Unrelated? Dr. Mordechai Kedar on Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical theory of history; Bill Whittle on what’s wrong with Boeing

I’m sure you’ve all seen variants on this meme:

It’s attributed here (whence I grabbed the meme following a Google Images search) to a post-apocalyptic novel, but the idea is very old: Oswald Spengler articulates pretty much the same thing in his Decline of the West (Die Untergang des Abendlandes). I just had no idea how old.

A YouTube channel named (in Hebrew) “coming to the professors” has many interviews with Prof. Mordechai Kedar, lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan University whose work I have previously discussed here. Unabashedly Orthodox and religious Zionist, he nevertheless speaks of Arab culture with a level of empathy that puts many “yefe nefesh” [“beautiful souls”, i.e., “bleeding hearts”] to shame.

The other day he had a long lecture on Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical theory of history; now an abridged English version has been posted. Dr. Kedar is extremely articulate in Hebrew, a bit more hesitant in English. (I cannot vouch for his spoken Arabic: suffice to say he has apparently declined at least one serious offer of a professorship in the Gulf States.)

Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī (Tunis 1332 – Cairo 1406), generally referred to as Ibn Khaldun, was a medieval historian and philosopher of history. His major life work, Kitab al-`Ibar [Hebrew speakers will recognize ktav [al] ha`avar, writing about the past] was a seven-book series with a “history of the world” up to his own time. However, what has been read and studied outside the Arab realm is the first book, al-Muqqadimah, [“The Introduction”, or, “Prolegomena”], in which he lays out his theory of how human society evolves.

His reference point is, of course, the desert, but one can substitute any unforgiving environment or climate.

First phase: people start out in the desert. Because it is impossible to survive in this environment alone (for one, if you do find water, the well or oasis needs to be guarded lest a competing tribe rob you of it), group cohesion, or what Ibn Khaldun calls Issabiya (which Dr. Kedar translated with the German loan word Volksgeist, popular spirit), becomes all-important for survival.

Next, the tribe discovers a more fertile/hospitable land and — thanks in no small part to its Issabiya — conquers and settles it. [The reference to the Arab conquest of the Fertile Crescent is obvious.]

The next generation grows up with parents who experienced that struggle, and is influenced by this, and continues to learn the ways of the warrior and of survival in the desert.

The generation after them mostly hears these things second-hand, a little bit from surviving grandparent. In the next generation after that, it is no longer in living memory. Every generation progressively loses Issabiya and becomes more attached to a hedonistic lifestyle of riches, alcohol, cannabis [hashish in Ibn Khaldun’s time], exotic eroticism, etc.

Finally, they will be displaced and dispossessed by a hungry young upstart tribe, who have eyed their lands and seen the inhabitants lack the will to live on. [Some will die, others will flee, yet others will presumably assimilate into the new culture.]

Now, you wonder, what does all this have to do with Boeing? I will let Bill Whittle explain.

Briefly, Boeing went from a hungry, passionate startup where the founders wagered their own fortune, to a company that did the seemingly impossible (the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-29 Superfortress, the B-52 which is still operational in 2021, but also the Boeing 707, the Jumbo, the 737, the Dreamliner,…) to a corporate dinosaur that has seemingly forgotten what it’s all about and just lumbers and blunders on from one fiasco to the next. The company that once could build the first stage of the Saturn on fairly short notice has trouble producing a leak-proof spacesuit now, as it drowns in bureaucratic entropy. Meanwhile, in that very same space field, small upstarts are eating their lunch, the way a small upstart named Apple [that is meanwhile well on the road to dinosaurification itself] once ate IBM’s lunch. [Have you used any IBM computers later?]

Is this process inevitable? Perhaps it needn’t be, methinks, but arresting it requires firmly, and constantly, reminding ourselves what we’re all about. And reinventing ourselves when we have to.[*]

[*] This is exactly what IBM did, by the way: reinventing itself as a services rather than a hardware company. Microsoft is far into the process of doing the same.

2 thoughts on “Unrelated? Dr. Mordechai Kedar on Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical theory of history; Bill Whittle on what’s wrong with Boeing

  1. Robert X Cringely’s Accidental Empires book about silicon valley that he wrote in the 1990s comes to mind.

    One of the metaphors he drew regarding startups is to compare them to invading armies (I think he may have borrowed the metaphor, but his book was where I first encountered it).

    Basically you start off with the special forces, commandos etc. whose job is to simply break things and not worry about clean up or anything. Just trash the enemy. Then there’s the beachhead marines who expand into the chaos and gain some control of the situation. Behind them is the regular army that institutes the new order and authority. And finally once everything has been pacified you have the police and the other trappings of government to keep things in the new form. You can see this trajectory in many technology companies (and that certainly includes Boeing).

    As they get to the point where there isn’t much to conquer the commando types, and even the marines, leave and move on because they are bored and don’t fit in a large bureaucratic organization (which the occupying army and then civil authorities are). So the people left are exactly the people who like order and are resistant to change and disruption as opposed to the people who started the company who are all about causing disruption and change.

    In aerospace all the good engineers are at SpaceX, Blue Origin etc. The ones are Boeing have less drive and so on. I find it very hard to see how a large stable bureaucratic organization attracts the troublemakers back

  2. Large, and small Hydrocarbon extracting & processing companies use Geophysical Contractors to do their exploration fieldwork. A few in-house Seismic Crews are operated by a very few large companies. By putting Projects out for Bid, the advantages of competition assure efficient work. The huge areas covered by underwater exploration projects have seen astonishing equipment invented and improved. A lot of modern understanding of ocean-bottom details are the results of small amounts of the processed and mapped results of modern ship-operated Geophysical Exploration.

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