Neoreaction needs a theory of time, and so since I’m bringing up the topic, it seems only fair that I also proffer one. I’ll be presenting it in three installments, each one including both theoretical and historical meditations.
If neoreaction is to have a theory of time capable of challenging the progressive one, then the theory must have a substantially different structure. It cannot have a conclusion; there is no promised land at the end of history. It also has to reconcile two competing ideas: (1) that the future is going to be much like the past, and (2) that change actually does occur. The way to accomplish this is with a cyclical theory of time.
The Greeks generally get the credit for developing the first cyclical theory of time: Empedocles, for instance, believed that the world was shaped by the struggle for supremacy between the forces of Strife and Love. Thucydides, Aristotle, and Polybius all believed that political events, at least, followed a predictable progression. Today, the interdisciplinary field of cliodynamics (named after Clio, the muse of history) aims to explain the rise and fall of societies. Cliodynamics, however, is highly mathematical, so the medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun is credited as the father of that discipline because he specified how long it would take for a cycle to complete.
My own theory has three stages: the era of Equality, the era of Security, and the era of Liberty/Prosperity. Each of these eras is defined by the general ideal progression toward which typifies the politics and especially the ideology of that era. However, each one also sets the stage for transition into the next era with its very success.
We currently live in the era of Equality. Today it is fashionable to notice how relations of power crisscross the social fabric. These power relations, which are supported by a combination of irrationality and violence, limit the freedom of various individuals and groups. Without these obstacles, all people would be able to fulfill their potential and create a perfect society. Thus, to tear down power is a moral imperative.
The idea of democracy, in the sense of expansion of political rights, is popular during the era of Equality, as is redistribution of wealth. Since power has been historically held by small groups who have used their privileged position to exploit everyone else, these groups must be stripped of their unjust possessions. Democracy and redistribution level the playing field, empowering the previously disempowered and preventing any person or group from oppressing any other.
At least, so goes the theory. In actual practice, Equality is little more than the rallying cry of previously marginalized tribes out to enrich and empower themselves. There exist sincere egalitarians, people whose allegiance to Equality is based on genuine moral outrage at the excesses of power, but the hypocrites are in the vast majority. As soon as their tribe is in power, they will be just as violent and cruel as those whom they replace—perhaps more so—whether they keep prattling on about Equality or shed their ideological pretensions.
The era of Equality is full of conflict, but at least at first, of contained conflict. The goal of egalitarian politics is to tear down existing institutions, and those who benefit from those institutions are not going to just let that happen. Early on, egalitarians have little power and so will try to operate within the existing political structure. As they gain power, they will increasingly ignore and succeed in destroying the normal channels of power. Their success also involves casting aside the implicit terms of relations between powers, terms that limited the practical extent and mitigated the evils of power. With these gone, unlimited violence becomes an increasingly real possibility.
On top of the conflict egalitarianism cultivates, egalitarians themselves are not very good rulers. They increase their power by tearing down their enemies, so while they have some idea of how to use power destructively, they have little notion of how to apply it constructively. They can defend themselves, but to defend others’ property, a precondition of orderly society, is not only ideologically but also psychologically difficult. Society descends into chaos and all the egalitarians know how to do is intensify that process.
The era of Equality ends in an orgy of looting and killing. Eventually people realize that equality is not truly desirable: those who wanted power now have it, and those who genuinely dreamed of Equality are dead. In this milieu naked ambition and avarice become prominent. In place of the dream of Equality arises the dream of Security.
Now let us consider a historical example. Look at Classical Athens, starting around the middle of the fifth century B.C. At this moment, the Delian league was established throughout the Aegean, driving out the Persians and establishing Athenian trade relations. The city was flourishing, and the most prominent political figure was Cimon, son of Miltiades, the hero of the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. Cimon represented the land-owning aristocracy and is friendly with Sparta. He was a distinguished military leader and also generous with his own wealth, allowing the poor to take fruit from his own orchards.
