Monday, October 12, 2015

The Latest Debt Ceiling Showdown

Okay, now I know the answer.  The debt ceiling will be breached on or about November 5.  John Boehner intends to step down by the end of October.  That gives him time to raise the debt ceiling if he is willing to do it.  Indeed, it has occurred to me that that may be the real reason he is stepping down -- to avert a debt ceiling breach.  But if so, then he shows no signs of acting on it.  And this time the debt ceiling is set to expire before government shutdown, so there is no possibility of the two things being conflated in the public mind.  How scared should we be?

Reactions have ranged from a complacent yawn that Boehner will somehow get through this (this has been the reaction of the stock market so far) to panic.  I don't have any idea.  So far there had not been widespread alarm over a debt ceiling breach.  Does this mean that Boehner has something up his sleeve and will get it passed before he steps down?  Or is this complacency dangerous.  Does it mean that without time for the tension to build, the alarm to sound, and people to get a real idea of what a debt ceiling breach would entail, there will not be sufficient pressure to avoid one?  I have no idea.

But I know what Congress's priorities should be.  Raise the debt ceiling.  Just do it.  Let everything else take care of itself.  Don't worry about a future government shutdown.  Don't worry about Planned Parenthood.  And definitely don't worry about the Export-Import Bank.  Just head off disaster and leave the rest to the future.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Ben Carson and the Budget

I have been seeing a few chuckles over a recent interview of Ben Carson which makes clear that he does not know what the debt ceiling is.

To be fair to Carson, he does some idea of the budget.  He says that if we run a fiscal gap, even a small one, it will build up greater and greater debt over time.  And he has a plan for balancing the budget -- two plans, actually.  First, he will cut fat and make government more efficient.  Second, he will cut spending by 3-4% across the board for a few years to narrow the fiscal gap and balance the budget.  Somewhat unclear -- whether that means cutting everything 3-4% by reducing administrative overhead, or simply cutting everything 3-4%.  (Social Security, for instance, has an administrative overhead of pretty close to zero, but is our biggest ticket item).  And there is the fact that he expects balancing the budget to take several years, but a refusal to raise the debt ceiling requires balancing the budget over night.  (Latest estimate, cannot find link, is that balancing the budget overnight means a 20% o immediate cut.  That is a definite improvement over the 40% cut that was necessary at the time of the first debt ceiling crisis, but still traumatic).  And there is his vision of what he would do as President:
We need to maximize the potential of every single one of our people. You know, we need to understand that education is the great divide in our nation. There’s going to be a much more emphasis on educational choice. Also, recognizing that if we get defense wrong, nothing else matters, because we live in a hostile world. So you’re going to see our military capabilities improve quite substantially. You’re going to see us really taking care of our veterans rather than just talking about it. Recognizing that we have a 14 percent decrease in people applying for our volunteer military. That’s going to hurt us badly in the long run. You’re going to see us concentrating on our vulnerabilities, like our electrical grid, which is woefully vulnerable right now, from a number of possibilities. You’re going to see us beef up our cyber capabilities substantially, you’re going to see us respond to people who attack us in a way that they will never forget. You're going to see us get back into space, understanding that so many inventions came out of the space program. We cannot get behind in innovation, and in the future, he who controls space controls the Earth. 
You're going to see much more proactive stance towards someone like Putin, you know, we're going to be much more active throughout the whole Baltic basin area, Eastern Europe, we're going to reestablish missile defense program, we're going to have more than one or two armored brigades in that area. We're gonna stand up to him, every place in the Middle East, we're not gonna back down. .
At this point, the interviewer skeptically asks, "And just so I'm clear, you're going to do this while balancing the budget, not raising the debt and cutting the size of the government?"  Carson answers, "Exactly!"  And questioned whether such a thing is possible he answers that he has done a lot of things that people thought were impossible.  Arithmetic is just a state of mind!

Just as an afterthought, he also says that he has a system to replace Obamacare with something that will give everyone much better health insurance.  "It will provide much better coverage than they have right now, and they will not be second-class citizens. Everybody will be of equal value under the system that I propose and it will cost us less money. . . . With the system that I've proposed, everybody is of equal value and you have choice."  Of course, he does not provide the faintest clue of what this system is.  In short, Ben Carson sounds a lot like Donald Trump -- a lot of hot air and empty promises with no specifics whatever to back it up.

Jonathan Chait seems to imply that Carson is stupid, as evidenced by his disbelief in evolution.  This is clearly false, as his resume makes clear.  The youngest major division director in Johns Hopkins' history, perfecter of the hemispherectomy, and first surgeon to separate twins conjoined at the head is obviously not stupid.  But intelligence is not indivisible.  There is no reason to believe that a brilliant neurosurgeon knows the first thing about the federal budget.

If I were choosing a surgeon to separate conjoined twins, I would not care in the slightest whether he knew anything about the federal budget or policy making.  And in choosing a President, until very recently no one though it the least bit important whether he could perform neurosurgery.  Granted, a first class neurosurgeon might also be a policy wonk, or a  President might be a brilliant surgeon.  But that would simply be an incidental bonus.  But choosing a President because he separated conjoined twins would be sort of like -- well, choosing a surgeon for his knowledge of the federal budget.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Reflections on the Latest Mass Shooting

Maybe it is just because I have Facebook now, but this latest mass shooting seems to have inspired a stronger reaction from gun control advocates than anything up till now.  Of course, it is futile as ever. So far as I can tell, some hard core gun advocates have reached the point of regarding guns as a sort of law-free zone.  Or perhaps they would take the "neutral law of general applicability" rule that gets applied in First Amendment cases.  In other words, murder is still equally serious whether committed with a gun or not.  But until you actually attack someone or at least threaten to, guns are exempt from the law and any law regulating them as such is unconstitutional.  After the previous mass shooting before this one David Frum wrote:
Many gun makers, gun sellers, and gun owners seek a unique legal status for themselves, exempt from the norms and rules that apply elsewhere in American society. It’s this quest for special privilege, not Second Amendment rights as they have been understand for almost all the history of the republic, that enables slaughters like that in Charleston [the mas shooting de jeur]—and the miserable toll of massacres and accidents still to come.
Indeed, although I cannot find the link, there was some time back a quote from one Congressman seeming to suggest that anything specifically designed for killing people was exempt from all regulation.  Try to wrap your head around that.  To put it in concrete terms, dynamite can be quite lethal, but its primary purpose is blasting, so it can be regulated.  The government is allowed to put restrictions on public access to dynamite.  Hand grenades, by contrast, are designed specifically for killing people.  If this Congressman is to be taken at his word, the Second Amendment therefore bans all regulation whatever of hand grenades.

While the gun lobby was once open to narrowly targeted restrictions that at least interfered with gun sales to felons, they are now opposed to even that.  And certainly, they do not acknowledge that anything can be so lethal that there would be legitimate reason to keep it off the street.  According to the gun lobby, all gun owners fit into to neat, binary categories: good guys and bad guys.  Good guys would never criminally misuse any weapon.  Thus they can be trusted with all weapons, no matter how lethal. Lethality is simply a non-issue when the weapon is in the hands of a good guy.  Bad guys, by contrast, will not obey any gun laws.  They will always have unlimited access to weapons of all kinds through the black market.  The black market is simply a given that nothing can change. Therefore, since bad guys will always have unlimited access to unlimited firepower, the best we can hope for is to make unlimited legal firepower available on the streets so that good guys will have parity.  And of course, there are no gray areas, no overlaps, and no good guys involved in the black market.

Again, taking the hypothetical of hand grenades, I do not see how the overall logic would be any different.  Hand grenades are inanimate objects.  No hand grenade ever pulled its own pin and threw itself.  Since they are made for the high-stress, high-error atmosphere of combat, presumably they are reasonably "safe" in the sense of being designed not to go off by accident.  So why shouldn't hand grenades be legal?  No good guy would ever criminally misuse a hand grenade; good guys would use them only for lawful purposes.  Bad guys will simply ignore all laws against hand grenades and buy them black market and not a thing can be done about it.  Therefore, we should remove all restrictions on hand grenades so good guys will at least have parity.

