I have come to the conclusion that there is a major conflict looming for western democracies; it will likely devolve into world war. It could come in a matter of days or weeks; or perhaps, if we are lucky, growing awareness of the path we are on could forestall it. Regardless, the consequences are significant and it will affect everyone.
This will be disturbing to read and you may be tempted to discard it; I encourage you to give it a chance.
Since the end of World War II, the west has settled into an ossified and brittle peace. The conventional wisdom is that a mix of democracy, technology, trade, tolerance, capitalism, a social safety net, and open borders are a sure-fire recipe for sustained economic growth and continuous improvement of society.
In broad measures, this has been true: the world is safer, and the number of people living in poverty keeps dropping. We have managed to build a world that is more connected and open than ever before, and arguably civilization has achieved a peak that could only have been dreamed of 100 or 150 years ago.
But there are serious problems that have festered, mostly unchecked:
1. Crony capitalism has created enormous wealth for a few, but at the expense of many. Using asymmetric information, capitalism has been rendered “risk free” for the well connected: privatizing upside gains while socializing downside risk.
2. Inequality is a major problem. We have built structural racism and white supremacy into our institutions. Instead of slavery or Jim Crow, we now enslave people through economics. Whether you want to cite high price cell phones targeted at the underbanked, or bail bonds, or the unfair lending practices, many black, brown and other minorities are unfairly targeted by an unlevel playing field, day after day.
3. Our politics has become arrogant, ossified, and stale. The fact that we just conducted a presidential election with a few dozen dull primary contenders, and finished it up with a battle between three relics from the culture wars gives a good sense that we have run out of new blood. Our parties are in disarray, and really, don’t know what they are actually about anymore.
So onto this stage of general progress, but diminished, weakened political culture walks Stephen Bannon.
Bannon’s background is well documented. But the most important thing to know about Bannon is his penchant for drama — and his obsession with the book “The Fourth Turning.”
Written in 1997 by the historians Strauss and Howe, it aims to describe the cyclical nature of generational history. They posit that there are “turns” of roughly 20 years that define all of modern human history. They have studied it in detail, and their observations largely ring true.
Whether or not you believe their theory, it is important to know that Bannon does. And he seems to be taking it as a kind of literal gospel, enacting its prognostications with Biblical zeal.
He appears to believe that he is a historical figure charged to take on the task of provoking the “Fourth Turning” that the book predicts — but which largely has not taken place, though arguably some early signs are present.
But Bannon has asserted that the Fourth Turning has begun. And, in this, Bannon is perhaps quantitatively right: Western democracies have been signaling that something is very wrong, with about 50% of voters selecting candidates and platforms platforms that represent a sharp break from our incremental, progressive past.
But here’s the thing: Strauss and Howe suggest that this “Crisis” phase of the Fourth Turning will almost certainly result in authoritarian, absolutist rule — as the outcome of a total, decisive war. They suggest that minorities will be targeted and demonized. And that dissent will not be tolerated.
That may be an observation one can make about generational cycles in the past, but it is in on the wrong side of modern history and the enlightenment, whose arc does bend toward justice.
So it would seem that Bannon, who is a provocateur, a showman, a horrible white nationalist, and an all around Rasputin-like figure, is using the book as a kind of historical “excuse” to pursue his agenda: “it will happen anyway,” he might argue. He’s just here to provoke the inevitable.
And in one thing he is right: our brittle, ossified Western democracies are due for a reset and a good kick in the pants. We need to get serious about fixing the serious structural flaws that people very rightly are concerned about. We need to plan for what a world without work might look like.
And fixing this could even be violent, depending on what forces are unleashed.
But no matter what, this entry can never be an excuse for Steve Bannon (along with his backers, Robert and Rebekah Mercer) to pursue a white nationalist and authoritarian agenda for the world’s most powerful democracy.
With each passing day, he is enacting measures that aggravate (a term used in Fourth Turning) society’s fault lines and push it closer to the brink of collapse. Installing members of his network (DeVos) in cabinet posts; the travel ban (affecting at least 100,000 people in its first days); giving banks more leverage by undoing Dodd-Frank; we could go on and on, and we’re only two weeks in.
His intentions are not what they seem on the surface; his true intention is to push a fragile, interconnected, and complex society to actually collapse — so that it can be rebuilt in *his* image. I ask simply: is this what you want? Did you vote for this? Did anyone vote for *this*?
So now, the challenge: there are three options.
1) either the forces of conflict are already unleashed, and we will fall into a brutal nonlinear war where Bannon’s darkest fantasies are fulfilled, or
2) the forces of conflict are already unleashed, and we take responsibility for the failings of democracy, and fight to preserve our values of openness, tolerance, and free speech, even in the face of brutal conflict, or
3) we have not yet hit the point of no return, and can still use our institutions to flush out the threat that Bannon poses, while seriously addressing the vulnerability he aimed to exploit.
There is no workable alternative. We each must choose whether we will protect the values this country was founded on, and we must do so now.