How are democracies born? What causes their rise and eventual demise? And why are they so historically rare? We at the Institute believe that the theory of anacyclosis provides a powerful historical framework for exploring such questions. We would like to see more people become interested in the theory and join our conversation about the history and future of democracy.
One problem we face in this effort is that there is no beginner-friendly exposition of anacyclosis to which we can direct interested parties. There are, of course, plenty of pertinent ancient texts, which we have put up on our archive and invite you to read. Perhaps the clearest summary of the anacyclosis model is provided by Polybius. However, these ancient sources may be hard to understand for readers who have little experience reading classical texts. No one has yet tried to “update” the details of theory for contemporary audiences. In this and the next two blog posts, we will attempt to do just that.
As we have written elsewhere, anacyclosis is an ancient theory of political evolution. According to it, there is a natural sequence of regime types that a polity will cycle through if it is allowed to develop naturally (viz. if it is not destroyed by a major disaster or interfered with by powerful external forces). The first step is monarchy or kingship,1 which gradually degenerates into tyranny. Eventually, the nobility overthrow the tyranny and establish an aristocracy—a constitutional regime led by a small group of accomplished leaders. Over time, this degenerates into an oligarchy, in which wealth becomes the sole criterion for power. When the middle class is galvanized and overthrows the oligarchs, democracy is born. In due course, democracy degenerates into ochlocracy or “mob rule,” plagued by demagogues and factional strife. Finally, the state descends into civil war, which results in an autocrat taking power, thus bringing the cycle back to a form of one-man-rule.
As you may have noticed, these six classical archetypes of government may be grouped into three pairs: monarchy-tyranny, aristocracy-oligarchy, and democracy-ochlocracy. The first pair encompasses the two forms of one-man-rule, the second covers two types of rule by the few, and the third represents the two forms of rule by the many. Traditionally, each pair has been described as consisting of the “good” and the “vicious” species of the broader genus to which they belong. For instance, democracy is said to be the good species of rule by the many whereas ochlocracy is its vicious species. Likewise, the good form of rule by the few is called aristocracy, while the vicious form is oligarchy.
However, evaluative terms like “good” and “vicious” are not very instructive or helpful for understanding the underlying differences (structural, economic, and political) between these various forms. In order to establish more concrete ways of differentiating between them, we will introduce two historical principles that illuminate the distinction between the “good” and the “vicious” archetypes without relying on value judgments. In this post, we will explore these principles in the context of monarchy and tyranny. They will prove equally illuminating in the following two posts on aristocracy-oligarchy and democracy-ochlocracy.
In addition to fleshing out the details of anacyclosis for a contemporary audience, this blog trilogy has two other overarching goals. The first is to show that recent advances in historical modeling (by scholars with little-to-no awareness of anacyclosis) are consistent with the ancient theory and, in fact, seem to corroborate it on several counts. The second overarching goal is to show that the classical typology of government types remains functional, viz. it can adequately describe the full range of polities observed in our times. Even regimes based on modern ideologies (such as communism) can be meaningfully understood and analyzed through the lens of anacyclosis.
Let us begin with an obvious question that has not been answered yet: Why is monarchy the earliest stage of the cycle? Doesn’t a cycle, by definition, have no beginning or end? While that is of course true, there are at least two good reasons why Polybius and others set monarchy as stage 1. First, they noticed that it was the most common regime type. Second, they believed that monarchy is the form of government that invariably emerges from the rubble left behind by major civilizational collapses. In other words, they thought that whenever civilization hits the reset button, monarchy becomes the default form of government until things start to pick up again. But were they right?
Both the Greeks and Romans were aware of civilizational collapses from historical records (especially those of the Egyptians) and from mythology. Polybius, like Plato and Aristotle before him, concluded from this information that there occurs periodically “such a destruction of the human race” that “all arts and crafts perish at the same time.” Whenever this happens, the survivors instinctively regroup in order to survive and look for a strong leader to keep them safe. As Polybius writes, “In such a state, it is a necessary consequence that the man who excels in bodily strength and in courage will lead and rule over the rest.” (Histories 6.5.5)
Polybius’ main point here—that monarchy always (re)emerges after major civilizational collapses—seems to be supported by the historical data available to us today. For example, all of the states that emerged in Europe, North Africa, and the Near East after the fall of the Roman empire were monarchies. As far as we can tell, all of the states that emerged after the Bronze Age Collapse of the 12th century BC were also monarchies. By contrast, republics and democracies are only ever observed on the tail end of many-centuries-long periods of economic, demographic, and technological growth.
