Turchin, Peter, and Sergey A. Nefedov. Secular Cycles.

Author:Zeigler, Donald J.
Position:Book review
 
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Turchin, Peter, and Sergey A. Nefedov. Secular Cycles. Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press, 2009. vii + 349 pages. Cloth, $35.00.

What is the motive force of history? Peter Turchin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, and Sergey Nefedov, a senior research scientist at the Institute of History and Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, attempt to provide an answer to that question with a masterful, interdisciplinary synthesis of evidence that points to the answer in demographic-structural theory a la Jack Goldstone. Secular cycles are the long-term oscillations of history that characterize agrarian societies at the regional scale. They are typically several centuries long and divided into three phases: an integrative phase marked by social stability and expansion of power (and often territory); a stagflation phase marked by economic distress among commoners and rising consumption among elites; and, a disintegrative phase inaugurated by crisis and marked by depression and civil war. Their argumentation proceeds through a series of eight case studies covering medieval and modern England, France, and Russia, as well as ancient Rome (the Republic and the Principate). In so doing, Turchin and Nefedov apply the scientific method to historical analysis. They outline a cause-and-effect model of secular cycles, test it in the context of regional histories, and end up with a set of laws that the authors assert are universal in their application to the pre-industrial world. To counter the criticism that the case studies are Eurocentric, Turchin and Nefedov encourage readers to delve into Chinese dynastic histories and Khaldunian cycles of the Arab realm.

The shadows of Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo loom large over Turchin and Nefedov's search for history's motive force. Neo-Malthusian demographers will feel vindicated by the theory of secular cycles. Classical economists will relish eight case studies demonstrating Ricardo's law of diminishing returns. Marxists, however, will avert their gaze from a theory that is predicated on a symbiotic relationship between elites and peasants, and a competitive relationship between elites and the state. Secular cycles seem to explain more variation over time in power relationships than does class struggle. Geographers and ecologists will recognize the important role of the biophysical environment in influencing the course of history. Malthus predicted...

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