Modern Times and Representative versus Direct Democracy

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Aristotle and Plato were very sceptical of the democracy of their day. For Plato it was the second worst form of government, tyranny being the worst. For Aristotle, democracy was a perversion of the forms of government seeking the common good. According to him, the democracy of the day, which was a direct democracy, served the good of the poor often at the expense of the good of the city state. It paled in comparison with the constitutional form of government he suggested which would serve the interests of the city as a whole. We should also remember in this context(Ancient Greece) that we are witnessing both in practice and in theory the beginnings of systematic thought and practice in the realm of politics. There was, for example, a fragile realisation,  that perhaps religion(derived from “ligare” which means to bind or connect according to St Augustine) had something in common with the law which also was a mechanism of binding or connecting people. In both cases, the binding or connecting mechanism was related to obligation, an ethical concept. Being connected together entailed obligations on the citizens or members of the community. Philosophy was just emerging as a critical force and the ideal of an individual reasoning his way to the idea of the good or from the idea,  to its political and logical consequences , was only being suggested by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Indeed one of the problems with the Greek direct democracy of the time is that it failed to respect the law. Plato’s characterisation in the Republic is a chilling account because it points to phenomena we are witnessing today. When parents are ruled by their children and teachers are ruled by their students and when murderers can walk free in the agora after having been sentenced in the courts we see a city in disarray. Indeed it is in this environment that a member of the oligarchy will point out the disarray and promise a better future for all, probably well aware that he is not being truthful. An oligarchy according to Plato and Aristotle is marginally a better form of government but it will not unite the city. It will rule in the interests of the few, the oligarchy, which is often corrupt and will pass laws in its own interests. Indeed the problem that both Plato and Aristotle saw was the pendulum like polarisation of political rule between these two types of government. When the Democrats were in power they would as a matter of pride repeal the laws of the oligarchs and vice versa thus preventing an appreciation of the binding and connecting function of the law as well as removing the motivation of being obligated to anything. Plato’s response to all this was to point to the philosophical role of the idea of the good which the philosopher with his training in mathematics and dialectic can develop a full awareness of.

There were no institutions of education to speak of during this time so it was natural that Plato should come up with his famous formula in order to avoid misery and tragedy and ultimate ruin in the city state: the city will not flourish, he argued until kings become philosophers or philosopher become kings. Aristotle saw the difficulties of such a proposal in its fixation on kings or an upper ruling class and suggested a constitutional/representative form of government in which the middle class would steer a middle path between democracies and oligarchies adopting the best aspects of each. This middle class would through its practical wisdom over eons become motivated by knowledge and ethics. The institutions it would develop would be in accordance with the Greek concept of areté which means both excellence and virtue. The democratic practice of electing political officials by lottery would be replaced by a meritocracy where people with the requisite knowledge and ethical character would be appointed. Both Plato and Aristotle shared the Greek suspicion of the wealthy life as an ideal of the good life not just because of the inevitable corruption of the spirit such a life entailed but because the Greeks were very aware of the different principles needed to rule one’s private household and family(oikos) and the city state(politikos). For them, our modern political obsession with economics would have been a perversion of politics.In Hannah Arendt’s terms, there are important distinctions between types of activity which operate in accordance with different principles. Labour is the kind of work that was typical for the household and was cyclical and biological in nature, serving our survival needs. Work was an activity in which one produced results in the public domain in accordance with instrumental standards: a good house, a good treatment from the doctor etc. Action was the type of activity typical of politics and it was aiming at Aletheia, a Greek word, in this context, for the disclosure of the truth about the common good. Work and labour were inappropriate forms of activity for the political arena.


Anyway the moral of this Greek tale should be obvious. Both in the case of the election of the current President of the USA and Brexit we can see a return to the concept of direct democracy. In England, it was the referendum about an issue that neither Aristotle nor Kant would have hesitated to venture an opinion upon. The “experts” on both sides plus the media coverage literally did not know what they were talking about. This can be seen in the opening of the negotiations in Brussels where one hundred experts from the English side are attempting to clarify the British interpretation of what is entailed by the decision to leave Europe. In the USA the system of the primaries and the intense media coverage momentarily turned the country into a direct democracy. There were promises made that could never be kept and there were lies told which were believed because all the Greek requirements had been met. There stood the oligarch/tyrant promising better deals from the artisan of the deal. There was the promise to undo most of the work of the previous democratic president, the promise to put America first. There we could witness the three-word slogan chanting, Make America great, build the wall, lock her up, USA. It all felt very uncomfortable and we were only at the beginning of the process. The process has now been going on for 6 months and though there are a number of accusations of breaking the law and not acknowledging the independence of the law from the executive branch of government laid down in the Constitution, there is still extensive support from the Republican party the tyrant represents. Thankfully there are many many people that recognise what is happening and are speaking up courageously. There is a chance that hopefully, we are witnessing misery but not tragedy or ruin just yet.