[Written in July 1997.]
(Much of this essay was inspired by Generations, by William Strauss and Neil Howe.)
In a `period of awakening', like the 1960s in the US or the 1640s in England, one of two things happen: either `the revolution' loses, as it did in the US, or it wins.
A `period of unraveling' follows the `period of awakening'. Both when the revolution loses and when it wins, the outcomes lead to the adoption of solutions that fail: either the solutions are a repeat and increase of the old solutions with minor tweaks, as in the US; or they are the implementation of new methods that turn out to fail in practice, as in England under the Commonwealth. At the same time, new sets of solutions are proposed, but not exhaustively implemented.
Another way to look at the `awakening' of the 1960s is to see it as a failed social revolution: `radical' suggestions were made for solving contemporary problems.
In the subsequent period of `unraveling' the Awakeners' suggestions were mostly not followed; and when they were followed, the solutions got changed on implementation to ways that are very different than originally proposed. For example, when people talked then of cleaning up polluted sites, they were not expecting the government to spend as many tax payer dollars on litigation as digging, yet in places that happened. The people who opposed incarcerating the mentally ill in state mental hospitals did not intend to move many of the former inmates to prison. And, when space enthusiasts talked of a `shuttle' they were not expecting a design that costs more to take a kilogram into orbit than the previous, use-once Saturn launch vehicle.
Following the `unraveling' is an ensuing `period of crisis' during which the proponents of one set of solutions win; their solutions are implemented.
The losers are defeated, lose their jobs and positions of authority, and the newspapers and other media are either scared into self-censorship or directly censored.
The period following is called a `high' by Strauss and Howe, since everything moves along in a fairly predictable fashion and even though it is heavily criticized at the time and shortly thereafter, the period looks good as soon as nostalgia has a chance to operate.
In the US, for example, the 1950s are called a `high', yet at the time, schooling was a problem, race was a problem, the economy was a problem, military preparedness was a problem, conformity was a problem, lack of interest by elite college students in major social issues was a problem ... although better than the preceding depression and war, the period did not appear to be much of a high at the time.
Fortunately for the US, most `highs' have been more or less benign.
But a `high' does not have to be benign; it can simply be inadequate. It has been suggested, for example, that in the mid-Victorian era, the United Kingdom went though a muted awakening that led to a muddling through of the subsequent unraveling and crisis -- not a disastrous outcome, but not as successful in the long run as people in that one-time Empire might have wished.
One might argue that the US post-Civil War high was also inadequate. The Federal government permitted whites to reimpose local racist rule in the south; it permitted major private corporations to establish near-governmental power over many areas; and when government got directly involved, it permitted private corporations to co-opt the government regulatory agencies.
It has been said that it took the 1930s to overcome the mistakes of the 1880s. Moreover, I need not remind you that the response in the 1980s to the 1930s took the US from being the world's biggest creditor to being its biggest debtor. (And you don't have to be a nationalist to regret the loss of autonomy caused by debt, merely a democrat, with a small `d'.)
[Addendum written in April 2004: in the US, we are now going through a `period of crisis'. That is why politics are so vicious and people so divided. As yet, we do not know who will win.]
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