With seemingly no sense of irony, Greece is proposing to establish a Centre for Democracy to teach revolting Arabs and other freedom-loving peoples the virtues of ‘social justice’ and ‘good governance’. Apparently Greece is in a unique position to lecture on rule by the people because, 1. we pioneered this sacred political system 2500 years ago; and, 2. we recently – 1974 – overcame tyranny to establish a paradigm for modern democratic government and society worthy of export.
Now, of course, it wasn’t ‘people power’ that ended tyranny in Greece in 1974 but the Turkish invasion of Cyprus; and the post-1974 ‘democracy’ established in Greece has not only brought the country to ruin on several different levels, but was characterised by a rigid concentration of economic and political power and an absence of civic responsibility and sense of citizens owning the laws by which they are governed, i.e. was a sham and parody of a democratic society.
It is a conceit, therefore, for Greece to regard itself as fit to lecture others on democracy. But since it does, I suggest the first thing the proposed centre’s founders do is read this piece, The Problem of Democracy Today, by Cornelius Castoriadis, given as a lecture in Athens in 1989.
Having done so, they will be in a good intellectual position to tell the Arabs that we (in the West) do not live in democracies but liberal oligarchies; that democracy is about significantly more than electing representatives once every four years; and that the first thing they (the Arabs) will need to do to on their journey towards democracy is throw their korans in the bin.
Below are some extracts from Castoriadis’ lecture. Castoriadis’ analysis of the nature of Athenian democracy is superb and you can appreciate Castoriadis as a great classicist without having to adopt his revolutionary politics.
‘In these developed and relatively liberal countries [i.e the West], what’s happening in reality? Journalists and politicians are talking about democracy. The real form of government is of course totally oligarchic. There are some liberal sides in this oligarchic regime: certain human and citizens’ rights, a so-called free press, etc. But if one examines who is really governing, who really has power in their hands, one will realize that even in the worst periods of the so-called Roman democracy – which was never a democracy, but an oligarchy – the percentage of those who had power in society was bigger than it is today. For instance, in France the adult and voting population is about 35-37 million people. If we [take into account] the so-called political class, the masters of economy, the people who really play an important role in manipulating public opinion, especially by the media, we’ll probably reach a total of about 3,700 people. This is a ratio of one to 10,000. And at the same time there are people criticizing ancient Athenian democracy because a free population of about 100,000 people had maybe at most 100,000 slaves. I’m not saying this to justify slavery of course. I’m saying this to give some perspective on the situation today. I imagine that if you make a similar estimation in [contemporary] Greece you’ll find at most 800 or 1,000 people who are really playing a role in every kind of power…’
‘We must return to the original meaning of the word “democracy”. Democracy does not mean human rights, does not mean lack of censorship, does not mean elections of any kind. All this is very nice, but it’s just second-or third-degree consequences of democracy. Democracy means the power (kratos) of the people (demos). Kratos in ancient Greek does not mean state in the present sense. There was no state in ancient Greece; the Athenian city was a polis or politia. Kratos in ancient Greek means power and probably violence or main force. It is characteristic that when in modem Greece a real state was created, we chose the word ‘kratos’ from ancient Greek. We could have chosen the word ‘politia’ (city). Democracy means power of the people. If we think deeply about these words, some substantial questions emerge. First of all, what is the demos, who is the demos, who belongs to the demos? Then, what does power mean? And the fact that the very characterization, the very term, that defines this regime produces these questions, shows the special nature of this regime, which is born at the same moment with philosophical inquiry, as opposed to other forms of government in which such questions cannot be born…’
‘Democracy is or wants to be a regime aspiring to social and personal autonomy (to set your own rules). Why are we talking here about autonomy? Because the majority of human societies have always been established on the basis of heteronomy (to have rules set by some other). The existing institutions in general, but the political institutions especially, were always considered given and not questionable. And they were made in such a way that it was impossible to question them. In primitive tribes, for example, institutions have been delivered by the founder heroes or ancestors and are considered self-evident. What is correct and not correct, allowed and not allowed, has been determined once and for all, in all fields. It is not even forbidden to question these institutions. There is no need to forbid it because it is, in fact, inconceivable to question them. People have embodied them. They have initialised them with their very upbringing, their very making as social persons.’