023 Political Cycles

In a fascinating study of „cyclical“ cultural change, Aristotle analyzed the constitutions and histories of Greek cities and put his results into a historical scheme that was similar to schemes known to almost every educated Greek, including Plato. Aristotle’s scheme superficially looks much like the scenarios of our macro-historians, but it is on a different historical principle and scale. His cycle is measured by generations, not by millennia. (We have modified his arguments slightly to suit our needs — see Figure 1.2.) Aristotle argued that a cycle starts with a Sacred King who has been selected or aided by the Gods. Many Greek cities were founded by heroic figures who became mythological — that is, Sacred Kings. Everybody either had or was supposed to have total faith in the Sacred King’s right to rule. All persons presumably believed in the divine origins of the system. The members of the King’s family or the priesthood eventually created a hereditary aristocracy that did not have the same total faith in the system as the people (perhaps because they observed the royal family too closely). They would not participate in the government unless they had a high degree of control over it. At this point, something resembling a theology is needed—a systematic attempt to rationalize a system that has lost some of its charisma and divine character. The theology may stem the tide, but it will not restore the original faith. An oligarchy of wealth, talent, or military capability soon takes over from the aristocracy. An oligarchy needs greater freedom, more options, and more pluralism. It cannot command the same degree of faith and unity as a king or a hereditary priesthood. The appropriate faith for it, therefore, is some kind of deism. The system is still authoritarian and its legitimation is still based upon sacred concepts, but it is much more secular.

The next stage occurs when people begin to ask „Why shouldn’t we take over the government ourselves?“ At this point, relativism seems to be the appropriate belief system. One person’s system, one person’s belief, one person’s judgments are, until tested or otherwise invalidated, as good as any other. But more than a remnant remains of the old traditions and customs. Respect for authority, faith, and loyalty to the old beliefs are still evident.

One big problem with democracy is that it may erode into anarchy — a total rejection of all authority, a blocking of any action because of a multitude of pressure groups who are unwilling to compromise or work together. The appropriate belief system is skepticism. More and more people, particularly among the elite, challenge everything. There is no automatic authority, no source of legitimacy except plebiscites and elections—and even these may be challenged. There is much debate, diversion of effort, selfindulgence, and self-seeking. Order, justice, efficiency, and effectiveness are at low ebb. The society is, by our previous definition, decadent — that is, because of psychological, political, or cultural changes, the society is no longer able to solve problems it could have coped with previously.

Such a society eventually turns from skepticism to cynicism. Everybody’s motives are suspect, and more and more people believe the worst of each other. Their cynicism is usually justified. Tyranny inevitably develops. (In Greek political theory, the tyrant was often the representative of the masses against the oligarchs.) Nothing can be accomplished unless force is used or threatened; people must be compelled to do the right thing or risk punishment or death. Serious public discussion of policy languishes. The leader may rely on others for advice and information, but no one can argue with the leader as a matter of right. He has a monopoly of force. The state, in fact, now represents nothing but force. Yet legitimacy, stability, and readily accepted rules are needed desperately. As Napoleon supposedly said, „We can do anything with bayonets except sit on them.“

This situation leads to despotism. A new leader eventually emerges, sometimes with a messianic message of ideological renewal. One can go back to the old days or start something radically different. In any case, the cycle is started again.

Aristotle concluded that no form of government was clearly best, not even democracy. It must be understood that in many countries, a step towards democracy is also a step towards anarchy, tyranny, or despotism — or at least revolution or revolutionary coups. Democracy for the sake of democracy is ideology, not judgment. All too often, Americans assume that democracy is always the best solution, everywhere, at all times, for all nations. Also, all too often our government tends to exert pressures to put this dubious axiom into practice. Yet in the last 200 years democracy has only worked and survived more or less continuously in a handful of countries: Scandinavia, Holland, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland.