Tuesday, January 27, 2015

We Need More "Irresponsible Populists"

Alas, I cannot find it, but around the time of the last Greek election there was a column so caustic that it could be only shown online because the print it might have eaten away the paper and ink.  The overall gist, however, was that while the Germans think that destroying a quarter of the Greek for the sake of its creditors seems eminently reasonable, the Greeks should be forgiven for disagreeing.  The current reaction to Syriza winning in Greece is nothing new.  It was the reaction to Francoise Hollande winning in France.  And Lula da Silva winning in Brazil.  And any candidate winning who runs on a platform of putting the well-being of the domestic population ahead of international banks.

Can we face facts?  The current convention of our global elite -- the VSP's, if you will -- is that a "responsible" government means one that runs the country for the benefit of international banks.  An "irresponsible populist" means a government that runs the country for the benefit of the domestic population.  Whenever an "irresponsible populist" won an election, there would invariably be dire warnings that he must reassure international banks that all that talk about putting the domestic population first was just something he said to get elected, and that really the country will continue to be run for the benefit of banks.  When Lula da Silva won in Brazil, I recall calls for him to start his administration by taking some harsh measure to hurt poor people, not because it made any sense, but just to reassure that banks of his good faith.  And when a financial crisis hits, countries are invariably urged to inflict maximum damage on their economies as a means of reassuring creditors.

And it can't be emphasized strongly enough -- none of this is new.  How long has it been going on? A lot of it happened in the 1930's in Europe.  After WWII, we were supposed to have learned something from the experience.  How long did it take to unlearn the lesson?  I honestly don't know, except that I first became aware of it in the 1980's in college with a debt crisis going on in Latin America.  The VSP's behaved exactly the same as they are behaving in Europe today, with much the same result.* It happened again in Eastern Europe in the 1990's with the VSP's always pushing for countries moving away from Communism to take the most drastic and painful approach possible.  And in the late 1990's with the Asian crisis, although there for the first time was the glimmering of a recognition that the fault might be with the financial system as much as with debtor countries.  And here we are now back full circle to Europe.

Back in the 1980's, I couldn't find much out there but despair.  Conventional wisdom of the VSP's seemed unanimous.  When bankers are faced with losing payments, poor people eating is a luxury that countries simply can't afford.  Any attempt to put the domestic population ahead of foreign banks will only end up with foreign banks cutting off lending and hurting countries more.  Any attempt to ask sacrifices of the rich will lead to capital flight.  Any benefits of growth reaching the general population will destroy incentives to invest.  So the only option is a system in which the poor bear the burden of adjustment in bad times and the rich reap the benefits in good times.  And if that doesn't seem fair, well, who cares, being fair is a luxury banks won't allow you.

VSP's haven't changed their opinions since, but their are more challenges to VSP logic than in the past.  Default ceases to be unthinkable once countries have defaulted and prospered.  Debt deflation theories make clear that when a country shrinks its economy, its debt burden increases and its ability to repay suffers.  Common sense and experience agree that inflicting economic devastation on oneself to attract foreign investment doesn't work because economic devastation is not an attractive investment.  And the assumption that foreign investment is the be-all and end-all of economic growth has been challenged.  It appears that too much foreign investment is dangerous because it leads to bubbles that sooner or later are sure to burst.  (No one has figured out yet how to to avoid bubbles). The IMF, once the very embodiment of VSP wisdom and the assumption that domestic economies should be sacrificed to foreign creditors, has learned the lessons of its errors and changed its mind.** Central bankers are slowly beginning to learn.  That leaves the political, business, and media VSP's to be convinced.  It's a tall order, but better than in the past.

So here's to Greece, and the hopes that they will play their part!

*One important difference: Latin America really did have hyperinflation during its debt crisis.  Europe today is drifting closer and closer to deflation. I don't at present know either why the difference, or whether the memory of Latin America's hyperinflation is playing a role in the outsized 
fears of inflation in Europe today.
**It is very hard for members of my generation to think of the IMF as anything but a villain given its past record, but we really should learn to.

Greek Elections: What Has Happened?

To no one's surprise, the anti-austerity party Syriza has won the Greek election.  The news stories I read annoyingly refer to Syriza as an anti-bailout party, suggesting that it ran on letting banks fail.  In fact, the "bailouts" being referred to are the European Central Bank lending Greece money to prevent it from defaulting on its debts in exchange for austerity and "structural reforms."

Of course, when VSP's (Krugman's term for Very Serious People) talk about austerity, they mean shredding the safety net.  When they talk about "structural reforms," they mean ending all job security, firing everyone with a good paying job with benefits, and replacing them with a bunch of bad paying jobs without benefits.  These measures are seen by all VSP's as necessary to be internationally competitive.  Their logic on "structural reforms" is at least arguable.  What they tend to miss is that if you want to replace all the good-paying jobs with benefits with a bunch of bad paying jobs without benefits, it would help if your economy was actually growing fast enough to be generating all those bad-paying jobs that are so desirable.  If you fire everyone who has a good-paying job with benefits while your economy is shrinking, you will get not globally competitive, i.e., bad paying jobs to replace them, but mass unemployment.  To judge from the way they have treated Greece (and the rest of Southern Europe today, and Eastern Europe and Asia in the 1990's and Latin America in the 1980's), VSP's don't regard that as a serious problem.  For one thing, they regard the vile scourge of good-paying jobs with benefits to be a sufficiently serious evil that even mass unemployment is preferable.  And besides, if unemployment is high enough for long enough, people will settle for even lower paying jobs, so it really is for the best.

This has been going in in the debtor countries of Southern Europe since about 2010, so almost five years.  And now Greece, the one that has suffered most, that has seen its economy shrink by a quarter, has gotten fed up and is saying no more.  So the obvious question is, what took so long?

