The waning of the Modern Ages

Morris Berman writes: La longue durée — the long run — was an expression made popular by the Annales School of French historians led by Fernand Braudel, who coined the phrase in 1958. The basic argument of this school is that the proper concern of historians should be the analysis of structures that lie at the base of contemporary events. Underneath short-term events such as individual cycles of economic boom and bust, said Braudel, we can discern the persistence of “old attitudes of thought and action, resistant frameworks dying hard, at times against all logic.” An important derivative of the Annales research is the work of the World Systems Analysis school, including Immanuel Wallerstein and Christopher Chase-Dunn, which similarly focuses on long-term structures: capitalism, in particular.

The “arc” of capitalism, according to this school, is about 600 years long, from 1500 to 2100. It is our particular (mis)fortune to be living through the beginning of the end, the disintegration of capitalism as a world system. It was mostly commercial capital in the sixteenth century, evolving into industrial capital in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and then moving on to financial capital — money created by money itself, and by speculation in currency — in the twentieth and twenty-first. In dialectical fashion, it will be the very success of the system that eventually does it in.

The last time a change of this magnitude occurred was during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, during which time the medieval world began to come apart and be replaced by the modern one. In his classic study of the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga depicted the time as one of depression and cultural exhaustion — like our own age, not much fun to live through. One reason for this is that the world is literally perched over an abyss. What lies ahead is largely unknown, and to have to hover over an abyss for a long time is, to put it colloquially, a bit of a drag. The same thing was true at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire as well, on the ruins of which the feudal system slowly arose.

I was musing on these issues some time ago when I happened to run across a remarkable essay by Naomi Klein, the author of The Shock Doctrine. It was called “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” and was published last November in The Nation. In what appears to be something of a radical shift for her, she chastises the Left for not understanding what the Right does correctly perceive: that the whole climate change debate is a serious threat to capitalism. The Left, she says, wants to soft-pedal the implications; it wants to say that environmental protection is compatible with economic growth, that it is not a threat to capital or labor. It wants to get everyone to buy a hybrid car, for example (which I have personally compared to diet cheesecake), or use more efficient light bulbs, or recycle, as if these things were adequate to the crisis at hand. But the Right is not fooled: it sees Green as a Trojan horse for Red, the attempt “to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism.” It believes — correctly — that the politics of global warming is inevitably an attack on the American Dream, on the whole capitalist structure. [Continue reading...]

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  1. The cycles/long duree paradigm is one I am very familiar with and indeed believe is quite accurate when looking at underlying meta-trends over both long and short periods. Of note is that there are some differences about the present Late Modern era that are important. The global and technological factors we are now experiencing may throw a spanner into the normal workings of the long duree. In addition, the East has been traditionally counter cyclical to the West begging the question as to what will arise their while the Western world collapses (and regresses from the pole of Individualism/Libertarianism to Communalism). Lastly, the usual consequence of decline has been very negative to populations as a whole and, if believed, would mean that the the next phase is essentially inevitable pain for the liberties of individuals and results in a reversion to communal power. The Left has always seen this as some kind of Utopia, they may find that it is actually quite dystopic, to entrust a central authority to manage all human affairs. The worst elements of the Left and the Right often merge in this dialectic creating a synthetic system that will be truly dire.