SURVIVAL, ETHICS & DEMOCRACY
From Neolithic to Neocon
Athenenian society was not some kind of liberal golden age. Slavery was normalised and both women and slaves were considered property to be owned by males. Amongst the males, however, and almost out of nowhere, arose the most egalitarian and democratic form of government ever invented – a peak which, since Athens declined, has never been attained anywhere else. It collapsed ignominiously, as we shall discuss. But 508 years before Jesus of Nazareth and for nearly 200 years it provided a truly inspiring template for socio-political organisation and (internal) conflict avoidance:
Democracy in Athens was not limited to giving citizens the right to vote. Athens was not a republic, nor were the People governed by a representative body of legislators. In a very real sense, the People governed themselves, debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains…
The Athenian democracy was not, of course, a free-for-all of mob rule. The Athenians understood the value of checks and balances and of enforcing time for reflection before acting. They understood that professionalism is necessary in certain jobs, that accountability was necessary of most jobs, and that some jobs required absolute job-security. The system evolved over time, suffered two complete breakdowns in the 5th century, and is certainly open to criticism at many points during its history. Nevertheless, it was coherent enough during those two centuries that we can describe it, in general terms, without being too far wrong on any point. And despite its moments of imprudence, injustice, and indecision, it was an experiment remarkable enough to deserve our attention.
(Source:Christopher W. Blackwell, Athenian Democracy: a brief overview, in Adriaan Lanni, ed., Athenian Law in its Democratic Context (Center for Hellenic Studies On-line Discussion Series). Republished in C.W. Blackwell, ed., Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy (A. Mahoney and R. Scaife, edd., The Stoa: a consortium for electronic publication in the humanities [www.stoa.org]) edition of February 28, 2003. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In part – and this is a vital lesson for aspiring democrats who would like to return to something like the Athenian model – Athens’ decline can be attributed to the weaknesses in its democratic model we’ll discuss later. But it is also important to remember what prompted the development of Athenian democracy in the first place. It was a reaction to tyranny.
It was a recognition that the only protection against the corrupting influence of power is to share it equally amongst the population; a lesson which those who still crave power have been attempting to suppress ever since.
These are the most important features of Athenian democracy:
The source of all power was The Assembly which consisted of all male citizens over the age of 18.
Attendance was voluntary and on a “first come first served” basis. Payment for attendance must have been a useful incentive, but “only” the first 6,000 to turn up were allowed to participate.
It met about 40 times a year
Frivolous proposals were discouraged as follows: if a law was passed, found to be wanting and “unconstitutional” within 12 months, the proposer paid a fine which was large enough to bankrupt most citizens. This encouraged a serious approach to the decision making process.
The decisions of the Assembly were implemented by small ad hoc groups of administrative officials or temporary “police” who were selected by lot. and who were, in turn, overseen by The Council of 500.
In order to avoid corruption, membership of the Council was also by lot. The ten “tribes” of Athens each had to nominate its 50 randomly selected members to the Council. Each member would only serve for one year and would not be permitted to serve again the following year, nor more than twice in a lifetime. Each tribe served in a sort of rotating chairmanship for one tenth of the year, during which they took the lead in supervising the day to day work of the “executive”.
One of the jobs of the Council was to weed out those “officials” selected by lot but who were clearly “unfit for purpose”.
The council was also charged with preparing the agenda for the Assembly. As it was in more or less permanent session, much of the meaty discussion took place in Council and it would make recommendations to the Assembly, which could and did modify and accept or reject the recommendations as it saw fit. In the normal course of events, no proposal could be made to the Assembly if it hadn’t already been screened and deliberated by the Council.
Most impressive of all was the Athenian judicial system – which has never been democratically equaled or even closely approached since. Any man over 30 could volunteer to be a potential juror. Every year, 6000 such volunteers would be randomly selected for jury service during that year. For any given trial, over 200 jurors were selected by a complex system designed to ensure that undue influence, bribery and corruption were almost impossible. If selected for a trial, Jurors were all paid to attend in order to ensure that even the poorest citizens could participate. The protagonists would address the jury directly and decisions, on all matters, from guilt or innocence to the appropriate restitution or punishments were made by simple majorities of the jury. The jury didn’t just hear civil and criminal cases but was the final court of appeal for citizens who were dissatisfied with the decisions of the Council or Assembly. The Jury was the ultimate guarantor of democratic rule.
