and the Future
of social systems
on the book Macrohistory and
this essay links macrohistory with futures studies. It takes the views of
twenty or so macrohistorians and asks what do they offer to the study of
is the study of the histories of social systems, along separate trajectories,
through space and time, in search of patterns, even laws of social change.
Macrohistory is thus nomothetic and diachronic.
Macrohistorians -- those who write macrohistory -- are to the the
historian what an Einstein is to the run-of-the-mill physicist: in search of
the totality of space and time, social or physical. Macrohistorians use the
detailed data of historians for their grand theories of individual, social and
and their macrohistories have much to offer futures studies. While strong at
breaking humans out of the present, futures studies is often weak at
contouring the parameters of the future possible. Macrohistory, through its
delineation of the structures of history: of the causes and mechanisms of
historical change; of inquiry into what changes and what stays stable; of an
analysis of the units of history; and a presentation of the stages of history,
provides a structure from which to forecast and gain insight into the future.
gaining insight into what has not changed, scenarios of the future can be more
plausible. By understanding the
stages of history, we can better understand the stages of the future.
Macrohistory gives us the weight of history balancing the pull of the
image of the future. It gives a
historical distance to the many claims of paradigm shifts, allowing us to
distinguish between what are mere preturbations and what are genuine
historical transformations. While
giving us insights into the human condition, macrohistory also intends to
explain past, present and future, and to a certain extent predict the movement
of units through time.
as with future studies, focuses less on details and more on the overall
patterns and stages. By examining history and theories of history, it seeks to
understand: the relationship between agency, structure and the transcendental;
whether history is cyclical or linear or some combined version (spiral or
having aspects of both); the metaphysics of time, the metaphorical basis for
grand theory; what the future is likely to look like; and the relationship
between leadership and historical structure.
While we will touch upon all these dimensions, the focus will be on the
structure and the transcendental
social theorists argue back and forth between agency and structure.
However, macrohistorians find escapeways out of these categories. For
example, for Vico, history and future, although patterned, are not
predetermined -- there are laws but these are soft.
As Attila Faj writes:
famous corsi and ricorsi
are both rheological and chorological, that is, circling "softly,"
round dancing. The softness of
the law means that the successive figures of this roundelay are not
necessarily unavoidable and are not independent of any condition and
circumstance. Each historical
stage streams into the following one and gets mixed with it, so we cannot
distinguish them sharply. For a long stretch, the stages and everything that
belongs to them are mingled like the sweet water of an estuary with the salt
water of the sea.
can exert influence over the future but they exist in larger fields that
condition their choices: epistemological, ontological, economic and cultural
or class, gender, varna, civilization type, dynasty, cultural personality or
ways of knowing the real. Futurists, in general, tend to focus on the
individual's ability to create the future and the values that inform the good
society, vision, in question. But
for the macrohistorian, these value preferences in themselves exist within
certain structures: biological (the evolution of the species and the
environment), epistemological (the historical possibilities of what is
knowable and thinkable), social (one's own culture and its history),
technological (the material and social ways through which actions can be
expressed), and the economic (basic needs and growth, the realities of the
important as tension between agency and structure is the debate between
cyclical and linear schools of history. Cyclical theory privileges perpetual
change while linear theory privileges equilibrium, although it could be an
evolutionary equilibrium as in the case of Spencer.
In cyclical theories change is endemic to the system: through
dialectics, the principle of limits (wherein a historical stage by
exaggerating its own nature and denying others is surpassed by another),
through the Chinese yin/yang principle, or through the Indian Tantric vidya/avidya
(introversion and extroversion) principle.
cyclical theorists have linear dimensions (the move up or the move down), it
is the return to a previous stage -- however modified -- that does not allow
for an unbridled theory of progress.
theorists also have cyclical dimension to their theories.
Within the narrative of linear stages, linear theorists often postulate
ups and downs of lesser unit of analysis (for example, within human evolution
or the evolution of capital, there might be a rise and fall of nations, firms
or dynasties), but in general the larger pattern is progress.
Humans might have contradictions (based on the Augustinian good/evil
pattern) but society marches on either through technology, capital
accumulation, innovation, the intervention or pull of God.
theorists attempt to include both, having certain dimensions which move
forward and certain dimensions that repeat. Spiral theories are fundamentally
about a dynamic balance.
views of history privilege structure over human agency.
In contrast, revolutionary movements promise a break of structure, an
escape from history. It is this
rupture that leads to individual dedication.
