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Human cycles: History as science

Laura Spinney, Nature
Sometimes, history really does seem to repeat itself. After the US Civil War, for example, a wave of urban violence fuelled by ethnic and class resentment swept across the country, peaking in about 1870. Internal strife spiked again in around 1920, when race riots, workers’ strikes and a surge of anti-Communist feeling led many people to think that revolution was imminent. And in around 1970, unrest crested once more, with violent student demonstrations, political assassinations, riots and terrorism (see ‘Cycles of violence’).

To Peter Turchin, who studies population dynamics at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the appearance of three peaks of political instability at roughly 50-year intervals is not a coincidence. For the past 15 years, Turchin has been taking the mathematical techniques that once allowed him to track predator–prey cycles in forest ecosystems, and applying them to human history. He has analysed historical records on economic activity, demographic trends and outbursts of violence in the United States, and has come to the conclusion that a new wave of internal strife is already on its way1. The peak should occur in about 2020, he says, and will probably be at least as high as the one in around 1970. “I hope it won’t be as bad as 1870,” he adds.

Turchin’s approach — which he calls cliodynamics after Clio, the ancient Greek muse of history — is part of a groundswell of efforts to apply scientific methods to history by identifying and modelling the broad social forces that Turchin and his colleagues say shape all human societies. It is an attempt to show that “history is not ‘just one damn thing after another’”, says Turchin, paraphrasing a saying often attributed to the late British historian Arnold Toynbee.

Cliodynamics is viewed with deep scepticism by most academic historians, who tend to see history as a complex stew of chance, individual foibles and one-of-a-kind situations that no broad-brush ‘science of history’ will ever capture. “After a century of grand theory, from Marxism and social Darwinism to structuralism and postmodernism, most historians have abandoned the belief in general laws,” said Robert Darnton, a cultural historian at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a column written in 1999.

Most think that phenomena such as political instability should be understood by constructing detailed narratives of what actually happened — always looking for patterns and regularities, but never forgetting that each outbreak emerged from a particular time and place. “We’re doing what can be done, as opposed to aspiring after what can’t,” says Daniel Szechi, who studies early-modern history at the University of Manchester, UK. “We’re just too ignorant” to identify meaningful cycles, he adds…
(18 July 2012)

Suggested by EB contributor Michael Lardelli, who says:

This is a very interesting article just out in Nature about researchers looking at cycles in human history. Note that population increase and inequality appear to be central to the cycles.

One might expect the disruption in 2020 to be amplified or even brought forward a little by the severe stress that will be placed on society by declining oil supplies. On the other hand, 50 years after that would be 2070 by which time fossil fuel use will be very low and the world will be a very different place.

Olympic Britishness and the crisis of identity

Aaron Peters, OpenDemocracy
As Team GB entered the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony on Friday night, it was to David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. The central line from the song struck me as summing up the country’s hopes for its sportswomen and men amid a double-dip recession and seemingly terminal economic inertia – ‘We can be heroes, just for one day’. A concession in the choice of song perhaps that the Olympics represent a temporary, if somewhat spectacular, distraction from an increasingly dire reality that can only intensify over the forthcoming years.

Something of a debate has broken out about the meaning of this extraordinary ceremony, not least here on OurKingdom with Anthony Barnett and Sunder Katwala. The New York Times called it “…neither a nostalgic sweep through the past nor a bold vision of a brave new future”. This struck me as an accurate summation of an event that presented in microcosm the present historical moment in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008 and the social and economic malaise that has followed. I was reminded of the quote by Antonio Gramsci on crisis in its consisting “…precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born”. It is similar sentiments that informed the mixed nature of London’s opening ceremony, which looked neither wholly forward nor back…

That is not to say that Boyle’s efforts were without deeper meaning or any sustained attempt at social and historical critique. In particular, the first section of the opening ceremony offered a reflective and frequently epic expression of the Industrial Revolution.

At the outset of this first movement, the audience is offered a glimpse of ‘Merrie England’, a pre-industrial idyll resplendent with maypoles and games. Amid these scenes we hear four songs representing the formation of the British state, whose constituent nations have their hymns consecutively sung. This begins with a lone child singing William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, presumably to represent agrarian England. This is followed by ‘Danny Boy’ representing Ulster and what remains of the British conquest in Ireland; next, ‘Flower of Scotland’ and the Welsh song ‘Bread of Heaven’ (sung in English). These songs represent the political constitution of Britain – the conquest of Wales, the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707, and finally union with Ireland in 1801. Shortly thereafter, ‘Jerusalem’ resumes once more, now sung in unison by a choir – representing both the culmination of the political project of state formation, and a sense of foreboding as the ‘satanic mills’ of industrialisation appear on the horizon of history…

…Work under capitalism in general, and in particular within industrial society, is alienating – which is to say one rarely understands what one is actually doing. A good example of this can be found in the film ‘The Working Class Goes to Heaven’, when the protagonist and piece-work operator, Lulu, becomes enraged at realising he doesn’t even know what the components he produces every day are for. This is a more accurate depiction of the relationship of the worker to their work than the rhythmic and satisfying encomium that Boyle offers.

Boyle seems to think of industrial production and the ‘society of work’ as offering the possibility of producing things of ethical and spiritual significance and perhaps even of redemption. The rings do, after all, hang over the heads of both classes, the workers and the bourgeoisie, as if they were some transcendent god or spiritual ideal. Here is a higher value which they have created through work and which now stands above them. Historically, it could perhaps represent socialism, an ethical ideal formed from class solidarity. Or perhaps the idea (misplaced, in my view) of collective contribution to a purported national interest or human progress. Whatever it is, the collective labours of these men and women seem to attain spiritual significance. Boyle’s elision of suffering and alienation is a kind of post-industrial erasure of the historical experience of industrial society.