Leaving aside the sexism and slavery, most people will be shocked to realise how advanced and “progressive” the original model of democracy was. It is certainly humbling to compare the sham which passes for democracy today with that two and a half thousand year old model. Laughably, many people refer to that model as a “stepping stone” on the road to modern democracy; implying that it was, somehow, a naive and inferior version of what we have today. This is like calling the now defunct supersonic Concorde a stepping stone on the way to the hang glider. Far from being inferior, both Concorde and Athenian Democracy were clearly way ahead of their time!
There are many reasons why that form of egalitarian social decision making did not, and, perhaps, could not survive for very long. Losing the 20 year Peloponnesian war against Sparta caused the temporary collapse of Athenian democracy and allowed the aforementioned “Thirty Tyrants” to regain power for the aristocracy. Although their dictatorship was fairly short lived and democracy re-instated, it never really found a solution to the weaknesses exposed by this episode. As such it illustrates some of the major lessons for modern democrats which we must address in seeking to revive the model.
Primarily the Athenians demonstrated that We The People are just as capable as “evil tyrants” of making bloody stupid decisions. Athens lost the war chiefly because the democrats of Athens executed the naval leadership their empire depended on. Why? Because one or two demagogues played on the emotions of the Assembly when discussing the Trial of those leaders. The trial came about because in the process of winning a stunning naval victory against the Spartans, 25 of their triremes were sunk or damaged. Given that each was crewed by a couple of hundred sailors, and that a majority would have survived the battle, that represents a few thousand survivors needing rescue.
The Generals left two triremes at the scene to pick up survivors and set off to relieve the blockade at Mytilene where another 50 Spartan ships could be dealt with before they had a chance to rejoin the remainder of their fleet. Unfortunately a storm blew up which prevented the Generals getting to Mytilene and prevented the two triremes left behind rescuing the survivors who nearly all drowned.
Athens citizens were furious at what they saw as a betrayal of their sons and brothers and demanded blood. The Generals didn’t help their own cause by initially blaming it on the two Trireme masters they’d left behind (instead of simply explaining that storms can wreck any human plans). When the scapegoats acquitted themselves well before the Assembly, the citizens anger then turned against the Generals.
Such was the emotional intensity of the “debate” that when some citizens tried to argue merely that the Generals should at least get a fair trial, they were threatened with a new “democratic” motion that would see such objectors receive the same treatment as that proposed for the Generals. This despicable intimidation of fellow “free speakers” was the low point for Athenian democracy and many would argue that after failing such a test of integrity, it deserved to die. The Generals were condemned to death and hemlock they all duly drank, thus disposing, in one glorious self destructive act, of all their competent military leaders. The Spartans must have been very pleased with their gods that night!
The most notable protestor at this stupidity was Socrates. By historical coincidence, he was serving his turn as “chairman” in charge of the Assembly’s debate when they dealt with this fractious issue. It was one of many occasions on which he had the guts to oppose the baying masses. He even tried to refuse to allow the vote on “instant death penalty” by arguing that it was unconstitutional. He was outmanouevred and the vote went ahead regardless. But that sin, together with his continual skepticism, dissent and opposition to the democratic project provided the excuse for his own execution at the behest of the mob. In a nutshell, We The People shot ourselves in the foot and proved ourselves no more deserving of political leadership than the later Caesars.
Indeed, that example of “mob rule” is used to this day as the chief argument against the re-introduction of democracy. It is a very powerful argument and, without an intelligent policy to deal with it, the case for re-introducing democracy is weak. It is hardly surprising that our chief witness to these events – Plato – designed the most fundamentally anti-democratic system he could envisage, in order to protect society from the ravages of that evil political nightmare. We the People had demonstrated our basic lack of fitness for command. Clearly what was needed were trained experts with perfectly balanced judgment and the wisdom required to make the wisest decisions.
