Friday, 18 February 2011

Greece to offer lessons in democracy

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.’


Anonymous said...

Sounds like it fits into George Papandreou's dream of being supreme leader of the UN.

John Akritas said...

It's a fair point. GP often gives the impression that he lives in a dream world and that he's PM of Sweden, with Denmark, Estonia and Norway for neighbours. Someone should tell him about the Turks and how unlikely it is that the Arabs will be receptive to creating European-style democracies and that if modern Greece wants to learn from its past, then it should study the personality of Themistocles and his role in confronting the imminent Persian danger, i.e that living in a 'democracy' doesn't mean you have to go round preaching peace when it is evident that you are surrounded by danger.

lastgreek said...

GP should invoke the concept of odious debt and immediately afterwards declare Greece's sovereign debt null and void.

If he were to do that, he would be the greatest Greek statesman since Pericles.

PS: Rich people don't pay their debts. That is how they stay rich. They're not fools. Take that god-awful ugly of a man Donald Trump. He is a welfare recipient. He has had more Chapter 11 bankruptcies than I have had [please fill in the blank with something lewd and lascivious ;-)].

Anonymous said...

A really interesting and instructive post. Many years ago I was a student at the LSE and was at the time quite uncertain when listening to a lecture on the problems with democracy, implying that democracy was an inefficient and unfair form of government in modern societies. My thoughts turned to Plato's Republic, extolling the merits of the "philosopher king". I have the greatest love and respect for the ideas of Socrates but where can you find such a person to-day? I am equally reminded of a very popular theme going around in the students' discussions that 'power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely', pretty evident with to- day's long standing dictators. Have societies to- day become too large and complex for any form of government to achieve the Socratic dream of a fair, life enhancing and enabling society?
{Please note. I can't get Google to allow me an identity, so as not to confuse people with so many 'Anonymous' posts I will sign with my first real name.}

Anonymous said...

Didn't Curchill say that democracy is the worst form of government but the alternatives?


Anonymous said...

You also may find the Bettany Hughes book timely:


Anonymous said...

It's also quite funny how democracy is interpreted as "chaos" for Turkish internal purposes:

Dinos of Ellas

Hermes said...

John and all, I agree that Greek democracy is a sham. On that other hand, don't be so negative. The United States has been promoting this sort of nonesense for years but really it is a cover for US imperialism. The problem is not the idea of the Centre of Democracy but the people responsible for its creation and operation. If we had real Greeks responsible for this centre it would be used as an instrument to subjugate the surrounding people and impose our values on them.

The new Castoriadis book published by Brill appears very good. But very expensive.

Anonymous said...

Από πότε ο Καστοριάδης έγινε αντικείμενο μελέτης από εθνικιστές (ναι ξέρω πατριώτης είσαι).Ο ίδιος ο Καστοριάδης δεν πίστευε σε σύνορα.Άσε λοιπόν τον Κάστοριάδη,γιατί μόνο κακό κάνει σε αυτόν και το έργο του να το καπηλεύονται εθνικιστές,επειδή δεν ικανοποιούνται και δεν μπορούν να βρουν κάτι να γεμίσουν την κενότητά τους.

Hermes said...

Ποιος σου έδωσε το δικαίωμα να δρα ως προστάτης του Καστοριάδη;

John Akritas said...

You're right, H. Greece could do a lot soft-power wise. It's a fallacy, however, to believe that the Arabs are gagging for democracy and want our ideas and help. The Arabs want Islam. Liberal societies will not inevitably triumph over obscurantist and repressive societies – history shows that most of the time people are satisfied with tyranny; in which case, Greece has to prepare itself not for being 'an education to the world' but for being in the front-line against a hostile Islamic revival.

Another volume of Castoriadis' writings was recently made available for free as A Society Adrift and has some good essays, though a lot concern revolutionary politics and are somewhat dated:

Mantho: Plato is, of course, the pivotal anti-democratic philosopher and there is a breathtaking (and often difficult) work by Castoriadis (On Plato's Statesman) on precisely this question of Plato's political philosophy, in which C. argues that Plato, in his detestation of Athens and its democratic ethos, was a kind of 'inverted Alkibiades'.

Dino: I'd trust the reviewer of Bettany Hughes book than Hughes herself. I've seen a couple of her programmes on ancient Greece and I think they're awful.

lastgreek said...

