I wasn't familiar with the 'fourth turning' before the Bannon media hype, but the idea didn't strike me as off the wall once I read about it. I think it's actually quite useful. And it's not really new either. Howe and Strauss seem to have built upon existing ideas of historical cycles and refined them, tying them to the biological life cycle and filling in a lot of the details. For example, Howe mentions Toynbee's idea of a "great war cycle":
And this is the old lesson of Arnold Toynbee, of what he calls the great war cycle that arose every 80 years or so: it's when the generation who doesn't remember the last great catastrophe finally become the senior leaders.Another source is Russian sociologist Pitrim Sorokin. I'm not sure if Howe and Strauss were familiar with Sorokin's work, but these blog posts (here, here, and here) suggest that their theory at least "appears to be a clean innovation on Sorokin's work". Sorokin also identified a cycle of 80 to 100 years that ping-pongs between spiritual and materialistic mindsets, roughly corresponding to the awakening and crisis turnings. For Howe and Strauss, the second and fourth turnings - spiritual awakening and secular crisis - form the key moments in the larger cycle of cultural trends.
There's another source, however, that I think rounds out the generational theory even more and provides the perspective we need in order to prevent the current crisis from progressing to a reign of terror. Readers familiar with Lobaczewski's Political Ponerology (which cites Sorokin's work as a source) know that one of main points of the book is that some psychopaths strive for political power, and create societal nightmares once they achieve it. But equally important is his focus on the historical cycles that make such a thing possible. The two are intimately tied together.
In PP, Lobaczewski describes this cycle in terms of "good times" and "bad times". Bad times contain within them the seeds of good times, because they provide the hard lessons that force people to rediscover what really matters, prompting a spiritual awakening for society to rebuild. But good times also contain the seed of bad times, because they tend to lead to hedonism, complacency, and stagnation, where past lessons are forgotten and written off as a waste of time. But the hedonistic pursuit of happiness only leads to misery, because it lacks any meaning or sense of purpose. And by ignoring the lessons learned in the past, societies open themselves up to the same "infection". They lose their "immunity". Their defenses are weakened, and another crisis becomes inevitable.
Already we see aspects of Howe and Strauss's "high" (good times), "awakening" (rediscovery of lost values), and "unraveling" (stagnation and hedonism), which lead to "crisis" (bad times).
Lobaczewski admitted that the two key "danger" phases were well recognized by historians. The first is a spiritual crisis where moral, religious, and intellectual values atrophy and cease to nourish a society. If the correct measures aren't taken, this leads to a secular crisis: economic collapse, revolution, war, the fall of empires. That's pretty standard stuff in history, but what's not understood very well are the specific dynamics that govern why and how this happens - and therefore give a clue as to how to prevent the worst from happening. Left only with Howe & Strauss's theory, we'd be in the same boat as any other generation, albeit with the advantage of knowing we're navigating a crisis. Luckily, we have PP to help us out.
As a psychologist who lived in Communist Poland and studied the Soviet system - risking his life in the process - Lobaczewski had a unique perspective, something people like Bannon could probably benefit from. He focuses in detail on two "pathological states" of societies. Think of them as mental illnesses affecting an entire society, which have specific causes, stages, symptoms, and treatments. These two societal diseases also act as distinct stages within a bigger "macrosocial disease process":
...their essence and contents appear different enough, but they can operate sequentially in such a way that the first opens the door to the second. (PP, p. 120)I want to focus on the first: a state of heightened and pervasive societal hysteria, which can open the door to the nightmare of the second disease state, "pathocracy".
Lobaczewski fits these pathological social conditions into what he calls a "hysteroidal cycle", but I'll just refer to it as the cycle of hysteria. It's important information to have, so I'm going to summarize his ideas here and relate them to Howe and Strauss's work on the four turnings. (For those readers who have PP, the bulk of this information comes from Chapter 3.)
The Cycle of Hysteria
Lobaczewski says the cycle of hysteria repeats "not quite every two centuries". The level of social hysteria peaks around one generation before a crisis, in other words during an unraveling. If it peaks hard enough, it can lead to a reign of terror, as it has so often in the past. If Lobaczewski is right about the length of the cycle, that suggests a longer cycle - close to two of Howe and Strauss's cycles (i.e. 150 to 180 years). Civil War buffs might be able to provide some insight into this, given that the Civil War happened just over 150 years ago. Or perhaps Howe and Strauss are correct in limiting the cycle to 80 years, and the conditions that make one cycle worse than another are secondary and don't repeat like clockwork. I don't know.
As bad as the bad times are, they give purpose: for progress and the rediscovery of lost values. A close encounter with evil forces us to gather the physical and mental strength to fight not only for our lives, but also for our sanity. Even though our first response is usually to turn to violence and military might (revolution, counter-revolution, civil war), that hotheadedness falls by the wayside with time and experience. In the cauldron of suffering and chaos, frivolous emotions eventually make way for sober reflection, and we're forced to regain lost powers of thought and discernment. Society eventually regains a healthier worldview: knowledge of self and others, old virtues and values, understanding the meaning of history. All of which eventually gives us the power to actually conquer evil by creating a new order out of the chaos.
