Monday, February 27, 2017

Historical cycle theories are silly...or are they?

I have a soft spot for theories I thought of when I was 14. Back then I consumed a lot of epic fantasy books (and video games, and TV shows), in which an ancient evil is often just now returning after being banished (typically for a period of 1000, 5000, or 10000 years), and new heroes must arise to defeat it again, etc. etc. I reflected that my grandfathers had defeated cosmic evil, back in WW2, and that before that, my American forebears had defeated cosmic evil in the Civil War, so at some point we were due for another showdown with the ever-returning Forces of Darkness. I also figured that each generation after the war would be a little softer and more complacent than the last, and that this weakness would be one thing that encouraged the Forces of Darkness to make their comeback. And since it was about 75 years from the Civil War to WW2, I figured that each cycle lasted about four generations, and that it would be the generation after mine who would have to bear the brunt of the fight the next time.

It's fun to be 14. If you've never done it, I suggest you try it.

I recently found out that the authors Neil Howe and William Strauss already published a very detailed version of a very similar theory, back in 1991 (well before I turned 14!). I found this out via Steve Bannon, who according to news reports is a fan of their theory. Recently, Howe wrote a Washington Post op-ed explaining the theory. The basic idea is that there's a four-generation cycle. A "crisis" generation creates social unity and builds up national institutions, and each successive generation challenges and degrades those institutions, until four generations later the institutions collapse and there's another crisis. According to Howe, the Millennials are the ones who will have to renew our society this time.

That's a cool theory. But like all periodic theories of history, it's easily falsified.

Why? Because lots of crises are externally imposed. The Black Death's arrival in Europe had little to do with the strength of European institutions. The Japanese invasion of the Philippines was unrelated to the Phillipines' position in any generational cycle. The Industrial Revolution and the Mongol Invasions blindsided every nation on the planet. And so forth. Exogenous shocks obviously happen, and they disrupt the timing of any generational cycle. So the nice smooth even periodicity that Howe and Strauss posit can't exist, even if there are forces tending in that direction.

Also, if you look at history, you see both some very long periods of crisis-free stability and some very long periods of continuous dramatic social upheaval. For example, China's "century of humiliation" involved about 110 years of almost continuous rebellion, civil war, invasion, mass killing, and political upheaval. France during the years from 1789 to 1945 experienced two empires, three republics, a large number of revolutions and counter-revolutions, many foreign invasions, and millions of violent deaths. 

On the flip side of the coin, Britain from the Glorious Revolution of 1689 to the start of World War 1 experienced over two centuries of stability with no real regime change or total war (the Napoleonic Wars being the closest thing, but ultimately not even requiring mass conscription). China during the Ming Dynasty and Japan during the Tokugawa Dynasty were similarly stable. 

If you hunted around and looked closely, you might be able to look at those long stable centuries and find some minor social disruptions loosely corresponding to the Strauss-Howe four-generation cycle. But think how many other such minor disruptions you'd be ignoring! (Were the 1960s a "crisis" for America? We had a bunch of assassinations, race riots, and a major war, after all.) Apophenia is a powerful temptation. But don't be fooled - by any objective measure you can find, history is aperiodic.

So formally, in the rigorous sense, Strauss-Howe theory is wrong. BUT, I still think it could be describing some important processes at work. Just because history is aperiodic doesn't mean it's random.

First, there's the idea of institutional decay, as put forth in Mancur Olson's The Rise and Decline of Nations. The idea here is that institutions developed to solve the problems of one era eventually become powerful incumbents who resist needed institutional changes later on down the road. If crises cause a "reset" of this cycle - the necessary fall of ineffective incumbent institutions, and their replacement with newer, more effective ones - the result could look a lot like a Strauss-Howe cycle. If the time it takes for institutions to go from effective to parasitical is a few decades, then it could even look periodic for countries that experience few external shocks (like the U.S., perhaps?). 

