Are There Alternating Cycles of Hot and Cool in American Cultural History? (Part 1 of 2)
And are we midway through a hot cycle right now?
I’m tempted to put a warning label on this article—something along the lines of: Beware, this is highly speculative!
Then again, I should probably put that warning on everything I write.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, media & culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
After all, it’s hardly worth writing—or even living, for that matter—if you don’t take some chances. That’s also a good attitude for a jazz person, by the way. If you want to play it safe, you better not get on the bandstand with Miles or Trane or Monk or Bird. If I’m true to my self-image as a jazzy person—whatever that means—I really ought to be speculative, to say the least.
With that proviso, I want to share my thinking on hot and cool cycles in American culture. This stuff is highly speculative, but I’m going to share it with you because it has helped me predict trends and events with an uncanny degree of accuracy.
The concepts shared below have helped me enormously during the last two decades, in both artistic and sociopolitical spheres. And I’ve relied on them even in matters of personal finance, parenting, and various other life strategies.
I firmly believe that I’ve understood the strange events of recent times much better because, even at the height of optimism during the early Obama years, I’d decided that we had entered into a hot, angry cycle in our country’s history. And I also believed I could anticipate the duration and cultural impact of this shift.
Above all, I made a personal decision to operate in opposition to the current hot, anger-driven cycle, and in anticipation of the next cool cycle—which is still some years in the future. (I will discuss this more in part 2.)
I developed the concepts shared below while writing my book The Birth (and Death) of the Cool (published in 2009)—but I left them most of them out of the book, for the very reason I mentioned above. They seemed too speculative, too controversial. I applied them privately in my personal assessment of events, but never mentioned them in public.
I simply didn’t want to get drawn into all the debates and arguments they would stir up.
But additional evidence has convinced me the basic concepts here are correct, and I’ve continued to refine them over time. With some trepidation, I’m now publishing them, although I expect these views will stir up a lot of disagreement.
In fact, the intensity of public debates—which are really more exchanges of insults than actual debates nowadays—is one of the things I explain here.
In my book The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, I examined just one cycle: a period of coolness in American culture that persisted over a fifty year period from 1949 to 1999. It was an era marked by playfulness, irony, humor, stylishness, openness, opposition to violence and control by authorities, a loosening of social and sexual constraints, and a fascination with low-key or indirect ways of dealing with conflict.
On the larger scale, even the biggest global conflict during those years was described as a Cold War. You can’t get much cooler than that—even war is chill. And this was emblematic of the cultural shifts on the ground level. People had just survived a World War, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, and unprecedented conflict and carnage. So it’s hardly surprising that they embraced a cultural shift to coolness.
As the cool ethos spread, you were more likely to make jokes about disagreements rather than get into out-and-out shouting matches (the exact opposite of today, it seems). Coolness permeated every social setting, and continued to do so until shortly before 9/11.
It’s tempting to view September 11, 2001 as the turning point when cool shifted to hot. But, in fact, my research indicated that the groundwork for the change was already being laid in the 1990s. (If you want to know more about that, you will need to read the book.)
While researching and writing my history of the cool, I started to grasp that similar shifts had happened in the past. But I didn’t want to go off on that tangent in my book on the cool. And I was also very hesitant to offer some grand Spenglerian or Hegelian theory of historical cycles.
That would have embroiled me in endless controversy and argumentation. Few things are more tendentious than theories of human history, and I didn’t want to associate myself with that way of conceptualizing events.
Yet in my heart, I was deeply convinced that societies, at any given moment, tend either toward the cool or the hot—and that the shifts are self-correcting and thus repeating. Once things get too hot, people want them to cool down. When things get too cool, people want them to heat up.
This seems like common sense to me nowadays—and doesn’t require a Hegelian spirit of history to hover over the scene, prodding cultures into new directions. I’m not offering a grand theory of social types, merely extrapolating from basic and obvious assumptions about human behavior.
