Slaves to democracy?

The low turnout at the polls last week for electing police commissioners in England and Wales has sparked new fears for the health of our democracy. The average turnout was 15%, with the figure sinking to 11% in some counties. The Electoral Commission has started an enquiry. Many have accused the public of apathy, whilst critics have attacked the way the campaign was funded and administered.

It is not, however, as if this low turnout is anything unexpected in the wider scheme of things. Since the 1950s in the UK the turnout for general elections has been in decline, falling from nearly 85% in 1950 itself to the low 60s in the last decade. The trend has been repeated in other polls such as the local and European elections. There is clearly a wider malaise in our democracy and public life.

Many might argue that the public’s disengagement from the polls comes down to a sense of disenfranchisement. It doesn’t matter for whom we vote; we will still be rewarded with some meretricious centrist who will more likely than not be in hock to a moneyed conglomerate, ready to pass openly into their employ once he has served his time in public life.

But a small and unsettling observation from the Ancient Greek world suggests a different root to the problem. Reading Austin and Vidal-Naquet’s Economic & Social History of Ancient Greece, I was struck by the point that although the people of Chios were the first in Greece reputed to have bought foreign slaves, they also leave us some of the earliest evidence for a move towards democracy. It is not dissimilar for the case of Athens itself. Although it was, in the 5th century BC, one of the most developed democracies known to history, its dependence on slavery was absolute. The development of “chattel-slavery”, where slaves usually speaking foreign languages were bought and sold as a commodity, seems to go hand-in-hand with the development of city-states and democracy itself.

It seems paradoxical that the same societies could accomodate slavery and the radical freedom of the Athenian democracy all at once. Yet slavery was seen as an adjunct to freedom. Without the labour of the servile class, the free citizen would not have the economic or practical liberty to busy himself about political affairs. The gift of the slave to the citizen was not great wealth, but merely time.

Democracy was born in an age of relative leisure, where there were enough affluent citizens with enough free time to sit in assemblies, councils and courts, meditate and discuss public affairs, and fulfil whatever offices and magistracies came their way. The fact that the birth of democracy required slavery is a reminder that democracy done properly requires time. Perhaps it is simply the increasing lack of this commodity in modern society, rather than apathy or disillusionment with the democratic process, that is the real problem with the system today.


The 18th Spartan congress in Beijing…

It seems that the 18th Communist Party Congress, which has just opened in Beijing, has come under attack from a disgruntled group of Chinese Classicists. Public debate about the secretive assembly, which has been called to choose a new cadre of top officials to govern China for the next ten years, has been stifled, and the Chinese term for the congress – “shiba da“ - is being censored on the internet there. However, according to the New York Times, Chinese activists are getting round this ban by referring to the congress online not as “shiba da” but “sibada” – the Chinese name for Sparta. An image from the film Sparta has even been mocked up with subtitles to the same effect.

The fact that Chinese commentators should choose to make such a parallel, fully conscious of all its associations, is something that we should pay full attention to in the West. As writers such as Martin Jacques laud the orderly handover of power in China compared to the perceived inefficiency of the recent US election, and suggest that China’s authoriarian regime will give it the edge over the West in the 21st century, the message of Sparta should give us pause.

Like China now, Sparta was widely admired and feared throughout Greece in the 5th century BC. Many thought that its system of completely subordinating the life of the individual to the state from cradle to grave was the key to national strength and stability. This was in contrast to Sparta’s great democratic rival, Athens. Even amongst a number of their own citizens, particularly the old aristocrats, there was a distrust of the Athenian democracy, the freedom of thought and restless striving for innovation which was a hallmark of the Athenian way of life.

The contrast in the Spartan and Athenian way of thinking is strikingly summed up in a fragment of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. In this extract (book 1 chapter 70, here taken from the Penguin edition), an ambassador from Corinth lambasts Sparta for not taking the rising power of Athens seriously:

“…you have never yet tried to imagine what sort of people these Athenians are… An Athenian is always an innovator, quick to form a resolution and quick at carrying it out. You, on the other hand, are good at keeping things as they are; you never originate an idea, and your action tends to stop short of its aim.” For a fuller manifesto of the spirit of Athens in contrast to that of Sparta, no bolder statement is made than in the funeral oration of Pericles, recorded in book 2; the parallels with the present day never fail to be striking.

Sparta was eventually victorious over Athens in the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century, but it was a close-run affair. Yet, it is most thought-provoking to look at the legacy of either side. Both eventually fell to the domination of Macedon in 336 BC, and then under the Empire of Alexander; then all Greece bowed to Rome by 146 BC. Both Athens and Sparta remained intact, and both were resorts for visitors from Rome. Athens became a great university city, which attracted Roman aristocrats eager to develop their powers of thinking and rhetoric and to enjoy access to the well-springs of philosophy. They revered the city as the place from which sprung Socrates, Plato, the arts of philosophy, rhetoric, drama, and tragedy amongst many other things. A training in Athens was a vital bonus when pursuing a life in Roman politics.

Sparta, however, was visited as a curiosity. It still preserved its ancient customs, as harsh as ever, and Roman visitors came to watch as Sparta maimed and killed its own youth in the antique initiation ceremonies designed to toughen them up for warfare. Yet, by the time of the Romans, Sparta had become a military irrelevence, and no Roman would visit hoping to learn anything relevant or useful for his own contemporary existence.