Reviewed by Ian Lipke
It is not often that a non-fiction book makes me excited but George Friedman has succeeded in doing just that. I rarely concur with the blurb that publishers insert in the covers of books but statements like ‘an illuminating, provocative new book by the master geopolitical forecaster’ strikes a chord with me and I find myself nodding in agreement. (Not so easy to accept is the nauseating comment from the New York Times Magazine ‘There is a temptation, when you are around George Friedman, to treat him like a magic 8-Ball’ – overblown and over there, thank God!).
Friedman provides hope to all of us who despair when we think about an America who will elect Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. According to Friedman, Trump is no more than a figurehead, a man with less real power than a European Prime Minister, simply a representative of the people, floating on forces underlying the institutional or economic waves that reach the nation at predictable intervals. He identifies two types of wave phenomena:
The United States…works, as a machine might, by cycling through phases. The transition from one phase to the next involves waves of social and political instability, and even chaos (xvii).
Friedman identifies an ‘institutional cycle’ in United States history as a constructed event that happens every eighty-odd years. The first lasted from the end of the Revolutionary War until the end of the Civil War, the second until the end of World War II, while the third is nearing its end, possibly around 2025. The other major cycle, identified by the appellation ‘socioeconomic’, has occurred approximately every fifty years. Previous socioeconomic phases changed in the 1880s ‘as the country refocused after the Civil War’ (3), in the 1930s after the Great Depression, and around 1980, ‘when the economic and social dysfunction that began in the late 1960s culminated with a fundamental shift in how the economic and social systems functioned’ (3). Our current period of social and economic instability is due to conclude in the mid-2020s. Both of Friedman’s cycles are due to peak together around the mid-2020s, a likely period of economic and social distress, one caused by greater forces than an incompetent United States president, who is described as ‘a passenger on the American roller coaster’ (3). Friedman develops this argument throughout the book and then engages in some speculations on the future.
(He offers hope for an easier time in the 2030s – those, like the present writer, who will be in their nineties when that blessed decade occurs, are not loudly cheering!)
One of the strengths of the book is the lucidity of the writing. The book is pitched to an intelligent reader (and will no doubt be set for undergraduate study at some university), but most readers will understand the arguments without difficulty. The tone is supportive and homely. I felt very comfortable at every stage of the book. As an example, the third institutional cycle begins with the concise statement that ‘a state managed by experts dedicated to solutions without an ideology…would breed success’ (105). This is essentially what this institutional cycle is about. The cycle concludes with a neat summary in the final paragraphs that allows the reader to draw breath. A good example appears on pp 114 – 15 where Friedman argues that a vast accumulation of wealth by the technocrats of Google and Goldman Sachs together with a marked decline in the efficiency of technology means that the real decisions are being made by the unelected. [The COVID-19 virus in Australia is currently managed by a medically-qualified bureaucrat whose judgments pass through the throat of the elected leader].
President Trump came into office vowing to ‘drain the swamp’ but has not been successful. There is a ‘constant entanglement under the guise of management’ (115), ‘multiple federal agencies…managing parts of the same problem’ (111), that cannot be sustained. Friedman’s prediction that the stranglehold that an inefficient technology holds on our imaginations will not be solved easily but will be compelling in the next phase’s pursuit of biology, makes practical sense.
There is so much more in this book. It is presented in tones appropriate to its subject, its cover print script is crisp, its construction overall is attractive to readers, and the subject matter is thought-provoking. A very worthwhile buy!
By George Friedman
$29.99; 272 pp