Democracy Trumped! Plato and the Degenertion of Democracy

Much has been said already about the phenomena which is Donald Trump. How is that he has become so popular despite his vulgarity, crudeness and fascist policies? Most of the establishment is left dumbfounded because they wouldn’t know grassroots populism if it came and punched them in the face. A similar situation is occurring on the democratic side of the American spectrum with Bernie Sanders. Both candidates are tapping into a strong populist streak that rejects establishment politics. The differences between the two are of course the different countries and time periods each candidate is taking their inspiration from. Bernie wishes to take a leaf out the book of countries like Sweden, Denmark and other social democratic states. Trump on the other hand looks to emulate policies of 1930’s Germany. Stark differences between the two, and yet both are so very different from establishment politics (which is essentially conservative as both parties perpetuate the existing socio-economic order), that they can almost be clumped together.

Many would see this election as a degeneration of democracy, and some could be justifiably afraid that democracy is in serious danger if Trump was to be elected. Certainly the language Trump is using when describing how he would implement many of his policies suggests that he would ‘rule’ in an authoritarian manner. Taken with his populism and relatability to a large cross section of the American population, I think some who point to Trump’s similarity to Hitler in the 1930’s are not wholly inaccurate in their analysis. Outside of the American context Trump is a fascist and is essentially running on that ticket. People forget that Hitler was voted to power, and the German parliament voted itself out of existence, it wasn’t some glorious coup d’état, and neither will Trump’s rise to power.

Plato describes such a situation in book 8 of the Republic (543a-569c) when returns to the topic of morality which has supposed to have been the main topic of discussion in the dialogue (543c). As he had done previously, Plato decides to map different types of human constitutions on the four main types of political constitutions as existed in his own times (543c-d). It is important to note that Plato recognises that there are certainly more than four different types of constitutions (544c-e), but that the four he discusses are the essential archetypes of the rest and will serve well for the analogy. It is important to stress that the Republic is not a serious exercise in political theory as so many scholars have interpreted it over the years.[1]  What follows is in an insightful discussion on how the ideal society which Socrates and his interlocutors have just created will decay and degenerate; first, into ‘timarchy’, followed by oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. The entire section is worth reading but for the purpose of this article, the final discussion on how democracy degenerates into tyranny is interesting for contemporary analysis of the Trump phenomenon.

Prior to the discussion on democracy and tyranny, in his account of oligarchy Plato discusses the flaws of an oligarchical system. This is an important aspect to consider. One oligarchy’s main flaws, Plato points out, is that positions of authority are chosen based on wealth and not skill (551c). This is a topic I have discussed before,[2] and is relevant here given the political context of America, where money now has a huge corrupting influence on the politicians while also posing as a severe hindrance to poorer people who seek election for office. We should point out from the get go that Trump exists purely because people admire anyone who is rich, while also despising anyone poor despite their morality (551a).

Moving on Plato describes how tyranny arises out of a democratic state. He states explicitly that he thinks tyranny arises out of democracy (562a). His account for the decay of democracy seems odd to the modern reader, but hinges on the idea that the people become relentless in their pursuit of freedom. Plato uses a metaphor in this section which has particular resonance with a Greco-Roman audience because bees and ants were thought to the most superior of the animal kingdom because they lived in communities resembling human societies.[3] The people refuse to take orders from the authorities, they become indignant at any idea of restraint in their freedom and the laws, both written and unwritten, are unobserved (5563d). Here is where the potential for dictatorship apparently develops.

While everyone is trying to make money, only the most undisciplined become rich. These men become a pot of honey to the buzzing crowds around them, giving them extravagant gifts (564e). The people begin to forcibly take the wealth of the rich who are forced to defend themselves. In doing so they become oligarchs not because they want to, but more because they are perceived as such (565b). The people raze up a champion against the foul oligarchs and give him prodigious power (565d).

This is the situation we find ourselves with in this American election cycle. To be fair, the policies of Senator Sanders, by Plato’s account could also be construed as tyrannical, except for the fact Sanders’ character is such that it seems unlikely that he would transform from the champion to the dictator as Trump would. Trump’s policies and rhetoric go far beyond anything Sanders is asking. Trump is an every-man candidate precisely because he has no one policy position.

The people are able to project their desires onto him as they wish. For example, in debates and interviews, he will express a wish both for and against a single payer healthcare system; for and against military intervention around the world; and both for and against low taxes and free trade. No one knows what his policies really are because he doesn’t really have any. Except for perhaps the “really big wall, which Mexico will pay for.” He captures votes from both side of the aisle. Contrary to mainstream media bubble-think, most Republicans are in favour of Medicare and Medicaid. Many also want universal background checks. A large portion also want to stop foreign interventions. Trump appears on the Republican side just as Plato describes the people raising a champion up to combat the rich. Trump said in a recent interview:

“you know the funny thing, I don’t get along with rich people. I get along with middle and poor people better than I get along with rich people.”