What is wrong with this logic?  Well, for one thing, it ignores the awkward fact that a ban on hand grenades actually appears to have been quite effective at keeping them out of the hands of bad guys. For another it fails to explain what lawful purpose good guys have for hand grenades.  (Stockpiling them for armed confrontation with the federal government, I suppose).  It ignores the fact that all use of hand grenades outside of war is misuse.  And, of course, there is the lethality if they are used.

Besides, people do not divide so neatly into good guys and bad guys as gun enthusiasts think.  There are good guys who always exercise proper self-restraint no matter what the circumstances.  And then there are good guys who have had too much to drink on any particular occasion.  And there are people with no evil intent who nonetheless have poor impulse control and might impulsively do something foolish.  And there are tragic mistakes when good guys think they are using their guns in self-defense or defense of another and turn out to be mistaken.  And there are good guys who have bad guys for teenage sons.  Nancy Lanza (mother of the Sandy Hook shooter) was undoubtedly a good person who volunteered for the school and did all she could for her troubled son under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  So was Laurel Harper, nurse and mother of the latest shooter. But their being good people did not keep their large gun collections out of the hands of their mentally disturbed sons.  Nor, for that matter, do bad guys run around in T-shirts labeled "bad guy" or otherwise identify themselves as such.  Open Carry advocates would no doubt assure you that they allow only good people in their organization, but that did not stop one of them from killing her husband and step-daughter.

Nor is the black market in guns an immutable fact of life that nothing can change.  Most black market guns can ultimately be traced back to a legal source.  One research found 57% of all guns found at crime scenes could be traced to 1% of all licensed dealers.  The ATF responded with close scrutiny of these dealers, established tougher regulations, imposed sanctions, and revoked licenses of some of the worst offenders.  If allowed to go through, this might have made a serious dent in the immutable black market.  So naturally Congress moved to stop them.  When Smith & Wesson entered into an agreement to reduce selling the more lethal types of firearms and cut off sales to dealers who seemed to be feeding into the black market, irate gun owners called for a boycott.  And the whole anger against Operation Fast and Furious does not appear to have been driven so much by anger that the ATF let guns get into the hands of bad guys as that it made any attempt to crack down on the black market at all.  No one exactly said that the Second Amendment guarantees every law-abiding citizen the right to buy guns in bulk and sell them to Mexico drug cartels, but a lot of the outrage seems to imply as much.

In short, there is a black market in guns.  No doubt it is impossible to shut it down altogether.  But it is certainly possible to shrink it a great deal if it were politically feasible.  The reason it is not politically feasible is that the gun lobby sees any attempt, even to crack down on illegal gun sales, as ultimately a threat to legal gun ownership.  And I suppose there is something to it.  If their goal is to exempt guns from all laws whatever until someone actually gets shot, then all laws on guns are necessarily a threat.

Or, put differently, the gun lobby assumes that criminal access to guns is a thing beyond all hope of remedy, so we should assure as many guns on the streets as possible to counter criminals who will always have infinite access no matter what.  Common sense says that, in fact, the more guns are on the street, the more of them are likely to fall into the wrong hands.  We cannot create 100% assurance that no bad guy will ever get his hands on guns.  But reducing the number of guns on the street will make it a whole lot harder.  Other, more targeted measures can make it harder, too.  But until this generation passes away and a new one takes its place, such measures will be politically impossible.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A General, Though Not Final, Reflection on Ancient Greece and Modern Fascism

The characteristic of fascism are not so much a definition as a cluster of traits.  My look so far at Ancient Greece and various oligarchies and dictatorships is that these are neither isolated traits nor a unified cluster.  Rather, they have several sub-clusters.  Charismatic leaders, mass mobilization, and an emphasis on an aesthetic structure are traits of populism.  Belief in primacy of one's group, fear of its decline, the need for integration of a purer community, and belief in the right of one's group to dominate are traits of oligarchy.  (Fascism applied them on a national level).  A sense of overwhelming crisis and a movement simultaneously anti-radical, anti-liberal, and anti-conservative are traits of a movement driven by fear of rebellion from below and the need to forestall it. Exaltation of  youth, mobilization, and a favorable attitude toward violence are traits of a paramilitary party seizing power.

So we have seen in Peisistratus many of the populist traits of fascism (and some of the paramilitary ones as well).  In Sparta we have seen many of the fear-based traits.  And in the 400 we have seen many of the paramilitary traits.  But in none of them have we seen all (or even most) of the fascist traits at the same time.  Even setting aside the fascist ideology and goals as quintessentially modern and an anachronism to apply in classical times, still none of the instances we have seen so far fits a very large number of other categories either.  I can only believe that that is because fascism was the product of a particular historical epoch that brought those traits together in unique ways.

Consider what a genuine proto-fascist (or proto-proto-proto-fascist) movement in Athens under the circumstances we have discussed would have looked like.  First and foremost, it would have required a completely different political configuration than the one that existed at the time.  (Many thanks here to Donald Kagan for insights I have gleaned from him).  In actual, historical Athens, the lower classes were the strongest supporters of empire and expansion and the upper classes its strongest opponents.  Kagan suggests this was in large part because the lower classes were the main beneficiaries of the tribute it brought in, while the upper classes in subject states bore the main burden of payment.  This, as well as Athens' tendency to support democracies, goes a long way toward explaining why it was the oligarchs who were most disposed to revolt.  It also explains the Athenian upper classes' tendency to oppose the empire as a sort of expression of class solidarity with the oligarchs in subject cities.  (Kagan also believes that their influence was strong enough to keep Athenian hegemony from becoming too oppressive and burdensome).

But for anything like real fascism to have occurred in Athens, we would have to imagine those positions reversed.  In our imaginary Athens, roughly equivalent to Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the upper classes would be quite militaristic, and the middle classes (hoplites) strong imperialists, while the lower classes (sailors) would be most opposed to war out of an attempt to foster class solidarity across borders.  There would also have to be a hard-core left-wing radical movement, not so numerous, but scary and of dubious loyalty.  We would then have to imagine a young and charismatic Alcibiades firing up particularly young men of the hoplite class for the Sicilian expedition, with the stodgy, conservative Nicias somewhat reluctantly going along, and the sailors and their leaders somewhat reluctantly closing ranks lest their patriotism be questions.  The mutilation of the herms would be blamed, not on an oligarchic conspiracy, but on left-wing radicals.  Moral panic would sweep the city, with a crackdown vastly exceeding what was reasonably called for and, once again, the most of the sailors and their respectable, mainstream leaders would join in.

The Sicilian expedition would meet the disastrous end that it really did, in part (as was the case) because of Nicias' incompetent generalling.  Athens would then accept peace on the terms it could get, which would naturally be bad ones.  The government's domestic legitimacy would be undermined.  The radical left would be strengthened and declare the whole war a mistake.  The moderate left would agree, but refrain from actually saying so lest its patriotism be impugned.  And Alcibiades would lead a populist movement of young super-hawks who had been the strongest supporters of the expedition, arguing that the only mistake was not hitting 'em hard enough, and that only that weak-kneed Nicias and those treasonous sailors were to blame.  He would gain a strong following among the hoplites seeking to disenfranchise the sailors and build his own paramilitary to intimidate them.

As you can see, this attempt to translate the equivalents of early 20th Century Europe into the actual situation of Classical Athens just doesn't work.  Fascism was the product of a unique time and circumstances that does not translate well into other contexts.  But we can still follow its characteristics and see how they cluster together, and which movements in ancient times clustered most.

The Coup of the 400 and Fascism

All right, now for the question you have all been waiting for.  To what extent could the coup of 411 B.C. be seen as the precursor to modern fascism?  Running down the various traits of fascism, the results are interesting.

A middle class populist movement that somewhat punches up, but predominantly kicks down.  No.  The 400 were neither middle class nor populist.  They were, quite simply, oligarchs trying to exclude the common people from power.  Admittedly they did make some attempt to simultaneously appeal to and intimidate the middle class by promising to extend a full share in government to some 5,000 eligible participants.  But they were emphatically not rabble rousers.  They were members of the upper class who thought that they should hold exclusive power.  I should make one interesting qualification here.  Theramenes and the other moderate members of the 400 apparently did take the talk of the 5,000 seriously and want to include the middle class.  Theramenes proved himself to have at least some ability to rabble-rouse,* stirring up the middle class hoplites to revolt against the oligarchy when he considered the oligarchy to be on the verge of treason.  In theory, it would be possible to imagine Theramenes making a career as a right-wing populist, stirring the hoplites up against the poor and urging them not to share citizenship with such riffraff.  But the fact remains that he did not.  Indeed, Theramenes does not seem like a good candidate to be a rabble-rouser.  He was apparently from one of Athens' most aristocratic families; his father, Hagnon, was a prominent general and the founder of the colony Amphipolis.

