Zeitgeist Zero Hour: Return of Tyranny (or Ochlocracy) when the civilisation clock resets and enters into the age of Tyranny
Originally published on February 27, 2019 Last Revised on March 25, 2019 Last Edited on May 24, 2019
by Michio Suginoo
If democracy were the mother of liberty and equality, toward the end of her life, she would conceive in her matrix (uterus) the foetus of tyranny, demagogues, to ultimately defeat herself. Tyranny—the regime of fierce terror—would be the direct offspring of the most cherished regime of freedom, democracy.
This is my figurative summary of the terminal symptom of democracy diagnosed by three pre-eminent intellects in antiquity—Socrates, Plato, and Polybius. In more plain words, democracy is doomed to degenerate into either tyranny or ochlocracy (mob rule); and the rise of demagogues is an omen for the paradigm shift.
To me, a spoiled beneficiary of democracy, the ancient intellects’ view of democracy would definitely sound nothing but an irony and a paradox, should it have even a grain of truth.
How does it unfold anyway? Now, in the following paragraphs, I would like to illustrate their views in our contemporary vocaburary.
In the twilight of democracy, an animosity between ‘the wealthy, the minority’ and ‘the poor, the majority’ intensifies, and it escalates the tension between them. As its backdrop, throughout democracy, politicians and their auxiliaries (e.g. lobbyists and partisan journalists and corrupted intellects in our contemporary context) have been igniting and amplifying the flares of conflict across social classes—especially between the multitude working class and the rich—positioning themselves near the logistics of the redistribution system. Their objective is money. Their motive is to extract the wealth of others from all segments of the society. And they achieve their goals by creating factions in the society. They craft misinformation/disinformation, or fake news, to politically mobilise public opinions and stir up animosities between the two opposite ends of the economic spectrum of society.
As result, the majority of the ordinary public would become cognitively impaired. (Aristotle 1304 b; Plato, 565 b-c) In democracy, policy proposals shaped through examined and qualified expert knowledge—which has been brewed by generations of specialists through a series of their diligent discourses—could be rejected or compromised by such manipulated public opinions. It could cause a disastrous social consequence. (Ober, 1993; Thucydides, n.d.)
At the other end of the social spectrum, the instigators’ relentless malicious attempts compel the wealthy to assemble themselves in defense of their wealth. As a result, they start shaping an oligarchy within democracy. (Plato, 565 a-c)
Against this backdrop, the tension between the rich and the poor further escalates. The multitude of the ordinary further seek for their political representation to extract their own economic benefit through wealth redistribution systems such as subsidies. (Plato, 565 c-d) This creates opportunities for a worst type of unprincipled populist, a demagogue. The demagogue claims to be the champion of the working class and appeals to their votes by attacking their common enemy, 'the oligarchy, the minority'. (Aristotle, 1305 a ; Plato, 566 a)
The champion's primary political capital is the common enemies of the people ('Common Enemy'). He/she continues inventing 'Common Enemy' out of minorities and inflicting injustice on them in order to consolidate and preserve his/her power. The demagogue, while concealing his/her real egocentric ambitions, dangles populist policies in front of his supporters and manages to domesticate them. Nevertheless, when the wicked instigator finally runs out of domestic sources of 'Common Enemy', he/she seeks it abroad: in other words, the demagogue starts waging war abroad. (Plato, 566 e)
In this process, as the demagogue gains power, he/she starts mobilising a series of unconstitutional decrees for his/her own benefit. (Aristotle, 1292 a) Now, the unscrupulous populist reveals his/her real ambitions, by overriding existing laws, possibly with the use of violence, and purges his/her enemies in a piecemeal fashion. The instigator gradually impairs the legitimacy of the existing constitutional and institutional arrangements to hijack the society. As a result, the democracy is subverted into tyranny (Aristotle, 1292 a; Plato 565 e – 566 e), or ochlocracy, a mob rule (Polybius, Book VI).
This paints a mosaic panorama of terminal symptoms of democracy diagnosed about 23 to 25 centuries ago by great intellects in antiquity—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Polybius (a Greek historian), and Thucydides (an Athenian general who fought in the Peloponnesian War). As a precaution, historically, such a paradigm shift would not necessarily take place in one single shot. If any of this sort happens, it would involve a series of civil strifes between demagogues and oligarchic factions for an extended period of time. Nevertheless, it portrays a dire aspect of democratic paradigm.
As a matter of fact, the list of ‘democracy sceptics’ continues further into the age of modernity and includes the following figures: paradoxically founding fathers of the United States (e.g. James Maddison and Alexander Hamilton), and Alexis de Tocqueville.
