The Politics of the 99%, a.k.a., ‘Democracy’

Prior to the eighteenth century, most commentators shared Aristotle’s definition of democracy as a constitution in which ‘those who are free and are not well-off, being in the majority, are in sovereign control of government.’1 By this, Aristotle did not simply mean that democracy was a simple case of the ‘rule of the majority’; rather, as Aristotle makes clear, the essential aspect of democracy is that it is constituted by the rule of the ‘poor’ who merely happen to be in the majority.  A constitution is considered democratic ‘whenever the free are sovereign’ and ‘oligarchy when the rich are sovereign’.2 It is merely a matter of fact that the ‘many are free’ and ‘few are rich’.3  ‘[W]hat really differentiates oligarchy and democracy’, writes Aristotle, ‘is wealth or the lack of it…where men rule because of the possession of wealth, whether their number be large or small, that is oligarchy, and when the poor rule, that is democracy.’4Thus, democracy was understood as a class based phenomenon, and for Aristotle, the primary political conflicts of his own time were best understood as a form of class struggle that pitted the poor multitude against the wealthy few, in which the former struggled for democracy and the latter for oligarchy.5

Writing in the sixteenth century, Sir Walter Raleigh defined a commonwealth as the corruption of a popular or “free state,” characterized by the “Government of the whole Multitude of the base or poorer sort, without respect of the other orders.”6 It was generally understood that democracy signified a class based phenomenon that had ‘levelling’ implications for existing social hierarchies. In concrete terms, Athens became the model – for better but mostly for worse – of democratic politics.7As Jennifer Tolbert Roberts has documented, the Athenian example is consistently held up and subjected to scathing criticism at the hands of political theorists, right up into the modern period. Indeed, much of Western political thought is articulated in oppositionto the Athenian democratic tradition.8  With this in mind, Janet Coleman has emphasized the fact that, despite the token recognition of the Athenian democratic legacy and its importance for the identity of the modern Western European political experience, the positive ‘impact of actual Athenian direct democracy on later European society was to be virtually nil.’9
Indeed, the bulk of pre-modern political thought spares no expense at formally excluding the lower classes from power on the basis of a wide variety of claims. One common theme is the spectre of ‘class legislation’, meaning that the demos, meaning the ‘mechanical’ or ‘banausic’ classes, will use their numerical majority to implement policies that represent their ‘particular’ class interests as against the interests of the larger political community. These ‘class interests’ are antithetical to the common good because the lower classes lack the capacity to transcend their base appetites. Put another way, they cannot act in ‘universal’ ways conducive to some ill-defined ‘common good’. Ancient and early modern critics of democracy consistently characterised the ‘banausic’ and ‘mechanic’ classes as enslaved to their base appetites in ways that prevented them from being able to act in the interest of the ever elusive ‘common good’.10 Perhaps the most famous depiction of this is in Plato’s Republic, where his tripartite theory of the soul is presented as analogous to the divisions within the social hierarchy of the ideal polis and corresponds to the political division between rulers and ruled. The soul is divided between the rational, spirited and appetitive elements, which correspond to the philosophers, the auxiliaries and the labouring masses within the city. The harmonious relationship between these elements is characterized by Plato as ‘self-discipline’: ‘The ruling element and the two elements which are ruled agree that what is rational should rule, and do not rebel against it.’11 Self-discipline, for Plato, is a kind of order, a ‘mastery of pleasures and desires’ to the extent that ‘a person is described as being in some way or other master of himself.’ Thus, ‘[w]hen the naturally better part [of the soul] is in control of the worse, this is what is meant by “master of himself.”’12 In social terms the appetitive aspect of the soul – characterized by ‘desires, pleasures and pains’ – is dominant in ‘children, women, slaves, and among so-called free men, in the majority of ordinary people’, thus making them unfit for the art of self-government.13 Not being their own masters, these groups need to be subjected to the rule of the rational few.  The rational few, refer to the philosophers who practice a skill (techne) of a ‘higher reputation than other occupations’ and needs to be protected from the ‘stunted natures’ of those who engage in ‘the meaner trades’ due to their ‘minds being as cramped and crushed by their mechanical lives as their bodies are deformed by manual trades.’14 Similarly, in Aristotle’s ideal polis, the ‘citizens must not live a mechanical or commercial life’ and must not be ‘agricultural workers’ because such lives are ‘not noble’ and militate ‘against virtue’.15 Thus, the ‘best state will not make the mechanic a citizen’, but even where they are citizens, such as in his best ‘practicable’ state, this means that ‘what we have called the virtue of a citizen cannot be ascribed to everyone, nor yet to free men alone, but simply to those who are in fact relieved of necessary tasks.’16 In De Officiis, Cicero writes that, ‘workers who are paid for their labour and not for their skill have servile and demeaning employment; for in their case the very wage is a contract to servitude.’ Similarly, all artisans and craftsmen ‘are engaged in a demeaning trade; for there can be nothing well bred about the workshop.’17