Driven by both fear and ambition, but fear predominates.  Well, as discussed before, fear got the whole plot started in the first place, fear of military disaster.  Alcibiades promised assistance from Persia if the democracy was overturned,  But here is the thing.  The Athenian people -- Assembly, army, and navy alike -- had all agreed to suspend the democracy if necessary to preserve their country.  No coup, no campaign of terror and intimidation, was necessary if fear was all that was at work.  That can only be considered the work of ambition.  Then again, as the oligarchy's position weakened, fear became stronger and stronger -- fear of how a vengeful democracy would treat them. Certainly, the coup of the 400 was not like the case of Corcyra where the oligarchs, though beaten and exiled, returned and burned their boats to cut off all hope of escape and force themselves to fight until conquest or destruction.  That is pure ambition in its rawest state.  Here, I would say there was a considerable mixture of fear, but ambition predominated.

Paramilitary party claiming a monopoly on political power.  Here is where we do see something that looks like a precursor to modern fascism.  Yes, the political clubs that seized power do look a good deal like a paramilitary party.  Each club by itself might be better seen as a legislative caucus rather than anything like a political party in the modern sense.  But when the clubs joined forces they did, indeed, begin to look something like a political party as we might understand the term.  They were a group of participants sharing a common ideology, organized together to pursue their objectives.  They participated in the normal democratic process, making speeches, proposing measures, and taking part in debates.  But they did not play fair.  They had bully boys to terrorize and assassinate opponents, so that no one dared speak against them.  The forms of the democracy remained, but the substance had been overthrown well before the coup.  It is certainly possible that other failures of democracy may have involved paramilitaries taking part in the democratic process but not playing fair.  The instances of Peisistratus and Corcyra strongly suggest it.  But here is one fall of democracy where we know enough to confidently say yes, this was a paramilitary party.  And it did claim a monopoly on power.  It showed more internal democracy than modern totalitarian parties, but that was the case in all oligarchies.

And now the old standbys:

The fascist negations.

Anti-radical:  No, not really.  There is nothing to suggest that the 400 were driven by any fear of violent revolution from below or from the Left.  Possibly this could have been at work since the moral panic following the mutilation of the herms, but there is nothing in the record to suggest it.

Anti-liberal:  In the sense of seeking the narrow the circle of people who matter, absolutely.  That is the nature of oligarchic revolution.

Anti-conservative:  The 400 apparently did their best to maintain the outward forms of legality, continuity and tradition, so I see no real reason to see them as anti-conservative.

Ideology and goals.

  • Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state not merely based on traditional principles or models
  • Organization of some new kind of regulated, multiclass, integrated national economic structure, whether called corporatist, national socialist, or national syndicalist
  • Empire or 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.
The oligarchy of the 400 were seeking empire only in the sense of wanting to preserve as much of it as they could.  Their only desire for a "radical change in the nation's relationship with other powers" was a desire to get out of the war on the best terms they could obtain.  As the oligarchs' domestic position weakened, the terms they were willing to accept became less and less favorable, until they end they were (apparently) willing to accept foreign conquest in the interest of preserving the oligarchy.  This might seen antithetical to the belligerent nationalism of modern fascism except for one thing.  All across Europe, in country after country, those belligerent nationalists of fascism turned out to be a pack of traitors!  So maybe the 400 weren't so different after all.  As for the other goals, they are quintessentially modern, and any attempt to apply them in Classical Antiquity is simply an anachronism.

Style and organization.

Emphasis on aesthetic structure of meeting, symbols and political choreography, stressing romantic and mystical aspects.  I see no sign of it.  This looks like part of the populist nature of fascism, which was absent.

Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and with the goal of a mass party militia.  You could say that was true within the very narrow confines of the oligarchy. But to most people "mass mobilization" and "mass party militia" sound incompatible with limiting this mobilization and militia to a very narrow oligarchy.

Positive evaluation of, and willingness to use violence.  Yes.  Hence the terror and assassination, and the coup.

Extreme stress on the masculine principle and male dominance.  No more than any other Greeks.

Exaltation of youth above all other phases of life, emphasizing conflict of generations.  We see some of that at work here, insofar as it was the young men, the "Hellenic youth" who carried on the violent aspects of their work.  Plutarch certainly (and presumably accurately) speaks of a conflict of generations between the younger men who favored the Sicilian expedition and the older men who opposed it.  But it differs from modern fascism in a very important aspect.  It was the men who opposed the Sicilian expedition who were most likely to favor the coup, and the ones who favored the expedition who were the most likely to champion democracy.

Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic style of leadership, whether or not the command is to some degree elective.  I would say no.  Certainly Alcibiades wanted to be a charismatic leader, but he was passed over.  Peisander was perhaps also a candidate for charismatic leader, but it seems unlikely that others, particularly the behind-the-scenes chessmaster Antiphon would have allowed it.  Thucydides remarks that oligarchic conspiracies are most unlikely to succumb a charismatic leader; they all want to be the leader:
For the instant an oligarchy is established the promoters of it disdain mere equality, and everybody thinks that he ought to be far above everybody else. Whereas in a democracy, when an election is made, a man is less disappointed at a failure because he has not been competing with his equals.
He goes on to say that the members of the moderate faction did not expect to oligarchy to survive and began maneuvering each to position himself as champion of the common people when it fell. Thermanenes, as we have seen, did so with some success, but ultimately that role had already been taken by Alcibiades.

The mobilizing passions of fascism.

A sense of overwhelming crisis, beyond the reach of any traditional solutions.  Very much so.  In fact, there was such a crisis ongoing in the form of a desperate military situation.  But here is the thing.  People outside of the conspiracy agreed that there was such a crisis, beyond the reach of traditional solutions.  In fact the Assembly had agreed to suspend the democracy if necessary for Persian aid.  Yet the conspiracy proceeded anyhow, even after it became clear that no such aid would be forthcoming.  I do not think this factor played quite the role here that it did not modern fascism.

The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual, and the subordination of the individual to it.  Well, the conspirators were oligarchs who wanted their group to rule over the common people, so to some extent this applies.  But I see nothing to suggest that sort of subordination of the individual to the group.  Quite the contrary, see Thucydides' comment about individual ambition above.

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.  There may have been some of this, to the extent that the oligarchs, who defined themselves as "the best citizens," "the good and the honorable," and so forth and firmly believed that they would offer better government that the democracy.  Perhaps they saw themselves as victimized by their exclusion from power.  But I don't think that it went this far.  This is the mark of lashing out in fear, rather than of raw ambition.

Dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences.  Probably to some extent, under the democracy, but that, too, is more fear-based that the 400 appeared to be.

The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.  This applies to all oligarchic coups in the sense that the oligarchs want to "purify" the citizen body by excluding everyone they do not consider "the best citizens" or "the good and the honorable," etc.  But it does not apply in the same was as in modern fascism, i.e., to all residents.  The 400 wanted closer integration of a purer citizen body, but they never imagined that the citizen body and all inhabitants of the city would be the same.

The need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny.  See my previous comments about charismatic leaders. Thucydides' conclusion is that the 400 did want a charismatic dictator to lead them; they each wanted to be that dictator and since that, of course, was not possible, they were doomed to break apart into individual power struggles.  The most likely prospect for such a leader was in Alcibiades leading the common people against the 400.

The superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason.  No.  This goes with a sort of leader worship foreign to the 400.

The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success.  Well, the 400 obviously showed themselves willing to use violence to advance their group.  But I don't see anything like the pornographic glorification of violence that you see in modern fascism.

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.  Clearly, as oligarchs the 400 believed in their right to dominate the common people, and they were prepared to use lawless violence and ultimately treason to achieve their goals.  Another way of putting this one, I suppose, is a narrowing of the circle of people who morally "matter" to the point that outsiders are allowed no weight whatever in the group's moral calculus.  I think the best answer is that we do not have enough evidence, and that I am unwilling to convict the 400 in this regard without it.