Overall, democracy appeared to them a wrecked state of social order, which is infested with cognitively impaired opinions. Thus, they saw that the free regime is doomed to degenerate into an extremely unfree society, tyranny or ochlocracy (mob rule).
Each of these intellects perceived a logical paradox embedded in the architecture of democracy in one way or another. For example, Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French aristocrat, encapsulated one of the paradoxes of democracy in the simple phrase ‘Tyranny of the Majority,’ meaning that the majority in democracy, unrestrained, can behave like an absolute monarchical tyrant, override laws and inflict injustice on minorities. The consequence might well be, as mentioned earlier, ochlocracy (mob rule), the most unfree society.
Needless to say, the overall paradox in the ancient notion of democracy has a very dire implication: as if democracy—the supposedly best desirable constitutional achievement of civilisation—were destined to conceive the foetus of tyranny, demagogues, within her matrix (uterus) to ultimately defeat herself. On one hand, the paradox should cast an unexpected notion of democracy very contrary to utopian ones that some of our contemporary democracy advocates cherish; on the other hand, over the past decade or so, contemporary democratic reality has rendered harbingers of the paradox—an intensifying animosity between the working class and the wealthy, and the rise of demagogues/populists across advanced economies.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of paradox that we live in.
What was the rationale behind their thoughts? Was there any historical precedence to support their view? Would it be relevant to our time, or are we also trapped in the paradox of democracy? If it had a grain of truth, can we manage to avert such a dire consequence and preserve the soundness of democracy? In order to contemplate all those questions, as a first step, we need to understand the mechanism behind their views.
To cut a long story short, these three intellects in antiquity had a panoramic framework to examine democracy—or more in general, any form of political (constitutional) paradigm—as a part of the process of a cyclical super-structure, the life cycle of constitutions (political regimes).
This series, 'Zeitgeist, Zero Hour,' invites you to contemplate our contemporary democratic reality from a panoramic view, treating it as a part of the larger process of civilisation cycle—with a particular attention to ‘constitutional (political regime) cycle’ and ‘civilisational (supra-secular) monetary cycle’—rather than treating it as a frozen snapshot of an independent isolated entity.
Zeitgeist Zero Hour
Socrates/Plato and Polybius conceived their contemporary political reality as a part of the process of a super-structure, call it ‘constitutional (political regime) cycle’.
Socrates/Plato conceived that five distinct constitutional arrangements evolve in a particular sequence of the following chronological order:
On the other hand, Polybius formulated his version of constitutional cycle as follows:
and Ochlocracy, or mob rule (Polybius, 1979, p. 304: Book VI)
Both of them contemplated, democracy would degenerate into the worst kind of regime of oppression and terror, tyranny or ochlocracy (mob rule).
Is our contemporary democratic system, ‘liberal representative democracy,’ also destined to repeat ‘Tyranny of the Majority,’ hijacked by an unscrupulous demagogue and ultimately degenerate into ochlocracy (mob-rule)? In other words, is the civilisation clock ticking toward the zero hour of Zeitgeist (the spirit of epoch)—the time when the Western civilisation clock resets our political paradigm from a democracy to a tyranny/ochlocracy?
To be shown later in this series, Aristotle, based on his survey of 158 constitutions, demonstrated a more dynamic alternative view of constitutional regime changes. He, making a conspicuous contrast against these three thinkers’ deterministic approaches, provides us with some general guidance for the preservation of constitution.
This series, 'Zeitgeist, Zero Hour,' invites you to contemplate our contemporary democratic reality from a panoramic view, treating it as a part of the larger process of civilisation cycle—with a particular attention to ‘political paradigm cycle’ and ‘civilisational (supra-secular) monetary cycle’—rather than treating it as a frozen snapshot of an independent isolated entity.
Three Factors: Money, Moral Depravation, and Use of Violence trigger Paradigm Shift in Constitutional Foundation
In order to understand the psychology behind these intellects in antiquity, it’s important to know that they saw wealth in moral term and with awe (a mixed feeling of respect, fear, and anxiety). Money could corrupt individuals and thus impair the moral conduct among people. As this vicious human behaviour driven by ‘appetite’ becomes viral among the ruling class, it could provoke a series of civil strifes among them. Once some of them make the first case of breaching laws, possibly with use of violence, in pursuit of their own private interests, that lays the foundation for further escalations of unlawful and violent acts among the ruling class. As others follow suit, gradually the legitimacy of an existing constitutional foundation vanishes to be replaced with a new one. In ancient Greco-Roman world, private pursuit of wealth—especially money, which could lead to viral moral depravation within a society—was one of the fundamental issues that concerned prominent ancient Greek intellectuals. In particular, Socrates and Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius articulated in one way or another, that private pursuit of wealth could conspire with moral depravation among the ruling class, accompanied with use of violence, to render a constitutional paradigm shift from one form to another. That notion, highly likely a reflection of the collective human behavioural nature, appears to have transcended to our time.
