As I write this, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, has done an amazing thing. She has united the country. I think everyone agrees that she has faced the biggest political issue to the country has had in the last half century. And almost all of them would also agree that she could hardly have done a worse job. There is a case for leaving the EU: it gives us the ability to tune the regulations and tariffs, subsidies and investment to match of the needs of the British economy (rather than a compromise between 28 countries, many of which have drastically different needs). The argument is that it might give short term pain as the economy realigns, but long term gains as the government can direct its economic policy to the needs of the economy. On the other hand, there is also a case for remaining in the EU: being part of a larger market, and able to take advantage of continent wide supply chains and international power, as well as the more immediate stability that comes from not having a drastic change.
What the prime minister has given us is something which allows us none of the potential benefits of Brexit, but gives much of the cost of leaving the EU. It is a typical political compromise: you get the worst of both worlds. The two views are based on very different economic principles: one believes that it is best to have economic decisions made at as local a level as possible, made by the people most knowledgable, with a personal stake in the outcome, and able to quickly adapt to local and temporal variations. The other believes that economic systems should be harmonised at a large scale, to take advantage of economies of scale, reduce unfair competition through exploitation of workers, and reduce the overhead for those trading across borders. I have my own opinion about which of these models is best, but as I am not a economist my opinion doesn't count for more than my readers, so I will keep my silence. The view-points are based on mutually contradictory premises. Any compromise will take some outcomes of one philosophy, and others from the other. And the result would be a self-contradictory unworkable mess. The choice has to be between a clean Brexit or remaining in the EU. Britain could and I think would prosper either way. But a compromise keeping us in the EU economic structures while excluding us from the political structures won't. I believe some minor revolt somewhere was sparked by the cry, "No taxation without representation." It isn't (yet) taxation, but tight regulation of the economy can have the same burden.
But then I look opposite her, and see something that is truly frightening. The Labour party policy on Brexit is just as bad as the conservatives. They too want us to be subject to the EU but absent from any decision making process. But Corbyn is by instinct an out and out communist. He supported the regime in Venezula and believes it to be an example to the world. He is a friend of terrorists and murderers. He has brought on advisors whose vision for Britain is terrifying. That's not to say that he would be able to implement all that. The wider Labour party and civil service would try to keep him under control. Maybe they would succeed. Maybe they wouldn't. It wouldn't be the first time in history when an extremist was allowed to govern by the establishment in the vain hope that they could control him. In any case, we would still face the usual problems of the modern left: identity ethics (i.e. stereotyping whole groups of people as either victims or oppressors, and mostly getting it wrong), economic regulation, massive national debt, intimidation, corruption and violence.
And, of course, neither major party is prepared to address the major problem facing the country: broken families, and moral degradation. Instead both are competing with each other to make the situation even worse.
So how did we come to this? A choice between the utterly incompetent and a man who seeks to turn the country into a third world hell-hole.
And I notice that it is not just Britain. In the US, the electorate had to choose between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. One was (in my view) considerably worse than the other, but neither was a good option. Looking across Europe, I see few bright spots. Politicians say that they have the mandate of the people. But what good is a choice between two almost identical platforms, both pulled from the same class of people, and all of whom too secure to share in the consequences of their decisions. Few politicians struggle to survive from paycheck to paycheck, or have children terrorised by gangs on broken estates and suburbs.
So my thoughts go back, as always, to the classical philosophers. Of course, Athenian democracy was different from our own. There is a vast difference between a system where 70,000 electors are represented by one person, and a system where all the people could in principle directly vote in the main assembly. But, nonetheless, human nature hasn't changed, and the fundamental problems of government are still the same. I'll take all the quotes from book VIII of the Republic.
Plato believed that there were five basic forms of government. Aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. Each had their own particular virtues, but those virtues were taken to extreme to the exclusion of other principles. None of these forms of government were stable.
Aristocracy was viewed by Plato as the best government. That's the usual translation of the Greek term, but it is a misleading one. Today when we think of aristocrats we think of inherited wealth and dynasties of noblemen: closed to the majority of the population. Plato had something different in mind. It was rule by a small group of the best philosophers and warriors. They would not receive a salary, but only have their basic needs provided to them. They would be the sort of people who wouldn't care about how much they earn; their only motivation would be the challenge of perusing wisdom, and the problem of maximising the prosperity and virtue of the city-state. With no personal financial motivation or gain from their position, their sole concern would be to do what is right for the country.
It would be replaced by a timocracy, a government of honour, where the people who rule would be those most regarded as honourable.
For when your guardians are ignorant of the law of births, and unite bride and bridegroom out of season, the children will not be goodly or fortunate. And though only the best of them will be appointed by their predecessors, still they will be unworthy to hold their fathers' places, and when they come into power as guardians, they will soon be found to fall in taking care of us, the Muses, first by under-valuing music; which neglect will soon extend to gymnastic; and hence the young men of your State will be less cultivated. In the succeeding generation rulers will be appointed who have lost the guardian power of testing the metal of your different races, which, like Hesiod's, are of gold and silver and brass and iron.
