Charles King has an excellent piece
in Foreign Affairs on how great powers collapse. He explores this through the lens of this prophetic essay
from 1970 by Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik, in which he predicts the fall of the USSR. We talked recently
about the conundrum of living through great historical change: if you worry about it out loud, you’ll seem hysterical most of the time; if you never do, you risk being swept away by events (It’s the world-historical version of Taleb’s turkey problem
). Amalrik provides a framework for identifying when the end really might be nigh.
Governments naturally want continuity, but rapid social, economic and technological change creates enormous pressure for reform. The challenge for government is to find ways to accommodate this within the existing institutional framework. The key point, Amalrik argues, is that we tend to obsess over ideological divisions in a country, but what really matters is divergent interests, in particular between those who want to hold back change and those who want it to accelerate.
The tipping point comes - as it did in the USSR towards the end of the 80s - when a critical mass of the political elite decide that their interests are best served by undermining existing institutions rather than working within them. Last week
, we discussed Peter Turchin’s idea of “elite overproduction”, and why it might lead to civil fracture. Amalrik points to the mechanism by which it happens. In King’s framing:
Do [elites] cling to the system that gives them power or recast themselves as visionaries who understand that the ship is sinking?
It’s a question that, worryingly, seems as relevant in the West today as in the USSR 30 years ago.