Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

There’s a long essay in today’s Grauniad by James Miller, offering a broad-brush overview of the history of democracy, focusing mainly on what political theorists have had to say about it. I’ve come to think of this as rather an odd sub-genre; these essays are almost invariably condensed versions of books rather than written as essays for a specific publication, and they unite the desire of the author and publisher to hype the book and the desire of the newspaper to be publishing Big Provocative Ideas – hence, in this case, the claim of the title and sub-heading that this essay is all about arguing that maybe populism is essential for democracy rather than a threat to it, a thesis that is only touched on in passing in the actual piece.

The process of editing a book down to essay-length may account for a certain tendency to non-sequiturs: (more…)

Read Full Post »

How does democracy die, and can the process be stopped? It’s a pressing question at the moment, not only in the United States – the focus of Levitsky & Ziblatt’s new book, How Democracies Die – but across much if not most of the rest of the world, from South Africa to Germany to India, and even at a more local level, such as the steady marginalisation of all but a tiny clique in the management of universities, despite them still being presented as communities of teaching and scholarship – the reason why I’m writing this blog post when I would normally be talking about such issues in the context of Thucydides and his account of the crisis of Athenian democracy with my students.

It’s a shame, then, that a book with the subtitle “What history reveals about our future” is so lacking in historical perspective. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Wouldn’t it improve British politics (and probably the politics of many other Western democracies) enormously if we reintroduced the Athenian practice of ostracism – holding a vote to decide which disruptive and problematic individual should be packed off into exile for ten years? Actually my reaction when this was raised casually in a Facebook discussion this morning was: no, I can’t think of anything about this that isn’t deeply problematic – but, at the risk of using a sledgehammer to crack the proverbial nut, and not at all because I’m procrastinating about writing a lecture and revising a chapter, the reasons why it wouldn’t work are worth a brief discussion… (more…)

Read Full Post »

The next generation of politicians, all as mediocre as one another, and competing with one another for primacy with little concern for the good of the state, abdicated the control of affairs to the whims of the people. They concentrated on their personal intrigues and ambitions instead of exercising any sort of leadership; they undermined any influence they might have had overseas, and plunged their own societies into factional conflict.

(Thucydides 2.65, very loosely adapted)

Read Full Post »

Another day, another classical Trump analogy – or rather, a reiteration of one that’s already somewhat familiar, Trump as Cleon, put forward this time by G.W. Bowersock in the New York Review of Books. I have to say that, the more I see this comparison, the more I think it’s deeply unfair to Cleon, and reproduces an old-fashioned view of Athenian democracy that is based largely on sources hostile to the whole thing. Of course we don’t expect classical analogies to be based on detailed historical insight – I don’t have much to add on this point to Donna Zuckerberg’s ‘Make Comparison Great Again’ – but there are definitely bad and worse cases, evocations of the ancient world for present political and polemical purposes that are deeply dodgy rather than just moderately dubious. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Here is your regular Thucydides Twitter Quotes update, brought to you by @Thucydiocy and its tireless, if erratic, monitoring of quotes and references on Twitter! There’s been a minor upsurge in references recently, to a fair degree in relation to the delightful Trump, and in particular this line:

Someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it.

It’s a perfectly genuine quotation, from 8.89, in Rex Warner’s Penguin Classics version. It gets tweeted without comment – too many characters for anything else? – and it would be very interesting to check exactly how different people understand it. In the context of the Donald, it seems reasonably certain that it’s intended as a critical commentary on his pre-emptive questioning of the legitimacy of the election (though it’s not so much that he’s “consoling” himself about the result as preparing the ground for anger and insurrection). Previous to that, I’m less sure; is there a possibility that the emphasis is on “it wasn’t fair” as an actual property of democratic elections, rather than as the sort of thing that losers claim? That this is being offered as further grounds for cynicism about the whole system? (more…)

Read Full Post »

One of the less remarked-upon policies of the UK Labour Party in recent years has been to restore the relevance of the Athenian political system as a workable analogy for contemporary democracy. Besides all the dramatic changes in ideas and ideology since the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, charted at length by scholars like Paul Cartledge and Wilfried Nippel, the fundamental objection to the deployment of classical comparisons has always been the modern switch from direct to representative democracy, from decisions being taken directly by the votes of the demos to decisions being taken by their elected representatives. The consensus – leaving aside recent arguments that the internet now makes a return to direct democracy possible – has been that this is the only practical means of realising the ideals of democracy in the complex world of modernity. (more…)

Read Full Post »

In the aftermath of the onset of BRAGNARÖK, a number of people have been talking somewhat wistfully of the Mytilene Debate in Thucydides (3.36-48), when the Athenians changed their minds about massacring the entire population of a rebellious allied city. I think the first reference I saw to Mytilene on Twitter was from Angie Hobbs (@drangiehobbs) on 25th June (given how rapidly events are developing at the moment, I think it’s important to keep the chronology clear…), offering it as an exemplum rather than an analogy, but in recent days there’s been a blog post by Caitlin Harris, an MA student at Swansea (https://projects.swan.ac.uk/ancient-world/?p=386), arguing that it would be fundamentally undemocratic to deny people the right to vote again with a different perspective; a letter in the Grauniad from one Shoshana Goldhill in Cambridge (now there’s a famous classical surname…) arguing that it shows the ability for democracy to self-correct its own excesses; and an article in the Frankfürter Allgemeine Zeitung from Uwe Walter (Professor of Ancient History at Bielefeld, for anyone who doesn’t know his work), ‘Man müsste bloß wieder zurückrudern’, drawing on the work of Egon Flaig to explore in detail the circumstances of the second Mytilene debate and concluding by wondering whether the fateful Article 50 trireme that’s been dispatched will be over-hauled by a new Parliament, a courageous government or the obdurate Scots. (more…)

Read Full Post »

There’s a new Thucydides quotation out on the streets, or rather the internet, bringing him into debates about the candidacy of Donald Trump, and it seems like a good, if probably pointless, idea to try to nip this in the bud.

To get the really pedantic bits out of the way first (more…)

Read Full Post »

Thoukidideia

Does it make any difference if it’s the Greeks citing Thucydides with respect to the current crisis, rather than non-Greek (mostly anglophone) commentators? Of course; not because they have any special claim to his ideas, but because they’re speaking of their own problems and sense of identity using the cultural resources that seem best suited to the purpose, rather than imposing lazy classical stereotypes on another. If nothing else, it’s likely to be more interesting… As noted in a previous post, classical references seem to have been fairly few and far between in Greek popular discourse around the crisis (though I should stress that my ability to read modern Greek is so poor that I’m entirely reliant on colleagues for this impression, and maybe it bears more investigation), but then that isn’t very surprising: Thucydides has almost always been a writer for the intellectual few rather than the slogan-chanting many. I am enormously grateful, therefore, to @kirjalax for passing on a reference in the first report of the Truth Committee on Public Debt established by the Greek Parliament in April. The introduction concludes:

In response to those who impose unjust measures, the Greek people might invoke what Thucydides mentioned about the constitution of the Athenian people: “As for the name, it is called a democracy, for the administration is run with a view to the interests of the many, not of the few” (Pericles’ Funeral Oration, from the speech in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War)

Interesting as an indication of the line that was subsequently taken in calling for a referendum to bring the people directly into the process of deliberation and negotiation. Interesting also that this was the quote (in a different translation) chosen for the opening of the ill-fated draft European Constitution – maybe a coincidence, maybe an attempt at a subtle reminder to the rest of Europe of the values that supposedly underpin the whole community…

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »