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Anacyclosis Watch: Why the middle class underpins democracy


In The Blind Spot’s first post introducing the concept of Anacyclosis, Tim Ferguson, founder of the Anacyclosis Institute, explained how the ancient Greek theory outlines the probable and natural sequence of political evolution.

As that post concluded, authentic democracy – reflecting but one phase in this broader sequence – requires a stable, independent and self-sufficient middle class to power it.

In this post, the second of a multipart series, Ferguson highlights how Anacyclosis has affected constitutional thinking, raising the question of whether America’s constitution can continue to withstand the forces of Anacyclosis.

Can Anacyclosis be stopped?

To recap, Anacyclosis describes the probable sequence of political evolution in a secure political system.

According to Polybius’s version of the cycle, political society originates in primitive monarchy, coalesces into kingship, and then degenerates into tyranny. The state’s leading men subdue the monarchy, establishing aristocracy. Their own descendants are in turn corrupted, transforming aristocracy into oligarchy. But then the people eventually take matters into their own hands, creating democracy. Their descendants, however, are likewise corrupted, perverting democracy into mob-rule.

This sequence resolves into a cycle when, at the end, Polybius says the people “degenerate again into perfect savages and find once more a master and monarch.”

The big question at the heart of the theory, however, is what can be done to suspend the cycle in its optimal state?

Polybius thought the best chance to do so was to operate a tripartite mixed constitution which featured the best of all forms of government.

The strategy drew on the classical assumption that every form of “simple constitution” had a short half-life, quickly decaying into its corrupt counterpart. Since no simple regime could maintain stability, the best chance we had, Polybius thought, was by counterbalancing the principles of all three forms in one constitution.

Efforts to halt Anacyclosis with a tripartite mechanism have occupied no small part in the annals of constitutional theory ever since, playing a big part in both the British and American traditions.

Polybius himself attributed the stability of famous states to this tripartite balancing act.

In Rome the principle of kingship was found in the Consuls; of aristocracy in the Senate; of democracy in the popular assemblies. In Sparta it was the kings, the Gerousia, and the people.

Charles I even invoked this principle in refusing Parliamentary demands, arguing that acceding would throw the delicate Polybian balance between Crown, Lords, and Commons into disequilibrium.

America took this intellectual tradition even further. John Adams especially invoked these Polybian precepts his entire career, incorporating them into his (extant!) 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, referencing Anacyclosis in his 1787 treatise studied by the drafters of the US Constitution, finally ratifying them as the “Creed of my whole Life” after serving as second US President.

The theory of tripartite government, commencing with the Greeks and filtered through Montesquieu, ultimately matured into the doctrine of the separation of powers, now expressed in the United States Constitution as well as 40 of the 50 state constitutions.

Despite this long established understanding, evidence is now mounting that the forces of Anacyclosis may again be in spin mode. This is made clear by rising populism and polarisation in Western democracies, as well as animosities and dependencies springing from the growing precariousness of disaffected Western middle classes. Whatever their ultimate causes, the growing anxiety and distress seems to be creating a fertile ground for demagogues (and sensationalist media outlets) to exploit. It is also reducing the public’s patience and trust in democratic institutions, leading to democracy itself being exploited in a bid to anoint authoritarian leaders with authoritarian solutions.

So what might be done to suspend the cycle once again? If history is any indicator, reviving the middle class will have to play a critical part.

American exceptionalism as a function of middle class prosperity

America’s founders, being the classically-trained lawyers and [former] British subjects they were, accounted for these and other counterbalancing principles, such as due process and bills of rights, when they designed America’s political institutions. By their devotion to the rights of Englishmen and their knowledge of classical antiquity, they delivered a constitution of government that guarantees the legal form of a limited democratic republic.

They hoped this would be good enough to suspend Anacyclosis indefinitely.

And yet, similar strategies had always failed whenever middle classes had begun to suffer.

As outlined in our last post, the diffusion and reconcentration of wealth advances the sequence of Anacyclosis. It is the independent, self-sufficient middle classes that summon democracy, not magnanimous elites or far-seeing legislators. The middle class is the active ingredient of an authentic democracy.

Good luck establishing democracy without a middle class:

If there’s any truth to this, no wonder America commenced as a democratic republic. Despite its original exclusions, America was born middle class.

In their 2012 study of colonial incomes, Lindert and Williamson concluded that American colonists had much more equal incomes than households in England and Wales around 1774, implying that New England and Middle colonies were more egalitarian than anywhere else in the measurable world.

This confirms what contemporaries already knew. Alexis de Tocqueville opened his 1835 Democracy in America observing:

Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions. I readily discovered the prodigious influence which this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society, by giving a certain direction to public opinion, and a certain tenor to the laws; by imparting new maxims to the governing powers, and peculiar habits to the governed.