The practical implications of grand theories which relocate individual
action to determinism is that they lead to a politics of cynicism. Thus the
usefulness of theoretical approaches which attempt to acknowledge the cyclical
and the linear.
the view of futures studies, it is the contribution of macrohistory to the
study of society-through-time that is of great use. Within macrohistory, many
metaphors of time are used. There is the million year time of the cosmos which
is useful for spiritual theory but not for social macrohistory.
There is individual timelessness or spiritual time, useful for mental
peace but not for social development. There
is also the classic degeneration of time model from heaven to hell, from the
golden to the iron (the four stage pattern from Satya
to Treta to Dvapara
to Kali in classical Vedic
thought). There is the Chinese
model wherein time is correlated with the stars, which thus has no beginning
nor no end. There is Occidental
time which traditionally started with the birth or some other event related to
the life of the Prophet. It now
relates to the birth of the nation-state.
contrast to the linear model and the four stages model which implicitly use
the metaphor of the seasons, there is the biological and sexual model. The
rise and fall of nations, dynasties and families can be related to the rise
and fall of the phallus. The
phallic movement is dramatic and has a clear beginning and a clear end.
However, men, it can be argued, (using the linear model) prefer the
first part of the cycle imagining a utopia where the phallus never declines.
The empirical data suggests, however, that endless rise does not occur.
contrast, not as obvious to men (and those involved in statecraft and
historiography), the female experience is wavelike with multiple motions.
Time slows and expands. Instead
of a rise and fall model, what emerges is an expansion/contraction model.
Galtung, for instance, uses the expansion/contraction metaphor to
describe Western cosmology. He
also suggests that there might be a relationship between different cosmologies
(for example, as Christian cosmology declines, Islamic cosmology might
is important as well since the implications are that there are benefits in
each phase of the cycle. In the
contraction, for example, the poor do not suffer as proportionally as the rich
who have less speculative wealth available (although certainly the wealthy
attempt to squeeze the middle class and the poor as much as possible,
especially the poor in the periphery). The
expansion/contraction metaphor is also used by Kondratieff and Wallerstein,
but for them key variables in the model are prices and the flow of goods, not
individuals or social organisms.
time can also be used to understand the future.
Ibn Khaldun uses the idea of generational time to show how unity and
creativity decline over four generations (from creativity to imitation to
blind following to indolence). For Sarkar each collective psychology has its
own dominant temporal frame. The shudra
- worker - lives in the present; the ksattriya
- warrior - thinks of time as space to conquer; the vipra
- intellectual/priest - theorises time and imagines transcendental time; while
the vaeshya - merchant -
the central metaphor used by all cyclical theorists is the lifecycle.
Spengler, in particular, uses this perspective arguing that each
individual culture has a unique personality with various distinguishing
characteristics. But the cycle
has a downward spiral. First
there is the stage of culture. This stage eventually degenerates into mass
civilization wherein the force of the money spirit leads to imperialism and
the eventual death of the culture.
For Toynbee, too, civilizations have particular cycles they must go
through. Some elites respond to
challenges through their creative faculties and others do not meet these
challenges. The former expand
mentally while the latter intellectually decline.
Civilizations that meet challenges expand in size and wealth.
Those that do not meet internal or external challenges slowly decline
(unless there is rejuvenation from within, from desert Bedouins, those outside
of power, as Ibn Khaldun argues).
best or most complete macrohistory or history of the future must be able to
negotiate the many types of time: seasonal, rise and fall, dramatic,
mythological, expansion/contraction, cosmic, linear, social-cyclical as well
as the intervention of the timeless in the world of time.
Each type of time could be used as a starting point for the creation of
an alternative scenarios of the future.
future from macrohistory
are the contributions of various macrohistorians to the study of the future?
To answer this, we take selected macrohistorians and summarize the key
variables they use to think about the future. This task can be initially be
divided into linear and cyclical categories. From Ibn Khaldun we can use three
ideas: asabiya (unity gained
through collective struggle), the rise and fall of dynasties, and the theory
of four generations . Our
questions then become: who are the new Bedouins?
Which collectivities currently building unity are ready to sacrifice
the present for the future? Which
ones have struggled a great deal and still retain the warrior spirit? How long
will they stay in power? One
answer to this question is that the new Bedouins are Japan and the tigers.
The Confucian culture provides the unity and hierarchical structure.
Defeat in war (and financial crisis) provides the struggle.
How they respond to the current financial crisis will tell us a great
deal about the next century.
moving away from the nation-state analysis, it is the social movements who
could be the new leaders: the environmental movements, the women's movements
and the various spiritual movements. Their unity may develop from struggle
against the status quo.
gives us a pattern for the future from which we can understand the formation
of the next integrative phase. He
places this pattern not at the level of the supersystem
but at the level of civilization.
