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Anacyclosis and the Limits of Liberal Democracy by Sven R. Larson

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Anacyclosis and the Limits of Liberal Democracy

"The Sea Rises," an illustration by Hablot K. Browne [Phiz] in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities: A Story of the French Revolution, London:Chapman & Hall, 1859.

Photo: Project Gutenberg

When Hungary elected a new parliament on April 3rd, critics opined that the election was not democratic enough. Just like left-of-center commentators claimed foul play when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, an assortment of voices proposed that Fidesz and Viktor Orban won re-election on un-democratic terms.

More than 900 international election observers have put their seal of approval on the April 3rd election. An evaluation report from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, explained that the election-improvement law of 2020 made this year’s election even stronger. The report notes that many remaining issues are tied to COVID-19 related restrictions, which are set to expire this summer.

Yet despite these seals of approval, election critics keep suggesting that Hungarian democracy is flawed. Although most of the criticism is just white-noise punditry gunning for a social-media spotlight, a more deliberate undercurrent can be perceived. 

Reminiscent of the anti-democratic campaign against Trump’s election victory in 2016, the more elaborate arguments against Hungary tend to point their spear at the democratic system of government itself. Some claim there are flaws in the institutions of government, flaws that for unspecified reasons keep people from voting as they “really” want to.

If these critics tell us anything, it is that they look down the nose at democratic forms of government that do not comply with the liberal model. Their dismissive attitude is edged toward the American and Hungarian forms of government. 

Contrary to their belief that the liberal version of democracy is the epitome of civilizational refinement—a utopia accomplished—it is, in fact, a conduit for erosion of democracy, prosperity, and civilization. By failing to accept that there are alternative forms of democracy, critics, especially of the Hungarian system, actually do a disservice to democracy itself. 

Criticizing Hungary: A Popular Hobby

Before we proceed, we should look at the most recent criticism of Hungary from proponents of liberal democracy. It reveals their purpose: they are not out to defend democracy itself, only their particular version of it. Since this version happens to carry within it the seed of its own demise, our brief overview of the anti-Hungarian rhetoric helps to clarify the urgency in defending the Hungarian form of government.

In his elegant essay “Much Ado about Hungary,” Paul du Quenoy takes on some of the crudest critics of Hungary. Sadly, there are many other critics, among them New York-based Mother Jones, who ambitiously try to discredit the April 3rd election. 

Oddly, as one of their exhibits against Hungary, they claim that Viktor Orban has “suffocated academic freedom.” They argue their case based on the Hungarian government’s concerns over the funding of Central European University in Budapest. The university relied heavily on George Soros, a billionaire known for supporting a social agenda that is openly antithetical to conservative values.

It is unclear how the Hungarian suspicion of Soros dollars undermines democracy, especially since the CEU could have opened a dialogue with the Hungarian government on how to diversify its funding. Instead, the CEU decided to move to Austria, despite the fact that the integrity of the scholarly research at CEU was never under any threat. 

Another anti-Hungarian talking point comes from British news outlet The Guardian. Alleging that the Hungarian government has “dismantled checks and balances” of the country’s political system, the news outlet claims that “a proper hearing for opposition voices” is no longer possible. Their supposed source is a story from EuroNews which offers no substance at all for The Guardian’s accusations. 

Equally casual with facts is The Atlantic, which frivolously—and without substantive evidence—talks about media bias in favor of Fidesz. Joining them in the largely fact-free punditosphere is the podcast This American Life (a New York Times affiliate). While correctly pointing to minor issues in the democratic process—variants of which are easily found in all democracies—the podcast sadly provides mostly regurgitated, unsubstantiated allegations regarding the April 3rd election. 

Liberal democracy and utopia

Every country deserves scrutiny for imperfections in its democratic form of government. The problem with critics of Hungary is that they don’t view the country in a comparative context. A more productive approach would be to compare Hungary to, e.g., the European Union itself. Due to the democratic deficit of the EU, which Todd Huizinga has thoroughly explained, the comparison could only be to Hungary’s benefit. 

In reality, the Hungarian model rests on a different ideological foundation from liberal democracy. It is more comprehensive than a simple-majority parliamentary system, and it protects against government whim: it operates without allowing just any majority of the electorate to take the country in any direction at any point in time.

Liberal democracy is centered around the idea that a majority vote in parliament should have unrestricted jurisdiction to change society as the majority sees fit. By contrast, Hungary and America have constitutions that protect the country against runaway majorities. 

While the parliamentary system bundles together the executive and legislative branches of government, the constitutional republic separates them. Voters cast their ballots in separate elections for the legislative and executive branches.

The Hungarian model has a similar feature in its separation of parliament into two segments: one with candidates elected in traditional single-candidate districts, and one where party lists compete in a traditional proportionate fashion. This is a unique feature where the electorate casts two votes for the same parliament.

Both the American and the Hungarian systems prevent rapid transformations of society. Sudden, fashionable winds of opinion cannot drive radical change—nor can deliberate campaigns of revolutionary origin.

Bluntly speaking, the American and Hungarian Constitutions protect their countries against mob rule.

