The idea comes from a book of the same name by historian/economist/demographer Neil Howe and author William Strauss. Their overall theory is called "generational theory", and Bannon is a proponent of their work. So let's see what they have to say.
Howe did an interview with Erico Matias Tavares of Sinclair & Co. back in July of 2015. In it he explains that a "turning" is a unit of history, roughly that of a social generation, i.e. around 20 years or so. Each generation interacts with the ones before it, and the ones that come after, so the cycle is tied to the biological life cycles of the people living in them - the character of their parents, how they're raised, how they react to the older generation, how they influence the world once they themselves become parents and leaders, rinse and repeat. Each generation is a product of the last, but also reacts against it in significant ways, setting a culture on a slightly new, or radically new, path.
But there seems to be some regularity in how these interactions between generations play out. By studying generations of American and world history, Howe and Strauss began to see a pattern, "a certain order". This cycle is punctuated by crises, e.g., the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression. Howe and Strauss observed that the cycle seems to repeat every four generations, so roughly every 80 to 90 years. Coincidentally or not, the Soviet Union lasted roughly three generations (1922-1991), and it was another 8 years or so before Putin came into power at the end of the crisis of the 90s.
The first turning is the "high" following a crisis, when collective mentality is strong and societies rebuild on a new foundation, e.g., the period following the Great Depression and WWII up to the death of JFK in 1963. Or, by contrast, the period of the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922 after the October Revolution, up until WWII, when Russian society was radically reshaped by the Soviets.
By contrast, the second turning is an "awakening", where individualism begins to confront and outstrip the conformity of the previous generation. This period sees revitalizations of religion, values, and art, e.g., the consciousness revolution of the 60s and 70s in the U.S. Even totalitarian Russia had an awakening of sorts during Khrushchev's "Thaw" in the 50s (that's when Solzhenitsyn was first published, for example), which saw some major scientific/technological innovations.
After that comes the "unraveling", where people just want to enjoy what they've built. Institutions stagnate, and people see them as weak and untrustworthy. In the U.S., this was the 80s and 90s, including the culture war and economic boom. The USSR had Brezhnev's "Era of Stagnation" (1964-1985).
After that, when the vast majority of those who lived through the last crisis are dead or retired, comes the next "crisis". For the Soviet Union, this was the era of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and the catastrophic 90s where Russia was economically raped by a criminal gang of liberal oligarchs (I know, "criminal" and "liberal" are synonyms in Russian!). Howe describes the crisis period as one driven by "the sense of collective urgency to solve a dire problem which is perceived to threaten the very future existence of this society", often but not always characterized by war. "The economy, politics, empire, technology, infrastructure" are torn down then remade. And the crisis isn't necessarily good or bad. Howe says it's like a forest fire: "It burns away the brush and allows new seedlings to grow."
We intuitively capture the essence of a generation in the name we give it: for example, the high's Baby Boomers, the awakening's Generation X, the unraveling's Millennials (Howe and Strauss came up with that last one, by the way), and the crisis's Generation Z. Howe thinks the U.S.'s fourth turning began in 2008, as the Boomers retired, the Gen X-ers were entering mid-life, the Millennials were coming of age, and the economy crashed.
Howe doesn't presume to know the future. When it comes to predictions, this model is best at anticipating trends, not specific events. For example, crises can come at any time, especially if they're sourced from outside the culture in question. For example, Russia entered WWII at the end of a first turning. 9/11 came near the end of a third turning. Howe calls these types of events "sparks" - events like Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, 9/11. They can happen at any time; no one can predict them. What can be predicted are the likely responses. 9/11 could've been the trigger for a massive WWII-style crisis, but it came at the tail end of an unraveling. A similar event today would be different. If the people responsible for 9/11 were hoping for a bigger response, they were about 10-20 years too early.
Now consider what Howe has to say in light of Trump's election:
"It's amazing if you look back at the prior 20 years how little we have done in any way to legislate and form a collective public policy to change even the basic direction, or just adjust the direction, of our country.That's the gist of the fourth turning, at least. So what are the media saying about Bannon's views?
This is typical. We have seen eras like that before in American history and what happens - and what people forget - is that public history does not always move in the same way. Decades go by and then suddenly certain events hit, and everything changes on a dime. Huge changes occur! And it's almost like a seismic event, you know, suddenly the tectonic plates collide..."
Bannon of the Trumpocalypse
You can get an idea of the mainstream coverage by reading the following headlines and noticing that the major articles on Bannon and the fourth turning all clustered at the beginning of February:
- Huffington Post (Feb. 8, 2017): Steve Bannon Believes The Apocalypse Is Coming And War Is Inevitable
- Business Insider (Feb. 2, 2017): Steve Bannon's obsession with a dark theory of history should be worrisome
- The Nation (Feb. 8, 2017): Steve Bannon Wants To Start World War III
But as Andres Perezalonso writes in the piece mentioned at the beginning of this article, sometimes a prediction of the future can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So even if Bannon may not want to start WWIII, it's always possible that he or others will bring it about simply by virtue of the fact that they believe it's coming. As Bannon himself says in the video included in the HuffPo piece, he sees the West's current crisis as a crisis "of the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West and our beliefs". And he does seem to see a massive war as an inevitability. Or at least he did a couple of years ago - if Clinton had won, he may have been right.
In a piece for Time, historian David Kaiser, relates an anecdote about his experience being interviewed by Bannon for a documentary, Generation Zero:
"Meanwhile, however, two other dangers lurk—one of them embodied in my most vivid memory of my own encounter with Bannon.Sounds a tad obsessive to me, which raises the possibility that a self-fulfilling prophecy might just be made reality. Howe himself says the biggest concerns he sees facing the U.S. this time around are "underproduction, undercapacity, deflation, currency wars, demographics, and falling birthrates", which coincidentally tie in with many Trump policies.
When I was first exposed to Strauss and Howe I began thinking how their ideas explained the histories of other countries as well, and during our interview, I mentioned that crises in countries like France in the 1790s and Russia after 1917 had led to reigns of terror. Bannon included those remarks in the final cut of Generation Zero.
A second, more alarming, interaction did not show up in the film. Bannon had clearly thought a long time both about the domestic potential and the foreign policy implications of Strauss and Howe. More than once during our interview, he pointed out that each of the three preceding crises had involved a great war, and those conflicts had increased in scope from the American Revolution through the Civil War to the Second World War. He expected a new and even bigger war as part of the current crisis, and he did not seem at all fazed by the prospect.
I did not agree, and said so. But, knowing that the history of international conflict was my own specialty, he repeatedly pressed me to say we could expect a conflict at least as big as the Second World War in the near or medium term. I refused."
I suppose it's possible to give Bannon the benefit of the doubt. Back when he made his most alarming statements, he could have been simply predicting the natural course of things and trying to scare people into making the changes necessary in order to stop it. But if he is single-minded about predicting what amounts to World War III, and even wants to encourage it in order to be in place to rebuild from the ashes, that's concerning, to say the least. I think a more responsible approach is to be open to all possibilities, but take all steps to avoid a major crisis or mitigate the fall-out, as Russia has done for the last several years in the face of constant American aggression. Prepare for the worst, work towards the best. There are steps that can be taken.
With any hope, Trump's win could stave off a major crisis. Like him or not, he was the anti-war candidate. A Clinton win would have been business as usual, and business as usual was taking the U.S. straight into catastrophe at full speed. Tackling underproduction, undercapacity, deflation, demographics, infrastructure, etc. could be the steps the U.S. needs to take in order to sidestep a major collapse that would otherwise force those things to be prioritized. In other words, Trump could pre-empt such a crisis, if he's successful. In which case, his election and current unpopularity could be be extent of the crisis. But inertia creeps, and opposition to Trump may actually end up precipitating a crisis, especially if the traitorous deep state has its way with him.
The thing is, Bannon seems to get a lot right. He's not crazy for seeing a current crisis, and the danger that it will get worse. And the American system is long overdue for a good re-structuring. The tricky part is that, as Kaiser points out above, chaos is a dangerous thing. The "new order" can be better than what came before. Or it can be a nightmare. Without the right kind of knowledge, it's hard to predict which way it will go, and even harder to prevent a catastrophe. The fourth turning is useful, but it's incomplete. In Parts 2 and 3, I'll round out the picture.
Continued in Part 2: Happiness, Hedonism, Horror - Repeat