Arnold Kling

Does Conflict Drive Cooperation?

Arnold Kling*
Peter Turchin's War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires1 offers a grand theory of conflict both within and among societies. Although it was published in 2005, it is an interesting book to read today, at a time when the United States appears to be suffering from both types of conflict.

One sentence from the book, written shortly after the war to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq but several years before the appearance of ISIS, is striking:

The metaethnic frontier theory, however, predicts that the Western intrusion will eventually generate a counter-response, possibly in the form of a new theocratic caliphate, because that is the traditional way in which Islamic societies have responded to challenges from other civilizations.

Turchin explains his term "metaethnic" by writing,

People usually have multiple ethnic identities nested within each other... The broadest groupings of people that unite many nations are usually called civilizations, but I prefer to call such entities metaethnic communities from the Greek meta, "beyond," and ethnos, "ethnic group" or "nation")... Typically, cultural difference is greatest between people belonging to different metaethnic communities; sometimes this gap is so extreme that people deny the very humanity of those who are on the other side of the metaethnic fault line.

Although this description has some intuitive appeal, for me it lacks sufficient precision. I am still not certain how one distinguishes a metaethnic community from a subset of humanity that is not metaethnic.


For more on the work of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), see Division of Labor, by Michael Munger, in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

Another term that Turchin introduces is asabiya, which he ascribes to Ibn Khaldun. Turchin writes,

Asabiya of a group is the ability of its members to stick together, to cooperate; it allows a group to protect itself against the enemies, and to impose its will on others. A group with high asabiya will generally win when pitched against a group of lesser asabiya.

Once again, I will note that I would have preferred a more precise definition of the term. If asabiya is supposed to predict the winner of an inter-group contest, then one must be careful to measure it in some way other than by counting victories in inter-group contests. However, for the remainder of this column, I will leave these caveats aside.

"Turchin argues that asabiya rises when a group is under threat, and that such threats are most pronounced at the border between two metaethnic communities."

Turchin argues that asabiya rises when a group is under threat, and that such threats are most pronounced at the border between two metaethnic communities. When a society that finds itself on such a fault line manages to develop enough asabiya to survive, that level of internal cohesion can enable the society to evolve into an empire.

From the Mongols in the thirteenth century, to the Muscovites in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and then on to the Americans... all empire builders.... had a high capacity for concerted collective action... originated from intense and prolonged fault-line frontiers.

For Americans, for example, the fault-line frontier was between the settler population and the natives.

One consequence of the life on the North American fault line was the famous American melting pot. Indeed, when confronted with such obvious aliens as painted, bloodthirsty, heathen redskins, two European settlers, even if they came from different countries, could not help but feel they were kin... Because the fault line was defined in racial terms, immigrants belonging to non-White races, such as the Negroes and the Chinese, were not accepted as "Americans." (This pattern began to change in the twentieth century.)

Turchin later writes that,

[British journalist] Anatol Lieven suggested today's Americans react the same way toward Arabs as early American settlers did toward Native Americans. It is as if such behaviors are written into cultural genes.

Throughout the book, Turchin gives examples of internal cohesion within a social group coinciding with an extreme hostility toward those outside that group. For example,

There is now a distinct Palestinian entity, where there was none prior to the massive immigration of European Jews into Palestine. The asabiya of Palestinians has increased enormously.

Turchin cites Francis Fukuyama, who pointed out that large firms can only be formed in high-trust societies, because in a large firm people must be comfortable cooperating in an environment where they do not know everyone with whom they must work. Turchin writes,

Ironically enough, although externally corporations brutally compete in the free market, their internal workings rely not on market forces, but on group solidarity! This is one of the best-kept secrets in the economic sciences.

Turchin writes,

It is much easier for equals to achieve the unity of purpose and to develop a common course of action. Egalitarianism enables cooperation.

This is because,

The capacity to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of common good is the necessary condition for cooperation.

Turchin sees a cyclical pattern embedded in agrarian societies regarding social cohesion.

... the very stability and internal peace that strong empires impose contain within it the seeds of chaos. Stability and internal peace bring prosperity; prosperity causes population increase. Demographic growth leads to overpopulation; overpopulation causes lower wages, higher land rents, and falling per-capita incomes for the commoners. At first, low wages and high rents bring unparalleled wealth to the upper classes, but as their numbers and appetites grow, they too begin to suffer from falling incomes. Declining standards of life breed discontent and strife. The elites turn to the state for employment and additional income, and drive up its expenditures at the same time that the tax revenues decline because of the impoverished state of the population. When the state's finances collapse, it loses control of the army and police. Freed from all restraints, strife among the upper classes escalates into civil war, and the discontent among the lower classes explodes into popular rebellions.

Empires gradually lose asabiya over the course of several cycles. Moreover, the very success of an empire pushes away the frontier threat away from the core of the empire. As a result, the citizens close to the core lose the sense of solidarity that comes from being under threat.

Turchin acknowledges that his theory is meant to apply to agrarian societies in which many people live near the Malthusian margin.

When land becomes a scarce commodity... Those who do not have enough land to feed themselves will have to start selling what they have to make up the difference. As a result, they become poorer. By contrast, those who have more land than they need to feed themselves will have a surplus income that they can use to acquire even more land. Thus, the rich get richer.

In our modern economy, are there nonetheless other mechanisms at work which naturally breed greater inequality and thereby erode asabiya? Turchin argues our economy's disintegrative phase began late last century.

However, he hedges, noting that,

One cannot assume that the social and economic forces that operated in agrarian societies to produce secular cycles would continue behaving in the same way today... We live in a very different world from that inhabited by the Romans or the Normans, or even the Europeans of the Napoleonic era.

... the main reason there is no famine in England or any developed nation today is that the productivity of an acre of cropland is now more than ten times what it was in the Middle Ages.


For more on these topics, see the EconTalk podcast episode Collier on the Bottom Billion, January 2008. See also Ethnic Strife, EconLog, July 20, 2006; and "Can Evolutionary Psychology Explain Your Political Beliefs?", Library of Economics and Liberty, February 3, 2014.

Still, Turchin finds a number of troubling trends, including the increased requirements for education in the job market.

By the late twentieth century, just finishing college was not enough to enter the increasingly competitive job market, and the number of college graduates earning PhD's started increasing.

... These trends are signs of a credentialing crisis, which reflects increased intra-elite competition... Similar trends have been observed during pre-crisis phases of previous secular cycles.

In the end, he writes,

... can we design societies in such a way that asabiya is not constantly being degraded? Do humans always need the threat of imminent danger from some outside enemy to cooperate effectively?

For libertarians, these are crucial questions. In order for markets to function well, they must be embedded in cultures that promote pro-social behavior and are conducive to trust. If the absence of external conflict weakens the bonds that prevent internal conflict, then the libertarian goal of peaceful cooperation in all domains will prove elusive.


War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires , by Peter Turchin. Plume, February 1, 2007.

*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.

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