Historical action tends to be narrative in form. In order to be able to make an intervention in history (arguably, in order to act decisively in any circumstances), one has to be able to cast oneself in some sort of story — though, speaking as someone who has actually had the opportunity to be in the middle of one or two world historical events, I can also attest that one in that situation is almost never quite certain what sort of drama it really is, since there are usually several alternatives battling it out, and that the question is not entirely resolved until everything is over (and never completely resolved even then). But I think there’s something that comes before even that. When one is first trying to assess a historical situation, having no real idea where one stands, trying to place oneself in a much larger stream of history so as to be able to start to think about what the problem even is, then usually it’s less a matter of placing oneself in a story than of figuring out the larger rhythmic structure, the ebb and flow of historical movements. Is what is happening around me the result of a generational political realignment, a movement of capitalism’s boom or bust cycle, the beginning or result of a new wave of struggles, the inevitable unfolding of a Kondratieff B curve? Or is it all these things? How do all these rhythms weave in and out of each other? Is there one core rhythm pushing the others along? How do they sit inside one another, syncopate, concatenate, harmonise, clash?
Let me briefly lay out what might be at stake here. I’ll focus here on cycles of capitalism, secondarily on war. This is because I don’t like capitalism and think that it’s rapidly destroying the planet, and that if we are going to survive as a species, we’re really going to have to come up with something else. I also don’t like war, both for all the obvious reasons, but also, because it strikes me as one of the main ways capitalism has managed to perpetuate itself. So in picking through possible theories of historical cycles, this is what I have had primarily in mind. Even here there are any number of possibilities. Here are a few:
Are we seeing an alternation between periods of peace and massive global warfare? In the late 19th century, for example, war between major industrial powers seemed to be a thing of the past, and this was accompanied by vast growth of both trade, and revolutionary internationalism (of broadly anarchist inspiration). 1914 marked a kind of reaction, a shift to 70 years mainly concerned with fighting, or planning for, world wars. The moment the Cold War ended, the pattern of the 1890s seemed to be repeating itself, and the reaction was predictable.
Or could one look at brief cycles — sub-cycles perhaps? This is particularly clear in the US, where one can see a continual alternation, since WWII, between periods of relative peace and democratic mobilisation immediately followed by a ratcheting up of international conflict: the civil rights movement followed by Vietnam, for example; the anti-nuclear movement of the ’70s followed by Reagan’s proxy wars and abandonment of détente; the global justice movement followed by the War on Terror.
Or should we be looking at financialisation? Are we dealing with Fernand Braudel or Giovanni Arrighi’s alternation between hegemonic powers (Genoa/ Venice, Holland, England, USA), which start as centers for commercial and industrial capital, later turn into centers of finance capital, and then collapse?
If so, then the question is of shifting hegemonies to East Asia, and whether (as Wallerstein for instance has recently been predicting) the US will gradually shift into the role of military enforcer for East Asian capital, provoking a realignment between Russia and the EU. Or, in fact, if all bets are off because the whole system is about to shift since, as Wallerstein also suggests, we are entering into an even more profound, 500-year cycle shift in the nature of the world-system itself?
Are we dealing with a global movement, as some autonomists (for example, the Midnight Notes collective) propose, of waves of popular struggle, as capitalism reaches a point of saturation and collapse — a crisis of inclusion as it were?
According to this version, the period from 1945 to perhaps 1975 was marked by a tacit deal with elements of the North Atlantic male working class, who were offered guaranteed good jobs and social security in exchange for political loyalty. The problem for capital was that more and more people demanded in on the deal: people in the Third World, excluded minorities in the North, and, finally, women. At this point the system broke, the oil shock and recession of the ’70s became a way of declaring that all deals were off: such groups could have political rights but these would no longer have any economic consequences.
Then, the argument goes, a new cycle began in which workers tried — or were encouraged — to buy into capitalism itself, whether in the form of micro-credit, stock options, mortgage refinancing, or 401ks. It’s this movement that seems to have hit its limit now, since, contrary to much heady rhetoric, capitalism is not and can never be a democratic system that provides equal opportunities to everyone, and the moment there’s a serious attempt to include the bulk of the population even in one country (the US) into the deal, the whole thing collapses into energy crisis and global recession all over again.
None of these are necessarily mutually exclusive but they have very different strategic implications. Much rests on which factor one happens to decide is the driving force: the internal dynamics of capitalism, the rise and fall of empires, the challenge of popular resistance? But when it comes to reading the rhythms in this way, the current moment still throws up unusual difficulties. There is a widespread sense that we are heading towards some kind of fundamental rupture, that old rhythms can no longer be counted on to repeat themselves, that we might be entering a new sort of time. Wallerstein says so much explicitly: if everything were going the way it generally has tended to go, for the last 500 years, East Asia would emerge as the new center of capitalist dominance. Problem is we may be coming to the end of a 500 year cycle and moving into a world that works on entirely different principles (subtext: capitalism itself may be coming to an end). In which case, who knows? Similarly, cycles of militarism cannot continue in the same form in a world where major military powers are capable of extinguishing all life on earth, with all-out war between them therefore impossible. Then there’s the factor of imminent ecological catastrophe.