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Democracy Wars: Anacyclosis vs Accelerationism


A question I often get asked about anacyclosis, the ancient Greek theory of political change which the Blind Spot is a fan of, is how it differs to accelerationism. The latter is a provocative socio-economic and political theory that has gained traction on the internet in recent years due to its popularity with alt-right and reactionary thinkers. I have often struggled to answer this question because getting to grips with what accelerationism exactly is, is not easy. There is no clear accelerationist canon (at least that I know of). And much accelerationist thinking is highly dispersed and fuzzy.

That anacyclosis and accelerationism should blur into each other the way they do shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Both tackle the thorny issue of political evolution based on the principle that power corrupts. Both also observe an inherent cyclicality within the political phenomenon.

But there is a big difference between them. Whereas accelerationists are impatient with democracy and are ready to replace it, those well-versed in anacyclosis’ historical lessons generally do not aim to push political society to another stage in the sequence. They instead lean on anacyclosis’ observational insights to find mechanisms to ameliorate the conditions that are destabilising democracy.

Luckily, Tim Ferguson, founder of the Anacyclosis Institute (and a relative novice to the world of accelerationism) was up for the challenge of getting to the bottom of how the two theories compare and contrast. So, if you’ve ever wondered about what exactly accelerationism is and how it differs to anacyclosis, the following explainer is for you. – IK


By Tim Ferguson

Here we go again. From the US to Brazil, democracy appears to be under attack.

But it wouldn’t be the first time.

The father of history, Herodotus, tells of a debate between Persian elites. The issue: whether Persia should be a democracy, oligarchy, or monarchy.

Otanes spoke for democracy, praising its egalitarianism while warning of monarchy’s insolence. Megabyzus seconded monarchy’s evils, yet emphasised the mob’s ignorance and violence, declaring oligarchy the best choice. Darius spoke last, condemning both democracy and oligarchy, arguing the latter inevitably give rise to faction and bloodshed, leading to monarchy in any case. However, a wise king, he noted, could guide the state with judgment.

The Persians went with Darius by a vote of four out of seven.

For more than a century, by contrast, the English-speaking world has sided with Otanes (“Democracy” being understood as expressing the people’s consent via elective representatives rather than Athenian-style direct democracy).

But if this debate were held today, Megabyzus’ or Darius’ views might be more warmly received in the West than just a decade ago. In fact, democracy’s detractors might even be inclined to justify their sympathies for monarchy and aristocracy with something else entirely, a fringe but notable political theory known as accelerationism.

What is Accelerationism?

Accelerationism is a discordant “swarm of new ideas” reacting to the perceived inability of democracy and capitalism to contend with mankind’s most pressing challenges, variously advocating their abolition, cooption, or intensification. Since we cannot summarise every accelerationist tenet or variant here, we will have to generalise to a certain degree. But, roughly speaking, Wikipedia defines accelerationism as follows:

A range of Marxist and reactionary ideas in critical and social theory that propose that social processes, such as capitalist growth and technological change, should be drastically intensified to destabilize systems to create further radical social change referred to as ‘acceleration’.

Though many accelerationists dispute this characterisation, accelerationism’s Marxist origins furnish its most common description: Hit the gas, not the brakes, on odious political and economic practices to amplify their destabilising forces, thereby hastening their self-destruction.

A casual observer on Quora illustrates the common  perception by describing accelerationism as a “pretty stupid, ultra-left idea” harboured by “dogmatic Marxists” who seek to accelerate capitalism’s demise by supporting “wild capitalism at its worst and vote for ultra-free-market politicians in the hope that these money-worshipping wackjobs will make capitalism so disgustingly intolerable that the working class will rise up, overthrown the system and fly the Red flag for evermore.

While Marxist associations have not stopped some from labelling accelerationism right-wing or fascistic, any serious research confirms the movement occupies both the left and right fringes of the political spectrum.