However, Cimon had enemies. Pericles was the one who rose to the greatest prominence. Pericles drew his support from the poorest citizens and the ones who made their living on trade rather than agriculture. Pericles contrived to have Cimon ostracized, exiled for ten years, assumed supreme power in 461 B.C., and stood first among the Athenians until his death in 429 B.C. During this period, Pericles appropriated the treasury of the Delian league and uses it to beautify Athens. He also added considerably to his own wealth—when one of his rivals accused him of spending too much money on monuments, he offered to pay for them himself, and this claim was credible. The other members of the Delian league were none too pleased with Pericles’s decision to spend their money, nor were the aristocrats impressed. Cimon having died in an expedition to Egypt, opposition to Pericles coalesced around Thucydides—of unknown relation to the great historian—whom Pericles then had exiled as well.
Athens continued to flourish under Pericles’s rule for many years. Some members of the Delian league tried to leave, but Athenian forces quickly reconquered them. The Athenian empire came into existence at this time. Sparta and her allies became very concerned about the growth of Athenian power and so commenced war against Athens. Pericles made the mistake of welcoming conflict with Sparta and egging the Athenians on. When the Spartans invaded Attica—which they did every summer for several years—people crowded into the city, giving rise to a deadly plague. This public health disaster even claimed the life of Pericles himself.
Where Pericles had managed to rule prudently on an egalitarian base, his successors failed miserably. Most Athenian military operations consisted of meaningless naval plundering expeditions against Laconia and efforts to put down revolts within their own empire. The bold general Demosthenes won a major success by seizing, fortifying, and holding Pylos. Cleon was the leading Athenian orator at the time, a firebrand and chickenhawk. Eventually he was shamed into actually taking the field himself, and with over 10,000 men managed to capture a few hundred Spartans on Sphacteria. A few years later, Cleon was killed in battle against the brilliant Spartan general Brasidas, who had been liberating Athens’s “allies.” Around the same time, the Thebans, Sparta’s allies, crushed the Athenians in the battle of Delium. Athens and Sparta then made a peace.
Even though the previous years of war had shown that neither Sparta nor Athens could truly defeat the other, the Athenian politicians crafted ever more madcap schemes to try anyway. The first was support for an anti-Spartan alliance of Argos, Elis, and Mantinea. Sparta crushed the allies at the battle of Mantinea in 418 B.C. Athens then launched the disastrous Sicilian expedition. Additionally, the Athenians exiled Alcibiades. Now Alcibiades was bold to the point of rashness—he had supported both the anti-Spartan alliance and the Sicilian expedition—but he also had almost no loyalty to his home city, so he betrayed Athens to Sparta, convincing King Agis II to establish a permanent presence in Attica at Decelea.
The Spartan base at Decelea was to prove a thorn in the Athenians’ side for almost a decade. Additionally, the Sicilian expedition failed catastrophically—not only was the entire force either captured or killed, but Demosthenes and Nicias, the two most successful Athenian commanders, were slain. The Spartan admiral Lysander, bolstered by Persian money, completed Brasidas’s project of destroying the Athenians’ overseas empire. He defeated the Athenian navy at Notium in 407 B.C. and Aegospotami in 405 B.C. The Athenians had scored a success while Lysander was away in 406 B.C. at Arginusae, but they executed the victorious admirals for failing to rescue the crews of destroyed ships. In the end, Lysander sailed into the Piraeus and dictated humiliating terms of surrender.
At the same time, domestic politics were tumultuous. An oligarchy backed by Alcibiades, recently returned to favor, had taken control for a brief time, but the democracy was quickly restored. Then when Lysander had Athens in his power, he installed a group called the Thirty Tyrants, who butchered and looted their opponents without hesitation or mercy. These men were brought down in civil war, but recriminations continued to fly, culminating in the judicial murder of Socrates.
After its defeat, Athens left the era of Equality and entered the era of Security. Gone were the dreams of Hellenic hegemony—those pretensions belonged to Sparta, Thebes, and eventually Macedonia. Athens concerned herself with securing a place within a world where she could influence politics but was not a principle actor. Before long, the city-state no longer served as the main level of competitive politics; large empires took its place.
