The Seperation of Powers

Inherent within our liberal democracies, the separation of powers doctrine is designed to ensure that no one branch of government can come to dominate the others. In simple terms, the executive cannot interpret law, the legislator cannot not enforce it, and the judiciary cannot (shouldn’t) create it. Reminding ourselves of this important doctrine could act as the basis for improving our democracies and re=empowring citizens.

This principle, widely recognised in the modern period, serves as a foundation for our political systems even today. The likes of Montesquieu, John Locke, and Rousseau pioneered the modern approach but the idea that the power of the government goes as far back as the Greeks. Herodotus, for example, noted distinctions between institutions as much as between factions within the Greek City-States,  and in the famous Constitutional Debate three Persian nobles debate the merits of government and the extent of its power. Inherent within Herodotus’ ideological scope is also the idea that political power should be limited.

Among ancient writers Polybius perhaps stands out from the rest. He famously argues that what made the Romans superior to the Greeks was their ability to harness Monarchy, Oligarchy and Democracy within one system. This was the Republic, or Res Publica to the Romans. By doing so the Romans were able to harness the benefits that each of these systems created whilst simultaneously mitigating the negative aspects of each system. Scholars to this day doubt that the system Polybius describes  ever existed and functioned as he would have us believe, but the staying power of this idea

had profound effect on later thinkers and leaders who founded our modern democracies. The Founding Fathers of the United States were particularly influenced and aimed to balance the powers of each branch of the government against one another and with the powers of the states. Indeed, among the Founding Fathers there was a fierce debate as to the balance of these powers and interests.

Some, like Thomas Jefferson fought tooth and nail to ensure that the Federal Government was not too strong, and advocated that Congress be the most important institution of the Republic. Others, like Alexander Hamilton, wanted a more centralized state lead by a strong executive represented by the President. Of course, over the centuries the balance of these powers has waxed and waned depending on the circumstance. This is true of the United States, and it is true elsewhere.

Important to understand within this concept of the separation of powers is the idea, or perhaps the recognition that power tends to accumulate and consolidate towards a single institution. This simple tenet led some political theorists in the early 20th century to turn towards fascism as the natural conclusion.

Robert Michels argued that within democratic structures there always exists an ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’ progressively moving the democratic structures towards an oligarchical one that serves the interests of the few.

Karl Schmidt also thought that democracy created the conditions for fascism because each constitutional crisis lead to a consolidation of more powers within a single institution in order to resolve that crisis. This idea remains prevalent still today among those who believe that governments are concentrating too much power and leaving citizens feeling alienated from the political process, in turn feeding radical reactions on both sides of the political spectrum.

The separation of powers is the cornerstone of our modern liberal democracies. As our economies and societies become increasingly complex governments are struggling to maintain pace. This is turn places strains on the political system forcing governments to operate more efficiently. Unfortunately for citizens, this can mean a reduction in liberties and freedoms for the sake of efficiency. The consolidation of powers by an institution, or a group of institutions is often justified on this basis.

The democratic deficits that modern democracies are facing will not be solved by political powers who seek to “reform” institutions and make government processes more bureaucratic and obscurer for citizens.

Going back to the fundamentals of our democracies should act as the roadmap for governments and citizens alike. Personal freedom and legitimate means for citizens to control their lives outside of mere economic choices will lessen the democratic deficit and lead to less extremism on both sides of the political spectrum.

The State of Democracy

In New Zealand we live in a supposed democracy. But what does this actually mean? Can the average person on the street honestly give a decent definition of democracy? I doubt they could, since people have a very limited knowledge of the political process and the context in which it has developed. Often, the slogan “by the people, for the people, of the people” is thrown about, but this is just a slogan, it has no real substance, it does not offer a detailed definition of this institution that we supposedly take seriously in our country.

In the present times, a period of mass media, fast-paced change and global interconnectedness where ideas are quickly exchanged, I think the real message behind democracy is lost on most people. Indeed, for many people, although you might say a small minority, democracy is out of favour for a plethora of reasons. Many believe that the politicians do not adequately represent us, while some believe that the process is cumbersome, slow, and hinders progress.

On one side we often have, in the vein of Russell Brand, those who look for a utopian egalitarian state. On the other side there are those who wish we could do away with democracy and hand power to those who provide the most for society, the business owners. Both sides of the argument have some important criticisms to make, and yet both sides detest each other, while simultaneously both wishing for the same the thing, getting rid of the current system. My own view on this is that the system is dysfunctional but those of the past can offer us some hope and a model by which we can move forward.