Aristocracy fails because people lose judgement about which people are wisest. Key disciplines in building up character are undervalued. The philosophers look to the future, but forget the values that shaped themselves and built up their own character. The next generation is not as good; and the one after that worse. It becomes a culture that values the appearance of achievement rather than the reality of virtue. It's a step down, but some semblance of the aristocracy remains. The strength of Aristocracy was that it valued wisdom. Its weakness is that it neglected the voices of those who provided the city's wealth. In particular, it cannot cure the human condition of greed and desire for personal advancement; either the philosophers themselves will succumb, or they will be replaced by those of more ambition and less moral stature. In each case, the government shifts to one which over-compensates for the weakness of its predecessor. So aristocracy falls, to one where wealth is prized more than wisdom. First of all, it falls to an intermediate state of timocracy.
But in the fear of admitting philosophers to power, because they are no longer to be had simple and earnest, but are made up of mixed elements; and in turning from them to passionate and less complex characters, who are by nature fitted for war rather than peace; and in the value set by them upon military stratagems and contrivances, and in the waging of everlasting wars --this State will be for the most part peculiar. Yes, I said; and men of this stamp will be covetous of money, like those who live in oligarchies; they will have, a fierce secret longing after gold and silver, which they will hoard in dark places, having magazines and treasuries of their own for the deposit and concealment of them; also castles which are just nests for their eggs, and in which they will spend large sums on their wives, or on any others whom they please. And they are miserly because they have no means of openly acquiring the money which they prize; they will spend that which is another man's on the gratification of their desires, stealing their pleasures and running away like children from the law, their father: they have been schooled not by gentle influences but by force, for they have neglected her who is the true Muse, the companion of reason and philosophy, and have honoured gymnastic more than music.
Then timocracy collapses into oligarchy. The weakness of timocracy is that the rulers start to become wealthy; and the system of honour is undermined because people start to confuse honour with opulence. Then the wealthy but dishonourable will start to wonder why they have no share in the power.
I believe that oligarchy follows next in order.
And what manner of government do you term oligarchy?
A government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it.
I understand, he replied.
Ought I not to begin by describing how the change from timocracy to oligarchy arises?
Well, I said, no eyes are required in order to see how the one passes into the other.
The accumulation of gold in the treasury of private individuals is ruin the of timocracy; they invent illegal modes of expenditure; for what do they or their wives care about the law?
And then one, seeing another grow rich, seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money.
And so they grow richer and richer, and the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue; for when riches and virtue are placed together in the scales of the balance, the one always rises as the other falls.
And in proportion as riches and rich men are honoured in the State, virtue and the virtuous are dishonoured.
And what is honoured is cultivated, and that which has no honour is neglected.
That is obvious.
And so at last, instead of loving contention and glory, men become lovers of trade and money; they honour and look up to the rich man, and make a ruler of him, and dishonour the poor man.
They do so.
They next proceed to make a law which fixes a sum of money as the qualification of citizenship; the sum is higher in one place and lower in another, as the oligarchy is more or less exclusive; and they allow no one whose property falls below the amount fixed to have any share in the government. These changes in the constitution they effect by force of arms, if intimidation has not already done their work.
And this, speaking generally, is the way in which oligarchy is established.
But such a system is not likely to lead to good government. It's weaknesses are obvious. People are chosen not on the basis of their talent, but because of something else, in this case wealth.
First of all, I said, consider the nature of the qualification just think what would happen if pilots were to be chosen according to their property, and a poor man were refused permission to steer, even though he were a better pilot?
You mean that they would shipwreck?
Yes; and is not this true of the government of anything?
I should imagine so.
Except a city? --or would you include a city?
Nay, he said, the case of a city is the strongest of all, inasmuch as the rule of a city is the greatest and most difficult of all.
This, then, will be the first great defect of oligarchy?
And here is another defect which is quite as bad.
The inevitable division: such a State is not one, but two States, the one of poor, the other of rich men; and they are living on the same spot and always conspiring against one another.
That, surely, is at least as bad.
Another discreditable feature is, that, for a like reason, they are incapable of carrying on any war. Either they arm the multitude, and then they are more afraid of them than of the enemy; or, if they do not call them out in the hour of battle, they are oligarchs indeed, few to fight as they are few to rule. And at the same time their fondness for money makes them unwilling to pay taxes.
And, as we said before, under such a constitution the same persons have too many callings --they are husbandmen, tradesmen, warriors, all in one. Does that look well?
Anything but well.
There is another evil which is, perhaps, the greatest of all, and to which this State first begins to be liable.