But while both ends believe that society faces a severe crisis, they do not necessarily agree on what that crisis will look like or what must be accelerated to emerge from it successfully. Nor do they agree on the role human nature plays in catalysing the crisis.

Left-wing Accelerationists

The left-wing accelerationist manifesto stipulates that the group’s principal concern is climate change, accompanied by several secondary concerns reflecting typical mainstream progressive grievances. Where they depart sharply from mainstream progressives is in their anti-democratic standpoint, arguing:

The overwhelming privileging of democracy-as-process needs to be left behind. The fetishisation of openness, horizontality, and inclusion of much of today’s ‘radical’ left set the stage for ineffectiveness. Secrecy, verticality, and exclusion all have their place as well in effective political action (though not, of course, an exclusive one).

Many of these arguments have been solidified in a book by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. Their end goal is perhaps most succinctly expressed as:

 Recovering the future where everyone may achieve self-actualization.

They essentially believe mankind’s liberation lies in the concept of “synthetic freedom”. This stems from a technological pathway to achieving “cyborg augmentations, artificial life, synthetic biology and technologically mediated reproduction.” Or, economically, the “classic social democratic goal of providing the common goods of society, such as healthcare, housing, childcare, education, transport and internet access”.

Achieving synthetic freedom ultimately entails “building a post-work society on the basis of fully automating the economy, reducing the working week, implementing a universal basic income, and achieving a cultural shift in the understanding of work”. Only then, they say, will all be free to achieve self-actualisation.

Right-wing Accelerationists

Accelerationism’s right-wing broadly splits itself into “activist” and “passive” branches. Congress has already dubbed the extreme active end of the spectrum a domestic terrorist force, since the faction tends to associate democracy’s principal crisis with racial demographic change.

Passive right-wing accelerationism, on the other hand, is generally attributed to British philosopher Nick Land, author of The Dark Enlightenment. Land conceives of capitalism (or at least has in the past conceived) as a pathway to the eventual activation of a supreme artificial intelligence, in which humanity will gradually be displaced as we come ever nearer to the technological singularity.

Land’s views, at least as far as policy agenda is concerned, have undergone significant evolution and now channel those of Curtis Yarvin’s so-called Neoreactionary (NRx) movement.

Both Land and NRx come across as overtly anti-democratic. Land and Yarvin tend to describe democracy using descriptions better applied to ochlocracy, or mob-rule. Land even equates democracy with a “virus,” while Yarvin calls it the lowest “Luciferian motivation.” Nick Land, on democracy:

Democracy, which both in theory and evident historical fact accentuates time-preference to the point of convulsive feeding-frenzy, is thus as close to a precise negation of civilization as anything could be, short of instantaneous social collapse into murderous barbarism or zombie apocalypse (which it eventually leads to).

In this 2017 interview, Land summarised his principal question as: “how do you constrain the state?” To NRx, the principal crisis is bad government, followed by crime. To combat both NRx’s policy concept (under Yarvin’s Plan Moldbug) would implement John Jay’s maxim:

Those who own the country ought to govern it.

For America, ‘Plan Moldbug’ entails converting the country from a democratic republic into a “joint-stock republic”, ruled by a CEO-king. Such a ruler would be accountable to a shareholder senate with voting rights determined not on the basis of citizenship but ownership, with the value of the franchise computed based on the value of shareholder wealth.

Land defends this vision of what he calls “gov-corp”, explaining why he believes it superior to liberal democracy as presently praticed:

Once the universe of democratic corruption is converted into a (freely transferable) shareholding in gov-corp. the owners of the state can initiate rational corporate governance, beginning with the appointment of a CEO. As with any business, the interests of the state are now precisely formalized as the maximization of long-term shareholder value. There is no longer any need for residents (clients) to take any interest in politics whatsoever.