Second, there's the idea of a cycle of globalization. If free capital and labor flows tend to cause instability to build up in global economies - through excessive leverage, economic financialization, difficulty absorbing large cohorts of immigrants, the creation of an unsustainable "reserve currency" regime, etc. - then there could be repeated periods of globalization and retrenchment. Obviously, since there has only really been a modern global economy for a century and a half or so, this sort of cycle can't be reliably observed or confirmed yet. And no one has suggested that the cycle lasts a fixed number of generations or decades. But there are plenty of parallels between 1890-1929 and 1980-2008. And there are also parallels between the Great Depression and the Great Recession. And you could be forgiven for believing there are parallels between the politics of the 1930s and the politics of today.

So I wouldn't totally toss out the idea of a predictable social crisis. Whether it comes from generational attitude changes, institutional decay, or the instability of globalization, it's certainly possible that eras of stability tend to lead to crises eventually.


  1. I was always fond of Kondratieff or Benner cycles though wave is preferred when only approximate.

  2. You were on the right track with silly.

  3. How did you write this whole thing without using the word Minsky?

  4. I was going to recommend Ian Morris' Why the West Rules for Now but then I realized that you had mentioned the book in a blog posting. Anyway, he delivers some convincing ideas on what drives history.

  5. fuzzy
    Yes - I was wondering - to quote "... that eras of stability tend to lead to crises eventually." Now where have I heard that before?

  6. Thousands of years of Chinese history certainly experiences pseudo-periodic cycles: unification and harmony, complacency and decay, corruption and upheaval, then total breakdown and complete chaos.

    Are modern western societies that much different? After all, US has only fewer than 300 years of history. Western world seems to be experiencing build up of corruption and discontent right now. Hard to see how the decaying can be reversed.

  7. I find it extremely hard to believe that these immutable social forces driving these supposed cycles are the same in the Internet age as they were in eg the 1700's or ancient Greece. Information flows are totally different.

    More historically persistent: Any grandiose social theory that puts us on the cusp of a period creative renewal is likely to appeal to fanciful narcissists.

  8. I find the institutional decay model persuasive. Even the media is starting to talk in terms of institutional collapse. According to Howe, we are due for a "crisis". My problem in the past has been expecting a war as a crisis. That may not be necessary. It is the generations' reaction to whatever events are stressing the culture that trigger a crisis atmosphere. From the inside, a crisis looks way different from what our great-grandchildren will study in history class.

    The thing I have watched as an example of a completely unforeseen (by me) institutional failure is public education. I would never have thought that "choice" would advance to the point where public education is not considered the default option. While this educational crisis may be manufactured, it is getting traction and becoming "real"

    I watch for a backlash against the chaos that is coming to a head with Trump, School Choice, etc. It should resemble the 1950's in all its glory and smothering conformity. I should like just long enough to know it is true. If it does not arrive, I will burn my copies of Generations and The Fourth Turning! :)

  9. I really don't think there's much to see in the observation that "eras of stability tend to lead to crises eventually". Forgive me for pointing out that that is purely a tautology. Go flip a coin over and over, and you'll notice: any unbroken sequence of heads eventually ends with a tails.

    PS. Also, this is a minor point, but unlike the Nazis, I don't think the Confederacy were a cosmic evil -- in that they're not very cosmic. The Nazis tried to take over basically all of Europe, especially Russia, and probably would have gone on to try to take over almost the whole world; while the Confederates never had a serious ambition to leave their own backyard. So they're really just a provincial evil.

    [The Soviet Union, on the other hand... cosmic evil. Absolutely cosmic evil. And the United States is cosmic... um, neutral? Good simply by virtue of defeating the clear evils? Hard to say.]

  10. All cyclical historical theories must mention Ibn Khaldun of which the above observations are just modern version of his basic theories of society, culture, and institutions. His most famous observation was exactly that institutions during the height of a specific culture enter a decline and are disrupted by outside forces that are by definition barbarians as they are either external actors or exist on the periphery of a civilization. Those barbarians succeed because they have a strong sense of social cohesion (Asabiyyah is also translated as tribalism or nationalism). The new barbarian rulers either adopt or are absorbed into the culture they come to rule and thus there is a degradation in their social cohesion which leaves them open for disruption by a new outside group.