A man may sell all that he has, and another may acquire his property; yet after the sale he may dwell in the city of which he is no longer a part, being neither trader, nor artisan, nor horseman, nor hoplite, but only a poor, helpless creature.
Yes, that is an evil which also first begins in this State.
The evil is certainly not prevented there; for oligarchies have both the extremes of great wealth and utter poverty.
The weakness of the oligarchy is in its division. A few men make it to the top. Others, perhaps more capable, are left in poverty. And given that this society values money above all else, they are resentful. They thus strive for a society which instead of being ruled by a privileged few, where the power is dispersed as much as possible. This is the democracy.
That is true.
On the other hand, the men of business, stooping as they walk, and pretending not even to see those whom they have already ruined, insert their sting --that is, their money --into some one else who is not on his guard against them, and recover the parent sum many times over multiplied into a family of children: and so they make drone and pauper to abound in the State.
Yes, he said, there are plenty of them --that is certain.
The evil blazes up like a fire; and they will not extinguish it, either by restricting a man's use of his own property, or by another remedy:
One which is the next best, and has the advantage of compelling the citizens to look to their characters: --Let there be a general rule that every one shall enter into voluntary contracts at his own risk, and there will be less of this scandalous money-making, and the evils of which we were speaking will be greatly lessened in the State.
Yes, they will be greatly lessened.
At present the governors, induced by the motives which I have named, treat their subjects badly; while they and their adherents, especially the young men of the governing class, are habituated to lead a life of luxury and idleness both of body and mind; they do nothing, and are incapable of resisting either pleasure or pain.
They themselves care only for making money, and are as indifferent as the pauper to the cultivation of virtue.
Yes, quite as indifferent.
Such is the state of affairs which prevails among them. And often rulers and their subjects may come in one another's way, whether on a pilgrimage or a march, as fellow-soldiers or fellow-sailors; aye, and they may observe the behaviour of each other in the very moment of danger --for where danger is, there is no fear that the poor will be despised by the rich --and very likely the wiry sunburnt poor man may be placed in battle at the side of a wealthy one who has never spoilt his complexion and has plenty of superfluous flesh --when he sees such an one puffing and at his wit's end, how can he avoid drawing the conclusion that men like him are only rich because no one has the courage to despoil them? And when they meet in private will not people be saying to one another 'Our warriors are not good for much'?
Yes, he said, I am quite aware that this is their way of talking.
And, as in a body which is diseased the addition of a touch from without may bring on illness, and sometimes even when there is no external provocation a commotion may arise within-in the same way wherever there is weakness in the State there is also likely to be illness, of which the occasions may be very slight, the one party introducing from without their oligarchical, the other their democratical allies, and then the State falls sick, and is at war with herself; and may be at times distracted, even when there is no external cause.
And then democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power; and this is the form of government in which the magistrates are commonly elected by lot.
Yes, he said, that is the nature of democracy, whether the revolution has been effected by arms, or whether fear has caused the opposite party to withdraw.
Democracy arises from a society where the virtues have been vanquished, on the one hand by greed, and on the other by resentment and criminality. It is primarily a reaction to too much power being placed into the hands of too few, leading to the oppression, both economic and and political, of the minority. It thus tries to compensate for that by making freedom and liberty its primary virtue. Note that Plato believed that a democracy rises as a result of an armed struggle. That isn't so far off the truth. The UK democracy was born in a gradual process, but it's main sparks were the Baron's revolt of the thirteenth century and the civil war of the seventeenth. The French and Americans had their revolutions. The Germans and Japanese their world wars. South Korea gained democracy after a violent struggle against an authoritarian regime. Eastern Europe a popular revolt against the communists. Other nations inherited a democratic mindset from the colonial era.
But again it over-compensates. Freedom becomes an excuse for licentious behaviour. There is nothing standing in the way of the will of the people, and the will of the people, with no sense of moral virtue to keep it in check, is for cheap pleasure and unearned luxury. Not surprisingly, such a society falls into disorder. It consumes more than it produces, or can afford. People give more care to their own pleasure than raising their children. Those few who do call for virtue, are unpopular and driven out by the mob.
And, of course, the democracy collapses.
In the first place, are they not free; and is not the city full of freedom and frankness --a man may say and do what he likes?
'Tis said so, he replied.
And where freedom is, the individual is clearly able to order for himself his own life as he pleases?
Then in this kind of State there will be the greatest variety of human natures?
This, then, seems likely to be the fairest of States, being an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower. And just as women and children think a variety of colours to be of all things most charming, so there are many men to whom this State, which is spangled with the manners and characters of mankind, will appear to be the fairest of States.
Yes, my good Sir, and there will be no better in which to look for a government.