Even George Washington remarked on America’s original egalitarianism, celebrating America’s “equal distribution of property, the great plenty of unocupied lands, and the facility of procuring the means of subsistance.”

Obviously, these conditions wouldn’t last forever.

In 1829, 19 years before the communist manifesto, James Madison already foresaw the coming of the proletariat.

When middle classes decline

When the middle class becomes precarious, the people (not irrationally) seek public support. The surest means to obtain it in a rentier-owned late-stage democracy is usually through the electoral process. And whatever their ideological scruples, both the left and right sides of the political spectrum become quite accustomed to receiving it.

The bigger difference between the factions lies in the question of who they blame for the rising precarity. Those clustering around the right tend to blame foreigners and the poor, those on the left corporations and the moneyed interest.

In all events, when the people become susceptible to electoral patronage they lose their political volition, hence their ability to withdraw their consent and withhold their contributions – labour, military, and fiscal – undermining democracy’s rationale and authenticity.

Under these conditions, democracy is ripe for a quick slide into authoritarianism.

In a long-established republic, democracy may experience a slower death, as happened in the last century of the Roman Republic. So maybe the Polybian tripartite constitution, while it doesn’t stop Anacyclosis outright, really does slow it down?

Aside from Rome, however, we don’t have any other examples of complete middle class collapse in superpower republics to which we can refer. Not yet anyway.

Citi’s Vox Populi report on the intersection of market and political risks concludes, among other things, that “the new Vox Populi is being fueled by growing perceptions of incoming inequality and anxiety about globalization, particularly amongst middle classes”.

Given the outcome in this month’s Hungarian elections, one shouldn’t be too surprised to read recent headlines like While the Hungarian Elite Flourishes, the Middle Class Steadily Diminishes or Hungarian middle class: salary not enough until the end of the month. Or review the data in OECD’s How’s Life in Hungary?

This is what happens when you let your middle class fall apart.

Legal form vs. political substance

Rome’s tripartite constitution of government failed to stop Anacyclosis. Does anyone think that America’s tripartite constitution of government would perform any better under similar stress?

If the lessons learned from history’s last revolutions through Anacyclosis hold true for its next revolutions through Anacyclosis, then despite the brilliant (or evil) arrangements that went into the making of the constitution of the world’s prevailing superpower republic, the framers left out the most important thing to guarantee the preservation of a democratic republic.

They left out any provision concerning the middle class.

That’s no critique since as originally conceived, the federal constitution was intended to establish a limited government of enumerated powers.

Nor were the founders ignorant of these lessons. Thomas Jefferson’s draft 1776 Virginia Constitution would have supported the middle class, via allocations of land up to 50 acres to certain citizens. The same year, John Adams praised Gracchus’ ancient Roman land-rationing law as “a genuine republican Measure.”

In any event, due to America’s founding circumstances, America’s national constitution guarantees the legal form of a democratic republic, but not the political substance of a democratic republic. (Let alone an advanced commercial republic such as America has become.)

Surely, well-structured constitutions are essential to maintain due process and protect individual liberties? Without adequate freedom of the press, you wouldn’t be reading this. Bills of rights establish red lines that governments mustn’t cross, especially for minorities that would otherwise be at the mercy of the majority. Fair and frequent elections, if nothing else, confer some semblance of consent and legitimacy to the latest batch of lawgivers.

Even term limits could have prevented this:

Still, it wouldn’t make one unpatriotic to wonder if America is any more free than Britain because it has a written constitution. Or whether Britain is any less free than America because the Prime Minister is a member of the legislature, while the President is not. Surely, not every legal detail means the difference between freedom and tyranny.

This isn’t to trivialise past constitutional innovations or suggest they should be set aside. It is to assert that political science remains in its adolescence until constitutions themselves guarantee the preservation of independent middle classes.

How to stop Anacyclosis. For real

Despite its ingenuity and durability, the Roman constitution failed to stop Anacyclosis because it failed to preserve its middle class. Rome failed to confine its internal wealth distribution within a range sustainable for a democratic republic.

If America’s middle class were to encounter similar challenges, which perhaps it already is, its Constitution would be powerless to prevent a similar outcome.

By my calculations, in 1776, the richest American possessed less than 1,000x the national median household net worth. Today, America’s median-top social aspect wealth ratio approaches 2,000,000:1, approaching the wealth of two million American middle class families.

In upcoming essays, I’ll make the Anacyclosis-informed case for rolling back America’s social aspect ratio from 2,000,000:1 to 10,000:1 by means of a market-oriented, median-benchmarked approach.

The goal of this hypothetical policy approach: to incentivize markets to backsolve for an independent middle class, in accordance with Aristotle’s prior recommendation.

Stay tuned.

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