I was listening to a podcast that talked about Steve Bannon’s worldview, and how it was informing the current constitutional crisis in our country by amping up people’s emotions to a fever pitch. According to his perspective, the human timeline is not a progression, improving, building on the mistakes and learnings of past generations, but a cycle, turning back on itself, leading to wars and conflagrations, and then starting over. This viewpoint is explained in a book called “The Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny.”
In the book, authors William Strauss and Neil Howe theorize that the history of a people moves in 80-to-100 year cycles called “saecula.” The idea goes back to the ancient Greeks, who believed that at a given saeculum’s end, there would come “ekpyrosis,” a cataclysmic event that destroys the old order and brings in a new one in a trial of fire.
This era of change is known as the Fourth Turning, and Bannon, like Strauss and Howe, believes we are in the midst of one right now.
According to the book, the last two Fourth Turnings that America experienced were the Civil War and the Reconstruction, and then the Great Depression and World War II. Before that, it was the Revolutionary War.
All these were marked by periods of dread and decay in which the American people were forced to unite to rebuild a new future, but only after a massive conflict in which many lives were lost. It all starts with a catalyst event, then there’s a period of regeneracy, after that there is a defining climax in which a war for the old order is fought, and then finally there is a resolution in which a new world order is stabilized.https://www.businessinsider.com/book-steve-bannon-is-obsessed-with-the-fourth-turning-2017-2
While most journalists who have reported on this connection have done so with a sneering derision, perhaps righty so, calling these ideas “crackpot theories” and “superficial,” my Mormon spidey senses immediately started tingling when I heard that Bannon sees “time as a cycle” whereas most others (particularly non-conservatives) see “time as a progression.” The Book of Mormon famously talks about time as a cycle, a “pride cycle.” There are plenty of similarities here, even though the Book of Mormon doesn’t specify an 80 year cycle like Bannon’s favorite read does. The Book of Mormon pride cycle is deliberately vague, but posits that society goes through the following cycle over and over throughout time:
- Back to Righteousness
The problem with the pride cycle is that it is essentially preaching a “prosperity” gospel in which prosperity and wealth are God’s reward for righteous behavior, which is contradicted by scriptures and teachings of modern prophets alike, although it keeps turning up like the proverbial bad penny. Humans love nothing more than to claim they have earned their wealth & prosperity. A different interpretation states that the pride cycle is really a caution against turning our backs on the poor, that when society forgets the poor, we are ripe for a fall. That feels particularly salient, and pretty mainstream.
But a different criticism of Bannon’s favorite book also feels important to consider: that the issue with these types of theories is that they rely on determinism.
The dream of formulating a scientific theory of history, with predictive capacities, was once a common project. In the 19th century, as the field of history, like other intellectual pursuits, professionalized, many practitioners sought to put the discipline on a scientific footing by elucidating laws or grand patterns in the past—laws and patterns that might also foretell the future. From Auguste Comte and Karl Marx up through Arnold Toynbee, historians proposed assorted theories about the development of civilization. . .
To be sure, there’s nothing controversial about the basic idea that wars and other conflicts may be followed by bouts of calm, or that eras of far-reaching reform may produce backlashes or cooling-off periods. But few historians today take seriously the idea that an inner logic guides the course of history like a gyroscope. . .
One giveaway are the charts, tables, diagrams and bulleted lists that litter the book, which find a way to fit every consequential figure and event into neat patterns. If history unfolds as inevitably as this, then the study of human decision-making in the past—or even in the present—becomes all but irrelevant. . . . The Fourth Turning also, like an astrologer or fortune teller, plays fast and loose in shuttling between its big claims and specific evidence. Its contentions are vague enough that it’s easy to justify them with a handful of illustrative examples, with contrary cases simply omitted. It also mistakes symptoms for causes.https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/04/20/stephen-bannon-fourth-turning-generation-theory-215053/
Seeing the authors’ tables and charts and diagrams that shoehorn historical events of various relevance into their neat little timeline boxes reminded me of the Cleon Skousen books that were so popular in Mormon culture a few decades ago, outlining the history of the earth according to a 7000 year time model, considering each one a thousand year dispensation, and forcing all historical events into a neat box to support the books’ theories. The critique of Bannon’s favorite book seems to apply here as well:
The penchant for grand explanatory theories frequently reflects an inflexibility of thought, a resistance to contrary evidence, an eagerness to fit everything into an all-encompassing system. But successful policy making depends on intellectual nimbleness and pragmatism, on being able to revise your ideas based on new events and information, on understanding history as a set of contingent choices. The type of person enchanted by The Fourth Turning’s overly neat diagrams and mechanistic arguments, who isn’t compelled to pick apart its glib generalizations, is not someone whose intellectual instincts encourage confidence.https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/04/20/stephen-bannon-fourth-turning-generation-theory-215053/
On another level, this difference in worldview between time as a cycle and time as a progression seems to be at the core of some of our current political disconnects, and it comes up with some frequency at Church. How often have you been in a lesson in which the teacher or someone in a class brought up their assumption that the world is getting “worse and worse” and “more and more wicked,” even claiming that “things that used to be good are now bad, and things that used to be bad are now good.” Well, that, my friends, is a person who sees time as a cycle, getting worse and worse until an inevitable destruction and re-setting that will put us back on an upswing. That’s, at least on some level, a low-key determinist view in which what we individually do doesn’t really matter; time just works this way. We are caught up in a swirling eddy of forces beyond our ken.
But I don’t see time that way. How could I? I’m a woman! I don’t yearn for the 1950s when marital rape was legal. I don’t yearn for the 1970s when sexual harrassment in the workplace was more common than not, or when women couldn’t have a credit card in our own name or needed a husband’s permission to get birth control pills. It has always seemed to me that the idea of time as a cycle is the same narrative for the dying patriarchy, the idea that things are getting worse is the same as the idea that the privilege of white cishetero men is being eroded, which is basically good for everyone but white cishetero men. The world isn’t getting worse for me, for minority races, or for LGBTQ people. It’s getting better, not without backlash, but progressing little by little.
Of course, another interpretation of the pride cycle is that it’s describing a struggle for dominance, and whether it’s progress or backlash, depends on your own position in that struggle. If you are the currently powerful group, others gaining power is a threat, is a crisis, is “the world getting worse,” and if you are a marginalized group, gaining rights and a voice are evidence of improvement and progress, things getting better or less bad. Conservatives see their tenuous positions in the culture war as an attack; progressives see it a long overdue amelioration.
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.Isaac Newton (1675)
The progressive view is that you can’t really go back to the past, even if you backslide a little. We still learn from mistakes, we improve our understanding, the human condition improves, burdens are lifted through technological advancement. We stumble, but we fall forward.
The problem I have with the conservative view is a mischaracterization of progress as wickedness. Extending freedom and access to women and minorities, and allowing LGBTQ people to enjoy the same rights others take for granted can only be positives in my view. Those who consider those advancements to be evidence of evil are the ones who are creating dystopia. Seeing it as an inevitable cycle, something predicted in scripture, creates a fatalistic mindset of self-fulfilling prophecy, aggrandizement, catastrophizing, and inaction, all of which make negative societal outcomes more likely.
- Do you see time as a progression or a cycle? Why?
- Is this a left / right divide?
- Is time as a cycle a dangerous perspective or a valid caution?