Because of the liberty which reigns there --they have a complete assortment of constitutions; and he who has a mind to establish a State, as we have been doing, must go to a democracy as he would to a bazaar at which they sell them, and pick out the one that suits him; then, when he has made his choice, he may found his State.
He will be sure to have patterns enough.
And there being no necessity, I said, for you to govern in this State, even if you have the capacity, or to be governed, unless you like, or go to war when the rest go to war, or to be at peace when others are at peace, unless you are so disposed --there being no necessity also, because some law forbids you to hold office or be a dicast, that you should not hold office or be a dicast, if you have a fancy --is not this a way of life which for the moment is supremely delightful.
For the moment, yes.
And is not their humanity to the condemned in some cases quite charming? Have you not observed how, in a democracy, many persons, although they have been sentenced to death or exile, just stay where they are and walk about the world --the gentleman parades like a hero, and nobody sees or cares?
Yes, he replied, many and many a one.
See too, I said, the forgiving spirit of democracy, and the 'don't care' about trifles, and the disregard which she shows of all the fine principles which we solemnly laid down at the foundation of the city -- as when we said that, except in the case of some rarely gifted nature, there never will be a good man who has not from his childhood been used to play amid things of beauty and make of them a joy and a study --how grandly does she trample all these fine notions of ours under her feet, never giving a thought to the pursuits which make a statesman, and promoting to honour any one who professes to be the people's friend.
Yes, she is of a noble spirit.
These and other kindred characteristics are proper to democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.
Freedom, equality, diversity, appearance of splendour -- but no virtue. A whitewashed tomb, plundering the achievements of its forebears, but only until the money runs out.
Say then, my friend, in what manner does tyranny arise? -- that it has a democratic origin is evident.
And does not tyranny spring from democracy in the same manner as democracy from oligarchy -- I mean, after a sort?
The good which oligarchy proposed to itself and the means by which it was maintained was excess of wealth --am I not right?
And the insatiable desire of wealth and the neglect of all other things for the sake of money-getting was also the ruin of oligarchy?
And democracy has her own good, of which the insatiable desire brings her to dissolution?
Freedom, I replied; which, as they tell you in a democracy, is the glory of the State --and that therefore in a democracy alone will the freeman of nature deign to dwell.
Yes; the saying is in everybody's mouth.
I was going to observe, that the insatiable desire of this and the neglect of other things introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny.
When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs.
Yes, he replied, a very common occurrence.
Yes, I said; and loyal citizens are insultingly termed by her slaves who hug their chains and men of naught; she would have subjects who are like rulers, and rulers who are like subjects: these are men after her own heart, whom she praises and honours both in private and public. Now, in such a State, can liberty have any limit?
By degrees the anarchy finds a way into private houses, and ends by getting among the animals and infecting them.
How do you mean?
I mean that the father grows accustomed to descend to the level of his sons and to fear them, and the son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents; and this is his freedom, and metic is equal with the citizen and the citizen with the metic, and the stranger is quite as good as either.
What this means is that there is no respect for the wisdom of the father's experience. The son ought to learn from his father, until he is old enough to experience why his father's values are so important. In a democracy, the naive is given the same voice as the wise. Eventually, a democracy becomes a council of the ignorant. (Of course, there are also wise youngsters and foolish fathers -- all I am saying is that time and life experience are better teachers in some respects than those found in schools and universities; thus naive enthusiasm for an attractive but unworkable ideal is more prevalent among those who never had to leave the shelter and over-simplicity of their schoolbooks.)
Yes, he said, that is the way.
And these are not the only evils, I said --there are several lesser ones: In such a state of society the master fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their masters and tutors; young and old are all alike; and the young man is on a level with the old, and is ready to compete with him in word or deed; and old men condescend to the young and are full of pleasantry and gaiety; they are loth to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they adopt the manners of the young.
Quite true, he said.
The last extreme of popular liberty is when the slave bought with money, whether male or female, is just as free as his or her purchaser; nor must I forget to tell of the liberty and equality of the two sexes in relation to each other.
Clearly Plato has offended modern sensibilities here. Fortunately, we had Christianity to show us that slave and free, male and female are of equal worth and equal humanity.
Why not, as Aeschylus says, utter the word which rises to our lips?
That is what I am doing, I replied; and I must add that no one who does not know would believe, how much greater is the liberty which the animals who are under the dominion of man have in a democracy than in any other State: for truly, the she-dogs, as the proverb says, are as good as their she-mistresses, and the horses and asses have a way of marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen; and they will run at anybody who comes in their way if he does not leave the road clear for them: and all things are just ready to burst with liberty.
When I take a country walk, he said, I often experience what you describe. You and I have dreamed the same thing.
And above all, I said, and as the result of all, see how sensitive the citizens become; they chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority and at length, as you know, they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten; they will have no one over them.
Yes, he said, I know it too well.
Such, my friend, I said, is the fair and glorious beginning out of which springs tyranny.
