A consensus is beginning to form on the left that the key to understanding the Trump Insurgency is to be found in one Mr. Steve Bannon. I doubt that such a simple thesis is really richly accurate, but certainly the notion is getting a lot of attention. In particular, I’ve seen a number of stories floating around attempting to understand Bannon through the lens of the Fourth Turning generational theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe. Howe himself recently wrote an opinion piece on the Washington Post on precisely this topic.
The headlines this month have been alarming. “Steve Bannon’s obsession with a dark theory of history should be worrisome” (Business Insider). “Steve Bannon Believes The Apocalypse Is Coming And War Is Inevitable” (the Huffington Post). “Steve Bannon Wants To Start World War III” (the Nation). A common thread in these media reports is that President Trump’s chief strategist is an avid reader and that the book that most inspires his worldview is “The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy.”
I wrote that book with William Strauss back in 1997. It is true that Bannon is enthralled by it.
As it happens, I was introduced to Strauss and Howe’s stuff back in ’08 by Peter Turchin in the context of a Santa Fe Institute examination of Big History and historical analysis. While the standard academic critiques of the Fourth Turning are accurate (it does lack rigor; it does ‘over fit’ the data), I found the framework fascinating, particularly in light of the broader science of cultural evolution and in connection with ostensibly unrelated theories like Marshall McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message” theory connecting technology, psychology and culture. Accordingly, following my usual policy of intellectual recklessness, I dove deep and swam around for a while. If you are interested in an abbreviated view of my own synthesis of this kind of analysis, you can check out my 2014 article on Generation Omega.
So, when I see that the man who many think is at the very center of the Trump Insurgency is an acolyte of this kind of historical thinking, I can’t help but dig deeper. In digging, I uncovered two additional interesting threads. The first is that Bannon was the CEO of Biosphere 2, the infamous closed ecosystem experiment in the early 1990’s. This tells us that at the very least he is not ignorant of climate science. The second is that Bannon appears to be a fan of the 1973 French Novel, The Camp of the Saints, where massive immigration from the Third World leads to the destruction of Western Civilization.
Combined, these three threads create an interesting story. But before we get there, I’d like to caution you on the use of this kind of analysis. The Blue Church has a number of limiting strategies. One is an absolute mania for armchair psychoanalysis from a distance. This is particularly harmful when it is used to narrow scope and simply dismiss some piece of thought. This post is not that sort. I know for certain that I do not know Steve Bannon. What I am doing here is an effort to take what appear to be two or three of his influences and to extrapolate a viable worldview.
The second is an abuse of narrative as a sensemaking approach. Narrative is useful — but it is also limiting. Reality is not bound by the architectures of narrative. It is only our understanding that feels satisfied with a good story. This is particularly true in these waning years of broadcast media which has had such a profound effect on our understanding. I am going to construct a narrative. It is absolutely certainly not the full story. But it is an honest exploration of what might follow from these three influences. And a good faith effort to view the world through this lens. What follows is dark. If you find that unpalatable, read no further.
For the few of you who are left, settle in. The next ten minutes are sobering.
A core concept of the Fourth Turning is that social history proceeds through four recurring cycles, of which the most relevant and important to our current circumstances is the “Winter” or “Crisis” cycle where the total set of changes (economic, cultural, social, political, military, technological, etc.) produced during the preceding three cycles “come to a head” and must be resolved.
The notion of “crisis” here is central and has to be taken quite seriously. A crisis is not merely a “challenge” or a “bit of a rough spot.” We encounter crises everywhere. We have crises in our personal lives, in our relationships, in our jobs, in our economies, in scientific and political revolutions. What we mean by crisis can be stated simply: “A crisis is a process of transformation where the old system can no longer be maintained.”
This is the deep point and understanding it brings clarity. A crisis is a threshold between an old system and a new system. From the point of view of the old system, the crisis is death. This is why the old system always struggles like hell to stave off the crisis. I don’t want to be uncharitable here. Systems are hard to get right — so leaving an old system into some new, untried and untested system is almost always a truly terrible idea. And even if there is some new system to get to, the transition itself will be unavoidably painful and often fatal. The instinct to preserve the old system at all costs is almost always an adaptive instinct.
Almost. Except when the old system can no longer be maintained.
Hence the crisis. On the one hand the rock — a system that can no longer be maintained and, therefore, is rapidly moving into complete collapse. On the other hand the hard place — the always brutally dangerous traverse across the “adaptive valley” to some hoped for new place of safety.
Looking back at the Strauss and Howe model, the last major “generational crisis” took place in the 1930’s and 40’s around the Great Depression and World War II. In this frame, the driver of the “crisis” was neither the Depression nor the War. These were merely symptoms and results of the crisis. The core driver was the fact that the “Victorian synthesis” that had cohered and made sense of America from the Civil War until the late 1920’s was coming apart at the seams.