Thus, it is reasonable to take monarchy as stage 1 in the course of civilizational development. Let us now turn to the next paradigm shift: the transition from monarchy to tyranny. What differentiates the two? And is it true, as the ancients maintained, that monarchies necessarily degenerate into tyrannies over time?
To help us answer these questions, let us turn to a couple of historical principles or “laws” established by modern historians. We will call the first one the “law of increasing inequality.” This law (henceforth LII) posits that during periods of relative peace and stability in a state, economic inequality across its population will continuously rise. In other words, wealth tends to concentrate at the top, except when severe shocks to the system (war, plague, revolution etc.) redistribute or even destroy it. While historians and economists have been slow to embrace LII—perhaps because it may seem hard to reconcile with cherished notions of perpetual economic progress—the evidence for it across history is overwhelming and has been compiled and eloquently presented by Walter Scheidel in his 2017 book The Great Leveler.
The second principle we shall make use of involves the fact that the number of elites in any given society tends to grow so large that it destabilizes the state. This phenomenon has been observed and described by different political thinkers in different ways. We will refer to it here as “elite overproduction,” following Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov.2 Elite overproduction describes the phenomenon whereby the number of “elite aspirants”—people clamoring for elite status—in any society continues to grow, even when the population overall stabilizes.
The basic mechanism of elite overproduction may be summarized as follows. As the population of a state reaches carrying capacity, it begins to level off by necessity. This can happen through war, famine, or more “peacefully” when many people refrain from having children due to economic hardship. The elites, however, continue to procreate as before because they can afford to. This creates an increasingly large group at the top who want to enjoy as much wealth and prestige as their parents had. However, the number of people in any community who enjoy power and influence is, by definition, limited. Thus, a growing number of elites start vying with one another for the short supply of high-status positions. This in turn usually leads to elite infighting, the formation of factions, and eventually civil war.
Now let’s consider the case of a “young monarchy” that emerges after a major civilizational collapse like the fall of the Roman Empire. We will first set the stage by describing such a monarchy and then use our two historical principles to describe its evolution. During the collapse, virtually all financial institutions, trade networks, and power structures of the previous civilization were swept away. The primary concern of the various communities of survivors that emerge is to avoid starving or being killed. The leaders of each group are usually the strongest members of the community who can secure land, food, and vital resources and can ward off enemies when attacked. The strongest and most resourceful of them consolidate power into one family, and monarchy is born. Of course, no monarch ever rules alone. The families that are able to recruit and lead bands of warriors and secure resources become the ruling class and form a kind of nascent nobility.
In such a kingdom, power is determined for the most part by strength, not by money, since money is in short supply and there are no stable financial institutions yet. Interestingly, as Scheidel documents in his book, the poverty of such states means that economic inequality is much lower than in the wealthy, mercantile, or imperial states of more globalized historical periods. Polybius makes a similar point, noting that the ruling class in such states “was exempt from all vituperation or jealousy, as neither in their dress nor in their food did they make any great distinction. They lived very much like everyone else, not keeping apart from the people.” (Histories 6.7.5)
As these kingdoms begin to stabilize, and as diplomacy and trade roots are formed, economic growth starts to take off. The population rises, but so does economic inequality (LII). Eventually, the population hits the new carrying capacity and levels off again. However, the elites continue to procreate as before (elite overproduction). Thus, you now have an elite class that is richer, more numerous, and more visible than earlier. The noblesse d’épée (nobility of the sword) has grown into a bloated noblesse de robe (nobility of fancy clothes). Furthermore, divisions among the elite result in factions that destabilize the state. This volatility is compounded by the frustration of the common people, who are unable to support their own families and grow resentful of the flagrant display of wealth by their rulers.
