Thursday, March 24, 2011

From Democracy to Tyranny: Where Athenian Democracy Went Wrong

In the spirit of the revolutionary uprisings occuring all across the 'Arab World' I am sharing this piece I wrote about one particular model of democracy way back in 2006. I am not ashamed of it one bit, either! I welcome any feedback and comments with reference to the subject of 'democracy,' both historically or in a contemporary context.

By Ali Mustafa

Athenian democracy is widely accredited with the distinction of being the first known democracy, serving as the inspirational basis for many democratic models to follow. The degree of direct self-governance in ancient Athens was unprecedented and in many ways still remains unsurpassed. Widespread participation of the demos in legislative and judicial matters was the hallmark of Athenian democracy as well as its most lauded quality. Unlike modern ‘democracies’ where political influence never extends beyond the mere casting of a ballot, failing to regularly participate in administrative affairs in ancient Athens was seen as a gross violation of ones 'civic duty.' As Pericles, a notable Athenian demagogue, once declared: “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all” (Held 2006, 14).

The matter of just who was allowed to participate, however, proves to be where the merits of Athenian democracy stall and its due praise ends. Athenian democracy was a relatively stable and successful system of governance for two centuries not because of its extraordinary level of mass participation but rather in spite of it. While citizens were appreciatively neither bound by wealth or property qualifications, citizenship was restricted entirely to free adult males of strictly Athenian descent – the exclusivity of which virtually rendered Athens (whose population was estimated to be somewhere between 100, 000 – 400, 000 or more) at the complete mercy of a mere 30, 000 men (Samons 2004, 20). The question must then be posed: was Athenian democracy even a democracy at all? Metics, women, and slaves were all barred from citizenship, thus from political life altogether.

Aside from the fact that the citizenry only constituted a small minority of the overall population, it seems that Athenian politics were notably also dominated by the wealthy and those of high birth. According to David Held, author of Models of Democracy, “Since power was not structured by a firm constitutional and governmental system, political battles often took a highly personal form, often ending in the physical removal of opponents through ostracism or death” (Held 2006, 23). It is difficult then, for the abovementioned reasons, to classify ancient Athens during this period as anything other than a 'tyranny of the citizens.'

The breadth of direct political participation by the citizen body, in the form of the Assembly, was truly remarkable and is not to be minimized. The Assembly would meet at least 40 times a year with a quorum of 6, 000 citizens (the minimum amount necessary in attendance to pass a vote) to discuss various legislative and judicial matters as well as those related to foreign policy (Held 2006, 17). The responsibility for setting the agenda and the general organization of Assembly meetings was assigned to a council of 500, who were further subdivided into a committee of 50 (alternating monthly) and headed by a president who would oversee the proceedings (holding office for only 1 day). As elaborate and sophisticated as the administrative system in place no doubt was, through its exclusion of metics, women, and slaves from active citizenship, Athenian democracy fundamentally undermined the very democratic principles it contended to uphold.

Metics (foreign-born inhabitants) were a minimal yet industrious sector of the Athenian population, and excluding women from the citizenry had to have eliminated roughly 50 percent of the entire population alone; however, it was the slave population among the excluded that was perhaps the most vital and indispensable to the continuation of Athenian democracy. Slaves numbered anywhere from 80 – 100, 000 and were the chief source of labor in ancient Athens, thus allowing citizens (especially poorer ones) more free time to devote to political life (Held 2006, 12). Without slaves to provide the very bedrock upon which Athenian democracy was based, mass participation on the scale that it took place would have been rendered virtually impossible.

The ‘tyranny of the citizens’ was not only rooted in glaring omissions of representation within the citizen body, but rather in far more cunning (and undemocratic) methods of securing an uncontested monopoly on political power. The procedure of ostracism was a course of action taken in ancient Athens by which, if so decided, a member of the citizenry could be expelled from the polis for a period of up to 10 years, thus effectively ending his political career (Forsdyke 2005, 149). Although he retained his citizenship, his property was not confiscated, and he could return without stigma after serving his ten years in exile, the penalty for an ostracized person caught trying to reenter Athens prematurely was death. The fact that ostracisms were limited to one annually does little to diminish its ruthlessness.

Ostracism, albeit employed only sparingly, was usually reserved for settling deadlocked disputes between two prominent and politically active citizens (again, typically the rich or well born) as well as occasions in which such a citizen was suspected of being a potential tyrant or traitor. Suspicion alone was grounds enough to hold an ostracism with a vote of just 6, 000 needed for it to take effect. In this way, demagogues, by appealing directly to the prejudices of the masses, could prevail and have political opponents easily eliminated. The prevalence of such intra-elite rivalries characterized by lobbying and pandering to the public to gain political favor is well noted by Sara Forsdyke, author of Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy, who states, “In all likelihood, there were a number of elite politicians who formed and reformed alliances with one or another over an ever-changing series of issues as they struggled to maximize their personal influence in the state” (Forsdyke 2005, 170). In other words, even if ostracism was intended as a means of easily resolving ideological clashes or weeding out tyrants, it served better still as a tool within and between elite factions to eliminate political rivals by facilitating purges of any meaningful opposition.

The degree to which the ‘tyranny of the citizens’ dominated Athenian politics was substantial and its implications were far reaching; however, manipulating Athenian democracy was one thing, while sustaining it was entirely another. If slavery provided the labor source necessary for citizens to freely engage in public service, and ostracism allowed for the convenient expulsion of political opponents, then the success of democratic Athens as a 'conquest-state' can be seen as the glue that pieced it all together. Military conquest not only offered the Athenian empire much needed stability amid a volatile Assembly, but also a renewed source of slave laborers and the funds needed to pay the salaries of public officials (Samons 2004, 44).

Because the Athenian empire was so dependent on the spoils of war to fund its democracy, it made no serious efforts to avoid looming conflicts with enemy or hostile states (initially, Persia and later, Sparta) and in fact deliberately pursued an aggressive foreign policy. The overarching need to engage in hasty, unreasoned wars overextended troops and alienated allies. As Loren Samons, author of What’s Wrong with Democracy, aptly recounts:

…the Athenians raised the amount of tribute demanded from their allies to at least twice its previous level, tightened control of that tribute payment and management of the empire in general, began to tax Athens’s wealthier citizens when the immense war chest under Pericles began to dissipate, voted for the mass execution of all male citizens and enslavement of the women and children of states revolting from the Athenian empire, and refused Spartan offers of peace on favorable terms (Samons 2004, 132).

In light of the abovementioned facts, is it any wonder then that Athenian democracy took the tyrannical form that it did? It was an impossible system to sustain any other way.

Athenian democracy’s continued existence hinged largely upon its exclusivity, thus, was fatally flawed from its inception. While political accountability was located in the demos – one that surely extended itself to encompass more of the populace than ever before – it was exactly this mark of distinction that was both its strength and greatest liability. By failing to grant metics, woman, and slaves equal rights, Athenian democracy essentially gave wealthy demagogues free rein to manipulate and exploit a significantly smaller, more vulnerable electorate. As much promise as the most celebrated democracy possessed, tyranny can ultimately be attributed as the source of its undoing. We are only left now to wonder what might have been.

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'From Beyond the Margins' by Ali Mustafa is licensed under a Creative Commons License.