The coming general social crisis of the twenty first century

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.

Oswald Spengler, author of an interminable book on the similarities of civilisations to plants. The only sentence not in the book was: “I shall write a book in strictly Germanic intellectual terms in order to torture that guy Wright in about 70 years, ha ha ha ha.”

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.

“Impious Spengler, I scoff by your ‘plant’ book, that trunk of vile humours, and reveal my sonnets. NOW we shall see what Wright regards as torture.” William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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

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12 thoughts on “The coming general social crisis of the twenty first century

  1. I had been thinking along these lines recently, not in quite so much detail, but same thought. Your historical references will obviously have me thinking about again.

  2. It seems our sense of judgment hasn’t developed as quickly as our inventiveness. And I commend your mention of overpopulation, which seems to be an unpopular topic these days; it has somehow been interpreted as derogatory toward the developing world.

    1. One of the reasons why the issue of over population is such a contentious one is the link between many of those (in authority) who voice concern and authoritarian solutions. To take an obvious example the 1 child policy in the People’s Republic of China (now abandoned) was a response to concerns regarding overpopulation. The policy led to forced abortions and an imbalance between the sexes with many families prefering (for cultural reasons) to abort female foetuses. Again the sterilisation programme in India (now abandoned) caused many problems. There is much evidence that as countries become wealthier that people have less children. This is, in large part due to the fact that many developing countries have no (or very little) social welfare which means that parents rely on large families to support them in old age. In the West the norm is, as I understand it 2 children, however countries such as Japan are 9(as I understand it) experiencing a fall in the birth rate which, coupled with an ageing population is placing strain on existing resources.

      1. True; nothing is as simple as we would like it to be. There’s also the matter that an individual in the developed world consumes far more resources than one in the developing world. Overall, though, human beings collectively are using up too much of the earth. And it doesn’t help that we can’t get along. One hopeful sign might be that developing countries are adopting “clean” technologies to a certain extent.

    2. The population issue is part of the issue, whichever way it’s looked at – there are signs that it will resolve itself in terms of falling birth-rates, but behind that remains the fact that human nature hasn’t changed, and the techniques used to allow hunter-gatherer bands to survive 50,000 years ago in the face of severe adverse conditions simply fail when we have industrialised everything, and we live in communities of a scale far in excess of anything possible for much of our history.

  3. What about the effect of “aristocracy” (I would urge a VERY loose definition of the term) who attempt to drain money their way? Look at it this way: a very small group of people with enough power and influence can drain resources in their direction, in a sufficiently disproportionate fashion such that they effectively function as parasites who destroy the “body politic.”

    Just a thought.

    1. It’s another common factor of the sorts of societies humans seem to develop – a small group manage, somehow, to siphon off the products of a larger group and aggrandise it to themselves. Whether built in to the social structures (as in the classic ‘aristocracy’) or via economic systems in which a few gather all the resources, the result is the same. I can’t help thinking that here again is an example of basic human nature in action – it worked OK for communities of (say) 150 where often there were social re-distribution mechanisms – but not once that had been expanded out in scale.

  4. I am concerned with the obsession (particularly amongst the young but not exclusively so) with technology. Teenagers not wanting to be separated from their mobiles and falling asleep while using them springs to mind as being an obvious instance of the obsession. Mobiles, computers are wonderful tools. We are however in danger of allowing the servant (technology) to become the master. Marxism was the god that failed so if there is rapid social change I can’t see it being in the direction of Communism. Capitalism (for all its faults) brings greater prosperity and there is, I believe a link between capitalism and freedom (well distributed private property leads to stability and social order as those who have something to lose are unlikely to riot or engage in revolutionary activity).

  5. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to WriterBeat.com? There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and thought this was insightf6ul. I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. If “OK” please let me know via email.

    Autumn
    AutumnCote@WriterBeat.com

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