Peter Turchin



monograph · Do europeans exist?


Deep Historical Roots of European Values, Institutions, and Identities

Peter Turchin

The grand project of European integration is failing. Signs of dysfunction abound: from Greece’s debt debacle to the immigration crisis and now “Brexit”. A disintegrative trend at the European level is mirrored within constituent states: think of the Scottish and Catalan independence drives, or the inability of Belgium to form a national government for years. In a dramatic reversal of the post-war trend, Europeans have seemingly lost their ability to cooperate across different national units and across different ethnic groups.

To put this failure in perspective, getting people to cooperate in very large groups like the EU is difficult. The science of understanding how humans have been able to form huge cooperative societies numbering in tens and hundreds of million is still in its infancy. Social scientists cannot really run experiments involving hundreds of millions of people. Nevertheless, much progress has been achieved by taking a scientific approach to analyzing historical data. [See Turchin, Peter. 2016. Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Chaplin, CT: Beresta Books.]

What we have learned is that the capacity of people to form large cooperative groups is conditioned by deep history—events taking place hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years in the past. One particularly important factor that historical analyses have identified is the long-lasting influence of past, and now long-gone, empires. Why?

Successful cooperation requires that people share values, institutions, and social identities. Values tell us why we want to cooperate: what is the public good that we collectively want to produce? Norms and institutions tell us how we are going to organize cooperation. Shared identities help people pull together to overcome barriers to cooperation (such as the temptation to free-ride on the efforts of others). As an example, the very first principle of managing cooperative action, identified by Nobel prize-winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom, was 1. Define clear group boundaries. Mismatched values, institutions, and identities often doom a cooperative effort even before it has had a chance to get off the ground.

Historical experience of living in the same state often results in the spread of common values, institutions, and identities among initially diverse groups. Elements of culture, including those that affect cooperation, change slowly, and often persist for long periods of time after the original empire has broken apart.

We can use the data from the World Values Survey (WVS) to visualize these “ghosts of empires past”. WVS has been collecting data on people’s beliefs in many countries since 1981. Researchers discovered that much of variation between populations of different countries can be mapped to just two dimensions: (1) Traditional values versus Secular-rational values and (2) Survival values versus Self-expression values. When values for each country in the sample are plotted in a two-dimensional space defined by these two axes, we have what is known as the Inglehart–Welzel Cultural Map. I have taken the WVS data for European countries from the latest (sixth) survey, and color-coded them by shared history within past states: the Carolingian, Habsburg, Ottoman, British, and Russian Empires. “Nordic” refers to the Danish and Swedish Empires (since Denmark at some points in historical time included Norway, Iceland, and a part of Sweden, while Sweden included Finland).

As the figure demonstrates, modern countries, which belonged to the same past and long-gone empire, cluster very closely together. There is little overlap. And when there is, it may reflect the influence of even more ancient empires. For example, Spain, Italy, Greece, and the Balkans were all core regions of the Roman Empire.

Of particular interest is the cluster of the countries that used to be part of the Carolingian Empire (which reached its peak in 800 under Charlemagne). It’s remarkable that the original group of six European states that signed in 1957 the treaty establishing the European Economic Community, the precursor of the European Union (France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux), were also the core of Charlemagne’s empire.

This is not a coincidence. The Carolingian empire was the embryonic form of what we now call Western civilization. The main bulk of Latin Christendom, that part of medieval Europe which was Roman Catholic, rather than Orthodox or non-Christian, consisted of the Carolingian successor states (e.g., France and the German Empire, also known as the “Holy Roman Empire”). Later to this core were added regions that were conquered from non-Christians (e.g., most of Spain, Prussia) or proselytized from the formerly Carolingian lands (e.g., Denmark and Poland). Although never united politically after the Carolingian Empire fragmented, the inhabitants of Latin Christendom knew that they belonged together in a certain, supranational sense. They were unified by their common faith, headed by the pope in Rome, by shared culture, and by the common language of literature, liturgy, and international diplomacy—Latin. As the historian Robert Bartlett tells us in The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950–1350, the outsiders were also aware of this supranational identity, and called Latin Christians collectively “the Franks” (“Faranga” in Arabic, “Fraggoi” in Greek). The minstrel Ambroise wrote about the First Crusade, “When Syria was recovered in the other war and Antioch besieged, the great wars and battles against the Turks and miscreants, so many of whom were slaughtered, there was no plotting or squabbling, no one asked who was Norman or French, who Poitevin or Breton, who from Maine or Burgundy, who was Flemish or English … all were called ‘Franks’, be they brown or bay or sorrel or white.” Latin Christendom was the direct precursor of Western civilization, and even the religious schism of the Reformation, despite the blood that it spilled, turned out to be a quarrel within family. It did not destroy the overarching identity whose roots go back to the Carolingians, and which served as the basis for the current European unification project.[ For more on this history, see Turchin, Peter. 2006. War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations. NY: Pi Press.]

In retrospect, however, the EU’s overly rapid expansion from the core group of six to the current 28 has clearly contributed to its dysfunction. Dysfunction arose because, first, it’s easier for six people (or six heads of state) to converge on a mutually agreeable course of action, than for twenty-eight to do so. Second, and equally important, expansion beyond the Carolingian core (red circles in the figure) brought together people (and politicians) from diverse cultures, holding different values, and taking incompatible paths towards cooperation. This can be seen in how widely the circles representing additional 22 countries are dispersed in the figure. Such normative and institutional mismatch created additional barriers to effective collective action.

Would European integration be better served by a more “modular,” stepwise approach? For example, Nordic countries already have their own “integration nucleus”—the Nordic Council. Another one is the Visegrad group (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Czech Republic). Perhaps the EU would work better as a nested set of such groups rather than one large one which relies upon informal arrangements between the more powerful states?
Writing recently in the international science magazine Nature, [Turchin, Peter. 2016. Mine the Past for Patterns. Nature 535:488-489.] I called for more research investigating such ideas, empirically and systematically, using massive historical databases that thoroughly sample the historical record (for an example, see Seshat: Global History Databank). Here are some of the questions we could ask. What administrative arrangements and political institutions aided cooperation in large empires (which often started as confederations), such as Rome, Maratha Confederation, the US? What can we learn from the fate of the Habsburg Empire—the previous (and failed) attempt at a “European Union,” put together by a series of dynastic marriages? Does gradual, incremental construction result in a longer-lasting union? What kind of hierarchy of political units works better: a flat one with a single level, or a nested, multi-level one? How important is the sense of shared identity in holding together large human groups?

There is a marked tendency among policy makers to deal with the economic and political crises of today as though they were completely unprecedented, leading us to repeat old mistakes. But while we might choose to ignore history, history is not going to ignore us.

turchin_2014Peter Turchin

University of Connecticut and the Evolution Institute


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