While not a student of Toynbee AFAIK, Carroll Quigley worked from Toynbee's theories in The Evolution of Civilizations with a lengthy discussion of the state of Western Civilization. This was written in 1961 with a second edition in 1979, so also predated the end of the Cold War. However he made some predictions for what stage Western Civilization is in that might be of interest.
He observed that while most other civilizations followed the path of growth to empire and then to inevitable decay, Western Civilization has differed in that it has "gone to the brink" of empire multiple times only to shift itself back into expansion. He draws the following periods for Western Civilization:
- Mixture (370-750 AD) Grecoroman + Christianity + "Barbarian"
- Gestation (750-970) Viking raids, petty kingdoms
- Expansion (970-1270) Feudal system, guild economics
- Conflict (1270-1440) Hundred Years' War and economic institutionalism
- Expansion II (1440-1650) Renaissance, commercial capitalism
- Conflict II - (1650-1730) Imperialist wars, class conflict
- Expansion III - (1730-1890) Industrial revolution, financial capitalism
- Conflict III - (1890-??)
He ends his book leaving #8/9 an open question:
At the present time it is too early to judge if the present crisis of
Western civilization will resolve itself into a new, fourth Age of
Expansion, or will continue through an Age of Conflict to a universal
empire and ultimately to decay and invasion.
I think Quigley's treatment of the 20th century is a bit weak; he was in the midst of it when he wrote his book, and of course could not see the outcomes of the things he worried about. However, to carry his thinking forward we might complete the table with:
8 Conflict III - (1890-1945) World Wars
9 Expansion IV - (1945-?) Information revolution, globalist capitalism
Quigley's definition of a Stage of Expansion are (a) increased production of goods; (b) increase in population; (c) increase in geographical extent through exploration and colonization; (d) increase in knowledge. I think we can safely say the 2nd half of the 20th century has fulfilled all of these (with space exploration sort of satisfying (c)).
His alternative was that Conflict III would be followed by an Age of Universal Empire. The requirements for such a period are (a) Political domination by a single state (the USA in this case), (b) universal peace and (apparent) prosperity, (c) little economic expansion, (d) no new inventions, (e) vested interests have triumphed and waste capital building blatant monuments.
I think at the end of WWII there was a window of opportunity where the USA could potentially have taken direct control over much of Europe and East Asia, and if so we might have seen something like that. But instead it rebuilt those countries into independent democracies and allowed them to pursue their own economic growth and new inventions, and invested its peace dividend into education, the space race, various wars, creating the Internet, etc.
At the end of the Cold War, there did seem to be a worry the USA would become the dominant political state, and certainly from a military perspective the US has been a major player. But the EU, Russia, China, and really all the rest of the world are hardly showing signs of being "dominated".
The second condition, universal peace, I would actually argue is being realized. Toynbee would restrict his judgement to areas within the borders of so-called 'Western civilization'; if we restrict our view to the traditional 'Western civilization' boundaries we'd see there's been a few regional conflicts but nothing major for a long time. And even broadening the scope to the global picture, while there are some serious conflicts going on in places like the Middle East and Africa, placed in historical context even these seem not exceptionally abnormal.
The third and fourth conditions, economic expansion and new inventions, are where our situation is clearest. Both are on a tear by any measure. Innovations like personal computing, Wikipedia, drones, p2p file sharing, and robotics have fundamentally challenged and changed how we work as a civilization. And I think we're far from seeing the last of these sorts of changes.
The final condition has to do with wasteful monuments. I do think we as a civilization waste a huge amount of our economic resources and potential chasing achievements that merely seek self-reaffirmation. But we're far from the type of civilization-wide uber-monuments that Toynbee had in mind.
So, where are we right now? Are we still in a growth phase? One could argue that 9/11/2001 marked a turning point into an Age of Conflict, what with the wars in the Middle East. Economically we certainly seem to be on shaky ground, with class conflict and irrationality in politics - all characteristic of Conflict. Further, you could argue the growing dominance of multinational corporations across all aspects of society, including food, materials, journalism, and even the military represents an institutionalization of our instrument of expansion; a pre-condition for Quigley's Conflict period. The recent bubble collapse has left many in the situation of leaving less to their children than they themselves started with; another Quigley pre-condition for Conflict. We're investing less in education, leaving future generations with fewer tools to ensure continued growth. Global warming is disrupting food production in the near term, and drinking water supply in the long term. Wealth is more concentrated in a smaller percentage of people, and that wealth is increasingly locked up in unproductive savings rather than being re-invested.
But it's possible these things just seem dire due to their proximity to us. Recent wars haven't been for territorial expansion, as would be the case with traditional imperialist warfare, and haven't been the civilization-wide struggles that the world wars were. It seems like we get about 100 years of expansion between Conflicts, so what we're seeing today may be just precursors of what's to come in a few more decades. More optimistically we could consider the significant discoveries and developments with solar power, natural gas fracking, community gardening, open source computing, robotics, co-operatives, desktop manufacturing and genetics as promising new avenues of growth for our future; if we can accelerate those developments maybe it'll push us back more deeply into growth.
It'll probably become clearer in a couple hundred years. ;-)
We need to also take into consideration that Quigley's thinking and writing was occurring in the 1950's and may be reflecting some of the strong pro-West biases and nuclear obliteration fears of the time into his theories. Did he feel the same at the end of his life in 1977? Would he hold this theory today in 2014? And most importantly, what do we think of all this here today?