Part of what is ailing not just Greece but all of Europe goes back to my earlier comment that democracy is bad at handling economic crises, but oligarchy is worse.  Democracy's problem is not that people are unwilling to make material sacrifices, but that people are unwilling to violate their intuitions.  And when crisis hits, popular and elite intuition alike is that hard times call for sacrifices and cutting back, so painful measures are accepted.  But elite and popular intuition is wrong.  When everyone cuts back at once, the whole economy suffers, and sooner or later popular opinion turns against making sacrifices, but elite opinion does not.  My previous opinion was that public opinion changes when the public gets tired of suffering and is willing to do anything, even violate their intuitions to make it stop.  But I have changed my mind on that.  I now believe that what happens is that at some point elite and popular intuition begin to diverge.  At some point popular opinion concludes that we have now made our sacrifices and it is time to reap our reward.  Elite opinion expects the sacrifices (for instance, of good paying jobs with benefits, or of the social safety net) to be permanent.  It is at this point that serious strife begins.  Europe reached that point some time ago. But all Europe's "respectable" political parties clung to elite wisdom and refused to give the public a break.  This offers a rather painful lesson that Europe is not a democracy, but an oligarchy.  It also means that "extremist" parties were the only ones left to advocate for common sense.  This is the first time one such party has won.

Another part of the answer is that core Europe (read, Germany) really did have the periphery over a barrel for a long time.  A country spending more than its revenue has to borrow.  The lenders had great power to impose conditions on the borrower by the threat to cut off all lending.  So the essential choice was, make the spending cuts we demand now, or we will cut off your credit and you will have to make even deeper ones.  Not much of a choice!  But in that sense, all those cuts really have paid off.  By now Greece's debt payments exceed its deficit.  If it were to default and all lending were cut off, Greece would still have much greater resources at its disposal.  But even then, Europe/Germany has a few tricks up its sleeve.  It can cut off credit to Greek banks and force an artificial banking and economic crisis.  Or it can expel Greece from the Euro.  No one knows what will happen in that case. So those threats have held Southern Europe back for some time.  But the tension is building.

Stay tuned.

The Glory That Was Greece and the Folly That Was WWI

People in Singapore have heard of Greece, my father assures me.  He does a lot of commuting back and forth and says that Singaporans don't understand how so small and insignificant a country can threaten the world financial system.

Over Thanksgiving, one of his friends from Singapore was over for dinner and he tried to explain Greece to her.  Only he was explaining Classical Greece.  To a Chinese woman who had never heard of Alexander the Great and had no idea that Western culture IS Greek culture.  In the time it took to wait for dinner.  It was a tall order.  It also had nothing whatever to do with why modern Greece could threaten the world financial system.

If I wanted to explain how modern Greece could threaten the world financial system, I would explain it rather in the same terms I explain WWI.  It was like a bunch of rock climbers, all roped together to ensure that if one fell, all the rest would fall too.  And yes, I realize that real rock climbers would be indignant at the comparison.  They rope together so they can catch one who falls.  Done properly, it works.  If one rock climber pulls down others, it shows that they don't know what they are doing and shouldn't be climbing in the first place.

Granted, all that.  But let's admit it.  The Triple Entente and Triple Alliance obviously didn't know what they were doing and shouldn't have been doing it in the first place.  And by now it should be obvious that the same goes for the euro, and quite possibly the European Union altogether.

So let me refine the analogy a little.  The euro is like WWI, which was like a bunch of wanna be rock climbers who didn't know what they were doing, climbing a much tougher climb than they were qualified to take, all roped together thinking they could catch any one who fell, but actually doing it all wrong and just ensuring that anyone who fell would bring the others down.  So the clear lesson is, don't go rock climbing unless you know what you are doing.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

From Classical to Modern Greece

All right, I am prepared to give Classical Greece a rest (for now).  I will return to the subject later on, but I fully expect my next post to be on the subject of modern Greece.

PS:  Reading my entries below, about the Pisistratus dictatorship, democracy restored to Athens, Pisistratus and fascism etc., a person simply looking at the titles could be forgiven thinking that Pisistratus was a modern Greek dictator.  (There have been quite a few).  The difference would be that if he were a modern dictator, Pisistratus would be his last name and his first name would be something more ordinary, like George or Theodore.

Pisistratus and Fascism

All right, here we go.  I promised I would look at failures of democracy in general and see in what ways classical fascism was and was not typical.  Partly at work here was figuring out what we should look out for.  So, comparing Pisistratus to classical fascism, both my views and those of professional historians, this is what I get.

A middle class populist movement that predominantly kicks down, but also punches up:  Fascism was the movement of a middle class resenting those above it and fearing those below it.  As such, like most populist movements, it both punches up and kicks down.  But fear is stronger than resentment, so it mostly kicks down.  Pisistratus was seen in classical times as a lower class populist, punching up at the aristocracy.*  There does not appear to have been much of a middle class at the time; Pisistratus is largely responsible for its formation.  Of course, by modern standards, even the poorest citizen could be considered at least lower middle class -- they were above the slaves.  (More on that later).  And, to the extent that Pisistratus made his fortune or the city's fortune in silver mining he could be said to have kicked down. Mines, after all, were worked entirely by slaves in those days, and the lot of a mine slave was extraordinarily brutal.  But Pisistratus did not kick down in a populist fashion, i.e., he did not drum up popular support by showing how brutal he could be to mine slaves, or any other kind of slaves.  His popularity came from punching up.  But he appears to have done so in the least destructive way -- one that plays to people's aspirations more than their resentments, and seeks to build up, rather than tear down.

Driven by both fear and ambition, but mostly fear:  Pisistratus' movement was driven by ambition, both his ambition for power and his followers' ambition for a better life.  He does not appear to have played on fear.

A paramilitary party that has seized (or aspires to seize) power and claims (or aspires to claim) an effective monopoly on political power:  This is an anachronism because political parties in the modern sense had not yet been invented.  However, Pisistratus apparently did form the Hill People into a group that competed for power in the democratic process, which is roughly a political party.  But he did not play fair.  He persuaded the assembly to vote him a club-wielding bodyguard of hill country followers, which he used to state a coup.  So, yes, I think it is fair to call Pisistratus fascistic in this sense.  Of course, it was not his paramilitary party, but his foreign mercenaries that ultimately won out.

Stanley Payne's Definition:

Fascist negations:

Anti-radical:  No.  Pisistratus did not pose as the protector of the established order against radicals who threatened it.  He was the radical who threatened it.  Granted, a lot of his success and popularity came from knowing when not to be too radical.  He respected Solon's laws except when they threatened his power.  So he was less radical than he appeared.  But he certainly did not pose as an anti-radical.

