Transcript of EP 208 – Jack Visnjic on Anacyclosis

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Jack Visnjic. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest is Jack Visnjic, also known online as Lantern Jack. Good old Jack is a classicist and historian of philosophy interested in uncovering long-term patterns in history. He has a PhD in Ancient Philosophy from Princeton and he’s recently published a book called The Invention of Duty, which explores the origin of the notion of moral duty in Greco-Roman antiquity. He’s a podcaster too. He’s got a popular podcast called Ancient Greece Declassified, which brings cutting-edge scholarship on the ancient Mediterranean to a popular audience. Welcome Jack!

Jack: Thank you, Jim. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Jim: So how did you get the nickname Lantern Jack?

Jack: Well that’s a long story, but in short, I took some time off of grad school because I wanted to do some soul searching and my advisor actually told me, like, take some time off, find your direction in life and I hitchhiked for about two years and performed as a street musician while trying to meet interesting people around the world and my travel blog was called Lantern Jack and part of it is a pun on Jack the Lantern but also part of it is inspired by the ancient philosopher Diogenes the Sinek.

Jim: So I figured, wandering around with this Lantern asking people embarrassing questions, right?

Jack: Yeah, something like that. So like Diogenes, I wanted to meet interesting people and so I was going forth with the Lantern.

Jim: You know, when I was young, I hitchhiked 50,000 miles and had all kinds of interesting adventures. I definitely recommended it as a way to get quite a grassroots education on what the world’s really like. I could see the inside of a few jail cells. Oh well, that’s part of life. I definitely probably learned more from my 50,000 miles worth of hitchhiking than any other single thing I ever did in my life.

Jack: I share with you that I learned a lot during that time period and I met a lot of hitchhikers. I have never met anybody that got 50,000 miles though, so that’s quite the record.

Jim: There are probably people that have beaten that, but yeah, it was over a four year period, so it wasn’t like I did it in one go, but I enjoyed my old hitchhiking days. Anyway, today we’re going to talk about Jack’s work on something I didn’t ever even knew existed, which is a theory called Anacycloces. And it’s something that goes way back in time.

The guy that came up with it was a Greco-Roman historian, philosopher, writer called Polybius, who was born in Greece, but basically did his writing in Rome, at least the writing we’re going to be talking about here. It’s an interesting idea and it fits into something we’ve been doing a lot of on the Jim Rutt show recently, which is cyclical patterns in history. As regular listeners know, we recently had Neil Howe on with his fourth turning book.

And a couple of months ago, we had Peter Turchin on where he talked about his end times. And those two guys both have cyclical forms of history and kind of the 80 to 100 year long pattern. Anacycloces runs on much longer patterns of history. So with that sort of minimal introduction, Jack, why don’t you take it away and give us a really broad scope introduction to Anacycloces and maybe a little bit on how Polybius came up with it.

Jack: Okay, well, first it should be said that most civilizations before the modern era had cyclical conceptions of history, whether we look at the Chinese tradition of seeing cyclical, dynastic patterns, or whether we look at Ibn Kaldun and his analysis of the Arab world in what we call the Middle Ages, or whether you look at ancient Indian writings, ancient Greek and Roman writings, they all see cyclical patterns. And also to clarify, this doesn’t mean that it’s only cyclical, that everything repeats in the exact same way. It means that there are cyclical aspects to history. We can still admit that there’s technological progress through the cycles. So one cycle might begin at a higher technological state than the previous cycle. And that’s why historians like Peter Turchin actually resist the label cyclical history, because they want to emphasize that not everything is cyclical.

So that should be just cleared away at first. Now, how did Polybius come to this model? Well, Jim, I’m going to tell you a one minute history of the first millennium BC in a way that I’m pretty sure you and your audience have not heard before. Okay, let me ask you something. How many ancient Greek city-states do you think there were? Just a rough estimate, order of magnitude estimate.

Jim: 300.

Jack: So actually there was 1500 that we know of. And if you add the Phoenician city-states and you add the Italic city-states and the Etruscan city-states, then you’re approaching 2000. Okay, so the first millennium BC sees almost 2000 independent polities crop up around the coasts of the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions. That number of independent political units is unprecedented in history, and it has never occurred since.

Jim: Well, it was probably pretty close in pre-consolidation Germany. I believe there was 1200 principalities and duchies and Bisscherfich, etc. at one point. But anyway, it’s a bunch.

Jack: It’s a bunch. There are kind of certain Goldilocks conditions that enabled this ecosystem to rise and fall, because we don’t see this in the Bronze Age, where the earlier, the second millennium BC, the Bronze Age, we see much larger kingdoms, and then after Alexander’s conquest, we see much larger kingdoms, and then the Roman Empire. So what caused this proliferation of these independent polities? Of course, many different theories here, but I think some crucial aspects are that during this time, as long as you could build a wall and have access to the sea, you could survive as a sovereign state. That ceased to be possible after the Macedonians, because new siege technology made walls not that effective at defending against armies.

But from around 800 until, let’s say 300 BC, as long as you could find a coastal settlement, build a big wall, and have a port, you were moderately safe. And so the Greeks, and Phoenicians, and Italic peoples, they copy-pasted this template again and again and again and again throughout the coastal regions of the Mediterranean and Black Sea, until you get thousands of them. And all of these independent states are connected via the Mediterranean, via the sea. The sea at that time was a great connecting force, unlike during the Middle Ages, where it separated Christendom from the world of Islam, and it was a kind of dividing force.

But in this first millennium BC, the sea was a connecting force. So you had many, many, many states with tons of communication, trade routes, exchange of people, exchange of ideas, and this created a laboratory of political experimentation, the likes of which, again, I think is unparalleled in history. So when Plato and Aristotle and then Polybius are writing, there simply were many, many more examples of political units that they could study.

And to answer your question finally, Polybius had access to a huge database of historical data, of hundreds and hundreds of city-states, how they developed over time, and he came to the conclusion that there was a sequence of political forms that seemed to unfold in a predictable pattern, and that involved six stages, which he called monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and finally, oclocrocy, which means mob rule, and then the system collapses back into a form of one-man rule.

Jim: Interesting, yeah. It looks like he also took Aristotle’s simple system of one rules, few rules, many rules, and then added a second dimension, public gain versus private gain. Why don’t you talk about that a little bit?

