When people think of ancient Athens they usually associate it as the birthplace of democracy. Although the association is valid the city-state did not always have a representative government. Athens has had a monarchy for a time and even when it was democratic it had an empire. In the latter part of the 6th century BCE, Athens was the imperial center of a network of Greek cities ruled by an oligarchy of powerful and wealthy ruling families. Interestingly, even when Athens was an oligarchy it possessed certain qualities making democracy eventually possible. In this article, I’ll be discussing the problems affecting pre-democratic Athens making it necessary for the oligarchs to give supreme executive authority to Solon to prevent the city-state from descending in to civil war. My hope, in a sort of roundabout but relevant way, is to make certain connections between the politics of ancient Athens and the United States in the present day.
Setting the Stage
Before the time of Solon important families didn’t enjoy unrestricted access to power. Power meant responsibility, not profit. Wealthy individuals were required to serve as members of Athens’ government; members didn’t serve indefinitely (like a senator would in Canada’s upper chamber) but for a short preset period to prevent any single person (or family) from gaining too much influence over decision-making. Athens was divided in to basically two classes—and the class one belonged to was determined fundamentally by how much land one owned.
Athenians, regardless of class, were taught two civic virtues: firstly, to appreciate the importance of pursuing policies producing the greatest good for the greatest number of people; and secondly, to not view government as some sort of personal springboard to power (or place to pursue one’s own narrow self-interest). On the contrary, citizens were encouraged to view participation in the government as a sort of sacred duty. In many respects, working in government actually meant a reduction in one’s influence because of the aforementioned civic virtues. So, at an abstract level at least, a check existed minimizing corruption and keeping the wealthy—at least in theory—accountable to both the lower class and to one another.
Nevertheless, over time—as is the case with essentially any political system—the ruling families found ways, and used what wiggle room the system afforded, to pursue their own narrow interest at the expense of other citizens. For example, members of the lower class were not allowed to hold office; and as such they did not possess any executive decision-making power. Despite the civic virtue practiced by the Athenians corruption entered the system (an inherent problem involving any human institution) and the lower class found itself exploited and heavily indebted to the oligarchs. In order to pay off their debts many members of the lower class were forced to sell themselves in to slavery. With the lower class decimated, Athenian society became fractious; and as the ruling families jockeyed with one another for power Athens threatened to descend in to civil war.
In an effort to avoid civil war, Athens’ oligarchs took the extraordinary step of giving emergency powers to an aristocrat named Solon (638-558 BCE). Solon was named archon (magistrate) and given supreme executive authority to implement binding legal reforms to restore stability to Athens. At the beginning of Solon’s dictatorship, the city’s citizens were politically divided in at least two ways: firstly, the lower class wanted to drastically reduce the power of the oligarchs by confiscating and redistributing their land among the poor; and secondly, the oligarchs themselves were in mortal conflict with one another. Although Solon was a land owner himself, he did not his use his executive decision making power to benefit his class; rather, his reputation as both a practical and principled man was well-founded: he enacted reforms reflecting a sort of “middle-ground” neither giving the lower or upper classes entirely what each wanted; and to ensure he could not be pressured to overturn any reforms he eventually went in to a self-imposed exile.
In an effort to unify Athenian society, Solon enacted the following reforms:
- Forbade the selling of Athenians into slavery
- Secured the freedom of citizens already sold in to slavery
- Enabled the lower class to regain possession of property without actually forcing the wealthy to surrender any land
- Established a new balance of power by dividing the males of Athens in to four classes determined by income (measured in grain), i.e. by splitting up the wealthy checks and balances were introduced to the political decision making process by convention
- Continued the practice of allowing only the most wealthy Athenians to occupy the most important political offices
- Created a general assembly (called the ekklesia) composed of 400 men belonging only to the top three classes; the assembly passed laws and made decisions; it was difficult to dominate or hijack because membership was determined by lot as opposed to election
In the latter 6th century BCE, Athens experienced exceptionally difficult times requiring the dictatorship of an exceptional man. What ultimately led to Athens’ instability making Solon so necessary? There are a number of factors to consider, e.g. Athens relied too much upon the civic virtue, or tradition, for stability; over the passage of time corruption inevitably creeps in to any political system (people are great at finding ways to exploit laws or the lack thereof for personal benefit); human nature being what it is it is unreasonable to presume citizens will consistently sacrifice their own narrow interests for the greater good; power wasn’t distributed equitably among Athens’ population but was exercised fundamentally by the oligarchs which meant they could exploit the non-landing owning class; and lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Athens relied upon fickle and whimsical human beings rather than a written constitution to establish a society of laws. Thus, a charismatic and capable individual was required in order to solve Athens’ problems because no effective appeal to the rule of law could be made for reform.
There exists a curious similarity between Athens of the 6th century BCE and the United States in the 21st century, i.e. the political system is widely viewed as rigged, hijacked, and controlled by a corporate oligarchy which ignores the needs of the other classes; also, as in the Greek context many Americans have embraced a man (Donald Trump) who has promised to set everything right. Donald Trump appeals to many Americans because he purports to be an anti-establishment man (“not a politician but a businessman”) who possesses the personal power to “make deals” while ending the corruption making Washington, D.C. so obviously dysfunctional and hated.
The parallels between Athens and the United States are curious: the Americans, like the Athenians before them, currently believe a man with purpose can either reform or meaningfully change a broken political system. In Solon’s case, he successfully brought stability to Athens for a couple decades, his reforms failed to address the greatest problem affecting Athens, i.e. you cannot establish long-term peace or stability when you both marginalize a whole segment of society (the poorest class known as the thetes) while also retaining special privileges for the wealthiest citizens. Any time one segment possesses special privileges or greater power denied to others you get contempt, envy, and a recipe for civil strife. Arguably, this is the situation in the United States today where billionaire oligarchs like Sheldon Adelson, George Soros, or the infamous Koch brothers, own the political decision-making process; that is, they spend extraordinary amounts of money to help push through desired policies in Congress through PACs and lobbyists (and members of Congress who they helped get elected). So, despite the fact the people are sovereign in America it would appear some individuals are more sovereign than others.
Within 20 years of Solon introducing his reforms, self-interested ruling elites were back at it again threatening Athens with civil war. Solon’s constitution did not succeed in the long-term because it relied too much upon people as opposed to governing principles. He should not have counted on the good character of the aristocracy to maintain order. Again, human nature being what it is people in the aggregate are selfish creatures who aspire to power. President Abraham Lincoln, one could argue, was successful in both the short and long term precisely because he did not rely on the “good character” of people to uphold the law but upon an appeal to democratic first-principles, i.e. he preserved the union by upholding the rule of law as presented in the Constitution, i.e. there existed peaceful mechanisms within the union enabling states to work out the differences among them; and in the long-term, Lincoln’s vision of an inclusive America, a society of laws, a liberal state, etc. as presented by the Declaration came to fruition.
Lincoln appealed not only to principles extant in the Constitution but also to those articulated by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence; that is, despite slavery’s continued existence after the Declaration’s publication in 1776 the document was pregnant with possibility; that being, that all men were created equal and that in time all men and women would be equal regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sex or sexual orientation. Slavery was on the wrong side of history. Oligarchy was on the wrong side of history. History, it would seem, supported an expansion rather than a limiting of human rights; moreover, history was also on the side of establishing, and keeping, power accountable to the People. Ultimately, all citizens in a society governed by the rule of law are politically equal; they do not have to be economically equal in order to be politically equal.
The clear solution, or at least one part of the solution, is to reform the election campaign process: a good start would be to simplify the process for selecting leaders of the two parties in the United States; the process is drawn out over weeks and weeks and requires huge sums of money for a candidate to be successful; and this just invites corruption and cronyism. Given the fact we have television and the Internet one would assume all of this could be decided over the course of two weeks as opposed to eight months.
So while the Koch brothers only donated 2.5k to Romney directly they donated millions of dollars to a PAC (political action committee) called Restore Our Future which had the objective of taking out ads to influence public opinion and such. Advertising works to shape public opinion, e.g. the tobacco industry popularizing the idea smoking doesn’t cause cancer sound familiar?
Another necessary reform is the repeal of Citizens United (a suspect decision reached by the Supreme Court enabling billionaires and others to donate as much money as they want to political action committees (PACs)). The reason people and corporations are legally limited to donating 2,500 dollars to a candidate is to avoid the problem of exchanging financial support for political favors; however, candidates do receive indirect help through PACs (who have no limit on how much money they can collect from donors) who pursue elaborate marketing campaigns to help mold public opinion. For example, the Koch brothers only donated 2,500 dollars to Mitt Romney’s campaign for the presidency; however, the Kochs donated millions to a PAC called Restore Our Future whose objective was to propel Romney to the oval office. To put it simply, even though Romney’s campaign staff did not receive millions directly they still received and benefited from it indirectly through the efforts of PACs.
Certainly the people who establish PACs have a First Amendment right to freedom of speech; nonetheless, their capacity to shape the political decision-making process does have the potential to undermine democracy, i.e. PACs enable billionaires to propel favored candidates to Congress and fill the presidency. For this reason Congress cannot be depended to change itself or repeal Citizens United, i.e. the powerful benefit from keeping things the same. This does not mean that the People lack the means to rectify the situation. They do have the courts that in principle could be used to repeal such legislation. The judicial branch is separate from the legislative and executive branches for a reason (so it can keep the other two accountable by interpreting and upholding the law). I’m waiting for a ballsy district attorney, a 21st century Jim Garrison or Clarence Darrow, to challenge the constitutionality of Citizens United. Even if a DA failed to actually change anything, attention to the hijacked political decision-making process would be increased making the possibility for change (or strife) increase.
Why was Lincoln’s vision ultimately successful while Solon’s was not? The legitimacy of the American system (in the 1860s) did not rely upon the charisma, charm or talent of an individual; on the contrary, the legitimacy of the American political system consisted of an appeal to reason, not charisma (meaning the system would continue to function even after the death of an important president); and this is one of the reasons I find it odd (but not surprising) people in 2016 are looking to an individual like Trump (or Barack Obama in 2008) as opposed to the law to solve America’s problems.
Over the next few weeks (and as time permits) I’ll be publishing a series of articles discussing the circumstances surrounding why people are placing their confidence in Trump as opposed to the rule of law, Trump’s prospects for success, and the implications for democracy. In the great scheme of things, and if history is any guide at all, the prospects for preserving democracy in the United States depends less upon the actions of an individual and more upon an appeal—as Lincoln did—to the proper observance of the intent, spirit and letter of the Declaration and Constitution (1787).
If you enjoyed reading this article, you might be interested in related stories or podcasts. Explore the list below:
Part 1: Donald Trump: The Problem of Relying on Men Instead of Principles
Part 2: Donald Trump: Why Reasonable People Vote for Him
Part 3: Donald Trump: Where’s It All Heading
Elections 101: Kang and Kodos on Clinton and Trump
Trump Makes Promises He Can’t Keep
Podcast (audio): Why You Should Vote for Trump