Archives for posts with tag: Ancient Athens

Democracy works. Authoritarianism works too.

Athens, the Ancient version, had become the dominant power of the Ancient Greece as a democracy. Only the Parthenon was build under Pericle’s rule. And Pericle was, for all intents and purposes, a dictator.
Rome, the Ancient version, had build a huge empire. As a democracy. Then enlarged it some more. As a growingly authoritarian and eventually discretionary regime.

England had started as the most democratic kingdom in Europe. Building upon the democratic traditions developed by the Vikings, the barons had forced King John to sign Magna Charta Libertatum. Way back in 1215.
Meanwhile, France – England’s neighbor and long time competitor, had become the dominant power in Medieval Europe. As an increasingly absolutist monarchy.

At some point, the people living in the future United States of America had decided that they had enough. That they wanted to enjoy the same privilege as their British counterparts. “No taxation without representation”.  George III would have no such a thing so the US had been established as the first democratic modern state. And the most successful to date. By almost every measure.
Following on America’s foot steps, the French had their Revolution. After a very short – and very tumultuous, democratic stint, they had reverted to authoritarianism. And conquered almost all Europe, under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte the First. Only to be eventually defeated by a coalition led by the more democratic British empire.

On the other side of Eur-Asia, things had been more linear.

The Russian Empire was developed in fits and starts. When the dictating ruler knew what he was doing – Peter the Great, for instance, things went forward. When not…
India had been, for all but the last 70 years or so, a melting pot of feuding dictatorships. Yet had developed a fascinating culture and much of what we currently call science and technology. The numbers our computers crunch had been invented there. And the steel we use to build our cars
The Chinese Middle Kingdom had once been the most civilized country on Earth. Then had crumbled under the assault of the marauding already democratic Europeans… only to revive, like the famous Phoenix… and all these while remaining submissive to a succession of authoritarian regimes.
Japan is a story by herself. Never fully authoritarian and yet still ‘imperative’ in many ways even today, she had somehow managed to put up a relatively good show. But for the period when she had succumbed to the ‘charms’ of hard core dictatorship, of course.

Coming back to Europe, I have to note that in the last century the inevitable tension between democracy and authoritarianism has produced immense tragedy.
WWI was the consequence of the inflexibility inherent to the authoritarian regimes. The leaders of the Keiserlich und Koniglich Habsburgic Empire, the Deutches Reich and the Russian Empire were not able to solve their disputes otherwise than dragging the whole continent into a huge mess.
Which, unsolved, had given birth to a second, and more horrible, one.
To complicate things even more, the battle was not fraught between the democratic regimes and the authoritarians.


The relatively flat layout of most parliamentary chambers has induced in us the idea that society is linear. From left to right and backwards.
Also, the current almost ubiquitous existence of parliaments drove us to forget that until recently – historically speaking, of course, most societies have been punctiform. The sovereign king was the only one able/entitled to make any significant decision…

Meanwhile we are told by the political scientists that long term political stability can be achieved only through ‘checks and balances’. Meaning that the state has to be organized in such a way that nobody can get amass too much power.
Actually most modern states have an executive, a legislative body and a judiciary. Each of them performing their specific tasks while keeping a jealous eye on the other two.

The problem with long term political stability being that it is a very abstract goal while most people just want to be happy. And are willing to go at considerable lengths in order to achieve their goals….

And it’s exactly here where ideologues start to argue among themselves

Some say that the individual is sacrosanct. That individual freedom is the most important value that is and the most fundamental ‘human right’.
Others say that society is more important than any individual. That all individuals should put themselves at the service of the society and that individual liberty pales when confronted with social necessity.
And a third category consider that democracy is a waste of time and of opportunity. That the best for any society is that a capable person/group of persons to be given absolute power over it. The rationale being that ‘the capable’ will take good care of their ‘property’. A far better kind of care than any group of bickering politicians would ever be able to offer….

On the practical side, those preoccupied with ‘freedom’ consider that the main duty of the state is to preserve/protect individual liberty. That people, once free, will know how to achieve their personal happiness.
The socially minded consider that individual happiness cannot exist before/outside the well being of the entire society. Hence the ‘rational citizen’ has to postpone (read forget) any personal goals and sublimate their own persona into the society.
‘The more capable than the rest’ consider that the ‘incapable’ cannot be trusted with defining their own goals and have to be told what to do. For their own good!

It is very easy to observe that none of the three ‘ideal types’ described above doesn’t work on its own. That each have been experimented and found to be ‘unpractical’, to say the least.