For clarity, this proposal bears no resemblance to WEF’s vision of “stakeholder capitalism” which seeks to impose corporate responsibility for stakeholders other than shareholders (employees, customers, the public, etc.). WEF’s corporate multistakeholder state ideal is probably better equated to 1930s Italian ideals.

What is Anacyclosis?

The ancient Greeks described anacyclosis as the probable sequence of political evolution as derived from their lived experiences with countless regimes, including over 300 democracies. According to Polybius’s original explanation:

[Political society commences in] monarchy, its growth being natural and unaided; and next arises kingship derived from monarchy by the aid of art and by the correction of defects. Monarchy first changes into its vicious allied form, tyranny; and next, the abolishment of both gives birth to aristocracy. Aristocracy by its very nature degenerates into oligarchy; and when the commons inflamed by anger take vengeance on this government for its unjust rule, democracy comes into being; and in due course the licence and lawlessness of this form of government produces mob-rule to complete the series.

Polybius characterised anacyclosis as “the regular cycle” and “natural order” of political evolution, not as inexorable.

Monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy generally peaked in ancient Greece accordingly. Monarchies peaked from 700 BC until c. 450 BC, oligarchies until c. 350 BC, then democracies until Macedonian and Roman conquests. Republican Rome’s history likewise broadly agrees with anacyclosis.

Vividly illustrating the diffusion and reconcentration of political power, Polybius’s description does not elaborate precisely on what rotates the cycle.

Building upon later writers like James Harrington and Noah Webster, The Anacyclosis Institute argues that the deconcentration and reconcentration of wealth anticipates the deconcentration and reconcentration of political power, incorporating this concept into its narrative of anacyclosis.

History tells us democracy comes and goes in low-frequency waves. Some might be surprised to learn that democracy has probably existed for less than one-tenth of recorded civilised history (i.e. since ancient Egyptian/Mesopotamian times). It was preceded in each case by entrenched, predominant, independent middling classes.

We believe anacyclosis’s full sequence is not everywhere seen in history because the transition to sustained popular government — i.e. democracy — depends upon such middle classes, which are historically rare. This explains why most revolutionary outbursts do not sustain democracy: they lack that essential middling ingredient.

Or in other words, why didn’t Animal Farm establish democracy? Too many sheep, not enough horses.

What Does This Mean for Us Today?

More than we can address here. For now, we can emphasise anacyclosis’s ultimate lesson: every human system is eventually corrupted, and every corrupted system is eventually regulated or replaced (provided wealth is sufficiently diffused or vulnerable to raise a rival against incumbent elites).

Placed in the anacyclosis context, accelerationists are ready to replace democracy.

From the anacyclosis perspective, however, accelerationist grievances are misdirected against human systems, when they should be directed against human nature. A secondary critique of accelerationism is that we aren’t about to surpass human nature anytime soon. And even if we were, this might pose a deeper existential crisis for humanity itself.

Acclerationism’s complaint isn’t ultimately against democracy or capitalism. It’s really against mankind’s innate corruptibility that degrades all regimes, thereby priming all future challengers.

Accelerationist texts anticipate limitless technological achievement. Many ancients may have shared a similar inclination, but with no paradigm-shifting, world-changing inventions like penicillin or the internet persuading them they could outsmart human nature, Greek sources (within anacyclosis’s pedigree) ended up being grounded by the knowledge, accumulated over centuries, that every political archetype contains the seeds of its own destruction. In that sense, they were pragmatists.

Not much has changed since then.

Greed, corruption and cronyism emerge everywhere, not just within capitalist economies. Such forces can be seen even within the most stringent command economies. Faction, demagoguery and patronage do not only exist under democratic governments but also within oligarchies. Civil wars, violence and assassinations emerge as frequently in the post-industrial capitals of the world as they do in agrarian societies.

Anacyclosis teaches us that in the end all political alternatives are equally corruptible, making the wisest choice not the cleverest, most efficient or best administered (contrary to what Yarvin and Alexander Pope say), but the most durable and palatable to all serious political contestants.

