I’m going to try something new here. I’m going to take a leaf from @alexandraerin’s book, sort of. Erin pointed out recently that Twitter threads get shared much more widely than blog posts, because each tweet acts as a pull quote. So I’m going to tweet (large excerpts of) this post as a thread, and may do the same with my other political blog posts. The full post is available in the link in the first tweet of the thread. Let me know what you think about this.
So. I recently learned something about President Bannon that made sense of quite a few things for me. What I discovered is that Bannon genuinely believes, for what he thinks are scientific reasons, that Donald Trump might save the world.
The reason he thinks this is the same reason the media is full of thinkpieces about “millennials”: a book published in 1991. Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe, and their sequel The Fourth Turning, were very influential books in their time – Al Gore gave copies of Generations to every member of Congress – but they’re largely regarded as pseudoscience now. But Bannon is a fan, especially of The Fourth Turning, which he made a documentary about.
In Generations, Strauss and Howe outline a hypothesis about how history works – basically, everyone is influenced by the events that happen in their childhood and young adulthood, everyone reacts against their parents’ generation, and so you get a new cohort of people coming up every twenty years or so who can, broadly, be talked about as a group.
Strauss and Howe claim that there are four types of generation – Idealists, Nomads, Heroes, and Artists. In terms of current generations, the “silents” born before the early forties would be artists, the boomers (early forties through 1960 or so) idealists, gen x (1960ish through 1980ish) nomads, and millennials heroes. (The generation now in their early teens and younger would be another artist generation).
What they claim is that these four types have been cyclical (with one exception) since at least the fifteenth century, and that this leads to a roughly eighty-year history cycle in British and later USian history. These cycles all culminate in a crisis which pulls everyone together.
(Of course, as with all these vast comprehensive hypotheses of history, the predictions and generalisations are so vague that it’s unfalsifiable. Hari Seldon only exists in books.)
The crisis usually happens when the idealists (who don’t remember the last crisis) are in their 50s through 70s, and in charge. The nomads (cynical, rootless, opportunists) are in their 30s through 50s, and making all the decisions about how to organise things in detail. And the heroes are in their late teens through early thirties.
With that generational lineup, Strauss and Howe say, you get visionaries giving the world direction, cynics making the uncomfortable hard decisions, and young heroes as willing cannon fodder. When there’s a crisis, that lineup pulls together to get through it and remake the world in their image.
(Note that they don’t talk about what particular ideals the visionaries have. The boomer generation has a lot of left-wing radicals, but also a lot of right-wing Christians. It’s that they have strong beliefs, not what the beliefs are, that matters.)
There is, however, one big exception that they admit to their hypothesis – the American Civil War. What they say there is that the big crisis happened too early, and so instead of coming together the idealist generation polarised.
Now, Strauss and Howe were writing in the 1990s, and what they said was that a crisis would come in the early decades of the 21st century. The example of a crisis they used was a massive terrorist attack on New York City. They gave examples of what the reaction would be if that happened in the early 2000s, the late 2010s, and so on, with their different generational makeups.
They got it roughly right, in that they said an attack in the early 2000s would lead to disaster – there would still be many silents in the upper echelon of government, and Xers don’t make very good foot soldiers in their view. The military adventure that resulted would lead to an increased polarisation in the boomers’ ideologies. And they said that a very likely result of this would be an eventual civil war in the US. An attack in 2001 would be the same kind of too-early crisis as the US civil war.
But an attack in the late 2010s would be a different matter. If the crisis came then, then the boomers would all put their political differences aside and lead the US to invade the Middle East and bring peace to it, in a war that would be like the USian War of Independence or World War II.
And a number of people who believe in Strauss and Howe’s work have come to the conclusion that the only way to save the US is if there’s another 9/11 style crisis in the next few years – if Afghanistan and Iraq turn out to be like WWI was for the US, a mere prelude to the real fight.
Now, again, I don’t think Strauss and Howe were right. But Bannon does. He made a film about their work a few years ago. That film’s last line: “history is seasonal and winter is coming”.
Bannon believes that the only way to save the US, and possibly the world, is to have a crisis in the next few years. One bigger than 9/11, which will pull the US together, to lead a global war. And this man is currently the most trusted advisor to a US President who is at best unqualified for the job.
Bannon’s malign influence may well yet turn Strauss and Howe’s books into self-fulfilling prophecy. Winter is coming, indeed.
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To me this is obviously pseudohistory based on structuralism (everything can be reduced to four things) and psychoanalysis (everyone rebels against their parents) but the people who believe it probably also believe that they’re against Theory with a capital T. It’s probably no coincidence that the current far-right governments of the US and UK are very hostile to the study of the humanities, especially in universities.
Yeah. It’s basically cold reading or astrology as history (in fact with the emphasis on birthdates it really *is* astrology). I find a lot of these big overarching hypotheses fun (see also Albion’s Seed, for example) but the very idea that you can explain all of history with One Weird Trick, while appealing, is pretty much guaranteed to lead to nonsense.
The fourth turning would work quite well as the basis for an interminable fantasy saga.
Definitely psuedohistory, but I dunno about Structuralism. Maybe Bannon read Watchmen and figures he’s Ozymandias!
“Millennials” does seem to be one of their magic diss terms, like ‘Libtard’ and ‘Feminist’, where they only have to say it and you’re supposed to be silenced. Plus several of their other terms, ‘Cupcake’, ‘Snowflake’ and so on, seem to really mean ‘Millennial’. And of course you don;’t even have to be of that generation to have it said of you, as soon as it’s said it’s magic power is supposed to be unleashed on you.
Possibly not the goofy cycling generations thing, but there’s nothing new about this, is there? It’s just the way old fogeys portrayed protest youth groups in the Sixties.
Oh, absolutely. It’s “you can’t hear the words and you can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl” elevated to the status of a historical theory (though I do think there is some — slight — truth to the idea that the boomer generation were/are a little more omphalosceptic and narcissistic than other generations, though it may be just that they were more privileged than others so had more opportunity).
What’s scary for me is that the person controlling the western world’s nuclear capability is actually trying to use this to see the future. Might as well sacrifice a chicken and let the entrails tell you who to bomb…
Actually ‘based on’ was a bad choice of words and I should have said ‘vaguely similar to’. It’s just that reductionist models of history, whether they claim to be theoretical or empirical, end up being wrong in similar ways.
To be fair to Structuralism, I think it was saying that we have a tendency to divide the world up into categories, rather than the world inherently worked that way. Unfortunately it was a critique without much of a prognosis, so that element of critique tended to get muted, and it mostly spent it’s time finding further things to get reductive about.