Secondly, there is the characterization of democracy as ‘mob rule’, where democracy undermines the traditional relationships of authority between social superiors and their inferiors. According to its ancient critics, democracy and the democratic liberty (eleutheria) that it promoted challenged the established hierarchies of Greek society outlined in Book I of Aristotle’s Politics.18Plato’s famous depiction of democratic freedom, found in the Republic, is indicative of this understanding. In book VIII Plato characterizes democratic liberty as an ‘anarchical temper’ that ‘must penetrate into private homes and finally enter into the very animals.’ Paternal, patriarchal and despotic authority breaks down as the father ‘is afraid of his sons, and the son likens himself to the father and feels no awe or fear of his parents, so that he may be forsooth a free man.’ Similarly, the ‘resident alien feels himself equal to the citizen’, and ‘the climax of popular liberty’ is reached when the ‘slaves, male and female, are no less free than the owners who paid for them.’ The result of this spirit of liberty, says Plato, is that it renders the ‘souls of the citizens so sensitive that they chafe at the slightest suggestion of servitude and will not endure it’; they ‘pay no heed to the laws written or unwritten, so that forsooth they may have no master [despotes] anywhere over them.’19 This characterization of democratic liberty as a form of license is parroted by Cicero in the Republic. Through the mouth of Scipio, Cicero characterizes democracy as a state in which the citizens ‘would be masters of the laws and the courts, of war and peace, of international agreements, and of every citizen’s life and property.’20 Indeed, Cicero is explicit in his characterization of the individual freedom of Athenian democracy as being rooted in a conception of self-mastery that does not mean ‘self-discipline’ or the subjugation of the empirical self to the rule of the rational self, but rather, a form of masterlessness in which citizens, women, and even slaves enjoy an excess of freedom from the political and juridical authority of their masters. Such is the condition of liberty – licentia– in democracies, argues Cicero that all members of the city-state ‘are utterly without a master of any kind.’21
Thirdly, there is the charge of corruption.  From this perspective, political leaders – and there will always be leaders, even in a democracy – will become corrupted due to the need to pander to the base interests of the mob. Sophists, who have an interest in making the weak argument strong (according to Plato), twist the ‘truth’ and facilitate this process of corruption; for Plato considers the anti-philosophical public to be ‘Sophists on a grand scale’.22  Democratic leaders are considered to be corrupt demagogues concerned more with their own glory or interests than with the common good.
Lastly, there is the epistemological argument:  people lack the skill to rule because they are at best ignorant, at worst, irrational. In the Protagoras, Socrates points out that in the democratic assemblies, certain skills are recognized and respected over others. When it comes to ‘practical’ matters, like shipbuilding or masonry, those in the assembly without knowledge of shipbuilding or masonry and who challenge the knowledge of the masons and the shipwrights are shouted down by the demos, ‘no matter how handsome and wealthy and well-born he may be’.23 However, ‘when they have to deliberate on something connected with the administration of the State,’ says Plato, ‘the man who rises to advise them on this may equally well be a smith, a shoemaker, a merchant, a sea-captain, a rich man, a poor man, of good family or of none, and nobody thinks of casting in his teeth, as one would in the former case, that his attempt to give advice is justified by no instruction obtained in any quarter, no guidance of any master’.24 In other words, democratic assemblies respect certain skills – particularly those of craftsmen and those engaged in specialized professions – but do not consider politics to be a specialized craft that requires techne. This forms part of the foundation of the Republic, where Plato makes a lengthy argument that the division between rulers and ruled must correspond to the epistemological division between the philosopher, who has specialized knowledge of justice (which is the prerequisite for being able to rule), and the hoi polloi, whose knowledge is limited to the evanescent world of appearance and opinion.25 In short, ‘philosophy is impossible among the common people.’26