Glorious indeed, he said. But what is the next step?
The ruin of oligarchy is the ruin of democracy; the same disease magnified and intensified by liberty overmasters democracy --the truth being that the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction; and this is the case not only in the seasons and in vegetable and animal life, but above all in forms of government.
The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.
Yes, the natural order.
And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty?
As we might expect.
That, however, was not, as I believe, your question-you rather desired to know what is that disorder which is generated alike in oligarchy and democracy, and is the ruin of both?
Just so, he replied.
Well, I said, I meant to refer to the class of idle spendthrifts, of whom the more courageous are the-leaders and the more timid the followers, the same whom we were comparing to drones, some stingless, and others having stings.
A very just comparison.
These two classes are the plagues of every city in which they are generated, being what phlegm and bile are to the body. And the good physician and lawgiver of the State ought, like the wise bee-master, to keep them at a distance and prevent, if possible, their ever coming in; and if they have anyhow found a way in, then he should have them and their cells cut out as speedily as possible.
Yes, by all means, he said.
Then, in order that we may see clearly what we are doing, let us imagine democracy to be divided, as indeed it is, into three classes; for in the first place freedom creates rather more drones in the democratic than there were in the oligarchical State.
That is true.
And in the democracy they are certainly more intensified.
Because in the oligarchical State they are disqualified and driven from office, and therefore they cannot train or gather strength; whereas in a democracy they are almost the entire ruling power, and while the keener sort speak and act, the rest keep buzzing about the bema and do not suffer a word to be said on the other side; hence in democracies almost everything is managed by the drones.
Very true, he said.
Then there is another class which is always being severed from the mass.
What is that?
They are the orderly class, which in a nation of traders sure to be the richest.
They are the most squeezable persons and yield the largest amount of honey to the drones.
Why, he said, there is little to be squeezed out of people who have little.
And this is called the wealthy class, and the drones feed upon them.
That is pretty much the case, he said.
The people are a third class, consisting of those who work with their own hands; they are not politicians, and have not much to live upon. This, when assembled, is the largest and most powerful class in a democracy.
True, he said; but then the multitude is seldom willing to congregate unless they get a little honey.
And do they not share? I said. Do not their leaders deprive the rich of their estates and distribute them among the people; at the same time taking care to reserve the larger part for themselves?
Why, yes, he said, to that extent the people do share.
And the persons whose property is taken from them are compelled to defend themselves before the people as they best can?
What else can they do?
And then, although they may have no desire of change, the others charge them with plotting against the people and being friends of oligarchy? True.
And the end is that when they see the people, not of their own accord, but through ignorance, and because they are deceived by informers, seeking to do them wrong, then at last they are forced to become oligarchs in reality; they do not wish to be, but the sting of the drones torments them and breeds revolution in them.
That is exactly the truth.
Then come impeachments and judgments and trials of one another.
The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness.
Yes, that is their way.
This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector.
Yes, that is quite clear.
How then does a protector begin to change into a tyrant? Clearly when he does what the man is said to do in the tale of the Arcadian temple of Lycaean Zeus.
The tale is that he who has tasted the entrails of a single human victim minced up with the entrails of other victims is destined to become a wolf. Did you never hear it?
And the protector of the people is like him; having a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; by the favourite method of false accusation he brings them into court and murders them, making the life of man to disappear, and with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizen; some he kills and others he banishes, at the same time hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands: and after this, what will be his destiny? Must he not either perish at the hands of his enemies, or from being a man become a wolf --that is, a tyrant?
This, I said, is he who begins to make a party against the rich?
After a while he is driven out, but comes back, in spite of his enemies, a tyrant full grown.
That is clear.
And if they are unable to expel him, or to get him condemned to death by a public accusation, they conspire to assassinate him.
Yes, he said, that is their usual way.
Then comes the famous request for a bodyguard, which is the device of all those who have got thus far in their tyrannical career --'Let not the people's friend,' as they say, 'be lost to them.'
The people readily assent; all their fears are for him --they have none for themselves.
And when a man who is wealthy and is also accused of being an enemy of the people sees this, then, my friend, as the oracle said to Croesus, By pebbly Hermus' shore he flees and rests not and is not ashamed to be a coward.
And quite right too, said he, for if he were, he would never be ashamed again.
But if he is caught he dies.
And he, the protector of whom we spoke, is to be seen, not 'larding the plain' with his bulk, but himself the overthrower of many, standing up in the chariot of State with the reins in his hand, no longer protector, but tyrant absolute.
No doubt, he said.
And now let us consider the happiness of the man, and also of the State in which a creature like him is generated.
Yes, he said, let us consider that.
At first, in the early days of his power, he is full of smiles, and he salutes every one whom he meets; --he to be called a tyrant, who is making promises in public and also in private! liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to every one!
