Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘cyclical history

Cycles of History: Can You Force Them?

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Earlier this year, there was some discussion of Steve Bannon and his intellectual debt to The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe.  This began with an article last November in Time, and has resulted in intermittent discussion since. Howe himself wrote an article in The Washington Post last February, citing some of the high-pitched articles that had been written about what Bannon had learned from the book. The New York Times followed up in April with a piece that, while not a exactly a hatchet job, takes on specific excepts from the book in the light of the viewpoint of the cultivated Times audience (“Conform, or Else”).

Politico simply dismissed the book as “The Crackpot Theories of Stephen Bannon’s Favorite Authors.” Another putdown I have seen: “pop” historians. Anything not from a suitably pedigreed academic source is “pop.”

I had read The Fourth Turning shortly after it came out. I don’t consider the book to have “crackpot theories”, but I don’t see Strauss and Howe having attempted to be the next Nostradamus, either. Despite the subtitle of the book — An American Prophecy — the authors don’t provide any specific who, when or how. They were attempting to analyze history in terms of patterns and project them into the future. They examined Anglo-American history back to the 1450s. They say more about moving forces than how those forces will necessarily be directed, and avoid “see, I told you” political interpretations.

Nevertheless, their analysis of history has political implications. A cyclical pattern of history has a far different future than a linearly expansive pattern of history. Could the United States return to an era of deference to authority and high levels of social conformity? It is neither inevitable nor desirable, but it could happen. The current condition of the public square does remind me of the late 1850, when the nation became increasingly polarized. In 1856, when Representative Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner unconscious with his cane in the Senate chamber, Brooks became a hero in South Carolina.

Whatever the size of a person’s group, he or she is more likely to feel fairly treated in a High, where a shame ethos fosters togetherness and gratitude — and victimized in an Unraveling, where a guilt ethos fosters separation and blame.
The Fourth Turning, p. 112

I found the model of a shift back and forth between shame and guilt cultures particularly interesting, and having some degree of explanatory power. I can see why such a model might bother the people over at The New York Times; are we going to have to fight to defend our hard-won social gains?

Nevertheless, Strauss and Howe are not promoting a rigid pattern. There is no guarantee of what will happen, when it will happen or how it will all turn out. For example, the Civil War period broke the pattern; there was no Hero generation produced.

In the Civil War Saeculum, the Third and Fourth Turnings together covered the span of just one generation and produced no Hero archetype. By the usual pattern of history, the Civil War Crisis catalyst occurred four or five years ahead of schedule and its resolution nearly a generation too soon. This prompts the question: What would have happened if tempers had cooled for a few years, postponing the Crisis for another presidential election and slowing it down thereafter? … Imagine what might have happened differently in the South (which was devastated), in race relations (which reverted to Jim Crow), in the women’s movement (which collapsed), and to the Gilded and Progressive Generations (both heavily damaged by war).
The Fourth Turning, p. 262.

Here the authors directly address variations in the patterns. This also provides a cautionary note to those who would attempt to accelerate change in the hope of bringing about an earlier resolution. The requisite conditions for a satisfactory outcome may not be there.

This is where Bannon’s obsession with this book should cause concern. He believes that, for the new world order to rise, there must be a massive reckoning. That we will soon reach our climax conflict. In the White House, he has shown that he is willing to advise Trump to enact policies that will disrupt our current order to bring about what he perceives as a necessary new one. He encourages breaking down political and economic alliances and turning away from traditional American principles to cause chaos.
— Linette Lopez, “Steve Bannon’s Obsession with a Dark Theory of History Should Be Worrisome“, Business Insider, 2 Feb 2017.

So if Steve Bannon does believe that he should create disruption to accelerate the coming crisis, he needs to go back and re-read the book.

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Written by srojak

August 6, 2017 at 7:30 pm