The ten rules governing how our new world really works (Rule 9: Knowing the Nature of the World You Live In; Or the Trials and Tribulations of George Harrison

Introduction: The Imperative of Understanding Time

Even if a political risk analyst is able to correctly see the basic power structure of the world at any given moment, how does this analysis allow for slow, organic, but very real change in the global system? How can time be factored into the analytical equation? All too often analysis tends to be both static and reactionary, not allowing for the relative rise and fall of countries within the existing global order, let alone fundamental change in the power structure of the world itself. If this is the case, even analysts who are right at the time of their initial analysis over time will become increasingly wrong.

The best (and most entertaining) way to look at the change of power dynamics is to chronicle the startlingly quick unraveling of the greatest pop group in history, The Beatles. The Fab Four went in lightning fashion from a period of artistic and commercial dominance in the mid-1960s (with Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) to their demise in 1970 (following Let It Be and Abbey Road) in the blink of an historical eye.

A basic reason for their collapse was the inability of John Lennon and Paul McCartney to make creative space for the burgeoning talents of their quiet and under-rated lead guitar player, George Harrison. By assuming, as political risk analysts often do, that the present state of the dominant Lennon-McCartney duopoly would go on forever, the Beatles fell victim to a reactionary form of thinking that led directly to their downfall.

In this case, what is true for rock bands holds for the global order as well. A seminal political risk question of the present age revolves around whether the dominant but relatively declining West can cajole the rising rest of the world to join a revamped global system, or whether—much like the Beatles’ guitarist—the world’s rising powers will simply go their own way.

The Beatles’ System Falls Stunningly Apart

The brilliant system the Beatles created for working together failed to evolve as the relative creative powers of its members changed over the course of the 1960s. By failing to proactively reform a system that had so recently seemed etched in stone, the Beatles’ abrupt end is a cautionary tale for today’s Western world as a whole, and is an abject lesson for political risk analysts as to how to factor time into the systemic analysis which is so central to their work.

It is hard to think of a more successful system for working together than that created by the Beatles in the mid-1960s. With the release of Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966), and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the Fab Four were at the apex of their creative and commercial power.

The rather rigid structure lying behind this creative and commercial success—on most albums their loveable drummer Ringo Starr was given at most one song, George Harrison had two or at best three, with the rest being Lennon-McCartney originals—became the group’s unquestioned modus operandi. The system was working in that it reflected the creative power realities within the group.

This pattern—the accepted rules underlying a bipolar world dominated by Lennon-McCartney—was followed with metronomic efficiency. On Rubber Soul, there are 11 Lennon-McCartney tunes, two penned by Harrison, and one by Ringo (with the help of John and Paul). Revolver is graced by 11 Lennon-McCartney songs, while Harrison had three and Ringo none. Sgt. Pepper’s in many ways is amounts to the apogee of John and Paul’s creative dominance; fully 12 of the 13 songs on this masterpiece were written by Lennon-McCartney, with George managing only one and Ringo none.

But by now George Harrison had had enough. In any other group, he would have served as a first-rate front man, as both a performer and a writer; now he simply couldn’t get much of his increasingly prodigious output on the records. The creative balance of power within the group was decidedly shifting, even as the Beatles’ modus operandi stayed the same. Chafing at the creative bit, and frustrated that he simply wasn’t allowed to crack the Lennon-McCartney duopoly, Harrison grew increasingly resentful that his efforts to grow as an artist were being given short shrift.

In a sense, such a rigid response to Harrison’s rise is entirely understandable. John and Paul echoed back to him what great, established status quo powers have been saying since time immemorial: ‘Why should we change anything, given how well things are going for us?’ While that certainly was true in this case—the Lennon-McCartney duo had taken the Beatles to undreamed-of heights—so was the fact that George Harrison, an immensely talented man in his own right, was not being given real opportunities to rise in the Beatles’ system.

As was true for John and Paul, political risk analysts all too often get in the habit of looking at global power systems as if they will last forever, failing to note the small but definitive changes taking place over time that can dramatically alter the very essence of what is being analysed.