*I do not consider rabble-rouser to be necessarily an insult.  Some rabble need rousing.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

My Standard Outline, Applied to the 411 Coup

All right.  We now have the account of how the Four Hundred overthrew the Athenian democracy in 411 B.C.  I have discussed earlier overthrows of democracy in Ancient Greece -- in Athens by Peisistratus, in Plataea, in Megara, in Corcyra, and in Argos.  But our information in all these cases is sketchy.  In Athens in 411 B.C., we finally have a failure of democracy that is well enough documented to allow some serious analysis.  So, let's see how my predictions hold.


Democracies fail as a result of extreme, out-of-control polarization and strife.
Understanding the need for political parties and a loyal opposition is essential to the success of a democracy.   I originally listed these as separate categories of consideration, but obviously they are closely related.  A society that understands and accepts political parties and a loyal opposition as normal is far less prone to extreme polarization and strife than one that does not.  The best measure we have of polarization and party strife is the practice of ostracism, or ten-year exile of powerful political leaders by vote.  The purpose of ostracism was to limit political strife by allowing the leader of the winning faction to banish the loser.  This made it possible to get rid of political rivals without killing them,  Implied here is that it was necessary to get rid of political rivals because keeping them around would mean endless and escalating strife.  Also implied is that the most dangerous polarization is individual rivalry for power, rather than deeper splits between interests or ideologies. The danger of factional strife is not removed if rivalry between individuals is simply a symptom of an underlying cleavage in the larger society.

This list of ostracisms is revealing.  In the 480's the practice was so rampant as to happen almost annually.  In the 470's, 460's and 450's, it diminished.  In the 440's there was an upsurge, as rival parties disputed the role of the Areopagus (Supreme Court). This is a fair barometer of the level of polarization and strife, and the Athenians' willingness to tolerate a long-term opposition.  For a quarter century after Pericles ostracized Thucydides (not the historian), the practice fell into disuse, suggesting that the country was not severely polarized, and that opposition was being kept within reasonable bounds.  Indeed, I am inclined to agree with George Grote (page 372) that Athens was developing a
[C]onstitutional morality -- a paramount reverence for the forms of the constitution, enforcing obedience to the authorities acting under and within these forms, yet combined with the habit of open speech, of action subject only to definite legal control, and unrestrained censure of those very authorities as to their all public acts -- combined too with a perfect confidence in the bosom of every citizen, amidst the bitterness of party contest, that the forms of the constitution will be not less sacred in the eyes of his opponents than his own.
Is it any wonder that democracy is hard to do?  Yet Athens was well on its way to developing such an outlook until they went back to war again after the Peace of Nicias.  Then the practice of ostracism was revived once more, for the last time.  Thucydides does not discuss the subject, but no doubt Plutarch is right when he says that the rivalry between Alcibiades and Nicias had become so great that one of them had to go.  But their personal rivalry was simply a proxy for the the strife between the war party (mostly young men) and the peace party (mostly older men).  Joining forces to banish Hyperbolus instead was clever, but did nothing to resolve the underlying tension.  The mutilation of the herms, in a presumed attempt to stop the Sicilian expedition, was another step in the escalation of polarization.  The ensuing moral panic was yet another.  And it is my suspicion that seeing so many of Athens' leading citizens arrested and threatened with torture and death on such flimsy evidence played as large a role in alienating the elite from the democracy as the military defeats that followed.

Abandonment of procedural norms.  The revival of ostracism after a 25-year lapse, the vandalism of the herms, the ensuing crackdown on Athens' leading citizens all sound like the abandonment of procedural norms.  But the biggest abandonment of all, of course, was by the political "clubs."  No doubt if your average Athenian had known of much of these clubs' behavior even in normal times, he would have seen it as procedurally dirty.  No doubt your average American throughout most of our history would have said the same about the caucusing in our own legislatures.  As the saying goes, two things you never want to see made are laws and sausages.  The clubs were secret societies, which are inherently suspect to outsiders (just ask any Mason).  Some apparently had initiation rites that mocked sacred religious ceremonies.  And they most likely they engaged in caucusing techniques the legislators do -- pre-planned in advance who would speak, what he would say, and what order they would speak in to give maximum effect.  Well before this, Plutarch reports, Pericles' rival Thucydides (not the historian) had arranged for his supporters to group together to show greater cohesion.  All this no doubt would seem dirty to outsiders, but it is how these things are done.  The difference is that after Peisander set the plot in motion, the "clubs" began working together, speeches and proposals were all of this pre-planned nature, and, by far the most serious and significant, violence was used to intimidate opponents.

Political violence, possibly in the form of private paramilitaries.  The oligarchs definitely resorted to political violence, and to the threat of violence.  They assassinated a prominent democratic leader and several others, kept their opponents intimidated by the threat of such violence, and disbursed the Council with daggers in hand and "Hellenic youths" backing them.

Danger is on the right.  If we define oligarchy as right wing and charismatic populist dictators promising to protect the common people from the oligarchs as left wing, then this revolt was clearly right wing.  Alcibiades, though, was willing to play whatever side was to his advantage.

Importance of the support of a strong middle class.  In this case, the formula appears to have gone the other way.  Nothing in Thucydides' account suggests that the democracy failed because the middle class turned against it.  Rather, the oligarchy failed because the hoplite middle class (1) resented being promised power and then excluded and (2) more immediately to the point, suspected the oligarchs of preparing to commit treason.


Driven by fear rather than ambition.  Both appear to have been at work here.  The plot was first inspired by fear -- not fear of revolt from below or of loss of property, but of complete, disastrous defeat.  (Kagan's account of the financial burdens the war was imposing on Athens' wealthier citizens suggests that may have been a factor as well).  Phrynichus was attached to the plot by a very personal and specific fear, fear that Alcibiades might expose his treasonous correspondence.  The rest appear to have acted mostly from ambition to rule, but to have been kept going mostly out of fear -- fear of what would happen to them if they were defeated.  The oligarchs had seen what happens to thwarted oligarchic plotters in Athens' history; in contemporary Corcyra, Argos and Samos; and doubtless in many other examples that we are not aware of.  At some point, they must have decided they had reached the point of no return and there was no going back.  Still, on the whole, as with other Greek oligarchic revolutions, this one appears to have been driven mostly by ambition.

Inability to tell radicals from moderates, fear of middle class being squeezed out.  These fit under the category of fear, specifically fear of domestic opponents.  If anything these issues have more to to with the failure of the coup.  Among the oligarchs the radicals split from the moderates; the middle class greatly resented the oligarchy, not the lower classes, for squeezing them out.

Not dependent on a charismatic leader.  The revolution was first inspired by Alcibiades who by all accounts was extremely charismatic.  Plutarch says of him:
And indeed no disposition could resist and no nature escape Alcibiades, so full of grace was his daily life and conversation. Even those who feared and hated him felt a rare and winning charm in his society and presence.
But Alcibiades merely inspired the revolt.  He was excluded from the actual execution.  Peisander, leader of the revolt in the fleet, man who started it going in Athens, and presumably the public face of the oligarchy, started as a popular/demagogic leader and was presumably charismatic as well.  But, Thucydides tells us, the real leader behind the scenes was Antiphon, brilliant but unpopular, a first-class speech writer, but reluctant to engage in public oratory himself.  Thucydides calls his speech when on trial for his life, "the best ever made by ally man tried on a capital charge down to my time." Nonetheless, it seems safe to say that a manipulating-from-behind-the-scenes sort of guy like Antiphon does not rate as a charismatic leader.

Typically triggered by military defeat or economic crisis:  This one was triggered both by the recent military defeat in Sicily and by the ongoing military crisis, as Athenians feared that without Persian assistance, all would truly be lost.


I listed subversion from within, military coup, civil war, foreign invasion, and perhaps others.  On "other," in Ancient Greece was foreign mercenary armies.  This one appears to be a combination.  The clubs, with their conspiratorial caucusing and use of terror, subverted the democracy from within.  They then staged a coup.  The "Hellenic youth" backing them may or may not have been foreign mercenaries.  The oligarchs appear to have employed a few hundred foreign mercenaries as well.  And, although there was neither civil war nor foreign invasion, all parties went very much in fear that the coup might lead to civil war, and as the oligarchs' position became more and more precarious, they became increasingly willing to submit to foreign invasion, if necessary, to remain in power.