It is this combination of economic stagnation among the masses and the continuous accumulation of money by a bloated and factious elite class that differentiates tyranny from kingship. As Polybius writes, “But when [the rulers] received the office by hereditary succession and found their safety now provided for, and more than sufficient provision of food, they gave way to their appetites owing to this superabundance, and came to think that the rulers must be distinguished from their subjects by a peculiar dress, that there should be a peculiar luxury and variety in the dressing and serving of their viands, and that they should meet with no denial in the pursuit of their amours, however lawless. These habits having given rise in the one case to envy and offence and in the other to an outburst of hatred and passionate resentment, the kingship changed into a tyranny; the first steps towards its overthrow were taken by the subjects, and conspiracies began to be formed.” (Histories 6.7.6-8)
In sum, it is not the particular character of an individual ruler that makes a regime a monarchy or a tyranny in the framework of anacyclosis. Rather, it is the changing distribution of wealth across the population that inevitably drives every kingdom towards an unstable and factious condition called tyranny. In other words, what Polybius calls tyranny can be described in modern terms as a late-stage monarchy, in which high inequality and elite overproduction have made the regime inherently unstable. Not only are the masses embittered by the elites and perpetually ready to revolt, but the elites are embittered with each other because there are too many of them vying for limited positions of prestige.
This factionalism among the elite is a key driving factor of civil war and revolution. Goldstone writes in his book how popular revolts are usually mobilized by a subset of the elite in order to overthrow the head of state. As examples, he provides the English Civil War, the French Revolution, as well as numerous other revolts and rebellions. Polybius makes a similar point when he writes, “These conspiracies [against the rulers] were not the work of the worst men, but of the noblest.” (Histories 6.7.9)
In some cases, a revolution may propel a tyranny forward into the next phase of anacyclosis: aristocracy. How that happens will be discussed in the next blog post. However, in most cases, the result of such upheavals ends up being another form of one-man-rule. The famous tyrants of ancient Greek history are invariably described as members of the elite who harness popular resentment to overthrow the head of state. The classical tyrant temporarily solves the problem of elite overproduction by exiling or killing rival noble families. By contrast, a king in a young monarchy is not under as much pressure to deal with an aggressive elite and a disgruntled populace.
Thus, the two historical principles we have been talking about—LII and elite overproduction—help us distinguish between monarchy and tyranny in objective and quantifiable ways, without relying on moral judgments about particular rulers. Furthermore, they also shed light on the differences within the other two pairs of government archetypes. Any regime—whether ruled by one, a few, or many—is susceptible to LII and to elite overproduction. With this in mind, the “vicious” version of each of the three broad regime types can be understood as a late-stage form of the “good” type.
More specifically, a tyranny is a late-stage monarchy that is ripping at the seams, an oligarchy is a late-stage aristocracy similarly afflicted, and an ochlocracy is a late-stage democracy consumed by revolutionary fervor. In each of these “vicious” polities, it is the combination of LII and elite overproduction that brings the state to a tipping point. In some cases, these factors may result in a paradigm shift that propels, say, a tyranny to an aristocratic republic or an oligarchy to a democracy. However, it is also possible that a revolution or civil war is so destructive that it causes a full reset of the cycle by replacing any form of government with a form of one-man-rule.
As Polybius points out, the first type of government to arise after catastrophes is monarchy, since “its growth is natural and unaided.” (Histories 6.4.7) This is why monarchy is the most common form of government found throughout history. By contrast, democracy is the rarest of the archetypes found in history, because most states do not make it that far in the cycle before some crisis or stress factor causes a reset. Anacyclosis is like one of those early video games that did not have a save function, where it is very easy to start over, but very difficult to make it to the end.
So, what does it take for a monarchy to eventually become a democracy? And are all democracies doomed to suffer the same fate? We will explore these questions in the next few posts.
1. We should clarify that what we call “monarchy” does not correspond to the ancient Greek word monarchia. For the Greeks, monarchia is a generic term for any type of one-man-rule, including both kingship (basileia) and tyranny (tyrannis). By contrast, the english word “monarchy” usually just refers to the first of these subtypes, i.e. a traditional system of hereditary rule by a royal family. Thus, while we generally try to stick to the original Greek vocabulary when discussing anacyclosis, monarchia is the one word we do not render by its English derivative “monarchy.” For the sake of accuracy, we will be translating monarchia as “one-man-rule,” while rendering basileia as “monarchy” or “kingship.”
2. See Secular Cycles by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov (Princeton University Press 2009) pp. 174, 205, 233, 313. While Turchin and Nefedov coined the term “elite overproduction,” the phenomenon was already analyzed in Jack Goldstone’s 1991 book Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World.