This is the third in a series of essays by Tim Ferguson, founder of the Anacyclosis Institute, arguing in favour of Rationism, a middle-class-oriented political theory that advocates benchmarking the national economy against the national median household net worth. Izabella Kaminska has also described Rationism as Vitruvian Capitalism, based on its promotion of the values of proportion and balance. The series emulates the Federalist Papers and is written under the pen name of Gracchus, a reformer of the Roman Republic.
Here is the introductory essay to the series.
Note: The purpose of this series is to enable readers to engage an interesting thought experiment through a series of essays defending a hypothetical constitutional amendment. The hypothetical constitutional amendment considered in these essays has not been officially proposed or introduced in any legislative assembly, and The Blind Spot does not engage in lobbying or legislative advocacy or present these essays for such purposes. It is all merely an exercise in the interest of stimulating debate.
The cycle of political revolution: Anacyclosis.
To the People of the United States of America:
At this point begins that orbit of development with whose natural motion and circular course you must become acquainted with from its beginning. For the foundation of that political wisdom which is the aim of our whole discourse is an understanding of the regular curving path through which governments travel, in order that, when you know what direction any commonwealth tends to take, you may be able to hold it back or take measures to meet the change.
Having considered the underlying causes of political revolution, we shall now consider its probable course. This sequence was named anacyclosis by Polybius, a Greek historian who as a slave to one of its leading households was uniquely situated to witness the events commencing the terminal decline of the Roman Republic. This essay begins with an overview of the ancient Greek political archetypes, there being no better way to express Anacyclosis than through the original political vocabulary, which remains the common political vocabulary.
The Greek constitutional archetypes
Millennia ago, the ancient Greeks distilled the varieties of political society into a few political archetypes. These archetypes, described as constitutional forms, political forms, regime types, forms of government, etc., are familiar to us all. We still apply them to imagine our own political reality and defame our political adversaries. Democracy. Tyranny. Oligarchy. Monarchy. Aristocracy. Though corrupted by centuries of use and abuse, their plain meanings are clear enough for our purposes.
The Greeks reasoned that every state must be ruled by one, a few, or many people. The primary constitutional archetypes are correspondingly kingship, aristocracy, and democracy. They also recognised that each regime would inure to either the public or private benefit. Multiplying the three quantitative aspects (one, few, or many rulers) by these two qualitative aspects (public or private benefit) yields a matrix of six basic constitutional forms. Not every Greek writer employed the same archetypes. We will adopt the matrix described by Polybius because he incorporated his typology into his narrative of Anacyclosis. According to his matrix, the main political archetypes are:
Kingship (one ruler, public benefit);
Tyranny (one ruler, private benefit);
Aristocracy (few rulers, public benefit);
Oligarchy (few rulers, private benefit);
Democracy (many rulers, public benefit); and
Ochloracy (many rulers, private benefit).
The Greek archetypes placed in their natural evolutionary sequence: anacyclosis.
According to Polybius’ narrative of Anacyclosis, political society begins in a primitive monarchy. Primitive monarchy crystallises into kingship. Kingship is corrupted into tyranny. Tyranny is overthrown by aristocracy. Aristocracy degenerates into oligarchy. The people eventually establish democracy. Democracy in turn degenerates into ochlocracy, literally mob rule. Only a strongman can quell the ensuing chaos, returning political society to monarchy. In Polybius’ words:
The first of these to come into being is 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.
As Dr. Teegarden’s research evidently confirms, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy generally peaked among the ancient Greek city-states consistent with this sequence. Monarchies were the most common regime from 700 BC until c. 450 BC, then oligarchies until c. 350 BC, then democracies until the conquests of Macedonia, and finally Rome.
Polybius described Anacyclosis soon after the destruction of Carthage, whereupon Rome attained uncontested sovereignty over the ancient world. A century of intermittent civil war later, the centuries-old republic was no more. Polybius’ complete description of Anacyclosis – which contains more detail than presented herein – proved astoundingly prescient. The republic died essentially as Anacyclosis predicted, succumbing to a political faction so intense it could be ended only by a warlord.