Next up:  The old standby.  The 400 and fascism.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Athens: Meanwhile, Back at the Fleet

As we last left Athens, it was in dire straits.  The Spartans held a fortress only a few miles away and were marauding the countryside, cutting off overland food supplies and forcing the city to be under constant guard.  The island of Euboea had revolted, cutting off the city's main local source of food, meaning that all food had to be imported by sea.  And just as control of the sea had reached the highest importance, the fleet had mutinied because of an oligarchic revolution and was no longer taking orders from the city.  The coup had just been defeated, but Athens' last naval resources had been depleted, leaving only  twenty ships to keep the port open.

But in the meantime the navy, across the Aegean, was preparing to get back on the scoreboard again.

Tissaphernes, the Persian Satrap in the south was either stinting the Peloponnesian forces' pay or not paying at all, constantly promising the Phoenician fleet would come to their aid but failing to deliver, trying to play the Greeks off against each other and wear both sides down.  Such a game could only go undetected for so long.  They were becoming increasingly restive, on the verge of mutiny, the the corrupt admiral who had been bribed to allow this situation was replaced.  Meanwhile, the northern Satrap, Pharnabazus, was offering real assistance.  So the Peloponnesian fleet decamped  and headed north, to that strategic passage between the Aegean and the Black Sea that we call the  Dardanelles and the Greeks called the Hellespont.  That waterway would be the main theater of the war from then on.  Already a small fleet had arrived in the Hellespont and was stirring up revolts.  In the south, Alcibiades took advantage of the withdrawal of the Peloponnesian fleet to secure the southern city of Halicarnassus and the island of Cos.


Thrasybulus, the Athenian commander at Samos, became aware of this movement and pursued.  Thucydides details this game place by place, but the details need not concern us.  What is important is that Greek ships were too narrow and crowded to allow for long voyages, so they had to hug the shore, frequently stopping to eat or sleep, but nonetheless moved much faster than they could ever move over land, and that both fleets arrived arrived at the Hellespont and set up camp across the straits from each other.  (My rough approximation of their trajectory is below).  The two fleets met at Cynossema.*  Battle ensued, and the Athenians were  victorious.  The battle was not particularly important strategically, but it served as a much-needed morale booster for the navy.  When word of the victory was sent back home, it served as a morale booster there as well.  It proved that the navy had not deserted, and that it was back on the score board.

Tissaphernes now realized that he had overplayed his hand.  He headed north to see if he could persuade the thoroughly disgruntled and disgusted Peloponnesians to come back.  The history there abruptly ends with, "He first went to Ephesus, and there offered sacrifice to Artemis."  The ending is so abrupt that we can almost see Thucydides having a heart attack in mid-sentence.  Indeed, one tradition holds that he was murdered.

Shocking and sudden though the end is, it is at a relatively good place for someone tracing the failures of democracy.  The oligarchic coup had just been defeated, and the democracy had just begun to open some hope in the war.  So I will follow with my standard analysis of failures of democracy, and then give Ancient Greece a break for a time as I read up on what happened next.

*The name means Tomb of the She-Dog and was said to be the burial place of Hecuba, queen of Troy.  According to legend, after Troy fell and Hecuba was taken as a slave she either was transformed into a female dog, or lost her mind and thought she was a dog.

A Few Reflections on the Coup and its Failure

I do want to make a few more comments here.  (The last post was getting too long to include any more).

One is that, although Thucydides can be fleshed out with some supplemental sources, he is far and away our best source on the coup and its defeat.  I have cited Aristotle and Diodorus Siculus on the coup.  Here is Diodorus on the coup failure:
At this time the Athenians dissolved the oligarchy of the Four Hundred and formed the constitution of the government from the citizens at large. The author of all these changes was Theramenes, a man who was orderly in his manner of life and was reputed to surpass all others in judgement; for he was the only person to advise the recall from exile of Alcibiades, through whom the Athenians recovered themselves, and since he was the author of many other measures for the benefit of his country, he was the recipient of no small approbation.
While it is certainly true that Theramenes paid no penalty for his role in the oligarchy of the 400 and went on to be an admiral in the fleet, it also seems a reasonable bet that he role as a member of the 400 caused many to look upon him with suspicion.

 Aristotle gives only slightly more detail:
The constitution of the Four Hundred lasted perhaps four months, for two of which Mnesilochus was archon, in the year of the archonship of Theopompus, who received the office for the remaining ten months. But when they had been worsted in the naval battle off Eretria and the whole of Euboea except Oreum had revolted, they were more distressed at the misfortune than by any previous disaster (for they were actually getting more support from Euboea than from Attica), and they dissolved the Four Hundred and handed over affairs to the Five Thousand that were on the armed roll, having passed by vote a resolution that no office should receive pay. The persons chiefly responsible for the dissolution were Aristocrates and Theramenes, who disapproved of the proceedings of the Four Hundred; for they did everything on their own responsibility and referred nothing to the Five Thousand. But Athens seems to have been well governed during this critical period, although a war was going on and the government was confined to the armed roll.
Another is a general comment on the 5,000.  Aristotle regards them as part of the real plan, which the 400 nonetheless failed to live up to.  Thucydides, by contrast, regards them as so much window dressing.  He sees this as a clever ploy, something that everyone felt compelled to give lip service to, even if no one actually wanted.  He believed that the conspirators who called for instituting the 5,000 were simply speaking for public consumption and really were acting out of thwarted ambition.  The hoplites who mutinied called for instituting the 5.000 instead of full democracy for fear of offending a neighbor who might secretly be one of the 5,000.  Even Alcibiades, safe in Samos, told the representatives of the 400 that he could accept the 5,000.

Thucydides believed that the real purpose of the purported list of 5,000 eligible participants was to create the impression of a much larger conspiracy than actually existed, while at the same time preventing any conspiracies against the oligarchy, for fear that one of the co-conspirators might be one of the 5,000.  Still, the plan had obvious drawbacks.  A deception on that scale can only be concealed so long.  Sooner or later, if the 400 never came out with the larger list, people would begin to suspect that it would never happen.  Another drawback was that promising the enfranchise a non-existent list of 5,000 ultimately served to guarantee that all hoplites would ultimately prefer the democracy, since each would know that he personally was not on the list.

Even government of the hoplites, excluding the poor, had its problems.  The most obvious one was the link between democracy and naval power.  If Athens wanted to keep its overseas empire (and at the beginning, even the 400 hoped to preserve it), then it needed the goodwill of its sailors.  Navies, it is true, cannot stage coups, but they can mutiny or desert, as the fleet at Samos made clear.  It is interesting question whether the hoplites, given the choice, would have preferred a broad oligarchy based on the hoplites over full democracy.  On domestic matters, no doubt they would have recognized that excluding the poor guaranteed they would swamp the rich in numbers and be the true rulers.  But it would also have meant losing the goodwill of the navy and thereby losing their empire, or at least weakening it.  Which would be more important to the hoplites?  I suppose we will never know because it was not seriously tried.

Finally, it had to be addressed sooner or later, but what would the NRA and our general militia movement think of the whole thing?  On the one hand, it emphasizes that a tyrant disarms the citizenry.  Pesistratus disarmed the citizenry.  So did the Thirty Tyrants, who we will see later. But that was not really an option for the 400, since there were hostile armies roving the countryside, and the city had to be closely guarded.  And it is true that ultimately the army mutinied, marched on the city, and overthrew the oligarchy.  It is also true that the navy deserted and made victory impossible without a return to the democracy.

But the NRA/insurrectionist/militia view has its shortcomings, too.  For one thing, an armed populace most signally failed to stop the coup, even if it did later overthrow it.  For another, both sides were very much opposed to an actual trial of force at a time when a hostile army was camped a few miles away, eager to take advantage of the city's weakness.  For another, in Ancient Greece the logic of treating liberty as a thing for every man to defend with his gun (well, spear and shield) was not democracy, but oligarchy.  A majority of citizens could not afford a spear, shield, or other such gear. They were, of course, the ones who served in the navy and won real political power by their military importance.  But in the sort of armed showdown our insurrectionists envision, unarmed sailors would have been no match for armed hoplites.

