Saturday, April 11, 2015

Back to Ancient Greece: What is an Oligarchy?

So, enough on current events for now.  I want to return for a while to Ancient Greece.  I have already addressed the first failure of Athenian democracy -- its overthrow by the left-wing populist, Pisistratus.  Athenian democracy would go on to fail three more times (arguably even more than that), but to oligarchy rather than dictatorship.  I am not yet prepared to discuss any of those overthrows.  But to understand the downfall of democracy in a society so remote and different from ours, we must first know something about how it functioned. And the first question is how to define "democracy" versus "oligarchy," since by today's standards all Greek city-states were oligarchies.

Oligarchy means rule of the few, but in what sense?  In one sense all governments, indeed, all organizations are oligarchies.  The basic hierarchical pyramid keeps reasserting itself, regardless of all attempts to avoid it.  Most famously, this is taken to mean that true democracy is impossible on any large scale.  It is simply not possible for multitude to take part in every decision and run the day-to-day operations of any organization of any size.  Power has to be delegated to make operation functional (or bearable), and the people to whom power is delegated form an elite.  Less emphasized, this also means that true one-man rule is impossible on any large scale.  There is simply more to be done than any one individual can handle, so the dictator, too, will have to delegate and create an elite with its own interests.  The term oligarchy has been applied to countries ranging from the U.S. and present-day Europe -- formally democratic, but increasingly run for the benefit of the 1% -- to Communist countries -- formally dictatorial, but largely run by the Communist Party.

But this is not what I mean when referring to Ancient Greece.  In Ancient Greece (and Rome) I will use the term to mean a formal oligarchy -- a system in which the citizens practice democratic self-government, but citizens are a minority of the population and the majority of non-citizens is excluded.  (When I remember, I will refer to this form of government as a "formal oligarchy.")  Formal oligarchies of this type are rare in modern times.  Still, I can offer some analogies.

The U.S. has many illegal immigrants within our borders, who have no rights as citizens.  In some communities they make up a non-trivial portion of the population but are disenfranchised.  They do have human and contractual rights, but are often afraid to assert them for fear of deportation.  We have at other times admitted braceros from Mexico as temporary workers.  The number of non-citizens in the US is necessarily limited because we have birthright citizenship -- children of illegal or temporary immigrants born here are citizens by law.  Many booming European and Asian countries have admitted guest workers without birthright citizenship.  In some cases (as I understand it), offspring of guest workers remain in the host countries where they were born, knowing no other country, but excluded from citizenship or the prospect of citizenship, possessing human and contractual rights, but permanently disenfranchised and excluded from the rights of citizenship.  But in all cases, these guest workers are a minority.

South Africa's tribal homelands
Many small oil states in the Mideast have populations unwilling to work and are entirely dependent on guest workers.  At the height of the oil boom, guest workers made up half or more of the population in some of these countries.  Of course, these oil states were also monarchies.  But if one of these countries were to institute some form of democracy for its citizens while excluding guest workers, it would be a formal oligarchy.  A better example is probable South Africa under Apartheid.  Under that system, whites (about 20% of the population) were full citizens with the right to participate in democratic government.  "Coloureds" (mixed race people) and Asians (about 12% of the population) could live in South Africa full time and undisturbed, but could not vote or participate in government.  The black majority (about 68% of the population) were declared citizens of "tribal homelands," requiring a passport and work permit to work in South Africa and subject to deportation for various "immigration violations" or if their labor was not required.  This is a true formal oligarchy of the sort seen in Ancient Greece and Rome.  South Africa's neighbor, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) operated on a similar system, with democratic government among the roughly 7% of the population that was white and very limited representation for the black majority.

The best candidate for a formal oligarchy these days is Israel, with a democratic government among its Jews and a small number of Arab citizens descended from Arabs who lived in Israel when independence was declared.  A large number of Arabs live on the West Bank as an occupied population under Israeli military control.  While there continues to be talk of giving independence to the West Bank, creeping annexation is well underway and will presumably arrive at some point. Once it does, there is the question of what to do with the inhabitants.  To grant them citizenship is to have a large bloc of non-Jewish citizens undermining Israel's Jewish identity.  To deny them citizenship is to have a large disenfranchised population.  At present, they will still be a minority, albeit a large one, but the specter of minority rule in Israel is very real.

As the foregoing makes clear, not only is formal oligarchy rare these days, but it is generally based on race or ethnicity and, because of our sensitivity on the subject, formal oligarchy tends to be less acceptable these days than outright dictatorship.  It also raises an interesting question.  How large a share of the population can a country exclude and still be considered a democracy?  At what point does a country excluding a growing share of the population count as a failure of democracy?  This was a very live question in Ancient Greece as democratic and oligarchic factions vied for power.  All favored a system in which citizens made up a minority of the population; all favored some degree of democratic self-government among the citizen body.  The difference was relative, not absolute. But it was great.  At what point does the transition toward oligarchy count as a failure of democracy and at what point is it a mere narrowing of democracy?

That issue has echoes through modern times.  In the US South following the Civil War, there was a strong movement to disenfranchise black people.  But no one questioned the need to protect democracy among white people.  Only in South Carolina did this mean excluding a majority from government, but in all the South it meant excluding a large minority?  Does this count as a failure of democracy and a move to oligarchy?  What if Israel annexes the West Bank, but Arabs remain a large minority?  Will Israel be a democracy or an oligarchy?  What about nativist parties in Europe today, that favor democracy but want to exclude immigrants?

And, granting that all Greek city-states, including ones defined as democracies, were actual oligarchies, how does one define relative degrees of democracy and oligarchy?

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