Now we'll move on to another silly notion that folks routinely seem to love to fall for. That history runs in patterns and even predictable cycles. Here's the second half of that infamous "Tytler Quotation" we examined last time -- a touchstone of modern neoconservative cant. The portion that claims there are predictable patterns that control the destiny of peoples and nations.
"The average age of the world's great civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness toâ€¨complacency; From complacency to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage."
First, let us avow and admit that the Left can get just as teleological and mystical. Karl Marx's forecasts about the inevitable path of human development may not have been cyclical, but they were just as stupid, built upon a series of fabulated Just-So stories that were then twisted to excuse mass murder. What seems to attract mystics of the Right to the more cyclic models, like Tytler's, would seem to be their attraction to the past. Marx saw history as something to be built upon, never to repeat. Cyclicalists see the past as endlessly relevant and revealing of our fore-doomed pattern. ("What was, will be.") This is more suitable for the fanatical wing that is filled with nostalgist-romantics, instead of transcendentalist-romantics. A definite difference, if a small one.
Anyway, Tytler's riff begins with a preposterous premise (offered as an "of course" axiom) that societies all collapse at a given age. A notion wholly unsupported, across the continents and ages. It may be that dynasties and even city states fade over such a very rough time frame... (though tell it to the Plantagenets and to Venice). Even so, the overall cultures, of which they were part, tended to keep on flourishing, over vastly longer time scales. Indeed, the West only "fell" once. And then, only if you ignore the whole eastern half of the Mediterranean.
THE DECLINE OF THE WEST, which claimed that the First World War was sure evidence of the imminent collapse of Western Civilization... from senescence, decadence and old age.
Oh, sure, there were many visible ways that, in Spengler's time, the faults and contradictions of nationalism, capitalism and primitive economies failed to cope with the onrushing tide of powerful technologies. And the world did spiral into hell around the middle of the Twentieth century. But there was nothing decadent about the dynamism with which the western democracies bounced back, confronted Hitler, then chose Marshall's path of steady strength and development-through-trade, as a strategy for dealing with communist expansionist empires. If decadence consists of going to the moon, exploring the solar system and the cell and the atom, purging ourselves of age-old prejudices, liberating education and loosening the guild-constraints on expert knowledge -- well, then here's to decadence!
It's easy to laugh at Spengler now. Though one does feel a chill in the air as, periodically, our country and civilization seems to toy with cowardice and rejection of progress. Contempt for the Masses combines with our human propensity for pattern-recognition, as we sometimes cry out "Aha! I see what's happening."
(One example (mea culpa) is my own schtick, in which I portray Rupert Murdoch as Jefferson Davis, in pushing Culture War as a way to re-ignite Phase Three of the American Civil War.)
Among the most insidious of these patterns that people periodically perceive -- (and, ironically, it is held most strongly by those who proclaimed "morning in America!") -- is the nostalgic-romantic-cynical grouse that: "we're past our prime."
Cycles of Generations?
What's the latest of these cyclical patterns to make the rounds? Well, it happens to be one that mixes the usual pessimist view with dollops that are oddly hopeful and even quite rousing.
My friend and international economic pundit John Mauldin is (in his words) "a huge fan of the work of Neil Howe. His book, The Fourth Turning, has turned out to be stunningly prophetic. Uncomfortably so. A roughly 80 year cycle has been repeating itself for centuries in the Anglophile world, broken up into four generations or turnings. We have begun what Howe called many years ago The Fourth Turning." By this, Howe means a time of crisis, similar to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Depression/WWII period, all of which called upon the strength of a "hero generation" to rescue civilization from the ruinous danger inflicted by earlier "prophets," "nomads," and such.
First the bad news. I responded to John that I am deeply unimpressed with Howe. My own record, predicting the fall of the Berlin Wall, a false Fukayaman "end of history," and then a hyped up tussle with macho Islam -- is inarguably far more specific and far better than Howe's. Heck, most of my Science Fiction writing colleagues have done better, too. (SF gets no respect!)