The Rise of George Harrison

The lead guitarist of the most creatively and commercially successful pop group in history was born (like the others) in Liverpool on February 25, 1943, at the height of World War II. The youngest of four children, George came from a tight-knit, working-class family. He was particularly close to his mother, who throughout his tumultuous life provided him with unstinting support.

In 1956, George’s father gave him his first acoustic guitar, and he was hooked for life. On the bus ride to school, George bonded with another music-mad boy named Paul McCartney, forming an indelible love-hate relationship that was to last for the rest of their lives.

In March 1958, Paul introduced the young George to John Lennon, then the undisputed leader of the pre-Beatles incarnation, The Quarrymen. For the next 12 years, these three creative giants were to uneasily co-exist, trying to accommodate their increasingly disparate tastes in what was only a four-piece band. Because George was the youngest member of the group (he joined the Quarrymen when he was just 15) and by temperament the quietest—surely compared with the charming and gregarious McCartney and the witty and often outrageous Lennon—he initially was happy to take a backseat to the other two, who became the most successful song-writing duo in history.

But as the Beatles hit their creative apex in the mid-1960s, things slowly began to change. Up until then, George had been known to the public as ‘the quiet Beatle,’ unsung if generally respected for his guitar playing. Now his tastes and interests began to positively affect the overall direction of the band itself. The 1965 album Rubber Soul was heavily influenced by folk rock, mirroring George’s friendships with Bob Dylan and the best-selling Los Angeles band, the Byrds. Later, George was to say that Rubber Soul remained his all-time favourite Beatles album.

Rubber Soul also provided the first artistic glimpse of what would become the great creative love of George’s life, when he played the sitar, a traditional Indian instrument, on John’s song, ‘Norwegian Wood.’ For the rest of his life, George would serve as an ambassador for classical Indian music, popularising it in the West. At the same time, his interest in Hinduism and Indian philosophy came to dominate his private life, giving Harrison a very different persona from that of his early Liverpool days.

But while George led the charge in popularising Indian mysticism and introducing Indian instrumentation into Beatles music specifically and Western music more generally, increasingly he chafed at the creative bit as the Lennon-McCartney duopoly reached its climax with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. George later said of it, ‘There’s about half the songs that I like and the other half I can’t stand.’ As a perfect illustration of his creative frustrations, Harrison did not manage to get even one of his songs promoted as a single until ‘The Inner Light’ was made a lowly B-side in 1968.

While on a visit to his friend Dylan in Woodstock, New York, in late 1968, he found himself drawn to the Band’s (Bob’s highly creative backing group) vision of making music communally as equals. This way of working contrasted mightily with the Beatles’ rigid Lennon-McCartney bipolar creative domination and spurred Harrison’s increasing yearning to assert his abilities, either within the Beatles or on his own if need be.

The Beatles as a Frightening Metaphor for Today’s World

The Beatles’ demise sets a very bad precedent for the world we happen to find ourselves in right now, as the terminal demise of the Western-ordered system that characterises our own era appears to be well advanced.

So let’s jump through the looking glass, taking our Beatles analogy a step further. View John Lennon in the mid to late 1960s as a stand-in for the Europe of today: Increasingly preoccupied with Yoko Ono, self-involved with the many demons of his past and present, more worried about his problems and situation than about the Beatles as a whole, and eager to shed his responsibilities within the band.

See Paul McCartney as the United States, unhappily aware he is the last man standing, the force (after the death of their unsung manager Brian Epstein from a prescription drug overdose in August 1967) holding the group together. As John commented on Epstein’s death, “We collapsed. I knew that we were in trouble then. I didn’t have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music. I thought, ‘We’ve had it now’.”

It fell to Paul, both by virtue of his ambitious personality and John’s lack of interest, to take over the running of the band. The others resented his increasing dominance, even as he resented the fact that they all benefited from his drive to keep the show on the road, the system ticking over. Paul is a harassed ordering power.

Imagine George as today’s rising and established Indo-Pacific powers (India, Japan and South Korea), distrustful of the old system of Western dominance (epitomised by Lennon-McCartney) even as it is acknowledged that their pivotal region contains much of the world’s future economic growth and much of the world’s future political risk. They are eager to take charge of their own destiny, either within the established group or in a new band.

