More than 50 dead. More than 500 injured.
Just as I began writing this piece, news hit of what is already the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States.
It seems that every month, things continue to become more and more chaotic. More protests, more violence, more unrest.
Perhaps, however this is not the case. It is easy to have a cynical, pessimistic view of the present whilst viewing the past through rose-coloured spectacles. I mean, how often have we had to suffer through baby boomers banging on about how much better things used to be? A lot, probably.
Nonetheless, this seeming rise in conflict needs to be examined, and I will do this by looking into the concept of “War Cycles”.
War cycles dispute the traditional view held by historians that social timelines move in one direction (either inclining towards prosperity or declining towards poverty), as well as the idea of social time being too complicated and random to predict. Instead, as the name suggests, ‘war cycles’ propose that social time is a “recurring cycle”, that can be graphed and predicted.
Different theories of war cycles have been proposed over time, however arguably the most notable is author’s and historian’s William Strauss and Neil Howe’s “Strauss-Howe generational theory”. If you find this concept interesting and want to read more about it, the pair first proposed the theory in their book “Generations” and then expanded upon it in their book “The Fourth Turning”.
So does this mean we’re all heading into a third world war and will be nuked by North Korea?
Possibly. But before you start preparing for the apocalypse by stocking up on your 2-minute noodles, lets dig a little deeper into what Howe and Strauss are talking about here.
The theory identifies four turnings in a cycle that each last about 20 years – being the approximate length of a generation. The table below gives an overview of the history of these cycles and turnings.
“First Turning- The “High”
In the first turning, individualism is weak and there exists a strong collective sentiment about where society is headed, backed by government and institutions. The most recent example of this, is what William Strauss described as the post World-War II “American High”. There was a triumphant, confident and upbeat sentiment in the US that lasted until JFK’s assassination in 1963. Returning veterans had little interest in political or cultural conflict, and instead wanted to settle down, get married, start a family and find a productive job. It was during this period that America ascended into a global superpower, with a huge economic boom that lasted decades, a prospering middle-class, and a narrowing in the gap between rich and poor.
All you have to do is watch this newsreel from 1946 to get a feel for the united, and triumphant sentiment of the American people. “America opens her heart to those who long for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
“Second Turning- The Awakening”
In the second turning, governments and institutions are attacked for moral reasons, and there is a dissent against the abuses of authority. The latest second turning started in 1964, directly after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 where there was a dramatic shift in the mood of the American people. This led to a period of counter-culture in the 1960s, with campus protests, a rise in feminism with opposition to the traditional household structures, and protests against the Vietnam War. To see this shift in mood, you only have to look back to the famous 1972 comedy-drama “American Graffiti”, and its promotion asking, “where were you in 62?”, reminiscing about times before the counter-culture of the mid-60s.
“Third Turning- The Unravelling”
In the third turning, individualism is strong, and there is little trust in the system and authority. During these times the governments tends to lose power. This was embodied during the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, with the reduction of taxes, deregulation and the emphasis on the individual.
“Fourth Turning- The Crisis”
The fourth turning as the name suggests involves a crisis, usually in the form of a war, where institutional life is dismantled and rebuilt in response to a “perceived threat to the nation’s survival”. The last fourth turning we experienced started with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and culminated in World War II.
According to Howe, we are currently in the midst of a fourth turning, which he believes began with the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. It is easy to draw parallels between this latest financial crash and the crash of 1929.
This of course, brings us back to the original question of are we headed into a crisis?
Well I’m not telling you this theory is correct. I will let you do your own research and form your own opinion on that. There are definitely some flaws, particularly in its American-Centric view of history.
However, if Strauss and Howe are correct, and they certainly make a compelling case that they are. Then it would appear that a crisis is not impending, but instead is already here…