The disillusionment in democracy is unsurprising when society feels disconnected from the political process and each other. Those in power know this and benefit from our inaction all the while presenting a façade of concern that voter turnout is low. Sorry, to burst these people’s bubble, but voter turnout is not democracy. The Athenian democracy, which by all accounts is the first democracy, at least in the western tradition did not believe in electing people to make decisions. This, from the people who invented the very word democracy (demos = people, kratos = power).

The concept of voting to the Athenians was, in fact, undemocratic and in was used only for the election of generals out of necessity. The rest of the political system was direct whereby the people voted on issues themselves. Other aspects of the system were controlled by a glorified lottery system. Most importantly, the political ideology was controlled by the people. This means that issues affecting people were brought before the rest of the population to discuss and resolve. The system we live under is a far cry from what the Athenians had. Political ideology is controlled by those in power. We can see this when politicians offer change piecemeal, discuss issues that only they wish to discuss, pass laws to protect themselves in power and all the while blaming us, the people, those who put these people in power, for low voter turnout.

One of the greatest aspects of the Athenian system was its inner contradictions. On the one hand decisions had to be discussed by the population, while at the same time political consensus was essential for the state to function. The rich and powerful were subservient to the masses, and yet were the leaders of the state. The Athenian system gives us something to think about. While the people controlled what was discussed and the issues brought forward it was those most capable of leading who lead the state. The Athenians faced issues similar to our own such as: how should we redistribute wealth? How do we involve more people in the political process? How can we make the system more efficient and fair? More importantly, they asked and answered I think very capably, how do we stop a small minority of the population having too much power in the state.

Some argue that direct democracy is unrealistic because nothing would be accomplished if everybody had a say on every issue. This does not seem the case in Athens where the demos decided on all issues including foreign policy and even conducting war. This was in society that was not face-to-face as some people think, and perhaps even less so than our own, given that nowadays we can communicate quickly via the internet. We also ought not to forget that under the democracy Athens lived through one of the most important golden ages in history of unprecedented wealth. They built the Parthenon, and developed many of the things we take for granted in the 21st century.

We owe a great deal of gratitude to the Athenians. Despite their many flaws, they are more like us than we give them credit. The most important gifts to us are the ideas of political equality before the law and freedom of speech. The positive right for every citizen to have their say on any issue he pleased not just those offered to us by politicians. One’s advice might be ignored. Nevertheless, the citizen was included directly in the process. These important aspects supposedly underpin our democracy, yet while we each have the right to freedom of speech, this freedom has no real power anymore. Things in New Zealand might not be as bad as they are overseas, but this does not make it right to just neglect our principles are dabble in hypocrisy. If we supposedly care about democracy we ought to take notice. Before long it could be gone.

If You are Dying You Should be Looking for Work

New Zealanders think their country is a land of milk and honey. While this might be true if you live on a dairy farm which also keeps bees, nothing could be farther from the truth. There are systemic problems in New Zealand society that have flow on effects. These problems should make us question our morals and ethics as a nation, and yet, they don’t.

Many of us Kiwis are raised to be ambitious and wanting the most out of life. This is certainly a cause for praise. However, a culture of stupidity pervades society and is best represented in the sounds that some might call words spilling forth from politicians’ word holes. This rhetoric is meant to appeal to ‘middle’ New Zealand, and it does, very much so. Indeed, ‘middle’ New Zealand dominates the political landscape, but is, unfortunately, populated by stupid uneducated people. Labour and the Greens have lost ground in the last ten years to National precisely because National speaks a unique dialect of stupid which middle New Zealand laps up.

If one was to ask an average New Zealander what the ‘social contract’ is they might probably think it had something to do with dole bludging and welfare. Successive governments have violated the New Zealand social contract systematically. When people don’t learn, or understand, what the social contract is, they are ignorant of the fact governments have power because we cede power to them in exchange for certain things.

One of those things is to be looked after and cared for when we are sick. You pay taxes so that others might have proper healthcare, and also so that, in the event you become sick, there is a wellspring of support for you and your family. Not so if you might literally be dying in New Zealand. No the government in response to Middle New Zealand’s desire to stop them dole bludging loser from stealing their tax dollars, have set up a benefits system whereby you can be literally dying and they will ask you to still look for work.

