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Friday, March 17, 2017

It didn't start with Trump

For some time now, students of Strauss and Howe have been arguing about when the current crisis began.  When 9/11 occurred a web forum discussing their ideas had already been operating for four years,and it certainly felt as though "this was it." The rhetoric of George W. Bush, who talked about the Global War on Terror as a generational struggle (or, in the words of some Neocons, "World War IV"), contributed to that view as well.  Yet Bush's decision to cut taxes instead of raising them and his inability really to get the bulk of the country behind him seemed to indicate that the crisis might lie ahead.   Then,in the last year of his Presidency, came the financial crisis, 79 years, remarkably, after 1929.  That certainly seemed to be "it," and Neil Howe has stuck to that date ever since.

One advantage of the 2008 date is that it allows for speculation that the crisis might last into the late 2020s, and thus, that we need not take current events too seriously. You may feel, as so many of us do,. that we're headed in the wrong direction right now, but there's still more than a decade to turn around.  Yet I am more and more convinced that the Crisis began in 2001, if not, indeed, a year earlier, at the time of the 2000 elections, when the Republicans revealed their determination to disregard all law and precedent in order to get back into power and resume rolling back the work of the previous century.  My reason relates to my view of what the crisis is: a series of events that puts a new order, and a new political constellation, in place, and sets the country on a new course.  9/11 did that.  The financial crisis most definitely did not.

We find ourselves where we are for many reasons,  The first, and biggest, probably, is the surge of individualism and selfishness that began in the mid-1960s as a reaction to a long period of strong authority and conformism.  Some of this was necessary, and all of it, apparently, was probably inevitable, but five decades later, the idea of every man and woman for him or herself has clearly deprived us of the cohesion and consensus that it takes to make our society function, if not indeed to hold it together at all.  One function of a Crisis or Fourth Turning is to renew civic virtue and cooperation as the nation copes with internal or external threat.  That was what Bush II was trying to do after 9/11, and what Barack Obama might have done, but didn't do, when he came into office.  Alas, Donald Trump's new budget is only one more confirmation that 9/11 defined the threat that we would face over the next couple of decades once and for all.  Unfortunately, it defined it wrongly.

To carry out 9/11, Bin Laden had to infiltrate 16 men into the United States, where some of them secured crucial pilot training.  Anyone who bothers to read the relevant sections of the 9/11 Commission's report will have no trouble understanding why nothing remotely similar has occurred since.  Even before that signal event, it was extremely difficult for al Queda to get the personnel they wanted into the United States.  Since then it has obviously become much harder, and not one terrorist act has been perpetrated or even attempted, as far as I know, by some one who had been recently infiltrated.  We could, in short, have coped with the threat of terrorism originating in foreign lands without creating the Department of Homeland Security or the enormous military-intelligence complex that now dominates suburban Washington, D.C. (and which will get a bit bigger, apparently,. under the Trump budget.)  But this, of course, was only part of our response.

Fueled by a post-Cold War fantasy of ruling the world, a resentment of Arab states that would not obey the US, and devotion to the interests of the State of Israel, the Bush Administration also seized upon 9/11 as an excuse to begin a string of endless wars in the Middle East.  These wars, too, could have brought the country together and created a new consensus--if they could have been successful. Broad strategic problems, however,. doomed them almost from the start.  Overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq was well within our capabilities, but establishing stable, friendly regimes in those countries--much less democracies--was far beyond them.  Sixteen years and many trillions of dollars later, our side is losing the war in Afghanistan, while the sectarian Iraqi government is destroying the country's second-largest city, Mosul, in order to save it.  But that was not all.  The fantasy behind those wars: that we could solve terrorism, and other problems as well, by replacing Middle Eastern autocrats with democracies, has continued to be a principle of our foreign policy ever since, with increasingly disastrous consequences.