It's a fallacy, however, to believe that the Arabs are gagging for democracy and want our ideas and help.

I think they're "gagging" for decent living standards. That said, it's hard to imagine how this will come about in a desert country like Egypt with over 80 million people. In five years, the 80M will be 90M.

Regarding Gaddafi (or is it "Qaddafi?) ... no one likes him. When he's eventually overthrown (odds are high), who's going to have him? The only head of state that I can see giving the pompous dictator refuge is Berlesconi. It's a quid pro quo: Berlesconi will now have access to Gaddafi's whores.

The Iranians now must be beside themselves with giddyness with what is unfolding in the Middle East. Who would have imagined just a few months ago that Iranian warships would be given permission (respect?) by Egypt to sail through the Suez Canal and enter into the Med. sea. Of course, the Mullahs good fortunes will be short lived . . . .

John Akritas said...

'Decent living standards' seems a nebulous concept to me, LG, invented by European social democrats. We'll see what happens when the Arabs get to vote for who they want. I suspect they'll want the Islamists and it's not the Iranians who are beside themselves – don't forget the sunni/shia thing and the fact that Iranians detest Arabs and vice versa – but the Turks. And it is the Turkish model – the AKP model – the Arabs are likely to want to emulate, not some fancy Greek/European notion of democracy; all of which spells trouble for Greece and shifting alliances.

lastgreek said...

J, nothing nebulous about having a living wage so a human being can afford quality housing and food ... nothing nebulous about having access to quality healthcare and education. I mean, I am not suggesting villas on the Riviera, beemers ... stuff like that.

With the Arabs, it remains to be seen. It's just that Egypt, the biggest Arab country of all, is an unmitigated disaster.

The problem with Greece, J, is that the Greeks in Greece today don't behave like Greeks---civilized.

Whereas, the problem with Turkey (and another problem for Greece) is that the Turks behave ... like Turks---uncivilized.

As for the Iran ... J, there
is a good possibility that in a week or two all American puppet regimes---save the Saudi freaks, but you never know---in the Middle East will have fallen. Bahrain has a Shia majority. Where is the American 5th Fleet going to park? It can't in Saudi Arabia, can it?

There have been rumours (reports?) that Gaddafi will seek refuge in South America. Who knows-- maybe Gaddafi was not keen on sharing his whores with Berlusconi.

Hermes said...

These supposed "Castoriadis protectors", scanning the Internet for any misinterpretations of their Master's teachings, are hiliarious. Castoriadis's thought, and what he said on such and such date, is a critique. It is not a precise blueprint for changing society. It should not be taken as Gospel! Castoriadis, like Marx before him, would be horrified by their less intelligent Apostles. Further, regarding selective readings of thinkers, a great number of people appreciate Aristotle's thought on ethics, politics and so on. However, today they are horrified by his thoughts on surrounding races. No thinker's ideas should be understood as a closed system. In fact, this autonomy was precisely what Castoriadis's was advocating.

lastgreek said...

News of riots in Athens.

You know, I can understand the people of the Middle East rising up against the unelected regimes. There is no other way to go about it.

In Greece, it's another matter.

The Greeks have a mechanism in place where rioting and revolution are not necessary. It's called elections. You don't like the current government? Vote to change it. The people of the Middle East are fighting in the streets for such a process.

Having said the obvious ... peaceful protests and demonstrations are part of democracy; violence is not. All violent demonstrators must be arrested; they are criminals for breaking the law.

Just wanted to offer the Greeks a free lesson in democracy, J.

lastgreek said...

The above link shows the horrible image of a Greek police officer engulfed in flames.

Anonymous said...


A point to note on Democracy in the golden age of Pericles.

" Athens had a population of 25000 Greeks, 5000 foreigners . Naturally only Greeks had the right to vote, to sit in govenrment and run affairs of state." ( one must realized that foreigners were Thebans,or anyone outside Athens;

Source: Democracia en la epoca de Pericles, periodo de oro de la Grecia clasica.

lastgreek said...

The Greek government has to realize that it exists with the consent of the governed---the Greeks!

Unfortunately, this fundamental democratic principle escapes the the Greeks themselves.

Evidence: Come election time, the Greeks re-elect the same politicians who do the opposite of what they had been told to do.

Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat.

That's why politicians, blue or green, ignore the governed.

Of course, this is not a Greek phenomenon.