The current New York Review of Books includes an article by Timothy Garton Ash on the people of Ukraine--a story of remarkable heroism and unity. He talks about soldier who when the war broke out was pursuing an academic career in cultural studies, no less, but is now recovering from a second set of wounds and eagerly looking forward to his return to the front. He talks about civilians who are providing storage rooms and intelligence to the Ukrainian Army in combat zones. He talks about the ways in which average citizens are providing electricity to cope with the Russian attacks on their grid. And then comes this remarkable paragraph.
"Amazingly, in polling conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) last September, 68 percent of Ukrainians answered yes to the question “Do you consider yourself a happy person?,” compared with just 53 percent in 2017. When I asked the sociologist Nataliya Zaitseva-Chipak to help me understand this phenomenon—how on earth could people be happier during a war of terror directed against the civilian population?—she replied, 'Yes, I’m happier!' It wasn’t just the overwhelming sense of common purpose, she explained. It was also appreciating everything you still have when your compatriots are suffering so much worse in the trenches or the pulverized city of Mariupol. One journalist even told me her friends say that 'it’s okay if the missiles are falling on us because it means they’re not killing our soldiers on the front line.'”
That, of course, is not the whole story, and Ash continues with several paragraphs detailing horrible suffering. Yet the Ukrainian people endure it willingly, and if they can win their war they will inhabit in some ways the strongest state in Europe, because they will have gone through a successful great crisis such as the Europeans have not experienced for about 80 years. They have banded together and devoted their resources and their lives to preserving their independence, something that the United States and Western Europe have not even had to remain ready to do since 1990, and have not fought to do since the Second World War. That long era of peace, it turns out, is a blessing that has now become a curse.
I owe this insight, of course, to the late William Strauss and his still-active collaborator Neil Howe. Their books Generations and The Fourth Turning identified an 80-year cycle in American national life, punctuated by great crises that required the nation to pull together, sacrifice, and focus on common goals. These were the American Revolution and the constitutional period (1774-1794), the Civil War (about 1860-5), and the Depression and the Second World War (1933-45.) These crises faced our political leadership with unprecedented tasks, and they proved equal to them. They involved the whole nation in common sacrifices and common triumphs. And the young adult generations of those crises--such as the GI or "greatest" generation that coped with the Depression and the world war--remained committed to the values they had fought for and the political and social system that emerged from the crises for the rest of their lives. And as they died off, the new postwar generations--those who included Lincoln and Roosevelt--redefined the national mission and set the goals for the next crisis.
The United States under the leadership of the Boom generation has now lived through three serious crises that might have led to a comparable national renewal: 9/11, the 2008 financial collapse, and the pandemic. Yet none of them led to a national renewal because of poor leadership. George W. Bush spoke the language of crisis after 9/11 and called upon us to embark upon a new crusade for democracy, but in practice he embarked upon two useless wars that could not succeed while reducing taxes on the wealthy and ignoring the speculative bubble he had helped unleash until disaster struck. Facing the financial crisis, Barack Obama explicitly adopted the Boomer economic theory that "restoring liquidity"--that is, massive bailouts of financial institutions--could cure a depression better than a New Deal. That very slow approach immediately cost him the House of Representatives and any chance of a transformative presidency--not that he seems to have wanted one very much. And Donald Trump, who had passed yet another big tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, tried to pretend that the pandemic was not happening. As a result, the alienation of the American people from the government has increased and extremist ideologies that reject much of our national legacy have gained ground in both parties. We have not been able to address our two biggest problems: climate change and the continuing trend towards economic inequality. Our politics now revolve around tribal and educational divisions professing competing ideologies. Every president since Bush II has called for greater unity; none have been able to achieve it.
In past periods the great crisis has also created social and intellectual consensus. Nearly 60 years ago such a consensus provoked an enormous revolt in the younger generations--a revolt that became an attack on authority of all kinds. Since then our right and left have essentially agreed on the principle of doing one's own thing, even though they defined it very differently. And today's younger generations clearly cannot even imagine the kind of consensus world we had in the 1950s and early 1960s. If they think about it all it is as some kind of nightmare, a mix of The Birth of a Nation and The Handmaid's Tale, from which society fortunately began to escape in the 1960s. Nothing has been able to reverse that trend and we still don't know where it will lead.
The neoliberal paradise to whom our elites and the European elites committed themselves turns out to have been a mirage. Peace and prosperity have bred plutocracy and populist discontent. Perhaps human being needs challenge and hardship to focus society on common goals. Ukraine is showing us what that can mean.