Alfred Kroeber’s 1944 book, Configurations of Culture Growth, is a masterpiece in the field of anthropology. He was a 68-year-old professor at the University of California in Berkeley when his 882-page book came out. Youth favours mathematicians and mobile phone app writers but not anthropologists. They have no way of bypassing the decades of reading and research and deep synthesis it takes to become good in their field.
And so what did the great Kroeber conclude after all his work? First, that individual geniuses in the arts and sciences tend to rise from advancing cultures, not declining ones. The peak period of a culture is signalled by a spike in genius contributors in the sciences and the arts. (We could add technology.) The best Greek tragedies and comedies were written within a 100-year period when ancient Greece was at its peak. The peak in Germany’s music culture lasted less than 200 years. Of longer duration was England’s peak creative period in science and technology, which ran from about 1680 to 1910. The decline in genius contributors after that foreshadowed England’s decline as a global superpower.
Second, that cultures advance when ethics and values become understood and are deeply embraced and when competence is tested through competition. Cultures decline when the opposite happens. Most cultures don’t fall by being conquered, not at first. They wither from an erosion of values, insular thinking and a lack of competition. Not being robust from within or tested from without, cultures become weak without knowing it. Or sensing they might be rotting, they cling to comic book values, centralised authority and thicker walls of protective insularity as a means of stopping the decline.
Using Professor Kroeber’s analysis, would you say the US is advancing or declining? Well, successive American presidents have sought to consolidate power. Not a good sign. The two presidential candidates leading in the polls as of mid-October, [Hillary] Clinton and [Donald] Trump, have turned their backs on trade policies that freely engage with the world. Another bad sign (have we lost our competitive confidence?). How’s the country doing on the ethics and values front? Sheesh—do we want to go there? Clinton and Trump should avert their eyes.
Conclusion: The American political system is in decline.
How about in the arts and sciences? Too long a topic, too short a column! But let’s say this is mixed. Contrast that with the 100-year period in the US from 1865 to 1965, when arts and sciences were rapidly advancing.
The bright spot
How about American companies? Here at last is some good news: They are advancing in the world. Trump says America no longer wins. But America’s tech juggernauts—Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft—are so powerful that Europe wants to block them or break them up. By market cap, as of late October, the US is home to the top ten companies in the world (Apple, Google, Microsoft, Exxon, Berkshire Hathaway, General Electric, Facebook, Amazon, Wells Fargo and Johnson & Johnson). Five of these are tech companies with strong momentum.
The evolutionary pace of core technology is slowing a bit. The half-century run of Moore’s Law is now being challenged by the cost of circuits manufactured on the atomic scale. We have no flying cars, supersonic airplanes or hyperloops—yet. Lack of scientific progress is blunting technology at the leading edge. Still, there’s so much catch-up work to be done, resulting in trillion-dollar opportunities, that we should merrily dive in. Energy, transportation, agriculture and health care are being transformed by digital technology. American entrepreneurs and firms are in a great position to profit from this.
Also in ascent are the world’s “supercities”, a trend that ruffles nativists in every country. New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco-Silicon Valley increasingly see themselves as islands in a global economy, less tied to the US. Are we living in a period of “peak nation”?
But for every rise, there’s a backlash. In Malaysia, native Malays, many of whom haven’t kept pace with immigrants from China, India and Europe, are called the bhumiputra—sons of the soil. Ponder this: Much of Malaysia’s majority population holds victim status and enjoys affirmative-action benefits—and not for being the minority but for not keeping up.
Every country today has its bhumiputra. In the US, they look to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, respond to comic book values and demand more insularity. Their problems and pain are real. But Trump and Sanders offer solutions that will hasten our decline.
Rich Karlgaard is the publisher at Forbes
(This story appears in the 11 December, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)