Plato gives us a reason how a figure like Trump is able to emerge. He says that the democratic man who becomes a dictator exists because he was brought up by a father, who only cares about desires, acting without restraint (572e). The son is spoilt b
y the offering of indulgent pleasures. He is person purged of self-restraint and shame (573a). In Plato this is intended as another metaphor. In this case however, it is almost precisely the biography of Trump, who was raised in an environment where he could have whatever he wanted. He now thinks he is “just the best” and worked hard to make the money he inherited from his father. Moreover, the words that come forth from his word-hole show little sign of self-restraint. Plato concludes, perhaps forebodingly:

“people who are insane and mentally disturbed try to dominate…other human beings, and expect to be able to do so…the dictatorial type is the result of someone’s nature or conditioning – or both – making him a drunken, lustful maniac” (573c).

Even as a critic of democracy in many places, Plato gives us much food for thought on the degeneration of democracy and the prospect of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States. Plato’s account makes it seem inevitable that this will happen. We don’t have to accept this to recognise the threat that Trump poses to democracy in America and around the world. Most importantly however, Plato makes it clear that a large factor that creates a dictator is the environment in which he is raised and exposed. For Plato, environment has a profound influence on the constitution of a person. Ultimately this means that we ought to recognise that Trump is not an exceptional phenomena, he is product of our society. If you think Trump is a madman, maybe we should change society for the better. Like Marx, who thought the mechanisms for socialism were built into capitalism (making socialism inevitable), Plato thought the mechanism for dictatorship was built into democracy. This is exactly why founding documents of modern nation-states like the American Constitution have procedures to try and avoid this eventuality. This leaves no guarantee however and we should remain ever vigilant to long term threats on our freedoms.

[1] Robin Waterfield stresses this emphatically in his edition of Plato’s Republic. See: Plato, The Republic. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press.1993. pp. xiv-xviii. esp. xvii.

[2] https://welcomeintothecave.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/expertise-in-the-polis-and-democratic-governance/

[3] This is common trope in Greek and Roman intellectual thought. The relevancy of this metaphor is striking. See: Ober J. (2015). The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton University Press. Particularly Chapters 1-4; Virgil uses the same metaphor in the fourth Georgic and Aeneid. See: Polleichtner von W. (2005). ‘The Bee Simile: How Vergil Emulated Apollonius in His Use of Homeric Poetry’; Winsor Leach E. (1977). ‘”SEDES APIBUS”: FROM THE “GEORGICS” TO THE “AENEID”’, Vergilius No. 23 (1977), pp. 2-16.

Bibliography:

Plato, Republic. translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press. 1993.

Man Signs Compact With the Devil

The man on the left is the devil. The man on the right just sold his soul to him. At a recent security summit between Great Britain and France, Britain pledged €22 million to help the migrant ‘jungle’ situation in the northern French city of Calais. Meanwhile both countries pledged €2 billion to fund a new drone prototype, a joint effort to support greater security and military ties between the two countries.

“This programme … will be based on a multi-role drone platform that could serve as a basis for future operational capacity after 2030…We plan to invest €2 billion in this programme with a technical assessment towards 2020.”

Oh how the mighty have fallen. This latest move by President Hollande goes a long way from his Socialist roots. Indeed, this latest deal makes it look as though Hollande has completely crossed the aisle to opposite side.

Admittedly Hollande has faced enormous pressure in France from all sides. The most recent attacks have come from within his own party. The last socialist minister Christiane Taubira left the government in January after the government passed legislation that would strip French nationals with duel citizenship of their citizenship if they were found to be involved in a terrorist organisation. The French cabinet is a completely different front to the one which Hollande took into office with him five years ago and represents a complete about-turn of this Socialist government’s commitments and strategy.

This reverse course has not stopped Hollande from having the lowest approval rating ever of any French president. Hollande is in doldrums and is probably looking for anything to shore up his support back home in France. Hence this latest deal to give a pittance of care to the poor and starving migrants, while committing to a weapons program that will help create more refugees in the future when it is unleashed on the world.

That is the greatest irony. In the same deal, the two countries have decided on the one hand to give €2 billion towards a program that will kill and displace the very people they are trying to help right now. On the other hand the figure they are giving to help the refugees is just 1/100th of the amount they are fronting for this latest weapon of war.

Together Britain and France spend €80 billion on their military. Both are members of the UN Security Council Members, both have nuclear weapons, and both are member of NATO. Unlike Germany they did do not face restrictions from their national governments to wage war overseas save for the usual political process. This puts them both in an important position of looking after theirs and Europe’s military interests on the international scene.

In saying this however, Francois Hollande is the leader of the Socialist party where violence is disavowed and the inclusion of others is a fundamental principle. If Hollande was the committed Socialist he thinks he is he would have got more than €22 million for the crisis in the north of France. Hollande will return to France thinking this is a victory, the rest of us will see it for what it really is – a deal with devil – and a bad one at that. Moreover, as we all know, a deal with the devil always ends well for devil. The very weapons that France and Britain will make together will be the very weapons that will further foment this refugee crisis and deal more heartache and suffering to the region.

Does Philosophy Still Matter?

