Can David Cameron head off revolution by confronting global capitalism?

June 14, 2013 by
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics, The RSA 

We are at a pivotal, fascinating and dangerous moment. Let me explain in 550 words.

The polymath Professor Peter Turchin of Duke University takes the study of society to a new more scientific level. As a mathematician his goal is to use data analysis to disclose deep patterns in human history and from this to offer reliable predictions. Right now he is reducing the odds on collapse or revolution.

In essence, Turchin argues that civilisations and eras go through cycles in which levels of inequality grow, driven by a combination of changes in power and population. This in turn leads to a decline of public consent and some kind of transformational shift. He argues that we are nearing the peak of one of those cycles marked by massive inequality, falling living standards and high levels of public anger.

The week’s stark evidence of declining incomes and rising poverty levels in the UK go alongside further evidence of collapsing public trust in the political class.

In a recent RSA talk about his book ‘Austerity: the history of a dangerous idea’ economist Mark Blyth points to similar evidence on living standards and inequality. Austerity, he says, is the misguided attempt to deal with the economic crises by punishing the victims – those already poor and in debt – but as this doesn’t work (either economically or politically) sooner or later the only alternative is to take money off those who continue to hoard or accumulate it. This is why David Cameron, a Conservative Prime Minister who is instinctively hostile to both business taxes and international policy co-ordination, is touring the world trying – unsuccessfully it seems – to win support from the G8 to tax the income of our largest corporations.

In the terms of my three powers framework, the forces of hierarchy (Government) are realising that their ultimate priority – the maintenance of order – means that they must respond to the growing solidaristic backlash of resentment from an immiserated population by taking on the individualistic, free riding ethic of global capitalism. Nor are Prime Ministers alone; some of the world’s richest individuals – people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are also aware of the crisis and the need to squeeze the ‘fat cats’ to save the system.

Turchin describes the historical precedents:

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 realize 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 Fronded (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.      

Mr Cameron’s equivalent of ‘suppressing internal rivalries’ is trying to persuade Canadian PM Stephen Harper and the other G8 leaders to back a global tax regime. But the possibility that the global political elite has the commitment, insight and unity to head off disaster seems slight.

We need change and for the cycle of growing inequality to reverse, but revolutions are dangerous things. For the sake of peace, justice and progress I hope the Prime Minister’s briefing pack contains some powerful history lessons.



  • David

    Sounds like a rather silly comparison.

    The society we live in today is completely different… more education, a communications revolution, democracy etc etc.

  • Indy Neogy

    Matthew, you may wish to google Kondratieff Waves and Minsky Moments.

  • Benjamin D

    I suppose its fundamentally useless to be a Billionaire if you can’t go about your day to day life in comfort and security and express your relative financial advantage.

    Not sure we’re quite at that stage yet, as the organised resistance doesn’t really know what it wants – it can mobilise – but has no alternative to free market capitalism.

  • K Smith

    Fear of revolution does not restore equality.

    Inequality can be maintained if you change people’s ideas of what is worth fighting for.

    If enough people can be convinced that living in poverty is a good thing, and that being paid in money that buys less and less over time is a good thing, those at the top get to keep their lavish life, and those at the bottom are happy in their increasing poverty.


    Inequality persists on a massive scale.

    An effort to do this is under way now.

    Those who benefit from maintaining this inequality actually brag about the effort in the comments section on HuffPost.

    The Most Massive Spin in the history of mankind is under way to convince people they are not living in poverty. Part of the spin involves changing the way GDP will be calculated in the US in 2014. It involves reclassifying certain expenses as assets. This automatically increases GDP 3%, with no change at all in economic activity.

    We will go to bed on Dec 31, 2013, and wake up the next day on Jan 1, 2014 with our GDP miraculously expanded by 3%.

    Here’s another gem that is just now beginning to be disseminated – the idea that having lots of money means you have a good life. The key piece of info being left out is that the money will be worthless.

    Austerity is coming. There is no avoiding it. Even if Mr Cameron can convince the G8 to get Big Business to pony up, there is too much public and private debt in the world financial system for his effort to make any difference. Big Business could turn over 100% of their profits and in relative terms it wouldn’t amount to a sneeze.

    The solution being pursed is to change public perception, to get the public to change their ideas of what constitutes wants and needs.

    The $64,000 question is whether or not the ideas being promulgated by the Most Massive Spin effort will be embraced on a wide enough scale for the effort to succeed.

    K Smith

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  • Brian Hughes

    I have bad news for you, we’re not at “a pivotal, fascinating and dangerous moment”. Mankind rarely is although many of its members have enjoyed thinking they are over the millennia. I guess it makes our dull, inconsequential little lives somehow seem more significant.

    Worthy environmentalists in draughty village halls like to talk, with barely suppressed glee, about tipping points. Economic pundits, hungry for a bit of time on the telly now have similar opportunities. They’re all closely related to end of the world cranks and seekers for hidden messages in ancient texts.

    G8 summits come and go, the caravans roll on. It keeps people of of mischief.

    But, baring occasional meteorites, volcanoes, fatal car-crashes and such like, life rolls on and then we die. The inevitability of gradualism and all that….

  • mike reardon

    Matthew – also look at the op-ed piece by Paul Krugman in the New York Times today as it provides a coda to this piece in terms of looking specifically at the impact of technology since the turn of the 19th century. Like you, PK is less than sanguine about the ‘what next’ question but does at least challenge the Left to come to terms with the nature of the present shift , especially the growing inequality between capital and labour and the need to confront the continuing existence of people without work who in no sense can simply be written off as ‘shirkers’.

  • Daniel

    Interesting points. Talk of impending doom did remind me somewhat of this article though….