Insights drawn from anacyclosis can thus be used to critique accelerationism as follows:

Capitalism is not our enemy

Accelerationists, along with many left-wing thinkers, improperly perceive “capitalism” as a philosophy. Capitalism should instead be regarded merely as a bundle of morally-neutral legal and market techniques like corporate franchises, private property, limited liability, contract rights and securities exchanges deployed to facilitate the pursuit of profits and capital accumulation.

In capitalism’s most beneficial and idealised form, accumulated capital is continually redeployed to finance new jointly-owned enterprises too risky for individual investors. When wealth is efficiently utilised within a capitalist system, it is seldom surpassed by any other in developing or commercialising new inventions, creating and accessing new markets, achieving economies of scale or generating new wealth.

It’s fair to say that capitalist societies don’t always live up to these ideals. But it’s not fair to presumptively ascribe intent and malice to what would be better described as the natural manifestation of human ambition operating within an amoral and guideless economic framework.

Because again, the problem isn’t capitalism. It’s human nature.

Democratic crisis is simply a middle-class crisis

In prescribing the elements of good government, accelerationists – along with orthodox thinkers – overstate the significance of well-conceived political institutions and procedures while understating the importance of the middling virtues and civic moderation. This tendency is clearly evident in Yarvin’s articulation of ‘Plan Moldbug’.

Despite Madison’s revered 1787 essay, no scheme of representation conceived, or other arrangement of political authority, can ultimately suppress the social effects of extreme wealth deconcentration and reconcentration. Madison himself seems to have figured this out by 1829.

Efforts to control political faction with political institutions didn’t commence with Madison. It’s implicit in Polybius’s advice to arrest anacyclosis via the tripartite mixed constitution. The idea was that if no primary form of government – i.e. kingship, aristocracy, and democracy – can on its own maintain stability, the best constitution combines elements of all three, each domain checking and balancing the others. This idea was observed in the long-lived Spartan and Roman constitutions, and filtered through Montesquieu, ultimately maturing into the separation of powers embodied within the US Constitution.

Brilliant in theory, ineffective in practice. As both Aristotle and Tocqueville observed first-hand, moderate and limited government arises from modest social dispositions and demands, which in turn arises from the broad diffusion of wealth within predominant, productive, independent, distracted and politically disinterested middle classes.

New rules and rulers thus won’t ameliorate the social pressures fueling present democratic crises, save to the extent they expand and restore these middle classes.

We haven’t outsmarted human nature yet

Accelerationism overstates the rate at which technological innovation will summon the inventions upon which accelerationist vision depends. As Peter Thiel, Tyler Cowen and others have noted, technological progress outside of computing and communications technology has stagnated for decades. While automation may displace and deskill workers, thereby suppressing wages, neither the fully-automated post-work economy articulated by left-wing accelerationists nor the technological singularity anticipated by right-wing accelerationists will enter the realm of possibility anytime soon.

As such, technology won’t empower us to reprogramme, circumvent or supersede human nature before the present iteration of anacyclosis completes its full sequence.

Accelerationism Forces Us to Look into the Mirror

Though accelerationism (and NRx) offers no viable or desirable path forward, its emergence should compel us to critically examine our present course, as it’s neither optimal nor sustainable. From the anacyclosis perspective, we’ve got two bad habits holding us on a demagogic and authoritarian political trajectory:

Democracy’s definition problem

Accelerationists make a legitimate point that democracy can go too far.

Democracy’s etymology is “rule by the people” and its current ideal is the universal franchise. But authentic democracy arises from one circumstance alone: elite fear of an upright middle class.

As middle-class insecurity grows, the objects, frequency and intensity of political faction increases. The foundation of popular government fractures into a correspondingly precarious, angry, pessimistic and polarized body politic, dragging democracy toward the mob rule and demagoguery dreaded by accelerationists and America’s Founders alike.

