Anacyclosis and the United States

10 05 2012

John Michael Greer, over at the Archdruid Report, has a thought-provoking post up now about the nature of democracy in the United States. It’s good stuff, thoughtful, a nice counterpoint to some of the heat and smoke that these sorts of discussion often raise. The part that I keep coming back to, though, is his discussion of Polybius’s notion of anacyclosis. It seems compelling, but it doesn’t quite set well against my sense of U.S. history.

(Much of this comes out of a long discussion with my partner–she’s got a broader and more detailed view of U.S. history than I do, so provided my muddling with correction and qualification. I take full responsibility for any muddle that remains.)

You should all read Greer’s post because it covers a lot of ground, but I’m going to focus on the question as to how well the cycle holds for U.S. history and the reasons for any variance. To the extent that it holds, I want to examine Greer’s demarcation of cycles and, following my first goal, appreciate the forces shaping their movement.

Summarizing, very briefly, Greer’s points: U.S. democracy cycles through governmental patterns reminiscent of monarchy, aristocracy, and genuine ‘popular’ democracy. There have been three cycles of this. The first began with Washington, the next with Lincoln, the last with FDR. Each man left behind him an aristocracy or ‘junta,’ which was subsequently overturned by and/or diluted by a popular movement with roots in the junta.

His model is clear enough in how it functions. A powerful man takes control of a government and, after he dies, his allies take control of it. They, lacking his authority, distribute his power amongst themselves, and proceed to make the most of things. Over time, the allies of these people acquire more power, until you have a quite diffuse power structure. This diffuse power structure is quite democratic (in Greer’s pragmatic sense of the term), but weak in the sense of having no central force organizing it. That leaves it vulnerable to usurpation by a cunning and quick-acting individual who can take control before the diffuse system can respond. Thus begins the cycle again.

While a U.S. president, though, may be powerful, they are never exercising the sort of power characteristic of a dictator. They are exercising power as part of a community of like-minded individuals that has the power to put him on the ballot and get him the attention required to get elected. Which means that, in most cases, the president is the most visible tip of an already-existing aristocracy/junta.

This is clearly the case with Washington, Greer’s first ‘dictator’ figure. While his military career and personal reputation may have made him virtually unbeatable as a presidential candidate, his presidency was nonetheless utterly dependent on the interests of his fellow colonial elite. It was not his power that they distributed afterward, but it was their shared power that lifted him up to presidential heights. That seems more aptly described as aristocratic democracy rather than dictatorial democracy.

Let us move ahead for a moment to how Greer thinks about Andrew Jackson. He sees in Jacksonian democracy the final phases of the Whig aristocracy, which gets overturned in Lincoln’s usurpation of ‘dictatorial’ powers later. I think we ought to be hesitant about that account of the cycle. Contrary to Greer, I see in Jackson little that I would characterize as a swing toward popular democracy. It looks more to me like just another aristocracy/junta with its own war hero to serve as its political face.

Jackson is the face of a new emerging class born from the expansion of the U.S. into new territory and, along with that, the formation of new states. These states are not tied to the same mercantile system upon which the old guard thrives and so is looking to eliminate its regulations in order to exploit more fully the new opportunities of the growing nation. Unlike the established elite who had control over a lot of resources and were looking to hold onto them, the new elite had their eye on getting hold of the new, yet untapped, resources they saw stretched before them.

Jackson’s popular politics strikes me as deeply political and utilitarian, less about a more equal distribution of power and more about a redistribution of power to a new elite. They were tools that allowed his junta to undermine and assault the established one. Contrary to the Whig elite amongst whom power was fairly evenly distributed, he strengthened the presidency at the expense of Congress. While he used that power to dismantle much at the federal level, he did not do so to diminish federal power but to diminish the sorts of federal power that the Whig elite had available.

Nor should we read the Jacksonian expansion of voter rights as a more equal distribution of power. It is a risky, though in this case effective gambit, that further weakens his rivals. He immediately appeals to those new voters and his allies thus reap the benefit of their vote in terms of elected officials. Jackson appeals to the population at large in order to dilute the influence of the established and landed voting elite. His policy of Indian removal follows the same logic–liberating resources for his class by driving out those who currently had hold of them.

While Lincoln is very significant historically, he isn’t so significant from an anacylcotic perspective. He carries forward in most cases the trajectory defined by Jackson’s presidency. Lincoln affirms Jackson’s anti-nullification principles and expands on the presidential powers affirmed by him. Even the emancipation follows upon Jacksonian strategies–making the right to vote more widely available alongside a promise of land and resources to accompany it. The comparable failure of Republicans to secure these advances in the aftermath of the war makes the 1960s far less radical–many of its so-called advances are just African Americans finally securing for themselves the most basic outlines of what had been promised them almost a century earlier. It’s just the tail end of the Jacksonian arc, greatly delayed and diminished.