Since Western civilization so strongly corresponds with sensate
civilization, that is, since the West has assumed the form of the universal
system, Sorokin speaks directly to the future of the West.
The pattern he gives is crises,
catharsis, charisma and resurrection.
At present, the West stands in the middle of sensate civilization,
awaiting the final two stages of charisma and resurrection.
The West awaits new leadership that can inspire and lead it to a
rebirth in spirit and society, mind and body, individual and collective. But
then eventually, since each stage is temporary, the next stage (ideational)
will emerge from the integrated stage and the pendulum will continue.
But can these categories themselves be transcended?
Given the empirical evidence of history and the structure of the real,
for Sorokin the answer would be in the negative, at least at the level of the
social system. Individually one
might adopt a view of the real that is neither ideational, integrated or
sensate, but nihilistic. This latter view, however, does not lead to a social
is particularly rich as a predictive and interpretive theory of the future.
From Sarkar, we have his theory of social cycle; his theory of
civilization; and, his vision of the future.
Appropriate questions to begin an analysis include?
Which varna will lead next?
Which stage are we in now? Will
the cycle move forward or will there be a reversal?
Which civilizations or ideology will continue and which will collapse
or cause oppression? Certainly
from Sarkar's view the communist (ksattriyan)
nations are now moving into their Vipran era.
Will this era be dominated by the church or the university, and how
long will it be before these new intellectuals become technocrats for the
capitalist era to emerge? For the
nations or groups presently in the capitalist cycle where will the new
workers' evolution or revolution come from?
And what of the centralization of power that ensues?
What will a Ksattriyan
(warrior/military) USA look like? Batra
reminds us that historically it is these ksattriyan
eras that are often seen as the golden ages -- at least for those in the
centre of the empire -- as they provide security and welfare for citizens and
Ksattriyan nations also
expand physically. Is space the
can also use Sarkar's theory of civilizations and movements to gauge their
possible success. Do these new
movements -- feminist, ecological, ethnic, regional, and consumer -- have the
necessary characteristics to create a new system?
Do they have an authoritative text, leadership, a theory of
political-economy, spiritual practices, fraternal universal outlook, and
theory of Being/Consciousness? Are
there any ideologies that fulfil this criteria for success? Answering these
questions would aid in understanding the long term future of the new
Toynbee, we can ask which civilizations can meet the numerous technological
and ecological survival challenges facing humanity?
Which civilizations will find their development arrested as they are
unable to deal with the coming challenges?
Will there be a spiritual rebirth that revitalizes the present? Is a
Universal State next? Or is the
next stage a Universal Church? Who
and where are the upcoming creative minority?
Will Western civilization survive or will it go the way of historical
declines? If there is a spiritual rebirth, who will lead it and how will it
Ssu-Ma Ch'ien the economic is not an important variable; rather, questions of
leadership and the balance of nature are. For example, who will be the sage
leader that will return the tao and restore balance in China-West relations?
Can government and learning be restored so that there is social
balance? How can unity among
schools of thought, in the nation and in the family become the dominant trend?
As important, how can we reorder our understanding of history and
future so to more accurately to reflect the lessons of virtue and morality?
Spengler the critical variable or tool for understanding the future is the
lifecycle of culture. Following
Spengler we would attempt to locate cultures in the pattern of the lifecycle.
We would ask which cultures are in the final days and which cultures
are renewing themselves through interaction with other cultures?
We could also ask which cultures are rising and which new cultures are
emerging? For example, is Islamic
culture in its final stages because of the new religiosity, or is it still
expanding because of the recent emergence of the money spirit?
Indeed, world fundamentalism could be seen from a Spenglarian view as
the last breath of dying cultures. Given
that great souls create new cultures, we can survey the world landscape and
speculate which thinkers/activists/leaders might potentially create a new
Pareto and Mosca the theory of elites is paramount.
What will be the level of elite circulation in the future?
Rapid or fixed? Representations of democracy and widespread
participation, notwithstanding, who are the real functioning elites?
Who will the future elites be? Is elite rule the only possible
governance design? Also of importance is Pareto's different types of elites:
the innovators and consolidators. With
respect to Mosca, we can ask whether we are moving from a society of the
wealthy, to a society of warriors.
Comte we can ask have we reached the end of the Positive stage?
Or, since only a few nations have completely entered the Positive
stage, is there still a long wait until the rest of the world joins in and
become developed? Or, does the
collapse of communism and decline of Islam (in political power if not in mass
numbers) signify the continued movement of positivism?