All of these arguments overlapped: the lower classes were incapable of ‘rational’ thought – episteme – as opposed to opinion or doxa; this was a result of their position within the social division of labour, a position which both denied them the leisure time needed to educate themselves and enable them to be free from their narrow class interests. Democracy, therefore, produced bad laws and corrupted the men who had to pander to the assemblies in order to remain in positions of power. The end result was the dissolution of relations of authority and the rise of an anarchical ‘tyranny of the majority’. These arguments formed part of a more comprehensive aristocratic world view that often seems alien to modern liberal sensibilities. In particular, it was an aristocratic world view developed in the context of pre-capitalist social relations that were intrinsically characterized by political or juridical relations of inequality that differentiated the direct producers – be they slaves, serfs or other kinds of formally dependent labourers – from their appropriators in legal and political terms. In this kind of social context, no pretence need be had to exclude entire classes of people from the rights and privileges of citizenship. For example, Aristotle’s insistence that ‘mechanics’ and ‘labourers’ cannot be citizens is part of a larger hierarchical worldview that views slaves as forms of property by nature, and considers the male by nature superior to the female. The polis, while characterized by relations of citizenship between free citizens (free born and propertied Athenian males) taking turns ruling and being ruled, is predicated upon the oikos that is constituted by relations of domination and inequality.27 Given that formally recognized political and juridical forms of inequality constitute the relations of surplus extraction in these societies, the presence of such overtly elitist political doctrines are perhaps to be expected (even if they contradict much of what the democracy stands for). What is remarkable about ancient democracy is that, despite the exclusion of women, foreigners and slaves, it enabled ‘labourers’ and ‘mechanics’ to be citizens – and in this regard it was truly exceptional.28

[1]Aristotle, Politics, 1290b7.
[2] Aristotle, 1290a30.
[3]Aristotle, 1290a30.
[4]Aristotle, 1279b26.
[5]Aristotle, 1301b26.
[6]Sir Walter Raleigh, The Prince, or Maxims of State (London, 1642), 5.
[7] A substantive discussion on the nature of Athenian democracy is beyond the scope of this paper. For a provocative and intriguing characterization of radical aspects of Athenian democracy, see Ellen Meiksins Wood, Peasant-Citizen and Slave (London:  Verso, 1988).
[8]Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, Athens on Trial: The Anti-democratic Tradition in Western Political Thought(Princeton University Press, 1996).
[9]  Janet Coleman, ‘A Conversation with the Greeks,’ in Dario Castiglione and Iain Hampsher-Monk, eds., The History of Political Thought in National Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) p. 16.
[10]‘[O]ur purpose in founding our state was not to promote the particular happiness of a single class, but, so far as possible, of the whole community.’ Plato, Republic, 420b.
[11]Plato, Republic, 442d.
[12]Plato, Republic, 430e.
[13]Plato, Republic, 431b-c.
[14]Plato, Republic, 495d.
[15]Aristotle, Politics, 1328b33.
[16]Aristotle, Politics, 1277b33.
[17]Cicero, On Duties p. 58.
[18]For an indepth examination of the development of Greek conceptions of freedom and their relationship to democracy, see Kurt Raaflab, The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece, (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2004).
[19]Plato, Republic, 563.
[20]Cicero, Republic (Loeb edition) I 47-49.
[21] Cicero, Republic, I 67.
[22]Plato, Republic, 492.
[23]Plato, Protagoras, 319c.
[24]Plato, Protagoras, 319d.
[25]This discussion occupies most of book six and parts of book five.
[26]Plato, Republic, 494.
[27]For Aristotle’s discussion on the natural superiority of men over women, see 1254b2. For his discussion of slaves as property, see 1253b23-1254a9.
[28]For an elaboration of this argument, see Ellen Meiksins Wood, Peasant-Citizen and Slave, (London:  Verso, 1988).

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