Sunday, April 3, 2011

More Dialog on Egypt

As I said yesterday, in Egypt we see a revolution in real time. What will happen, we cannot guess, but if there is an overthrow of the political system, it will echo across the Middle East.

Let us tamp down our idealism for a moment and look at the way people view government. As Americans, we think we have the best political system and that other countries should emulate what we have. That can’t happen for many reasons and we have to accept the fact that our political system may not be suited to other cultures.

I’ve come to believe that the overarching theme between people and their government has to do with freedom and the ability to control one’s life no matter what the political system.

Let’s examine Russia for a moment. Russia routinely polls their people and asks, “What Russian leader do you have the most respect for and what person you would like to lead the country?” The winner is almost always Stalin – the man who murdered 40 million of his own countrymen and runs neck and neck with Hitler for the title of worst human being of the twentieth century.

So what’s the lesson here? The Russian people have suffered under an autocratic regime for most of the county’s existence so that’s what they’re used to They feel uncomfortable with something different even if it is more democratic. People would rather ignore their government as long as it doesn’t interfere with their lives. If they perceive that the government is unfair and limits their opportunity to obtain what others have, they become dissatisfied.

Democracy can be an illusion if it is not successful. After all, people do not know how to govern themselves. They need leaders to take care of that for them. Those leaders, in turn, must govern in a way that produces stability and opportunity, regardless of the model.

Back to Athens we go quoting from Zimmern in The Greek Commonwealth, “It takes generations of teaching, not by argument but by suffering, before a people, however politically gifted, can be induced to take the trouble to govern itself. The Athenians took to politics as easily, and were as politically gifted, as any community in history. Yet their acceptance of self-government was tentative and hesitating. It came late, and almost as an afterthought, in the development of their polity.”

Aristocracy, early Polis, Draco, Solon’s reforms and their rejection, tyrants, and then the good work of Clisthenes before the Athenians had a stable system. It’s always a stew of timing -- the wealthy, and the commons getting to a mutually acceptable place at the same time.

Turmoil in Egypt and Its Link to Antiquity

The current turmoil in Egypt reminds me of the fall of the Soviet system in 1989: a wave of political emotion which erupted when countries with a common cause chose a path for change. The Soviet house of cards fell without a whimper.

Now we have the same thing happening in the land of Arab dictators.

The majority of Arab states are currently controlled by dictators, including Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. The recent unrest in Tunisia has sparked a new wave, which has already spread to Egypt and Jordan, and may go further depending on the momentum created.

Looking at these events from a theoretical standpoint is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, we are seeing people come together to demand freedom and move to overcome a repressive regime. Although we don’t know the outcome, we hope for a change for the better in these countries. Second, we are witnessing history real time: the history we read about in the ancient world and wish we had experienced.

From a practical standpoint, we hope that bloodshed is minimized. This is certainly a wild card which depends on the path the regime wants to take.

I am reminded of the Age of the Tyrants in ancient Greece (650-510 B.C), which was referenced in an article I posted on November 3rd 2009. The Greek tyrants were an intermediate step between aristocratic political systems and the advent of the Polis. Tyrants rose to power because the aristocratic forms were oppressive and the people chose to support anyone who could replace the old rulers. Oddly, the tyrants were benevolent rulers in most cases and avoided the oppression we associate with the classical definition of a tyrant. Ultimately, they were deposed when their rule proved uneven and their attempts to establish hereditary control failed. The result was the Polis; a kind of evolved balance of power between the wealthy and the commoners.

Does any of the history relate to what we see in Egypt today? Revolutions often start with mobs, because mobs have uncontrollable power. But they are only the catalysts, not the engine of change, because mobs cannot run a government and they do not have the power to take control. The engine of the revolution is the power class and usually the military. Egypt’s last three leaders have been military men who have been closely aligned with and supported by their troops, so in this case the military is critically important. Whatever transition is derived from the current unrest must be formulated by a combination of those who will allow power to flow in a new direction and those who will take that power to lead.

How different are today’s events from those of the time of the Greek tyrants? One factor in the modern case is the students, who were not an organized block in ancient Greece. The Egyptian students are educated but have no prospects for jobs because of the economic situation in their country. They have heard how life can be better by communicating with their peers in other countries. So we have the second factor of technology at work. We can see how the internet and cell phones have destroyed a government’s ability to control the flow of information and prevent their people from finding out the truth.

The rest of the story is the same across the centuries.