We have come to the point in New Zealand where ethics no longer factor into any social equation. Recently, the government changed the benefit system, requiring all those previously on the sickness benefit to now prove they are sick and also continue to search for work. If you are going to demand people who are quite literally on their death bed to work, we might as well just get rid of the pension scheme and make everyone work till they die.

Minister Anne Tolley’s response to issues raised by the Cancer Society illustrates that the New Zealand government is run by a well-oiled machine of chipmunks. Social Development Minister Anne Tolley has defended the system of making cancer patients prove their illness and asking them to look for work, saying the government had to draw a line somewhere, and giving special consideration to cancer patients would undermine the simplicity of the benefits scheme. Things in New Zealand need to be simplified so the humble idea of helping another person when they are down might be palatable to people.

This is just a taste of the dark side of New Zealand. At moments like these some people call for the masses to “wake up!” I won’t give that advice today. No, today I am asking New Zealand to go read a book or two so they can understand that we can’t just let stupid people control the political discourse. We can let a bureaucracy of chipmunks led by the supreme leader John Chipmunk destroy what little conscience New Zealand has left.

At the end of the day, we give up power to the government in exchange for certain rights and guarantees. It’s time we actually demanded these things from government. Let’s start by telling dying people, “Actually no, you don’t have to work right now, just focus on getting better.”

NZ Fun Police Strike Again

The political establishment from all sides have rallied this week against freedom of speech and expression. Wicked Campervans, a holiday van hire company, graffiti their vans with ‘offensive’ art and slogans for marketing purposes to distinguish themselves from the other players in the field. Admittedly the slogans are sexist, crass, and might even say, rude. In other news apparently government ministers from both sides of the aisle received memos from the North Korean regime instructing them on how to crush differing opinions that do not fit within the narrow band of white middle-class discourse.

New Zealanders think they are supporters of freedom, a centre pillar of which is the freedom to say and express whatever they will. It’s a shame though that New Zealanders wouldn’t recognise a political principle if it were a grain of sand on a beach. “Freedom of speech, but only in certain circumstances, and only for me”. Those that defend the company’s right to have these slogans on their vans generally say that it’s funny and people need to get a sense of humour. While this might be true, all one needs to do is point to the principle of freedom of speech. Voltaire has been misquoted as saying that, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” This doesn’t just apply to political rhetoric. All speech is protected, even the most heinous and odious.

People who disagree with the company’s rhetoric say they should be censored, and forced to change their vans because it offends them. One woman worried about the kids! Always the kids! Their precious little minds if exposed to such words might shatter into a thousand tiny pieces. Guess what fucktards your shitty arguments offend me, and my mind might explode in second if you don’t shut up. Does that mean I should censor you? No. Of course not, because that would be ridiculous. I’m being hyperbolic to get my point across. Since people disagree on what is and isn’t offensive in different times and places, the principle of freedom to express whatever one wishes, has the added bonus that we don’t have to decide. Everything is on the table, we all free to say what we will, and no one has the right to censor any other.

But how then do we stop an anarchic state of mud-slinging from developing in public discourse. Through reason. Liberal ideas that most of us all agree with in the 21st century have come about because they have been argued for with stronger reasoned arguments, not because we forcibly shut our opponents’ mouths. If you think sexism is wrong, have some reasons for that, not just because you were told to think that way. Censoring people like Wicked Campers does nothing to educate the young people of the difference between acceptable and unacceptable public discourse. If parents are worried that their children will be exposed to such content, they should do their jobs as parents and teach their children to think for themselves critically and to recognise of their own fruition that sexist comments are wrong.

The involvement of the government in all of this demonstrates firstly that they don’t give a crap about freedom of speech, and second, they will swing on the pendulum of public opinion in order to appear as though they are expressing the will of the majority. Some things are off the table for discussion for a reason; to stop dipshit governments from attacking fundamental rights. The worst part of the government’s role in this however is the crackdown on fun they are so hell-bent on pursuing. The vans’ slogans are intended as jokes, and are meant to be a bit of fun. As soon as anyone has fun outside the narrow band of middle white New Zealand the sky falls in and people go into a nervous meltdown worse than any Fukushima or Chernobyl.

New Zealanders like the person who wrote this article (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11608638) need to grow up, and maybe read a book or two on political rights. There are more important things happening in the world than some words on the backs of some vans. Instead of writing easy fluff pieces about how the nation is outraged at some “not very nice looking vans”, how’s about they do their job and critique the government.

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.

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.