Five Years Later: Looking Back on Our Research Statement

The text below is the Institute’s original statement on the purpose of its research program, written in 2014 by founder Tim Ferguson. Looking back on it five years later, it is hard not to be struck by its foresight on a number of issues that have since come to the forefront of political life in America.

Remember, this was written before the 2016 electionbefore violent protests filled our streets for the first time in decades. When this text was written, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century  was just being introduced to English-speaking audiences. The idea that wealth inequality was rising and bound to keep risingaround the globe was still contested by many economists. Someone reading our research statement at the time would have likely found our prediction of increasing class conflict in America alarmist. Five years later it seems not only true, but obvious.

The following statement was also written before Walter Scheidel’s 2017 book The Great Leveler, which confirmed Picketty’s thesis across the past five millennia of history. The upshot: inequality is always rising during extended periods of political stability. The developed world has now experienced over seventy years of relative peace and stability since WWII, hence the record high levels of inequality. Five years ago, one could dispute our claim that every democracy must, by its very nature, face the danger of a growing plutocracy.  Now, the historical data demonstrating this fact is overwhelming.

Five years ago people might have snickered at the suggestion that America could eventually be pulled, via demagoguery, in the direction of monarchy. Now in 2019, this idea is nothing to laugh about. Alarms about authoritarian trends in our political system are the order of the day.

ANACYCLOSIS INSTITUTE

SUMMARY OF RESEARCH PROGRAM (2014)

Political evolution appears to follow a base sequence. This sequence advances political society through periods of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, in that order. The sequence takes centuries to run its full course, and finds fullest expression within the urbanized part of civilization. At least once in history, the sequence has completed a full cycle. Roman civilization emerged among many separate monarchies, passed through oligarchy, approached democracy, and culminated in a single integrated monarchy. Political evolution of course does not rigidly conform to this cycle, and various accidents of history belie the existence of any fixed sequence. Nevertheless, in the long run, the cumulative effects of human ambition may average out the occurrences of chance. Political evolution seems to be advanced primarily by the diffusion and concentration of wealth, with the emergence of an independent middle class the conditio sine qua non of the organic development of democracy.

There is a name for the cycle of political revolution: Anacyclosis. The Institute for Anacyclosis is dedicated to the study of Anacyclosis, and all that goes with it. Of this vast field of study, our immediate interest is the development and deterioration of democracy, correlated to the diffusion and concentration of wealth. On that subject, our working conclusions are these: The organic diffusion of wealth creates an independent middle class. If this middle class becomes indispensable, it will force the oligarchy to share power, establishing democracy alongside oligarchy. This middle class will later recede as wealth is concentrated within the upper class, but the democratic institutions created by the middle class will survive. Meanwhile, as money becomes ubiquitous, the oligarchy becomes plutocratic. Society will thus eventually be stratified between few rich and many poor, with all having political rights. This will produce class conflict, which in turn engenders demagoguery.

This course of events brings us to the present, and we have much to do. We must verify, and if necessary, modify the foregoing historical narrative. Have we properly isolated and arranged the key socioeconomic trends which underlie the causality of political evolution? How far we can project the past trajectory of political evolution into the future to anticipate the next stages of political evolution? With Polybius as our guide, we have developed a few conjectures. If democratic institutions remain intact and the middle class becomes fractured, we presume that popular leaders will eventually prevail over plutocrats due to the resulting growth of the proletariat. If this is correct, then demagogues would come to compete chiefly among themselves. Which, in view of history, human nature, and the doctrine of Anacyclosis, requires us to ask this question: Could an intensifying competition for political power among a narrowing field of demagogues once again drag democracy toward monarchy?

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