Refining the Polybian narrative
Anacyclosis entails two distinct but related processes running in parallel. The first is an external tendency toward territorial expansion, with diverse cities and states swept up into the domain of one political system, culminating in the hegemony of one nation over many others. The second is the internal evolutionary cycle just described, culminating in the dominion of a single man over the leading nation. Benefitting from two millennia of additional history, we can supplement Polybius’ original narrative by highlighting the following points:
The more powerful the Republic, the more susceptible to anacyclosis
As states compete for influence and resources in the normal course, some leading state inevitably achieves overwhelming dominance within their economic arena, as for instance the Mediterranean Basin was conquered by Rome. Polybius acknowledged but did not elaborate on this fact in detailing the final stages of Anacyclosis:
When a state has weathered many great perils and subsequently attains to supremacy and uncontested sovereignty, it is evident that under the influence of long established prosperity, life becomes more extravagant and the citizens more fierce in their rivalry regarding office and other objects than they ought to be. As these defects go on increasing, the beginning of the change for the worse will be due to love of office and the disgrace entailed by obscurity, as well as to extravagance and purse-proud display … When this happens, the state will change its name to the finest sounding of all, freedom and democracy, but will change its nature to the worst thing of all, mob rule.
The Roman historian Sallust, likewise witnessing the Republic’s decline first-hand, similarly marked the beginning of the end:
When great kings had been vanquished in war, savage tribes and mighty peoples subdued by force of arms, when Carthage, the rival of Rome’s sway, had perished root and branch, and all seas and lands were open, then Fortune began to grow cruel and to bring confusion into all our affairs.
Just as internal political evolution begins in many fragmented monarchies and ends in one consolidated monarchy, international territorial integration begins with many nations and ends in one superpower. Such a superpower could be as tightly integrated from a legal, economic, and monetary standpoint as the Roman Empire or the United States, but such a system could perhaps encompass a looser confederation. The essential point, in any case, is the more wealthy and powerful the political system (like Rome and America, both of which expanded to a continental scale) the more likely Anacyclosis will run its full course therein. This is further underscored by Machiavelli’s contribution to Anacyclosis, noting that many minor republics simply do not live long enough to complete the cycle:
Such is the circle which all republics are destined to run through. Seldom, however, do they come back to the original form of government, which results from the fact that their duration is not sufficiently long to be able to undergo these repeated changes and preserve their existence. But it may well happen that a republic lacking strength and good counsel in its difficulties becomes subject after a while to some neighboring state, that is better organized than itself; and if such is not the case, then they will be apt to revolve indefinitely in the circle of revolutions.
Wealth diffusion advances the sequence
With respect to the internal revolutionary cycle through the Greek archetypes, the most important supplement we must add to Polybius’ narrative is explicitly linking the distribution of political power to the distribution of wealth in a political society. Polybius’ original narrative did not elaborate on this connection. Following James Harrington and John Adams, Noah Webster, the American Founder credited as “The Father of American Scholarship and Education” described this process at work in ancient Rome and contemporary Britain:
On reviewing the English history, we observe a progress similar to that in Rome—an incessant struggle for liberty from the date of Magna Charta, in John’s reign, to the revolution. The struggle has been successful, by abridging the enormous power of the nobility. But we observe that the power of the people has increased in an exact proportion to their acquisitions of property.
In short, the diffusion of wealth anticipates the diffusion of power. This abstract rule leads to a concrete conclusion to be further considered in the next essay: that an independent middle class is the condition precedent for the emergence of democracy.
Modifying Polybius’ based on the foregoing principles, Anacyclosis predicts that every unchecked regime is quickly corrupted or bankrupted and that every corrupt or bankrupt regime is eventually forced to share power with an expanding base of contributors. Thus, political society commences in the primordial conflict of warring tribal chiefdoms, one of which subdues the others and assumes a regal mantle. This kingship degenerates into tyranny as the line of kings becomes ever more corrupt or incompetent. Monarchy is eventually forced to share power with the nobility in order to procure its military and fiscal contributions. Aristocracy in turn likewise degenerates into oligarchy. But only where an independent middle class is entrenched are oligarchs compelled to share power with the people, establishing democracy alongside oligarchy. Thus conceived, democracy is established when government is made substantially accountable to the independent middle class, with the condition of universal enfranchisement being subsequently built upon such a foundation.
Regardless of how far beyond the middle class the franchise is thereafter extended, the middle class is inevitably cheated and fleeced by the most ambitious and avaricious economic actors, further corrupting oligarchy into a plutocracy. The diminution of the middle classes renders the body politic vulnerable to economic precariousness, and therefore susceptible to demagoguery, patronage and dependency. Democracy thereby deteriorates and demagogues are empowered, giving rise to ochlocracy (mob-rule), or perhaps more precisely demagarchy or demagogarchy (demagogue-rule). Intensifying competition among a narrowing field of popular leaders ultimately elevates a single champion, dragging political society back to some form of monarchy, for a single champion is the outcome of every tournament. Whether that champion is a warrior chief, benevolent king, or a despotic tyrant is an accident of history, depending on the circumstances of his character and attendant to his elevation.
Why there are few complete examples of anacyclosis
As noted in the prior essay, the speed and extent to which a political system advances through this great cycle are determined by the relative distribution of wealth within that system and its security from its neighbours. Due to the uniformity and constancy of human nature, all that a political system requires to complete the sequence is sufficient population, resources, security, and time.
But if mankind is indeed spring-loaded for Anacyclosis, why is it not everywhere seen in our history? Why for instance do we not see it so clearly in the history of China, or Peru, or Zaire? Why is the full sequence so far mainly, if not exclusively, seen in Europe? In fact, we do observe the early stages everywhere. It is only the later stages that are rare. Most of mankind has for most of its history been the subjects of kings and tyrants, nobles and oligarchs. Oligarchy is probably the most persistent condition of mankind, with democracy mainly limited to states adhering to Western Civilisation during less than one-tenth of recorded history since the Mesopotamians and Egyptians.
As will be further considered in the next essay, democracy is rare because the emergence of an independent middle class is rare. Until modern times, most societies never advanced to democracy. Fewer still developed an authentic democracy at least as answerable to the middle households as to the top households. This is because few states ever developed a middle class capable of seriously challenging the elite status quo. As such, the full sequence of Anacyclosis is not everywhere seen because democracy is not everywhere seen.
And, whereas the full sequence of Anacyclosis is not everywhere seen because democracy is not everywhere seen, its full sequence is not frequently seen because of the vast duration required for each iteration to lapse. In a closed system, secure from outside interference, Anacyclosis could run its course in generations. Various occurrences of chance prolong the sequence by centuries and millennia. Indeed, the last time the dual processes of internal revolution and territorial integration converged within a superpower republic, the champion was Augustus, and the hegemon was Rome, and that was more than two thousand years ago.
Accidents of birth, death, assassination, marriage, military victory, foreign intervention; of geography, irrigation, weather, agriculture, pestilence, plague; of culture, customs, laws, insurrection, revolt, and every other supervening force majeure: all of these occurrences obstruct, obscure, and obfuscate the process of anayclosis. Human political evolution is thus subjected to stunted progress, regressions, and varying numbers of stages. But the curvature of history, just as the curvature of the Earth, is clearly perceived from afar no matter how high or low the peaks and valleys are. In the end, mankind’s preoccupation for higher status, operating relentlessly and under a long lapse of time, will average out all the occurrences of chance, guiding human political evolution through the circular path charted by human nature.
Thank you for this superb essay. A lot to think about here.