Jack: Sure, so already the Aristotelian division you’re speaking of can actually be traced back a little bit further to Herodotus, who is writing in the 420s BC, so about 100 years almost before Aristotle, and his histories contains the first surviving classification of government types into three categories, rule by one, rule by a few, and rule by many. Later on though, already in the works Plato about 50 years later, and then Aristotle, 80 to 90 years later, political thinkers in Greece started to find this system insufficient to describe the variety of political forms, and so they divided each of these categories into two subcategories, which they saw as the virtuous and the vicious version.

So a kingdom is distinguished from a tyranny in that one is good, one is bad. Similarly, an aristocracy is a good form of its shadow oligarchy, and democracy is the preferable form of its evil cousin, mobocracy or oculocracy. And I think that this actually jives pretty well with the research of modern historians like Peter Turchin and Walter Scheidel, who have shown that over time, all societies that are stable, that are not experiencing cataclysmic upheavals, will tend towards plutocracy, will tend towards wealth concentrated among the elites, and the people will experience what’s called popular immiseration.

So over time, even modern historians agree that, or at least many of them agree, that any polity will eventually become a kind of corrupted version of its initial state. And so that’s why in the anacyclosis system, you go from the good form of one man rule to the bad form, and then the good form of rule by the few to the vicious form, and then the good form of democracy to its vicious twin.

Jim: And then of course, the epoch before the kings, it happened in China lots of times, down into warlordism, essentially, which is not quite anarchy, but there is no one center of power.
It’s extremely fluid, very dynamic. At least in the Chinese case, it then after some period of, I don’t forget what the Chinese name for it is, they had some fancy name, it would basically recolour less into a new single entity. Does the anacyclosis theory also include that intermediate or preliminary epoch of warlordism?

Jack: Yeah, absolutely. So the beginning of the section in Polybius, book six for anyone interested, where he starts introducing this theory, he describes such a warring states period, he says that, or such a period of let’s say chieftains, he says that periodically, humanity has experienced massive cataclysms that tend to wipe out a lot of technology, historical records, writings, archives, etc. And the survivors of these cataclysms kind of regroup in much more primitive forms of social organization. And that’s when you have kind of these tribes ruled by chieftains in a kind of chaotic mess, right? And then over time, they rediscover and reinvent institutions, morals, moral codes, etc. And then you get the consolidation of several tribes under one king.

Jim: I’m going to throw out a Rutt thesis here, which I’ve laid on some anthropologists, and they say maybe, and which is maybe it doesn’t have to do with moral codes and institutions. Maybe it’s a probabilistic role of the dice that one of the chieftains turned out to be a sufficiently powerful, charismatic psychopath, and that that’s what actually happened. So this is the great man theory of history versus the processes and institutions theory of history. And I’ve actually played with the data enough to say that take some reasonable guesses on the incidents of charisma and sociopathy, and it might be a reasonable explanation. So I’m just going to put that out there. And I’ve just gotten some anthropologists to be somewhat interested in the idea.

Jack: I mean, that sounds plausible to me. And I think that you could make a case that that’s consistent with the Anacoclosis theory as well.

Jim: Yeah, because it doesn’t really matter for the theory. As long as there’s some formation event that goes from warlordism, or you know, highly decentralized power to the power of one, where are some of the examples that he gives for that emergence?

Jack: Well, now I’m going to disappoint you that he doesn’t give an example.

Jim: Oh, damn.

Jack: But he has a good reason for that. Okay, which is that apparently many other people in ancient times had written about these cycles. And so when Polybius introduces this in book six of his histories, he expects his audience to be familiar with these theories. And he says, you know what, since people have already written so much about this, I’m not going to delve into the specifics. I’m going to give you just a summary.

Jim: How about Jack? Jack must have some examples.

Jack: Sure. Well, Rome broadly speaking, follows this schema. And actually, I guess the one example that Polybius does give is Rome. I mean, the whole point of including this in his history of the world that’s Rome centered is that Rome is a polity that’s going through this entire sequence. And so, according to Roman accounts of their origins, there was a kind of warring states period after Ineus brought the survivors of Troy to Italy, and then he met the local tribes, which are enumerated in great detail in Virgil’s Aeneid.

It was only after centuries of various conflicts that Rome was actually founded. And it was initially a kind of syncretism of a few cultures. There apparently was a Greek settlement there before the Latin speaking people came there. And then there were Etruscan influences. And there was a neighboring Latin speaking town of Alba Longa. And all of these eventually combined into one large kingdom, which had seven kings, the seven kings of Rome.

And the last two were pretty bad. So there you have the tyranny example, right? And then a few noblemen overthrew the tyranny and started the Roman Republic. So there’s aristocracy. Over time, in Polybius’ day, actually, there were serious problems with the Roman system. You have the rise of the Gracchi brothers, who some have compared to modern populist leaders in America, whom I need not mention. And the point was that, you know, the middle class had been gutted in Italy, and the elites owned all the land.

And then you have these, you have a new crisis there. So at the time that Polybius was writing, he saw Rome as having followed at least the first four stages of that schema. And he thought that at some point Rome would collapse from a mobocracy into a one man rule system again, which in that prophecy was fulfilled because eventually the civil wars turned the Roman Republic into an empire ruled by one man, namely Augustus.

Jim: Interestingly, it missed the fifth stage, right? Or its fifth stage was earlier. I don’t know quite how to think about that. The Gracchi epoch was somewhat democratic, but also somewhat oligarchic at the same time. But it never really was a pure democracy, and nor did it ever really fall to mob rule. It kind of skipped those two in some sense. Is that reasonable to say?

Jack: This is highly debated. Okay, so the question of whether Rome ever reached the status of democracy is a very controversial point. Most scholars today would say no, but there are some that say yes. Regardless, though, I think that you can make the case that it went through six stages. So first of all, is there any state that ever can be called a pure democracy? That’s debatable.

Jim: I mean, Switzerland maybe, Swiss Canton maybe.

