I can’t help thinking that the western world (at least) is approaching a general social crisis. Perhaps even rolling to the end of one of its grand historical cycles.
When I say ‘social crisis’, I don’t mean anything pre-destined or inevitable. Nor are grand historical cycles automatic. The way I see it is this. Societies are subject to a myriad of different pressures; socio-cultural, philosophical, political, military, technological, resource-limits, even the vagaries of events or major disasters. All apply in different ways at different times and places. Past attempts to identify ‘cycles’ and apply a pattern across the way societies have risen and fallen through history have often come up with answers. Just as often, it’s been shown to be a false match.
One of the more outrageous was Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), who imagined that cultures went through automatic stages of growth, flourishing and decay: spring, summer, autumn and winter – just like a plant – to which he associated specific behaviours and mind-sets. To him these stages were inevitable to all civilisations, and he wrote a monstrous and impenetrable book to prove it, which I made the mistake of selecting, a few decades ago, as my topic for a post-grad dissertation on the philosophy of history. The false-match was, of course, as grand as his concepts. But humans are good at seeing patterns where there are none – it’s part of the human condition and we are hard-wired into it.
The most persistent false-premise cycle was the idea of the Roman Empire suffering a ‘decline and fall’. This was a creation of Edward Gibbon, back in the eighteenth century – he applied prevailing liberal-progressive thinking and the concept of the nation state as an organising principle, and came up with a picture of the Roman Empire collapsing into ruin at the hands of invading barbarians.
This western-centric view ignored the fact that in the west, the idea of Rome as an entity continued under the framework of the church, and politically in aspiration, for several centuries – Charlemagne was actually crowned Emperor in Rome on the back of his conquests, and of course the German states were loosely formed and held together under the title ‘Holy Roman Empire’ for centuries. Meanwhile the eastern half of the Empire, as a political continuity, survived well into the medieval period – until 1456, specifically (by which time it was essentially a city-state). But it had changed, culturally, into something that wasn’t classical Roman.
What I’m getting at here isn’t the debate over what happened back then, but the way we variously see it. Historical cycles in this sense are often just a projection of our own thinking – framed, inevitably, by our own time. But that isn’t to deny the fact that change happens – and sometimes, there’s a concatenation of events that provokes quite significant change, in which one ‘normal’ comes to an end and is replaced – eventually – by another.
That was what happened in western Europe from the seventeenth century as the ‘Little Ice Age’ bit, slashing food production and intensifying existing political and human issues on the back of hunger and shortages. It also happened in the mid-late eighteenth century, in the west, when the early modern world was replaced by a structurally modern one. The birth pangs echoed through the nineteenth century and led to the fall of the ‘old order’ at the end of the First World War.
So why do I think that we’re approaching another crunch point? Because while there aren’t pre-determined cycles or ‘rules’ that guide history, there is one common factor – us. The human condition doesn’t change, and it’s this that keeps being repeated, creating eerie similarities between the ways societies across time behave.
Let me put it this way, Shakespeare nailed the essence of it in his characters – which is one of the reasons why they still resonate today, 500 years on.
What worries me is the whole edifice of our civilisation is fragile. Much depends on inter-relationships that are purely conceptual and thus expressions of that human condition. To this we have to add the pressure that rising world populations are placing on the environment, including adding human-driven climate change to natural climate cycles. History shows that societies tend to change dramatically when an idea-system has been stretched to its limit, socially and politically – and then gets poked, sometimes by an external natural crisis, sometimes by constraints on resources that intensify the social pressures. The specifics are always different, of course, but the underlying human mind-set responds in the same way.
I can’t help thinking that the world is approaching one of those social crunch points. Thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017