And finally, conjure Ringo up as the world’s smaller powers, desperate to work with everyone, to keep a stable system working, even as he is glumly aware that whatever happens will affect him far more than he can impact any outcome. Strikingly, the Beatles of the late 1960s and the global political world of today are eerily in line with one another.

The Beatles were either oblivious to, or did not want to accommodate, the rising creative force that was their quiet and underrated lead guitar player. Their temporary solution in 1968 while making The Beatles (universally known as ‘The White Album,’ for its arresting minimalist cover) was anarchy, to let everyone put everything they wanted on the album.

Sadly, it shows. ‘The White Album’ is a good double album that should have been a classic single album. Instead, it is a pudding that lacks a theme, the Beatles’ formerly disciplined structure having broken down in favour of a free-for-all. As John later acknowledged, ‘Every track (on ‘The White Album’) is an individual track; there isn’t any Beatle music on it. (It’s) John and the band, Paul and the band, George and the band.’

‘The White Album’ acknowledges that the Beatles’ old system is in peril, but it is unable to put anything in its place. The exception to this is that all the singles issued at the time remained the province of Lennon-McCartney, again denying Harrison his creative due. ‘The White Album,’ good as it certainly is, amounts to a missed opportunity to reform the Beatles’ creative structure to allow for rapidly changing circumstances. Later, bath John and Paul openly admitted that it was during the making of ‘The White Album’ that things grew openly tense for the first time and the breakup started, with Ringo even quitting for two weeks.

By the time of Let it Be (1970), it is all over. For anyone who has watched the excruciating May 1970 film of the making of the album, the lowlight has to be when an exasperated Paul confronts a beyond-caring George, who mockingly tells him he will play whatever Paul wants, however Paul wants, all the while meaning the exact the opposite. George later called the making of the album ‘the low of all time.’

Frustrated by the poor working conditions in the frigid Twickenham film studio, and rightly noticing that John was disengaging himself creatively from the group just as Paul was annoyingly becoming increasingly domineering in an effort to keep the Beatles together, George quit the band for 12 days in January 1969, only to be temporarily lured back. It was still a year before the final breakup, but Harrison had not only correctly analysed that the Beatles’ finely-honed system was collapsing but also understood all too well the reasons for it in the changing status within the band of himself, Lennon, and McCartney.

Harrison has had enough because the world around him hasn't changed, even as his songwriting abilities have. A Lennon-McCartney duopoly no longer makes sense to two of the three key protagonists. George Harrison no longer wants to wait for the other two to take notice of his creative flowering. John Lennon no longer wants to carry the significant burden of keeping the group together, given his other preoccupations and weariness at being the co-leader of a system he increasingly cares less and less about.

Neither of these systemic shifts happened out of the blue, and both had been commented on for several years. But nothing systemically changed to keep up with these altered creative realities. As such, a system—the Beatles—that had flourished so magnificently for so long, came to an abrupt end with Abbey Road (ironically when George wrote the masterpieces ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and ‘Something’).

Things were so bad at the start of Abbey Road that John proposed that the Beatles put all of his songs on one side and all of Paul’s on the other (tellingly, George was still left out of John’s suggestion). Ironically, it was only at this late stage that Harrison truly emerged, becoming the surprise creative force of the Beatles’ last album. The majestic ‘Something’ from Abbey Road became Harrison’s first A-side single ever, and the second-most covered of all the Beatles’ songs (to ‘Yesterday’). At the time John admitted it was the best track on this very strong swan song for the group.

The great irony was that just as the Beatles were disintegrating, Harrison finally achieved the hard-won creative equality that he had yearned for over the past years. During the making of the album, he asserted far more creative control than he had up until then, aggressively rejecting suggestions for changes to his contributions, especially from McCartney. The Beatles were at last evolving into a multipolar order that suited the new creative power realities in the band. But for the group it was too little, too late.

The world had changed. The creative power constellation within the Beatles had changed. But the power dynamic within the group had not. This is the classic definition of a failed system. Everyone knew exactly what he was referring to when Harrison named his fine first post-Beatle album All Things Must Pass.

