From passive-aggressive notes on ambulance windscreens to bilious political discourse, it feels as though society is suddenly consumed by fury. What is to blame for this outpouring of aggression?
Wed 16 May 2018
There is a discipline known as cliodynamics, developed at the start of the century by the scientist Peter Turchin, which plots historical events by a series of mathematical measures. Some are obvious – equality – and some take a bit of unpacking (“elite overproduction”, for example; as a consequence of inequality, there are periods in history when there are too many extremely rich people for the positions of power that extremely rich people typically occupy. This results in them going rogue and buying themselves into power by hosing money at elections. Donald Trump is the ultimate human face of elite overproduction). These measures yield a map of history in which you can see spikes of rage roughly every 50 years: 1870, 1920, 1970 (you have to allow a little wiggle room to take in the first world war and 1968). Cycles of violence are not always unproductive – they take in civil rights, union and suffragette movements. Indeed, all social movements of consequence start with unrest, whether in the form of strike action, protest or riot. Some situate economics at the heart of the social mood: the Kondratiev wave, which lasts between 40 and 60 years (call it 50 and it will correspond neatly with the cycle of violence), describes the modern world economy in cycles of high and low growth, where stagnation always corresponds with unrest.
David Andress is a professor of history at the University of Portsmouth and the author of Cultural Dementia, a fascinating account of how the slash-and-burn rage of the present political climate is made possible only by wilfully forgetting the past. He counsels against what could become an indolent understanding of history – if everything is a wave and the waves just happen, what is there to discover? – but he allows that “everything has to come back to economics unless you’re rich. Economics is about scarcity and insecurity turns very quickly into anger and scapegoating.”
“As a historian and as a teacher, I’m always trying to get people to understand that societies in general are violent and hierarchical places,” he says. “People like you and me have wanted societies to be less violent and hierarchical and we have worked at that. We’ve never actually succeeded. We’ve managed to persuade people to take their foot off other people’s throats, when they felt secure enough.” Anger is remarkable not in and of itself, but when it becomes so widespread that it feels like the dominant cultural force. What is notable to Andress is the counterfactual – the periods in history not marked by fury. “Antagonism never goes away. That is what has made the postwar project quite exceptional, the EU project quite exceptional.” Ah, the EU. Perhaps another time.