Apart from logical frameworks, when we turn to historical experiences in the ancient Greco-Roman world, we can find some illustrative examples to validate their concerns.
Awe (a mixed feeling of respect, fear, and anxiety) to money was one of the cornerstones of the social consciousness of Sparta, a military aristocratic society. Spartan, in order to preserve the moral conduct of her people, deliberately limited the monetisation of her society within a minimum range. Polybius highly regarded Sparta as a stable regime. (Polybius, 1979, p.p. 310-311: Book VI)
In contrast to Spartan story, Athens embraced money and in the early 6th century experienced a disastrous social crisis due to over-indebtedness. It was the age of oligarchy. The crisis was a consequence of oligarchic abuse of their society: the rich flooded the society with toxic loans and enslaved the ordinary public. Many Athenian debtors placed their family members and slaves under a pledge to take out loans; in case of default, some of them were sold abroad as slave. Solon (640-558 B.C.), a reputable aristocratic statesman, was appointed as a mediator to conducted financial reform to prohibit the use of a person as collateral. He also redeemed those ex-Athenian slaves who were sold abroad at state expense.
Overall, the contrast between Sparta and pre-classical Athens paints a picture of the interlink between money and moral depravation that concerned ancient intellects. A Roman example can be illustrated by the heavily indebted ambitious politician, Gaius Julius Caesar, who extended his conquest beyond the constitutional limit to plunder Gaul and Britain of booty to pay back his debt service as well as to expand his political power. As consequence, Caesar waged a civil war against the Roman Republic, and finally enthroned himself as an unconstitutional life-time dictator. Simply put, debt money depraved the moral conduct of the military politician and provoked him to override the republic’s constitution and transformed the political paradigm of Rome from the republic into a tyranny.
These Greco-Roman experiences exemplify the validity of the concern—the interaction among moral depravation, wealth, and violence leading to a paradigm shift in political regime—shared by ancient Greek intellect.
In this light, it would be imperative to trace monetary transformation to better capture the progression of ‘political paradigm cycle.’
As a matter of fact, another historical parallel—between the late Roman Republic (during the 1st century BC) and our contemporary reality—can be drawn by monetary conditions: historical bottoms of interest rates.
Chart 1 illustrates the supra-secular monetary cycle of three ancient civilisations (Homer & Sylla, 2005, pp. 61-63). It traces the centennial best credit frontier, which is defined as the lowest interest rates during each century (to be explained later in this series).
During the 1st century BC, ancient Rome went through a tectonic paradigm shift from the Roman Republic to the the Roman Empire—in other words, from her most democratic constitutional achievement to tyranny/dynasty. And it was during this century that ancient Rome registered the lowest interest rate throughout ancient Greco-Roman history at 4%, phenomenally within a range of the ‘prime rates’ of our time (Homer & Sylla, 2005, p. 63).
As Chart 1 demonstrates, the centennial best credit frontier of Roman Civilisation declined from her nascent stage to the 1st century BC—during which the Roman Republic vanished and the Roman Empire, the age of tyranny/dynasty, began—and, thereafter, it kept rising.
Historically-low interest rates would suggest an abundance of money in a society. And, I would speculate, it most likely reflects an advancement of civilisation. The Roman supra-secular monetary cycle in Chart 1 appears to agree with this notion.
For your reference, a more recent cycle of ‘Best Credit Frontier’—in a semi-centennial scale—is presented in Chart 2. Our current epoch has registered the lowest level of interest rates so far in the historical record. It casts a parallel notion to the 1st century BC of Greco-Roman civilisation, the turning point of ancient Rome–from her most democratic constitutional paradigm to tyranny/dynasty.
Is this merely a historical coincidence? Or is there any rationale behind the parallel?
Do these developments in antiquity—the rise of demagogues and the historically lowest interest rates—cast a parallel to our contemporary reality as of the time of this writing? If that’s the case, they also cast a very paradoxical notion: our democracy, which is supposed to be the freest political paradigm throughout history, could be doomed to degenerate into a highly unfree society, tyranny or ochlocracy (mob rule).