Anti-liberal:  So what does it mean to be liberal?  I have argued that to be liberal is to seek to widen the circle of people who morally matter and that to be anti-liberal is to seek to narrow it, or to attack liberals from drawing the circle too widely.  By our standards, all ancient Greeks seem frightfully illiberal.  They accepted slavery.  They dismissed non-Greeks as barbarians.  And, when you read classical social philosophers or political scientists, they all seem to have an extraordinary moral myopia.  None of them can recognize that non-citizens really matter.  That being the case, I think it fair to define liberal of the time as wanting to widen citizenship and anti-liberal as wanting to narrow it.  By this standard, Pisistratus was of the liberal faction, wanting a wide citizenship.

Anti-conservative:  Being on the radical and liberal side makes Pisistratus anti-conservative more or less by definition.  But he did conserve Solon's laws and even his offices and sought to win over as much of the aristocracy as he could by friendly dealings.

Ideology and goals:
-- Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state based not merely on traditional principles or models
-- Organization of some new kind of regulated, multiclass, integrated national economic structure, whether called national corporatist, national socialist, or national syndicalist
-- The goal of empire or a radical change in the nation’s relationship with other powers
-- Specific espousal of an idealist, voluntarist creed, normally involving the attempt to realize a new form of modern, self-determined, secular culture.

Of these, empire or radical change in foreign relations was clearly a concept in classical times.  And Pisistratus gave no sign of being an imperialist.  The tyrannoi did often support each other and help each other seize power.  But they had enough domestic security concerns not to want to push their luck in war or aggressive foreign policy.  

As for the others, they are modern concepts.  To raise them in classical Greece or Rome is an anachronism.  Underlying the remaining ideology and goals, but especially the second, is the assumption that a country's inhabitants and its citizens are the same or nearly so.  Fascists may want to purge their country of people -- citizen or inhabitant -- who they see as unworthy.  But they nonetheless end up wanting a "pure" country in which all inhabitants are true, proper, worthy citizens. In ancient Greece and Rome, it was taken for granted that citizens would be a minority of inhabitants, so a fascist conception of society was something inconceivable.  (More on that later).

Style and organization:

Emphasis on esthetic structure of meetings, symbols, and political choreography, stressing romantic and mystical aspects:  Obviously, to think in terms of modern fascist rallies is an anachronism here.  Pisistratus certainly had a sense of the theatrical, as demonstrated with his self-inflicted wounds, or the Athena girl. Compare the painting I have shown of Pisistratus and his Athena with pictures of any fascist rally and see if there isn't a certain similarity.

Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and with the goal of a mass party militia:  No, Pisistratus was a populist agitator and had a small paramilitary of his hill country men, but he could hardly have been said to have seized power by mass mobilization, and in the end he preferred a passive citizenry that stuck to their private lives.

Positive evaluation and use of, or willingness to use, violence:  Well, Pisistratus attempted a coup (twice) and ended up invading with a mercenary army, so yes, he was clearly willing to use violence.  He does not seem to have glorified it, though, in the way that the fascists did, and once in power he used no more violence than necessary.

Extreme stress on the masculine principle and male dominance, while espousing the organic view of society:  Ancient Greece in general seems that way by our standards.  There is nothing to suggest that Pisistratus was any different from his contemporaries in that regard.

Exaltation of youth above other phases of life, emphasizing the conflict of generations, at least in effecting the initial political transformation:  No.

Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective:  Yes, this appears to have been the case.  Pisistratus continued to keep Solon's old offices and fill them with different candidates each year, but no one ever doubted who was really in charge.

Robert Paxton's Nine Mobilizing Passions:

A sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions:  This one is actually  hard to say.  There was a crisis, and Pisistratus did reject traditional solutions in dealing with it.  But at the same time, this suggests that the driving motive is fear, if not in the leader, at least in the followers.  And I maintain that both Pisistratus and his followers were driven more by ambition than fear.

The belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against the group's enemies, both internal and external:  Certainly Pisistratus took his following among people who regarded themselves as victimized, but there was nothing to suggest the blind, hysterical lashing out that this implies.  As with the sense of crisis, this one has a cornered animal feel that I see no sign of in Pisistratus or his followers.

Dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences:  No, nothing to suggest this.

The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary:  Again, I see nothing to suggest anything of the kind.

The need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny:  Other than the "incarnating the group's destiny" this sounds about right.  Pisistratus was, to all appearances, a strong, charismatic leader who offered much-desired leadership.

The superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason:  No, and my reason for saying this is that Pisistratus seemed to respect the law, except where it interfered with his power.

The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success:  Somewhat, to the extent that Pisistratus used violence to advance the cause of the Hill People.  But it does not appear to have been a major focus.

The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle:  No.

In short, Pisistratus resembled classical fascists in that he was a charismatic, populist leader with a strong sense of the theatrical, driven by lust for power, and that he (initially at least) combined contesting power through the democratic process with the use of force by his own private paramilitary.  What he was not was any kind of totalitarian wishing to control all of society or deny people their private lives, nor did he play on fear.  So far as I know, he is the most successful of the left wing populist dictators.

*And, interestingly enough, although classical philosophers, historians and political scientists invariably were of the aristocracy and were sympathetic with it, they tend to see punching up by both Solon and Pisistratus as justified.  Which just goes to show that history is written by the victors.

My Analysis of the Pisistratus Dictatorship

All right, then, now for my analysis of Pisistratus of Athens, how well he matches my predictions, what came up unexpectedly, and what to watch for (either meeting or going against my predictions) in future failures of democracy. First, I must again emphasize that although Pisistratus of Athens fits in the category I predicted would be the exception -- the left wing populist dictator -- he was by no means exceptional in that such dictators where appearing all over Greece at about the same time. They were exceptional in the sense that the phenomenon was a limited one -- it occurred at this time in Greek history and did not happen again.  But there were also several dictators and potential dictators of this type who were largely responsible for the fall of the Roman Republic.  And one final point should be made.  Although Pisistratus was of a generally benign cast -- as was Rome's most successful left wing populist dictator, Julius Caesar -- this should not be taken to mean that left wing populist dictators in general are benign, only that they can be.

