Democracy - Abstract Concept or Historical Reality?

The no man's land between the two...

The shortest commentary on the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini is the line "At least the trains ran on time." Depending on one's viewpoint, it either represents an extremely complimentary description of governmental operations under fascism or a devastating criticism of Mussolini's lifework. On the one hand, it suggests a politician who actually made government work. On the other hand, it implies that the only thing Mussolini had to show for putting Italy through a painful dictatorship was an improvement in train schedules. The idea that Mussolini would concern himself with something as mundane as train operations is notable more as an exception, than the norm. It was one of the few times when the head of a dictatorship was even remotely responsible for the day-to-day operations of government. Democracy and dictatorship, as political ideas, are given a certain deference which frees them from the ordinary burdens of government. If governments occasionally have to deal with economic problems, we can nevertheless define democracy and dictatorship in a way which allows them to remain above the fray, when it comes to involvement in economic problems, thus avoiding the question of economic causation. Specific governments may fail, even for economic reasons, but the idea of government will go on.

Resources, historically, have either been assigned spectacular roles in events or have been relegated to obscurity. Nations have gone to war over high-profile resources, such as gold or iron or oil. At the low end of the spectrum, unemployment and economic difficulties, distant cousins of resources, are known to determine the outcome of modern elections. Somewhere between resources, as a motivator for war and conquest, and economics, as an election influence, lies a no man's land, where economic rules do not apply or are suspended. Governments, in general, and democracy and dictatorship in particular, are believed to inhabit this disputed area.  Nations might fall victim to foreign conquest and governments might be toppled by revolt, but economic storms are something governments can weather.  Democracy and dictatorship enjoy a form of immunity, when it comes to anything economic.  Economic forces are not seen as critical to their development and economic activities seem to have little impact on their direction.

An eternal struggle between good and evil...

If democracy and dictatorship seemingly defy economic explanation, is the problem that they are too complex? Is the problem that our imagination has endowed them with supernatural powers? Or is the problem, simply, that we can define them in ways which make them mysterious, and therefore inexplicable? Democracy and dictatorship, as conceived, are no longer ordinary governments, but combatants in an eternal struggle between good and evil. Economics cannot possibly provide an explanation for something which is not entirely of this world. Turning the problems of the world into an heroic struggle may even provide a "motive for mystery," which may explain why conspiracy theories about government never seem to lose their popularity. So long as no logical explanation can be found for good and bad governments, there is the possibility that their existence is part of some Divine Master Plan.  If there is that possibility there is still the hope that good will ultimately triumph.

The idea that economic forces have only a minimal impact on democracy or dictatorship is not entirely logical. Why would economic forces operate at the high end, in the form of competition between nations, and at the low end, in the form of political pressure on governments, without impacting the area in between, i.e. the area where governmental form and structure originates? Do economic forces simply collapse in the face of governmental resistance? If so, why would they be resurrected, once destroyed at  the point of confrontation? Do democracy and dictatorship possess some mysterious power which makes them impervious to economic attack?

If a chasm separates the concept of nationhood from the ordinary world of economic problems, the distance between political discontent and resources  is even greater. Resources, in the case of the individual,  rarely involve gold, or coal, or iron.  They are understood, instead,  in terms of a loaf of bread or a job.  Conventional hard resources, such as iron, must be "translated," if they are to be understood on the individual level.  Denied access to resources through job loss or empty shelves, the individual is likely to express his frustration through some form of political activity.  It may come in the form of an election or, more violently, in the form of a riot. Individual action  has long been recognized as a mechanism where resources play a role in political events.

An air of mystery...

If explaining governments in economic terms is difficult, competing with the storyline generated by dictatorship is even worse. Stalin is more fascinating as the demonic force behind the Great Purge than as the bureaucratic mind guiding the Five-Year Plans. The Soviet Union, as head of a vast communist conspiracy could terrorize the West; the Soviet Union, as struggling Marxist economy was ridiculed. Rasputin, quite simply, makes better copy than Czar Nicholas. Even Rasputin's death added an otherworldly element to the history of Russian rule.

Alexis, the only son of Nicholas, suffered from hemophilia. It was Rasputin's seeming ability to cure, or at least control, the bouts of bleeding, which had made him a favorite with the Czarina Alexandra. His influence over her, combined with her activist interest in Russian politics, had suggested to the public that they were the real power behind the government.