Once mob rule sets in, it doesn’t matter how well-conceived political institutions may be: faction will rage until the mob is suppressed, pacified or redeemed by being returned to middling status.

This isn’t to suggest, like NRx, that political rights should require property ownership, the franchise should be unreasonably conditioned, or that elections don’t matter. It’s to emphasize that obsession over forms and procedures miss both democracy’s substance and anacyclosis’s reality, distracting us from the real social crisis. This crisis isn’t about identification laws, early voting, sporadic technical glitches or even in making sure that every voice is heard, because social media suggests that many may not be worth hearing.

The real crisis is middle-class decline.

These spectacular squabbles over forms, procedures and ephemeral election outcomes both distract us from the mundane socioeconomic battlegrounds which decide the fate of popular government and compound the demagoguery and faction which hasten its ruination.

The reality of anacyclosis counsels that the highest form of democratic statesmanship is not to amplify, hear or even heed the voice of the people. It’s to ensure they’re sufficiently secure, content, independent, industrious and distracted that they’ve got nothing to say, though they may speak.

Capitalism’s measurement problem

Which brings us to the heart of the matter.

Middle-class decline flows mainly from the method by which we measure economic success, not from lack of productivity or innovation. In measuring success, we prefer indiscriminate capital accumulation without regard to any other metric and without distinction to whether wealth accumulates within enterprises or households.

Let’s test this thesis. How familiar are you with:

  1. The value of the world’s most valuable company?
  2. The net worth of the world’s richest man?
  3. The median household net worth in your country?

From the Anacyclosis perspective, item 3 and associated metrics — like household purchasing power — are the most relevant to preserving the world as we have come to know it. Yet they are relegated to the domain of boring statistics, taking a backseat to items 1 and 2.

NRx, by contrast, would accord obsequious deference to item 2, via its shareholder voting scheme.

Such wanton deference to maximising capital gains without regard to middle class welfare hides behind an uncritical devotion to old rhetoric of which some accelerationists are sceptical.

Many casual observers attribute tremendous household fortunes to the bold leadership of ingenious visionaries, supposedly ploughing the hard-earned, well-deserved returns of their risk capital into new and useful enterprises.

The so-called “neoliberal” version of capitalism entrenches the heroic risk-taker ideal behind the policy argument that prioritising capital gains above all others maximises outcomes not only for owners, but also wages and growth (so-called “trickle-down economics”) bestowing messianic status on any founder presumed to create jobs.

In reality, these ideals don’t work as advertised. To the contrary, too much wealth stagnates in the top households, much being ill-gotten. Households beneficially own 95 per cent of global wealth, with especially absurd concentrations in US households. Most “new wealth” created in the last generation is not due to actual wealth creation, and most accumulated household wealth is not redeployed as actual risk capital. Far from the romantic ideal, only about 10 per cent of family office portfolios are dedicated for the purposes of true venture capital.

This matters because the processes that drive anacyclosis relate to the deconcentration and reconcentration of wealth within the human component of civilisation, and the human component of civilisation resides in households. The social breakdown now fueling demagoguery, faction and the rise of authoritarianism arise from household wealth concentration and household financial precariousness.

Anacyclosis teaches that without a significant and historically-informed intervention to appropriately de-concentrate household wealth, thereby de-polarising political society and recovering a moderate political disposition, the long-term survival of legitimate popular government in leading western nations is both theoretically and historically improbable.

Redemption Not Destruction

Accelerationists rightly believe that the authenticity of democracy and the outcomes of capitalist societies can be improved. Political faction’s intensity and authoritarianism’s allure can likewise be reduced.

But unlike mainstream politicians and the press which are presently sleepwalking us out of democracy because they have a blind spot to anacyclosis, accelerationists implicitly understand anacyclosis. And yet they still actively call for its progression.

For this reason above all, the emergence of accelerationist thought counsels that what must be hastened is not the destruction of capitalism and democracy, but their redemption.

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