In The Histories Polybius lays out a theory of anacyclosis, or a cycle of political evolution. The theory hypothesises that all states will cycle between six styles of governance (three benign and three malignant): monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy and ochlocracy. As most Western states now operate under a democracy – even if impure – the next step for most of these countries is ochlocracy. Ochlocracy, or mob rule, is a system of government where the state is run by small mobs that do not necessarily reflect the will of the people. Democracy devolves into mobocracy when people break off into small groups instead of engaging with the wider political spectrum and use force instead of debate to enact (or stop) change in the state. Devolution comes when the Overton window splits in two and people on both sides of politics shelter themselves in echo chambers with their labelling guns, set to “extremist,” ready to fire. The intellectual devolution is observable on the internet where anyone
making a bad joke advocating for a higher tax rate is a communist and anyone making a good joke with any national pride is a fascist. Luckily, internet mobs hold little power outside of Twitter. However, there are signs of this devolution in the real world, notably in France and the United States.
In 2017, France elected Emmanuel Macron to be their leader. Macron was a divisive figure with a somewhat unproven track record in politics. Often noted for his ego (his party En Marche sports his initials), his authoritarianism and, surprisingly, his good looks. After years of stale politics and a stagnant economy, Macron advertised himself completely on change. A new party, a non-career politician and a real mission. In the days of his campaign he was compared to Jupiter and Napoleon due to his desire for absolutism and direct rule, a power he would later be granted when his party also won a majority in the parliament. This was juxtaposed with his youth, charm and populism. He aimed to represent the people and bring about change. He was not a stuffy suit who had spent years upon years following the cursus honorum but was instead a fresh new face for the people to rally behind. He won the first round with 26% of the vote (which may seem like a low number to those of us more accustomed to a 2 party system but was considered acceptable to good in the generally 3-4 horse race of the French election) before benefiting from the “extremist” political stance of his opponent and winning the second round with 66% of the vote. Of that 66%, some believed in his message and some believed him to simply be the lesser of two evils. Relations began to sour with that latter group when his policies came into place. Macron made sweeping reforms to the labour market in an effort to modernise the country and reinvigorate the economy. This brought him up against the second biggest power in France: the labour unions. The clash between the unions and the government went from angry words in the press to full-on riot. As Macron endeavoured to cut the benefits and securities of the average worker, the average worker stopped trains, planes and even putting out fires. Chaos rang through the streets of Paris and the warring mobs had formed. In one corner, the government, with the full force of the police and the gendarmerie ready to maintain its agenda and in the other, the unions, with a strength in numbers and the famous tenacity of the French people, ready to preserve their current conditions. This does not include the less active, at the time, camp of Marine Le Pen and the Rassemblement National (then Front National) with their Euroscepticism and anti-immigrationism. What could have been settled with debate and compromise instead pitted Macron’s government against its own people.
In 2016, the American people (that is to say 25% of the American people, 46% of the meagre 55% turnout) elected Donald Trump to be their president. Much like Macron, Trump campaigned on a platform of change. “We are going to Washington, D.C. and we are going to drain the swamp,” he said. Trump also cut an authoritarian figure as he wanted to do things his way, away from the perceived corruption of the capital. Trump was, by his hand, building a wall with Mexico, repealing Obamacare and, most importantly, Making America Great Again. These strong-handed tactics were unpopular with some percentage of the 75% of Americans who did not vote for him and at several points throughout his presidency the fractures became clear. While in office Trump and/or the government clashed with: the Liberate movement, antifa and BLM. With varying degrees of violence, from Twitter campaigns to violent protest to armed occupation, Trump’s presidency strained parts of America’s relationship with itself. The Liberate movement armed themselves and stormed city and state capitols, in an effort to end COVID-19 lockdowns, putting themselves at odds with the police and state guard. Black Lives Matter activists protested violently and stood in defiance of riot police to send a message about the treatment of minorities in America. Both were forceful actors aiming to create change in their government.
In both countries, the presence of non-traditional and authoritarian leaders mixed with the echo chambers of the internet closing off the opinions of the other side of the aisle, creating a lasting and violent division in their countries. Their wish to override the often slow democratic process led to an equivalent urgency and, without legislative power, violence from their already polarised opposition.
Violence always begets violence so even if the opposing mob wins their country’s next election the mob currently in power will remember the violence they were subject to and the violence will only continue. The current system in place will fall to the loud, even if not directly violent, mobs of the left, right and centre as they regularly clash both inside of parliament buildings and outside on the streets. The cycle of anacyclosis continues. As the polarisation of the people is matched with populism and the executive, authoritative decrees of its leaders, the democracies we so cherish in the west will slide down to ochlocracy, to mob rule. That very same ochlocracy the writers of the American constitution and the constitution of La Cinquième République endeavoured so tirelessly to stop.
The views in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club.