Okay—so much for my warning label. Below are my highly speculative observations on hot and cool cycles, with thoughts on why they happen, where we are now in the hot cycle, and how this might play out in the future.
(Note: I know that Soros is a very controversial figure—so let me assure you upfront that his “Theory of Reflexivity” has no connection with these controversies. It’s an explanatory model of how trends develop, and makes no judgment on the value of the trend in question. As I point out below, Peter Thiel—the exact opposite of Soros in ideological debates—operates with an identical concept of reflexivity, although he wouldn’t use that term.)
I first encountered this concept in Soros’s book The Alchemy of Finance, and it has proven very useful for me, over the years, in analyzing all sorts of trends—not just financial ones, but also artistic, cultural, and political changes.
The key kernel of wisdom here is that when people make decisions, they aren’t based on reality but, instead, on the prevailing concept of reality that dominates their society. So instead of examining the facts, individuals look at how other people are reacting to the supposed facts, and have a strong urge to imitate what everyone else is doing. René Girard calls this mimetic desire, and I’ve come to believe that it is the most powerful force in modern culture.
But Soros’s brilliant insight is that a situation like this is highly unstable, with trends feeding on themselves—thus going beyond any reasonable point. Hence even everyday situations reach irrational extremes. And at that juncture—when matters have progressed to unstable levels—the trend reverses sharply.
Soros made billions by understanding how this tendency impacts currency markets, and placing financial wagers based on it. He grasped that when a trend is in motion—for example, the rising or falling of the British pound—it will continue far beyond any reasonable level until a breaking point occurs. And then the same thing begins happening in the opposite direction.
This matched my own analysis, for example when I saw how the US dollar got stronger for periods of roughly ten years, then got weaker for roughly ten years. I first noticed the pattern in the 1980s, when someone hired me to analyze foreign cash flows and exchange rates. I was puzzled by a supposedly efficient market that acted as if each trend was feeding on itself before finally reversing dramatically—and then doing the same thing in the opposite direction.
Back in 1985, I came to the conclusion that each cycle with the US dollar lasted roughly one decade—no matter what was happening in politics or the economy. As strange as it sounds, the cycle seemed more driven by psychology than current events.
And these long cycles have persisted since that time. Back in 1985, I couldn’t understand why these cycles played out over such exteneded periods, and then sharply reversed—but Soros and Girard helped me grasp the underlying mechanism.
Here’s the rule (and you do well to memorize it): Once a cycle is in motion, it continues in the same direction much longer than is reasonable, until it reaches a ridiculous extreme—only then does it make a sharp reversal.
In other words, markets do not represent a rational pricing mechanism. Because of human nature, they always overshoot the mark. And this overreaction creates the momentum—the launching pad, so to speak, for the reverse cycle.
You can take that to the bank, literally—because there’s money to be made understanding that human failing. It’s no coincidence that Peter Thiel made a billion dollars by applying René Girard’s thinking to his initial investment in Facebook. He actually bought more than ten percent of the entire company for just $500,000—and simply because he saw the business as an obvious channel for mimetic desire. (By comparison, Facebook’s market value today is $560 billion.)
And consider for one moment the extraordinary notion of George Soros and Peter Thiel—as opposite ideologically as you can imagine—both applying the same conceptual framework to becoming billionaires. Surely that’s a conceptual tool worth understanding.
This is what separates the theory of reflexivity from the other cyclical hypotheses. Some of them are sheer idiocy—such as Elliott Wave Theory or Kondratiev supercycles. And there many others, even more bogus.
What we are dealing with here, in contrast, is something used by actual billionaires, not crackpots, and supported by a robust psychological model of human behavior.
This way of thinking forced me to ask whether non-financial trends move in the same way. Do these cycles and predictive tools also help explain what happens in arts, music, politics, media, education, sports, etc.?
Let’s dig into this. What we learn may surprise you. It certainly surprised me. . .