To be fair, there are some enticing patterns to recognize... e.g the roughly eighty year (a human lifetime) span separating the crisis of the American Revolution from the Civil War, from the Depression/WWII crisis to the one that supposedly will sweep upon us, very soon. (Cheery thought!) In each case (1) "Heroes" stoically and courageously resolved the emergency, then strove to raise their kids in security they never knew. A security that turned the next immediate generations into (2)a stifled, silent generation (e.g. kids of the 1950s) and then (2) rebellious, individualist, transcendentalist egomaniac "prophets" (the Boomers), followed by a "nomad" generation (Gen X, including its first president, Obama) which grew up under chaotic home lives...
...followed by another "hero" generation, that will presumably fix the mess created by the boomers. (A phrase I use decades ago.) One forecaste I think Howe gets spot on: "The Baby Boomers will still be tearing and screaming at each other, when they are hobbling around retirement homes."
What Howe does is what humans do... look for patterns and then find (voila!) what they are looking for. So-called "cycles of history" are among the most pernicious of these wish-find patterns. People often attribute such thinking - unfairly - to the great historian Arnold Toynbee, because he spent a lot of time talking about them. But in then end, he debunked them. (Ask and I'll tell you what Toynbee REALLY considered to be the factor that explains history, especially the rise or fall of great nations.)
No, as I mentioned earlier, the great Cyclicalist who transfixed our parents and grandparents - but who everyone has now forgotten, was Spengler. (He also said that "optimism is cowardice." What a marroon.) But what makes fellows like Howe especially distressing is that they are positing a cyclical determinism that dismisses our ability to take such "wheels" of destiny and modify them, perhaps even learning to steer.
In fact, I find illusory "cycles" far less rewarding than the notion of
"attractor states"... or pitfalls that seem relentlessly to pull in cultures,
because of repetitive traits in human nature.
Oligarchic feudalism is one such attractor. (Find the exceptions: agrarian societies that avoided this trap. I can name only eight.) Another attractor is fear-driven xenophobia. Machismo is one more. Put a dozen or so of these together and you start getting a really good picture of our tragic history. (And yes, because these themes keep recurring, matters can thus look a bit cyclical. But that's like saying the fundamental reason that a car moves is because the wheels turn.)
But leadership also matters, e.g. Athenian democracy did not fail till Pericles died, and then just barely. And that is where miracles keep happening to America. here America finds NEW attractor states.... bad presidents are followed by good ones, citizenship triumphs (barely) over anomie and cynicism, and seminal decisions transform the world.
Example. America's current deep indebtedness is portrayed as a pit of ruin. Yes, it is a pit, a difficult one. But nobody looks at what we got, in exchange for it.
What did we get for the debt, other that lots of expensive cars and cheap tube socks?
Well, we saved the world. Because of anti-mercantalist trade patterns, set up by Marshall, Truman and Acheson, and then Ike. Pax Americana was the first empire ever to eschew and reverse mercantalist temptations. The result was a steady export-driven UPLIFTING of Europe and Japan, then Taiwan, Korea, China, and so on... till 2/3 of the world is now out of grinding poverty and sending their kids to school.
90% of that progress happened because Americans spent trillions on crap we never needed. It is an accomplishment far greater than going to the moon or defeating Hitler. We'll never get any credit. But we did it.
So we've reached an end to our ability to lift the world, all by ourselves? So
they will now have to pull their own weight while we resume saving and fight down the debt left over from 30 wastrel years? So we have some problems? Big deal.
Americans can do anything. Anything! So long as we shrug off Murdochian propaganda and start thinking like adults again.
I just watched 2001: A Space Odyssey again, for the 20th time. Dang. I don't care about the space stations. What matters is that we are better PEOPLE than Kubrick thought we'd be, by now.
It's time to be ambitious again.
See also my essay: 2001: A Space Odyssey: Shining Light on How Far We've Come.
and The Tytler Insult: Is Democracy Hopeless?