Is humanity forming en-masse? for lo, tyrants tremble, crowns grow dim,
The earth, restive, confronts a new era, perhaps a general divine war,
No one knows what will happen next, such portents fill the days and
Years prophetical! the space ahead as I walk, as I vainly try to
pierce it, is full of phantoms,
Unborn deeds, things soon to be, project their shapes around me,
This incredible rush and heat, this strange ecstatic fever of dreams
O years! – Years of the Modern- Walt Whitman
The great American poet Walt Whitman wrote these words in 1859. Whitman was trying to peer into a future of uncertainty. He was sure the future would be bleak. He had visions of phantoms. Maybe he saw the 600,000 souls who would lose their lives in the next six years. Whitman had captured the mood of a country entering the Fourth Turning. He didn’t know what would happen, but he felt the beat of war drums in the distance. Whitman did not have the benefit of historical perspective that we have today.
There have been three Fourth Turnings in American History. The American Revolution Fourth Turning ended in 1794 with the Crisis mood easing with the presidency of George Washington. Whitman didn’t realize that, 64 years after the previous Fourth Turning, the mood of the country was ripe for revolution and the sweeping away of the old order. When the stock market crashed in 1929, 64 years after the exhausting conclusion to the Civil War Fourth Turning, Americans didn’t realize the generational constellation was propelling them toward a new social order and a horrific world war. It is now 66 years since the conclusion of the Depression/WWII Fourth Turning. All indications are that the current Fourth Turning began in the 2007 – 2009, with the collapse of the housing market and the ensuing financial system implosion.
I find myself vainly trying to pierce the veil of events yet to be. The future is filled with haunting phantoms of unborn deeds which could lead to renewed glory, untold death and destruction, or the possibly the end of the great American experiment. Walt Whitman captured the change of mood in the country with his poem. History books are filled with dates and descriptions of events, battles, speeches and assassinations. What most people don’t understand is Fourth Turnings aren’t about events, but about the citizens’ reaction to the events.
The Boston Massacre did not start the American Revolution Fourth Turning, but the Boston Tea Party did. John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry did not start the Civil War Fourth Turning, but the election of Abraham Lincoln did. World War I did not start the Great Depression/World War II Fourth Turning, but the 1929 Stock Market Crash did. The 9/11 terrorist attack did not start latest Fourth Turning, but the Wall Street induced housing/financial system collapse did. In each instance, the generations were aligned in a manner that would lead to a sweeping away of the old civic order and a regeneracy with the institution of a new order. Old Artists disappear, Prophets enter elder hood, Nomads enter midlife, Heroes enter young adulthood—and a new generation of child Artists is born.
One hundred and fifty years ago this week Fort Sumter was bombarded by upstart revolutionaries attempting to break away from an overbearing Federal government based in Washington D.C. Exactly four years later the butchery and death concluded dramatically with Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre. For the next four years we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of various battles that marked the Civil War. What people will not consider are the similarities between that tumultuous period in our history and the period we are in today. Fourth Turnings are marked by different events but the same mood of upheaval, anger and fury.
As Strauss & Howe note in their book, the morphology of a Fourth Turning follows a predictable pattern:
- A Crisis era begins with a catalyst – a starting event (or sequence of events) that produces a sudden shift in mood.
- Once catalyzed, a society achieves a regeneracy – a new counter entropy that reunifies and reenergizes civic life.
- The regenerated society propels toward a climax – a crucial moment that confirms the death of the old order and birth of the new.
- The climax culminates in a resolution – a triumphant or tragic conclusion that separates the winners from losers, resolves the big public questions, and establishes the new order.
Strauss & Howe describe the normal sequence:
This Crisis morphology occurs over the span of one turning, which (except for the U.S. Civil War) means that around fifteen to twenty-five years elapse between the catalyst and the resolution. The regeneracy usually occurs one to five years after the era begins, the climax one to five years before it ends.
The catalysts are relatively easy to identify, but the point of regeneracy is more subtle and harder to grasp.
Fiery Moment of Death & Discontinuity
“Like nature, history is full of processes that cannot happen in reverse. Just as the laws of entropy do not allow a bird to fly backward, or droplets to regroup at the top of a waterfall, history has no rewind button. Like the seasons of nature, it moves only forward. Saecular entropy cannot be reversed. An Unraveling cannot lead back to an Awakening, or forward to a High, without a Crisis in between. The spirit of America comes once a saeculum, only through what the ancients called ekpyrosis, nature’s fiery moment of death and discontinuity. History’s periodic eras of Crisis combust the old social order and give birth to a new.” – Strauss & Howe – The Fourth Turning
The catalyst for the American Revolution was the Boston Tea Party. The catalyst for the Civil War was the election of Abraham Lincoln. The catalyst for the Great Depression was the 1929 Stock market crash. The catalyst for the current Crisis was the housing/financial system collapse. The catalyst is an event that terminates the brooding mood of the Unraveling and unleashes the fury of a Crisis. The three previous Crisis periods in American history were driven by different events, but similar generational dynamics. By closely examining the dynamics and threats that were facing the country during these previous Crisis periods, we may be able to peer into the murky fog of the future and make out the phantoms of events to come. What we know for sure is every previous Crisis had an economic and fairness dimension that provided the initial spark, triggering a series of events that eventually led to an all encompassing war for survival.