So, let us take a look at my analysis and predictions.*

I.                   General traits
a.       Extreme polarization
b.      Abandonment of procedural norms
c.       Frequent use of
                                                              i.      Political violence
                                                            ii.      Private or partisan paramilitaries
II.                Sub-categories
a.       Failure to understand
                                                              i.      Normality of opposing parties
                                                            ii.      Concept of a loyal opposition
b.      Right wing (major category)
                                                              i.      Driven by fear
1.      Elite fear of reforms threatening power
2.      Middle class fear of displacement from below
                                                            ii.      Failure to distinguish between radical and moderate reformers
                                                          iii.      Middle class in danger of being squeezed out
                                                          iv.      Most common triggers
1.      Economic crisis (major category)
2.      Past or present loss of a war (minor category)
                                                            v.      Not usually dependent on a charismatic leader
c.       Left wing (minor category)
                                                              i.      Democratic forms mask a cozy oligarchy
1.      Polarization between rich and poor
2.      Middle class usually weak
                                                            ii.      Driven by ambition
1.      Of leader for power
2.      Of people for a better life
                                                          iii.      Dependent on a charismatic leader
                                                          iv.      Triggers unknown
                                                            v.      Most likely to succeed if it follows broad historic trends
III.             Ways to fail
a.       Election and subversion from within
b.      Military coup
c.       Civil war
d.      Foreign invasion

e.       Other

General traits:
Extreme polarization: Yes, the dictatorship appears to have arisen out of intense factional strife between the People of the Plains, the People of the Coast and the People of the Hills.  The ancients (with no prompting from Marx), interpreted this as class struggle between rich and poor.  Many modern historians also analyze it in terms of regional or kinship rivalry.  But regardless, the dictatorship clearly arose out of factional strife that no one else seemed able to control.

Abandonment of procedural norms:Hard to say, since we don't know what the procedural norms of the time were.  But Aristotle mentions two years in which no archon was appointed and one archon who unconstitutionally overstayed his term until he was removed by force, so yes, this does seem likely.

Frequent use of political violence and private or partisan paramilitaries:Pisistratus did this, both with his club-wielding bodyguard and his foreign mercenaries.  No one mentions the use of political violence or paramilitaries by anyone else.  Does Pisistratus' act of wounding himself, claiming to have been attacked and calling for a bodyguard show that his accusations were credible, or that his paramilitary was something unprecedented?  Probably both.


Right Wing:
I predicted that the danger would more often be on the right than the left and more often be driven by fear than ambition.  In fact, I identified fear with the right and ambition with the left.  But how to make the distinction?  When people feel close to losing what they have, that is fear.  When they want something they never had, that is ambition.  But what if people have lost something and want it back? Is that fear or ambition?  Here, the old nobility appears to have lost its preeminence and wanted it back and perhaps feared losing more.  Creditors had seen debts to them cancelled and wanted to be paid.  Citizens with flawed pedigrees feared being found out.  Aristotle lists all of these except the old nobility as followers of Pisistratus.  There is no sign of a middle class that feared being squeezed out.
The old elite had already seen its power undercut by radical reforms.  Certainly no lost war triggered the dictatorship; to the contrary, Pisistratus seems to have been one of those victorious generals later generations saw as dangerous.  Any talk of an economic crisis is speculative.

Left Wing:

Democratic forms mask a cozy oligarchy with a weak middle class:  Due to the sparseness of the evidence, it is hard to tell. However, Solon had given the poor the right to vote and to serve on juries, but not to hold office. Rural dwellers (probably) found participation a greater hardship than it was worth.  So far as we can tell, gaps between rich and poor were growing and no middle class is mentioned.  Certainly the Plains faction is said to have wanted an oligarchy.  And most to the point, the old nobility was not going to give up its power easily.  It was the dictatorship that broke it.

Driven by ambition:  Athens was rife with ambition at the time.  Peasants were ambitious to get their hands on land.  The commercial classes were ambitious to be recognized as equal to the old nobility. And, of course, Pisistratus was ambitious for power.  It proved the perfect combination.

Charismatic leader:  I am assuming that Pisistratus was charismatic, based mostly on his ability to organize a previously passive and unorganized population, and his theatrical gestures.  Certainly, he was a strong leader aiming for personal dictatorship.  He was also a type of charismatic leader that our own Founding Fathers greatly feared, a kind that was the undoing of the Roman Republic -- the victorious general, who parlayed his military victories and his personal charisma into dictatorial power.

Triggers:  While right wing threats usually come from economic crisis, lost war, or the memory of a lost war, I was not sure what triggers the threat from the left.  In fact, it is still hard to tell.  Obviously something was triggering the change, because similar dictators were arising all over Greece at the time.  So far as I can tell, it was simply the ambition of the rising commercial and middle classes for a share of power, and ambitious leaders eager to give that desire form.

Historic trends:  I am not really sure if this belongs here, but people who want a better life by turning the clock back are less likely to succeed than ones who want a better life by pushing it forward.  The tyrannoi across Greece at the time were pushing it forward.  The proof (I suppose) is that so many arose and then vanished at about the same time.

Ways to fail:

  I suggested subversion from within, military coup, civil war, and military defeat, while leaving open the way for others.  Pisistratus twice attempted a military coup and twice saw it fall apart.  He finally took power in a way I did not foresee -- by hiring a foreign mercenary army.  I guess that's easier to do if you live in a bunch of city states all next to each other and eager to subvert each other.  Still unanswered -- whether these various forms of failure follow predictable patterns.

*I have modified a few, but mostly for the sake of clarity, not substantive change.

Athens: Democracy Restored

Statue honoring the tyrannicides
Pisistratus of Athens ruled for 17 years of peace and prosperity and died at a ripe old age.  After he was dead, his sons, Hippias and *Hipparchus, the Pisistratidae (sons of Pisistratus) inherited his power.  Thucydides says that they continued to rule in much the same manner as their father and to be popular, while Aristotle says the sons of Pisistratus were a mixed bag, and not up to their father's standards.  (Some modern historians has postulated that Athens hit an economic bump for reasons unrelated to its rulers, but that it nonetheless caused their popularity to slip).  All sources agree that Hipparchus was assassinated when he made the moves on another man's boyfriend and was rejected.  Hipparchus retaliated by publicly and offensively forbidding the boy's (unmarried) sister from carrying a basket in the upcoming festival because the role was limited to virgins.  The male lovers and some of their friends then formed a conspiracy to kill the man who had insulted them.  The killing took place during a religious procession.  By popular account, this was because members of the procession carried ceremonial weapons and this was the only time a large gathering of armed men was allowed.  (Aristotle denies this and says that carrying arms in the festival was a later practice).  Thucydides somewhat contradictorily says that the whole thing was just a lover's quarrel with Hipparchus rather than a political plot, but also that Hippias was the initial target and that the conspirators hoped to provoke an armed uprising by the procession.  In any event, one of the conspirators was seen talking to Hippias and the others panicked, thinking they had been given away, and killed Hipparchus right away.  Hippias promptly ordered a crackdown.

It was from this plot that the cult of the tyrannicide began.  The Athenians raised statues to the pair and honored their descendants by allowing them to dine at public expense in the town hall.  But, all accounts agree, all the assassination actually achieved was to make Hippias suspicious and paranoid and crack down, becoming a true tyrant in that later sense.  No details are given, except perhaps Herodotus' account of Kimon** son of Stesagoras.  Kimon son of Stesagoras was an Athenian aristocrat banished by Pisistratus and an excellent chariot driver who won the chariot race at the Olympics.  Kimon apparently later regretted his exile and wanted to return, so when he won the chariot race at the next Olympics, he waived the prize and dedicated his victory to Pisistratus.  The dictator then allowed him to return.  After Pisistratus died, Herodotus reports, his sons killed Kimon. No motive given.

Herodotus, in any event, has by far the most complete account of Hippias' overthrow and its aftermath.  The exiled Alcaeomids*** under the leadership of Cleisthenes, son of Megacles,**** were immensely rich despite their exile and agreed to finance a refurbishing of the temple at Delphi.  They went beyond what was asked for in exchange for the priestess agreeing to call on the Spartans to free Athens from its tyrants.  Hippias called on Thessaly for help, but the Spartans drove them off. Hippias and his party retreated to the Acropolis for a siege, but sought to smuggle out their children. The children were caught, giving the besiegers hostages, so they were able to negotiate Hippias' exile.

The dictator being overthrown, fighting promptly broke out between the democratic party led by Cleisthenes and the oligarchic party led by Isagoras. Cleisthenes and the democrats had the support of the majority of the population, but Isagoras appealed to the Spartans to drive him out on the grounds of the ancestral curse.  The Spartans returned and drove out Cleisthenes and 700 families who Isagoras identified as being under the curse.  (Presumably they were actually political rivals). Isagoras then sought to dissolve the Council, the group elected or chosen by lot to handle the day-to-day business of governing, and replace it with 300 supporters.  At this point, Athens rose up and besieged Isagoras, his followers, and the Spartan force in the Acropolis.  After two days, a truce was called and the Athenians allowed the Isagoras and the Spartans to leave, but executed his followers.  (Wikipedia gives the number executed as 300, based on the supporters Isagoras intended for his council.  Herodotus does not give a number).  A Spartan attempt to join with allies, invade and put Isagoras back in power failed when Corinth defected and the two Spartan kings started quarreling.  A second attempt to invade and restore Hippias failed when all of Sparta's allies refused to join.

When I was in school, Cleisthenes was mentioned mostly for introducing ostracism, a ten-year exile by vote without due process, but with the possibility of early recall.  Exile without due process did not seem like a great advance to me, but the practice had the advantage of getting rid of potential trouble makers without killing them (which would have encouraged civil wars) or permanent exile (which would have encouraged them to raise foreign armies and seek to return by force) or corrupting the criminal justice system (not so much in the narrow sense of bribing, but in the broader sense of subverting to an improper purpose).  Not so much emphasized -- he replaced the four existing tribes, traditional among all Ionian Greeks with ten new tribes, and he took care to include in each tribe members of the city, the coast and the plain.  Modern historians believe that this was an attempt to break up traditional power centers (the tribes and regions) that posed a challenge to the state, and whose feuding had mightily contributed to the undoing of Solon's democracy.  This is precisely the sort of radical reform challenging powerful interests that I predicted democracy was ill-suited to enact.  I can only assume that Cleisthenes was able to get away with it because of the general upheaval.  So radical a measure would probably not be possible in a mature and established democracy.

Although Solon was regarded in ancient times as the founder of Athenian democracy, many modern historians award that honor to Cleisthenes.  He, at least, was the one who set it on a stable foundation. As for Isagoras' attempt to seize power and the Spartans' attempt to back him, I count these as rough spots in getting the democracy started, not as failures.  (Besides, they are only documented in Herodotus, which is not enough to allow for in-depth analysis).  But keep an eye on them.  We will be seeing that pattern return.

*And his father's name was Hippocrates.  (No relation to the Hippocrates; it was a common name). What is with all these "hip"'s?  Well, it turns out, "hip" was Greek for horse.  Since "hip" implied that the family owned horses, anyone with a "hip" in his (or her) name is generally presumed to have been an aristocrat.
**This name is most commonly given as Cimon (Simon), although Kimon (Keemon) is the more accurate.  I am generally favoring familiarity and accessibility over technical accuracy, but I will make an exception for men named Kimon for one simple reason.  It was the name of my earliest childhood playmate, whose father wanted him to have a Greek name that was not the name of a saint. So, in honor of my childhood friend, Kimon, I will spell this one correctly.
***Remember them, the leading family said to be under a curse?
****Remember him, leader of the coastal faction, Pisistratus' sometime partner and sometime rival?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

What's So Bad About Dictators, Anyhow?

