What Comes After Democracy?

Published: Jun 3, 2022
Updated: Jul 31, 2022

When it comes to the degeneration of regimes, one of the theories that holds the most explanatory power in my opinion, is that of anacyclosis. Derived from the Greek term ἀνακύκλωσις, anacyclosis means cycle, wheel, or cycle of political revolutions.

Many ancient Greek thinkers contributed to this theory, but perhaps none more so than the historian Polybius. So what’s the theory?

In short, empirical observation shows that governments usually devolve before they enter a new stage, and the stages – or cycles – repeat themselves across history, in circular fashion.

Each phase, such as kingship or aristocracy, winds up becoming corrupt and tyrannical. Eventually its leaders are overthrown and a new phase of governance appears.

Here’s my truncated version of the cycle:

  1. Strongman rule (sometimes called “primitive monarchy”)
  2. Kingship (rule is transferred via inheritance), devolves –> Tyranny and is overthrown
  3. Aristocracy (rule by the nobility), devolves –> Oligarchy and is overthrown
  4. Democracy devolves via Plutocracy –> Ochlocracy (Mob rule then competing demagogues), which returns us all to #1.

Please note that the phases are often described with differing terms. Here is a list from the Anacyclosis Institute whose work I discovered during the pandemic.

The institute has further developed the theory. In particular they emphasize the pivotal role the middle class has historically played and how military supremacy and hegemony lead to plutocracy ruling in parallel to democracy.

The role of an independent middle class #

The rise of an independent middle class, which can speak truth to power, is rare in history and made democracy possible.

Middling virtues practiced by the middle class are requisite and provide social cohesion.

When the middle class declines its members either successfully transit into the upper class or descend into poverty. There is a diminishing base which can hold government in check.

As Timothy Ferguson notes:

The middle class is an essential feature of every democracy because of its political agency. It is not enough that a middle class exist, or even that the middle class be substantial. The middle class must also be financially independent, since any constituency that depends on subsidies to survive does not have authentic political autonomy. Perhaps more importantly, dependence and debt weaken the citizenry’s negative check or “veto” on the administration of government. But such a veto is crucial. For democracy is not only based on the ability of the governed to give consent. It is also rooted in the power of the governed to withdraw consent.

As the independent middle class declines, upward social mobility atrophies; the poor find it harder to ascend to the middle class.

The influence of middling virtues wanes. Incivility rises. Democracy degenerates.

Since a stable foundation for democracy no longer exists, what happens next?

Descending into mob rule #

Outbreaks of violence and mob rule. Also: the rise of competing demogogues (note the plural).

In this view, the rise of demagogues or violent skirmishes are not a cause: they’re a symptom of something that’s already happened.

Demagogues – or demagogue-like networks – sensing opportunity, stir the pot of grievances. They hope to acquire power by positioning themselves at the vanguard of one or more disgruntled factions.

The resolution of the “contest of demagogues” heralds the death of democracy and the imminent return to a primitive monarchy: rule by a Caesar-like figure.

Here’s a good description from the Anacyclosis Institute:

[P]olybius extrapolated the likely complete course of political evolution for an independent state whose lifecycle is not cut short by war or disaster. According to our interpretation of his model, the cycle proceeds as follows. Political communities are first ruled by kings. Kingship is eventually corrupted into tyranny. The last tyrant is deposed or forced to share power with an aristocracy. Aristocracy degenerates into an oppressive oligarchy. Occasionally, an independent middle economic stratum – a middle class – emerges; hoi mesoi in Aristotelian terms. If this middle class is entrenched, democracy emerges. In time, however, a plutocracy emerges, stratifying society between opulent and dependent. The hopes of the dependent masses fuel an intensifying competition among their political patrons, transforming democracy into mob-rule, perhaps better described as rule by demagogues. This tournament of demagogues rages among a narrowing field of popular leaders until a single champion arises victorious, dragging political society back to some form of monarchy, thus completing the cycle.

Questions #

Here are some things this theory has prompted me to think about:

Exploring Rationist.org #

I’m currently reading, and therefore don’t have an opinion yet on, Rationist.org, which draws inspiration from anacyclosis. They propose tethering household wealth to a “social aspect ratio” not to exceed 10,000x the national median household net worth. So this is not an absolute, but a relative cap; there is no limit on wealth accumulation, but it must co-occur with the increasing prosperity of others.

(The ratio change to 10,000:1 would be from the current 2,000,000+:1 .)

Sample passage:

Moderation in fortunes produces moderation in custom, in law, and in government. Stable democratic society, and the democratic-republican model of government, depends upon the wide diffusion of productive and earned wealth in a large and financially independent middle class, continually refreshed by productive and dignified upward mobility. Extreme social stratification at the expense of the middle class, and the general precarity and dependency which follow, is the root cause of most of our current political problems, including polarization and civic unrest. Rationism is a historically-informed and forward-looking solution to these problems that avoids the defects of both unbridled capitalism and indefinite socialism. And while Rationism solves for both precarity and dependency, socialism may solve for precarity, but only at the expense of increasing dependency and patronage.

An aside on the middle class

From Aristotle to the Founding Fathers and beyond, the middle class has been viewed as a necessary provider of stability to republics.

This quote from by Mary P. Nichols is a good summary:

Aristotle’s practical republic finds both stability and virtue by giving prominence to the middle class . . . A large middle class can provide stability by arbitrating between rich and poor, while its members are willing and able to share in rule, for they possess neither the arrogance of the rich nor the envy of the poor. They rule and are ruled as free human beings, inclined to neither despotism nor servility. Their middling condition inclines them both to protect property and wealth (for they have some of their own to protect) and to keep open opportunities for advancement, for themselves as well as for the poor. Aristotle’s political thought does not point to an ideal that eliminates conflict; it aims for practical regimes that are most likely to moderate it and achieve justice.

Source of passage above

The Anacyclosis Institute

The institute has further developed the theory of anacyclosis, taking into account centuries of history after Polybius. In particular, they’ve explored:

The Mob Awakens
By Timothy Ferguson in The Financial Times
“A declining middle class is consequently the harbinger of revolution, for the diffusion (and concentration) of wealth tends to precede the diffusion (and concentration) of political power.”

The Disappearing Middle Class and a Nation on the Brink
By Timothy Ferguson and David C. Gore in the Star Tribune
“The American middle class is declining. As our middle class falls, our political temperature rises. Crane Brinton’s likening of political revolution to a fever in his classic work “The Anatomy of Revolution” seems particularly apt. Middle-class decline is a preliminary symptom.”

What comes after democracy? - Pamphlet from the Anacylosis Institute

Nearly 100,000 establishments that temporarily shut down due to the pandemic are now out of business
By Anne Sraders and Lance Lambert in Fortune magazine

Many Winters Are Coming
By Javier Blas for Bloomberg
“Europe’s energy-intensive industries range from aluminum to chicken farming. All will be under threat of closure.”