I have several excellent reasons to believe that the Bush Administration expected to follow the Iraq war with similar strikes against Iran and North Korea. (None of these reasons relates to anything I learned at the time at the Naval War College.)  That did not happen, but the Obama Administration resumed this disastrous policy in response to the Arab spring.  Like Iraq, Libya went from dictatorship to chaos as a result, triggering a refugee crisis in Europe.  In Egypt the United States collaborated, first, in the overthrow of a dictatorship and its replacement by a new democracy,. and then, it would seem, in the overthrow of a newly elected leader by the military, which restored the old regime.  In Syria President Obama rightly avoided intervening yet again, but nonetheless made the end of the Assad regime a national objective.  Shi'ite and Christian Syrians, as it happens, believe that Assad's fall would mean their massacre, and the evidence of Iraq suggests that they are correct.  Meanwhile, using drones, the United States is now identifying and killing "bad guys" from Pakistan to many parts of Africa, even though these targeting killings haven't been any more successful in bringing peace to any areas than they have been for the Israelis who invented the tactic.  And we have never had a serious national discussion of this "strategy" and what it is actually doing for us or for the countries where we are applying it.  We have appointed ourselves judge, jury and executioner for the whole Islamic world.

And now, the endless Middle Eastern war has been linked to a critical domestic issue, immigration.  The immigration problem has very deep roots indeed.  One of its main causes, I would suggest, is the decline in our citizenry's birth rate, which, along with mass incarceration, has created a labor shortage that immigrants have come to fill.  And we have needed those immigrants:  Thomas Piketty argued three years ago that it is only because of immigration that US economic growth has been stronger than that of the EU.  Unfortunately, a very real effect of the terror war inside our own society has been to divert enormous attention and sums of money into these useless wars, instead of focusing on very real problems.  Those wars have contributed to the occasional terrorist attacks here in the US--always carried out by Muslims who have been living here for some time--which have allowed the Republicans (who have repeatedly blocked immigration reform) and now Donald Trump to arouse fear and hatred around the issue.  The war on terror is a divisive issue, not a unifying one.

It has however had another effect. These endless wars, fought by a volunteer army, have, as Andrew Bacevich pointed out, turned our military and veterans into sacred cows before which we all must bow down.  And thus, yesterday Budget Director Mulvaney announced a budget that shifts more than $50 billion from various domestic programs to the military and homeland security.  As in 2001, the supposed terror threat (which will inevitably be "validated" in theory by another domestic attack at some point) has become an excuse to divert federal resources away from helping the American people.  Meanwhile, foreign war looms again as a means by which a Republican administration will try to keep the country behind it,

The hopes that Rex Tillerson, a man who has headed one of the world's largest corporations, might be an effective voice for reason in the new administration are fading fast.  He immediately acquiesced in proposals for drastic cuts in the State Department budget--one of the largest cuts, proportionately, to be proposed. Yesterday he made a statement pointing clearly in the direction of war against North Korea, a move that could have incalculable consequences.  Steve Bannon, as I pointed out back in November, believes in great wars as an inevitable part of a Fourth Turning.  And given that Trump's policies will surely leave the American people worse off, he and the President have few other choices to diver their attention.

I have not, as you can see, been able to stick strictly to my resolution to comment on the new Administration only every other week, but I have not focused on the news of the day. Nor should any of us.  It has taken a long time--and a lot of mistakes on all sides of the political spectrum--to get us where we are today.  Every major American institution needs a lot of help.


kjmcgin said...

Impressive commentary,David.. right on target

Unknown said...

I have to respectfully disagree Mr. Kaiser

The position of the various generations in their phases of life was not quite right in 2001. Boomers were still in the early years of power, and a large number of Silents still held positions of peak influence.

Most importantly, Millennials were not yet in a position to become the Heroes of the Iraq war. Troops on the ground were primarily Gen X, with a smattering of Millennials at the lower ranks.

The 2008 Crisis however put a great pressure on the young Hero Generation, and was arguably created by the individualist policies of Boomer Idealism. The New Order arising in the world today (Populist Nationalism) is a direct byproduct of the anxieties of the global financial Crisis, especially lingering unemployment in Europe.

The events of 2001 have sowed the seeds for many aspects of the Crisis, as WWI did in the previous Turning, but they were firmly a part of the Unraveling.

Thanks for the insightful article Professor. I look forward to your thoughts on this!

m riesterer said...

As much as I abide by your holding to Fourth Turning thinking, I'm somewhat disappointed and surprised that you, Mr. Kaiser, abide by the popular narrative concerning 9/11.

Energyflow said...

