Saturday, February 4, 2017

It's Not Even Past: The History of the Distant Present - Episode 1 Epilogue

Much has obviously happened since recording this podcast a week or two ago. The past two weeks have ensured that there will be much, much more to say going forward about precisely how our era has taken on precisely the spirit it has. But since we have spoken so much about Putin's Rasputin, it would seem that we badly need to take just a moment to speak about Trump's, and how terrifyingly similar to Dugin Steve Bannon's worldview seems. 

I came across an article yesterday which raised my alarm to truly Red Alert. While I don't wish to terrify anyone any more than they already are, it seems ever more necessary to scare the daylights out of anyone who will listen in the hope that someone somewhere will come up with a solution to lethal conundrums that seem ever likelier to present themselves. 

If Aleksandr Dugin seems preoccupied with a Pitirin Sorotkin, a Russian thinker who to my mind clearly patterns himself on Oswald Spengler, then Bannon seems to have found American thinkers who also follow Spengler in the most ominous possible way. The article which elucidates this was from Business Insider, hardly a suppository of Leftist Agitation. The article piggybacks on Time's Profile of Steve Bannon, and elaborates on the book which Bannon was said to value so highly. 

The particular book that seems to infatuate Bannon is the Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The idea animating the book is the idea of the Saecula, which is an ancient Greek concept meaning roughly 'lifespan,' and because within a lifespan, the entire population of the world will die off and be replenished by new people, these new people will lack the memories of the generation who came before. Just to take one obvious historical example that I alluded to at the very beginning of this cast, we now live in a time when you can practically count the number of people have even childhood memories of World War I on your fingers, and therefore, we have no living memory of the circumstances that lead to it. And that leads us to its second Greek concept: the 'ekpyrosis.' An ekpyrosis is, and I couldn't possibly improve on the magazine's description: "a cataclysmic event that destroys the old order and brings in a new one in a trial of fire." One finds this idea in Spengler, one finds this idea in Sorokin, one finds this idea in Strauss and Howe, one finds this idea in Dugin, and clearly one finds this idea in Bannon. It is possible, however unlikely still, that there has been some sort of coordination between the Putin side and the Trump side to find a similar animating intellectual to give shape to the apocalyptic longings which Putin and Trump may share. To say this inevitably sounds like a conspiracy theory, but I was loathe to believe that Russia was involved in the hack of the Democratic National Committee listserv long after everyone else had acclimated to it. We are clearly living in a conspiratorial era. Whatever other qualities this era has, it's worth noting that Strauss, Howe, and Bannon all believe that the three great Ekpyroses of American life were the Revolutionary War, The Civil War, and World War II. It would seem that Mr. Bannon is determined to bring about the fourth. 

A saecula takes roughly 80 to 100 years to run its course. During which it runs through four stages and four turnings and is about to commence its fourth cycle in American History - one already has the sense that these thinkers are much too mystically inclined for their ideas to be very serious. If one's not careful, the reading of history can easily turn into the astrological mysticism of the testosterone laden male. 

The four turnings are 'high', when individualism is weak and institutions are strong.  The second is 'awakening', when institutions are attacked when reaching the zenith of their achievements because people tire of the discipline to take us there. The third stage is unraveling, when personal expression is prioritized above all else, and the fourth is crisis, when the institutions are too weak to stand collapse in a great cleansing event.  

From the crisis, a hero generation emerges who reestablishes the primacy of collective institutions - libertarian objectivists tempted to make common cause with Trump take note. We won't go through the cycle of archetypes except to note that the opposite of the hero archetype is the artist - who is the ultimate individual who owes nothing to the institutions who allowed his freedom - which, one must say, is an incredibly odd formulation for a man like Steve Bannon, who once was such a prolific filmmaker and documentarian.

Strauss and Howe seem to list every thinker but Spengler as influences, but the influence of Spengler is so clearly obvious that it's either an act of dishonesty to not mention him or repression. The number four is so unbelievably important in Spengler's work - which he ties not only to the four stages of civilization, but to the seasons themselves. In both cases, these theories are anti-individualist, pro-institutions, and clearly regard liberal individualism as a force of destruction. 