So, what are we to make of Pisistratus? Obviously the man craved power and lacked scruples in pursuing it.  He must hold an extraordinary record among dictators of having seized power not once, not twice, but three times!  So, why are we surprised at his enlightened rule after his three nefarious seizures of power? If tyrant originally just meant a non-hereditary ruler, why has it come to mean a particularly cruel or arbitrary ruler?  Or, put differently, is there good reason to expect dictators to be worse than kings?  There are several reasons why this might be so.

First:  Many would agree with Aeschylus' comment in his play, Agamemnon that Clytemnestra addresses to the captive Cassandra:
An upstart lord,
To whom wealth's harvest came beyond his hope,
Is as a lion to his slaves
For the same reason, the play shows the people of Mycenae alarmed when Clytemnestra and her lover usurp the throne.

Second: Anyone prepared to resort to nefarious means to seize power even once, let alone three times, shows the sort of alarming lust for power that makes most people believe he is the last person who can be trusted with it.

Third:  When a leader has no claim to hereditary or institutional legitimacy, all that really leaves him to rely on is force.

And, it must be added, no all the tyrannoi who were Pisistratus' contemporaries were as benign as he was.  Many were tyrants in any sense of the word.  But after reading about his seizure of power, it is hard not to come away with the impression that, after all, a leader with no institutional claims to legitimacy, whose frail grip on power depends entirely on being popular, might not be an altogether bad thing.  There are three main reasons usually advanced why a dictator whose power rests entirely on popularity is bad:

First:  What is popular is not always moral.  See Hitler, who was actually quite popular until he ran into trouble in the war.  Or George Wallace: "I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor."  Still, most of the time the nastier forms of scapegoating are what a dictator does to deflect anger when his popularity is slipping anyhow.  There is no evidence that Pisistratus resorted to such measures.

Second:  Sometimes unpopular actions are necessary.  Unpopular actions may, indeed, be necessary. But nowhere near as often as most people think.  Of course, in saying this, I, like most people, am a product of my times.  And in my times, from the 1980's to the present, international creditors tend to assume that the more unpopular a measure, the more virtuous, and the more suffering they can inflict on an economy, the more they are proving good management.  And we may be about to see a rebellion against such thinking.  (And Greece may lead the revolt!)  But what about war?  Pericles is cited as a fine example of a leader with true democratic legitimacy persuading his countrymen to take an unpopular action -- withdraw within the city walls and allow the countryside to be pillaged.  The wisdom of this action is questionable (it led to a terrible plague), but even granting that it was the wisest way to fight the war, it would have been infinitely better not to start a stupid, senseless war in the first place!  The classic modern example is Winston Churchill, offering only tears and toil, sweat and blood.  Churchill provided outstanding wartime leadership.  But before the war, he inflicted a decade (or more) of senseless suffering on his countrymen by returning to the gold standard at too high a rate.  No wonder the people dumped him as soon as the war was over!

Third:  Popularity is fleeting.  No matter how able the dictator, sooner or later his popularity will end. A king will remain legitimate despite is waning popularity.  A democratic leader who ceases to be popular can be removed without resorting to violence.  But if a dictator rests his power entirely on being popular and sees his popularity end, then he truly does have nothing left but brute force. Pisistratus' popularity never failed throughout his lifetime.  But all leaders are mortal, and when he died, his sons took his place.

Pisistratus of Athens in Power

Pisistratus was, in Greek parlance, a tyrannos, or tyrant.  But at the time, "tyrant" was a neutral term, meaning not an unusually harsh or arbitrary ruler, but simply any ruler who did not inherit his power.*  Usurper or dictator are probably better approximations.  These terms are not altogether neutral either, but neither sounds as harsh as tyrant.  But even without using the word tyrant, Pisistratus' beginning looks bad. His lust for power and lack of scruples pursuing it make us expect that he will be equally unscrupulous in exercising it.  But then Pisistratus throws us a curve.  He turned out to be an excellent ruler.

No classical source says that Pisistratus divided the lands of his enemies among the landless, but most modern historians have inferred that he did for three reasons (1) later classical usurpers invariably did so, so why not the earlier ones, (2) although there was widespread clamor for land before Pisistratus, there was not afterward, and (3) land distribution appears to have been fairly even in 5th Century B.C. Athens.  Aristotle affirms that he offered credit to poor farmers who did not have other sources, and that he instituted roving judges to handle lawsuits in the countryside so that farmers would not have to come into the city to resolve their disputes.  This killed two birds with one stone, it took away the hardship of coming to town and it made country folk less likely to come into town and stir up trouble.**  Taxes were modest at one-twenties of produce,*** and when a very poor farmer with a very rocky field grumbled, Pisistratus remitted his taxes.  He respected Solon's laws so long as they did not interfere with his power and even kept the old elective office of archon, although he ensured that it was always filled by his relatives or friends.  (No source explains how he did this).  And he fought urban unemployment with public works to adorn the city.

Modern historians with the use of archeology add that he continued promoting the export of olive oil and there was a vast expansion of pottery exports while he was in power, that he issues Athens' first coins (bearing the image of Athena and her symbols, the owl and the olive tree), that he built roads and other commercial infrastructure and the Enneakrounos. an aqueduct that brought spring water into public fountain houses.  The tragic theater got its start under Pisistratus and Cicero credits him with commissioning the first written copies of the Iliad and the Odyssey.  He even seems to have done a fair job at conciliating the nobility with friendly personal dealings.  And he avoided wars, whether out of fear of arming the people or out of fear of what would happen if he lost.

Solon lived to see Pisistratus seize power the first time, but not his first overthrow.  There are two accounts of how he spent his last days.  According to Plutarch, after Solon openly denounced Pisistratus, many of his friends began to fear for his life and urged him to flee, but Solon was not afraid, saying he was too old and feeble to be seen as a threat.  And, indeed, Pisistratus courted Solon so assiduously that he ended us serving as an advisor.  Diogenes Laertius says that Solon went into exile to protest the dictatorship.  Pisistratus wrote to him, urging him to come back and assuring him that there was nothing to fear.  Solon responded that he would not return, not out of fear for his safety, but because to come back could be taken as endorsement.  It seems a fair assumption that it was not just Solon's old age that kept him safe.  Rather, he had immense moral authority and was the only one who could convey the legitimacy that Pisistratus so desperately craved.

