What goes around, comes around. We have seen this kind of political drama before. It’s been going round and round for thousands of years. Governments revolve in a cycle; it’s still as true today, as it ever was in the ancient Greek city states. Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
Plato and Aristotle were some of the first to recognise the cycle, but it was Polybius, the Greek historian who gave us profound insight into the matter. In summary of the classical definition, according to Polybius, throughout history there has been a revolving cycle of different types of governments, with each stage in the cycle gradually ushering in the next.
In various civilisations and cultures throughout history, the cycle has progressed at different speeds and on different scales, but it’s always fundamentally the same and changes are marked by violence and turmoil. Today in post colonial Trinidad, we are no different.
Like the chicken and the egg, its hard to say which came first: good governments with the interest of all at heart or bad governments with the special interests of only a few.
For the sake of this explanation, chaos or ochlocracy as Polybius refers to it, will be taken as the first stage in the cycle from which to begin the description the progression. Imagine a state in chaos, absolute anarchy, with no law and order; something out of a post-apocalyptic movie where life is short, and society is a mob, in which the strong did as they liked.
Out of this brutal existence one strong leader emerges, bringing much welcomed law, order, freedom and peace to the land. This next stage is the Monarchy stage of government in the cycle, and represents a positive progression out of chaos. However, it’s not long before a hereditary absolute leader places himself above the law, becoming a despot. Absolute power is inevitably abused and thus a monarchy degenerates into tyranny.
Eventually the most courageous and virtuous in society, who are least able to submit to the tyrannical acts of their rulers band together and overthrow the government. Out of gratitude, these high-minded individuals are made leaders by the people and the future is entrusted to them. Polybius refers to this stage in the cycle as aristocracy, meaning rule by the virtuous, and is a positive progression out of tyranny.
Next the spoiled descendents of the virtuous leaders abuse their power to maximise their personal gain at the expense of the people. Thus the aristocracy degenerates into an oligarchy ruled by a few exceedingly wealthy individuals.
Facing poverty, the people inevitably become jealous and despise the oligarchs for their excesses, and it is not long before a revolution is at hand. The people having learnt from the experience of monarchy becoming tyranny and aristocracy degenerating into oligarchy, establish a democracy which is a positive progression from an oligarchy.
Having grown up in an equal free society, the future citizens of the democracy no longer value it’s noble ideals seek to become more rich and powerful than their peers. This quest for wealth and power ushers in corruption and lawlessness as everyone strives to beat the system in order get ahead. Before long, all respect for the law is lost and society once again degenerates into violence and chaos.
Modern government aims to combine the best attributes of the three positive forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Yet, still the cycle continues as we have seen recently with the Arab spring as aristocracies rose up against tyrants that had emerged, at first as monarchs from the chaos after failed short-lived democracies that replaced old oligarchies.
To accurately ascertain a society’s stage in the cycle, one must focus solely on the behaviour of the leaders and the people, and pay little attention to the terminology with which the government refers to itself by. Some of the worst tyrants in history such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Robespierre existed in societies that were not monarchies by definition.
The question on all our minds is where are we today in this cycle in post colonial T&T, and where are we going? By Polybius’s definition, there was a monarchy that we perceived to be a tyranny, which was overthrown by a well intentioned aristocracy. Clearly this has degenerated into an oligarchy. Judging from the amount of evident lawlessness and corruption lately, we may fly past true democracy and again be in brutal chaos before we know it.