PNG writers: What do we try next?
The arrest of Peter O’Neill

Cliodynamics & Bougainville

In Greek mythology, Clio is the muse of history


ADELAIDE - Many readers may be as surprised as I was to learn that there is a thing such as cliodynamics, much less that it may have any role in explaining what is happening right now in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere.

Cliodynamics is defined as a transdisciplinary area of research (stay with me) integrating cultural evolution (how societies change over time), cliometrics (a form of economic history), macrosociology (the study of social systems and populations on a large scale), the mathematical modeling of historical processes over the very long term, and the construction and analysis of historical databases.

My understanding of this mind-boggling definition is that there are some historians who think that we now have sufficient reliable data about the last 2,000 years or so of history to begin to be able to recognise discernible and repetitive patterns of human behaviour on a societal scale.

These can now be subjected to quantitative analysis from which predictions about future socio-political developments may be made.

If you find this whole notion disturbing do not be disheartened, for you are not alone. Many historians are, to put it mildly, highly sceptical about cliodynamics.

Dr Peter Turchin

Its most prominent exponent is Dr Peter Turchin, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut in the USA.

Turchin believes that, while such scepticism is understandable, the evidence that he and his colleagues are onto something significant is rapidly accumulating.

One of the major patterns that Turchin and others have identified relates to a very long term cycle of increasing social disequilibrium, followed by predictable reactions from the ruling elites (denial, repression and/or forced adaption) which frequently, although not always, lead to violent change to the prevailing socio-political system.

You do not have to be convinced about the reliability of cliodynamics as a science to recognise that history is littered with evidence of this pattern of human behaviour.

Obvious examples include the English Civil War, the 30 Years War, the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, the American Civil War, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution (still continuing I think) and, very pertinently for PNG, the Bougainville Civil War.

Turchin and colleagues assert that, at a global level, we are all in the midst of the latest iteration of this apparently inevitable and inexorable cycle of change.

As I understand it, the basic argument for this is as follows.

Immediately following the global upheaval of World War II, the ensuing Cold War held the world’s geo-political system in a more or less static position for nearly 40 years.

After the collapse of the USSR, many people came to believe that the liberal democratic and neo-capitalist system, as epitomised especially by the USA, was the only viable and rational way to organise human society.

The victory of this system over communism was deemed to be, to quote US historian Francis Fukuyama, the end of history. By this he meant the end of ideologically driven competition and conflict.

As we now know (and Francis Fukuyama acknowledges) it was not the end of history, just the beginning a new phase in which largely unfettered global neo-capitalism would unleash a period of exceptionally rapid and widespread socio-economic change and growth, which has had both good and bad effects.

For example, while lifting huge numbers of people out of poverty, notably in China and South East Asia, globalism has also destabilised and disrupted the lives of a very large number of people, notably in the USA and Europe, both of which have seen a significant part of their industrial capacity (and the accompanying jobs) effectively sent overseas.

As a consequence, a large and growing underclass of people has emerged who are not deriving any benefit from globalisation. Indeed, many of them have seen their personal fortunes seriously decline and are beginning to make their dismay and anger obvious at the ballot box and, increasingly, in the streets.

There have been riots in Paris over attempts by the government to reform France’s unaffordable but much loved social welfare and pension system.

At the same time, Britain’s political system has until very recently been paralysed by the intensively divisive issue of Brexit.

Meanwhile, the USA has elected a narcissistic, erratic, thin skinned, belligerent and bellicose populist as its president.

Social discontent is brewing elsewhere as well, as reflected in the so-called Arab Spring in the Middle East and the increasing signs of popular contempt for the various political and economic elites governing in places like Africa, South East Asia (notably Hong Kong).

This tendency is even evident in affluent and apparently stable democracies like Canada and Australia.

All this, says Turchin, is entirely consistent with the results of cliodynamic analysis of societal behaviours over the very long term.

Importantly, while culture is a factor in cliodynamics, it apparently is not a determining factor. It seems that all human societies are susceptible to the identified patterns of behaviour.

Turchin maintains that his cliodynamic data analysis points to a very high probability that not only will this situation not improve anytime soon but that it will get very much worse.

His data analysis suggests that increasing social disorder and violence is inevitable as the ruling elites struggle to manage the social forces unintentionally unleashed by globalisation, especially the gross economic inequality it is beginning to generate across the globe.

If Turchin is right, we can expect to see the ruling elites across the globe go through a predictable process.

First, they will deny that there is any problem or insist that it is merely a temporary period of adjustment. They will say that, eventually, the rising tide will lift all boats until this specious argument becomes untenable.

Then they will try various forms of barely disguised repression such as legislating to suppress the union movement, eroding freedom of association laws, suppressing free speech and so forth, all in the name of maintaining public safety and social stability.

Australians will be familiar with this process.

When this tactic ultimately fails, the choice will be between introducing necessary political and economic reforms in an effort to restore social equilibrium or to use of force to suppress popular dissent.

If the latter option is chosen it can work for a very long time. However, history strongly suggests that this too will ultimately fail because, eventually, the state instruments of repression will be turned against the ruling elite.

The intelligent members of the elite will know this, but cliodynamics suggests that many will simply refuse to acknowledge the lessons of history until it is far too late to control the inevitable change processes.

Think about how apparently powerful and entrenched regimes like Tsarist Russia, the Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman Empires and the communist governments in places like Russia, Romania, Hungary and East Germany, simply collapsed overnight when their fundamental lack of political legitimacy finally overwhelmed even their respective state security apparatuses.