After his final seizure of power, Pisistratus ruled for 17 years of peace and prosperity and finally died at a ripe old age and handed power to his sons.

*This is attested in Sophocles' great masterwork which we usually know by its Latin name, Oedipus Rex or its English name, Oedipus the King.  But the Greek name is actually Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus the tyrant.  Oedipus was certainly not a tyrant in the sense of being a harsh or arbitrary ruler. Nor did he usurp power; he was made king by unanimous acclimation because he freed the city from the sphinx.  But he did not inherit his power, so he was a tyrannos.
**My editors suggest that it may have had the third advantage for Pisistratus of taking courts out of the hands of the local nobility.
***Recall that a sharecropper paid a sixth to his landlord.  In Sparta, the rate was half.

Failures of Democracy: Pisistratus of Athens

Pericles, said to have resembled Pisistratus
After Solon departed, strife continued in Athens, although details are sparse. Aristotle offers as proof of the strife that in the fifth and tenth year after Solon departed no archon was was appointed, and that one archon unconstitutionally served for two years a two months and had to be remove by force.  (He also points out that the amount of strife over appointment of archon shows that it was a powerful office).

There were three main factions.  The People of the Plain were the old nobility and their dependents, who controlled the best farm land and therefore the food supply.  (And risked the hatred of all if they tried using food as a weapon).  They were the oligarchic faction, led by Lycurgus, which was also the name of the founder of Sparta's militaristic constitution and may tell us something about what they had in mind.  The People of the Coast were merchants, petty traders, craftsmen, fishermen, and others of an outward looking, commercial outlook.  They tended to favor an intermediate system. Their leader was Megacles the Alcaemonid.  The Alcaemonids were one of Athens' most prominent families, but they were believed to be under a curse because one of their forbears had killed men who took refuge in a sanctuary.  

The hardcore democrats were the People of the Hill -- hardscrabble farmers on poor land, some squeezed out and moving into the city to become an unemployed throng.  Aristotle adds to their number general malcontents such as creditors who had seen the debts to them cancelled and people who had received citizenship despite not being of pure Athenian descent who feared being found out. In any event, the Hill People, though by far the largest group, were scattered and unorganized until Pisistratus came along.  

Pisistratus appears to have been a hill country aristocrat, named for a character in the Odyssey, the youngest son of Nestor, from whom he claimed descent.  He also claimed descent from Codrus, the last king.  He was also a friend, kinsman, one time supporter, and possible former gay lover* of Solon, and a victorious general from Athens' wars against Megara.  Plutarch says that Pisistratus was Solon's right-hand man and fellow hero from the war over Salamis, but Aristotle says that the Salamis war took place too early for Pisistratus to have participated.  But this does not rule out Pisistratus being the victorious general of some later war with Megara.  Some historians have speculated that he may have broken a Megaran blockade of Athenian trade and relieved food shortages.  (If so, this must have made him very popular indeed).  Plutarch describes him (plausibly enough) as a "smooth and engaging" speaker and a good dissembler who knew how to act reasonable and conceal his power lust.  Still, one suspects he must have been something of a rabble-rouser to be able to organize the scattered and hitherto passive Hill People.

Pisistratus slashed himself and his mules and then ran into the agora, claiming to have been attacked by his enemies.  Solon saw through the trick and warned others not to be deceived, but the Assembly voted him a bodyguard of 50 men with clubs, presumably his Hill Country followers.  Pisistratus enlarged his bodyguard until they were numerous enough to seize the Acropolis and stage a coup.** Solon publicly denounced his actions and called for resistance.  When no one responded, he laid his arms out on his porch and denounced his countrymen for their cowardice.  His coup did not last long, however; Lycurgus and Megacles soon combined factions to drive Pisistratus out.

Athena blesses Pisistratus' second coup
Diogenes Laertius tells another, charming story about Solon and the coup.  It was about this time that theater was beginning in Athens. Where once the chorus had simply chanted their story, the actor Thespis began stepping forward and acting it out.  Solon strongly disapproved, regarding acting as just a form of lying. When Pisistratus wounded himself and claimed to have been attacked, Solon called it the result of too much theater! He did not live to see Pisistratus' second coup, but it was even more theatrical.  As soon as he was gone, Lycurgus and Megacles took to fighting among themselves.  Soon Megacles invited Pisistratus back, on the condition that he marry his daughter.  Pisistratus rode in on a chariot with a tall, handsome woman dressed as Athena, saying that the goddess was blessing him!  (How many people were fooled is anyone's guess).  But this coup was also short-lived.  Pisistratus agreed to marry Megacles' daughter, but he did not want children by her because he already all the sons he wanted, and because of the supposed curse on Megacles' family, so he had only "unnatural" relations with her. When the girl complained to her mother, word soon got back to Megacles, and the alliance was off.  Pisistratus was once again driven out.

The third time he seized power, Pisistratus eschewed theater and popular grandstanding in favor of raw power.  This time he was in exile for ten years, during which time he called in every favor he could, raise huge sums, invested in silver mines, and raised a private army of foreign mercenaries. Then he marched on the city and camped on the plain of Marathon, where he was joined by many domestic supporters, and opposed by the Athenian army.  According to Herodotus, he attacked around noon when the other army were occupied with eating, sleeping, or playing dice and scattered them with minimal resistance.  According to Aristotle, he then called an assembly and had the citizens parade with all their arms and addressed them.  When they complained that they could not hear him, he invited them into the Acropolis.  They set their arms aside before entering and listened to the speech.  As he was speaking, he had his men gather up the arms and secure them.  His mercenary army was then unopposed.  His enemies fled.  If any wished to stay, he allowed them, but took their sons hostage and gave them for safekeeping to a neighboring dictator.  Finally, it should be noted that, while Megacles' descendants went into exile and later returned and become one of Athens most influential families despite the purported curse on them, one hears no more of either Lycurgus or his descendants.

*This was, of course, completely acceptable to the Greeks, so long as the affair was between a mature man/mentor in the "male" role and an adolescent boy/pupil in the "female" role.
**Aristotle very specifically dates this coup to the 32nd year after Solon enacted his laws.  Where his ten-year exile fit in is not clear.

