This financial crisis is the transition to a new world; like birth, it is painful

Summary:   This is an attempt to gain a historical perspective on our time, speculation about our present and future — seen in terms of past cycles.Here is a surefire way to get economists’ attention:   tell them that we are only in the second “inning” of this downturn.  Their incredulity results from belief that the trough is near — with the recovery (fast or slow) starting this Fall or Winter.Perhaps.  Posts on this site describe an alternative view, that the post-WWII era has ended.  We have entered a transitional period.  This has been the pattern of modern history.

  • The old world ended with American and French Revolutions,
  • followed by a transitional period called the Napoleonic Wars.
  • The “British Century” — aka the “long peace” — began with Congress of Vienna in 1815,
  • then crashing and burning in 1914 (WWI).
  • Then came another transitional period, lasting 30 years until 1945, followed by
  • the “American century” lasting 60 years (almost a century if dated from our entry into WWI),
  • aborted by feckless mis-management of our domestic finances.

We can only guess about the duration and difficulty of this transition to a new world order, and the nature of the new global system.  These periods are like singularities — like birth itself.  The passage is painful, and one has no idea what awaits on the other side.

The fall of the British Empire, a victim of failing social cohesion

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when 9 kings rode in the funeral of Edward VlI of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, 3 by 3 the sovereigns rode though the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun.

After them came 5 heirs apparent, 40 more imperial or royal highnesses, 7 queens, and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented 70 nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled 9 by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

–  The opening of The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

The “British century” — its period as global hegemon — ended in part due to internal dissension.  The rebellion of Ireland (started in 1916, the embers still burning today) and class “warfare” weakened the UK’s cohesion and its ability to respond to threats.  Even during WWII Ireland remained neutral (the UK desperately needed its ports), while strikes damaged its already war-wrecked economy.

This poor social cohesion contributed to it having one of the slowest recoveries from WWII in Europe.  (West Germany ended food rationing in 1948.  In Britain it became stricter (bread rationing began in 1946), ending in only 1954.

It is a common story for nations.  Growing fractures in social cohesion brought many South American countries from prosperity in mid-century to poverty by the century’s end.  By social cohesion I mean the ability to work together under stress, usually resulting from shared beliefs and goals.

About America

Some future historian might pick some event in 2000 to mark the end of the American century, some spectacle of American confidence and power following the fall of the Soviet Union and the inflating of the tech bubble.  It was a brief moment of world hegemony.

America has been weakened by the cumulative burden of  our foolish errors during the past 40 years (starting in the late 1960’s, with the weakening of the Bretton Woods system, race wars, and Viet Nam — plus our disastrously poor responses to all three problems.  Still, we retain our core strengths:

  • a hard-working, innovative, people
  • a largely free-market economy (these things are relative)
  • a strong republican government (as in “republic”, not the party)

However, something might have changed in America during the past generation or so.

What’s happening in America?

Is something similar happening in America?  Consider the following.

  • Rising cynicism towards government, a loss of confidence in its honesty and efficacy.
  • Rising alienation, reaching near total levels in some minority communities.

And in turn the government may becoming alienated from its people.  As seen by…

  • the steady increase in the ranks of government employees who are armed, and
  • the massive expansion of SWAT teams, and the grim toll of deaths they reap each year, often when delivering warrants (see here for details).

Two trends to watch:

  1. Fading allegiance to the Constitution, and decreased willingness to fight in its defense.
  2. The US is rapidly becoming a multi-ethnic society — and these seldom show high degrees of cohesion.

Afterword

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For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Some posts about the Constitution and our government:

  1. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
  2. The Constitution: wonderful, if we can keep it, 15 February 2008
  3. Congress shows us how our new government works, 14 April 2008
  4. See the last glimmers of the Constitution’s life…, 27 June 2008
  5. Remembering what we have lost… thoughts while looking at the embers of the Constitution, 29 June 2008
  6. A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
  7. Another step away from our Constitutional system, with applause, 19 September 2008
  8. What comes after the Consitution? Can we see the outlines of the “Mark 3″ version?, 10 November 2008

Originally published at Fabius Maximus and reproduced here with the author’s permission.