Of course, he said.
But when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.
To be sure.
Has he not also another object, which is that they may be impoverished by payment of taxes, and thus compelled to devote themselves to their daily wants and therefore less likely to conspire against him? Clearly.
And if any of them are suspected by him of having notions of freedom, and of resistance to his authority, he will have a good pretext for destroying them by placing them at the mercy of the enemy; and for all these reasons the tyrant must be always getting up a war.
Now he begins to grow unpopular.
A necessary result.
Then some of those who joined in setting him up, and who are in power, speak their minds to him and to one another, and the more courageous of them cast in his teeth what is being done.
Yes, that may be expected.
And the tyrant, if he means to rule, must get rid of them; he cannot stop while he has a friend or an enemy who is good for anything.
And therefore he must look about him and see who is valiant, who is high-minded, who is wise, who is wealthy; happy man, he is the enemy of them all, and must seek occasion against them whether he will or no, until he has made a purgation of the State.
So the tyrant rises, pretending to be a protector of the mob against the resentful traders, and maybe in those early days he is. He is not a man of great talent, but one skill he has the ability to charm and to persuade people to join him. But he tastes to much meat; power becomes too important to him. He abuses his people, believing himself to be protecting them against the oligarch. The more they grow to resent, the stronger he has to crack down on them, all for the good of the people. Success builds his pride. And thus freedom is vanquished.
Plato's analysis has several problems. The first and most obvious one is that he only considers these five types of government. He knew nothing, for example, of representative democracy, or constitutional monarchy, or a system where powers are separated between different classes. His democracy was one in which everyone (at least, everyone if one excludes women and slaves) had a voice and vote at the assembly, even if the day to day running of the city was carried out by a committee. This is possible in an ancient city of tens of thousands; not so in a nation of tens of millions. Although perhaps it might be possible again tomorrow: the internet offers us an opportunity to pass the drawing up of legislation from the political and civil classes into the hands of those directly affected by the laws, via a wiki-type interface. I'm not saying such a thing would be good (Plato showed well enough how direct democracy can fail), but it is certainly worth pondering, and might be better than what we have now.
He also underestimated the propensity of people to form factions, even of people of the same class. He imagined the oligarchs to be united, whereas surely in reality they would split into parties, warring with each other even though they are to all practical purposes the same.
Neither do I think that the succession of states need be as Plato proposes, nor that the descent from aristocracy to tyranny is inevitable. For example, Plato believed that it would be an anti-oligarch who would end the democracy. However, as well as freedom, the democracy places a great value on equality (for example in wealth), and it might be this over-exaggerated virtue which is rebelled against, to return again to the oligarchy. After all, the wealthy can buy the support of the people, or at least those people best at promoting themselves. That doesn't mean that the succession couldn't happen as Plato supposes. England 1653. Russia 1917 (albeit that the democracy only lasted a few months). Italy 1925. Germany 1933. Uganda 1971. Spain 1931. There are plenty of examples of a democracy descending into a tyranny. But equally clearly, it has not happened everywhere. Sometimes things have gone in the opposite direction.
It is also wrong (although I am not sure that Plato made this error) to think that these types of structure cannot exist concurrently. He believed that they would be in conflict, but did not properly consider that (for example) power might be split between different instruments, and those instruments might be governed in different ways. In particular, it might be that the society contains a faction of greedy oligarchs, and a second faction of virtuous philosophers.
For example, our society has a separation of powers, which should (in principle at least) be independent of each other, though in practice are probably less so. First of all, we have academia. This might not seem like a branch of government, and strictly it isn't. But it is hugely influential. All the other classes of influence come through the universities. The university professors shape the teachers, media, politicians, judges, civil servants, and a large proportion of the businessmen. If the universities were working properly, this would be a good thing: to get through a university degree, you would have to encounter professors of numerous different beliefs, and would be well trained in sorting out the good arguments from the bad. Academia ought to be an Aristocracy (using Plato's definition, not ours), where prestige is governed solely by merit, and the leaders are dedicated to a life of philosophical reflection. In practice, it is probably more of a timocracy. To gain headway in academia is as much about how well you are able to promote yourself, and gain grant money. The pressure to publish something original and positive biases towards quick and sensational research. There is too little emphasis on reproducing results. Peer review (both for papers and grants) makes it harder to make headway with truly innovative research or that which lies against orthodoxy. There is great pressure to conform to the majority position, or to pursue the most fashionable research topics. In short, academia, while maintaining many principles of the aristocracy, has been corrupted by money and the need for honour. It has become a timocracy; and in many fields (particularly the humanities and social sciences) strongly biased.
Journalists, judges and the civil service face similar problems. They ought to be balanced, and aristocracies; but in practice there is far to much groupthink, leading to factions each with their own bias and unable to understand the logic behind opposing positions.
