January 15, 2022

Did Santayana Have it Wrong?

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

It’s an interesting question.

Remembering the past is, of course, critical. Still, remembrance without a concurrent solid commitment to avoiding the worst circumstances of the past relegates humanity to the role of bit players in a saga that political opportunists are writing—others who are, in fact, well-schooled in the lessons of the past. For sure, George Santayana was right that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. But a compelling case can be made that there are opportunists who remember and indeed have studied the past and are determined to take advantage of human nature to deliberately foment the very chaos about which Santayana famously warned. 

Two books on the subject come to mind, “The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe and “Principles for Dealing With The Changing World Order” by the renowned fund manager Ray Dalio. The Strauss and Howe book paints a bleak picture of the inevitability of recurring chaos, almost down to the decade, which Trump Svengali, Steve Bannon, has embraced as a blueprint for the mischief in which he traffics.

The Dalio tome, a remarkably detailed recounting of vast cycles in which humanity does descend into darkness, is more nuanced and focuses more on the circumstances that presage recurring disorder. One book deals with the certainty of chaos, and the other the causes of recurring chaos. Both books focus on mankind’s penchant for predictable behavior.

Embracing the rigid formulation described in the “Fourth Turning,” Steve Bannon thought his moment had come when, in broadcasts on January 2nd, 4th, and 5th 2021, he claimed that former Vice President Mike Pence had “many alternatives” to certifying the Electoral College results on January 6. On his January 2nd show, Bannon featured Rudy Giuliani and attorney John Eastman and said that Giuliani was “working in the Senate to stop the election’s certification.”

On January 4, Bannon told listeners, “We’re hurtling towards a constitutional crisis… (that is) going to be complicated, and it’s going to be nasty.” And he predicted that Trump’s “first term is ending with action, and his second term is going to start with a bang.”

On January 5, Bannon doubled down. Listen to him, “It’s not going to happen like you think it’s going to happen, OK. It’s going to be quite extraordinarily different. And all I can say is: Strap in, War Room Posse. You have made this happen, and tomorrow, it’s game day”…chaos he warned, “was about to happen,”… “it’s about to go up, I think, five orders of magnitude tomorrow,” and he said, “We’re going to go through a couple of three very turbulent 24-hour periods.” He delighted in the chaos that did, indeed, unfold as he knew it would.

Bannon and Trump trade czar, Peter Navarro, and others close to former President Trump, if not Trump himself, believed their moment had come to dismantle a constitutional democracy that has endured for nearly two-and-a-half centuries. That was not Bannon foreseeing inevitable chaos. That was Bannon revealing the chaos he and others were inciting.

It is unarguable that there are well-documented political and economic cycles. However, what is arguable is that, as Bannon believes, there is nothing we can do about these cycles other than take advantage of them and manipulate them to achieve power.

The studies of mathematician and evolutionary biologist Dr. Peter Turchin and fund manager Ray Dalio suggest another alternative. Today we do know the causes of cyclical chaos, and understanding the causes, we have an opportunity to temper the propensities of human nature that drive disorder.

Dr. Turchin, remarkably, predicted in 2012 that the United States would suffer a “peak of instability in 2020.” Imagine that. How did Dr. Turchin know that? He adduced that likelihood the same way Ray Dalio arrives at his observations about history and human nature. Discord has causes that we now well understand. And understanding the causes, we now have it in our power to ameliorate the effects.

In his 2012 study, Dr. Turchin focused on the history of discord in America over more than two centuries. He studied approximately 1,600 incidents, including lynchings, riots, and terrorism. He and Dalio noted distinct similarities that more or less precede periods of intense discord. Invariably periods of stagnant or falling wages, wealth inequality, high debt, changes in population, and increased competition for better jobs are handmaidens to cyclical chaos.

Dr. Turchin’s work is essential as it suggests that the inevitability of cyclical chaos may not be preordained and that history need not be, as Mark Twain once quipped, “just one damn thing after another.” Even a new field of study has emerged due to the historical record Dr. Turchin has revealed. It’s called Cliodynamics, named after “Clio,” the muse of history in Greek mythology.

We no longer have to stand by as idle observers of a crumbling political and social order that Steve Bannon and others of his ilk try to bring about and reconstruct to their political advantage. We now know the causes of the cyclical chaos and stress that have repeatedly traumatized societies. We can be critical thinkers and planners rather than hapless victims manipulated by self-serving, scheming politicians.

The famous historian, Arnold Toynbee, was correct when he observed, “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.”

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

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2 responses to “Did Santayana Have it Wrong?”

  1. Chuck Anderson says:

    Very well done Hal.
    Hopefully the Jan 6th probe will reveal the depth of the conspiracy to force change to fit the co-conspirators view of the future of the United States. I hope that view never comes to pass.
    Thank for the thoughtful essay.

  2. A.D. Hopkins says:

    Welcome thoughtful commentary.

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