Coming up Trumps

November 10, 2016 § 8 Comments


Today I am making a one-time exception to talk about politics instead of books: I’d have to be an emotionless automaton not to struggle to process what just happened in the presidential elections.

When unexpected stuff happens, the mind seeks closure, and hunts for a good explanatory framework to hang its hat on. Now, in this case, there are several serviceable ones to choose from. Some of them helpfully provide an explanation that is also a satisfactory lashing-out: the White Racist Backlash,  the Woman-on-Woman Misogyny, the Ignorant Bigotry of the Unwashed, the xenophobia caused by economic inequality, the mean-spirited nativism of newly naturalized Hispanics…but I like to paint a wider canvas and with a broader brush, so here’s the one I’m going with.

In the mid-20th century, Nikolai Kondratiev and Joseph Schumpeter came up with a theory of economic history that states that booms and bust cycles last broadly 40-60 years apiece, and form alternating cycles. So you have Prosperity, Recession, Depression, Improvement, Prosperity…you get the picture. In a similar vein, I believe it is possible to talk of alternating political waves of centripetal and centrifugal revolutions (towards and away from the center). I wouldn’t be surprised if such a theory already exists, because it fits. It is largely Western democracy centric, but I think elements of it are increasingly applicable to the rest of the world.

A centripetal wave is inclusive and relatively liberal, but in order to be inclusive, it is also about compromise and increasing complexity and corruption, until those side-effects breach a threshold and the people reject it comprehensively in favor of the simplicity and clarity of thought of a more extreme position. This comes with its own baggage: a heightened sense of jingoism, suspicion of foreigners, a stronger focus on the military, a stronger inner unity fueled by aggressive economic growth, but also by a feeling of competitive animosity towards the Others. Eventually, these side-effects too reach a level when people reject it and lurch back towards the inclusive, amiable, corrupt center.

So, empirically: we had a centrifugal, uber-nationalist period between 1776 and 1857, fueled by the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon, the South American and Mexican wars of Independence, the failed revolutions in several countries, the Italian risorgimento, perhaps even the failed 1857 revolt in India. Then, there was a long period of stable centrism, until the next wave of establishment demolition, between 1914 and 1948 (from Franz Ferdinand to Nehru and Mao), followed by another largely centrist era.

Donald Trump’s win proves to me that we are now well into the next wave. But the US didn’t start the fire. It is merely part of a global centrifugal anti-establishment wave, that started in 2010 with the Arab spring in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the failed ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran, the failed revolutions in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria (that are still burning), the accession to power in 2012 of Vladimir Putin in Russia, the accession to presidency in 2014, of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, the accession to power in 2014 of Narendra Modi, and of course the Brexit in the United Kingdom. Every one of these was brought about by a strong mass movement across sections of society, and those that failed, did so because of undemocratic reactionary interventions from outside. Next stop France, where Marine Le Pen is already cracking her knuckles in anticipation.

And the Republican Party? Only weeks ago, they were panicky, in such complete shambles that they were talking about recovering by 2028 at the earliest. They didn’t plan this. Nobody planned it.

Here’s what Otto von Bismarck said, when asked about how leaders make history. And mind you, the man knew a thing or two about his subject.

“A statesman has not to make history,” (imagine this said in a Teutonic accent), “but if ever, in the events around him, he hears the sweep of the mantle of God, then he must JUMP UP! and CATCH it at the hem.” (emphasis mine)

That “mantle of God” Bismarck was referring to, is the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, the inexorable tsunami of history, that has now swept along all of us, and Donald Trump is helplessly at the crest of the wave, and when we look up, we see him leading us.

Conclusion 1: The lurch to the right will not be without some positives, just like the centrism wasn’t without its negatives.

Conclusion 2: For liberals and centrists: this too shall pass, though it may take the next few decades or so until the next centrist wave, and many of us may not be around to see it. It’s definitely going to get worse before it gets better.

Conclusion 3: Since neither party establishment really saw this coming, it is a historical accident that it was D Trump v H Clinton. If it had been J Bush v B Sanders, we’d possibly be seeing THE SAME WAVE, and President Bernie waving to us from its crest.

I feel better already. And also worse.

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§ 8 Responses to Coming up Trumps

  • Gg says:

    Nicely explained PSri. Yin and Yang.

  • tskraghu says:

    Like physical objects, social phenomena also seem to have a natural frequency of oscillation!

    What is however astounding is the enormous disconnect between the elitists, secularists, artists, liberals, the much vaunted media,pollsters…and the ‘sons of the soil’, Never in history have so many been so wrong!.

    Very often guys who mouth radical messages sober up when they come into power. Example the Dravidian parties in the south. Also I presume the systems in US have enough checks and balances to keep a president from going berserk.

    It would be interesting to see how a corporate honcho in a minefield that’s politician’s preserve. Though odds dont look good. But so it was in the electoral run-up.

  • Srinivasan R says:

    Nicely explained PSri.

    What you articulated as a politico-social process has been studied in theories of social change. For starters, i would begin referring to the works of Oswald Spengler (Decline of the West, 1918) and Arnold J. Toynbee (A Study of History, 1956). They called it cyclical theory of social change.

    However, a more nuanced explanation of the phenomenon you write about is ‘pendular theory by P.A. Sorokin (Social and Cultural Dynamics, 1941). Yes, he is American, but he explains best how societies oscillate between the sensate (right of the centre) and the ideational (left of the centre), with the idealistic (centre) being passed through every change.

    Though I am not a big fan of Vilfredo Pareto’s theory of ‘Circulation of Elites’ (sometime in the 1960s), he is possibly the one who integrates political change with social change, when he describes how one elite replaces another … much like the Dravidian parties in TN or TDP/ TRS in AP/T.

    Sorry to take you on a sociology classics trip, but your post kindled memories of those days, when I believed sociology theories could explain a lot of corporate and political changes. Would you not find a similar argument at why RN Tata has taken back charge from Cyrus Mistry? Or how Warren Buffet, N Srinivasan (ICC) KM Birla runs their empires?

    • psriblog says:

      Thanks, Srini. I have read Toynbee’s Study of History (though I don’t recall his civilizational stages being at the same level of analysis) and while I own the Spengler in question, I haven’t got around to reading it yet. Maybe I will soon. From what I recall of its premise as explained elsewhere, I don’t think it is exactly it either. Thanks for introducing me to Sorokin – that sounds much closer to what I have in mind, though I am in fact saying that certain countries may alternate between extreme left and center while others alternate between extreme right and center, and others yet from left to center to right to center. I don’t care – am measuring only the ‘simple extreme thought’ (of either variety) versus the ‘complex centrist thought’.
      I detect a slight irony and a gentle rebuke, even, in your ‘memories of those days when I believed…’ It is well deserved. I agree with you that such over-arching narratives are slightly puerile pursuits at the end of the day. Nevertheless, I find it an intellectually stimulating exercise, and in these days when intellectualism is so reviled, it seems to me a relatively safe method to shake my puny fist at an increasingly hostile world from the comfort of my armchair.
      I thank you again for taking the time to read and respond.
      Regards
      PSri

  • Srinivasan R says:

    Irony, yes. Rebuke no. Just that I am reminding myself these days to read more sociology. Two decades (almost) of teaching strategy in business schools has possibly ensured that economics and strategy ate sociology and culture for breakfast in my life!
    Keep going … As they say in Bangla, ekla chalo re!

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