Discover more from Peter St Onge, Ph.D.
Is This the Fourth Turning?
Weak Men Make Hard Times
If you've been on the internet lately you've probably come across the concept of the "Fourth Turning."
From the 1997 book by William Strauss and Neil Howe, the Fourth Turning is a crisis, an era of destruction, that can involve war, revolution, or societal collapse. And Strauss and Howe think we're in one right now.
Strauss and Howe build a model of history running on cycles lasting about 80 or 90 years. Each cycle is made of four stages -- "turnings" -- of 20 years each. These are: renewal, stabilization, decline and crisis.
They believe the current cycle started in 1946, meaning as of 2006 we're overdue for the crisis.
In Strauss-Howe, the first turning is the good times, the renewal. It has order, optimism, and strong institutions. Strauss-Howe believe this "High Awakening" started in 1946 -- the end of World War 2 -- through the mid-sixties.
The second turning is the "Awakening," when institutions weaken and individualism and rebellious attitudes spread. In Strauss-Howe this ran from 1966 to 1986. The 1960's, of course, were an era of deteriorating public order and weakening institutions.
Then comes the "Unraveling," where social order starts to come apart. Trust and confidence decline, and unrest begins. For Strauss-Howe this was 1986 to 2006. You might quibble here; if anything, the late 60's were more violent than the late 80's.
Finally, the Fourth Turning, the "Crisis." With upheaval, conflict, and wars. In the ensuing fires, the old order is destroyed and a new one reborn.
Setting aside the precision of the timing -- 2006 was not a particularly catastrophic year -- the broader concept that civilizations run in cycles is very old. In 146 BC, Polybius laid out the rough contours of the political cycle -- the"kyklos."
Polybius' formula is actually better known than Strauss-Howe — you’ve seen it as the "Hard Times Create Strong Men” meme.
For Polybius, too, the cycle had four stages and begins in crisis. Hard times of social disorder that eventually settles when strong men come to power.
That leads to renewal and prosperity. Unfortunately, the prosperity contains the seeds of its destruction, as a new generation forgets the hard times and becomes complacent. Institutions deteriorate, social trust declines, and the hard times come once again.
The difference between Polybius and Strauss-Howe is the timing. Which turns out to be very important. For Strauss-Howe it's almost a deterministic 20 years for each stage. For Polybius, it could be any length.
History sides with Polybius. Some hard times can be very short -- a few years in 1940's Japan, literally centuries for Ming China. Some bad times create strong men who actually make them worse: the Warring States period in Japan, for example, lasted a century. Somalia has been in a warlord holding pattern for decades.
The good times, too, can be short or very long. The British Empire held up for centuries, even improved into the Victorian Era. The Islamic Golden Age only ended when the corpse of a dying China was used by the Mongols as a battering ram to conquer most of Eurasia.
There's an entire cottage industry that debates what if Brutus didn't stab Caesar. Or if Lincoln had let the South secede. If Wilson had not entered World War I. Or Joseph Stalin not ice-picked Trotsky in Mexico. Some moments matter quite a lot.
In comparison, there's a certain fatalism to Strauss-Howe's model. By running on 20-year cycles it suggests we can't do anything about the cris -- it comes no matter what we do.
It also suggest an unwarranted optimism. Because, if this is the fated Fourth Turning, Strauss-Howe says it will end in 2026. So we can just sit tight, hide off-grid with the chickens and a garage-full of baked beans and wait it out.
I think the truth is a lot messier. That it takes hard work to keep the good times rolling. To guard institutions like property rights, free expression, representative elections, political corruption, public order, social trust.
And it takes a whole lot more work to salvage them once they break and the hard times come. To restore those broken institutions hopefully in years, not decades or centuries.
So what's next?
I think we’re clearly in decline, whether you call it the Fourth Turning or Polybius' Hard Times. But we've got a unique challenge to make people aware simply because we're coming from such a high point. Hunger is very remote for the median American voter.
After all, never in the 6,000 years of civilization has life been as prosperous as the last 150 years. To the degree it's amazing to me that we've held on so long. If I had to guess, I’d credit the revival of Constitutions, whether Constitutional Monarchies or Constitutional Democracy, as giving the Good Times such staying power.
But both have eroded deeply at this point, beginning I think with the catastrophe of 1914 — World War I and the Fed — and finished off with the demise of the gold standard in 1971. Both of which grew the predatory state massively at the expense of the common people who actually build, sustain, and renew civilization.
Good News and Bad News
The good news if the cycle can be any length is that we're not destined to hard times. Even in America's brief 250 year history we've pulled back many times: Andrew Jackson's gelding of the central bank and the predatory civil service. The post-Civil War era of widening economic and political rights today known as the "Gilded Age” but properly called the Golden Age. Even Reagan's "Morning in America" as a reaction to the dystopian 1970's.
And then the bad news: If we do nothing, we are guaranteed a crisis. And there's no guarantee it will only be 20 years.
Human history is covered in festering, century-long declines that were catastrophic to the millions of people unlucky enough to find themselves alive at the time. Selling one's children as slaves, or choosing with children to feed, is pretty much par for human history. It's playing with fire to even risk such outcomes, but alas our ruling institutions have degraded to the point that's exactly what they do.
How to Prepare
Concretely, there are two ways to prepare: Resilience and Prevention.
Resilience means fortifying yourself in case hard times do come. Insulating your assets, building your skills — your earning potential and your practical abilities. Building your social network that you can count on, thick and thin. Even a flock of chickens if that's your thing.
Once that's covered, the rest is Prevention. Political and social organization to renew failing institutions so they can stand on their own feet. The courts, the schools, the military, social institutions secular and religious can all slow, halt, or — if left untended — accelerate the decline.
Think of it like maintaining a dyke against a raging sea: It's endless work. But the consequences are catastrophic.
In sum, the cycle is real, we're in a dangerous spot, and it is all in our control. If it weren't in our control we'd just sit back and pray we survive. Instead, we have the power -- indeed the responsibility -- to do everything we can to slow, then reverse, the decline.
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