Voyage 2+. On DEMOCRACY
THERE ARE REFERENCES in our previous Voyage 2 to “several historical oxymora” in antiquity, especially about “the differences between the Aegean and the Orient in their political structures: the decentralized Greek city-states”, on one hand, and the Oriental “centralized empires”, on the other. What I had in mind was to explain these differences due to different objective conditions prevailing in the Orient vis-à-vis the Aegean – above all to speak about the birth of democracy, pure and direct, in contrast to today’s so-called “representative democracy”. Here’s to you, my fellow voyagers: especially now, because of the crisis, it’s good to make some comparisons and have some reflections
LIFE IN ANCIENT HELLAS, as a rule, was not a “test for some happy afterlife” – an idea that the common people of the “Asiatic mode of production” should necessarily entertain. The Greeks were inspired and shaped by Hellenic Nature. They philosophized and discussed public issues under her beneficial influence. She “dictated” to them the forms of their state and political organizations – regardless if they both fomented discord. Their model was the city-state polis, democracy was their ideal, and freedom the highest good – regardless if they lived in a slave and “male” society. It seems contradictory… Moreover, their democracy was pure, direct; today’s “democracy” is the so-called “representative” where power is not exercised by the people anymore but by their so-called “representatives”, contrary to the very definition of democracy.(a) More and more oxymora and paradoxa… Let’s try to make them clear:
Under a so-called “representative” system of the so-called “democracy”, the people who supposedly rule are in reality powerless, unable to rule out the dire consequences of a crisis like the one we are experiencing now. In ancient Athens, on the contrary, as in any other democratic Greek city-state, such a crisis would be unthinkable: the Ecclesia would have never accepted what the creditors dictated. The decision would not be taken by some prime minister, or government, or parliament, or court, or even banker, but by the people themselves.
This crisis would be unthinkable in ancient Athens:
the Ecclesia would have never accepted what the creditors dictated.
There were officials, of course, but for limited periods of time, alternating and revocable at any moment. Their powers were precisely defined and their capacity for initiative limited. They administered rather than governed. They did not decide “for the people” but simply acted on decisions already taken by the people’s Ecclesia. Before taking over and after leaving office, the citizens were subject to scrutinies, reviewing their abilities beforehand (δοκιμασία = trial), and their performance afterwards (ευθύναι = responsibilities). There were also no judges, just jurors, numbering hundreds, even thousands in the most serious cases. The Ecclesia-Assembly, with a quorum of 6000, and the people’s courts were the pillars of democracy. The 400-member Boule’s work was mostly bureaucratic overseeing and coordinating the state’s institutions, while some older ones, like the Archons and Areopagus, were gradually stripped of real powers.
This democracy was participatory: Athenians selected for office served collectively. The selection was done mostly by lot, not election, because the latter usually favoured (and still favours) the rich, noble, educated, eloquent and famous. Each citizen could serve (in the real sense of the word) only once, in some cases twice, in such offices. Allotment was regarded as the most democratic means to prevent the corrupt purchase of votes and give citizens a unique form of political equality. In this way more and more citizens were engaged in politics, “ruling and being ruled in turn”, as Aristotle wrote. It is not a surprise that what’s been left from ancient democracy in today’s political system is the least democratic procedure: election – which has become almost a synonym for “democracy”…
What’s been left from ancient democracy in today’s political system is the least democratic procedure: election…
Elected rather than chosen by lot (therefore coming from the higher classes) were the ten generals, the strategoi, due to their necessary expertise in matters of politics and war, and also those who were obliged to handle large sums of money: any money embezzled could be recovered from their estates. Elected officials too were subject to review before holding office and scrutiny after that. And they too could be removed from office at any time. Politicians held to be acting against the interests of the people, e.g. in cases of abuse of power or embezzlement, faced penalties that could be very severe, such as death, huge unplayable fines, confiscation of property, permanent exile and loss of citizens’ rights through atimia.
A good example of the contempt the first democrats felt for those who did not participate in politics can be found in the modern word “idiot”, from the ancient Greek ἰδιώτης, meaning a private person, a person who is not actively participating in politics. Pericles, according to Thucydides, declared: “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”
“We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.” (Pericles)
The intelligentsia of the time was mostly aristocratic. Therefore, among the ancient Greek critics of democracy we can find the philosophers Plato (his teacher Socrates has been the most famous victim of democracy), and Aristotle; the dramatists Aeschylus and Aristophanes; the historians Thucydides, Xenophon, and also Polybius, who thought that every democracy eventually decays into “a government of violence and the strong hand,” leading to “tumultuous assemblies, massacres, banishments.” (So, why bother? Is that what he means?)
All the above “forgot” that the victory against the Persians, the birth of drama and, of course, the great acme of Hellenic civilization, would have been unthinkable without democracy. However, despite all precautions, we now know there was no check on the dangers of demagogy – and that was democracy’s Achilles’ heel. Two notorious Athenian demagogues (from δῆμος and the verb ἄγω = carry/manipulate, thus “people’s manipulators”) during the Peloponnesian War were Cleon and Alcibiades. But again, we mostly know about them through the Histories of the above mentioned writers.
The victory against the Persians and the birth of drama, even the great acme of Hellenic civilization, would have been unthinkable without democracy.
After the demise of Athenian democracy, few looked upon it as a good form of government. This was because no one was interested enough to counter the negative accounts of the ancient writers. The classical example that inspired the revolutionaries and radicals in Europe and America was Rome rather than Hellas – although Res publica Romana was no democracy. Thus, the Founding Fathers of the USA in 1787 did not set up an Ecclesia but a Senate that eventually met on the Capitol… But the times changed and Athenian democracy was gradually appreciated for the high level of cultivation that her citizens enjoyed. Since the middle of the 20th century, every country has claimed to be a “democracy”, regardless of the actual makeup of its government.
Nevertheless, there are still now many “sensitive souls” who lament on the “impurity” of Athenian democracy because it excluded women, slaves and foreigners, and led to “imperialist” policy – as if patriarchy, slavery, racism and imperialism were all born out of democracy! Patriarchy is still going strong; the same applies to racism and imperialism. Slavery was abolished quite “recently”, though I’m afraid it’s also going strong under disguise… As for universal suffrage, Finland was the first nation in the world to give all adult citizens (men and women) the right to vote and run for office in 1906. Women in Greece voted for the first time in 1951. Mind you that the First French Republic after the French Revolution (1789) was the first nation that adopted universal male suffrage in 1792 – excluding women.
Apropos, have our “sensitive souls” ever heard of the great Haitian Revolution (1791), the only successful slave insurrection in history? It broke out two years after the equally great French Revolution with exactly the same slogans: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”; but the Haitian aspirations for Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood were denied by the great French revolutionaries on the basis of their… armed forces – using even mercenaries (e.g. Poles): these privileges were reserved exclusively for the “noble, white Frenchmen”, not for negro Haitian helots!