The next chapter will explore the theoretical monetary implications of Socrates’ discourse of the ‘political paradigm cycle.’ Then, another forthcoming chapter will do the ‘reality check’ of these implications against historical experiences. The last chapter will propose an alternative framework of the ‘political paradigm cycle.’
Now, before proceeding further, let’s set the frame of our mind in exploring this topic.
The Spirit of the Project
Why do we need to cover such a dire scenario? Isn’t it going to end up with invoking a self-fulfilling prophecy? Why do we care about the political paradigm cycle (civilisation cycle) anyway? Isn’t our life too short and ephemeral in comparison with civilisation life cycle? Thus, isn’t it irrelevant to us? So, what's the point?
In contemplating these questions, here, I would like to borrow an idea from the title of a painting by a French painter of the 19th century, Paul Gauguin’s “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”  The title literally encapsulates the spirit of this project. Although we cannot change the past, we can still learn from it to shape our future. Can we shape a better future this time, better than what history may be implying? More specifically to democracy, can we evolve out of the vicious cycle of reducing our democratic reality to ochlocracy (mob rule)? Or are we destined to repeat historical recurrence this time as well? In order to respond to these questions, as a first step we need to learn the mechanism of the past recurrences. Simply put, it is an attempt of Applied History—an application of examined historical knowledge to analyse our contemporary reality, by capturing it as a state of flux, or a part of a larger process of civilisation cycle.
In addition, to stress my intention, let me present you with an insightful caveat by Hannah Arendt, a holocaust survivor and a Jewish German writer of the 20th century. Arendt warns us, we could blind ourselves with both our own ‘reckless optimism’ and ‘reckless despair’ and, as a consequence, fail to acknowledge the self-destructive developments unfolding in front of our eyes. Here is her remark in the preface of her book, "The Origins of Totalitarianism":
“This book [‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’] has been written against a background of both reckless optimism and reckless despair. It holds that Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal; that both are articles of superstition, not of faith. It was written out of the conviction that it should be possible to discover the hidden mechanics by which all traditional elements of our political and spiritual world were dissolved into a conglomeration where everything seems to have lost specific vale, and has become unrecognizable for human comprehension, unusable for human purpose. To yield to the mere process of disintegration has become a grandeur of ‘historical necessity’, but also because everything outside it has begun to appear lifeless, bloodless, meaningless, and unreal. […]
The trouble is that our period has so strangely intertwined the good with the bad that without the imperialists’ ‘expansion for expansion’s sake,’ the world might never have become one; without the bourgeoisie’s political device of ‘power for power’s sake,’ the extent of human strength might never have been discovered; without the fictitious world of totalitarian movements, in which with unparalleled clarity the essential uncertainties of our time have been spelled out, we might have been driven to our doom without ever becoming aware of what has been happening.” (Arendt, 1994, pp. x-xi)
Hannah Arendt’s caveat still resonates as relevant to me today. And, her words are something I should keep in my mind in pursuing this project. Moreover, I would like to add another undesirable common habit among us, reckless indifference. It could also allow all sorts of seeds of human catastrophe to grow. Thus, these three reckless dispositions—‘optimism,’ ‘despair,’ and ‘indifference’—need to be kept in my mind in pursuing this project.
Now, let's go back to the topic.
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In one way or another, these ancient intellects (Socrates/Plato and Polybius) had a synoptic understanding of any given constitutional reality: they interpreted its moral, political, and economic dynamism as a part of the process of a recurrent super-structure—civilisation cycle if you like. Their cyclical frameworks were as mentioned earlier.
For those who have developed a habit of seeing our reality as a frozen state that would continue for an indefinite time, it would be imperative to switch their mind to see our reality being in a constant state of flux in order to better understanding the views of these ancient intellects.
Limitations and Intrinsic Value
As a precaution, their cyclical views are not free from limitations. It would thus require a reality check against historical experiences and a series of vigilant adjustments and modifications on their models to shape our better understanding of our reality—its past, present, and future.
As an example, the ancient Athenian democracy provides a case that does not fit into theit cyclical notions presented above. In monetary term, for the Athenian case, the end of her democracy did not coincide with the bottom of the civilizational monetary cycle. Its credit frontier continued to decline after the demise of her democracy. On the other hand, ancient Rome—which ended her most democratic paradigm at the bottom of her best credit frontier—demonstrates a favourable case for the cyclical framework mentioned earlier. Why did the Athenian case deviate from the hypothetical framework? Cut a long story short, it was due to exogenous factors—primarily due to the geopolitical interventions by her dominant neighbour, Macedon. I will further argue this point in one of the forthcoming chapters.