How the West Can Avoid the Beatles’ Fate

The West must adopt a three-pronged strategy if it is to avoid the systemic fate of the Fab Four. First, it must re-engage George Harrison—India, Japan and the other Indo-Pacific powers—on new terms that actually reflect today’s changed geopolitical and macroeconomic realties. It must also forge a new Democratic alliance with rising regional powers even further afield, connecting itself more substantially to South Africa, Australia, Canada, Israel, Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico.

The single greatest strategic challenge for the next generation is determining whether the emerging regional democratic powers can be successfully integrated into today’s global order. To save the world we all live in will be a tall order, but not an impossible one. However, the only chance of success is to first take a long look at the Beatles’ story, at how systems fall apart—realising how perilously close to the edge of the cliff we truly are.

Second, the West itself must be bound together anew; Lennon-McCartney must recommit to the band, in this case the project to serve as ordering powers in an increasingly fractious world. The common grand strategic project of enticing the emerging democratic powers (particularly in the Indo-Pacific) into becoming stakeholders of the present international order can serve as a large portion of the glue that re-links the Britain, Europe, and America.

Finally, a revitalised global order must repel any and all revolutionary challenges from revisionist powers; the Beatles must see off Led Zeppelin. Above all this means containing Chinese adventurism in the Indo-Pacific, in the South and East China Seas and in the Himalayas. Russia, too, a fading but dangerous regional power, must be contained by this reinvigorated democratic alliance.

But the Beatles analogy holds, as does what it fundamentally teaches political risk analysts everywhere. Seemingly stable systems can be fragile things, requiring constant analytical reassessment and the advocacy of proactive policies to nurture them, flowing from this analysis. A political risk analyst’s work is never done.

And in the End….

Ironically for Harrison, the freedom he had craved for so long when he found himself confined within the Beatles never fully yielded the creative renaissance he had dreamed of. Following the great success of All Things Must Pass (which was number one in both the US and the UK), Harrison’s post-Beatle career, as with the rest of the Fab Four, was commercially and creatively spotty. No member of the band was ever able to fully replicate the magic that the Beatles had conjured together.

Along with his close friend, the sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, Harrison was so moved bu the plight of the refugees from the conflict in South Asia in the early 1970s that he organised the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, the precursor to the many later benefit rock events that have become an enduring part of the cultural landscape.

In the late 1980s, Harrison founded the short-lived but platinum-selling super group the Traveling Wilburys, along with rock legends Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty. On December 30, 1999, in a frightening reminder of the earlier murder of John Lennon in New York in 1980, Harrison and his wife Olivia were attacked by an unhinged fan wielding a kitchen knife in their England estate. Before Olivia managed to subdue him with a lamp, the assailant stabbed Harrison more than 40 times, puncturing a lung and causing him head injuries.

Sadly, George’s reprieve from death proved to be short-lived. Just under two years later, on November 29, 2001, Harrison, a long-time smoker, died in Los Angeles at the untimely age of 58 from throat cancer. Per his wishes, George’s ashes were scattered in the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers in India, his spiritual home.

After The Beatles’ breakup, George drifted away from John Lennon, largely because of his strong and enduring dislike of John’s controversial second wife, Yoko Ono. However, as time went by, George and Paul McCartney made a sort of peace with one another, even working together on the successful Beatles Anthology documentary. However, to the end of George’s days, both of these boyhood friends admitted that, with prolonged contact, they still tended to get on one another’s nerves, echoing the dark days of Let It Be.

Paul’s honest response to George’s death mirrored the ambiguous relationship the two had long had. One part love and another part slightly patronising, McCartney responded to George’s early death by referring to him as his ‘baby brother.’ Both the closeness and the sense of systemic hierarchy remained, even after all the years.

For political risk analysts, assessing global power systems and closely tracking their changes over time is a major part of the job. A failure to do so, to keep up with evolving trends, can lead directly to analytical and policy disasters, as happened in the case of The Beatles. But in the end, learning from their systemic failure points the way to a better geo-strategic future. Let it be.