There are many, many lessons to be learned from the story of Athens. The first is that the era of Equality can have a very long duration. A skilled statesman like Pericles can limit the harmful effects of egalitarianism and even use his own power and prestige to great effect. The Periclean period is, after all, considered the golden age of Athens. What typifies the era of Equality is not immediately obvious social destruction, but a setting of the stage. Pericles made two major blunders in his otherwise successful career: he appropriated the Delian treasury, and he made no preparations for when he was no longer in power. The first helped him to maintain his power, but it antagonized the members of the Delian league, which necessitated a transformation of the league into a genuine Athenian empire. The expense in blood, treasure, and especially good will ultimately spelt the doom of Athens.
Pericles’s second error is more complicated. Before Sparta declared war on Athens, they made an impossible demand: that the Athenians give up their empire. No Athenian could have accepted that condition for peace. Pericles went further, however. He actively stoked the fires of Athenian nationalism to pursue the war. While he lived, he kept a lid on that potentially destructive feeling, but his successors not only failed to do so, they didn’t want to. Pericles had made his person, his prestige, and his statesmanship so indispensable for the success of the Athenian state that when he was gone it had no rudder. His speeches make it clear that he anticipated steering the Athenian ship of state throughout its war with Sparta. However, by 431 B.C., Pericles was old. Even without the plague, he could not have expected to live much longer and should have been making plans for when he was gone. Both of Pericles’s mistakes were failures to appreciate the long-run consequences of his actions.
Another lesson is that pinning down the beginnings and ends of eras is tricky. I chose to say that the era of Equality ended with Athens’s surrender to Lysander in 404 B.C., but it could easily be moved forward to 413 B.C. and the failure of the Sicilian expedition. After that, Athens was no longer fighting for its aggrandizement, but for its very survival as a power. Other analysts might choose different points. The beginning is even harder to identify. Did Athens enter the era of Equality immediately as Pericles first assumed prominence or when Cimon was exiled? Perhaps it was only after Thucydides’s exile or even before Pericles appeared on the scene. The real world isn’t a Sid Meier game with clear-cut distinctions between periods.
Third, we should remember that modern ideological idioms do not always match up precisely with historical events. Especially for the dream of Equality, modern philosophy has a particular lexicon: power relations, privilege, democracy, redistribution, and countless others more arcane. Expanding democracy and tearing down power relations is a very general way of describing the tendency of the era of Equality. Only in the contemporary period is every institution of authority under assault—in the past it has usually been only a few such institutions at a time. Modern social democracy was never on the table before the last century or so, but expansion of citizenship or voting rights has been common. In order to understand an era, its own specific characteristics must be known.
Finally, we need to remember that as powerful an explanatory device as my theory is, the progression of ideologies is not the only force at work. What if Pericles had not been born and there was no man of comparable genius to lead the popular party in Athens? Brasidas led an amphibious assault against Pylos: what if he had succeeded? Or what if he had perished, as he very nearly did? What if Alcibiades had not told Agis to fortify Decelea? These are just a few of the countless contingencies that determined the course of events. An era is ultimately defined not so much by what people actually do in every case as by what they tend to do in many situations.
Consider also the matter of scale. I’ve been describing Athens and her actions as an independent polity. But Athenian independence breathed its last upon the fields of Chaeronea in 338 B.C., trampled into the dust by Macedonian horsemen. Thebes was turned into farmland three years later by Alexander the Great. Sparta held on for considerably longer, even considering its crushing defeat at Leuktra in 371 B.C., but even the proud Lacadaemonians ultimately fell to the power of Rome. Or perhaps I should have looked at Greece as a whole as the locus of ideology. Exactly what scale is appropriate for analysis is not a priori clear.
Ideology is a powerful force, but it plays within a milieu of many forces. Economics, demography, technology, military power, particular personalities—all these and more determine the course of history too. These other factors do not stop the march of ideologies, but they can cause interruptions, accelerations, and other complications. Understanding how everything plays together is the task of the historian.