Egypt was a British protectorate until given independence in 1922. The British stayed until 1956 when Nasser took over and created a form of socialist government, later undone by Sadat and Mubarak. Their goal was to increase the private sector economy, but change has been slow and a centralized government continues to rule without legitimate opposition. We have power and wealth on one side against those who are deprived of freedom and opportunity.

In the case of Athens under the tyrants, the same forces were opposed. Clisthenes gets the credit for breaking the mold and building a democracy after the tyrant Hippias was deposed. Clisthenes broke the back of the powerful by dividing four tribes into 139 demes, diluting their power. He then created the assembly of 500 elected by lot to prevent any aggregation of power. His solution worked for two and a half centuries.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Capitalism and Human Relationships – Ancient and Modern

I have been reading Paul Bohannan’s wonderful book Social Anthropology and came across the following, which I paraphrase for continuity:

“All traditional types of economy are based to one degree or another on kinship. As man developed through the stages of hunting and gathering, herding, horticulture, and finally agriculture, he relied on family units and other human associations to accomplish his objectives. Factory industrialism, on the other hand, is associated with the type of society based not on kinship but rather on contract, and usually goes hand in hand with the reduction of the family to the small nuclear group and the pronounced playing down of all other kinship organizations.”

Isn’t this interesting?

Before man became a capitalist, his well being was almost completely dependent on kinship relationships. Men decided early on that operating in a group was more efficient than operating alone, based on the benefits of a division of labor and productivity gains through specialization. From the family standpoint, we see a synergistic unit working together for a common purpose. Grandparents advised their offspring and helped with the care of their children. Parents worked and the fruits of their labor were enjoyed by those who were too old to work. The greater family unit was augmented by other kinship relationships derived from blood relationships or marriage.

Bohannan dates the beginning of factory industrialism to the time of the invention of the steam engine, circa 1760. To him, the steam engine set the stage for modern mass production. My position is that the capitalism of antiquity started the dislocation of the kinship unit long before factory industrialization became a reality.

Capitalism is a economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth.

Sounds like what the Greeks, and later the Romans to a greater degree, were doing. They had mines, small factories, shipping companies and other types of businesses we see in the post-modern age. The difference is that with technology at a low level, the impact on society was less significant. Still, the model was operating.

Working in a business forced people to transition away from a kinship dependency, where output is produced and consumed by the same entity. In business, the output is produced by an individual who is recognized and compensated for a specific skill that he alone possesses. The skills of his kin are irrelevant. Now the worker’s compensation leads to the purchase of goods that will be consumed by his nuclear family. This dislocation from kin has a positive effect on productivity (skills match work), but tears apart the relationship between members of the extended family unit.

Fast forward to the present, where the industrial society is in full bloom. Are we now seeing the final destruction of the family unit because both husband and wife have to work to provide for themselves and their children? Without kin available as substitute caregivers, children are being outsourced to day care and sports coaches, who act as parental surrogates, while the nuclear family disintegrates.

We began this post by describing how mankind organized himself in groups because it saw the advantages of doing so. Was this purely out of necessity or are we inherently social beings as some suggest? Social networking is highly criticized today as being “against human behavior” because communications are not face to face. Perhaps we are adapting to a new kind of kinship with its own benefits – the kind that breaks the boundaries of geography.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Basileus as a Bridge Political Figure in Ancient Greece

Basileus is a strange word – hard to pronounce (Bas-sill-es) and difficult to define. It has an obscure origin, although the Mycenaeans used it as gwasileus. Many linguists consider it a non-Greek word adopted by Bronze Age Greeks from eastern Mediterranean origins. Although Basileus has had many definitions during the last three thousand years, it’s the one that was used during the Greek Dark Ages that we’ll focus on here.

After the fall of Mycenae in 1200 B.C, Greece sank into a period of decline commonly known as the Dark Ages, which lasted until approximately 800 B.C. During that time, Greece became separated from the Orient and collapsed into itself. Writing ceased as a sub-Mycenaean culture tried unsuccessfully to carry on what had come before. Most of what we know of the first half of the dark ages is told through items buried with the dead and remnants of pottery. The second half saw a reawakening of the Greek spirit and an evolving political system leading to the Polis as the ultimate end point.

With the death of the Mycenaean kings, the notion of hereditary royalty was erased. In its place rose the Basileus as a new kind of leader. He could never be a king because the king’s powers had been dispersed among the people. Priests served the role as spiritual advisors and the common people organized themselves in assemblies to handle local administration. The Basileus was left with (or took) the role of war leader and successor to the war leaders of the invaders from the north who combined with elements of local government. He was only able to dominate a small area – a single village and its environs because he did not possess the power to control more. Consequently, his war leading ability was confined to raids on other villages.