I would agree with Mike C above but otherwise your criticism of military adventurism, spending is correct. We create our own enemies. Spiral of violence. Hedonism internally leads to social collapse. Militarism abroad or civil conflict brings resolution to this collapse.

To put a point on it. Society was not collapsing in 2000 so a resolution was not necessary. The excessive militarism with accompanying tax cuts plus ongoing bubbles in economy to maintain hedonism have led to collapse which must now force a resolution. The al quaeda saw that they could provoke us to self destruction through military overengagement. Sun Tzu's Art of War was probably useful in this. The bubbleblowing economy was our own selfish hedonism. The generational structure allowed this to occur, made it inevitable. Digging our way out of the debt is impossible without bankruptcy at all levels of society. America was not ordained by God to police earth and can no more afford it than Europe or British earlier. Average historical interst rates would bankrupt the govt. The American century is ending in a disaster unfortunately. Russia, China, Iran must simply wait out the results. Recall this was our tactic with Soviets.

Pmathews1939 said...

I'll cheerfully go with 2000. Alas, the climax (the Regeneracy? I do hate to use the term but technically it's the correct one) was last November. I'm among the wait-and-sees. partly a generational thing on my part (born in 1939), which makes me a Traitor To The Resistance. (Eek! We MUST fight Gorsuch, he was WRONG about the Hobby Lobby Decision! Traitor. Never mind that he's sane, competent, and understands Western issues, which puts him 3-up on most of that crowd.)

The tides of time are moving very swiftly, and I have always been convinced we are in not only a Crisis, but a MegaCrisis. Example of the latter: The Wars of the Roses. i.e. England may have felt they were still in the Middle Ages clear on up to the Cavalier Era, but the Tudor regime was a whole different thing in every respect.

Well, welcome to Round Two of Post-Western-Civilization (Western Civ 2.1, Western Civ 1.n having committed suicide in 1914, touching off Round One. For further details apply to anyone English.)

Pmathews1939 said...

@MikeC - Boomers (1943-65) ran over the Silents (1925-42) with a generational bulldozer. Obama, mind you, is an early Xer, and tried very, very hard to be D.D. Eisenhower. Excellent man, wrong times. My daughters are both Xers in every way and I know the signs. And BTW, the criterion I use is "Those with no conscious memory of the last social moment." Which makes every grandchild I have (ages 16-9), not Millennial, but Homelander. And they are showing all this signs of it as well - it takes one to know one, as they say.

No, I'll go with 2000. Besides, the economic collapse for the middle classes was well underway by then. (The blue-collar collapse had been gong on since the early 1970, but who cared? Buncha rednecks... grrrrrr......we're now reaping what we sowed then.)

Patricia Mathews, formerly haunting the 4T forums. Pity Neil Howe is too bound up in selling management advice to give us some analysis here.

Okay. You can pass the cat food now.

Unknown said...

I agree with 2001 because it seems, IMO, that, in an outcome now well recognized by Strauss and Howe, the post-war High was the first truly Global High, produced by the war's imposition on a preponderance of the world's people and nations as well as the highly structured yet integrated nature of the Cold War recovery in both camps. As a result, the entire saeclum would also be global in scale and impact, with the decisive forces and events arising across the globe. And it must also be global in its resolution. Though led by ideologically backward forces, 9/11 was certainly an expression of the desperation and rage that has fueled a widening array of social resistance movements in the years since. The 2007-08 financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street lent clarity on the true nature of the necessary resolution (democratization of finance, corporate accountability, etc.) in what, clearly, is an on-going popular struggle.Rather than looking for ways to stretch this turning, I think it wiser to to see the rapid and continuing acceleration of the crisis and resistance since 2001 as the darkest darkness before the dawn. Civilization is in crisis, but people have lost confidence in, especially, the corporate elite and their politicians and are seeking remedy. Let's help everyone understand that it must be a global remedy, not merely an eclectic array of new national Highs arising from merely national Crises.

Gloucon X said...

“One function of a Crisis or Fourth Turning is to renew civic virtue and cooperation as the nation copes with internal or external threat. That was what Bush II was trying to do after 9/11…”

I, and the people I knew followed Bush’s call for virtue and cooperation just as he had ordered: We went shopping. We spent our tax cuts. Bush got “reelected”, and we all felt wonderful that we had done our part in America’s renewal. Crisis solved!