But unlike the other figures mentioned - Spengler was an extremely powerful thinker and a magnificent writer who makes the best possible case for an extremely flawed system of thinking. He has an almost occult view of history that to a certain reader can seem to reveal an impossibly intricate spiritual machine at work that seems to animate civilizations as though they were as alive as humans, with all the same milestones that all human beings reach. Spengler can almost make you feel as though astrology can be developed into hard science. Like many antidemocratic thinkers, it is very easy to fall under his spell, and I must say that there are moments when I was all too seduced by his pessimistic logic. But what Spengler never acknowledged is that such pessimism, even if it could ultimately be true - and of course there's no way of knowing, is completely self-fulfilling. If you are a person of great influence determined to destroy civilization as we know it because such destruction is inevitable, then of course, such destruction becomes inevitable. A destroyer like Steve Bannon has a much easier task ahead of him than whoever succeeds President Trump and may have to build a greater civilization from the rubble of what's destroyed. 

Spengler was clearly an anti-democratic conservative who believed in the omnipotence of the State, and perhaps that's why Strauss Howe list a whole dozen thinkers as influences but neglect to mention the clearest influence on them. However, when Spengler died in 1936 he'd established himself as an avowed anti-Nazi. He strenuously objected to Hitler's treatment of Jews, not because of any liberal notion of tolerance or alleviating suffering, but because it would be a tragedy to reject the creativity of, as he put it, such a gifted people. It is entirely possible that Spengler, however fascist his mentality otherwise, would look upon our new administration's treatment of immigrants with unmitigated horror that we have rejected such great potential sources of talent that can, perhaps, stave off civilization's decline and prolong American civilization's lifespan. 

The idea of generational life cycles or even civilizational life cycles needn't come from an anti-democrat like Spengler, it could just as easily come from more tolerant liberal thinkers like Arthur Schlesinger or Jared Diamond, or lower-case r republican conservative thinkers like Arnold Toynbee and Samuel Huntington, or an older liberal thinker like Giambattista Vico or even an old Tory like Edward Gibbon, or even ancient thinkers like Polybius and Ibn-Khaldun. Even the novel that made Thomas Mann's career, Buddenbrooks, is not only a chronicle of the Buddenbrook family over four generations of their rise and fall, but a chronicle a similar trajectory in the entire surrounding German civilization. Maybe it's even where Spengler got the idea - like Spengler, there are an inordinate number of symbolic details of color which are tied to rise and fall, health and sickness, youth and old age. But every one of these thinkers and many more have their own spin of these theories in which civilization rises and declines in three, four, six, seven, eight, nine, twelve stages. It ultimately doesn't mean a damn thing except as a metaphor, because nobody can agree on how exactly to define a civilization, and nobody can work out the reasons for civilization's rise and fall with much verisimilitude. When fifteen hundred civilizations have strode upon the world stage, maybe we'll have enough sample size to understand the process, but according to Spengler, there have only been nine. 

It is not the idea of a generational or civilizational conflict between rise and fall, institutionalism and individualism, yin and yang, in which one or the other always has the advantage that makes cyclical theory so dangerous, but the idea that yin and yang must always be in permanent enmity and therefore their conflict must result in the inevitable collapse of the defeated. If a world leader thinks the world is going to collapse and reacts according to his belief, then of course he will bring about a collapse. If America avoided a collapse in the manner of Europe during World War II, and make no mistake, America came closer than we can ever know just about every year from the Stock Market Collapse to the end of the Cold War, it is because of the insistence of many Americans, though of course not enough, that the true enemy was not dissenting forces that seem decadent but the intolerance of their dissent. Just as Lincoln expressed the sentiment at the end of the Civil War: "With malice towards none, with charity for all," his greatest successor, Franklin Roosevelt pre-emptively embodied that sentiment before such intolerance could dominate American discourse: "If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships - the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together, in the same world at peace." Or this other FDR quote which seems so particularly apropos in our new era: "Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough." 

No comments:

Post a Comment