I will develop the counter-argument in some detail as we go but it is worth putting a marker down here and now. Essentially Socrates was obviously “right” about many of the issues on which he was the lone voice. Nor is this a question of hindsight. For example, anyone thinking rationally rather than emotionally must have known that killing your best fighting men is a bad idea when you’re in the middle of a war!
A sensible decision making process must – at least – protect the likes of Socrates and ensure that the intelligent dissenter gets a proper hearing without fear of retribution. The democratic majority must, ultimately, have the final say, but they should insist that any counter-arguments are thoroughly explored and their merits analysed as part of the public debate. If claims are made, they must be tested or shown to be untestable. If predictions are made, they must be properly recorded and alarms set to detect signs that the predictions are being realised. Above all, after testing and rejecting the opposition arguments and reaching a democratic resolution, the majority must never make the mistake of assuming that, just because they are the majority, that they’re also necessarily right!
Clearly that infrastructure of objective assessment of rival propositions was not part of the Athenian democratic model and it willed its own death as a result. Much like many of the regimes which have failed in its wake.
Yet clearly something glorious about the concept of equal shares in the decision making process survived the denigration and historical failure of its original model. But although their model was superficially mimicked by later systems its principles were never again taken so seriously by an entire nation and all national systems since have ensured that an elite always has control albeit occasionally behind a facade made to look more or less like one component of its magnificent Greek original (the Council of 500). None permit the equivalent of The Assembly or the Supreme Jury and the true powers of Democracy have been diluted to almost homeopathic levels.
This chapter will make the case not so much for a return to the Athenian model as for the adoption of an updated and improved version which contains even more protections against corruption and abuse of power than the original and which enables much wider participation in the debate and decision making process. Here, and in Chapter 12, we will also establish the case for giving day to day control over the democratic process back to the Jury. But we must truly honour the Athenian precedent which, for its time, was simply amazing.
But we still haven’t got to the core of why we need such an elaborate decision making process…
What is wrong, for example, with the Greek reaction to the failure of the Democratic model – Plato’s benevolent dictatorship?
The Platonist Model – the Neocon Preference
Socrates main objection to democracy was the squabbling it entailed as different opinions competed for popular support. He recognised that just because an idea is popular doesn’t make it right. We can’t argue with that – look how “popular” religion still is for example. Plato’s solution to the problem recognised by Socrates was rule by philosopher-kings. People who have been born, bred and educated to become wise in all things and thus able to determine the “right” answer as a product of their superior wisdom.
This is the “bus driver” approach to politics. Clearly we don’t fill a bus with passengers and then elect a driver. We need to have a trained and vetted driver available before we fill the bus, in order to ensure safe and efficient bus driving. Why not run society generally that way? The answer is that while it is easy to define the rules and parameters which determine safe and efficient bus driving, no such simplicity is possible for “driving society”.
Our first few chapters should have made it clear why this is a naive approach to knowledge and, therefore a flawed basis for social control. In short, the fundamental uncertainty of existence limits us to an empirical determination of reality. In the process we observe that there are no a priori or empirical rules governing the ethical merit of alternative forms of behaviour. There is no narrowly defined “road” down which we can instruct a “driver” to travel.
There is nothing, for example, to sustain what is probably one of our most widely held beliefs or prejudices: nothing that tells us that even Life itself is “a good thing”. In the absence of any ethical absolutes there is and can be no self-evident guide for social behaviour. Hence any individual or group making claims regarding such a guide or, indeed, purporting to be such a guide are themselves, inevitably, inherently flawed and there is no ethical or empirical reason to endorse their claims or to permit them to make rules for other members of society who are not part of their “enlightened” circle.
And if those arguments haven’t persuaded you, then study human history and pull out of it as many examples as you can of successful dictators (who no doubt prefer the description “philosopher-kings”) who have governed well and wisely, with obvious long term benefit to their populace. (Such as achieving a persistant increase in average life expectancy and quality of life).
But hang on! Clearly we have made amazing advances in all areas since the time of Athenian Democracy, and – in the first world at least – we are living much higher quality lives for much longer. If we’ve been ruled by a succession of dictatorships ever since, they must have been doing something right! – I hear you suggest.
