Political midlife crisis

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A political midlife crisis is a turning point or watershed moment in the fortunes of a governance entity such as an empire, nation, faction, political party, or international alliance. The concept was first advanced by Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), who compared an individual's decline after reaching the age of forty, with the sedentary decline that occurs in a dynasty.[1] More recently, political scientist Joshua S Goldstein has used the concept in his 1988 book, Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age.

A political midlife crisis occurs following a prolonged golden age of expansionism, optimism, economic progress, conquest, or other success, and typically features attacks on, or threats toward, a rival power. The attacks are vigorously opposed, ending in stalemate or defeat.

Political midlife crisis" is parallel to "midlife crisis" in a middle-aged person's identity and self-confidence, caused by the person's aging, mortality, and any perceived deficiencies in life attainments. Political midlife crisis applies the concepts of "social organism" and "body politic", which view an entire human society as a kind of single super-organism.

History of the concept[edit]

Ibn Khaldun, in the Muqaddimah (1377), set out a general theory of the rise and fall of regimes. A ruthless conqueror with a "desert attitude" establishes a new dynasty. Over some years, royal authority and asabiyyah (social cohesion) enable "expansion to the limit". Then, as in the life of an individual, a turning point is reached. According to Ibn Khaldun, when a man reaches forty he naturally stops growing, then begins to decline. The same is the case with a sedentary civilization's culture.[1] The dynasty's new sedentary culture fosters a love of luxury and pomp. The people become over-taxed and acquire a "habit of subservience".[2] Their rulers subvert property rights and become weak, dishonest, and divided. Finally, after three generations—equivalent to a human lifespan—the dynasty becomes "senile and coercive".[3] There may follow a final "brightly burning show of power",[4] but collapse of the dynasty is inevitable. A new dynasty takes over, and the cycle continues. Ibn Khaldun says: "This senility is a chronic disease that cannot be cured, because it is something natural."[5]

In 1988, Joshua S Goldstein advanced the concept of the political midlife crisis in his book on "long cycle theory", Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age,[6][page needed] which offers four examples of the process:

  • The British Empire and the Crimean War (1853–1856): A century after the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and following the subsequent railway boom of 1815–1853, Britain, in the Crimean War, declared war on the Russian Empire, which was perceived as a threat to British India and to eastern Mediterranean trade routes to the Indian subcontinent. The Crimean War highlighted the poor state of the British Army, which were then addressed, and Britain concentrated on colonial expansion and took no further part in European wars until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
  • The German Empire (Second Reich) and World War I (1914–1918): Under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Germany had been unified between 1864 and 1871, and then had seen 40 years' rapid industrial, military, and colonial expansion. In 1914 the Schlieffen Plan for conquering France in eight weeks was to have been followed by the subjugation of the Russian Empire, leaving Germany the master of Mitteleuropa (Central Europe). In the event, France, Britain, Russia, and the United States fought Germany to a standstill, to defeat, and to a humiliating peace settlement at Versailles (1919) and the establishment of Germany's unstable Weimar Republic (1919–33), in a prelude to World War II.
  • The Soviet Union and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962): The Soviet Union had industrialised rapidly under Joseph Stalin and, following World War II, had become a rival nuclear superpower to the United States. In 1962 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, intent on securing strategic parity with the United States, covertly, with the support of Fidel Castro, shipped nuclear missiles to Castro's Cuba, 70 miles from the US state of Florida. US President John F. Kennedy blockaded (the term "quarantined" being used because a blockade is an act of war), the island of Cuba and negotiated the Soviet missiles' removal from Cuba (in exchange for the subsequent removal of US missiles from Turkey).[vague]
  • The United States and the Vietnam War (1955–1975): During World War II and the ensuing postwar period, the United States had greatly expanded its military capacities and industries. After France, supported financially by the US, had been defeated in Vietnam in 1954 and that country had been temporarily split into North and South Vietnam under the 1954 Geneva Accords; and when war had broken out between the North and South following South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem's refusal to permit all-Vietnam elections in 1956 as stipulated in the Geneva Accords, the ideologically anti-communist United States supported South Vietnam with materiel in a Cold War proxy war and by degrees allowed itself to be drawn into South Vietnam's losing struggle against communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong acting in South Vietnam. Ultimately, following the defeat of South Vietnam and the United States, the US's governing belief that South Vietnam's defeat would result in all of remaining Mainland Southeast Asia "going communist" (as proclaimed by the US's "domino theory"), proved erroneous.[6][page needed]

Following Al Qaeda's attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and the United States' subsequent inconclusive wars in Afghanistan (2001–present) and Iraq (2003–2011), initiated by US President George W. Bush, Professor Gary Weaver and his co-author Adam Mendelson, writing in 2008, cited a survey of 109 historians, 99% of whom rated Bush a "failure" as president, two-thirds rating him the "worst ever". Weaver and Mendelson wrote that the United States had been in its "childhood" before 1898; in its "adolescence", 1898–1945; in "young adulthood", 1945–1991; in "adulthood", 1991–2001. Weaver and Mendelson, from their 2008 perspective, anticipated that the traumas of the George W. Bush presidency would "season [the United States] with new strength, wisdom and maturity", enabling it to move forward from this political midlife crisis.[7][page needed]

The European debt crisis (2009–present) has been called the European Union's midlife crisis in articles by Gideon Rachman,[8] Roland Benedikter,[9][unreliable source?] and Natalie Nougayrède.[10]

Other examples[edit]

Leo Tolstoy, in War and Peace, wrote about the 1812 French invasion of Russia: "What is the cause of this movement which took the French army all the way from Paris to Moscow, and then back to Paris? A system, a mysterious callous force ... the unconscious swarm-life of mankind." The French decision to invade Russia in 1812 had been intended to secure a Franco-Russian alliance that would then conquer India, but it ended in a rout and in the exile of Bonaparte—prompting Stanley Michalak to write that "In 1812 Napoleon failed the supreme test of power politics—knowing when to stop."[11][better source needed]

The 1919 Amritsar massacre in colonial India marked a turning point for the Indian independence movement as many Indians which had hitherto been supportive of colonial rule changed their minds in disgust.[12] Similarly, the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in apartheid-era South Africa brought on a state of emergency and drove the African National Congress underground and into armed struggle.[13][14]

Egypt's defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel was a political turning point for Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser and for the Arab cause. Nasser immediately offered his resignation and died three years later; the cause of Arab nationalism never recovered.[15] Mark Katz[16] describes the event as a "crisis of confidence from which [Egypt] never recovered".

An Economist article was one of the first to recognize the nature of the 2007–08 credit crunch.[17] Beáta Farkas sees the Euro crisis as another financial turning point.[18]

Nations at risk[edit]

The Economist says it is a "question of when, not if, real trouble will hit China".[19] The country is approaching the limits of its potential power and growth, having in 2010 reached the Lewis turning point, an indicator of labour shortages.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 285.
  2. ^ Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 248.
  3. ^ Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, pp. 245, 255.
  4. ^ Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 246.
  5. ^ Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 245.
  6. ^ a b Goldstein, Joshua (1988), Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age, Yale University Press
  7. ^ Weaver, Gary; Mendelson, Adam (2008). America's Midlife Crisis: The Future of a Troubled Superpower. Intercultural Press. ISBN 9781931930079.
  8. ^ Rachman, Gideon (21 July 2010), "Europe Is Having a Midlife Crisis", Financial Times (subscription required)
  9. ^ Benedikter, Roland (20 May 2014), "Europe's Midlife Crisis", interaffairs.ru
  10. ^ Nougayrède, Natalie (1 April 2017), "Europe in crisis? Despite everything, its citizens have never had it so good", The Guardian
  11. ^ Stanley Michalak, A Primer in Power Politics, SR Books, 2001, p. 6.
  12. ^ Dalrymple, William (23 February 2013), "Apologising for Amritsar Is Pointless", The Guardian
  13. ^ [overcomingapartheid.msu.edu;]
  14. ^ Michelle Miller, "Sharpeville Massacre Marked Turning Point in SA History", [cbsnews.com], 18 December 2013.
  15. ^ Anonymous, "Six-day War Marked Political Turning Point in the Arab World", 2 June 2017.
  16. ^ Mark Katz, Revolutions and Revolutionary Waves, St Martin's Press, 1997, p 83
  17. ^ "The Turning Point", The Economist, 20 September 2017, archived from the original on 2014-12-24
  18. ^ Farkas, Beáta (2013). "The Crisis as a Turning Point in the European Convergence Model". In Farkas, Beáta (ed.). The Aftermath of the Crisis in the European Union. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 134–151. ISBN 9781443858038.
  19. ^ Economist, "The Coming Debt Bust", The Economist, 7/5/2016.
  20. ^ Dammon Loyalka, Michelle. "Chinese Labor, Cheap No More". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 January 2015.