Individual absolute freedom exists. The Saan living in the Kalahari desert and the  Baka in the Cameroon don’t have any formal rules, no social hierarchy and are absolutely free to do as they please. Both have been easily overcome, their habitat is being encroached/destroyed by their ‘neighbors’ and have been able to survive only by going further and further away from anything.
Socially minded people have, time and time again, congregated. Only to witness their communities dissolve or develop malignantly. From the early christian settlements to the XiX-th century phalansters.
The ‘know better’ is, apparently at least, the most successful arrangement. All kingdoms and empires have been organized according to this principle.
And all of them eventually failed. Even Plato’s idea of ‘king priests’ has led to Alexander the Great’s ultimately disastrous campaign into the Middle East. Not to mention the fact that the erstwhile mighty Athens had fallen into anonymity just after starting to be governed by specially trained rulers.

Since the pure ideal types didn’t work, let’s see what we get if we combine them.

Since I’ve been experimenting it for the first 30 years of my life, I’ll start with the result of crossing ‘social minded’ with ‘know better’. Does ‘communism’ ring any bells with you?
Let’s cross ‘liberty’ with ‘know better’. Actually this has already been done. It was about liberty for those who knew better… Nazism, and its newer variants, are the first examples which come to mind.
And the most interesting result comes from crossing freedom with social minded. This has also been experimented. In the democratic Ancient Athens and in during the truly Republican phase of the Roman Empire. The same combination was used by the vikings and somehow perpetuated to this day. Its offshoots being the western style democracy.

Which democracy – just like the Roman Empire, will survive for only as long as it will conserve both individual freedom and social mindedness while allowing, but only when needed, the ‘know better’ to take over for the short periods of time when their presence at the helm is absolutely necessary.

The oldest surviving civilized nation, China, calls itself Zhongguo.
The Middle Kingdom. ‘In the middle’ of the barbaric people that surrounded her but also at middle distance between Heaven and the rest of the Earth. The aforementioned barbarians.

And, according to Confucius, it was the emperor’s job to ‘keep things as they should remain’.

Which makes sense. After all, the whole kingdom was the exclusive property of the emperor. And whose job is to watch over one’s property?

Well, things went on long enough for those involved to believe this was the natural order of things.
Until the whole arrangement was upset by a small number of people which had come, more or less ‘under their own steam’, from the other side of the world. And who were, at that time, a lot less civilized than the Chinese.

How can be explained something like this?
OK, the Aztec and the Inca empires might have been primitive relative to the Spanish invaders. They might have prevailed over the small number of invaders by brute force but they had been overcome by the sheer novelty and the apparent sophistication of the assailants.
But China had been in contact for centuries with the rest of the ‘civilized’ world! And way advanced than the rest. Both culturally and economically.

So, what had happened?
How can something like this be explained?

We might try to take the ‘historical route’. And observe that, exactly as Confucius and Laozi had told us, China’s destiny had been tightly linked to the ability of those in charge – the emperors, to manage the empire. From the paleolithic migrations until the Mongol invasion in 1271, nothing from outside had any significant impact over the Chinese hinterland. But the fortunes of those living in that hinterland had oscillated from the misery induced by almost constant ‘live conflict’ during the Warring States period to the various prosperous eras. The Han, Tang and Song dynasties, to mention just a few of them.
The same principle had been valid also for what went on while foreign dynasties had been in power. As long as the ‘managers’ were doing their jobs, things continued to improve. As soon as the helm was grabbed by an incompetent leader… all hell broke loose.

But is the emperors’ incompetence enough to explain what had happened during the XIX-th century? The most advanced, and numerous, nation on Earth had been subjugated – for all practical purposes, by a bunch of drug pushers pretending to act in the name of the far away, and far weaker, British King?

Or we can take the sociological route.
Along which we’ll notice that the ‘drug pushers’ were only nominally subjects of the British Empire. Which empire was behaving imperially only towards the exterior while inside it was already a democracy!

Sounds familiar?

Ancient Athens, the first known democracy, had dominated the Eastern Mediterranean for as long as it had retained its democratic character and had failed, abysmally, each time it had reverted to tyranny?
Ancient Rome had established a huge empire as a democratic republic and collapsed four short centuries after becoming a totalitarian empire?
And so on…?