Athenian Democracy -- A Background

Solon, founder of Athenian democracy
Although I am writing about how democracies fail, rather than how they are established, how they function, or how they are restored, but the subjects are inextricably linked.  So here goes.

We begin our series on failures of democracy where democracy began, in ancient Greece. And it turns out that the earliest failures of democracy were of the type I predicted would be the exception, the left wing populist charismatic dictator. Specifically with one most people today have probably never heard of, Pisistratus of Athens.  Nor was Pisistratus of Athens in any way exceptional. Similar dictators were popping up all over Greece at about the same time.  But Athens is by far the best-documented of the Greek city-states, so I will have to stick to Athens and assume that it was fairly typical. But even in Athens, the question of documentation is problematic.

The word "classical" is usually applied to ancient Greece and Rome, but it is sometimes applied to other countries as well, such as India and China.  Histories speak of an "ancient" era followed by a "classical" era.  The difference, so far as I can tell, is that "ancient" refers to a time the we lack significant written records for and therefore cannot write a reliable history about, but must rely on archeology and legend.  Classical is a time for which we have enough written records to write a reliable history.  Of course, there is usually a fuzzy time that lies somewhere in between the two. Pisistratus and his older contemporary, Solon, the founder of Athenian democracy lived in that fuzzy time between ancient and classical.  It is not seriously doubted that Solon and Pisistratus were actual, historical figures, but the earliest accounts of them are from Herodotus, who lived about a hundred years later and Aristotle, two hundred years later.  And Herodotus tells many charming stories that sound more like folk tales than actual history, so history is not always easy to sort out from legend.*

The origins of Athens are ancient, in the sense that the city was founded before we have any reliable historical record.  It rates no more than a single mention in the Iliad (in the catalog of ships) and one in the Odyssey (when Odysseus raises the spirits of the dead, Ariadne, daughter of Minos who ran off to Athens with Theseus is among them).  Like other city-states, it was originally ruled by kings. Unlike the Romans, who celebrated the downfall of the monarchy as a glorious event, the Athenians appear to have gradually evolved past kings.  According to legend, the last king was named Codrus.  By one account, Codrus heard an oracle that a Dorian invasion would succeed if he survived a battle with them, so he arranged to be killed. After that no one felt worth to be his successor.  More plausibly, his son was a weakling who was not considered worthy of the title of king and was given the title of archon instead.  Given that archon, in fact, meant ruler, and that he was hereditary archon for life, it can take a lot of squinting to see the difference.  The main difference appears to have been that archon is more subject to evolution.  More archons were added, until there was a total of nine.  The office became elective instead of hereditary, although all candidates had to come from the old nobility, the eupatrides.**  Over time, the office went from being life-long to being for ten years, and finally for one.  One of the archons continued to be called the archon basileus -- the king archon, and to have to belong to the old royal family, but he was by no means the most important.

During these turbulent times most Athenian were peasants who were serfs or sharecroppers (the distinction can be blurry), paying a sixth of their to the nobility in exchange for protection from the war and violence that was endemic.  As war and violence began dying down, the peasantry began to become resentful of these burdens.  In the meantime, trade and commerce were picking up.  As the commercial classes became wealthier, they began to resent their subordination to the old nobility. More commerce meant more debt.  Poor men were often forced to borrow using themselves as collateral and were sold as slaves if they failed to pay.  Assemblies, juries, elective office and office chosen by lot existed at the time, although it appears that only property owners could participate, and that offices had fairly stiff property requirements.  The first code of law came from Draco, who gave the world the word draconian because of the harshness of his code.  But have a written code of law at all was important progress -- it meant that law was no longer an esoteric secret of the powerful, but could be known by all.

To resolve their strife, Athenians turned to Solon.  Solon is described as an aristocrat who also took part in commerce, a poet, a man of irreproachable integrity, and general who persuaded Athens to go to war against its neighbor, Megara, for the island of Salamis.  When the war ended in deadlock, the difference was submitted to the Spartans for arbitration, he was able to persuade them of Athens' historic claims.  It was presumably because of his record in recovering Salamis by war and diplomacy that the Athenians turned to Solon to resolve their disputes and allowed him to add lawgiver to his resume.  Solon replaced the harsh code of Draco with a milder set of laws, removed any hereditary privileges of the nobility, and made all free, native men of Athens, even the poorest, into citizens with the right to vote and serve on juries. Citizens did not mean equal citizens.  While even the poorest could vote in the Assembly or serve on juries, office holding continued to have a means test.  Citizens were divided into four classes by wealth with the highest offices reserved to the richest class and the poorest class barred from any office.  Pledging of the person for debt was banned, debt slaves were freed, and the one-sixth sharecropping was ended.  He is described both as cancelling debts and as shrinking them by inflationary policies, so make of it what you will.

Athens was a poor, rocky, barren land, with population pressing against its meager agricultural capacity, leading to food shortages that contributed mightily to the unrest.  Solon appears to have recognized this and also recognized that the city's future therefore lay in trade and commercialization.  He therefore required all fathers to enroll their sons in trade on penalty of losing their right to be supported in old age and encouraged skilled foreigners to come to Athens to ply their trades. He also ended the rule that property must be inherited by fixed laws and legalized wills instead.  To fight food shortages, he encouraged the export of pottery and olive oil and forbade the export of any other crops.

Such was Solon's prestige that the Athenians offered him dictatorial powers to suppress their factional strife, but Solon refused.  Like all compromises, his reforms pleased no one.  The old nobility resented the reduction of their power and privilege.  Creditors resented the cancellations of debt.  The poor found themselves freed from the risk of slavery but cut off from credit, and many, though released from slavery, remained propertyless and wanted their land back.  Everyone wanted changes.  Solon made everyone vow to uphold his laws for ten or one hundred (sources differ) years and then went into a ten-year exile to prevent himself from making any changes.

Most of the charming stories and legends about Solon date from his exile.  In his absence, the strife continued and grew.

*Although the stories with a legendary sound are usually about Solon.
**Literally, offspring of good fathers, often translated as Well-born.  I prefer nobility.  Less clear is who did the electing.