Making Peace With Chaos
To my fellow members of the chattering class:
These are tough times, people, and I can see that we’ve all been knocked for a loop. Amid the shock, rage, and depression, what I’m hearing from everyone is a sense of disorientation, and fury at ourselves for our widespread failure to predict these events. We’re supposed to be savvy, well-connected, highly-educated people. Many of us are paid and validated for our deep knowledge of the system. And this time, we were blindsided. So where does this leave us? Who are we now? What is our value as seers, pundits, and wizards with special insight into reality’s hidden patterns? How do we begin to envision a plan when everything we thought we knew a week ago has been proven horribly, catastrophically wrong?
This agonizing self-doubt echoes through every e-mail thread, and down the length of my Facebook feed. I’d like to offer a different way to frame it, in the hope that it will help alleviate some of this disorientation.
As a futurist, I’ve worked with William Strauss and Neil Howe’s saecular theory of history off and on through the years. They first presented their thesis of recurring historical cycles 25 years ago; and so far, this theory has managed to predict some important things well ahead of the curve. The characters and life trajectories of the Boomers, Generation X, and the Millennials. 9/11 (which they predicted in some detail in 1997). The crash of 2008 (ditto). And this, too, is right in line with what they anticipated.
Their basic thesis is that every 80-90 years, America simply comes apart at the seams, and is forced to radically re-create itself. The failures—of the economic order, of physical infrastructure, of the political process, of foreign policy, of basic civility—mount for a decade or so. Then, apparently all at once, things hit a catastrophic acceleration point that suddenly launches us into another decade of blindingly rapid chaotic change. When we come out of it, we are never the same country. Our entire economic basis usually shifts. Almost always, our energy, communications, and transportation regimes change, too. Old institutions fail en masse, and are replaced with a suite of new ones. There’s a lot to be said about these big historical inflection points—S&H wrote several books laying it all out—but everybody, if they live a standard lifespan, gets to see this movie once. And as of this week, it appears to be our turn.
Previous crisis eras included the Glorious Revolution of the 1680s (which was centered in England, but had huge repercussions here as well); the American Revolution of the 1770s; the Civil War era; and the Depression/WWII crisis that shaped our grandparents. We were all born and raised into the world that forged in that war: Everything from the food we eat to the houses we live in to the roads we drive on to the world political order that has kept the peace are the results of the dreams and priorities our grandparents shared in the 1940s and 50s.
But the 80-year WWII cycle has now ended. The world has changed enough now that that the old system, which gave us 50 good years before beginning its slow breakdown, no longer works for any of us. We’re children of the Information Age, which is changing the entire epistemology of society away from machine metaphors and toward cybernetic ones—a shift that will require us to re-make all of our institutions, economies, and physical infrastructure to keep up. The carbon-based energy regime of that era is killing us. The Cold War balance of powers is now obviously archaic, and the relationships that once defined it are destabilizing. I could go on, but you get the point: we are entering an acute era of all-levels-all-sectors disruption, which has been a long time in the making, and which might be viewed as a seasonal, cyclic event—a historical winter, if you will.
That’s a scary thought, but it also gives us reason to hope. First: Just knowing that earlier generations of Americans have also gone through these convulsive times, going back centuries, allows us to look back at their experiences and draw lessons from the legacies they’ve left us. Many of the basic things they did to survive then will also sustain us now. Also: It’s good to know that on balance, while the losses of those previous eras were always catastrophic, we usually came out better and stronger in the end for them (though the end of the Civil War crisis resolved badly, and it took a very long time to get back on track). What we’re going through isn’t new at all: these are the birth pangs of the better world that we’ve nurtured in our hearts for 40 years. But pulling the country through these perilous times and safely to the other side of this will demand the best of us, just as it demanded the best of those who came before us. A lot of us are already intuiting this, and feel in ourselves the rising sense of determination and purpose the moment calls for.
But the more important thing, if you buy this theory, is that you need to cut yourself some slack about the failure of your predictive skills. It’s not you. It’s the fact that the entire system as we’ve always understood it—and as our parents and grandparents understood it before us—is breaking up under our very feet. None of the old rules that governed our conception of reality up until November 8 can be assumed to be operative now. Most of what we know about the past is now utterly useless. We’ve been abruptly swept through to the other side of a huge historical gate here, and are now swirling in the very first days of the next 80 years. It will be quite a while before we understand what the new rules are, and how this saeculum will operate. In the meantime, we need to make our peace with chaos, learn something about surfing change waves gracefully even when we can’t control them, and decide for ourselves (very quickly!) what principles we choose to live for—and if called upon to do so, die for.
For now, our value as intellectuals will not be in our deep understanding of a now-dead order; but in how quickly we can divine and organize around the emerging patterns that show us how things will work now and in the future. Studying past crises is useful here, but we also need to pay careful, wide-eyed, thoughtful attention to the present, and learn whatever we can about the nature of this particular shift — what’s driving it, and where it’s taking us. The future will not be forseeable for a long while. The only ones who will have any clue at all will be the ones who are most actively creating it.
Finally: Fascism has been a common ornament of these crisis eras going back to the first proto-fascisms of the 1860s. Apocalypticism has also been a handmaiden, going back many centuries. (S&H traced this cycle all the way back to the Plantagenets.) It feels like the world is dying, because it is. A lot of people may well die with it—that usually happens, too. But the worst is usually over in a decade or so, and after that things get much better quickly.
In the meantime, we are likely to make and see more history in this coming decade than at any point in our lives, before or after. And the things we do, the people we do them with, and the courage and character we bring to these efforts will define our legacies forever. We may not know squat about what’s up ahead; but we are still among our country’s best and brightest, and they’re still going to count on people like us to think the nation through the abyss. And our keen ability to know when to reach back into the past and pull up the right pattern, and when to let go of the past and figure out the new right answer on the fly are going to be critical to getting this country sorted out.