March 26, 2017 | Rome, Italy | Partly cloudy 16°C

Historical cycles

Understanding the world now means tracking its progress over centuries, not decades.
By Vittorio Jucker
Published: 2017-03-25

oes history repeat itself? Steve Bannon, White House "intellectual-in-residence" and Trump Administration chief strategist, strongly believes it does. Bannon takes his cue from historians William Strauss and Neil Howe, who in 1997 published "The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy — What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny."

Fervent nationalist Bannon is convinced the U.S. has reached the so-called "Fourth Turning," billed by the authors as the arrival of full-scale economic, political and institutional upheaval. Countering the groundswell, they wrote, would require strong leadership, civic revival and a redrawn sense of collective purpose. To Bannon, "America First" Trump embodies just that purpose and his specific cultural-political mission is to confront the threats posed by Islamic extremism and Chinese expansionism.

The books names previous "Turning Points" as he American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II. The "crisis" stage is perceived as the most dangerous one because it ushers in institutional decay. For Bannon and his ilk, Armageddon is a real prospect unless the U.S. rallies around the new nationalism and its heroic values.

Steve Bannon: deeply influenced by "The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy."

This apocalyptic and Manichean vision is a "Dr. Strangelove" take on the world that strongly resembles the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, also fueled by a passionately extremist view of social and political life.

For centuries, historians, social scientists and economists have attempted to find patterns in historical development. These efforts began in the 16th-century with Italians Niccolς Machiavelli and Gianbattista Vico, both of whom saw history as a cyclical phenomenon. Philosophers Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx instead viewed history in a linear, progressive way. Hegel saw history as a process leading to the creation of a functional modern state (with the Prussian kingdom as the acme of that process). Marx claimed history was based on class struggle and went through stages. Later, German thinker Max Weber claimed history was the queen of all sciences, but only if it incorporated all social sciences, including economics, economic history, demography and sociology, which he helped found.

These theories were further developed by historians of civilization, such as Arnold Toynbee, who argued that the Egyptian, Chinese, Persian and Roman civilizations grew and declined but were interconnected and fed on each other. By studying systems that lasted millennia Toynbee left traces that others could (and eventually would) use. Other historical schools developed from the 1930s onward, such as the French Annales School, founded by Lucien Febvre and Ferdinand Braudel, and later taken up in the U.S. by sociologists Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi in collaboration with intellectual historian Perry Anderson. Their immensely influential work combined structures with events. They explained otherwise inexplicable historical twists by factoring in climate, physical realities, demography, class structures, trade, and income.

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