For the most part, all that work represents within industrial production is that the living human subject is rendered subordinate to the commodity object. Marx calls this the ‘ontological inversion’, where humans are reduced to the ‘object’ of commodity labour while the things they produce for exchange are imbued with the metaphysics of life and ‘subjecthood’. While there are some jobs that permit a sense of craftsmanship or achievement, such as the construction of the ‘majestic’ fixed capital of bridges, boats and buildings, the reality of work under industrial capitalism is mostly more akin to those workers of Guangdong in China who are manufacturing the Wenlock and Mandeville toys for the Olympic Games. These workers were forced to work as much as 120 hours a month overtime in the run up to the Games, while being paid as little as 26p an hour for working an 11-and-a-half hour day. Such work is not noble, honourable or creative. It is dull, repetitive and banal – as this Luddite poem from 1812 makes perfectly clear. The same reality of work, although by now of differing degree to that in South and East Asia, remains true almost two centuries later in the UK as is clear for those cleaners housed in temporary ‘slums’ on the periphery of the Olympic Park…
(18 July 2012)

The new environmentalism: where men must act ‘as gods’ to save the planet

The Guardian, Paul Kingsnorth
A society that takes progress as its religion does not look kindly on despair. If you are expected to believe everything will keep getting better, it can be difficult to admit to believing otherwise. This is doubly true for political activists. If you’ve devoted your life to fighting for a cause, you will probably feel duty bound to continue supporting it, at least in public, however hopeless it may begin to look.

Hope is certainly in short supply in environmental circles these days. With the failure of yet another global summit to “protect the planet” – this time the Rio+20 Earth summit – a tipping point seems to have been reached. Green activism has achieved a lot in five decades, but it has been unable to prevent the global industrial machine from continuing to destroy wild nature and replace it with human culture. There is no prospect of this changing in the near future, and we are reaching the point now when many prominent greens, having denied this reality for so long, are beginning to admit this in public.

So: what next? One increasingly fashionable answer is offered by a coalescing group which we might call “neo-environmentalists”. The resemblance between this group and the neoliberals of the early 70s is intriguing. Like the neoliberals, the neo-environmentalists are attempting to break through the lines of an old orthodoxy which is visibly exhausted and confused. Like the neoliberals, they speak the language of money and power. Like the neoliberals, they cluster around a few key thinktanks: then, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Cato Institute and the Adam Smith Institute; now, the Breakthrough Institute, the Long Now Foundation and the Copenhagen Consensus. Like the neoliberals, they think they have radical solutions.

Neo-environmentalism is a progressive, business-friendly, postmodern take on the environmental dilemma. It dismisses traditional green thinking, with its emphasis on limits and transforming societal values, as naive. New technologies, global capitalism and western-style development are not the problem but the solution. The future lies in enthusiastically embracing biotechnology, synthetic biology, nuclear power, nanotechnology, geo-engineering and anything else new and complex that annoys Greenpeace.

According to the neogreens, growth has no limits. We are, in the words of their spiritual leader, Stewart Brand, “as gods”, and must accept our responsibility to manage the planet rationally through powerful technologies guided by science. Wilderness does not exist, “nature” is a human construct, and everything that matters can be measured by science and priced by markets.. Only “romantics” think otherwise…
(1 August 2012)

Gore Vidal and the Unfinished American Revolution

John Nichols, The Nation
Gore Vidal loved America in the way the best of the founders did.

Indeed, he seemed at times, to be the last of their number—a fierce defender of the purest, most revolutionary of ideals at a time when the contemporary political class prattled on about constitutional principles they neither understood nor valued. (At the bicentennial, in 1976, Time magazine featured a cover with Vidal in historic garb, an honor that delighted him sufficiently to earn a place for the cover on the wall of his Italian villa.)

Vidal, who has died at age 86, was a great man of letters: an author (Julian, Burr, Lincoln, The City and the Pillar), playwright (“The Best Man”) and National Book Award–winning essayist (United States Essays, 1952–1992) on the literature of his native land and the world. To this he added status as a life-long challenger of the Puritanism that he regarded as the ugliest of American tendencies.

But I knew Gore as a political champion, who ran inspired campaigns for Congress, who demanded that presidents of both parties be held to account for high crimes and misdemeanors, who maintained a faith in democracy so deep and abiding that he called for a new constitutional convention to set right what was done wrong at Philadelphia and to realize the Jeffersonian requirement of revolutionary renewal. He was, as well, a scorching debater on topics political, as William F. Buckley learned to his chagrin in 1968.

Like most of Gore’s friends, I came to know him first on the page.

His epic 1972 essay “Homage to Daniel Shays”—written as voters in “the land of the tin ear” prepared to re-elect Richard Nixon, in confirmation of Gore’s observation that: “At any given moment, public opinion is a chaos of superstition, misinformation, and prejudice”—remains the greatest contemporary statement of American Revolutionary principles.

This was where our relationship began. I loved Gore immediately, for his dangerous wit, for his savage style, for his truth telling. “Policy formation is the province of a bipartisan power elite of corporate rich [Rockefeller, Mellon] and their career hirelings [Nixon, McNamara] who work through an interlocking and overlapping maze of foundations, universities and institutes, discussion groups, associations and commissions,” he observed. “Political parties are only for finding interesting and genial people [usually ambitious middle-class lawyers] to ratify and implement these policies in such a way that the under classes feel themselves to be, somehow, a part of the governmental process. Politics is not exactly the heart of the action but it is nice work—if you can afford to campaign for it.”…
(1 August 2012)
related: One of Gore’s articles from 2003.