Think about it. In 1865, the total population of the United States was around 30 million. By 1920 it had more than tripled to more than 100 million and for the first time the urban population was larger than the rural population. Railroads and telegraphs had fully connected the entire continent during the last half of the 19th Century and electricity, radio and automobiles were exploding into society during the first few decades of the 20th. Agriculture had plummeted from 70% of the labor force to 25% (and falling). During this sixty year span, everything had changed — profoundly.
And these changes weren’t just in the United States. All over Europe, similar tensions were pulling the old system apart. Particularly after the trauma of World War I, the values, mores and memes of the old Victorians were being roundly rejected in favor of . . . something new.
By the 1920’s the old system could no longer be maintained. Something had to give and give it did — everywhere. Financial systems began to convulse. Economies began to turn. Political and social frameworks began to polarize and fragment. The old system thrashed in its death throes as and while the crisis unfolded. The world wide Depression and the War that followed were the final gasps of the old system and, simultaneously, the first beats of the heart of the new system.
Now look at the seventy years since 1945, the close of this last crisis. Once again the population has tripled. This time all over the world, pushing up against food, water and political limitations and cracking the facade of the nation-state lines drawn after the Great Wars. The waves of immigration have just begun and already they are breaking down the great peace of the second half of the 20th Century. Just wait until millions of refugees balloon into tens or hundreds of millions displaced by climate change, famine and civil disorder.
Television came, changed everything about how we communicated and thought, and is already in decline; rapidly replaced by a new digital framework that is digging into every facet of the world. Now, for the first time in history, every culture is pushing up against every other — our extended digital bodies intertwined and wriggling in this new virtual container.
Globalization has enmeshed every country into a single economy tied together with leviathan container ships and next day delivery. The financial crisis of 2008 started in the United States but is still spreading and flowing through the now incredibly fragile and unstable global financial system.
And, right on cue, our political body has begun to writhe and kick in what looks very much like a system poised for crisis. A fully connected global system — that can no longer be maintained.
This view of crisis helps make sense of what someone like Bannon might be thinking and doing right now. If we really are in a crisis; if the old system, birthed over seventy years ago in the aftermath of the last great crisis, is really in its death throes, then what should we expect?
Why war of course.
Why We Fight
Generational theory has an interesting insight into the nature of war. In particular, into the nature of crisis war. It all comes back to a notable human frailty: that we cannot learn from other people’s mistakes.
Here we stand in 2017, deeply in need of wisdom to carry us through. And yet, for even our wisest leaders, the memory of the horrors of World War Two are merely anecdotal. The men who fought on the beaches and hedgerows are largely decades passed. And the men and women who now command our shared destiny know nothing about the reality of crisis war. Instead we, all of us from China to France to Russia to the United States, find ourselves led by people for whom war is a story. Merely a story.
From the point of view of Generational theory, for example, the near-miss of the Cuban Missile Crisis can be explained at least in part by one important fact: both Kennedy and Khrushchev fully and deeply understood the stakes implied in war. They both had lived and fought in the War. And, with this real experience driving their decisions, they both wanted and needed to avoid making that mistake again.
But a lot of time has passed since John F. Kennedy was a young man. And as the lived experience of crisis passes in the natural way of things, the younger generation rises without the wisdom of those who had really been there. Watching Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List just isn’t the same thing as living it. And, lacking this lived wisdom, other instincts come to the fore.
Perhaps our leaders might seek a glorious return to a mythopoetic past. Perhaps they are smug chicken hawks who know (and care) not what they do. Perhaps they are embroiled in the petty bickerings of their younger days and carelessly drive us off the cliff. Or perhaps they do sense the looming crisis, but lack the courage to face it and choose instead to distract, delay, ignore. Whatever the path, Generational theory tells a tragic comedy of war not inevitable, but inevitably brought about by our own capriciousness.
Of course, in this case, we have the unusual benefit of foreknowledge. Unlike the generations before us, we have a Generational theory that warns us of the threat of a coming war. Might this not give us the ability to avoid the inevitable? Or, might we instead go the other direction and choose to embrace the inevitable — to ensure war?
Traversing the Evolutionary Bottleneck
We humans are conscious beings. But we are also embodied beings, descendents of a billion year lineage that has survived through thick and (most importantly) through thin. While we are not strictly beholden to our genes, it is foolish in the extreme to ignore the mandate coded into our every cell: be fruitful and multiply.
Recently, Bret Weinstein, one of the most brilliant thinkers in Evolutionary Theory, introduced me to the fascinating notion of a “population bottleneck.” You see, for the most part, in an ordinary population under ordinary circumstances, you will have an average number of descendents and your descendents will have an average number of descendents and so on. Since this is broadly true of everyone else, the net result is that after ten generations, your genes show up in the population at roughly the same rate as they do right now. Your genes are treading water — but they aren’t really winning.
But sometimes something happens that changes the game. Perhaps some great disaster occurs, resulting in a die-off with few survivors. Or perhaps some new environment (like Australia or Madagascar) is discovered that only a few can manage to explore and exploit. In either case, the result is a population bottleneck. On one side of the bottleneck the ordinary population. On the other side, some new population — all of whom are descended from the precious few who managed to traverse the bottleneck.
