Thursday, May 28, 2015

In Which I Analyze the Failures of Democracy in Plataea, Corcyra, and Megara

So, admitting that the accounts Thucydides gives are inadequate to get the full picture, what can we say from the sparse record we have about the failures of democracy in Plataea, Corcyra, and Megara? Let me again resort to my old analysis:

 General Traits:

Extreme Polarization:  Yes.  In all three cities and the oligarchs had become polarized to the extent that one was prepared to commit treason to prevail against its rivals.

Abandonment of Procedural Norms:  Committing treason is about as clear-cut a case of abandoning procedural norms as you can get.  In Plataea, the oligarchs not only opened the gates to the Thebans, the actually asked them to start killing the democratic leaders and seize the city by force.  (The Thebans probably regretted not doing so).  In Corcyra, the oligarchs came back as Corinthian agents and first charged the democratic leader with treason, then broke into the council chamber and started killing democratic politicians.  The popular faction, it should be noted, gave as well as it got, by imposing a ruinous fine on the oligarchic leaders and refusing to let them pay by installments.  When civil war broke out, both sides offered to free any slaves who would join them, a thing we may applaud, but a violation of the most basic Ancient Greek norms.  And the civil war was ghastly.  In Megara, the democrats had broken accepted norms by expelling a large portion of the oligarchic party, and the oligarchs retaliated with acts of brigandage.  It is revealing just how deep the hostility was that the popular leaders feared the exiles so much that they were prepared to let in the Athenians, who had been laying waste to their countryside for the past seven years.  Like the Plataean oligarchs, the Megaran democrats apparently expected bloodshed -- the smeared themselves with oil as a signal that they were not to be harmed.

Political violence or private paramilitaries:  As the preceding paragraph makes clear, there was plenty of political violence in all cases.  The Plataean oligarchs obviously did not have a paramilitary, hence their reliance on the Thebans.  The forces who drove the Thebans out were presumably not a paramilitary, but the normal citizen-army.  In Corcyra, the oligarchs who burst in on the council and started slaughtering, and who intimidated the assembly into breaking the alliance with Athens sound like at least the beginnings of a paramilitary, although we lack details.  So, too, does the oligarchic force that landed, set itself up in a fortress, and began raiding the countryside.  As for the popular party, in the initial clash they sound more like the citizen army and/or a spontaneous uprising (witness the women throwing things from the rooftops) that any sort of paramilitary, but it is hard to tell.  The second time around, the democrats were clearly in control of the apparatus of the state, making the resort to paramilitary unnecessary.  As for Megara, Thucydides seems to imply some sort of oligarchic paramilitary when he describes them sorting out a hundred opponents and "compelling" the people to sentence them to death.  But his account is too sparse to be clear.

Danger is on the right:  In all these cases, and throughout the city states in general, the struggle was between the oligarchs and the democrats.  If we define oligarchs as "right wing," as I believe we must, then doesn't that unfairly rig the discussion by defining democracy as "left wing" and make it axiomatic that danger can only come from the right?  I would say no, because looking upon the struggle solely as democrats versus oligarchs ignores a third possibility -- dictatorship.  So far as I can tell, in Classical times dictatorship was a decidedly left-wing phenomenon.  The normal pattern would be the people, oppressed by the oligarchs or in fear of such oppression, turning to a dictator for protection.*  In none of these cases does Thucydides mention anything like a dictator offering to save the people from the oligarchs.  In none of these cases was the popular party altogether innocent.  In Plataea, they slaughtered 180 Thebans soldiers after they surrendered, but were otherwise guilty mostly of a naive trust in Athens.  In Corcyra, the oligarchs started the fight, but the democrats finished it in a veritably orgy of bloodshed.  In Megara, the popular party banished its rivals and feared them so much that it was prepared to cooperate with an enemy laying waste to the country. Nonetheless, in all three cases, it was the oligarchy that wanted to overthrow the democracy (duh!)

Traits of a threat from the Right:

Driven by fear:  I predicted that the threat from the right would generally be driven by fear and the left by ambition.  The fear could take the form of an elite fear of loss of privilege or a middle class fear of displacement from below.  But that does not appear to have been the case in any of these examples!  Granted, Thucydides does not give an in-depth analysis in any of these cases, but nothing he says suggests that in any of these cases the popular party had undertaken any sort of measure that gave the oligarchy cause for alarm.  The only "fear" at work in Plataea appears to have been the fear that once the war started the city would be on its guard and could not be taken by surprise, so they would have to act quickly.  The Corcyran oligarchs clearly initiated the political upheaval and even when exiled refused to admit defeat but came back for revenge.  Megara is the least clear of these, but the only fear Thucydides mentions is the popular party's fear of what would happen if the exiles came back.  In short, the fear here seems to be on the side of the democrats and the ambition on the side of the oligarchs.