Jack: Yeah. So if you look at the Roman historians like Livy and how they portray the history of the Republic, one theme that comes up a lot is what we call the conflict of the order. It seemed that there were several points. Livy kind of collapses this into one episode, but historians think there might have been several similar crises where inequality just got out of hand. The commoners, the kind of middle-class citizens felt disenfranchised. And in Livy’s version, there was a so-called secession of the plebs. The people said, you know what? We’re not going to play ball anymore. Like you aristocrats, you do your thing.

Jim: Yeah, go clean your own toilets, right?

Jack: Yeah, exactly. And following this conflict of the orders, more likely these conflicts of the orders, there were always concessions given to the people. And so the polity became more and more democratic to the point where in the time of the Gracchi, you have the tribunes of the plebs, who although often aristocrats themselves, just like again in modern times, populist leaders are often rich themselves, they did at least in theory give voice to the people. And so you could make the case that Rome of the early first century BC was considerably more democratic than the early republic, and therefore that could be a fifth stage in the sequence.

And then as for the sixth stage, mobocracy, I mean that’s, I think, undeniable. It’s undeniable that in the entire last century of the Roman Republic’s existence, you couldn’t be a politician if you didn’t have a mob. If you were Caesar or Cicero or Milo, whoever, and you wanted to give a speech in public, you had to have a mob there to protect you because your opponents would have mobs, they’re ready to beat you up. And that was the reality of everyday politics in Rome for a century that saw multiple civil wars, many assassinations, especially of populist leaders. So you could say that Rome did go through the full cycle.

Jim: Interesting. Now, another point that some people have made about this is that it’s relatively uncommon for polities to survive long enough to go through this whole cycle.

Jack: Yeah, this is one of the most common critiques of Anastaclosis. And according to my research and some of my colleagues, I should say that there’s very few people who like me actually defend this theory. I should put that out there. But our view is that it’s kind of like a video game, like an early video game from the 90s where you didn’t have a save option. So if you died, you started back at level one. Okay. Anastaclosis is a long, let’s say video game, and you only make it to the end if you can survive an extraordinarily long time and experience economic growth during that entire time frame. And that seems to only happen when in these strange moments in history, when you get a cluster of similar polities that become much more wealthy than most other states in the world at the time. And this has happened three times as far as I can see in history. One is the ancient Mediterranean, this ecosystem of small city states.

Jim: How about the Bronze Age period?

Jack: It’s unlikely because they were mainly large kingdoms then. But what distinguishes the first millennium BC is that these small independent city states had much higher wealth per capita than the rich empires of the day. So the wealth per capita in Greek city states, like although Persia was the biggest economy of the time, the average Persian living anywhere from modern Pakistan to modern Turkey is living at a much lower economic level than the average Athenian, say, or even the average Spartan. So that’s one cluster. Another cluster is the Italian city states of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, Venice, Genoa, Florence.

Again, per capita, way wealthier than France or England, which were much more powerful as large states. And then the third ecosystem like that is the modern wave of wealthy Western democracies. So in each of these three cases, you get this cluster of states that are often very commercially active. They often have access to the sea, so they develop far-flung sources of economic development. They’re often colonial in various ways. You could interpret that word. And as a result, they are able to sustain economic growth for very, very long times. And that’s what seems to get them through this entire cycle.

Jim: How about the big empires, the Persians and such? China, of course, Rome itself, we just walked through those were big empires and they have it various times persisted for the 500 years or so. It might take to work its way through these cycles.

Jack: That’s a really interesting puzzle, I guess. And so the ancient sources don’t discuss that question very much except for a few famous examples. So for example, in Herodotus, the place where Herodotus gives us this first known classification of polities into three types.
One man rule, few men rule, rule of the many. He actually puts this story in the context of the Persian Empire. So after a Kambaisis, the second emperor of Persia after Cyrus, the great, he apparently became some kind of tyrant and a coup d’etat occurred by a group of seven aristocrats. And then they supposedly had a debate, what kind of government, now that we’ve deposed the evil king, the great king, what kind of government should we set up in Persia? And Herodotus presents them as giving three speeches. The first one advocates for democracy or rule of the many. The second advocates for aristocracy. And then Darius says, the way it’s always been done in Persia is that the strong man rules and it should be one man and that’s the tradition. Any objections? Everybody shuts up and he’s like, okay, I guess I’m king now.

Jim: Good work if you can get it, right?

Jack: Now, that’s possibly apocryphal. I mean, a lot of historians doubt that that ever happened. But my answer to you would be, I think that with large states, it becomes increasingly less likely that this cycle can play out. And it might have to do with the fact that with large states, it’s harder to maintain economic growth over a long period of time. Whereas with these small states, the thing about these three clusters or three waves of republics that I mentioned, ancient Greece, Italian Renaissance and modern Western democracies is that because these states start off as very small and already quite wealthy, they can expand and become wealthier and keep, maintain economic growth for a very long time until they become like hard to manage because they’re so big. Whereas empires, they’re already so big to begin with, they’re already struggling to maintain order among their vast territories that it seems more difficult to maintain economic growth over a long time.

Jim: Yeah, and dynamics like Peter Turchin’s theory that border people are always going to have higher levels of coherence than imperial people. And that’s a whole nother dynamic. Listeners to my episodes with Turchin and Howe may recall, I try to dig into what might be some of the drivers that when you put them in action together have an emergent result of something like these cycles. And so I thought about that a little bit and I thought about the three by two of kingship, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy and occlocrotcy or the fucking is mob rule. And I try to think about what might be some drivers. I’m gonna throw four drivers at you. I’d like to get your reaction to the set.

Jack: Okay.

Jim: One, I would say is corruption or I’ve come to take it lately is the blight, which is something seemingly driven by human nature or at least some variant of human nature where corruption, nepotism is always something that’s trying to work its way into any system you design. And unless you have a very good immune system, corruption will grow and grow and grow. Then there’s a collective reaction against injustice. You know, the Grotchy area in Italy, the late 19th century and the early 20th century unionization movements. And then you have demagogues and populists that come out and take advantage of legitimate collective reaction against injustice. And finally, at the end of the day, there is a very deeply rooted desire in humans for stability. So I think of those as four forces that might be at least in part explanatory of the emergence of a system like this. What’s your take on that?

Jack: I think that those are spot on in explaining why what Polybius would call a vicious state will collapse and require some kind of reorganization. So if you get a late stage tyranny or oligarchy or mobocracy, and I do think corruption is one of the drivers of all those three and that’s what Polybius.