But this knowledge slowly fades. Those who benefit the most after the crisis in terms of position and wealth give birth to children who haven't known real hardship. These children learn to repress uncomfortable truths that would force them to admit that they profit from injustice (e.g., slavery, worker exploitation, corrupt business practices, imperialism, etc.). This form of denial only gets worse with each new generation. In other words, the privileged, elite establishment gradually loses touch with reality, becoming more self-serving and self-entitled with time.
This kind of comfortable life - blind to the negative underbelly - gives rise to increasing levels of self-importance and hysteria, which eventually reach a critical point. If this critical point can't be overcome, a bloody tragedy usually results within the next generation. In other words, if the disease isn't treated in its infancy, crisis is probably inevitable. How bad it is depends on how far a society has devolved morally and psychologically. Some societies survive relatively intact; some are tied to the fate of other nations; but empires can and do collapse. A crisis of hysteria is how it all happens.
So let's take a look at some of the "symptoms" of this social disease, which show up after a couple generations of living the good life. Lobaczewski gives a few specific examples of how the hysteria manifests. People tend to become overly emotional, hyper-sensitive and hyper-irritable, prone to taking offense at the drop of a hat, and unreasonably distrustful of others. In Eastern Europe, some of the older generation assumed anything anyone said to them in casual conversation was a lie. Having a conversation with such a person is not easy. They're constantly seeing something that isn't there: you lying to them. And nothing you can say or do will convince them otherwise. In other words, they're basically hallucinating.
Cognitively, critical thinking goes down the tubes, people lose their ability to reason, and cognitive dissonance reaches pandemic levels because people come to believe many things that just aren't true. When you consistently hallucinate an alternate reality that isn't actually there, naturally that alternate reality has to come face to face with actual facts. But those facts can't be accepted as true, otherwise that would mean you're wrong and you're not as smart as you think you are. Result: cognitive dissonance. And when this kind of pseudo-thinking based on "alternative facts" becomes habitual, people habitually miss the point. Lobaczewski calls it "chronic avoidance of the crux of the matter" - they simply can't see what's actually important or significant. (I'll go into this in more detail in Part 3.)
This video captures some of the above. It's also funny.
This is bad news. When we ignore reality, or substitute facts with more comfortable alternatives, this means we can't come to correct conclusions or make effective choices. And as Dr. Jordan B. Peterson put it in one of his talks: "Every time you tell yourself a lie and every time you act out a falsehood, you distort the pristine integrity of your nervous system, and the reports it will give you about the nature of the world will be distorted." And that inevitably leads to bad results.
When these emotional and cognitive errors run rampant, they lead to a life dominated by what Lobaczewski calls the "three egos":
- Egoism: selfishness, self-interest above all else on the personal and national levels
- Egotism: self-importance, arrogance, boastfulness on the personal and national levels
- Egocentrism: self-centredness, thinking only of oneself, without regard for feelings, interests, of well-being of others, on the personal and national levels
So, due to all the above (emotional hysteria, cognitive dissonance, the three egos), people and nations steadily cease to see the importance of engaging in introspection and self-criticism, and acknowledging their own faults. They lose interest in gaining knowledge of life and of others. They aren't interested in understanding or acknowledging the suffering of others, here or abroad. When creature comforts and a relatively decent or exceptional standard of living are readily available, answering tough questions and acknowledging harsh realities just aren't worth the effort. What's the point when you have everything you want or need? "What's in it for me?"
Public, social and moral responsibilities take a back seat. People become self-indulgent, driven by the pursuit of pleasure, and obsessed with trivial things. Our social connections with others get weaker and weaker. We don't think seriously about the future, how to prepare for it, and what to do in order to make sure we have a future. We steadily lose basic knowledge of how our own minds work and how to interact with others in a healthy way. In a nutshell, we lose our understanding of the very things necessary for a peaceful preservation of law and order, and for social progress. And without this understanding, we can't and don't properly educate the next generation with the knowledge they need to deal successfully with the world, which only sets them up for failure.
Truth becomes an uncomfortable concept in such times; truth tellers and whistleblowers aren't treated well, lies become common currency. People in high social positions become contemptuous of their inferiors, while those "inferiors" grow resentful of those at the top. Universities, politics, and business form a united front of talentless, incompetent hacks. This leads to a paralysis of leadership. Simple problems that should have relatively common-sense and simple solutions become overwhelming. Can't get much worse, right? Wrong. Things can get much worse.
In sum, when hysteria reaches its peak, people are overwhelmingly ruled by automatic, unconscious emotional and cognitive processes. Readers should check out Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, and Timothy Wilson's Strangers To Ourselves, because they talk about these specific processes. And a little self-knowledge goes a long way. The alternative is not pretty:
Those who try to maintain common sense and proper reasoning finally wind up in the minority, feeling wronged because their human right to maintain psychological hygiene is violated by pressure from all sides. This means that unhappy times are not far away. (PP, p. 105)So the question is this: Is America (and the rest of the world) in for some unhappy times?
In Part 3, I'll take a look at the hysterical state of American society, the implications, and what can go wrong.