And what might be the difference between a totalitarian empire and a democratic one?
On the face of it, a democratic empire sounds like an oxymoron… yet there’s plenty of such examples in our history…

As you might guess from the title of this post, the ‘famous’ middle class was both the engine and the explanation for the ease with which the ‘democratic’ empires had been established. And yes, the Spanish and Portuguese ones can be explained in the same manner. At that time none of the Iberian monarchies was yet behaving in the absolutist manner they had pursued as soon as the looted precious metals had started to pour in…

But what makes the middle class so special?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb would tell you that the middle class has enough skin left in the game to really care about the outcome and I’m going to add that the middle class is simultaneously distanced enough from the fray to act in a reasonable enough manner.

Let me put back, for a short while, my historian’s cap.

Most of us consider that the middle class is a late appearance. That most of the time, humankind had been divided in two. The haves and the have-nots. The powerful and the meek.
Well, I’m not so sure about that…
For the first 60 000 years after we had learned to speak – which had made us really human, we had been living in small packs. Led by the more powerful male member of the group – if we consider that our ancestors used to behave like our Chimpanzee cousins, or ‘self managed’ in a more or less democratic manner if our ancestors had used the model followed by our other cousins, the Bonobos.
Or we could look at how the surviving ‘primitives’ lead their lives. None of the Hadzabe, Yanomami or Inuit, who have survived in the most difficult conditions on Earth, have a hierarchical social structure.
Primitives?!? Maybe… but not because of their social arrangements. After all, they are freer than most of us.
And what is it that we, proudly modern people, value more than our individual freedom?

Money? I’m going to let this rest… for a while.

Let’s go back to our ancestors.
Who, by all indications, had been living as ‘extended middle class societies’. Without any 0.1% and without people who went to bed hungry while the rest of the gang had been gorging themselves.
Let’s remember now that during those times we had actually transformed ourselves from apes to humans. And if you consider this to be a small feat, just try to teach a bonobo to speak. Then remember how many people who had been born in poor and backward countries are now successful business people or scientists. After passing through a thorough educational process, true! Only that educational process is in no way accessible to any bonobo…
Don’t disparage the long evolution we had graduated from, as a species, while living in ‘extended middle class societies’.

‘But you haven’t explained what you mean by middle class! Most of us see the middle class as those people who make a certain amount of money each year and you keep speaking about primitive people… who have absolutely no use for any money…!’

For good or for bad, our present society consist of three categories of people.
The haves, the in-between and the dirt poor.

I’m not going to assign numerical values to any of these.
Taleb’s Skin in the Game criterion is far more useful in this situation.

The haves qualify only after they have no skin left in the game. In the sense that they have so much ‘money’ that come hell and/or high water they feel safe. What they make of this world is heavily influenced by the thick ‘insulation’ which separates them from the rest of the world.
The dirt poor – or the lumpen proletariat, in Marx’s terms, have all their skin in the game. In fact, they are the famous ‘Boiling Frog’. They have no way of leaving the kettle so…

In a sense, both haves and the dirt poor are  prisoners. Neither can leave their respective cell blocks. Simply because the dirt poor have no way to go anywhere while almost none of the haves would be able to survive ‘outside’.

the boiling frog

Wesley Chang, The Boiling Frog,

Which leaves us with the middle class.
Who have some resources stashed away – or enough credit available, to weather some crises. But not enough to last them for their entire remaining lives.
Which makes the middle class the only really interested people in the long term well being of the entire society. The only ones really interested in maintaining the freedom of the market as the main economic engine. The only ones really interested in maintaining democracy as the main manner of avoiding catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by the too powerful autocrats.

Or, from a psychological point of view, we can look at the haves/dirt poor as being stuck in an immobile state of mind while the middle class are the only open minded members of the society.
In fact, I prefer this last approach.
You see, until recently the American Dream was relatively accessible. With some luck, a ton of determination and a fair amount of brain power, the sky was the only limit. Belonging to any of those three categories, haves, middle class and dirt-poor was as much about the state of mind of those involved as it was about actual economic conditions.
The haves were free to consider the big picture, the dirt poor could contemplate brighter perspectives while the middle class were doing their thing. Keeping the whole show afloat.

I’m afraid we have reached an inflexion point. A watershed mark, if you prefer.
For whatever reason – I’m not ready to tackle this subject right now, we’ve become so preoccupied with something in particular that we’ve lost sight of everything else.

Including the middle class.

Exactly those which were supposed to maintain their cool heads and open minds.

part of the problem

Matthew Stewart,
The 9.9 Percent is the New American Aristocracy,
The Atlantic

%d bloggers like this: