we might be willing to make bigger sacrifices to prevent that, than if we assume the unrest will only be temporary. If the past is any guide you can imagine people adopting the idea that things are cyclical, and then using that as an excuse to not do anything because it will “go away on its own”. I have no strong opinion on which possibility is more likely, but I would like to discourage the idea that we can “wait it out”.  And people will be less inclined to do that if they accept the possibility that the US might not survive this latest round of unrest.

In any case, the point of this post is not to get into whether Turchin’s theory is correct. (If you’re interested in that discussion I would direct you to Alexander’s review of Ages of Discord, which I already mentioned, along with his previous review of Turchin’s book Secular Cycles.) The point is to answer the question “How does the bloodshed start?” And if you think Turchin’s ideas are plausible, then we have our answer. However, I suspect people who are inclined to believe that large scale political violence is a thing of the past are even more inclined to dismiss Turchin’s theories, which is one of the reasons why spending any more time on them is of limited utility, but let me end with this quote from Steve Sailer about Turchin (which Turchin himself approved of.)

I think Turchin doesn’t get much attention because his books are too reasonable to be easily debunked and too enormously detailed to be easily digested and too ambitious to be easily trusted.

Moving on from Turchin and his cycles we have the third possibility. There has always been large scale political violence and there always will be. And anyone arguing otherwise is mistaken, or at the very least should be forced to bear the burden of proof. As the default position, this still seems to be the safest bet and beyond that, I’m not sure what else needs to be added. The advantage Turchin has is that he has all manner of theories for how it happens, and consequently, many recommendations for what should be done. If, on the other hand you’re in the “bloodshed happens” camp, then we probably still have a lot of theories, they’re just less likely to be of any value, particularly when it comes to specific mitigation strategies.

If specific mitigation strategies are unavailable that just leaves general mitigation strategies. And one of the things I want people to take away from this post is that we seem to be undermining these general mitigation strategies right as we need them the most. When mitigation might mean the difference between a temporary state of unrest and the permanent dissolution of the nation. 

Of course it could be that this is precisely why unrest is increasing, that the lack of compromise and civility are both the symptoms and the cause of the unfolding crisis. That people have actually started viewing policies and customs which serve this mitigating function as obstacles. It’s also possible that it’s all part of the cycle I already mentioned. But, regardless, as I said just barely and in previous posts. If people were aware that violence on the order of what happened in the 20s and 70s is still on the table, perhaps they would be more willing to both compromise and exercise civility. That’s my hope at least, but perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m worried about nothing. Perhaps violence isn’t on the table, that I don’t need to be worried about “How the bloodshed will start?” because it won’t. That there is either some upper limit on the kinds of emotions that could lead to violence or some limit on violence itself. Which takes us to possibility number four.

Let’s start off by covering the first half of this possibility, the possibility that there is some upper limit currently on the kinds of emotions which might lead to violence. That externally the government and technology, etc. are no more capable of stopping violence than they were during any previous period, but that people just don’t experience hate and anger to the same level they once did, and therefore would never get worked up enough to be violent. Based on the level of vitriol you see in an average day on twitter this would appear to be false on its face. Perhaps it was true at some point, that there was some historical era of good feelings, but the trend has been moving away from that for a long time, and I don’t think it’s true any longer. At a minimum I would argue that the burden of proof for this claim would be entirely on the other side, with those arguing that there is currently some cap on anger and hate.

After exhausting the other options, all that’s left is the possibility that the modern world has managed to eliminate violence and unrest in some systematic way. And the best candidate for this system would be Hobbes’ Leviathan, or as you and I refer to it, the state. I am not the only one to point out this possibility. As I mentioned in my review of his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker also believes that the modern decrease in violence has a lot to do with the modern increase in the power of the state. As I pointed out in my review, even if this is the case, are we sure that trading political bloodshed for an oppressive government is a trade we’re willing to make? In other words, yes, it’s possible that there will be no bloodshed because one side ends up being able to use the power of the state to completely quash dissent, but is that preferable? Is that somehow success?

I’d be willing to bet that not everyone or even a majority is willing to make that trade. And even if they were it’s still not clear it works over the long haul. Most people, whatever their other feelings about China would have used it as an example of a nation which decided to make this trade, and yet just recently there’s been 16 weeks of protests in Hong Kong, and apparently it’s only getting more violent.

If it is undesirable or unworkable to have the Leviathan eliminate violence, Pinker and his ideological brothers assert that the modern world eliminates violence in other ways as well. In particular conditions in the modern world are so great that there’s really nothing to be violent about. Insofar as this is similar to saying that there will be nothing to be angry about, this is another assertion that would appear to be false on its face. But on top of that, the violence of the 70s does not appear to be that much different than the violence of the 20s, and yet living conditions were dramatically better during the former period than the latter. It has always struck me (and I go into more detail in my review of his book) that the level of violence and the level of material comfort are not as closely correlated as Pinker would have us believe.

All of these issues aside, in the end I always come back to this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

Between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world[s] I see no remedy but force.

Whatever else you may say about the modern world it seems obvious that there is no universally agreed upon vision of the future, or of what constitutes morality for that matter. That we have at least two groups and probably a lot more who want to “make inconsistent kinds of worlds” and that their commitment to their particular world is only growing more intense with each passing year, if not each passing day. How do you resolve an otherwise unresolvable conflict? I am aware that to a certain extent this is why we have laws, but when you observe how acrimonious supreme court nominations have become, how confident are you that our laws will continue to serve in that capacity? Recall that Holmes himself was a justice of the Supreme Court, and even he thought the law was inadequate. Or to put it another way, how confident are you that if Ginsburg dies while Trump is still in office (and recall he could be re-elected) that the Democrats will calmly say, “Well Ginsburg died, I guess you get to nominate another justice. We’ll just try to do better in the next election”? 

Yes, it’s true that as of yet, thank goodness, we haven’t had any significant violence, but I am not convinced that this is because there’s something special and different about the modern world. In closing, I want to emphasize that last point one more time. We have multiple ideologies all on a collision course with each other, and at some point that collision is going to happen. And unless we’re very, very fortunate, when that collision inevitably happens, that’s when the bloodshed starts.

I’ve definitely fascinated by Turchin’s theories on cycles, though I have my doubts that it could be so neat and tidy. (I understand that may be the wrong phrase for periodic violence.)  But you know one cycle you can count on? That at the end of every post I’ll make some appeal, of dubious cleverness, for donations.