Does a cycle exist which points to the 2020’s? Could be.
Suppose a comet struck the earth in 1789 and yet again 59 years later and again in another 66 years and, horribly, once more in 54 years. Although we only have four hits, a clear pattern is certainly visible and, even if the cause of the regularity is completely unknown, a rational person would very reasonably fear another occurrence 54 to 66 years after the last. Scientists use cyclic evidence such as this as one of the primary bases for assessing the threat of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, major storms, ice ages, and even extinction events. Yet the idea of cycles in the social world beyond the short term business cycle is looked on with great skepticism. Who knows if our human world goes in repeatable long term cycles, but there does seem to be some interesting evidence that it has done so.
The time frames just noted are not picked at random to illustrate some theory of comet strikes, but are based on what I think are undoubtedly the most titanic events in the history of our socio-economic system since the dawn of what can be called industrial capitalism. Each of these events was so large, it seriously threatened the very survival of the system and, remarkably, they have appeared at regular intervals. They are:
|1789||French Revolution / Industrial Revolution|
|59||1848||Europe wide revolutionary overthrow|
|66||1914||Beginning of WW1, depression, WW2|
|54||1968||Height of 1960’s revolt against the system|
If we accept that these years were like comet hits in their importance within the history of the socio-economic system of industrial capitalism, then we have a reasonable basis to forecast another high risk event within 54 to 66 years of 1968; that is, between 2022 and 2034.
Let’s examine these events a bit closer. The 1780’s are a clear historical starting point as the decade saw both the take off of the Industrial Revolution and closed with the “comet hit” of the French Revolution. It’s quite extraordinary that the birth of industrial capitalism was contemporaneous with a revolution that led to what historian Eric Hobsbahm called “The First People’s Republic” – that being the Jacobin Republic of the Year II in 1792. 1789 is an obvious date and it opened a 25 year period of extended war in Europe that lasted until 1814. The United States was also at war between 1812 and 1814. France and the French Revolution, with the famous motto ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, are widely seen to this very day as the key inspiration for populist revolt against undemocratic power.
If we consider capitalism as a system of power and domination, then we can reasonably hypothesize that volcanic-like pressures will continuously be brewing from both below and from its own competitive dynamics. History indicates that these pressures tend to explode in a cyclical manner which we see first demonstrated in the great outburst occurring 59 years after the French Revolution in 1848. The Revolution of 1848 was a cataclysmic explosion, the first revolution in modern European history and the widest. Its leaders were socialists and communists and the key document was Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The revolution began in France (where else?) and spread to southwest Germany, Berlin, Vienna, Hungary, and Italy. Within weeks, most governments in Europe were overthrown. According to Hobsbawm, all the revolutions possessed a common mood, a romantic utopian atmosphere, a “springtime of the people”.
Sadly, it failed rapidly as conservatives were elected to the French parliament by an inexperienced peasantry and the military everywhere else regrouped, overthrew the revolutionaries, and put the old regimes back in power. The decades following the unsuccessful revolution represented a triumph of the global liberal capitalist creed, a world very different than would likely have existed had the revolution not been overturned.
Just 66 years later, we have World War I followed by the Russian Revolution and 30 years of war, chaos, and depression. This entire period should reasonably be taken as one extended event. Then, 54 years after 1914, we have the outbreak and instability of the 1960s and 1970s, using 1968 as the date. Unlike the past events in the cycle, it’s hard to identify just one instigating event, but 1968 seems a reasonable choice. In the sixties we find the height of the protest movements in the United States, France, Europe, and elsewhere. The May 1968 uprising in Paris appeared close to overthrowing the conservative de Gaulle government and clearly drew inspiration from the French Revolution. The decade was marked by dramatic attacks on the status quo, including the Civil Rights movement, Woodstock, the broad countercultural movement and so on. The era saw top popular leaders in the US – John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King – assassinated. The Cultural Revolution in China began in 1966. There can be no doubt that the top capitalists and rulers during this time were correct to greatly fear this tremendous “excess of democracy” and the neolliberalism which followed should be seen as the conservative reaction to this outpouring from below.
That brings us to today, 45 years from 1968. All of us can feel the forces of change and revolution in the air. Tensions are clearly rising as is a populist rhetoric unheard since the 1970’s. We see it in the Middle East, Spain, Greece, and elsewhere in Europe, in the United States with the Occupy movement, in Latin America with the rise of a more aggressive left and their rejection of the Washington Consensus, and so on. The capitalist system is widely seen as unsustainable. There are also dangerous geopolitical tensions, especially between the US and China. We don’t know exactly where and when a final spark will ignite the flames into something much larger but, if our cycle continues, it would be sometime in the next nine to 21 years.
We should note that the cycle length described here is quite close to what’s known as the Kondratiev cycle or wave which is about 50 years. The Kondratiev is based on price or growth rates but they can be matched fairly closely to the key dates described in this post as can be seen here.
That’s it on cycles for now. Do I think we’re headed for a great event in the 2020’s? Yes. Let’s hope it’s relatively peaceful like the 60’s and that we’re finally successful in overturning the couple century rule of the industrial capitalist system.