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contributor perspectives

Sep 13, 2017 | 11:37 GMT

Chronopolitics: Long Wave Theory Comes Up Short

Board of Contributors
Jay Ogilvy
Board of Contributors
Comparing geopolitics and chronopolitics.
(Ideas_Studio/iStock)
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

My last column examined Steve Bannon's embrace of a cyclical theory of history. An apocalypse is nigh, according to the theory amateur historians William Strauss and Neil Howe put forth in their books Generations (1991) and The Fourth Turning (1997), because history is "seasonal" and we're headed into "winter." Three days after the column ran, Bannon was out of the White House. But cyclical theories of history remain, sort of. If the point of my last column was to raise concerns about Bannon's embrace of Strauss and Howe, regardless of whether they are right about history, the point of this one is to ask whether Strauss and Howe are right about history — regardless of whether Bannon is calling the shots in the White House.

So how seriously should we take cyclical theories? Going beyond Strauss and Howe's particular interpretation of history, how much credence should we lend more generally to the view that history moves repetitively, in long waves or cycles? As several theorists have observed while leaping through a double loop, cyclical thinking itself runs in cycles. And except for Strauss and Howe and a few others I'll mention, cyclical theory is in a bit of a trough these days. (Who reads Arnold J. Toynbee anymore?)

A low ebb for cyclical theories may stem in part from an academic preference for narrow specialization over windy big think. But we at Stratfor cannot afford the comfortable security of specialization. The entire globe is our beat, and cyclical interpretations of history deserve our attention if only because "chronopolitics," as one of its theorists dubs it, may have important things to say about geopolitics.

Looking for Patterns in Time

Geopolitics acknowledges the importance of large patterns in space — oceans, landmasses, mountain ranges, distances and contiguities. Chronopolitics asks whether historical time has its own large patterns to which we should also attend. 

Modernity's quick answer is a resounding "no." Cyclical time is for pre-modern, traditional societies where things really didn't change much from generation to generation. One of the defining features of modernity, on the other hand, is precisely its linear, progressive view of historical time. To put the idea in platitudinous terms, every day in every way we're supposed to be getting better and better — or as the advertisers would have it, we're destined for "Better living through chemistry." The modernist not only hopes but deeply believes that her granddaughter will be better off than her daughter, who will be better off than she. Of course, setbacks and tragedies occur along the way. Even taking one step back for every two steps forward, though, humanity's path on the wide horizon of historical time is linear and upward, not cyclic.  

So it comes as some surprise to see Strauss and Howe reaching back past Toynbee to Plato and Polybius to support their cyclical theory. And they are not alone among moderns; a small band of cyclical enthusiasts share their view. Strauss and Howe's notes lead in particular to an anthology, Exploring Long Cycles, published in 1987. Its editor, George Modelski, presents sea power as the most appropriate measure of global reach and then maps modern history according to what he calls "The Long Cycle, 1494-1993."

George Modelski presents sea power as the most appropriate measure of global reach.

Modelski's dates are not that far off Strauss and Howe's. He, too, divides each cycle into four phases, though he names and understands them somewhat differently. He, too, sees global wars as culminations from which new orders arise. He, too, considers the turning of generations and the length of a human life to be the mechanisms at the heart of history.

But maybe these mechanisms are bugs, not features. And maybe these cyclical theories are too mechanistic. Two of Modelski's other authors, Arthur Iberall and David Wilkinson, aspire to "a social physics." Modelski is more modest in his aspirations yet equally committed to some form of periodicity in history:

"We need not necessarily accept their position that these processes are best understood through a 'social physics' paradigm before gaining an appreciation of the omnipresence of time-patterning in the natural world and of the possibility that the long cycle might be one of these patterns."

Still, this appreciation for "the omnipresence of time-patterning in the natural world" begs the question whether there is a fundamental distinction between "the natural world" of physics and chemistry and the artificial world created by purposive action. Rather than looking for some cosmic gyre on which humanity is spinning willy-nilly, rather than trying to calibrate its precise revolutions per millennium like some machine, perhaps a better way to think of these long waves is less mechanistically and more strategically.

That is how our own Philip Bobbitt conceives of the various eras since the 15th century that he delineates. He, too, believes the treaties that follow great wars constitute new orders. Bobbitt, however, sees no social physics in these turnings and therefore fusses very little over the length of different constitutional regimes. It is the logic of warfare, treaty-making and reconstituting the state's legitimacy that drive the system, not some "natural" linkage to the revolution of the earth around the sun.

To their credit, Modelski and the various authors in his anthology give much more attention to the human strategies than to the "mechanics" of the long wave. And to their credit, they think systemically. As Modelski writes, "each and every subsystem of the world system affects every other subsystem." But Modelski and his co-authors seem to imagine the linkages among all these subsystems to be a little tighter, a little more rigid and a little more deterministic than are the connections Bobbitt sees between warfare, strategy and constitutional orders over time. Yes, there is a sequence, but it is not natural, and it doesn't run like clockwork.

A Scenario for 2016

The ultimate test of a long wave theory, of course, has to be: Does it make predictions that then come true? As luck would have it, Modelski concludes his 1987 anthology with a chapter titled, "A Global Politics Scenario for the Year 2016." But that's about where his luck runs out. Modelski's scenario bears little resemblance to what we've witnessed over the past two decades. He misses the breakup of the Soviet Union, for instance, and instead projects a continuation of the bipolar relationship that ruled global affairs throughout the Cold War. He pretty much misses the rise of China. And similarly, he mentions nothing about Islam or terrorism.

Modelski does devote significant attention to the subjects of global integration and global war, largely because they are features of his model, but he doesn't offer much insight into them. Another world war, if nuclear, is unthinkable. Because global war no longer works as a means for global decision-making, some sort of global integration that will preclude war is necessary. But we will need "political innovation" to come up with that new form of integration. "The prospects for a new decision mechanism," Modelski says, "must already be visible by 2016" or else "pressures for a return to the traditional, and more primitive, methods of the past might well become irresistible." Not very helpful.

Modelski gets better marks for picking "information, telecommunications, [and] bioengineering," as fields of innovation that will propel the world in 2016. He also sees the imminence of the shift in the global center of gravity to the "Pacific Rim." But these were both pretty easy trends to spot in 1987, and in describing the shift, he misses the mark:

"Its major impact is felt on the west coast because of the rising wealth of Japan, the rapid growth of the newly industrializing countries of Asia and Hong Kong, the Soviet Union's drive to their east and, last but hardly least, the tantalizing potential of China [to incorporate Hong Kong by 1997]."

Making accurate predictions is hard — especially, as Yogi Berra says, about the future. Nevertheless, Modelski's scenario for 2016 does not reflect well on long wave theory, at least not on the mechanistic kind of long wave theory that he subscribes to.

Do long waves exist? Considering the rough coincidences among Modelski's Long Cycle, Bobbitt's eras of different constitutional orders, and Strauss and Howe's "seasons" of saecular history, it's tempting to say yes. But are the dynamics of those waves well enough understood to yield useful predictions? The jury is still out on that question.

Jay Ogilvy joined Stratfor's board of contributors in January 2015. In 1979, he left a post as a professor of philosophy at Yale to join SRI, the former Stanford Research Institute, as director of research. Dr. Ogilvy co-founded the Global Business Network of scenario planners in 1987. He is the former dean and chief academic officer of San Francisco’s Presidio Graduate School. Dr. Ogilvy has published nine books, including Many Dimensional Man, Creating Better Futures and Living Without a Goal.
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