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Macrohistory and the Future

Sohail Inayatullah  

History of social systems


Based on the book Macrohistory and Macrohistorians,[1] 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 alternative futures.[2]   

Macrohistory 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 civilizational change.  

Macrohistorians 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.  

By 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.  

Macrohistory, 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 future.

Agency, structure and the transcendental  

Most 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:  

The 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.[3]  

Individuals 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 material world).  

Cyclical and linear  

As 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.  

While 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.   

Linear 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.  

Spiral theorists attempt to include both, having certain dimensions which move forward and certain dimensions that repeat. Spiral theories are fundamentally about a dynamic balance.  

Cyclical 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.   

Metaphors of time  

From 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.   

In 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.  

In 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 expand).  

Expansion/contraction 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.  

Biological 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 - commodifies time.  

But 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).   

The 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.  

The future from macrohistory  

What 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.  

But 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.   

Sorokin 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 system.   

Sarkar is particularly rich as a predictive and interpretive theory of the future.[4]  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 expand wealth.[5]  Ksattriyan nations also expand physically.  Is space the final frontier?  

We 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 movements.  

From 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 come about?


From 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?   

From 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 culture.  

To 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.   

From 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.   

From 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.  

From 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?   

From 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?  

Spencer's 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.[6]  

In 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."[7]  

From 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?  

By 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.[8] 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.  

Polak 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.   

We 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.  

Sarkar 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.  

These 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 values based.  

Leadership and structure  

Finally 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.  

Unlike 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.  

As 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.[9] 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.

[1].         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).

[2].         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.

[3].         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.

[4].         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)

[5].         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).

[6].         Herbert Spencer, Structure, Function and Evolution (London, Michael Joseph, 1971), 169.

[7].         Robert Nelson, "Why Capitalism Hasn't Won Yet," Forbes (November 25, 1991), 106.

[8].         In conversation with Elise Boulding. Brisbane, July 9, 1996.

[9].         Ashis Nandy, "The Futures of Dissent," Seminar (No. 460, December 1997), 45.

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