This term is not used rhetorically. It has a stringent analytical meaning; to see why, we need to travel back in time—two millennia, in fact, to the days of the ancient world, when a man known to the afterworld as Polybius formulated a theory of societal evolution. 

His theory has become known under the term anacyclosis, to which José Luís Andrade gives a succinct introduction:

According to the Greek thinkers Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius, … there are three ‘benign’ forms of government—monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—that inevitably decline into one of three ‘malignant’ forms—tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy.

The theory of anacyclosis is deeper than this, but Andrade captures its essence. No matter what benign form of government we have, it will eventually degenerate into something malignant. 

In other words, the theory is a dynamic one, explaining not one state of a society, but its very evolution over an extended period of time. This is one of its strong points, and a major reason why anacyclosis is virtually an alien concept to modern social sciences. Today, political science, economics, and related disciplines are static in their methodology, thus excluding the dynamic problems that characterize modern society from their disciplinary research agendas.

Anacyclosis

The inability of social sciences to address dynamic problems has contaminated the debate over democracy. As is well exemplified by our review of the anti-Hungarian rhetoric, it comes with an implicit assumption that liberal democracy is superior to its democratic alternatives.

In reality, their form of government opens the door to dynamic forces that erode and eventually become an existential threat to democracy itself. By failing to understand dynamic processes in society, proponents of liberal democracy implicitly or explicitly assume that whatever changes may emerge from simple majority rule are benign by default. 

History has proven them wrong, and we do not have to go as far back as to the days of the Weimar Republic to see this. It suffices to visit Venezuela after Hugo Chavez was first elected president, and watch what may happen in Chile in the coming years. However, the belief is deep, that liberal democracy cannot decline into something less benign. 

José Luís Andrade explains why this belief exists. The Enlightenment, he says, did away with the anacyclosian understanding of human society. In its place emerged the utopian model, according to which history reaches an end state and then stops.

In modern political thought, the end state has been depicted as a place where all human struggle is brought to an end. Marxism is the best-known utopian ideology, but proponents of liberal democracy have walked in the same footsteps. 

Francis Fukuyama deserves honorable mention. Upon witnessing the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire, he published an ill-fated “End of History” prediction (The National Interest, No. 16, 1989) that liberal democracy was about to celebrate its eternal victory.

Fukuyama would never have made this mistake, had he not believed that human society strives toward a utopia. His theorizing is not as bad as that of Marx and Lenin, but had Fukuyama known about anacyclosis, he would have been able to resist the utopian temptation. 

As mentioned, the theory was well known already to Plato and Aristotle. German classicist Stephan Podes credits Roman historian Polybius for developing the anacyclosian theory. In “Polybius and his Theory of Anacyclosis” (History of Political Thought, Winter 1991), Podes explains anacyclosis as a chain of constitutional metamorphosis, with the forms of government that Andrade mentions following each other in a never-ending sequence:

  • Kingship or monarchy descends into tyranny;
  • From tyranny emerges aristocracy;
  • The aristocratic form of government deteriorates into oligarchy;
  • From oligarchy rises democracy;
  • Eventually, democracy declines into ochlocracy—a.k.a., mob rule.

From mob rule, we again return to monarchy.

Incentivizing mob rule

Today, when we can confidently consider ourselves to be living in an era of democracy, the anacyclosian theory suggests that we are bound for an ochlocratic future.

The question, of course, is how democracy transitions into mob rule. Podes offers some speculative ideas, among them “political entrepreneurship” which, in plain English, is akin to a government run by self-gratifying opportunists.

This is a compelling hypothesis, but it does not explain the incentives that motivate the population as a whole to participate in the decline of democracy. To find this structure, we need to add a structure of incentives that makes people put their own self interest above the interest in preserving democracy itself. 

That structure of incentives is also known as the welfare state.

Democracy prevails when it is in the interest of the whole population, or at least a sufficiently large majority, to preserve it. In order to do so, they need to do two things: respect election outcomes that are the opposite to what they desired; and subordinate any desire to pursue personal gain to the preservation of the democratic system. 

This means that we do not seek to use the democratic system to gain advantages over our political opponents; we do not vote in politicians who will hand out entitlement benefits to some citizens while making others pay for them. Yet this is precisely what the welfare state does: it offers work-free perks from government to some groups—typically those with lower incomes—thus playing on their self interest.

When we let our self interest conflict with the interests of democracy, we put democracy in danger. When personal or special-interest gains guide our votes to a larger degree than do our ambition to preserve freedom and a democratic government, we gradually transform our politics into a short-sighted pursuit of perks. The more ostentatious this flaunting of self interest becomes, the more it becomes a direct enemy of the preservation of democracy.

A society dominated by short-term pursuit of personal or group-interest gain is a society governed by—yes—mobs. 

We are not there yet, but we have paved the way. When our democracy allows the political equivalent of flash-mob majorities to self-interestedly plunder the economy for entitlements, to skew government institutions to their advantage, and to reconfigure the living conditions of others in their own ideological image; then we have already punctured the balloon that keeps our democracy aloft. 

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.

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