Jim: Yeah, it seems to be that it corrupts the driver from the good column to the bad column, essentially.

Jack: So corruption gets you to the bad column. And then you have people that try to react in some way, form unions, protest, secession of the plebs, that kind of thing. And you have demagogues. And there is a desire for stability. But the question then becomes, why not go back?
So if you have a tyranny, what propels it to an aristocracy as opposed to just you kill the king, you kill the tyrant, you kill some of the nobles, and you go back to a kingdom? You see what I’m saying? You need an additional…

Jim: Yeah, yeah. Okay, so good. Yeah, good. So what’s a good explanation for that? Why does it tend to go through the three phases rather than take the reactionary take and go, well, let’s go back to the 1950s. Things were good then, right?

Jack: Here we’re getting into my own personal thoughts. This is not no longer in Polybius or Plato.

Jim: Bring it, bring it.

Jack: Okay, I think that one necessary condition is that there has to be foreign threats. In the absence of foreign threats, polities seem to revert back to, over time at least, to some kind of monarchical system. So when Rome had vanquished all of its major enemies, that’s almost exactly the moment that it became an empire as opposed to a republic. Think of the GI Bill, okay? Why is it that when great powers, including America, win some wars, that actually, like the middle class profits from that, but when they win other wars, the middle class suffers from that. Like why is it that the middle class in America profited tremendously from World War II but has not profited and has arguably suffered from the wars of the past 20 years, for example?

Or in Rome, why is it that when Rome defeated the Etruscans and the Carthaginians early on that bolstered the middle class, but when they finally vanquished the Carthaginians and they defeated the Greeks that coincided with a gutting of the middle class? I think the difference there is, do the elites think that they are in an existential crisis? If the elites think that there is a serious threat to the power of their system, they are much more incentivized to invest in the middle class and to do something like a GI Bill, of which there are many parallels in the ancient world. Like an ancient Athenian democracy happened or it was solidified when the Persians attacked and the elites did something like a GI Bill.

They gave tons of money to the low class citizens to man the ships and they promised them benefits if they would man the ships. So there seems to be this phenomenon whereby when there is a credible threat, an existential threat and there is economic growth which can support this, money gets pushed down. It’s like a reverse wealth pump again for the Peter Turchin readers. Money gets pushed down into the lower strata of society and the power is distributed more broadly. And when there is no existential threat, then power and money are concentrated higher up.

Jim: I can see how that could work going from aristocracy to democracy. Do you think it also could explain moving from tyranny to aristocracy?

Jack: I think it does. So one of the things that happens when you go from kingdom to aristocracy or from aristocracy to democracy, you make the government bigger. The government of the United States, which is a democracy, is bigger than most monarchical governments. And so you get more brain power, which is only really useful if that brain power is well organized. Let’s take Rome again. Rome was a kingdom and then around 500 BC, it transitions into a republic, which means that the deliberative body is expanded from the king and a few advisors to a whole senatorial class. And I think part of that is that Rome was becoming more powerful. It was becoming more powerful. It was exercising control over more areas. It needed more diplomats. It needed more managers. It needed more like, you know, think tank style activity. And so a king was not able to do all that stuff. And so having an expanded governmental body was necessary for that kind of imperialistic growth.

Jim: If we look at later history, you know, we see the absolute kings and the 1500 epoch. They were running some of them pretty big empires in Spain and France, etc.

Jack: That’s a great point. And let’s contrast Britain with Spain and France. So I think, you know, it’s pretty obvious that Britain did much better.

Jim: Later it did. But at the time, England was certainly a fairly pissant power. And it was actually quite surprising that the Spanish didn’t crush them during the Armada period.

Jack: Right. So what is it that enabled the British to far surpass the French and the Spanish from, say, 1600 until 1900? And I think one of the key differences you’ll see is actually both the Dutch and the British, they ruled with private companies like the East India Company and the West India Company. And actually Britain, arguably, was no longer a kingdom in the 1600s. I forgot what it’s called, like the Great Reform Act or something.

Jim: But the Pivotal Event was the glorious revolution in 1688. When William and Mary were brought over from the Netherlands to become the new king, they threw James II out. I think it was James II. And part of the deal was parliament now became supreme over even the king in most ways. And so that was actually the invention finally in the modern world in a larger state than, you know, some small city states here and there, of something that was more or less like the beginnings of democracy.

Jack: Exactly. And we still call those aisles the United Kingdom. Right. And a lot of people still think of it as a kingdom. But according to Polybius or Plato or Aristotle, Britain, after the glorious revolution is an aristocracy, it is not a kingdom, even though it has a monarch. I mean, many ancient states had something called a king, but they were absolutely not kingdoms in the archetypal sense. So I think that Polybius would say that Great Britain, after the glorious evolution, is no longer a kingdom or a tyranny. It is a textbook aristocracy, whereas France and Spain continue being kingdoms or tyrannies, depending on how you see them. And so the fact that Great Britain was an aristocracy allowed it to actually be a more effective imperialistic power, given the larger collective brainpower of the expanded ruling class to manage the empire.

Jim: Okay. So this is interesting. We have essentially an evolutionary theory that aristocracy outcompetes monarchy. It doesn’t always do that transition. The Spanish and the French didn’t transition to much later. What would you use to argue for why Spain and France didn’t transition to aristocracy from a game theory perspective in response to Britain’s move?

Jack: Now we’re getting into some very speculative territory, but

Jim: That’s okay. We’re making a podcast here. We ain’t making a piano, right? We can say whatever we want.

Jack: So obviously I would get a lot of pushback on this from other academics, but I think one of the key factors must be timing. Remember that one of the conditions according to my interpretation of this model and of the few people I’ve worked with is that you need these clusters of wealthy, competitive states to get through the whole sequence. And France and Spain were powerful empires before Great Britain was. So they are arguably at the stage of trying to maintain what they have, whereas Great Britain starts developing economically a little bit later.
And you could see Great Britain and the Dutch republics being the first two states in Western Europe to make the leap to aristocracy. Another, I think, key difference is the way that they conducted colonialism. So the French and the Spanish did not send off that many settlers.

They kind of were okay ruling the local populations with a few officials on the ground, whereas the British really sent waves and waves of migration to the New World. And once again, for the Peter Turchin readers, that is a huge pressure release valve for elite overproduction, right? If you’re getting too many people that want to eliminate elite spots, one of the best things you can do is send off a colony somewhere else. And the ancient Greeks did this all the time, almost every time that some city state would have some major crisis, and they would send an embassy to the Oracle of Delphi saying, how can we solve our, you know, what appears to be in a civil war that’s brewing? The embassy would often say, send off a colony, right?

So you send off big chunk of your population and then things kind of calm down a little bit. So I think that having a later start, so joining this cycle, let’s say, at a later stage when there’s already more economic activity, the Spanish have already imported tons of silver and gold from the New World, and then having the pressure release valve of colonialism in the uniquely British way, combined with fierce competition with the Dutch and the French and the Spanish, I think that’s what propelled them to the next stage, whereas France and Spain, they didn’t make use of those pressure release valves and they kind of reverted back to kingdom. They oscillated back and forth between good kings and bad kings, kind of indefinitely.

Jim: But they stayed in this strong divine right king mode all the way up until they didn’t, basically. We’re going to do a couple of things here. Start change direction. I think they did a great job of laying out the basics for anacyclosis. To what degree was Polybius a known, his theories, were they known or was this one of these things that was lost and rediscovered later? Was Polybius’s theory something that was live through the Roman late republic and the Roman Empire?

Jack: It was always known in the West and in fact, our constitution is largely based on a Polybian theory. So we should say that Polybius, as he himself says, he is building on a tradition of other thinkers, of whom we don’t have many examples, but one key example is Plato. So Plato’s Republic written 200 years before Polybius in books eight and nine or really chapters eight and nine of the Republic, Plato lays out a similar schema. Polybius actually cites Plato as someone who has explored these topics in great detail. Then the next surviving example that built on the theory is Polybius, but then Cicero seems to follow this model as well.

And the bits and pieces of his writings on political evolution that we have seem to be very much in agreement with Polybius. And then finally, in the Middle Ages or the late Middle Ages, early Renaissance, Machiavelli is a big proponent of this theory of evolution. And so when the founding fathers of our constitution or our republic were trying to figure out what kind of state to create and how to create a robust constitution that would resist the pull towards tyranny, they were studying Polybius. In fact, John Adams, arguably the most philosophical of the founding fathers, he in one of his letters said that the one page summary of anacyclosis that he had written as a young man based on Polybius and Machiavelli, that that was like the creed of his life.

Jim: Okay, well, so at this point, we’ll transition now to where I want to go next. And that is, as you alluded to, the third pattern where perhaps the anacyclosis pattern will have enough time and enough of the right dynamics to work out is the modern world. And again, we can think about the modern world starting around 1700, something like that with the combination of science, popular influence on governance through the glorious revolution and the invention of modern finance in 1694 with the founding of the Bank of England and the Bank of Amsterdam, just a little bit before that. So those three elements, I would argue, brought us our modern world.

The United States, early United States was quite a significant leveling up of those three things. And we were one of our founders, Ben Franklin, a great scientist, John Adams, a great political scientist, and guys like Jefferson were definitely, you know, sort of deep integrative thinkers. And I think maybe it was in your stuff somewhere I read that the anacyclosis idea was, as you said, specifically thought about as a warning, essentially, to the designers of the U.S. Constitution, and they took some actions to build into the Constitution elements that would resist the tendency, presumably, for the system to go from democratic to mob rule without the intent.

Jack: Yes. Well, of course, the founders didn’t use the term democracy. They didn’t think democracy was

Jim: They didn’t like it. It was still a bad word in those days. People forget, right?

Jack: Yes. Yes.

Jim: They said, all right, public, we’re a democratic republic, maybe, is as far as they would go.

Jack: So the thing about Aristotle, Plato, Sanophon, and Polybius is that I think they’re all consistent with each other, but they use different terminology. And so that’s one reason why a lot of first-time readers or even some scholars think, oh, they’re all disagreeing. It’s not worth investigating further. But I think they all agree they use different terms. And so in Aristotle’s classification of the good and bad of each of the three types, when he gets to rule by the many, he uses democracy for the vicious form. So what what Polybius calls oclocracy, or some people call it a mobocracy, Aristotle calls that democracy. And he calls the good form of the rule by many, politeia, which is actually the word Plato used for a republic.

So modern America, to think of democracy as being a mob rule type of situation. And they believed Polybius that the best system is not a pure democracy, but rather a republic that balances elements of monarchy with elements of aristocracy with elements of democracy. So each of the three good forms has to be represented in a hybrid system so that no one can morph into the other, since all three are kind of already present. It’s almost like some types of vaccine where they embed the genetic component of a virus in your body so that when the virus arrives, it can’t do anything.

This is already there. So by building into the US Constitution a monarchic element, which is the presidency, and an aristocratic element, which is arguably the Supreme Court, as well as the Senate, at least as originally conceived, because we’ve changed now how the Senate is elected, and then the popular democratic element being the House of Representatives. Interestingly, as Caroline Winter of Stanford has pointed out, one of the reasons for a bicameral Congress in America was that the founders feared the democratic element the most. So they decided to split the Congress in two so that they could fight amongst themselves and not be one unified body that would potentially have a lot of power against the other two branches of government.

Jim: Yeah, and they obviously built in a lot of veto points in the system, which was okay in the 19th century and the 18th century when things were moving slower, but sometimes could be a little bit problematic these days, I’d suggest. We do know that the founders were readers of Rome, and you do say some of them at least were a Polybius scholar. So what would you say were the leading founders that took Polybius’s work particularly to heart in the crafting of the US Constitution?

Jack: So let me just preface by saying I’m not a modern historian or historian of early America, okay, but from my understanding, John Adams and Madison and Jefferson were all very much steeped into Polybius. Now you could say that John Adams did not actually write the Constitution, which is true, but he wrote a lot of the philosophical work that was then used as raw material for the Constitution by other founding fathers so. But I would say that those three, Madison, Adams, and Jefferson were extremely, extremely steeped into Polybius’s writings.

Jim: Yeah, so you give the examples of the presidency sort of being generally monarchical at some level, though elected monarchy, and then the Supreme Court and to some degree and Senate when it was elected by the legislatures maybe as being the aristocratic element. And of course, the other part that’s aristocratic, I would argue in the American system was the Hamiltonian perspective, you know, that the business of America is business, and we’re going to engineer the system to be good for finance and be good for business. Is that reason we’ll call that an oligarchic element?

Jack: Look, they’re not all trying to make a perfect Polybian Constitution, right? I actually think that the founding fathers are better philosophers than the Enlightenment figures that we are taught are the best philosophers of the age. And the reason is that the Enlightenment thinkers in Europe were mainly theoretical thinkers, whereas the founding fathers tried to implement their ideas. They were the experimentalists. And if you think about what they did, they studied European forms of government, then they studied ancient forms of government, and then they created something that was mainly inspired by ancient systems that hadn’t been put into practice in over a thousand years, and the system worked. I mean, that’s an incredible achievement. That’s like, you know, imagine after the zombie apocalypse, people a thousand years from now find old blueprints of an automobile, which hasn’t been seen in a thousand years, and then they build it and it works.

I mean, it’s an incredible achievement. There were obviously differences between the founding fathers. They didn’t just look at Rome, they looked at Carthage, and they saw Carthage, which also was a republic, by the way. They saw Carthage as being more commercial than Rome, and they saw desirable aspects in that. So again, I’m not an expert about Hamilton, but I think it’s possible that he saw such examples as Carthage as being having these vibrant economies that were based on maritime trade and said, let’s combine some of that also into our system.

Jim: Just as a little editorial comment here, I always find it amazing how erudite our founding fathers were. And this was a population of about three million Americans, about the size of Kentucky today, right? And most of these guys didn’t have any more than about five years of formal education, a few of them a little bit more, some of them a lot less. And yet they read the classics, you read their writings, I’ve read a lot of Jefferson, I’ve read a fair bit of John Adams, a fair bit of Ben Franklin. These people are compared to the fucking idiots we have today in our politics.

These people are polymaths who have absorbed the best that was written and thought. And actually, as you say, amazingly synthesized it to put it into action. I still just look back at that era and just go, whoa, that was something really, really special right up there with Athens in the fifth century. And any other period you might want to point to where a very small number of improbable people accomplished something truly amazing.

Jack: I totally agree. And unfortunately, we’re not taught any of that in school today. I mean, I spent most of my life not thinking that the, or thinking that the founding fathers were nothing really special. I mean, they were just these privileged guys that did what they did. It wasn’t until I got into ancient philosophy, ancient history that I kind of in a roundabout manner realized what an impressive accomplishment the founding of the US was. And so now I think, as you do, that yes, this was America has never had more like impressively educated and intellectual leaders as it did in those early years.

Jim: Yep. You can look at the rest of the presidents and there’s some good ones and some bad ones, but James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, those are amazing people. Alexander Hamilton as a secretary of the treasury, you know, usually it’s some hack from Wall Street that gets that job. Instead, you have an amazing human being. George Washington is in a class by himself, not an intellectual, but a man of the greatest character imaginable, right? Compared George Washington and Donald fucking Trump. I mean, talk about the two extremes of human character, you know, one of the most rotten humans it’s possible to imagine on one extreme and one of the most noble characters ever. I still love the quote from George III, who said that if George Washington really steps down after two terms as president, he will be the greatest man in the world. And guess what? He did.

Jack: It’s a very rare feat to relinquish power.

Jim: Yeah, fortunately, I’m old enough that I didn’t get polluted with that politically correct horseshit in my education. So I didn’t have to deprogram myself from it, but I always did my reading and I always saw the founders as an amazingly unlikely group in, you know, in a population smaller than Kentucky has today. So now let’s take the state America. So America was a mixed system of monarchy, aristocracy, maybe oligarchy to a degree and some democracy, fair bit of democracy, particularly at the state level. If you look at some of the early state constitutions, they were highly democratic. They often had single houses or they had elections every year.

Governors serve for a year in many countries, very democratic. So we had a mixed system. Over time, our system has moved towards more democratic with widening the franchise. Originally, we were, most states required property ownership to vote, etc. Men only, of course, white men only to be specific. Over time, we had the Jacksonian Revolution was that 1824, I think it was 1828, where Andrew Jackson represented much more the common man, number of states that had manhood voting at that point were considerable, most of them, etc. And over the coming years, our system has become mostly democratic and oligarchic, I would argue at that point. Is that how you see it, where we are today?

Jack: Pretty much. If you want to map America’s trajectory onto the Enes Agost’s model, I think it starts off as an aristocracy, which is a little bit weird for us, because we think of America as being founded as a democracy. But again, the founders didn’t see it as a democracy. They never used that word in the Constitution or anything. So if you think of the fact that I don’t know the exact number, but something like only 12% of the population actually voted in the 1790s, that’s an aristocracy. That’s not a democracy.

Jim: Yeah, they were quite clear about that, that they could let the Hoy-Polloy vote, right?

Jack: If you also look at the levels of economic inequality, they were very low. Early America, in the sense of like early US, was one of the most equal, large societies in the world at the time, if not the most equal. When you get to the gilded age, obviously things have changed dramatically. And so that would fall under the category of oligarchy very neatly. Then as Thomas Piketty and Walter Scheidel and Peter Turchin and others have have written about, the two world wars had a big compression effect that greatly expanded the middle class again and moved a lot of money from the elites down into the middle class.

At the same time, you have an expansion of the franchise, civil rights movement, all that kind of stuff shortly after. So you could say that America reached its most democratic point in the post-war period up until, let’s say, the 80s. And since the late 80s until today, you see once again skyrocketing inequality, the wealth pump is pulling wealth out of the middle class into the elites. And so, again, according to the model, America right now falls very clearly in the mobocracy stage.

Jim: Not mobocracy yet? I would say we’re maybe approaching it, aren’t we still kind of oligarchic in that the inequality has driven way, way up and I’ll go back further than the late 80s. If you look at the numbers, about 1975 is where the curve starts to bend. There’s a wonderful graph that shows the growth in productivity and wage growth and the two are very close together for a long time up until 1975 and then the diverge, wage growth essentially flattens the productivity continues to grow. We aren’t yet a mob, are we? I mean, I don’t see things yet, but we’re getting close. That was my point. We’re at that some strange tipping point where it’s democracy plus oligarchy leading to inequality, which could lead to mobocracy. Give me your argument for why we’re in mobocracy now.

Jack: I’m probably going to rough a lot of feathers here. I will concede that if we are in mobocracy, it’s the early stages. Now, we have seen political violence in recent years.

Jim: But we had more in 68 to 72. People forget we have two or three bombings a day for a couple of years back in that period.

Jack: As always, the idealized model does not 100% cover the fuzzy, dirty reality on the ground. I think it’s a mistake to think of oligocracy as being ruled by the mob as like a singular mob. It’s more like rule by mobs in the plural. Okay. The other thing is that Oclocrocies are in a sense oligarchies because remember how to take your point about corruption always inevitably creeping in any stable polity over time, which again is something that you find in Walter Scheidel and in Peter Turchin’s writings as well. A late stage form of any government system is an oligarchy. It has an oligarchy. It has a disproportionately wealthy elite. I actually like to use the term plutocracy to distinguish a oligarchic Oclocrocy from an oligarchic aristocracy. So I think that the ancient Greek lexicon is so rich.

It offers us so many different words that we can use for highly specialized meanings. And I think that perhaps a better term for Oclocrocy is plutocracy that distinguishes it from oligarchy, which exists within an aristocratic system. So the thing is that when you have, like if you look at the late Roman Republic that is classified as a mobocracy under the Polybian scheme, it was absolutely a plutocracy. I mean, Cicero, the famous statesman, was considered not even that wealthy and he had eight villas. Can you imagine being thought of as not that wealthy and having eight villas? We are now living in a plutocracy and political violence is on the rise.

And there are politicians who seem to garner the support of dedicated mobs that are if not willing to engage in violence, at least speaking of the possibility of that. And so all those features point us in the direction of Oclocrocy. Another thing is that polarization. Polarization is a feature of late state democracy or Oclocrocy that is not prominent in early stage democracy. And polarization is also driven by these trends like increased inequality that we see again. So a combination of polarization, factional division, populist leaders that garner the support of mobs and increased inequality and the emergence of a plutocracy, all of those seem to be characteristics of Oclocrocy rather than an early stage democracy.

Jim: Yeah, certainly we’re moving in the direction where the line is I don’t know, but something you mentioned much earlier, I think may also be somewhat relevant. It’s interesting to note that the polarization of American politics really took off after the end of the Cold War. I think the big move was the Gingrich revolution in 1994, which was just three years after the fall of the Soviet Union. And at least up till now, we have not thought of ourselves as having an existential competitor after the Soviet Union was kaput. And that gave us the freedom to be irrational assholes and fight over things that don’t really matter all that much. And that’s what our politics has now gotten itself totally involved with. I mean, abortion is an interesting issue.

It’s an important issue. But is it a life or death issue for society? No, it is not. You know, whether there are trans bathrooms in North Carolina, yes, it’s an issue and it’s even a moral issue. But is it an existential issue for a society like America? No, it is not. You know, if the aliens arrived from Alpha Centauri and tend to turn us into cheeseburgers, we would probably stop arguing about all that shit until we got rid of the aliens or they got rid of us. And so I suspect that that’s also a huge part of why we are prepared now to fight to the death over second and third order issues. If we were still confronting the Soviets or space aliens or Nazis or perhaps in a few years, the Chinese, that might be a different story.

Jack: I agree. And this goes back to my earlier point about how you need an external threat in order to either preserve a good system or to propel a state into the next good system. And what you just described happened in Rome as well. When Rome was about to destroy its arch enemy, Carthage, ironically, the Scipios, the Scipios are known to history as being the generals that destroyed Carthage, right? But interestingly, the family of the Scipios, they didn’t want to destroy Carthage. They were very talented generals, but they didn’t want to destroy Carthage because they said Carthage is the whetstone of our greatness. Having this adversary is what keeps us on our toes, what keeps us healthy, what keeps us united. And if we destroy this polar opposite power to us, that’s the beginning of the decline. And all of the symptoms of mobocracy that we’ve enumerated started happening in Rome almost immediately after Carthage was destroyed.

Jim: Oh, that’s interesting. That’s a very interesting pattern. Yeah, the crackies, that wasn’t that long after, it was a bit after, but not that long after.

Jack: It was about 15 years after. And now we are more than 30 years, wow, it’s been a while. This is the Cold War.

Jim: Yeah, indeed. And Neil Howe also emphasized that, that though he had a more sophisticated twist after, because he has his own canonical database of this and that, and it’s a little bit more rigid, much more rigid than either yours or Peter Turchin, which makes me, you know, be a little skeptical. But he points out that the crisis, he calls us in the crisis epoch now, can be resolved in one of two ways in historically has been evolved one of two ways. One is an exogenous threat, an enemy, you know, let’s say China decides to really be assholes, not just nuisances like they currently are. Or his other point is endogenous internal breakdown and essentially civil war, either in fact or de facto.

And you could think of something like Weimar Republic, Germany, you know, that basically was fighting in the streets between the communists, the Nazis, and then the middle class thought they could harness the Nazis to fight the communists. And oops, they were wrong. The Nazis ate their lunch and took over. So it was essentially internal conflict. And then one faction that and how predicts it always one faction wins once the endogenous, the internal structure, the internal conflict gets going gets serious because of people’s desire for stability at the end of the day. They’d rather have Nazis than fucking have chaos in the streets, right? What do you think about that as applicable to our current situation?

Jack: I broadly agree. I would add a level of nuance. One of you is that the endogenous resolution would be a civil war where one side wins. And it might be bloody, but then some kind of order is restored. Unfortunately, history shows that you can have a long series of civil wars. And again, Rome being, I think, the closest parallel to America in history after the fall of Carthage, which was like the end of their cold war, which eliminated any real existential threat, you have a transition almost immediately to plutocracy. Every politician has a mob. There’s mob violence in the streets, populist leaders. Between the fall of Carthage and the establishment of the Roman Empire, something like eight, I think eight tribunes of the plebs were assassinated. So eight populist leaders over that that hundred year period were assassinated. And there were, depending on how you classify it, two or three major civil wars, you have Marius and Sala, then you have Caesar and Pompey, then you have, you know

Jim: Antonio and, Marcus

Jack: Octavius and Anthony versus, don’t forget the slave revolts, like Spartacus, right? You have the social war. So you have a century of nonstop bloodshed. You have two factions. You have the optimates and the populatus, which roughly correspond to, you know, the Democrats and Republicans. So it’s not just that you have an endogenous resolution, which might be bloody, but brief. It can be a hundred year period of nonstop bloodshed, after which the people will be begging for a tyrant to just, you know, bring peace, which Octavian did and they became Augustus.

Jim: Interesting. So with all that said, put on your prognosticator hat, what’s going to happen in America according to Polybius?

Jack: It might be the emergence of a new threat that helps us get our act together and put aside our differences. I’m pretty much in agreement with Turchin here. You know, if the ruling class agrees upon and acknowledges a serious existential threat, that would possibly be one of the most important factors to stop the wealth pump and enable or allow policies that regrow the middle class into an important body. So Aristotle said that a democracy can only work if the middle class is more than 50% of the population. He doesn’t put it in those terms exactly. He says the middle class has to be greater than the sum of the very, very poor and the ultra rich. And right now, we don’t have that. We’ve shrunk the middle class past below the 50% mark. If the elites start to panic on the geopolitical stage and start to allow policies that regrow the middle class and we can get back to a, you know, majority middle class country, then I think we can get on some more solid footing.

Jim: A couple other trajectories could be a sincere populist as opposed to a scamming faux populist like Trump, because we are still a democracy at some level. And if more than 50% of people are being fucked by the current system, which I think you can make the case more like 70 or 80% of people are being fucked by the current system. In theory, our democratic forms could have a legitimate populist revolt. And like William Jennings Bryan almost pulled off and which Roosevelt actually pulled off to some degree. And so that’s another possibility.

Jack: But Roosevelt only pulled it off because of World War II.

Jim: He got elected in 1932, long before Hitler was even in power. Hitler was just a street punk.

Jack: But the Great Depression didn’t end until World War II.

Jim: That was a great depression in the war. But Roosevelt did take a tremendous amount of effort. The GDP of the federal government was 3% in 1931. And by the start of World War II, it was like 11%. So he almost quadrupled the size of the federal government in a very short period of time. So he was doing populist-ish stuff from the get-go even before he had Hitler on the scene. A sincere populism, I think, is a possibility still. The other is a descent into anarchy, civil war, not anarchy, rolling multi-party civil war. It probably looks more like the Spanish civil war than it does like the US civil war. And then what? Presumably the model says we should then go to one man rule.

Jack: Again, the Polybian summary that we have is a few pages long. And when I worked with my colleagues at a think tank a few years ago, trying to kind of update this theory, our interpretation is that this is the ideal cycle. The thing about the cycle is that you can go backwards or forwards along the wheel, but you cannot jump across it. So if you are a democracy, you can move forward to mobocracy and then you can move forward to tyranny.

Jim: Or monarchy first, presumably.

Jack: Monarchy. But it’s hard to jump to aristocracy immediately. So we could move forward or backwards. We could conceivably become an oligarchy, which happened in Athens. So Athens, after it lost to the Spartans in the Peloponnesian war, it moved one step backwards in the cycle. It went from a democracy to an oligarchy. And the oligarchy was pretty much a bunch of puppets of the Spartans. But arguably, according to the Polybian view, it was made possible for its brief time, because it was just one step away from the existing system. Alternatively, you can move forward from mobocracy to a kind of monarchy again. So I think that according to the Polybian system, America has, if it’s not going to remain a democracy, it can either become an oligarchy with a restricted group of people that rule, but there’s no king on a throne. Or it could potentially in due time become an empire with one man sitting on a throne in Washington, DC.

Jim: It has the third option of moving back from the edge of mobocracy back to real democracy. That would be presumably the third option.

Jack: That’s the ideal case, right? That’s the desirable case.

Jim: At least I think it is. But apparently our current politics doesn’t. We have a want to be totalitarian left that wants to ram an extreme ideology down people’s throats. And then we have a authoritarian right that is looking to do a Pinochet style authoritarian Chicago school oligarchic authoritarian state. And probably the nutcase right got 20% of all voters. The nutcase left 15. And between the two of them, by the third of the voters are prepared to go for more or less tyranny of one sort or another. Quite a frightful moment.

Jack: I want to add one final point about this, that none of this is surprising if you have studied ancient history. Because one of the features of all of these, you know, thousand plus ancient city states that we know of is that factional division is not a bug in the system.
It’s a feature of the system. Whenever you decentralize power away from one person, and you have rule of law and you have groups of people that take turns wielding power, factional division seems to be a feature that crops up almost immediately. And when people ask the question today, what would it look like if America degenerated into civil war, they go to the civil war, American civil war, or their mind goes to 1930s Germany, or they go to the Spanish civil war, as you mentioned. Rarely do people think of the ancient world, but I think the ancient world offers many, many more examples and perhaps more pertinent examples. Once again, you know, Rome and Athens offer very vivid examples of how factional divisions in the absence of stabilizing factors like an external threat can create civil wars that are not, they’re not based on any division of territory, like in the American civil war, it was the north versus the south.

If we have another civil war, which I hope never happens, it’s likely going to be much more along the Roman model where every neighborhood or every city has is divided along different neighborhoods, even families are divided. I mean, Thucydides talks about this. He talks about the civil wars that erupted throughout Greece during the Peloponnesian war. And he said that family members were on opposite sides of the divide and like brother would snitch on brother, cousin would kill cousin in the mob violence. So that, you know, again, ancient world is very relevant. And I would encourage our listeners, if there’s one takeaway from me is go check out some podcasts in the ancient world and expand your database of examples here.

Jim: Cool. I like it. I want to thank Jack Visnjic, also known as Ladern Jack for a really energetic and interesting exploration of the concept of anacyclosis. My mother always told me to learn something new every day. And I certainly learned a bunch of new stuff while I was preparing for this podcast. So thank you, Jack.

Jack: Thanks so much, Jim. It’s been a pleasure.

Jim: It was a lot of fun.