This is a popular topic on many people’s lips at the moment. As someone who has studied philosophy and thinks it is one of the most rewarding pursuits one can follow in their life I have a slight bias when answering this question. My answer in short is: when did it ever not matter?

For many out there in the big bad world philosophy does not matter. This is due invariably from ignorance of what philosophy actually is and the general impression that philosophers are a bunch of know-it-all layabouts who add very little to society, if by society we mean the economy and if by the economy we narrowly mean farming and other narrow minded senses of what the economy actually is.

Those in government certainly think that philosophy does not matter. Funding across the board for philosophy departments is declining. On the other hand, investment in the sciences is increasing. By pointing this out I do not mean to imply that funding for sciences should not be increasing. Indeed far from it. If the government in their infinitely limited wisdom does not think philosophy is of any use though, then it is hardly surprising that we are discouraged from pursuing philosophy from within the funding structures of education.

Many people claim that philosophy does not add anything to society. This is best reflected in a recent quote by Marco Rubio, the US presidential candidate, who also recently had a major glitch in his computer programming and repeated the same speech three times in cringeworthily fashion. Marco claimed, to rapturous applause from the audience, that “we need less philosophy majors and more welders”. This idea that philosophy is of limited use is both pervasive and popular to say the least.

But how useful is philosophy really? A short but perhaps unsatisfying answer is, well, very useful. A longer answer is much more difficult to give, but one facet of it comes from pursuing philosophy yourself. It’s like heroin with none of the negative side effects. Don’t knock it till you have tried it. A passage in George Orwell’s ‘1984’ in a way sums up what I really mean. Towards the end of ‘1984’ Winston begins to read ‘The Book’ and as he finishes the first chapter he bothered to turn to he gets the feeling that the book has told him nothing that he already didn’t know but had arranged things in such a way that it all made sense now.

If you ever had this feeling then you will know what I am talking about. Philosophy is the activity that gives you this feeling about the really important questions in life that we all should think about at some point. And no, it isn’t what dress I should wear today, or which sports teams will win this weekend. Philosophy can give us the answers to: why are we here? What is life all about? Is God really real, or is there some doubt? With philosophy, you can try to sort it all out, and in one night, find the meaning of life.

The ancient philosopher Aristotle might answer the question, “what is the meaning of life?” by saying, well, to do what is in our nature, and it is in our nature as humans to think and rationalise and we do this best by doing philosophy.

Therefore, the meaning of life is to philosophise

Is that it though? Does philosophy have any real world application? “Can philosophy build a bridge or a road?” I can hear someone at the back clamouring. Well no, but neither can a lot of other things.

After answering some of the most profoundly personal questions, philosophy also gives us guidance about how we should behave with one another. Questions like, what is moral? And, my personal favourite: How should we organise our society?

Philosophy might not build a bridge, instead it builds society.

Those of us who live in the west are fortunate to live in nominal democracies. Even if we don’t like our governments in power we at least are guaranteed the right to express our dislike of those governmSteven-Joyce-e1454696263804.jpgents by throwing dildos at them or writing in a blog. This is a great freedom not enjoyed by millions of people around the world at present and is even rarer when we look back on the course of human history. We can thank philosophy in large part for this, and many other freedoms.

The extent to which we all want to live in wealthy and successful societies, is the extent to which philosophy matters today. Personally I do want to live in a wealthy and prosperous society so I am going to continue to pursue philosophy. Everyone should participate in philosophy. Martin Luther King had a dream, and so do I, mine is to see every child taught philosophy from a young age in order to create a society, across the board and at every level, that appreciates the process of questioning things.

In the Republic Plato says that only when kings become philosophers, or philosophers become kings will the world’s ills come to an end. Well, he doesn’t say that exactly, but that is the general gist of it anyway. A society where all of us pursue philosophy is one where the philosophers become kings, and we can solve for the first time in human history the world’s problems.

Some Reading:

Goldstein Rebecca (2015), Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, Pantheon Books.

And A Video:

 

Expertise in the Polis and Democratic Governance

Expertise in the Polis and Democratic Governance:

The Decay of Democracy in Modern Democracies.

 

“Democracy is the worst form of government except all those that have been tried before.”

Winston Churchill

 

 

Democracy is not a particularly popular topic on people’s lips in modern society. They look at the rampant election fraud and wholesale purchasing of elections as ‘unattractive’ to say the least. The feeling that one’s vote counts on the outcome is seldom felt anymore – except perhaps if you are a CEO of a large corporation. Indeed, democracy, until very recently in human history, has been the least popular form of government. Most governments of ‘natural states’ prior to the modern period were autocratic or severely restricted. Most of these governments were hereditary in nature, meaning that only the family members inherit the means and power to continue to rule. In Europe and the United States people rebelled against this hereditary system beginning in the 1600’s, and many of the democratic systems that exist today are the reactionary result of this criticism. Of course there have been those that supported the old autocratic system as in the best interests of the population for the sake of security. One can go no further than Hobbes’ Leviathan, which to this day remains a quintessential work of political science. However, political utopias have been dreamt up by theorists for millennia; from Cicero’s Concordia Ordinum to Marx’s communism. All manner of utopias have been argued for and against. One such utopia that is consistently appealed to is Plato’s Republic.