This seemingly esoteric discussion has real world implications across the globe, not least for PNG.

Consider the situation in relation to Bougainville.

At the recent referendum, the crushing majority of Bougainvilleans voted in favour of independence. This leaves the Marape government confronted with some exquisitely difficult socio-political problems.

In particular, it must deal with Bougainville’s clearly expressed wishes all the while casting a nervous eye over its shoulder at provinces like Enga and Hela and New Ireland, where separatist sentiments are already evident.

All this must happen within a now recognisable global tendency for populations to regard their political elites with undisguised suspicion and contempt.

In this context, the Marape government’s predecessors’ stupidity, corruption and incompetence have hugely diminished the moral and political credibility and authority that their successors desperately need to navigate their way through the socio-political and economic minefield that is Bougainville.

That unhappy island has already been through the cycle of disillusionment, resentment, anger and, eventually, the unspeakable violence of civil war that cliodynamics postulates is a repeating pattern in human societies, not an exceptional event.

There is thus a real risk that managing Bougainville badly will trigger a repetition of the same behaviour.

The previous Bougainvillean catastrophe was the direct result of the determination of the authorities, both in PNG and Australia, to press on with the Panguna mining venture in the face of overwhelming evidence that the population did not want this, at least upon the terms then offered.

As Bill Brown marvellously shows in A Kiap’s Chronicle, which covers the history of the Panguna disaster, the entire process largely followed the script that cliodynamics would have predicted.

First, there was denial by the authorities that there was a problem; then refusal to hear anything other than they wanted to hear; then attempts to suppress dissent; then a decision made to press on regardless of the population’s wishes; and, finally, futile attempts by the PNG government to use force to maintain the status quo.

James Marape and his colleagues need to understand this and reflect upon it. History and cliodynamics provide many lessons that they might usefully learn and apply to their forthcoming negotiations and decision making about Bougainville.

Cliodynamics may not be a perfect instrument, either now or into the future, but quantifying and analysing the lessons of history may well turn out to be an immensely useful tool for finding ways to minimise if not entirely avoid the worst consequences of how we choose to organise and govern human societies.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Bernard Corden

'The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class' by Professor Guy Standing is well worth reading:

Robert Forster

That was a fascinating article Chris. Within the framework you have outlined two recent events stand out.
As you say. the collapse of the Berlin Wall did not, as most thought at the time, define the end of a potentially dangerous ideological arm-wrestle but the beginning of a new struggle because the constraints established by the old one had collapsed and a dynamic range of unsettling forces were released.
The second is the economic crash of 2008 which, again as you say, far from signalling a curb on unfettered global capitalism, simply reinforced it and in the process underlined what I too suspect is an emergent global trend - the establishment of an, educated, origin-free, rootless, salary seeking, international. professional class.
Everyone and anyone who is qualified, and prepared to travel, will be able to join its world-wide membership. And, because this super-class will entrench itself, and become self-perpetuating as a result of embedded inter-marriage, and the life-style protection that will motivate this, it will soon dominate both global income distribution and opportunity thereby creating an antithesis.
The latter will be the largely immobile, motiveless, landless, post-industrial, poorly educated, computer clumsy, ambition-free, or ambition supressed, resentful (and therefore potentially angry and dangerous) underclass that is already emerging in in most counties and in the main survives by manning the corporate infrastructure controlled by the new, global, corporate. elite.
I have watched the beginnings of this development within my own family. Those that have held on to their farms remain largely secure and protected, some in the section that embraced education have become founder members of the super-class, while many in the section that was content to contain both income and ambition at levels they found comfortable have, I fear, locked themselves, and most of their descendants, out.
Papua New Guineans will not be immune. Some graduates and professionals are already members of the global super-class and, because they will not be keen to leave it, they or their children are more likely to marry within it, and continue to live in a global centres like London, New York or Singapore than return home.
Does this mean that those who still have access to village land and have retained a place in village life will be able to feel invulnerable for some time while many of those that have abandoned village life, but are not qualified to join the super-class will have to resign themselves to a life that may become increasingly restrained in income and opportunity terms?

Bernard Corden

There is often no exploratory data analysis and the information is often a catacomb of descriptive statistics and merely counting not measuring without any hypothesis testing or evidence of statistical significance.

Bernard Corden

It was Peter Drucker who exclaimed...…."What gets measured gets done"

However what gets measured gets manipulated to align with the prevailing ideology.

Philip Fitzpatrick

In terms of learning from the past and attempting to turn history into science it might also be worth noting the attempt to turn accountancy into science by calling it economics.

I don't think that has worked out very well at all.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The ability of computers to crunch numbers and analyse data is truly remarkable. I suspect this has made something like Cliodynamics possible.

Computers and technology have also changed the world beyond belief. Globalisation has largely been facilitated by computers for instance.

Many of the conditions that affected our historical past simply do not apply now. While small internecine wars are still possible large scale conflagrations like World Wars 1 and 2 will probably never happen again.

While we were preoccupied with possible war and nuclear catastrophe in the past our preoccupations now revolve around things like climate change.

Climate change was not something that occupied people's minds in the past but it certainly does now.

This makes me think that analysing data from the past to predict the future is problematic.

We can certainly learn from history but whether it offers widespread application today is questionable. We are now in the Age of Technology and have left the Industrial Age and the Agricultural Age far behind. What relevance these last two have to the first is an interesting question.

We might be dealing with a whole new ballgame that makes most of past history irrelevant. That might sound counter intuitive given the old adage about ignoring or not learning from history.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)