As another limitations, when we see every single historical ‘political regime change’ on regime-by-regime basis, their model often fails to fit into historical experiences. For example, tyranny can emerge at any stage of civilistaion cycle to fill any political vacuum. As another example, the transition from democracy to tyranny or ochlocracy might not happen in one single shot and might well involve several phases of regime changes back and forth among multiple regimes—e.g. democracy, oligarchy, and mixed forms of regime.
Despite these limitations, I would suggest, the very intrinsic value of Socrates Cycle is that he illuminated each political reality as a manifestation of distinct ‘psyche,’ or a distinct social psychological order of epoch, or Zeitgeist. Especially, when we see historical cycle in a time-frame of political reality larger than each political regime—call it 'paradigm' or ‘political paradigm’—the relevance of their intrinsic values become appearent: this will be discussed later in the series.
Three-Layer Framework: Recurrence, Evolution, and Exogenous Factor
Going forward, in our discourse, this project attempts to capture our reality as a compound product of the following three components:
and exogenous force (e.g. wars, natural disasters, and accidents).
Now, let us expand our earlier questions—“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”—into the structure of these three components:
1) Recurrent force:
The past (where do we come from?): How did we arrive at our contemporary democratic reality?;
The present (what are we?): If any civilisation cycle existed, which stage of civilisation cycle would our contemporary reality fit into as of today?;
The future (where are we going?): According to the cycle, what political reality is about to unfold next? If any undesirable historical implication, is it expected to manifest itself again? Is it inevitable or can we avoid it? If we can, how?
2) Evolutionary force:
The past: Outside of the recurrent dynamism, what progress has our civilisation made in the past? (e.g. Civic Right, Human Right, Universal Suffrage)
The present: Is there any new development—which a civilisation cycle has never experienced in the past—evolving in our political and economic reality, such as an emergence of new types of constitutional/institutional arrangement? (e.g. Nuclear Deterrence, Supra-National Regime/EU)
The future: What would be its implication to our reality? If there is any undesirable evolutionary implication, is it inevitable or can we alter it? If we can, how?
3) Exogenous force:
The past: Apart from the endogenous recurrence and endogenous evolution, was there any exogenous event that affected the course of civilisation in the past?
The present: Is there any material exogenous development that could alter the course of civilisation brewing in our contemporary political reality, such as geopolitical developments, and environmental crises? (e.g. the return of Sino-Civilisation as a dominant presence in geopolitical landscape)
The future: If there is any such material exogenous component, what would be its implication to our future reality? If there is any undesirable implication, is it inevitable or can we alter it? If we can, how?
Repeatedly, the intention of this series is to provide a panoramic view of our democratic reality as a part of the supre-structure, civilisation cycle. Ancient intellects paid vigilant attentions to the interlink between money and moral depravation in their assessment of constitutional reality. This notion is of fundamental significance in our understanding.
In this backdrop, we will examine two civilisation cycles together: the ‘political paradigm cycle’ and the ‘civilisational (supra-secular) monetary cycle.’ In this attempt, we take the following steps:
As the first step, we will have an overview of recurrent views conceived by Socrates/Plato and Polybius, then, compare them with their alternative, the empirical view held by Aristotle: in other words, we make comparison between hypothetical cyclical models and an examined empirical non-cyclical view. Then, this series introduces a notion of paradigm. At this stage, for our discussion purpose, I would like to characterise the term ‘political paradigm’ as follows: each political paradigm, while it could subsume a series of different political regimes within, as a unit exhibits some characteristic to distinguish itself from its preceding and succeeding ones.
Then, as the second step, we will have an overview of the ‘civilisational (supra-secular) monetary cycle’ devised by Sidney Homer, a prominent bond manager from the USA in the second half of the 20th century. In this process, we reflect a hypothetical monetary implication of Socrates' Cycle on Homer's supra-secular monetary cycle.
Finally, as the third step, we will make a reality check by examining these cyclical frameworks against Greco-Roman historical experiences and present issues to be addressed regarding these cyclical models.
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Note 1: Aristotle had a more dynamic understanding of constitutional transformations: for him, democracy can transform to either oligarchy or tyranny, while Plato’s Socrates monolithically articulated that democracy is destined to degenerate into tyranny. The text here introduces only a part of Aristotle’s analysis.
Note 2: This chart is based on data provided in A History of Interest Rates by Sidney Homer and Richard Sylla. (Homer & Sylla, 2005, pp. 61-63)
Note 3: Although the Roman Republic never achieved a direct democracy like the Athenian democracy, her mixed form of constitution was, in principle, designed to allow the democratic element to co-exist with the aristocratic element and the oligarchic one and to check them through her representation system.