Business should be divided between small, medium, big, and multinational businesses. The ones with an influence are those in the larger businesses, and here we clearly have an oligarchy. The pursuit of wealth has become a goal in itself, perhaps more than doing a good job. The owners of the businesses are the investors: people who are solely in it for the money. Why else would we have businessmen who fail in one venture only to move to another top job, where they fail again? Small and medium sized businesses tend to be better managed (if nothing else because it is much easier to enthuse and organise 100 people than 10 000, and to be in closer contact to one's customers, employees, and suppliers and thus know their needs better), but are equally too small and lack the time and resources to influence national policy.
Then, there are the political class; not just the politicians themselves, but the lobbyists, party functionaries, researchers and advisors who hang around them. These institutions are obviously not democratic. Neither are they aristocratic (in Plato's sense). There is, of course, a great need for money, it being practically impossible to get oneself elected without a huge marketing campaign. Those who do well in the trade are those who can publicise themselves well, make catchy speeches and sound-bites fit for the news channels, and take down their opponents, both in other parties and among their own colleagues as they jostle for position in the hierarchy. The established parties tend to be tightly centrally controlled, and also strongly influenced by either their biggest donors or the loudest lobbyists. They are, thus, for the most part closest to either Plato's oligarchs (or, in the more revolutionary cases, tyrants).
So what we live in is an elective oligarchy. There are three main differences between this system and Plato's oligarchy. Firstly, that the groups (political parties and other political organisations, as well as the people who come to lead then), although they tend to be wealthy, did not become so by trading or producing something useful to society. The wealthy people in Plato's oligarchy did at least have to be good at something productive in order to gain their position. A politician merely has to be good at self-promotion. Secondly, every few years the population as a whole get to decide which particular faction of oligarchs (or tyrants) govern us. We do not get to choose policies, but are given a choice between two (or maybe a few more) sets of promises, neither of which will be kept by whichever side wins, and get to choose which is the least bad. We cannot say "I would like this from this manifesto, and that from that manifesto," and so on. That means, of course, that the politicians have to maintain at least a pretence of some policies which they believe will follow the popular will, while not endangering their backers. Thirdly, politicians are driven by ideology and party loyalty as much as the pursuit of personal wealth, while still needing to bend to popular opinion (or what they imagine popular opinion to be).
As such, we can expect the system to have the weaknesses of both democracy and oligarchy. And that is what we see:
- The people who get into government are not trained or experienced managers. Nor especially knowledgable on the things they are appointed to lead. Politicians rise in power on their ability to advertise themselves and degrade their rivals. They need to be charismatic, good speakers, and know enough on a broad range of topics to be able to persuade the public. There is also a need to avoid controversy, leading to an over-cautious view towards taking risks, leading to a lack of appreciation for innovation. These are not the skills needed to make a good manager. They might have management skills as well as political skills, and some do. However, they are not put into government on the basis of their ability to govern, but on their ability to elbow their way past their colleagues. This is why, of course, the election of someone like Donald Trump was a positive revolution. His record in business is somewhat mixed, but at least he had achievements outside politics and its hangers-on. However, his presidency is marred by his own personal moral and character failings. Thus I don't think he is strong enough to rescue the United States from its downward spiral.
- Plato was certainly right to predict that there would be a great gap between the wealthiest part of society, and the poorest (albeit that it is not inequality that is the main problem, but poverty: people living on or below the line where their income is barely enough to cover their necessary expenses). Most obviously inequality in wealth, but more importantly in influence and knowledge about each other. Political decisions from all parties would favour the elite. (When was the last time you saw a labour politician or democrat advocate a policy which would actually help the poor?) And we certainly see that today. To take a personal example, I am fortunate to have a salary which is well above average, and I live frugally: I am content with just the necessities of life, a few books and my computer. But I am not so comfortable that I can live without keeping a careful eye on my expenditure. There are many things which I have had to cut from the budget, and I don't think there is too much more that can go. Thus I am in the happy medium of Proverbs 30:8-9: financially comfortable, but not by too much. That hasn't always been the case; I have had jobs where I was one crisis away from being in deficit. I know what it is like to live on the line. I can take my annual budget, and look at where I would be if I were on a median salary. It is not pleasant. We have reached a point where full time work, not even on a low salary, is not enough to cover the basic costs of living. Charity can step in, and it has, increasingly so. And yet, the people in power (in both parties, the civil service, the media, academia, and big business) not only are safe from this, but mainly live in a (metaphorical) walled compound cut off from those who suffer from their mismanagement.
