Mouth Of The Mob: At the end of the Ancient Greek historian, Polybius', anacyclotic cycle of political decline, a demagogue, more skilled than any of his predecessors, attracts sufficient support from the state’s angriest and most fearful citizens to overturn the institutions of democracy and govern without them.
IT’S UNNERVING to discover that today’s headlines are best explained by a man who died in 118 BC. Perhaps it’s the extreme unpredictability of global events – especially the Trump Presidency – that makes this possible. So many people are disorientated and dismayed by their discovery that the news no longer fits into the explanatory frameworks they have relied upon to make sense of political and economic behaviour.
This is where Polybius comes in.
Polybius was an historian who looked for patterns in the chaotic spectacle of human affairs. He was interested especially in the way people governed themselves. There were, he said, three “benign” forms of government: Monarchy – rule by the one; Aristocracy – rule by the few; and Democracy – rule by the many. Unfortunately, these three benign forms were dogged by their malignant shadows: Tyranny – misrule by the one; Oligarchy – misrule by the few; and Ochlocracy – misrule by the mob.
Surveying the history of his own era (Polybius was writing at the time when the Greek world was fast giving way to the upstart Roman Republic) he identified a pattern of political stimulus and response which gave rise to a recurring sequence, or cycle, in human affairs. Polybius called this cycle “anacyclosis”.
In the simplest terms, anacyclosis evolves as follows: monarchy declines into tyranny; aristocracy degenerates into oligarchy; democracy disintegrates into mob rule.
Polybius, like so many of the ancient writers, was a fatalist. The historical cycle he describes is explained as the unavoidable consequence of human-beings inability to resist the tendency of power to corrupt all those who wield it. Over time, he argues, regimes instituted with the objective of making life better for everyone, inevitably succumb to the temptation to unfairly advantage the one, the few, or the many – at the expense of everybody else.
Converted into a straightforward historical narrative, anacyclosis goes something like this.
A mighty warrior and his army leads his people to independence, whereupon his family, and the families of his key supporters, are entrusted with the task of ruling the new state. For a while all goes well, but as the powers of kingship descend through the generations, the mighty warrior’s successors abandon all pretence of ruling for the public good and begin to wield their inherited authority capriciously, corruptly and, ultimately, violently.
Convinced that their persons and property are no longer safe, the wealthiest and most militarily accomplished families unite to depose the tyrant and assume the responsibility of providing just and effective government themselves. As the years pass, however, the opportunities for enrichment, which control of the state offers, prove irresistible. Increasingly, the mass of the people are forced to offer up more and more of what little they have to satisfy the greed of their masters.
Exhausted and outraged at being sucked dry by these parasitic oligarchs, the people rise up in revolt and establish a system of popular government. It does not take long, however, for bitter disputes over how the wealth of the (now democratic) society should be distributed to tear the new state apart.
The wealthy fear for their property. The poor demand a share of it. In short order, both parties become the prey of political demagogues skilled at whipping up the basest emotions of the people in order to secure partisan advantage. The democratic institutions of the state are paralysed by intractable factionalism and deliberately incited rancour and recrimination. Debate degenerates into disorder and violence. Civil war beckons.
At which point a demagogue, more skilled than any of his predecessors, attracts sufficient support from the state’s angriest and most fearful citizens to overturn the institutions of democracy and govern without them. Backed by his fanatical followers, and with sufficient armed force at his disposal to overcome all resistance, the demagogue arrogates to himself the powers of a king.
And so Polybius’s cycle begins all over again – albeit at a lower (and ever-declining) level of morality.
Only last week, the radical American writer, John Michael Greer – who has a strong scholarly interest in the writings of Polybius – was blogging about the relevance of anacyclosis to contemporary American politics.
The United States, he writes, is now in the “crisis phase” of the cycle:
“[W]hen power has become so gridlocked among competing power centres that it becomes impossible for the system to break out of even the most hopelessly counterproductive policies. That ends, according to Polybius, when a charismatic demagogue gets into power, overturns the existing political order, and sets in motion a general free-for-all in which old alliances shatter and improbable new ones take shape. Does that sound familiar? In a week when union leaders emerged beaming from a meeting with the new president, while Democrats are still stoutly defending the integrity of the CIA, it should.”
At which point of Polybius’ cycle would you locate New Zealand?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 January 2017.