Not so. Progress has been made largely despite our rulers, not because of them. As I’ve argued in my blog on “History Matters” day (17 Oct 2006)
True History is the tale of the struggle of humanity to survive the crass stupidity, arrogance and despicable authoritarianism of an almost unbroken chain of bumbling imbeciles. Today’s leaders are almost enlightened by comparison. Yes there are great men and women dotted amongst them, but they have had far less effect on the overall course of events than their barbaric self-seeking peers.
Human Progress has most often arisen not as the result of a sequence of carefully thought out plans for social and economic development but almost always in the form of measures required to correct the awful and often lethal mistakes made by predecessors.
For example: Consider how long it has taken, since Athens, to regain even the first step on the ladder of democracy – universal suffrage. Our “wise leaders” have resisted it at every juncture, usually with military – terrorist – violence and have only ever even partially conceded it when, essentially, they have drawn the conclusion that they could no longer win the battles necessary to prevent it. Given a choice between oblivion and a little token power-sharing, the bullies usually have the sense to concede the token. In other social areas, civil strife – up to and including civil war and revolution – has been necessary to achieve the necessary changes. At the very least it has usually required “mass protest” to force consideration of what should – had rational intelligence and wisdom been a part of the social equation – have been “obvious” to anyone not conditioned to regard “ordinary” humans as slightly more intelligent beasts of burden.
There are some notable exceptions of progress achieved without violent confrontation. The establishment of socialised medicine (the National Health Service) in Britain, following the second world war is probably the best example of a major social policy change which achieved something close to consensus (and still does), though, once established, the manner of its funding and control has reverted back to the typically incompetent form of monolithic management.
That case, of course, is a rare example of democratically inspired progress, still not something created by “rulers”. I am open to suggestions but cannot immediately recall any example of a major social innovation inititiated (not merely conceded) by a “wise leader”. If we think of the major social battles over the past couple of centuries:- Slavery, Child Labour, Apartheid, Universal Suffrage, Gay Rights, Womens’ rights etc, none of these major social victories came from the beneficence of wise leaders. All required civil strife and conflict with the rulers. Let me know if you would like to nominate an exception.
Similarly, we can see slow improvements, throughout history, to the legal process from Magna Carta onwards. But history clearly also shows that none of this progress was inititiated by leaders. You never see a leader coming to power and making an uncoerced conscious decision to reduce their own power and influence. Power is always wrenched from them, sometimes violently, by the next strata of the hierarchy wishing to increase its own powers. We have reached the stage, today, where political power in any country is typically held by a few dozen people who make the real decisions whilst permitting a charade of elections to nominal posts whose job it is to present those decisions as though they emerged from some kind of democratic process. Fortunately, the web has arrived and is, at last, making it possible to expose the charade for what it is.
One consequence of this is that the authorities are becoming increasingly desperate to control (cached) the web, or at least access to it, so that subversive notions like these cannot infect their populations. Where it is too late to prevent access we see formerly liberal regimes becoming increasingly tyrannical and gradually trying to redefine “treason” – which is, today, called “terrorism” – as any source of opposition to themselves.
Democracy might well have failed first time round. But since then we’ve suffered two and a half thousand years of the glorious failures of the alternative.
This still, then, leaves us with the very real need to find a way to conduct social decision making in order to co-operate fairly with other members of society, to ensure fair access to scarce resources, to organise common defence against potential enemies and so on in ways which avoid the obvious pitfalls of all systems of government tried to date.
Given History’s lessons that no individual or group has any monopoly of the truth, the only rational course is to debate issues and reach as near consensus as possible. This does not, as the Platonists claim, preclude “wisdom”. But there is a real problem with the democratic paradigm. Which is that wisdom does not emerge automatically from debate. Wisdom isn’t necessarily recognised as such, particularly by an ill-educated populace. Instead, they will tend to be moved to support the persons who are most eloquent and flamboyant in their presentations, or worse, the ones who can shout the loudest. This can lead (and has) to bad social judgment – call it “mob rule” if you like – more often than it leads to “good”.