Wes Volkenant said...

With Steve Bannon's interest in "The Fourth Turning" becoming more widely-known, it leads to a wider use of the principles from the book in the media.

Case in point, this Crooks and Liars essay following the release of the Trump budget this week....


Wes Volkenant said...

I was interested in seeing "The Fourth Turning" make into a more mainstream discussion at the Crooks & Liars website, as a discussion was had of the new Trump budget proposal, based on Steve Bannon's influence.


tmaus said...

Perhaps I am the stupid one, but I have a hard time biting into this idea that the 60's and onward created a reckless individualism as perscribed by Strauss-Howe, when this is the same timeframe that LBJ's great society is formed. These two concepts seem diametrically opposed, to me atleast.

Please respond with your opinion on this disconnect between theory and application. Again, a very interesting read

Bruce Wilder said...

I am not sure I quite understand preoccupation with identifying "the" date: crisis is a period and our American crisis corresponds with the earlier period of crisis that spanned nearly 20 years, encompassing the economic collapse of the Great Depression and the political trial of the Second World War. That was a period of intense institution building and those institutions have passed their sell-by date.

The generational driver of institutional aging is embodied in the knowledge or ignorance of subsequent generations of the architectural principles and managerial imperatives. The inventors of new institutions do not always completely understand them -- they may well have ideas that seem quaint in retrospect, but if those institutions find their groove and survive to improve the functioning of society, experience will provide some rationale. The rationale the baby boomers were handed by Milton Friedman (b 1912), against the opposition of John Kenneth Galbraith (b 1908), was one that we now call, "neoliberalism": a new rationale for individualism and laissez faire, which is a prescription for fatuous irresponsibility.

It seems to me that we have seen that fatuous irresponsibility in the cavalier way both Clinton and the GWB administrations embraced neoliberal deregulation. On a deeper level, we saw it in the abandonment of the institutions of countervailing power so carefully nurtured during the Progressive Movement and its echo in the New Deal: the wiping out of the Savings & Loans, the erosion of labor union membership and so on. We could see in the fatuous way George W Bush attempted to echo the rhetoric of Churchill in pursuing the vision of the Project for a New American Century, and its almost demented misunderstanding of the bases for the American alliance structures after WWII and particularly the alliances with Germany and Japan.

We are in the midst of a great legitimacy crisis that has been building since the Clinton impeachment, a legitimacy crisis based in large part on the suspicion that the political classes are, in the main, incompetent and uncaring, a proposition for which there is abundant evidence with the partisan labels of both Parties as well as the non-partisan labels affixed to the Media and many nominally non-political institutions.

I don't believe we are going "to turn this around" -- certainly no forces of history will provide a deus ex machina. The system will fail, and as in 2008, the corrective action taken is likely to be painful and socially corrupting and add to the crisis of legitimacy. Peter Turchin's work, positing a rising cycle of violence to 2020, is likely to find abundant confirmation.

Our domestic economic arrangements have been confirmed in their pattern of excessive debt channelling ever more resources into the hands of fewer. It is the international arrangements which will next meet their test, with the economic crisis in China and Europe reverberating to the U.S., while the U.S. discovers just what it means to lose a long war. The economic phase -- the one corresponding to 1932 -- is behind us, though we may see a 1936-like renewal of the crisis that leads to doubling-down on austerity. Many of the details of the New Deal legacy were the result of revisions after 1936. What is becoming acute is the phase corresponding to the initiation of a new world order during and immediately after the war, in 1941-47. The crisis is now underway, but in China and in Europe. For the U.S., all that awaits us some signal defeat of our vaunted military that causes us to finally withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, it will be the military's turn for a loss of legitimacy, honor and respect.

Bozon said...

Great post. Interesting comparisons.

Everyone here by now perhaps knows I don't follow S & H.

I remark on it, however,in connection with Professor Kaiser's informative discussion and reference, of how Bannon has picked it up and used it.

Re "It Didn't Start With Trump", my view has been that the last big crisis (in my terminology, not S & H) for the West, began around 1760, as Robert Palmer had asserted.

My view is that that crisis never has ended, but rather has been transformed.

All the best