Middle class being squeezed out, inability to tell radical from moderate reformers:  There are sub-categories of fear.  See above.

Not dependent on a charismatic leader:  There is no suggestion of a charismatic leader in any of these cases.

Triggered by military defeat or economic crisis:  This does appear to have been the case in Megara.  The Athenians and exiles laying waste to the countryside created a simultaneous military and economic crisis that called for reconciling with one enemy or the other.  The difference was  which was to be feared more.  Furthermore, although the exiles established a narrow and tight oligarchy by treachery and murder, they do appear to have delivered on relieving the crises.  The takeover by the exiles necessarily meant that they were no longer ravaging the countryside.  The truce that soon followed, followed by peace, ended the ravages of the Athenians.  Perhaps the reason the oligarchy lasted so long was that the people identified the improvement in their fortunes with it.  Or because the democrats collaborating with the enemies laying waste to the countryside had discredited them even in the eyes of their would-be supporters.  In Plataea and Corcyra, there does not appear to have been any specific triggering event. The oligarchs simply saw an opportunity to make a bid for power and took it.

Types of failure:

I listed military coup, subversion from within, civil war, military conquest, and other.  Plataea was a military defeat by a vastly superior foe, largely the result of the Plataeans' foolish defiance when they should have backed down.  Corcyra was a civil war that occurred when exiles returned and tried to seize power by force.  In Megara, the exiles returned and were successful in seizing power by force. Unfortunately, Thucydides does not give enough detail for us to have any clear idea how they achieved this.  Interestingly enough, in all three cases the party that sought support from a foreign power lost.  This applies to Plataeans oligarchs seeking help from Thebes,** Corcyran oligarchs seeking help from Corinth, or Megaran democrats seeking help from Athens.  Either collaboration with a foreign power undermines a party's domestic legitimacy to a disastrous degree, or else domestic parties do not seek foreign support until their position is hopeless anyhow.


Other than the dangers of polarization and abandonment of procedural norms, the danger coming mostly from the right, and the lack of charismatic leaders on the right, my predictions have not held up very well!  Particularly the part about the right being driven by fear and the left by ambition appears to be exactly backward in a Classical setting.  I believe it will hold good in modern times, but in Classical times, the pattern appears to be that the danger on the right is from the oligarchy's ambition to rule, and the threat on the left occurs when the people, driven by fear of the oligarchy, seek the protection of a dictator.  The part about confusing radical and moderate reformers and the middle class being squeezed out looks like a modern phenomenon.  And a triggering crisis seems less important than simply a chance to seize power.

One thing that seems to be at work here is an oligarchic mindset one is unlikely to encounter in modern times.  It is my opinion that elites everywhere have a most extraordinary skill at confusing their own privileges with the common good and seeing the concerns of the common people as special interests.  But the ancients' dismissal of the common people as simply not mattering is something one is unlikely to hear in this day and age.  I quote the Old Oligarch, one of democracy's harshest critics:
[T]he people do not want a good government under which they themselves are slaves; they want to be free and to rule. Bad government is of little concern to them. What you consider bad government is the very source of the people's strength and freedom. If it is good government you seek, you will first observe the cleverest men establishing the laws in their own interest. Then the good men will punish the bad; they will make policy for the city and not allow madmen to participate or to speak their minds or to meet in assembly. As a result of these excellent measures the people would swiftly fall into slavery.
Obviously, terms like "good government" and "bad government" are so vague that they could mean almost anything.  But is it such a stretch to assume that when the Old Oligarch says "good government" he means government for the benefit of people like himself, while by "bad government" he means government for the benefit of the common people?  Keep an eye on this Old Oligarch.  We will be seeing more of him.

*With the notable exception of Sulla a right wingers seeking to impose oligarchy and sincerely opposed to dictatorship, but forced to resort to it as an emergency measure.
**Aside from the little detail of Plataea being destroyed altogether, of course.  But it succumbed to an external attacker, not to the domestic oligarchs.  

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