 

In its content, the ideal state, as constructed by Plato in the Republic, seems the most intuitive and praiseworthy. Plato explains how such a state would come about, the principles upon which it would operate, and also why such a state would ultimately fail. At a simple glance, Plato divides society into three parts; the mass of everyday people, the auxiliary guardians, and the rulers themselves, the philosopher kings. The principles which divide society are founded upon a principle of justice which it is Socrates’ aim in the Republic to argue for at large. Plato argues that each man should only do one job. Where one man interferes with another man’s work is where the root of all injustice stems from. Upon this basis society is divided between rulers and ruled. Plato appeals to a very convincing argument when establishing this principle. He points out that if one was to have, say for example, his or her computer fixed, would he or she go to the specialist who knows how to fix it, in this case the computer technician, or would he or she go to an historian, someone who has expert knowledge of some period in the past. Naturally, we would expect any rational person to seek out the expert in this case the computer technician. Plato’s argument for government is therefore built upon the premise that the act of governing is a skill, one that can be learnt. This being the case society should act like the rational man who seeks out a computer technician to repair his computer and entrust the process of governance to group of educated experts. This group, Plato says, are the philosophers.

For Plato then, government should be conducted by experts. It is this principle which makes Plato’s political utopia so persuasive because the processes of government are done most efficiently. When we look back over the course of human history we can clearly see that expertise has long been absent in government. As noted above, most natural autocratic states have been founded on a hereditary basis, a very unlikely mechanism to ensure future good governance. Roman history illustrates this point and its inverse well. The first Roman emperor, Augustus, is perhaps most guilty of this, insisting that his lineage be continued which ultimately resulted in the disastrous reigns of Caligula, and later, Nero. The same mistake was made by Vespasian until finally, the series of ‘good’ emperors began with Nerva, when candidates were chosen on the basis of expertise in the important areas of governance as considered important by the Roman senate at that time. The five good emperors Nerva, Hadrian, Trajan, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius were not related to one another on a hereditary basis. Instead they were chosen by each emperor in turn on the basis of their experience. This saw Rome reach its zenith of territorial, military, and economic power. Fast forward to the modern period, and most positions in government are appointed positions based upon expertise on a similar basis. For any elected government official in charge of an important branch of government, there is a small army of unelected experts behind them offering policy advice and expertise. Plato’s vision is far closer to reality now than it ever was in the past.

Furthermore, with large truly global organisations expertise is even more so than ever before the basis for governance. The United Nations, the European Union, the European Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund are giant institutions which have massive influence on international politics. Of the institutions listed, only the European Union has parliamentary elections and the European Parliament’s power is limited in its role in the European Union. The rest are closed institutions run on the basis of expertise (diplomatic, financial, policy). Thus, in our governance at the domestic and international level, expertise is increasingly the basis for functioning power. Plato’s vision of an entire society run by experts seems more than ever a reality.

As this is the situation, in true Socratic style, we ought to question our assumptions about expertise and its role in governance. Plato wrote the Republic in the fourth century B.C., in Athens, at that time a participatory democracy. Plato is consistently critical of democracy throughout his work, firstly because they killed his friend and mentor Socrates, and secondly because he believed that the system was run by non-experts, and made foolish mistakes such as per the first reason. His utopia expressly denies all political rights to the masses and gives unilateral power to the auxiliaries to maintain order.

Democracies in the modern era look nothing like the Athenian system. Whereas their system was direct, ours is representative. We vote every few years, depending on which country one lives in, for a person or persons to look after our interests in government. This is done, it is argued, because it is more efficient, and it allows those who are experts in government to come into the foreground and make best use of their expertise, while the rest of us can be left to get on with the all the other things we would rather be doing. The people that argue for this appeal first to our inner self-centredness. It is much easier to focus on myself than the concerns of the community around me. Secondly, they fail to tell you that Athens was a highly specialised democracy and was the leading state of its time. Its democracy lasted for 200 years before an outside power dissolved it, but during that time, it was the leading economic power in the Mediterranean. In this way, we are lead to believe through very persuasive arguments to give up our rights to a group of experts in the interests of efficiency without considering any plausible alternatives. The only alternatives presented are autocratic regimes such as communism and dictatorial states. We the people, are never presented with a democratic option in a realistic manner.

Given that there already exists giant international associations with no positions that electable by the normal electorate it is high time that we question the future of expert run governments. The greatest drawback of Plato’s Republic, is that he does not account for the interests of the whole population. Plato assumes that through the process of education the philosopher kings will take into consideration what is best for society overall. This does not necessarily correspond to the interest of the majority. This is incredibly paternalistic and appears to violate the very principle upon which Plato founds his utopia. Surely it is us, the people, who know our own interests best. As it is we don’t like being told what we can and cannot buy, so why do we accept that a group of others will best represent our interests. There are many experts out there that we could in theory give our money to who then buy the goods and services that best serve our interests. There are many people who have bad spending habits, they eat the wrong foods, buy things outside their means, or fail to save for a house and retirement. By the logic under which we freely give up our politic power to a group, we should also give up our rights to choose how and when spend our money. But don’t worry we get to vote on who we give this power to, and that is democracy. This seems absurd, and rightly so yet no one is concerned when it comes to political power.

Furthermore, Plato does not take account for the reality that different groups have access to better or worse education largely based on wealth which naturally determines the educational outcomes for certain groups. Plato’s republic in reality would result in an educational elite dominating power through their access to the best educational institutions. This is already the case in places like the United Kingdom where according to a recent study “Almost a third of new parliamentary candidates with a reasonable chance of winning seats in the general election were privately educated and one in five attended either Oxford or Cambridge universities.”  In France seven of the past ten prime ministers have come from the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, while in the United States there are 44 US Senators with at least one degree from an Ivy League school or other comparable elite institution of higher learning. Statistics such as these demonstrate that the liberal democracies we live in are not entirely representative as they claim to be. A meta-analysis of the role elite institutions have generally in global governance at all levels is important avenue of enquiry required in order to complete this picture of an educational elite dominating political power.

The flipside of the utopian state in the Republic is a democracy similar to which Plato himself lived in. To a committed democrat Plato’s utopia is a dystopia, where the demos is denied any political power. We find ourselves today in a world where a contradiction exists. On the one hand, government has become highly specialised and most positions are appointed on the basis of expertise, with a significant proportion of those elected to representative bodies coming from a select group of elite educational institutions. As we edge closer and closer to a Platonic utopia, we move further towards a democratic dystopia. In addition, given the proliferation of multinational associations with zero direct public accountability serious questions need to be raised about the state of our democracies around the world. On the other hand, the general public are lead to believe that we live in stable liberal democracies where the interests or the people are looked after by their representative in the government. Does democracy really exist anymore? Consider whether government today is more like that of democratic Athens, or Plato’s Republic. Then consider which one you would rather live in.

The problem, as I seem to pose it, is mutually exclusive. This is because, democracy, as envisioned by the Athenians is not based on expertise. If it is, then it is based on an expertise manifested by the collective decisions of the Athenians themselves – in the ecclesia, boule, and dikasteria. Certainly, the Athenians would agree that there is a role for specialised knowledge and expertise in government, as they often used themselves. However, they were always careful to hold these public officials to account. Proponents of the current system, might claim that this is the case already, given that officials cannot break the law, are limited by the laws that govern them, and are accountable to the elected representatives, which by proxy makes them publicly accountable. However, given that the government is the one to make the law, they are also free to draft the rules in their favour, meaning that officials cannot break the law because they are the ones drafting the laws. In addition, since elected officials are in theory accountable to their constituency, they have the perverse incentive to skirt the rules in order to avoid scandal and maintain their hold on power.

My aim in this article has been to use the basic premises of Plato’s Republic to question the state of democracy in the modern period. Governance has become highly specialised. This has led to a dramatic increase in unelected officials into positions of real power. An analysis of this aggregate power in any given system would be an interesting study for a later and more in depth paper. My second aim was to defend democracy from the encroachment of these undemocratic processes and to open a dialogue on the role these unelected officials should have in our democracies. With the Republic in mind, it is important to remember that Plato denies all political power to the majority of the people. We ought to remain always vigilant of such a possibility eventuating moving forward. My final aim was to suggest that there is an alternative for society to look at which comes from Plato’s own time. Athenian democracy was vibrant, long-lived and very successful. The claims that direct democracy is unrealisable in the 21st century do not pass muster any more. Democracy is an issue that should unite people from all across the spectrum whether left or right leaning. Whether you want big government or small government, the health of democracy should always be on the political agenda. Perhaps this writer is an optimist, but the collective power of the majority is far wiser in the long run, than any expert. It is important to remember this when we consider who best understands and can represent our interests, us, or someone else.

Bibliography

  • Carugati F. Ober J. and Weingast B.R, (2015). “Development and Political Theory in Classical Athens”. Polis (Forthcoming).
  • The Economist, (2005). ‘In ENA we trust: The long reach of the class of 1980’. Jul 21st. http://www.economist.com/node/4198541
  • Perraudin F, (2015). ‘Private school and Oxbridge educations over-represented among likely new MPs’ in the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/feb/05/private-school-oxford-cambridge-educations-over-represented-parliamentary-candidates.
  • Ober, J. (1989). Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Princeton University Press.
    • (1996). The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory. Princeton University Press.
    • (1998). Political Dissent in Democratic Athens. Princeton University Press.
    • (2006). ‘Thucydides and the Invention of Political Science’ in Brill’s Companion to Thucydides. (eds) Antonios Rangakos and Antonis Tsakmakis. pp. 135-159. Leiden.
    • (2010). “Wealthy Hellas”, Transactions of the American Philological Association, Volume 140, Number 2, Autumn 2010, pp. 241-286. John Hopkins University Press.
    • (2015). The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton University Press.
  • Plato, The Republic, (1993), translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press.
  • Rhodes, P.J. (2013). “The Organisation of Athenian Public Finance”. Greece and Rome, 2 pp. 203-231. The Classical Association.
  • Weingast B.R. (1995). “The Economic Role of Political Institutions: Market Preserving Federalism and Economic Development”. Journal of Law, Economics and Organization. 11. No. 1, pp. 1-31.
    • (1997). “The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law”. American Political Science Review. 91, pp. 245-263.
    • (2013). “Second Generation Fiscal Federalism: Political Aspects of Decentralization and Economic Development”. World Development. 20, pp. 14-25.
  • Zinn H. (2003) A People’s History of the United States. Harper Perennial.

From Athens to the 21st Century: Blueprint for Real Democracy

Direct participatory democracy in the 21st century is a viable alternative option to the restricted democracy that the majority of western nations live under. The inspiration for such a system can be found in classical Athens between 508 and 322 B.C.E. This article shall not give a detailed description of this system, for such a work would require a monumental work, rather I shall outline the Athenian system to demonstrate the important principles of large numbers who can control an ideological hegemony in the interest of the many. It shall also attempt to dispel some myths about direct participatory democracy.

The efficacy of such a system has been derided for centuries by political theorists as both impossible to implement, and even if so, would cause a general upheaval of society as the poor clamour for gross redistribution of wealth. What these people fail to tell you is that Athens solved these two problems in such a way that the elite retained their wealth but used it such a way that the Athenian economy was one of only a few in the pre-modern era to experience extensive and prolonged economic growth.

There are various reasons for the success of Athens. One of the factors was certainly the direct participatory democracy with its multiple institutions. The ‘constitution’ of Athens was a de facto federalist system. At the base were the 139 demes perhaps best understood as villages. These were the basic political unit are were the centre of political life for the everyday man.
Kleishtenes REFORMS
The demes were in turn organised into trittyes. This process worked to mix the Athenians up so that local political alliances could not be cemented in a bid to gain a stronger foothold in Athenian politics. With the trittyes it was practically impossible for one group, or even a small group to take control of Athenian politics through the manipulation of the voting and representation systems.

The phylai, or tribes, were the largest political groupings. These consisted of 10 trittyes again in such a way as to mix the groups up so that each tribe had to look out for the interests of each subdivision in that group. In 508 when democracy was first instituted, there were 10 tribes, increased from the previous 4 under the old regime.

At the ‘national’ level the participation by all citizens did not cease. The national system consisted of three main parts: the Boule (Council), the Dikasterion (Law Courts), and the Ekklesia (Assembly). The first two of these used a lottery system to allocate its members while the Ekklesia was open to all citizens.

The Boule was the body that oversaw the everyday business of the state. They numbered 500 lotteried officials with attendant slaves and servants available to assist in the business of government. They were in essence the executive branch of the government. All decisions were done by majority votes and every tribe was represented by 50 of its members chosen from the demes according to the proportion of their population. Members served for one year, and were restricted to twice in their lifetime and not within a period of 10 years between each.

The Dikasterion were the law courts where public disputes were settled. Each session consisted of either 201 or 501 jurors. There were no judges or legal experts, only public magistrates available to read out aloud to everyone the relevant laws. Courts met on most days of the year, and jurors received a daily wage much as they do these days when one is called up for jury service.

The most important body in the system was the Ekklesia. It was here that all Athenian citizens could come together and debate political issues. There were no restrictions on who could speak. The floor was open to everyone. Assemblies generally numbered 5000-8000 persons, about 1/5th of the voting population at any one time. For very important legal cases the Assembly would also sit in judgement and like all other decisions resolutions and laws were passed by simple majority.

The Athenian system is not a direct blueprint to a viable system of democracy in the 21st century. However, it provides the inspiration for system where large numbers are directly involved in the system. The numbers were so large in the Athenian system that bribery was virtually impossible. The wholesale purchase of politicians as it is done nowadays through lobbying groups and special interests would have been impossible in Athens.

Now, many political theorists would claim that Athens was not the real democracy that many idealists claim it was. The say that it was democratic in name, and that in reality the elite were the ones to control affairs behind the scenes. More often than not, such claims come from those who have not actually taken the time to consult the necessary literature on the matter. Thankfully, towards the end of the 20th and into the 21st century scholars are moving on from these cynical interpretations of the Athenian political system.

What is clear from the extensive evidence left to us by the Athenians is that the everyday people maintained an ideological hegemony over the elite. This meant that the state on whole served the interests of the majority but net necessarily at the expense of the rich minority. It is true that the rich were compelled to contribute to the costs of society through infrequent direct taxation and the system of liturgies. However, the fear of a grand, sweeping redistribution of land and wealth never happened in the c.200 years that Athenian democracy existed.

Indeed, to the contrary in these 200 or so years Athens went from being a middling power both militarily and economically to the regions’ leading economic power and a leading military power through the use of its swift navy.