These bottlenecks occur throughout evolutionary history. There is good evidence, for example, that two bottlenecks shaped much of modern human genetic diversity in just the past 50,000 years. And here is the point: if your genes happen to be among those that manage to traverse the bottleneck, they “win” at a level that is utterly impossible by nearly any other means.
Traversing a bottleneck is extremely risky. Accordingly, it makes little sense to venture a bottleneck under ordinary circumstances. But it is also extremely high reward and for the entirety of our evolutionary history up until now, population bottlenecks have been the great lottery system deciding the long term winners and losers.
This truth is coded deeply into our genes and its logic is crystal clear: if you think you see a bottleneck coming, and in particular if you think you see one before everyone else sees it, be the first through the bottleneck and then slam the door shut behind you.
The War to End All Wars?
Is this what Bannon sees? A global scale generational crisis that is going to come to a head in the form of a massive struggle among civilizations? One so large and so bloody that it will leave an enduring mark on the human genome for all time?
It might be. And here is the hard part — he could well be right. Our global systems are coming apart and our total set of challenges are as daunting as they are unprecedented. The old system cannot be maintained. We are indeed in crisis. Our need for wisdom is as high as it has ever been. And it certainly does seem that our actual wisdom is shamefully lacking.
It is true that climate change, war, famine and economic disruption are coming. It is true that these will almost certainly lead to massive flows of refugees. It is also true, whether we like it or not, that the West cannot possibly absorb even a small fraction of these refugees and survive. A stable and peaceful society is a fragile thing.
Knowing this and thinking through the lens of Generational theory, it is reasonable to conclude that a great war is all but inevitable. Anyone who fails to look this possible future square in the eyes is delusional. And here is the kicker. If you are the United States and the West and you think that a fight for survival is brewing, then something else becomes clear: there is no better time for that fight than right now.
The war machine built in the United States in the decades after World War Two is really rather astounding. Right now, it is plausible that the United States could wage war on everyone else in the world — and win. Particularly if we are committed to a winner-take-all war for survival.
But every day our relative warfighting capacity declines. The actual peak of relative American power was probably some point in the middle of the last decade. Through a combination of aging technology (and doctrine), declining economic and social potency, increasing economic and social fragility and the rapid emergence of real competitors (most notably China), the relative position of America (and, more broadly, NATO) is fading.
In other words, if you think that the war to end all wars is inevitable and if your mission is to ensure that the genes and ideas of Western Civilization are the ones that make it through the bottleneck, then it starts to become abundantly clear that time is of the essence.
Thus might conclude a steely-eyed realist observing the world today. A great war of civilizations is coming, billions will likely die, and we must be prepared to win. As horrifying as it might be to contemplate, all the lessons of human and evolutionary history up until now all point to this single, brutal conclusion.
Except for one thing. It can’t possibly work.
This Time It’s Different
I am not an optimist. I do not think that our collective chances of making it through the 21st Century are good. Certainly below 50/50. And I did not walk through the above narrative to craft a strawman. It does not do to be naive.
We are, all of us, descendents of killers. With maybe a few very limited exceptions, every human being alive today is the result and beneficiary of a long line of conquerors. All of us have rape and slaughter up front and center in our lineage. Peace, where it occurs, is a precious, hard won and jealously defended prize. If one wants peace, one must first make peace with war.
And so I conclude that the above story and its conclusions are wrong, not out of an aspirational hope for peace, but out of a deep recognition that the above scenario and, in fact, any scenario that does not get us to “active peace” at a global scale (and soon) is a non-starter. Simply put, there are no viable paths through this population bottleneck. Every single scenario in that direction ends in catastrophe.
Why? Well, a rigorous proof of my assertion will take substantially more than the few sentences remaining in this post, but the gist is simple:
1. The system upon which we all rely is extraordinarily interwoven and fragile. Supply chains are long and attenuated. Even here in Fortress America, vulnerabilities abound.
2. Asymmetric warfare is already too advanced. Imagine swarms of software bots attacking power and communications infrastructure. Self-swimming micro-mines shutting down all ports. Or CRISPR viruses being cooked up in millions of garage-labs.
3. Billions of people will not go quietly and it will only take a little innovation and a lot of desperation to bring the whole thing down.
We are stuck. On the one hand, the natural direction of the world as we know it is a cascading collapse from a thousand directions. On the other hand, as soon as anyone recognizes that a bottleneck is coming and starts racing for the door, the resulting struggle will rapidly spend the remaining sand in the hourglass. History has us trapped.
As absurd and improbable as it might sound, for any of us to survive, we must find a way out of history. Not just the fifty thousand year history of civilization. We must find a way to escape the logic of our genes and find a way out of the billion year history of evolution itself. Soon, very soon if I read my indicators right, a critical mass of people are going to have to come together and help us all level up.
So there you have it. Told you it was dark. Was it true? Hard to say. Our collective sensemaking is so disoriented and frenzied that any claim to accuracy should be looked at with strong skepticism. But perhaps it is useful. If you find this exploration useful to your own sensemaking, hurrah. If not, at least I hope you found it interesting.