One aspect of the Melian Dialogue that is mentioned relatively rarely is the fact that the exchange of views between the Athenians and the representatives of the Melians takes place in private – at the request of the latter. This has a bearing on the question of whether Thucydides could have had accurate knowledge of what was discussed (A: no, he made it up), but it is clearly also important for understanding the dynamics of those negotiations, and for thinking about how this might affect attempts at employing the Dialogue as a model or template for other situations. In brief, in the real world no such exchange is ever entirely hermetically sealed off; the protagonists ‘represent’ their wider communities (politically, and for us readers also as a synecdoche), but their decisions must be shaped by their consciousness of a possible gap between themselves and the people whom they may be committing to certain actions or fates. The Athenian generals, we can assume, must be conscious that their decisions will be subject in due course to the scrutiny of the Assembly, with the possibility of exile or worse if the demos is displeased. The Melian leaders, however, seek to avoid any such scrutiny, and indeed this becomes one of the Athenian arguments against their choice of defiance rather than surrender: What do you think the rest of your people would say if they knew you were condemning them to inevitable death or slavery? What right does any elite, however legitimate, have to commit the rest of the people to suffering that they never signed up for?
The contrast with the current Greek situation is striking. Here it is the superior party which refuses to acknowledge the possibility of consulting all those affected by the decision – not least because of the sense, especially in Germany, that the people might not be willing to support even the limited amount of help that was being offered to Greece. Instead, one might cyncially say that democracy is seen as a means of producing representatives who can then make decisions on ‘rational’ grounds, i.e. the higher demands of international capital and neoliberal ideology, and who are then responsible for somehow or other reconciling their peoples to this – and this applies to the European leaders as well, but certainly is expected to apply to the Greeks. This elitist approach is a fair description, on both sides, of the previous rounds of negotiations: the European representatives bailed out banks and shifted the risk onto their peoples, while the Greek representatives accepted stringent austerity for the masses. Now the ‘Melians’ are insisting that they have no mandate for surrender on such uncompromising terms, but equally no mandate for collective self-destruction – while the European representatives resist any ‘softer’ deal on the basis that their voters won’t accept it (see Paul Mason’s latest blog this morning).
The Greek referendum may have been intended partly as a negotiating tactic, of course, following Henry Farrell, and partly as a means of dealing with internal opposition, as Paul Mason has suggested, but it is also a statement of principle, a repudiation of ‘politics as normal’ – and, perhaps, an attempt at finding a way out of the toxic Melian Dilemma by shifting the decision-making power away from the elites (of whatever nationality) and back to the people. [Update: I’ve just seen Costas Douzinas‘ piece from yesterday, likewise arguing that the referendum is an attempt at escaping aporia] It opens up new possibilities through the sheer uncertainty of whether the Greek people will make the ‘right’ decision (there’s no consensus about what that would be, obviously – but this is how the proposed referendum is being reported), but it also shifts responsibility, whether for continued austerity or for Grexit (and a different sort of austerity) from the elected politicians to the people.
Which means, of course, that we may finally be able to switch attention for a bit from the Melian Dialogue to the sections of Thucydides’ account that engage with questions of democratic deliberation, and the tendency of democracies to get swayed by emotion and rhetoric and then refuse to ‘own’ their decisions…