In its own time, Athens was unique for its wide base of citizen participation. How the Athenians were able to mobilise themselves despite their large numbers in such a decentralised system is not short of phenomenal. The system enabled the Athenians to become very rich through the exploitation of local mines, and trade networks. Democracy made Athens an attractive destination of foreign traders, and by the late fifth century Athens was the trade hub of the Aegean. To those that claim that democracy is inefficient, I say, you have little evidence to support this claim, given that historically speaking the wealthiest and most successful nations have been democratic.

If we want to live in wealthy nations were the interests of the many in society are looked after it is high time that we start creating political systems that accurately reflect this aspiration. The current system despite what politicians and other supporters say is a system that is easily hijacked by the elite. We entrust a small group of individuals to look after the interests of us and yet those interests are consistently ignored in favour of the interests of the elite.

Moreover, we are convinced to vote for these people through a perverse ideology controlled in a vice-grip by the elite. When persons arise that attempt to offer change in the benefit of the poor majority, they are discredited by the machine of elite propaganda and piecemeal voting that is apparently what democracy is focused toward establishment candidates. We need a system that reflects the everyday man’s interest. They only way to do this is to work for it ourselves. The lesson we can learn from the Athenians is that not only is direct participatory democracy possible, it is actually more efficient and can promote economic growth and flourishing.

In conclusion, as outlined in this article, Athens provides the inspiration for a system of direct participatory democracy. This system should include all citizens in the system with the use of large numbers to counteract the aims of special interests who otherwise corrupt our politicians. The goals of such a system would be recreate a ideological hegemony in the interests of the many. The results will be more efficient for society in the long run, as such a system will promote economic growth and prosperity. Insofar as we all have an interest in society we should all have equal power to affect change and participate in our society.

Bibliography

  • Carugati F. Hadfield G. and Weingast B.R (2015). “Building Legal Order in Ancient Athens. Conference Paper July 2015.
  • Carugati F. Ober J. and Weingast B.R (2015). “Development and Political Theory in Classical Athens”. Polis (Forthcoming).
  • Ober, J. (1989). Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Princeton University Press.
    • (1996). The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory. Princeton University Press.
    • (1998). Political Dissent in Democratic Athens. Princeton University Press.
    • (2006). ‘Thucydides and the Invention of Political Science’ in Brill’s Companion to Thucydides. (eds) Antonios Rangakos and Antonis Tsakmakis. pp. 135-159. Leiden.
    • (2010). “Wealthy Hellas”, Transactions of the American Philological Association, Volume 140, Number 2, Autumn 2010, pp. 241-286. John Hopkins University Press.
    • (2015). The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton University Press.
  • Olson, M. (1965). The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Harvard University Press.
  • Raaflaub K.A. (1995), ‘Kleisthenes, Ephialtes und die Begründung der Demokratie’ in Demokratia: Der Weg der Griechen zur Demokratie, Konrad H. Kinzl. Wege der Forschung. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
    • (1996a). “Equality and Inequality in the Athenian Democracy“, in Demokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern, Josiah Ober and Charles Hendrick. Princeton University Press.
    • (1996b). “Power in the Hands of the People: Foundations of Athenian Democracy,” in Democracy 2500: Questions and Challenges, Ian Morris and Kurt A. Raaflaub Atlanta, American Philological Association.
    • (1996c). “The Thetes and Democracy: Response to J. Ober,” in Morris and Raaflaub.
  • Scheidel W. (2005). “Military Commitments and Political Bargaining in Ancient Greece”. Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics. http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/scheidel/110501.pdf.
  • Weingast B.R. (1995). “The Economic Role of Political Institutions: Market Preserving Federalism and Economic Development”. Journal of Law, Economics and Organization. 11. No. 1, pp. 1-31.
    • (1997). “The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law”. American Political Science Review. 91, pp. 245-263.
    • (2013). “Second Generation Fiscal Federalism: Political Aspects of Decentralization and Economic Development”. World Development. 20, pp. 14-25.

Plato’s Republic and Star Wars

At the heart of the Star Wars Universe is the Force. That mystical energy that “surrounds us, penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.” In Star Wars the Force is most commonly manifested by either the Jedi or the Sith.  The Sith and Jedi are sworn enemies, duelling it out over millennia in an attempt to eradicate one another from the galaxy. This dualism has many parallels with Plato’s Republic in which Socrates attempts to defend morality from immorality. The problem is posed by Adeimantus to Socrates at 367b, “why does one of them, in and of itself, make anyone who possesses it bad, while the other one, in and of itself, make him good?” In other words, without reference to the consequences of either morality or immorality, i.e. the reputation that follows from each, what it is about each that makes it good or bad. This problem reflects in many ways the struggle between the Sith and Jedi in the Star Wars Universe.

The Jedi use the force for good. They have a greater appreciation for the subtitles of the force and what it has to offer. They value wisdom and courage; peace over war. They only fight when it is necessary. They are at peace with themselves, and they seek to bring balance to the universe. Why they do this is not always evident. However, at their core, the Jedi are in many ways akin to Socrates in the Republic. They are defenders of morality for morality’s sake. They believe that by doing good, not for the intendent consequences, but for the act in and of itself is worthwhile. It is what the force is calling them to do. This is what identifies them as a force for good. It also shrouds them is an air of mystery. Meanwhile, due to this air mystery sometimes the actions of the Jedi are frustrating. We don’t connect fully with their ideals. We see that what they aim for is noble and good, but we do not think that their means of doing so are the most efficient. Here is where another parallel exists between Plato and Star Wars. In the Republic, Plato gives a long analogy describing the life of a philosopher as one who ascends from a cave to find the truth and the light, only to descend once again to free his comrades and be ridiculed and even punished. The Jedi are much the same. We do not fully understand their methods and intentions and so they are ridiculed, in the same way that those in the cave are ignorant of what the philosopher has learned outside in the light. What he speaks of seems silly, even crazy. Ultimately, this is what enables the dark side of the Force to manifest itself.

The Sith are the opposite of the Jedi. The see the force as a tool in which to better themselves. They are selfish and self-centred. They think only of themselves. They seek power in the manner of 1984, just for the sake of power. In the Star Wars films they rise to power through cunning and deceit, in the same way that that Thrasymachus and Adeimantus describe the unjust man using deceit and cunning to trick everyone around him into thinking that he is a moral man and deserving of praise and reward. For the audience it is easy for us to identify the Sith as evil but in reality we are more like the Galactic Senate at the end of episode III giving away our freedom to the Emperor. Everyone is at times a little selfish, and we can even be greedy. Moreover, we can identify with Anakin’s struggle. He wants to have the power to save the lives of those he cares about most just as many of would in reality. On closer inspection then, many of us are actually closer to the Sith than we are to the Jedi, even though we can recognise the Jedi as a force for good generally in the galaxy our personal habits and society indicate that we are in fact closer to the opposite.

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of the parallels between the Republic and Star Wars is the inverse in the methods by which Plato would create a just society. His image of the just society looks nothing like that of the Jedi. Instead it is closer to what the Sith aim for. One supreme figure resting a top the rest who is the source of all wisdom and authority within the society. This is exactly what Palpatine accomplishes at the end of episode III. This inversion can tell us much about ourselves. The Sith and the Empire in the Star Wars universe are a reflection of the 20th century’s scariest political movement, fascism. The very fact that fascism was so popular in Europe during the earlier part of the 20th century tells us something scary about ourselves. Point for point, many people would actually prefer to live in a fascist society. The Empire is a gross exaggeration of this, but we can see how Plato’s image of the ideal city would be attractive to many people. At this point is probably necessary to note that Plato did not intend for someone like Hitler to take control of society. His idea was far more benevolent and came from a good place where he thought it was the best for society overall. Fast forward to our own times, and he can see that the same problems still exist. People wish for security from perceived threats in exchange for their rights and freedoms. They see the alternative of Plato’s ideal city as one that they would like to live in without realising that those they are giving up their freedoms to are not the philosopher kings that as Plato described.

We should also consider on the other hand however, that the Republic is not a serious attempt at formulating a political science. Plato’s ideal city is merely a metaphor for identifying justice in the soul of an individual. Socrates is far more concerned with the individual than society at large, although society is still important. In this area, perhaps Plato is correct and is in this respect closer to the Jedi. The Jedi are trained to be masters of themselves just as the Philosopher king in the master of soul. He lets wisdom dictate his actions and suppresses his emotions and baser instincts.

These parallels between Star Wars and Plato’s Republic also suggest how the struggle will ultimately end. By the end of the Republic after the long exposition of justice by Socrates, it is left unclear and ambiguous. Socrates has certainly made a good effort at defending morality from immorality but in doing so he has had to use myth and analogy to defend his position. A reader might be left thinking that indeed, yes, Socrates has successfully defended morality from the attacks of Thrasymachus. The situation is like that at the end of the sixth film where the audience is left wondering what will the fate be of the Jedi order now that the Sith are destroyed and Luke is left as the only surviving Jedi. We have seen the redemption of Vader and the death of the Emperor, the people are rejoicing as if final victory has been achieved. Nevertheless, that feeling lingers in the back of one’s mind as to whether the galaxy is truly rid of this struggle. On closer inspection of Plato’s Republic one might also be left wondering if Socrates has really defended morality in the terms set out to him at 376b. In the course of the long dialogue, Socrates has made many cogent arguments, and the reader is drawn further and further into Plato’s way of thinking. But like many of Plato’s other dialogues it ends in aporia, and we are left to ponder for ourselves as an exercise whether Socrates has really defended morality.

What are the conclusion from all this. The first is that everyone should go out right now and purchase a copy of the Republic for themselves to read. It is probably the most important book ever written and is an almost endless stream of insight upon every reading. The second and more important one is this. We don’t need to be either like the Sith or the Jedi. We should accept that there are parts of our human nature which can be a force for evil. On the other hand we shouldn’t punish ourselves as the Jedi seem to do in Star Wars. We could try however to be more like them in conquering the fears and anxieties that can lead us toward wrongdoing. Like Plato we should try to allow wisdom to guide our actions, recognise good actions in and of themselves as meaningful and worthwhile. In essence we could imagine an ending to episode VI in which neither the Jedi nor the Sith win, but instead humanity.