The Basileis were not wealthy and lived by agriculture – on their own land and the land assigned to them by the community. Their possessions were mainly treasures, food, and metals as described in the Iliad. They did not have a higher standing than their fellow tribesmen economically, politically, or by their customs which basically mirrored those of the wealthy. The reputation of any one of them depended on their own prowess -- the ability to be a military leader. Some locales had more than one Basileus working together as in Elis as described in the Odyssey.

The Basileus was absolutely fundamental to the development of the Polis because without him there would have been no unified structure to serve as its foundation. In the late dark age period, the Greeks could have gone in either of two directions politically: strengthen collective action through a complex political organization or move toward personal leadership. There is evidence that the latter was attempted; that the Basileus became more powerful for a time. But that path was a dead end and he was eventually replaced by an administrator type – like the Archons of Athens. He lacked the historical requirements for personal leadership – wealth, a significant following among the people, and precedent. Ultimately, the people were unwilling to cede power to the Basileus and turn him into a king. They kept the power for themselves and elected administrators who they felt they could control.

Aristotle and Democracy

Aristotle in his Politics lays out a thorough discussion of the various forms of government – monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. His focus is the character of men and their ability to govern rather than identifying the best political system.

In Book 2, he is harshly critical of Plato and his Republic. Plato envisioned a communist society where all citizens are alike. To Aristotle this is impossible because the differentiation of functions is a law of nature. Moreover, the abolition of property will produce dissension and not harmony. As Aristotle pointed out, the advantages expected from the communism of property would be better secured if private property were used in a liberal spirit to relieve the wants of others. Private property makes men happier and enables them to cultivate generosity.

In Book 3, Aristotle tackles the aims of the state and how they are represented in the various governmental models.

“A constitution is the arrangement of magistracies in a state, especially of the highest of all. The government is everywhere sovereign in the state, and the constitution is in fact the government. For example, in democracies the people are supreme, but in oligarchies, the few; and, therefore, we say that these two forms of government also are different: and so in other cases.”

No matter what the form of government, knowledge of its true forms is essential to be able to understand its perversions.

“The true forms of government, therefore, are those in which the one, or the few, or the many, govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one or of the few, or of the many, are perversions.

It’s not a great leap to see how this statement applies to the United States today, where the Congress and the people have gravitated to their own parochial interests and away from the common good.

The common good made the Polis successful. When it was ignored, the Golden Age came to an end.

Aristotle goes on (Book 3 Chapter 7) to describe the perversion of Democracy as the needy. What does he mean by this? When Democracy becomes extreme and the numerous poor control the state, they will not be good rulers because they do not have the skill. Better to limit their function to a deliberative one, such as participation in the courts.

“Our conclusion, then, is that political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship. Hence they who contribute most to such a society have a greater share in it than those who have the same or a greater freedom or nobility of birth but are inferior to them in political virtue; or than those who exceed them in wealth but are surpassed by them in virtue.”

This means that a successful political system must employ those possessing the greatest skill in its most important roles. But skill in itself is not enough, because power must be used for good.

“There is also a doubt as to what is to be the supreme power in the state: Is it the multitude, or the wealthy, or the good, or the one best man, or a tyrant? Any of these alternatives seems to involve disagreeable consequences.

If the poor, for example, because they are more in number, divide among themselves the property of the rich- is not this unjust? No, by heaven (will be the reply), for the supreme authority justly willed it. But if this is not injustice, pray what is? Again, when in the first division all has been taken, and the majority divide anew the property of the minority, is it not evident, if this goes on, that they will ruin the state? Yet surely, virtue is not the ruin of those who possess her, nor is justice destructive of a state; and therefore this law of confiscation clearly cannot be just. If it were, all the acts of a tyrant must of necessity be just; for he only coerces other men by superior power, just as the multitude coerce the rich. But is it just then that the few and the wealthy should be the rulers? And what if they, in like manner, rob and plunder the people- is this just? If so, the other case will likewise be just. But there can be no doubt that all these things are wrong and unjust.”

Doesn’t this property confiscation example sound amazingly similar to the Progressive agenda before us today in the United States – the leveling of wealth the current administration seeks? We must take care that social agendas do not break down our society for the wrong reasons. After all, human beings behave in ways that cannot be re-programmed into some kind of utopian construct.