What's an acceptable alternative to democracy?
The main difference between ancient Athenian democracy and our own was nothing to do with all those things the textbooks usually tell us: the use of a lottery to choose most state officials (the fairest, most equal kind of selection after all); the participation of everyone -- well every male citizen -- in the decision making process, not just selected representatives, as in our parliament; and so on.
Much more important than these institutional distinctions was the simple fact that Athenian democracy existed in a world in which it was perfectly acceptable NOT to be a democrat. It was quite OK to think that oligarchy, for example, might be a better idea. Suggesting that democracy might not always be the best political system wouldn’t have caused a nasty silence at parties. In fact most surviving Athenian writers fell firmly in the anti-democrat camp.
To be honest, I wouldn’t have fancied living under an oligarchy, especially if I was poor and so firmly excluded from that particular political process (I know, as a woman I’d have been excluded from every kind of ancient political system – but I’m leaving that on one side just for the moment). And I wouldn’t much have fancied getting caught up in the civil wars that periodically broke out between oligarchs and democrats. But having some viable alternative did at least keep democracy on its toes – and it kept “democracy” meaning something.
Unlike now, when all kinds of corrupt and corrupting versions of the system trundle on under the legitimating title of “democracy” . . . and when we're all "democrats", or claim to be.
This last week has certainly been a bad one for the D-word.
We don’t yet know how the terrible situation in Kenya will turn out, or whether the alleged “voting irregularities” will be proven and get called to account. One of the reasons we don’t know is that the courts in Kenya are still investigating similar allegations from the last election five years ago. True or not, they hardly seems to have stopped the regime in its tracks. Awful as it looks right now, the chances must be that this scandal will pass too, and that the western press will soon forget about it – while patting the Kenyans on the back for their commitment to “D”.
And then there is Pakistan. I can’t make my mind up whether Benazir Bhutto would have been a good thing for the country or not (her first period in office wasn’t particularly auspicious, was it?). But let’s suppose she would have been. I am still waiting for someone to explain how this dynasty of Bhutto’s, passing power from one generation to another (and now to a teenager who ought to be concentrating on his degree), counts somehow as a bastion of democracy.
Or how passing it from Bush senior to Bush junior counts for that matter. Or from Mr to Mrs Clinton.
Students of ancient Athens now tend to look askance at the position of Pericles who, year after year in the middle of the fifth century BC was elected to the office of general (or strategos, one of the few Athenian offices which was elected not chosen by lot). Isn’t that a bit undemocratic, they ask , monopolizing office in that way? Maybe. But at least Pericles didn’t try to shoe horn his son, grandson or partner into the act.
As the son remarked over New Year, these dynasties look more like the Roman imperial family than Athenian democrats.