Steve Bannon is Donald Trump’s favorite philosopher. Trump sometimes jokes that he doesn’t know “whether Bannon is alt-right or alt-left,” but either way Bannon has given voice to the visceral impulse of populist nationalism that Donald Trump has expressed for decades.
So what does Bannon believe? A pillar of his worldview is contained in a school of history called Strauss-Howe generational theory, developed by William Strauss and Neil Howe, which states that human events can be loosely organized in terms of recurring eighty year cycles, or saecula, which unfold in four twenty year turnings.
The first turning is a season of rebirth, social unity and building new institutions. In our current American generational cycle the first turning is the post World War II period. This is followed by a second turning, characterized by a spiritual awakening and a general rejection of the previous turning’s values, which we saw begin in the 60’s. The third turning is a time of unraveling, where society loses faith in institutions and business as usual. And the fourth turning, which for us began with the financial crisis of 2007, is a time of breakdown where social institutions collapse and the way is cleared for the next first turning.
It’s an elegant philosophy, which the Strauss and Howe seek to embed in deep human patterns such as the saeculum, which is an ancient term for the length of one long-lived human life. When released in 1997, their book The Fourth Turning was embraced by liberals like Al Gore, who gave a copy to every member of Congress.
I like it too upon first contact, and think that it could reveal another useful pattern in the human condition. As an evolutionary I have no problem imagining that an oscillation between the two poles of creation (the first two turnings) and destruction (the second two turnings) is an engine moving humanity forward. But herein lies a big problem: Strauss-Howe generational theory has little appreciation for the forward movement of history. In fact Strauss and Howe spend the first third of their book explicitly rejecting what they call “linear time” in favor of “seasonal time,” an endless wheel of turnings that goes nowhere. Paraphrasing Nietzsche they write that “every event is perpetually reenacted, that everything anyone does has been done before and will be done again forever.”
That is not only depressing but terribly limited. How about we consider that historic time may have aspects that are circular and aspects that are linear? Well it turns out we can, by contemplating the unspooling of time as a spiral, which is an oft-employed image in the evolutionary movement.
Adding the dimension of forward movement changes the theoretical calculus enormously. Without it you are left with a worldview that reveals, for instance, that major wars are virtually inevitable — after all, we have had three “fourth turnings” so far in American history: 1) the Revolutionary War 2) the Civil War and 3) World War II.
And indeed this is how Bannon has talked about what he sees as the epic and historically recurring conflict between western civilization, built on Judeo-Christian values, and its enemies, foremost of which is Islam. Or perhaps China, which Bannon predicts will be in a war with the US over the South China sea within ten years, and “there’s no doubt about that.”
So apparently our fourth turning is just now kicking in and we’re headed for institutional demolition. Worst case: nuclear winter. Or with a little luck maybe Trump, the human wrecking ball, will prove to be fourth turning enough, all by himself, to get us through to the next promised land.
Enjoy the podcast!