The Civil War is born, too, in this growth, as two rival factions emerge within this expanding world. The Civil War is not a contest between two forms of government (local and federal), but between two elites vying for the right to determine the course of the U.S. empire. The irony is that, from this perspective, both elite factions lose. The winner is industry, which at the time of the war is well on its way to displacing the old remnants of the traditional mercantile elite of the North. The North provided, geographically, a good place for the industrial system to develop, but it would get a lot bigger.

Okay, so far, the anacyclotic model seems to be a bit less dramatic than that suggested by Greer. What we are seeing so far is the erosion of one aristocracy and the emergence of another in its wake. That new aristocracy makes its way by appealing to groups of the population who are outside the old aristocracy, promising them resources in exchange for support. What makes these new aristocracies possible? What makes the old ones weaken? Greer has already provided us the answer to this one: growth. The growth of the nation outpaces the growth of the old elite. As time passes, those growing wealthy in the growing economies turn their wealth toward eliminating the (self-benefiting) policies of the old elite and replacing them with policies that benefit themselves, the new elite.

I think Greer may be right about three cycles, though. I’ve noted two big turns in the cycle so far (Colonial-Jacksonian). What follows the Jacksonian shift? Here, again, Greer has already sketched out an answer. It is the growth even further West and emergence of a bona fide transcontinental nation. This new elite rides the wealth of petrochemicals. The transcontinental nation requires immense energy expenditures to unite its components and that energy depends on things like oil and coal. That fuel added to the nascent fire of industrialism in the North creates quite an explosion. Constrained, it becomes the force behind the new social order.

Atop that system, the whole apparatus of modern industrialism takes shape. The diversity of products, technical innovation, and the mass distribution of them are made possible by this industry. The petrochemical elite becomes the powerful players in an industrial elite and we’re still in the midst of that cycle.

Here, Greer’s attention to the Progressive Revolution is spot on, likely the first genuinely democratic movement in the system so far. The networks created by the industrial transformations also have deep social transformations as well. The boundaries between different regions become much more porous, in terms of information, people, and goods. Newspapers with a genuinely national scope emerge and help shape national identity.

Around those processes develops a new body of people who conceive of themselves more deeply than ever as American first, before regional ties. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that they are often finding work in the burgeoning industrial and governmental world that actively moves employees to where they are needed. Neoliberal and neoconservative movements both have their roots in this shift. Alongside the industrial elite, we see the emergence of an administrative class (for lack of a better term for them). Some of these folks are very well-trained because the technical sophistication of the industrial world demands technical expertise.

That process is most definitely quite partial, and is continued in some of the New Deal policies in ways that make it difficult to see FDR as another genuine shift in the process. Juggling presidential authority with sweeping reforms aimed to appeal to a popular base, FDR sustains the trajectory of industrial society in a way not dissimilar to Lincoln. He doesn’t overturn much at all, he just does his best to ameliorate the stresses operating on the system.

At this point, it becomes meaningful to think prospectively again. If this analysis is correct, and if Greer’s analysis of the overall resource cycle is correct, the present system of elite control isn’t likely to go the same way as the previous cycles. The growth, fed first by actual expansion across the continent and then by political expansion around the hemisphere and globe, is coming to an end. There may not be a new elite to swell and overturn the old. Moreover, the administrative class will lose much of its influence as the system supporting it dwindles.

What comes next requires us to return to the arc of democracy, again. At each stage, the old elites have never been demolished, just outdone. As the system shrinks, we’re likely to see some of those old elites flare back into prominence. They won’t be identical to the old ones, but it’s likely that the style of their authority will be quite familiar to the historically minded.

They will also likely be checked, in part, by the growth of the population around them, prominently including the diminished administrative class. That population does benefit from the resiliency of U.S. government. The various rights and privileges that have been distributed to the people as this elite or the other makes its move on the old guard, continue to exist and shape the national culture and consciousness.

Still, those old elites will do what people do and try to put what resources they do have into securing and expanding their influence into the future. Folks who aren’t part of that set, will want to make sure they are doing what needs be done to keep those elites in check. And everyone needs to keep an eye to the future, because it’s likely to be bumpier than we might expect looking over our nation’s short history. It will take some work to give that future a more humane cast.




One response

21 05 2012
Growth Cycles « The Light House

[…] keep chewing over the role of growth in the development of the United States. At the moment, it seems a bit like the royal road into the […]

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