Indeed, the present can be construed as a validation of Comte and
Smith, among others. Liberalism
has become the dominant ideology; the scientific worldview remains the
official global ideology.
Hegel we search for the location of the Geist.
Which society has solved basic, historical contradictions?
Some argue that the Geist
has shifted from the US to Japan as perhaps the Japanese conquered the
contradictions of individual and family in the form of their state?
Who will the new world historical leaders be?
And if we follow Hegel's conclusions, should not we see the ultimate
resolution of the Geist in the form
of a world state either through the victory of one state or through some type
of consolidation? In the Hegelian
view, the variables that we should focus on are the dialectics of the spirit,
the power of the state, and rare world leaders.
Marx (with renewal from Wallerstein) we can ask has the end of communism
mainly furthered commodification of the world (the proletarization of Eastern
Europe)? Will the dramatic and
total success of capitalism and its eventual transformation lead to socialism?
Are we closer to global socialism than ever before?
Will the new electronic and genetic technologies change social
relations, or will they merely further commodify workers?
Adam Smith it is not only the future of the market as a hegemonic metaphor and
a site of economic exchange that we should look for but Smith's other key
category as well: that of love for the other and love for self as the causal
mechanism of social change. Will
the future see a society that combines love or self-love or will this
combination fail to emerge and lead to civilizational decline?
theory and his biological metaphor predicts a world government which would
function as the brain of civilization. This world government would also end
the rebarbarization of civilization (the world wars).
Spencer also predicts a new societal stage neither barbarous, militant
nor industrial. He writes: But
civilization does not end with the industrial.
A possible future type might emerge.
Different as much from the industrial as this does from the militant--a
type which, having a sustaining system more fully developed than any we know
at present, will use the products of industry neither for maintaining a
militant organization not exclusively for material aggrandizement; but will
devote them to the carrying on of higher activities.
this vision it would be the individual businessman that would lead society
onwards. According to economist
Robert Nelson, "in social Darwinism, the successful businessman was among
the chosen, now the central agent in the evolutionary progress of mankind.
Herbert Spencer believed that the end result of progress would be a
world without government, marked by altruism in individual behavior."
Eisler the relevant questions relate to gender.
What might the partnership society look like?
What are its contours and contradictions?
How will it come about? What
are the supporting trends? What
of the contradictory trends which show increased androgyny throughout the
planet? Will the partnership society then revert to a cyclical or pendulum
social formations or will it continue unabated through the future?
calling attention to ancient Western goddess myths, the Gaia hypothesis, for
example, as well as the softer partnership dimensions in all the world's
religions, Eisler hopes that humans can help create a new story.
Eisler gives us many examples of individuals telling a new story, but
her main argument is, echoing Kenneth Boulding, if it exists, it can be.
That is, if there are examples of partnership societies either now or in
history, we can create a global civilization based on such ethics and values.
If it has existed, it can be. By returning to history, she reminds us that
such cultures did exist. By foraging through the present and history, she
tells us what went wrong, how our pedagogy, our daily actions, our children's
stories, our scholarship, our theories all reaffirm the dominator myth. By
envisioning an alternative future she intends to create what can be.
focuses specifically on the image of the future.
Those collectivities with no vision of the future decline: those with a
positive image of the future -- transcendental and immanent -- advance.
Humanity especially now needs a positive image of the future so as to
create a new tomorrow. For
Boulding, given the power of human agency, the future cannot be forecasted.
The image of the future cannot be predicted. As
with cultural historian William Irwin Thompson, the image emerges organically
at an unconscious mythological level. Mythology
cannot be categorized nor rationally created -- it is constantly changing
always more than what we can know. But
although the future cannot be predicted we can assert that history follows a
rise and fall related to the image of the future.
can also ask: why do some societies develop compelling images of the future
and others do not? Answering this
question would lead to a more complete theory of history.
Like Eisler, Boulding's view of the future leads her to develop
political strategies in which associations attempt to imagine and commit to
their preferred future. A central
part of this imagination is faith in the realization of the preferred future.
To develop this faith -- a concrete belief in a future possibility --
Boulding advocates developing future histories in which individuals after
imagining their vision develop strategies for how this vision came to be.
From these timelines, hope that tomorrow can be changed is gained.
Agency thus overcomes structure.
advocates global samaj (society,
people) movements that challenge nationalism, capitalism and the dogma of
traditional religions. Locally and globally active, these movements, Sarkar
believes, will transform the inequities of the current world capitalist
system. Coupled with spiritual
leadership, Sarkar is hopeful that a new phase in human history can begin.
macrohistorians aid in transforming the discourse away from the litany of
minor trends and events to a macro level of stages and grand causes.
