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Michael Steinberg, "The Greeks Had a Word for It"

Michael Steinberg writes:

"The Greeks Had a Word for It"

Michael Steinberg

I don't know if the Republicans stole the election and I don't ever expect to know. Even if we do find out, the truth is unlikely to make a difference. A bunch of war criminals that can win reelection with the blood of 100,000 innocents on its hands would hardly be damaged by a mere case of electoral fraud.It might be worth remembering, too, that there's no reason to share the electionolotry that has become the beginning and end of political discourse. All we ever ask of a country these days is whether they've had presidential elections. The more scrupulous will want some group of observers, generally including Jimmy Carter, to certify that the elections were free and fair. Does it get the Carter seal of approval? All right, then. We've got a functioning democracy. Nothing more to see, ladies and gentlemen. Let's move on. There's a group of foreign investors waiting their turn.

Why this all-but-universal identification of democracy with elections? In the early days the two had very little to do with each other. In fact, as Ellen Meiksins Wood has pointed out, the Greeks thought of them as opposites. Though every modern democracy likes to trace itself back to Athens, Mr. Carter would find nothing to monitor if he were teleported back to Athens in the fifth century BCE.

There was a lot of voting. Juries voted to decide a verdict, the assembly voted on laws, and dangerous characters were exiled through ostracism. But every political office was filled by lot. People didn't run for office. They just showed up — poor people got paid for the work of governing — and if their name was called they had a government post for a year.

There was one exception: the generals were elected. But that was because not everyone could be counted on to have the special talent needed to command an army. It didn't make sense to chose generals by lot any more than it would have been smart to pick the sculptors for the Parthenon at random.

But governing? The fundamental principles of human life were equally strong in everyone, and it was worth giving everyone a say. Here's the Sophist Protagoras, in Plato's dialogue of that name (one of the few places where he gives Socrates' opponents a fair hearing):

In a debate involving skill in building, or in any other craft, the Athenians, like other men, believe that few are capable of giving advice, and if someone outside those few volunteers to advise them, then as you say they do not tolerate it — rightly so, in my submission. But when the subject of their counsel involves political wisdom, which must always follow the path of justice and moderation, they listen to every man's opinion, for they think that everyone must share in this kind of virtue; otherwise the state could not exist.

(I'm sorry about the use of "man," but there's no point pretending that the Athenians were anything but slave-holding sexists.)

So far apart were voting and democracy, in fact, that Aristotle considers them as contradictions in his Politics, before he produces a "compromise" that turns out to be today's notion of "true" democracy:

In the appointment of magistrates [governing officials, that is] the use of the lot is regarded as democratic, and the use of the vote as oligarchical. Again, it is considered to be democratic that a property qualification should not be required, and oligarchical that it should be. Here, accordingly, the mode appropriate to an aristocracy [of the mixed sort] or a "polity" is... to take from oligarchy the rule that magistrates should be appointed by vote, and from democracy the rule that no property qualification should be required.

By an odd coincidence this results in — surprise! — the poor getting little more than a chance to pick the rich guys who would rule over them. But then Aristotle and Plato were never very happy with democracy, and the Athenian way of government never came in for praise in their writings.

That's one of the reasons that they were ignored by most Greeks. Athenian men governed themselves very well for several centuries — much longer than the history of the United States — and through it all they kept to the principle that every free citizen was able to govern and that everyone should have an equal chance at it. There's a lot to criticize in classical Greek democracy, but within its limits it probably gave ordinary people (okay, ordinary males) more say in their common lives than any other city dwellers have ever had. Citizenship was pretty narrow, but the powers of the citizen were amazingly broad.

By the time modern "democracy" was invented in the eighteenth century all this was conveniently forgotten. The founders of the United States were happier with the Roman model — another "mixed" state, where the wealthy got to run things unless the plebeians got really, really mad. Checks and balances, all in the name of efficient warfare and imperial expansion. And it worked in America, too.

The really nice thing about the oligarchs' second time around is that there are no Greeks to call them by their proper name. They can parade around in the best democratic costume, starring in thrilling electoral dramas every few years, and the dazzled populace will mark their ballots, feel strong and free, and then go back to doing what they're told.

It's a great system, I'm sure. Only please don't tell me that it's a democracy.