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Is History Cyclical?

Put your optimism on hold, says John Gray. Times of progress can be deceptive because history is actually cyclical.

What’s the Big Idea?

John Gray, a British philosopher notable for being one of the only public intellectuals to anticipate the economic collapse of 2008, told Big Think that boom times are deceptive because history is cyclical, rather than progressive. “We’re not moving to a world in which [crises] will never happen or [will] happen less and less.  We are in a world in which they happen several times during a given human lifetime and I think that will continue to be the case in any future that we can realistically envisage.”

Political and economic upheavals, Gray argues, are not the exception but the rule. “The events which we’ve been taught are abnormal are in fact normal. Normal collapses, normal breakdowns, normal crises occur within most human lives.” He points to the fall of the Soviet Union as another instance in which an entity that seemed “too big to fail” disintegrated suddenly. “In the 1970’s and 80’s, I was unusual in thinking that the Soviet regime could and would collapse,” he says. “Most diplomats and political scientists said ‘Of course it won’t collapse, that’s fantastic, apocalyptic. It’s too strong: it’s been around since 1917.’ All that turned out to be complete nonsense. It vanished within the space of a couple of years.”

What’s the significance?

While we can’t predict the future, we can prepare for it. “Don’t listen to financial planners who tell you that you’re going to get six or seven percent or even two or three percent every year from investing in a certain way. They don’t know that. History has never been steadily cumulative or if it has, it has been for periods or 5 or 10 or 15 or at most 20 years, and then some kind of great punctuation occurs and a lot of the wealth you thought you had vanishes up in smoke before your eyes.”

The key to securing your financial future may lie in anticipating the safest place to stash your savings. “Over a whole lifetime, over several decades, over your active life there will be great punctuations and disruptions. You’ve got to think of strategies which can survive such punctuations. You’re trying to really pit your wits against history. But we’re all in that situation.”


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