While their stages do not provide concrete data for policy making, they
provide an alternative way of thinking about the future. Most importantly,
they tell us where to look if we seek to understand the future to be. The
stages macrohistorians offer also provide the study of the future an anchor, a
structure from which debate or dialog becomes possible.
Otherwise thinking about the future remains idiosyncratic, overly
the link between leadership and historical structure is crucial to
understanding the possibilities of the future, of the plausibility of creating
a different society. For Eisler,
Sarkar, Marx, and Gramsci, leadership can transform historical structure. For
others such as Khaldun and Ssu-Ma Ch'ien, even as leaders create the future
they are bounded by the structures of history, of the rise and fall of virtue,
asabiya, of the pendulum swings of
materialism and idealism, as with Sorokin.
For Hegel, leaders appear to have agency but in fact are used by the
cunning of Reason. Leaders merely continue the onward march of the spirit. But
for Toynbee, leadership in the form of the creativity minority can keep a
civilization from decline, moving it from strength to strength. By meeting
internal and external challenges, they can avoid becoming a dominant imitative
majority. But for others such as Spengler, once culture has degenerated into
mass/mob civilization and the money-spirit has become dominant, there is
little any leader can do - the lifecycle of the culture cannot be changed,
death inevitably follows life.
futurists, who largely speak of disjunction, of bifurcation, of technology
transforming the grand patterns of history, macrohistorians by using metaphors
such as the birth and death of the individual and the natural world remind us
of what does not change, what cannot change. They impose limits of what can be
created in the future. While this might be troublesome to many who think
anything is possible through the right mix of capital, technology and
organization, for those from outside the Centre, from some of the world's
ancient civilizations, macrohistory is eminently sensible.
Still macrohistory is not static. Indeed, it is the macrohistorian's
theory of change that is often the insight needed to transform self and other.
with futurists who do not locate their own work with an episteme,
macrohistorians often speak from a view outside of history.
While leading to a certain arrogance this also gives the theory a
certain legitimacy, a certain empirical finality.
Yet, history is spoken of in dramatic terms, as art, poetry, and as
prophecy - not in terms of right or wrong, but in terms of creating a mythic
distance from the present.
Without this prophetic dimension, this priviledged perspective of past,
present and future, there works would be mere academic treatises that reflect
upon history but do not recreate it. Like
futures studies, macrohistory is intended to recreate history and future.
Johan Galtung and Sohail Inayatullah, eds. Macrohistory
and Macrohistorians (Westport, CT, London, Praeger, 1997) and a special
issue of New Renaissance titled
"Rethinking History." (Vol. 7, No. 1, 1996). Much of this material
is drawn from chapter 3, "Macrohistorians Compared: Towards a Theory of
Macrohistory" and a longer version has appeared in Futures
(Vol. 30, No. 5, 1998).
The macrohistorians used for this article include: Ssu-Ma Ch'ien, St.
Augustine, Ibn Khaldun, Giambatista Vico, Adam Smith, G.W.F. Hegel, Auguste
Comte, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, Max
Weber, Oswald Spengler, Teilhard de Chardin, Pitirim Sorokin, Arnold
Toynbee, Rudolf Steiner, Fernand Braudel, Fred Polak, Prabhat Rainjan
Sarkar, Elise Boulding, Riane Eisler, Johan Galtung and Gaia herself.
Attila Faj, "Vico's Basic Law of History in Finnegans
Wake," in Donald Phillip Verene, ed., Vico
and Joyce (New York, State University of New York Press, 1987), 22-23.
See, for example, Sohail Inayatullah, "Sarkar's
Spiritual-Dialectics: An Unconventional View of the Future," Futures
(Vol. 20, No. 1, February, 1988), 54-65 and Sohail Inayatullah, Situating
Sarkar (Singapore, AM Publications, 1998)
See Ravi Batra, The Downfall
of Capitalism and Communism. 2nd Edition. (Dallas, Venus Books, 1990).
See, his latest, The Stock Market
Crash of 1998 and 1999 (Dallas, Venus Books, 1998).
Herbert Spencer, Structure,
Function and Evolution (London, Michael Joseph, 1971), 169.
Robert Nelson, "Why Capitalism Hasn't Won Yet," Forbes
(November 25, 1991), 106.
In conversation with Elise Boulding. Brisbane, July 9, 1996.
Ashis Nandy, "The Futures of Dissent," Seminar
(No. 460, December 1997), 45.