ISET Economist Blog

Georgia in the Cycle of History
Monday, 11 May, 2015

The second of May, 2015, may well go unnoticed by historians of the future; but I am convinced that it marks a watershed not only in Georgia’s recent evolution – but also, maybe, in the history of our times...

On the surface of life, this Saturday marked maybe the Saturday when tourists finally returned to Tbilisi. At about 2 p.m. spotted a group of about thirty Dutch tourists assembling near the Marriot Courtyard hotel; and there were two further groups moving slowly down the sidewalks of Leselidze Street. Maintaining the festive note, the converted London Routemaster bus which is used for open-top Tbilisi tours, emerged, wobbling over the cobbles, in the direction of Freedom Square.

In a splendid aesthetic contrast, a ‘multiplicity of marshrutkas’ were next to come up the street; while early summer sunshine reversed the rather ambiguous portents of the blue and grey sky near St George’s monument, which had all the fateful density of meaning of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

And I was reminded of childhood holidays spent walking the cobbled steets of Hampstead in North London – streets often slippery with lime leaves or offering the delights of fallen chestnuts in autumn. Back in the days when the UK was an emerging economy, and all the people I see around me these days were hidden away behind a monstrous political barrier – the Iron Curtain – which we never imagined that we would see broached...

The events of 1989 were axiomatic of the march of history, but unleashed huge anguish in Georgia and the Caucasus as well what was then Yugoslavia. According to economist Henry Mintzberg, however, they brought about a fatal disequilibrium between the three estates of Government, Business and Civil Society which has proved disastrous in the period since.

While Georgia’s immediate difficulties have been laid at the door of over-zealous protectionist legislation which has stifled business initiative and investment, a far more basic trend has been globalization, which has raised the thresholds at which emerging economies can compete in international markets. In spite of the Lari plunging to a record low of 2.30 to the dollar in the last few days, the economic indicators referred to in the latest edition of Georgia’s homegrown economic weather-vane, the Financial, remain good (new projects in manganese extraction and the first ever recycling scheme in Georgia; and continued good – or improving - definitions in ‘Ease of Doing Business’,  ‘Economic Freedom’ and ‘Global Competitiveness’ in the small print; with Moody’s index rating suggesting a vibrant if risky theatre of economic activity in the next few years ahead).


It is necessary to take the temperature of our times and to do so, what better than this quotation from Johan Huizinga: “De verliefde droeg het teeken van zijn dame, de genooten het embleem van hun broederschap, de partij de kleuren en blazoenen van hun heer.“ (“The lover wore the emblem of his lady, or of his guild membership; and the colours of his party and the coat of arms of his Lord.”)

We must seek also – in such almost imperceptible details - the current indices of change in Georgia: in ever widening circles stating from that ever eloquent radar screen, Rustaveli Avenue…

The key sources for viewing history as a series of epochs in which different aspects of the human psyche may be dominant at different eras is an idea that reaches back to ancient times.

Two writers were deeply influenced by a cyclical view of history. Michael Tippett, writing in 1969, saw the Age of Pisces ‘going over gradually into the month of Aquarius – shall we say, of compassion and the attempted union of opposites...’ And Dr Alan McGlashan was a Scottish Jungian analyst and close friend of both Princess Diana and Prince Charles. He had a Sloane Street practice at which he worked as a psychotherapist until shortly before his death in May, 1997 – at the age of 99.

The idea of historical cycles has its origin in the Classical idea of The Golden Age:

“Men lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief. Miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bore them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.” (Hesiod, ca 700BC)

It is not entirely irrelevant to cite Ancient Greece, as Georgia, then Colchis, was a near neighbour, and the homeland of the Golden Fleece. And this line of thought climaxes in Vergil's Fourth Eclogue, which, although written around 42BC, accurately predicts the coming of Christ:

“Now the last age by Cumae's Sibyl sung

 Has come and gone, and the majestic roll

 Of circling centuries begins anew:

 Astraea returns,

 Returns old Saturn's reign,

 With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.”

Lying behind such ideas is that of the Five Ages of Man: first Gold, then Silver, then Bronze, then the Heroic, then Iron...and finally the Age of Lead, following them all.

These ages are not unlike the political cycles seen as underlying the historical process by the Scottish early 19th century historian Alexander Tytler, to whom is attributed the following phrase, much quoted by management science academics:

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy…”

The text has been doctored in more recent times to read:

“The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years. Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage…”

(cf. Henry Mintzberg: ‘Rebalancing Society’ [2014] can be found HERE)


A final methodological index to bring to bear on the discussion – my aim is to buttress the credibility of my current insight into the ‘Georgian Condition’ – comes from the French historian Fernand Braudel (1902-1985).

He casts a lingering look at the Mediterranean, which for him is not just one sea; but many seas, and the sum total of the many invasions and incursions it has seen. He traces this through several immense volumes and principally in connection with the sixteenth century. This is that great and eternal sea’s true ‘portrait’:

“The first part is devoted to a history whose passage is almost imperceptible, that of man in his relationship to the environment, a history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetition, ever-recurring cycles… On a different level from the first there can be distinguished another history, this time with slow but perceptible rhythms. If the expression had had not been diverted from its full meaning, one could call it social history, the history of groups and groupings. How did these swelling-currents affect Mediterranean life in general – this was the question I asked myself in the second part of the book… Lastly, the third part gives a hearing to traditional history – history, one might say, on the scale not of man, but of individual men… A history of brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations, by definition ultra-sensitive; the least tremor sets all its antennae quivering. But as such it is the most exciting of all, the richest in human interest, and also the most dangerous. We must learn to distrust this history with its still burning passions, as it was felt, described, and lived by contemporaries whose lives were as short and as short-sighted as ours. It has the dimensions of their anger, dreams, or illusions.” (Ferdnand Braudel [1949/1972]: “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II”)

Braudel sees not cycles so much as simultaneous fundamental tempi at which different types of change occur. This would be not dissimilar to a magnificent piece of modern music by Pierre Boulez, Rituel, where there are several conductors, and several independent instrumental groups… You may find it HERE.

It is a great work of art, one of uncompromising integrity (nothing else Boulez wrote comes close!) and it could be describing Rutaveli Avenue, and the dilemmas of Georgia today, just as Virgil does... With its disparate grinding fluctuations, it perfectly encapsulates Braudel’s (contemporary) three speeds of historical change. . .

On all these things I reflected – or most of them – as I made my way down Leselidze Street on Saturday 2 May 2015 at around two o’clock in the afternoon. Take note of that time and place. (And when I returned, the Lari had strengthened by 30 tetris, to back under the 230 mark, at 229.70...) And I felt that a new Golden Age, when the tyranny begun in 1917 is finally vanquished by that resplendent Saint George, might be just a hairsbreadth of historical time away...

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About the author: Cambridge-educated Martin Smith came to Georgia in 2010 with the “Teach and Learn with Georgia” project and currently teaches English at Language Centre, Tbilisi. Martin’s interests extend to literature, chess, and musical composition.

A fuller version of this article can be found HERE.

The views and analysis in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the international School of Economics at TSU (ISET) or ISET Policty Institute.