Foundations of Crisis, Part III: War (So What's Next?)

The real watersheds in history, crises that make or break a civilization, occur roughly every 100 years. The most recent ones in American history that will resonate without looking up the facts in a reference book are the Revolution, circa 1782; the Civil War, circa 1863; and WW II, circa 1943. We’ve had other wars, and they were traumatic enough; that’s the nature of war. But the War of 1812, Mexican, Spanish, World War I, Korean, and Vietnam wars had nothing to do with the country’s survival as an entity, as a civilization. They were optional wars, sport fighting, if you will, by comparison. Wars that occur at a secular Crisis, a “Fourth Turning” to Strauss and Howe, when a Prophet generation is acting as elder statesmen, with Nomads as operational commanders, and Heroes as front line soldiers tend to be total wars that have an ideological underpinning. They’re life-and-death struggles not just for the individual participants, but for the civilization as a whole.

That major wars occur at such long remove from each other probably isn’t an accident. Really catastrophic wars, from at least the days of Troy on down, have usually been the Great Events that resound through living memory. The Great Event of a century forms the thought and character of everyone alive when it happens, influencing them relative to the stage of life they’re in at the time. Perhaps that’s why a people will collectively do its best to avoid a repeat, at least while there’s anyone still alive who saw the last crisis.

(It’s been said that war is a force that gives life meaning. And I think that’s true, although it’s perverse that the most destructive and idiotic activity that it’s possible to engage in would just have to be the most important. Maybe, after the orgy of self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption that has characterized the past couple decades, Americans collectively feel they need to prove something. There has to be some rationale for the current war hysteria other than pure stupidity…)

In any event, the way the current generations line up relative to historical analogs, an excellent case can be made the U.S. is approaching another time of secular crisis, a Fourth Turning, with an expected due date of 2005 – seven years from now – plus or minus a few years in either direction. The Stamp Acts catalyzed the American Revolution, the election of Lincoln catalyzed the Civil War, the Crash of ‘29 catalyzed the Depression/WW II era. What might precipitate the elements now floating in solution? The answer is, practically any random event that’s sufficiently traumatic. Any of the theses of current disaster/action novels and movies will do nicely. Perhaps the accidental or intentional release of a super plague vector. The crashing of an airliner into the Capitol during a joint session. (Close, but not quite.) An all-out assault on the IRS computers by an armed group – or perhaps the computers just melting down due to the Year 2000 Problem. Perhaps a financial disaster that cascades into the Greater Depression. In any of these, or a hundred other scenarios, the federal government would almost certainly act precipitously and with a heavy hand, which would bring on a whole other set of consequences.

(In the historical context, 9/11 will be viewed as the opening kick-off for the coming Crisis… and the messianic overreaction of Bush and his cronies as the catalyst for turning things from bad to worse. It may be that Hurricane Katrina, for instance, a completely accidental event, may be blamed for providing a pin to burst the financial bubble – which would be a pity, since the neocons could then blame it, not themselves.)

There’s no way of telling where the Crisis will lead, or how it will end. That’s going to depend not only on exactly who’s in control, but what they do, whom they’re up against, and a hundred other variables we can’t even anticipate. One thing that seems certain is that real crisis brings out strong (although not necessarily wise) leadership. Because of its age and size, it will come from the Boomer generation, and it will be in the mold of Roosevelt or Lincoln – both very dangerous precedents. The Boomers in Elderhood will be dogmatic, harsh, puritanical, and quite willing to burn down the barn in order to destroy whatever rats they see. Admix that attitude to a time resembling the Revolution, the Civil War, or WWII, overlain with today’s ethnic strife, urbanization, financial overextension, and powerful, compact new weaponry in the hands of foreign fanatics out to teach the Great Satan a lesson, and it’s a real witch’s brew.

If things evolve over the next decade as they did in past analogs, it will be a very un-mellow time indeed. That’s assuming things end well, and there’s no guarantee they will, as many foreign countries have discovered throughout history. We’ve been uniquely blessed.

What to Do

Strauss and Howe aren’t financial types, and their advice is nebulous along those lines. To sum it up, their suggestion is to learn to swim with the tide by not hoping the current good times last forever; the chances of the good times are coming to an end now. They’d also advise not sticking your head up above the crowd, something that is always very risky when times are in turmoil; remember what happened to Japanese-Americans during the last crisis. They suggest that there will likely be a resurgence of nationalism, much as was the case during past crises. It won’t be a good time to be a maverick in the U.S., a thought that makes places like Argentina and New Zealand look even more appealing.

(I bought property in both places shortly after this was written, and have been rewarded with a quadruple in both instances – considerably better than would have been the case in the U.S.)

Strauss and Howe suggest you look to diversify in all things, so everything won’t go bad at once. Brace for the collapse of public support mechanisms. Set your roots with your family, because people you can rely on will be at a premium. Heed emerging community norms, bond with like-minded people, and return to basic, classic virtues. This is sound advice any time, but critical if you’re rigging for heavy weather.

Assuming you wanted to stay in the U.S., you’d rather be on some land near a small town, and far away from a major city. You’d want to be self-sufficient in as many ways as possible – freeze-dried food. etc. Perhaps Howard Ruff will make a comeback with advice like that, which seems quaint today. But then I’m nothing if not a contrarian.

(In hindsight, the original article could have been a bit more specific – other than the suggestions about Argentina and New Zealand. Personally, I believe that unassailable wealth is the best protection against global crisis. For it to be unassailable, your wealth must be at once substantial, free from threat of confiscation, divorced from the whims of the masses, and located in a country or currency that has a good risk/reward profile. Unfortunately, the U.S. doesn’t make the cut.

In the first instance, the single best way to build wealth now, while there is still time to do so, is in carefully selected gold and other resource stocks. In order for it to be free from the threat of confiscation, at least some part of your wealth needs to reside in a country where you don’t. To state the obvious, I would be very cautious about traditional stocks and bonds until we see how things shake out. Rather, get positioned in gold and silver stocks now, ahead of the curve, then sell out for a big profit to the panicking masses and move an increasing percentage of your wealth into tangibles such as gold, silver, and maybe, as part of a diversified portfolio, real estate in especially attractive areas – but only after the bubble has decisively burst.)

A Parting Parable

In case you have any doubts, I buy the theory outlined above and its many ramifications that there isn’t room to explore here. It really is scary to think that we could again experience a real Crisis with a capital C; I’m not talking about just a bear market in stocks. If it happens, I promise you stocks and mutual funds will be about the farthest things from most people’s minds.

At the same time, there’s no point in feeling terrorized. This stuff has been going on since the dawn of history. So let me leave you with a parable. I could appropriately quote Ecclesiastes (To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted, etc., etc.). But everyone knows that reference. Let me rather give you John O’Hara. At the beginning of O’Hara’s novel Appointment in Samara, he tells a brief parable, which I’ll summarize:

There was a merchant in Baghdad who went to the market with his servant. There they saw Death, who stared at the servant in what seemed a threatening way. Later the servant said “Master, lend me a horse. I shall ride to Samara, and there Death will not find me.” The merchant did so, then returned to the market, where he again saw Death, whom he approached and asked why he had stared at his servant in such a threatening way. Death responded, “I wasn’t threatening him. I was just very surprised to see him here in Baghdad, since I have an appointment with him in Samara later this afternoon.”

(Strange, the location for the proverb, in that this was well before the current war.)

There is no doubt that we are now in the Crisis stage… which, according to Strauss and Howe’s “Turnings” theory, may last another decade or more. Is there any way to escape this economic tsunami unscathed?

Doug Casey

January 21, 2009