- The consequence of this inequality, combined with a society where people are judged on their financial success, is resentment. The lower society want change, leading to the rise of the populist parties. I am not sure that any of these have the answer, but they do at least have the virtue of offering something different. This rebellion against the rulers is, I think, inevitable in a democracy when the majority of the population see their situation worsen year on year, and the minority grow more comfortable. This popular appeal will latch onto something; whether that something truly offers a solution to the problem faced by the poor (rather than making it worse) is questionable, but it will be aware of the problem and will present itself as being the answer. This might not be the tyrant that Plato promised, but equally it could be. It will be cast against the ruling class, and promise to do a better job for the poor. A few will be genuine, and not take advantage of their position once they gain power, but the history of such movements suggests that most of the time it won't be, and would collapse into tyranny.
- Plato suggested that the oligarchs would legislate so that only people with a certain amount of money would be able to contribute to government. Obviously, that hasn't happened in our society. But then, there hasn't been a need. Running an election campaign is expensive. With (in the UK) about 70,000 per MP, you can't get your message out to all of them on a shoestring. You need to advertise, and effectively. Neither can you do so effectively while also doing an actual job; you need to have independent means. Ordinary party members contribute a bit, but the primary source of funds are large donors. Larger companies can afford to spare the resources to lobby parliament, while smaller companies need to focus all their resources on their actual work. If they smaller companies band together, they might compete, but then each individual voice is diluted. Then we have the professional lobby groups and think tanks -- again bankrolled by wealthy institutions. Thus the wealthiest people have a disproportionate influence. The majority of the population have little say, and those meant to represent them have no experience of how they live their lives. So there has been no actual legislation, but hasn't needed to be.
- There is, at least in some parts of society, a widespread love of money. Greed will be rampant in certain classes. The virtues will be neglected, since, as Plato said, greed and virtue cannot coexist. Those with the opportunity and skill to take advantage of it will become rich; those without the opportunity will increasingly slip into poverty.
- The disdain for the poor is there for both political parties in the country, including Labour/Democrats. Of course, all the politicians and political advisors of those parties are wealthy themselves, but that's not the main issue. Take the labour party as an example. It is closely aligned with the trade unions, so claims to be the party for the workers and the poor. But the trade unions don't represent all workers. They certainly don't represent the poor. Public sector workers, for example, might not be paid what they deserve, but neither do they have the worst salaries in the country. (It is not even clear to me that trade union representatives well represent all the members of the union; I would much rather hear from a teacher who concentrates on teaching than one who devotes an equal amount of time to union politics.) Only large companies or organisations have a unionised workforce. That primarily means large factories, transport, and public sector companies. Those in small businesses, or in the gig economy, might be struggling just as much or even more than the public sector employees who prop up the labour party, but have no influence. Thus the labour party doesn't understand a jot about the needs of one of the most important sectors of the economy. Instead, they are filled with book notions of what a society ought to be like, and a sense of smug intellectual superiority over those who they see as being uneducated. And this is to be seen: the labour electoral manifesto is invariably full of policies that will only serve to raise the burden on companies, and consequently raise prices, increasing poverty and the suffering of the lower skilled members of society.
- The people making the decisions will fall in with the latest fashion, lacking the expertise to distinguish good research from bad. They are not chosen because of their knowledge of science or statistics. They will then have to base their policies on expert opinion, without being able to properly scrutinise it and judging whether it is built on sound assumptions and methods.
- There will be a degradation in moral standards, particularly with regards to the need for strong families, and with it a gradual breakdown in order. Firstly among the poorest parts of society, but gradually spreading everywhere among all but the top of the elite.
- The chief characteristics of the age would be a desire for liberty and greed. However, given that one man's freedom comes at the expense of another's, there would also be growing oppression and resentment of those outside the mainstream.
- Each generation will grow successively worse as the society moves further away from the (wise) ideals on which it was originally founded.
- There will be greater interference in the lives of the underclass by the elite, who will try to justify their pride and position by regulating and controlling the business of the rest of the population. Even though the elite are not qualified or competent enough to make those decisions.
So why did the system work in the past? It is a long time since we had statesmen of the calibre of Disraeli and Gladstone, but those periods did exist. But, of course, back then, the majority of the people were influenced by the Church, which in those days still gave its congregations a strong desire to be virtuous (even if the rot had started). The politicians were drawn from the same pool.
So what of our future? Will we collapse into tyranny, as Plato predicted, or backtrack into oligarchy? Either way, the future of Western politics looks grim: continue our gradual descent into incompetence and relative poverty, or maybe a sharp crash into tyranny or anarchy.
The only solution I can see is the promotion and cultivation of the traditional virtues. But which party has that at the forefront of its manifesto?
All fields are optional
Comments are generally unmoderated, and only represent the views of the person who posted them.
I reserve the right to delete or edit spam messages, obsene language,or personal attacks.
However, that I do not delete such a message does not mean that I approve of the content.
It just means that I am a lazy little bugger who can't be bothered to police his own blog.
Weblinks are only published with moderator approval
Posts with links are only published with moderator approval (provide an email address to allow automatic approval)