But finally, and most significantly this, like most instances of paramilitaries, seriously undermines the basic insurrectionist paradigm.  To the insurrectionist, the bad guys are basically government and the good guys are basically anyone outside of government.  That dichotomy itself does not work so well in any government as diffuse as Athens.*  But more to the point, the insurrectionist viewpoint assumes that the main threat to freedom is government overstepping its bounds, while private paramilitaries were necessarily champions of liberty.  But in this case, if government had simply maintained its monopoly on force, liberty would have been safe.  It was the political clubs and the "Hellenic youth" who served as their paramilitary that was the real threat to liberty.

And anyone who seriously examines the history of paramilitaries and private armies knows that that has been the usual rule throughout history.

*Granted, that leaves slaves, metics and women -- anyone who is not an eligible participant -- as being "outside of government."

Athens: The Coup is Overthrown

But the coup would prove short-lived.  According to Aristotle, it lasted about four months before collapsing.

The collapse began in Samos.  As 300 renegades from the Samian democratic faction were plotting a similar coup, in conjunction with some pro-oligarchic Athenians including a general Charminus.  The Samian democrats knew what was happening and appealed to pro-democracy officers in the Athenians force.  The Athenians came to their assistance and defeated the coup.  Unlike the previous democratic revolution, which had been bloody and vengeful, this time the Samian democrats were a model of restraint.  Thirty were either executed or killed in the fighting and three ringleaders exiled; the others were allowed to remain and even to keep their civil rights.  The force in Samos, not aware of the coup back home, sent their flag ship to Athens to report on their defeat of the oligarchic coup in Samos.

Upon arrival, the ship was seized and its crew forcibly conscripted into the oligarchy's navy, but the captain got away and brought back a  much exaggerated account of what was happening, saying that citizens were being flogged for any criticism of the government (the indignity of flogging was normally reserved for slaves) and that their families had been taken hostage, and worse.  The soldier's immediate reaction was to kill the oligarchic leaders in their midst but two leaders, Thrasybulus,* a ship captain, and Thrasyllus, a hoplite promoted to command, managed to calm them down, pointing out that in their precarious position the last thing they needed was fighting among themselves. Instead the got the whole fighting force, Athenian and Samian, including oligarchic sympathizers, to swear an oath to uphold the democracy.  They deposed their leaders and replaced them with politically reliable ones, including Thrasybulus and Thrasyllus.  Then they passed a resolution that they had not revolted from the city, but the city from them, and sent for Alcibiades, continuing to hold onto the hope that he could bring them a Persian alliance.  Alcibiades, indeed, showed up, making more false promises of Persian aid, and was then elected general and persuaded the men not to sail home to liberate their country, but to focus on winning the war overseas.  Thucydides would call this "as eminent a service to the state as any man ever did."  He also prevented them from lynching the envoys from the 400, who were very eager to conciliate the fleet and prevent their navy and large portions of their army from slipping away. Argive allies also joined the Athenian force.

Alcibiades had found his niche.  If he really did want to be a dictator, he would never achieve his goal by bringing about an oligarchy.  He was more likely to succeed by playing the part of Peisistratus, the left-wing populist dictator who came to power by acting the part of the champion of the common people against the aristocracy.  The aristocracy were being very cooperative.

Meanwhile, in Athens, the oligarchs were starting to fight among themselves.  The moderate wing, led by Theramenes and Aristocrates, wanted to establish the actual government of the Five Thousand that had been promised, hoped for eventual reconciliation with the forces at Samos, and feared that their colleagues were prepared to betray the city.  The hard liners, led by Phrynichus, Peisander, and Antiphon, intended to continue rule of the 400, regarded the forces in the field as an enemy, and were prepared to make peace on almost any terms (understandable if you have severed relations with your navy and much of your army!).  To understand just how great the estrangement had become, consider the account of our old friend Andocides.  Then in exile in Macedonia, he had prospered as a merchant and patriotically sold oar spars and food to the Athenian navy at cost.  Upon returning, instead of being thanked for his patriotic services, he was arrested and brought before the Council, where Peisander accused him of trafficking with the enemy!  He escaped execution only by taking refuge at the altar, and was imprisoned until the democracy was restored.**

Athens, Piraeus, and the Long Walls
And then something more disturbing began to happen.  Athens did not touch the sea itself, but had an outlying port of Piraeus, which was linked to the main city by the Long Walls.  I have not yet found any map or drawing to illustrate exactly what was going on, but apparently the extreme oligarchs began to fortify the mouth of the harbor, and to build a separate wall blocking off the area around the harbor, and to store suspicious amounts of food in the walled-off area.  Formally, the purpose of these fortifications was to defend against the navy at Samos in case it attacked.  But Theramenes and the moderates increasingly began to suspect that its real purpose was to let the Peloponnesian fleet in, and to protect against a siege from the city.  This became an increasing bone of contention within the oligarchy. When a Peloponnesian fleet sailed by, intending to assist a revolt in the neighboring island of Euboea (see above), Theramenes was sure that their real purpose was to seize the harbor instead. Thucydides believes that this really was the extremist wing's last resort.  Although they would, ideally, have preferred to preserve both the oligarchy and the empire, and as a second choice, to renounce the empire but preserve Athens' independence and the oligarchy, if worst came to worst, they were prepared to surrender the city altogether to preserve the oligarchy, so much did they fear the revenge of a restored democracy.

Then Phrynicus was assassinated by one of the border guards, who escaped.  His accomplice, an Argive, was tortured but did not name names.  No one else was arrested or punished for the crime. As with the mutilation of the herms, Thucydides dismisses the matter as an unsolvable mystery.  As with the mutilation of the herms, we have other sources that do not treat the matter as so mysterious. The nearest to the event and presumably most accurate is from the trial of a man claiming (falsely, according to the speech) to have been one of the killers.  It attributes the assassination to two presumable metics,*** Thrasybulus of Calydon (no relation to the Thrasybulus with the navy) and Apollodorus of Megara.  When the democracy was restored, it issued a formal decree rewarding both men with citizenship.  (Recall that the cult of the tyrannicide had been well established for over a century at this time).  To claim to be the slayer of Phrynichus became a badge of honor.

A somewhat later orator appears to get events mixed up.  He also names the killers as Thrasybulus and Apollodorus, but says they were prosecuted by Phrynicus' friends, but that after an "inquiry after torture" (the two killers, as non-citizens, could be legally tortured), it was determined that Phrynichus had been trying to betray the city, so his killers were released.  This presupposes a situation quite different from the one Thucydides describes, one in which Phrynichus was just some guy and not a member of a close and hated oligarchy, and in which his offences were secret, rather than public knowledge, and one in which such an investigation could be openly held.  (Maybe it was held after the democracy was restored).  The speech then says that on the motion of Critias,* Phrynichus was posthumously tried for treason, his bones dug up and removed from Attica, and two leading members of the 400 executed for defending him (and probably for their role in the 400 as well).  The posthumous condemnation at least appears to be true; the speech reads the decree.  Plutarch appears to use this speech as his source, because he repeats the account that the Athenians investigated, posthumously convicted Phrynichus of treason, and awarded honors to his killers.  But he names the killer as Hermon, one of the border guards (who Thucydides identifies as captain of the forces at the suspect fortification).  Plutarch also strongly implies that the treason in question was his  treasonous correspondence with the Spartan Admiral, not his overthrow of the democracy and role in building the suspect fortifications.

But I digress.  To continue, shortly after the assassination, the hoplites charged with building the suspect fortifications, led by Aristocrates, revolted and seized the commanding general prisoner.  Theramenes, with some difficulty, persuaded the rest of the 400 not to crush the revolt by force, but to let him go down to the harbor, talk to the soldiers, and procure the release of the general.  When he arrived, negotiations achieved nothing.  The soldiers asked whether he thought the fortification did any good, or whether he thought they should be demolished. Theramenes, rather cryptically, said he believed what they did.  The soldiers then proceeded to demolish the walls, and Theramenes to take charge of the revolt.  The  hoplites, having demolished the walls, released the general and marched on the city, demanding that the 400 actually enroll the promised 5,000 as citizens.

