In political terms, my generation really did have a naughty nineties—and it made us complacentby Zoe Williams / February 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
You’ve heard of the secular cycle, I’m sure—or is it, like Universal Basic Income and the gut microbiome, one of those phrases that arrive in the vernacular so fast that you’re regurgitating it before you’ve truly digested it? In (very) brief, the theory is that societies go through 50-year cycles of violence. “Violence” here is not necessarily a bad thing, though obviously some of it is: it takes in strikes, civil rights movements, suffrage movements, even peace movements—most, in short, of what counts for human progress. All this tumult arrives every half-century or so, and then we endure flat, grey decades where much less happens.
For clarity, this is within-country disruption (disruptions, including world wars can knock the cycle for six), but it applies beyond any one country. The spikes of the most recent cycles took place, roughly, in 1870 (the Paris Commune was 1871), 1920 (a strike-ridden time when, in Orwell’s recollection, “a wave of revolutionary feeling” convulsed England), 1970 (rising militancy on the shopfloor and campuses), and—unless we have a radical change of direction—2020.
Malthusians ascribe the 50-year swing to times of plenty leading to population growth, leading to wage depression, leading to hardship, and finally the disruption. Marxists fixate instead on the ebb and flow of the class struggle—the balance tips in favour of the rentiers, who then over-extract, leading to hardship, leading to violence and, eventually, restored balance as the rentiers retreat. “Cliodynamic” history crunches all sorts of data, grasping for a scientific picture of progress.
What gives this ivory tower analysis poignancy is that Baby Boomers are universally agreed to have messed up everything. They are branded self-absorbed “sociopaths” by cultural commentators, and blamed by conservative analysts like David Willetts—a boomer—for taking “their children’s future” by cleaning up on homes and pensions. But, in the light of the secular cycle, those, like me, on the left in the generation below have their own reason for self-disgust.
Travelling in lockstep is the more intuitive father-and-son cycle, which is less easily counted, and so quite easily discounted too. Yet this is the one I can feel in my bones: the theory is that the father’s generation fights injustice, the son’s generation tires of the rhetoric, is discouraged by the disappointments, and sinks into indolence. Then the…