The 400, fearing outright civil war in a city under siege, agreed to appoint the 5,000.  This job was apparently assigned an elderly member named Polystratus, only recently appointed to the Council (perhaps to replace Phrynichus).  Andocides mentions a Polystratus as the only person executed for profaning the Mysteries (all the others escaped into exile).  Obviously this is not the same Polystratus, although he might be a relative.  In fact, the list of the 5,000 did not exist and was merely used as a bait-and-switch by the 400.  Polystratus, as a newcomer, presumably did not know this detail.  Failing to find such a list, he simply included all men of hoplite status or higher, numbering about 9,000.

At this point military crisis struck.  A Peloponnesian fleet arrived, and the army, believing that the city had been betrayed, rushed down to Pireaus to defend it.  Instead, the fleet sailed past Athens to the neighboring island of Euboea (see map above), which promptly revolted.  The Athenians (including Polystratus) rushed what ships they had to the scene, but were defeated.  A near neighbor and major source of food had defected.  Athens was in a worse situation than ever before.  Cut off from the countryside, with no ships or reserves left, the Athenians were highly vulnerable to blockage.  Indeed, Thucydides says, if the Peloponnesians had decided to blockade them at that point, the fleet in Samos would have had no choice but to come home, and the entire empire would have been lost.  We can almost seen him roll his eyes in disgust as he adds, "But on this as on so many other occasions the Lacedaemonians proved themselves to be the most convenient enemies whom the Athenians could possibly have had," as they failed to follow up on their advantage.

The 400 were formally deposed.  Government by men of the hoplite status and above was instituted. All civil offices were declared unpaid, a savings measure that had the effect of limiting office to rich men.  Alcibiades was recalled.  Most of the 400 fled and defected to the enemy.****  And Thucydides  famously says of the moderate oligarchy that followed, "This government during its early days was the best which the Athenians ever enjoyed within my memory. Oligarchy and Democracy were duly attempered."  Other translation, "And now first (at least in my time) the Athenians seem to have ordered their state aright; which consisted now of a moderate temper, both of the few and of the many."  Donald Kagan suggests that there was not much protest from Athens' poorest citizens because very few poor eligible participants were left in the city.  Most were abroad, serving in the navy.  If so, then the city had truly become like Sparta, with productive work done by slaves and foreign residents, and eligible participants specializing solely in military service.

But the full democracy was reinstituted shortly afterward.  No one gives any details on how, why, or when, except that it was not long after.  My guess would be that Athens' poor men were restored to citizenship out of appreciation for the remarkable services that they would soon perform in the navy. But more on that later.

*Watch this man.  He will be important.
**He was then sent back into exile and returned later, upon a general amnesty and made a successful career as a speech writer.  That he narrowly escaped execution by the Council may be a sign that the 400 had abandoned the practice of trial by jury, except in major cases, in favor of trial by the Council.
***Permanent legal residents.  I suppose they could have been foreigners who just happened to be in town, but given conditions at the time, it seems unlikely.
****This alone should call the Lycurgus oration into question.  It specifically mentions as escaping the two oligarchs the oration says were executed.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Athen: The 400 Stage a Coup

As we last left Athens, Peisander and the other military commanders were sailing back, their negotiations to bring in Alcibiades and a Persian alliance unsuccessful, but determined to proceed anyhow.  Joining him was Phrynichus, the only commander to oppose the plan, but now its most ardent supporter because he believed oligarchy would be the most effective way to keep Alcibiades away.  Although Thucydides does not say so, it must have occurred to Phrynichus that Alcibiades held his life in his hand.  He (Phrynichus) had engaged in treasonous correspondence with the Spartan Admiral, encouraging him to attack and destroy the Athenian fleet to thwart Alcibiades!  The admiral then passed the letter on to Alcibiades, who warned the fleet but was not believed.  Still, Phryichus must have realized that if Alcibiades ever produced the letter, that would be the end.

In the meantime, the oligarchic clubs, under the leadership of Antiphon, the rhetoric master had launched a plot of assassination and terrorism of democratic leaders to terrorize the populace into submission.  I should add, for what it is worth, that this is an interesting reversal of the usual roles.  Recall that Cleon, the foremost popular leader after Pericles died, was despised by the upper classes for his non-aristocratic origins, his rabble-rousing style, and his lack of military experience.  For a politician to base his power on his speaking skills before the Assembly, rather than a military record, was something new and disturbing.  The populist Cleophon would soon follow the same course.  Yet here we have Peisander and Phrynichus, hitherto populists (and Peisander a downright demagogue in the most pejorative sense) honorably making their political careers as military commanders, while the aristocrat Antiphon, who despised the common people, made his career in the world of rhetoric -- not by making speeches himself, but by writing speeches for others and manipulating events behind the scenes.  And he had proved a master manipulator here, orchestrating and directing the campaign of terror.

Up to this point, the people of Athens knew that Peisander had appeared before the Assembly and persuaded them to suspend the democracy in exchange for Persian assistance.  And they knew that shortly afterward oligarchically minded citizens began proposing limiting the number of eligible participants to 5,000 "who were best able to serve the state in person and with their money," and an end to pay for civilian offices, an action that would restrict such offices to men rich enough to afford to serve without pay.  And they knew that anyone who spoke too openly against this program was apt to by mysteriously killed.  Presumably they connected these things.  But whether they knew Peisander was in on the terrorist plot is not something Thucydides addresses.

Any doubts the people may have had were soon cleared up.  Peisander, upon arriving, persuaded the Assembly to elect ten commissioners to draw up the new constitution, to be considered on a fixed day.  On that day, for reasons that are unclear, Peisander then called an Assembly, not in its usual meeting place, but outside the city walls, despite the countryside being overrun by hostile forces.* The ten simply proposed that all suggestions be allowed, without penalty.  This was significant because normally the graphe paranomon was in place, allowing penalties against anyone who made an "unconstitutional" proposal.  Indeed, it was not unheard of to forbid certain suggestions on penalty of death!**  To suspend graphe paranomon was an extreme measure.  And this extreme measure was the forerunner to more extreme measures still.  Immediately, Peisander proposed to end all pay for civilian offices and:
to choose a presiding board of five; these five were to choose a hundred, and each of the hundred was to co-opt three others. The Four Hundred thus selected were to meet in the council-chamber; they were to have absolute authority, and might govern as they deemed best; the Five Thousand were to be summoned by them whenever they chose.
The Assembly, intimidated, ratified the proposal with no one daring to speak against it, and was dissolved.  Thucydides adds that although Peisander was the one who formally made this proposal, he was merely the front man; it was Antiphon who actually came up with it.

This is the account of Thucydides.  Aristotle gives rather a different account.  He omits the details of Alcibiades' role, the conspiracy at Samos, and the oligarchic campaign of terror and instead treats the whole thing as voluntary.  Modern historians generally dismiss that part as absurd and assume that Thucydides was right.  He did, however, apparently have access to documents prepared and submitted to the Assembly and is therefore considered a better source on the details of what passed there (just as Andocides is probably a better source on the mutilation of the herms and ensuing moral panic).  Aristotle says that the original motion was produced not by Peisander by by Pythodorus of Anaphlystus and introduced by a Melobius.  These names are otherwise unknown to us.  Pythodorus  proposed that in addition to the ten existing probouloi, twenty others be added, to make any constitutional proposals they wished.  Cleitophon proposed that any proposal follow the constitution of Cleisthenes, the point being that really the constitution of Cleisthenes was much more restrained in its democracy than the currently existing state of affairs.  Aristotle then agrees with Thucydides that these thirty (not ten as in Thucydides) proposed that the graphe paranomon be suspended and all proposals allowed.  Aristotle then agrees that what the thirty proposed was to end all pay for civilian offices, except a token sum for the Archons and Presidents of the Council, and to limit the number of eligible participants to 5,000 "who in person and property were most capable of serving the state."

Presumably Aristotle's account is more accurate here as to the precise individuals involved and exactly what they proposed.  He omits only one detail -- that behind the appearance of legality, all these proposals and the individuals to be elected had been decided behind the scenes and that no one, out of fear of the roving assassins, dared to oppose them.  Aristotle differs from Thucydides in saying that the 400 were elected by the 5,000, rather than chosen in the highly top-down fashion Thucydides described.  Thucydides' account here being the more detailed, the general assumption is that it is the more accurate.  Aristotle then proceeds to give a detailed and rather dull account of the  new constitution proposed.  The practical upshot is that the Council of 400 would be annually chosen by lot from the 5,000 and would serve without pay.  All other officials would be chosen from the Council, either by election or by lot and would serve without pay.  The immediate Council was to be elected.  All officials would be limited to a single term, except military officials and members of the Council.***  Click on the links if you actually care about these dull details.  Antiphon and his colleagues were apparently busy.  Thucydides does not give such a detailed account of what was being proposed partly, perhaps, because he did not have the actual document that Aristotle apparently did, but also because he regarded the whole thing as so much window dressing, designed to disguise the plotters' real design -- an extremely narrow and tight oligarchy consisting only of the 400.

Aristotle reports that this proposal was approved by the Assembly, omitting the terror and intimidation involved.  He then goes on to say that the current Council was dissolved on the 14th day of the month Thargelion (May 31) and the 400 came into office seven days later, treating the process as smooth and voluntary.  (Although he faintly hints otherwise when he days that they "entered the council chamber and governed the state."  He does acknowledge that they only nominally chose the 5,000 and actually governed in an autocratic fashion.

Thucydides has rather a different account.  Because of the presence of a hostile army in the countryside, Athens was under guard at all times.  On the day of the coup, the conspirators dismissed the guards who were not part of the conspiracy, but had the conspirators remain, joined by several hundred foreign mercenaries and Athenian colonists.  The Four Hundred, with daggers hidden under their garments, entered the Council Chamber backed by 120 "Hellenic youths" who they used for their dirty work.  They gave the Council their pay and ordered them to leave, the threat presumably being implied rather than spoken outright.

The coup was then complete.  The coup was complete.  The 400 received no resistance, either from the Council or the general citizen body.  They nonetheless made some executions, though not many, and had some potential opponents imprisoned or exiled.  They also made peace overtures to Agis, the Spartan King at Decelea.  Agis assumed that the city would be easily conquered under conditions of civil strife and marched forth, but found the city's defenses in good order, so he marched back and accepted negotiations.

They also sent ten commissioners to Samos to put the best possible spin on events to a hostile army and navy.  Recall that in Samos, Peisander and the others had also sought to install an oligarchy.  Some 300 Samian conspirators, including many leaders of the popular party who had just overthrown the oligarchy, had joined with Peisander in seeking to install an oligarchy.  In conjunction with one of the generals (named Charminus) and some pro-oligarchic Athenians, they assassinated an Athenian named Hyperbolus who had been ostracized.  Of Hyperbolus and his exile, Thucydides says only that he was "an Athenian of no character, who, not for any fear of his power and influence, but for his villany, and because the city was ashamed of him, had been ostracised."  Given that the practice of ostracism had not been used in 25 years, this is a rather more significant event than Thucydides would indicate.  According to Plutarch, the rivalry between Nicias and Alcibiades, which was really a proxy for rivalry between the war party and the peace party had become so intense that one of them had to go.  Neither one wanting to be banished, they united to banish the despised Hyperbolus instead.  He goes on to say that the only people who opposed ostracizing Hyperbolus were ones who thought the punishment was too dignified for him!  Plutarch also had access to the works of comic poets (now lost to us) mocking Hyperbolus.

And, speaking of Plutarch, I should probably add his comments on the oligarchic coup from his Life of Alcibiades.  He really does not add anything to Thucydides, but it is worth noting his  overall judgment:
But as soon as the so-called Five Thousand (they were really only four hundred) got the power and took control of affairs, they at once neglected Alcibiades entirely, and waged the war with less vigor, partly because they distrusted the citizens, who still looked askance at the new form of government, and partly because they thought that the Lacedaemonians, who always looked with favour on an oligarchy, would be more lenient towards them. The popular party in the city was constrained by fear to keep quiet, because many of those who openly opposed the Four Hundred had been slain.
Finally, I should comment on those "Hellenic youths" who backed the 400 in their coup and were presumably their main agents in their general terror.  My own translation, copyright 1954, puts the phrase in quotation marks, presumably aware of just how sinister it would sound to a contemporary audience.  It would not, of course, have sounded as sinister in Ancient Greece, or to pre-20th Century translators.  All the versions I have seen have used a similar expression, though disagreeing somewhat on who those youth were.  Benjamin Jowett (1881) calls them "Hellenic youths."  Thomas Hobbes calls them "young men of Greece."  A 1910 translation says "Hellenic youths."  George Grote (page 268) assumes that they were "young men from various Grecian cities," in the general assumption that the sons of the aristocracy were unlikely to sully themselves with such dirty work. Finally the Perseus' Project's attempt to analyze the original believes they were young aristocrats from the clubs, and speculates that it may be a corruption of the name of the most aristocratic of the four Ionian tribes.  Make of it what you will.

Clearly the democracy had been overthrown for all intents and purposes well before these "Hellenic youth," whoever they may have been, burst into the Council Chamber and staged the actual and final coup.  It is also clear that, despite their manifestly illegal behavior, the 400 clung firmly to at least the forms of legality.  The Assembly continued to meet, to have motions and speakers, and to vote, even though all speakers had been pre-determined and coordinated in advance, and everyone else was intimidated into silence.  Presumably the clubs had done a certain amount of advance planning and staging before (such is the nature of any caucus), but the nature of the intimidation was unprecedented, even as the outward forms would seem unchanged to any casual observer.

To the modern reader, it all seems disturbingly familiar.  I do not think it is too great a violation of Godwin's Law to think of Hitler's Enabling Act of 1933.  The Republic had, for all intents and purposes, been overthrown.  Hitler's Brown Shirts ruled the streets and intimidated his opponents.  The Act, by passing the Reichstag, maintained the forms of legality, but effectively ended the Republic and established Hitler as dictator.  When Hitler did not have the necessary 2/3 vote to pass the measure, he simply had all the Communist deputies arrested, together with enough Social Democrats to ensure him the 2/3 necessary.  His Brown Shirts surrounded the building, a clear threat to anyone bold enough to resist.  The Catholic Center Party was persuaded to vote yes by promises to respect Catholic autonomy.  Only the Social Democratic chairman dared speak against the Act. Only the Social Democrats dared vote against it.  (Most of them then went into exile).  But can anyone seriously believe that if the Catholic Center Party had found a similar courage and denied Hitler his 2/3 majority, it would have made any difference?  Neither would it have made any difference for the Assembly to have voted down Antiphon's proposed constitution.  In both cases the rule of law had been overthrown.  The only question was whether it would provide a formal cloak to cover its overthrow or not.  In both cases, the rule of law buckled and did so.  In neither case would it have mattered if it had not.

Next up:  The coup overthrown

UPDATE:  Ah, the perils of the amateur historian!  It appears the names of Pythodorus, Melobius, and Cleitophon are not quite so unknown as I thought.  A Melobius was among the Thirty Tyrants  who seized power after the war.  And the archon under the Thirty was Pythodorus.  It is possible, of course, that these were simply other men with the same name, but it seems more likely that the one who introduced the motion to give power to the 400 and the one who spoke in support of it would hold important office under the Thirty as well.  Cleitophon, who was possibly a moderating influence, gets a later mention as well.  Aristotle names him, along with Archinus, Anytus, and Theramenes as wanting to reign in the democracy but not belonging to any conspiracies against it.  Of these Theramenes joined the Thirty but was executed when he protested its excesses, while Archinus and Anytus went into exile and played major roles in restoring the democracy.  Cleitophon's further actions under the Thirty are unknown.

*Thucydides does not so much as hint at why they would hold an Assembly in a vulnerable location.  George Grote (p. 265) suggests that it was to protect the conspirators from violent reaction against their proposals, and to give them a good excuse to have their own armed forces present, both as protection against foreign soldiers, and to intimidate the Assembly.
**One such proposal was made in the early years of the war, to set aside 1,000 talents and 100 ships not to be used unless Athens came under attack with a fleet.  This reserve was finally tapped at the time of the Chios revolt.
***It should go without saying that if there are 5,000 participants and a Council of 400 serving one-year terms, then limiting then to a single term would not be practical, since one out of every 12.5 participants would be on the Council at any given time.