On the night of December 16, 1916 Rasputin was invited to the palace of Prince Felix Yusupov, one of four conspirators plotting to kill him. If they had entertained any doubts about his connection to the world of the supernatural, events of the evening would soon remove them. Rasputin was offered wine and pastries, both of which had been laced with cyanide. Despite several glasses of wing and one or two pastries, he showed no signs of any ill effects, even after an hour. Yusupov finally got a Browning pistol from his writing desk upstairs. When he returned he asked Rasputin if he wanted to look at a crystal crucifix. While he was looking at the crucifix, Yusupov shot him in the side. Convinced that he was dead, the conspirators left the room. Rasputin, in their absence, had regained consciousness, and sufficient strength to find his way out of the palace. V. M. Purishkevich, another of the conspirators, managed to catch him and fire two shots, both of which missed, then fired two more, which hit. He then kicked him in the head. After binding the body with chains, they disposed of it in the Neva river. Despite the chains, the body washed ashore on December 18th. Rasputin had one final bizarre note to add. When the autopsy was done, it was said that one of his hands had worked itself free from the chains and was in a raised position, as if starting to make the sign of the cross. In addition, water was found in his lungs, an indication that drowning was the cause of death.

What became of Athens anyway?

Athens has achieved a form of immortality as the role model for democracy. While it is referred to in the past tense, the mention of its name conjures up images of the future and hope for mankind. The Parthenon is a physical reminder that Athens was not simply a figment of the imagination, but a real city. The Parthenon took 15 years to construct and has somehow survived as the symbol of democracy. (It was damaged in 1687, when it was used as an ammunition storage dump and an artillery shell set off an explosion.) It is a tribute to the architecture of Callicrates and Ictinus, that the Parthenon is associated with the present, even with the future, while maintaining strong symbolic ties to an ancient past.

Like the pyramids of Egypt, the symbol has outlasted the civilization which created it. However, any symbol which can combine images of an ancient Golden Age with the present or future aspirations of mankind, is one too powerful too ignore. The Parthenon can turn past images of Athens into a present-day or even future vision of hope, howeverAthenian democracy remains permanently stuck in the 5th Century B.C.. The Parthenon is some 2400 years old; the democracy it symbolizes lasted less than 50 years. A message of hope almost requires emphasizing the positive, so references to Athens usually focus on the birth or emergence of democracy, while the disappearance of democracy or the decline of Athens are subjects to be avoided.

The birth date of Athenian democracy, for all its importance, is difficult to pin down, since Athens moved toward democracy gradually. The period when democracy is considered to have reached its highest state of development coincides with Athens' greatest period of prosperity, which is roughly the period of time when the Parthenon was constructed (447 - 432 B.C.). Prosperity did not end with the start of the Peloponnesian War in 431 and Athenian democracy appeared to weather the war, at least in its early stages.

Disaster at Sicily:
The beginning of the end

In 416 B.C., the city of Segesta, in Sicily, appealed to Athens for help in a war against her neighbor Selinus, an ally of Syracuse. Athens responded by sending a fleet of 134 triremes and some 30,000 soldiers, including 5,100 hoplites. The Athenians decided that Syracuse was the real enemy and aimed their assaults at the city. Although they had some initial successes, Syracuse managed to frustrate their attacks. What had been expected to be an easy victory turned into a siege. The Syracusans, with the help of Sparta, managed to bottle up the Athenian fleet in their harbor. Athens was forced to send a second expedition, which consisted of 74 triremes and another 5,000 hoplites. Rather than rescuing the first expedition, the relief force was itself trapped. In September 413 the Athenian naval forces tried to break free, but were forced back into the harbor. Of the total Athenian naval force, only 60 vessels were left. The Athenian army abandoned the siege and retreated. When it finally surrendered, its numbers had been reduced to 6,000.

Democracy itself would not long survive the disaster at Syracuse. In 412 the Greek cities Athens controlled rebelled. In Athens itself, there was growing dissatisfaction with the policies of the existing leadership. In June of 411 a small group of oligarchs forced a measure through the Assembly which created a ruling body known as the Four Hundred. This group then took a bodyguard of 100 supporters to the council house and forcibly dismissed the existing council of five hundred. The Four Hundred remained in power for just four months. In September democracy would be restored. Yet the return to democratic rule would prove only temporary.

In the summer of 405, a Spartan naval force managed to surprise the Athenians at Aegospotami, when they went ashore to prepare their meals. Only 20 vessels, out of 180, escaped. Following this victory, Lysander, the Spartan admiral, decided to blockade Athens. In the spring of 404 the Athenians surrendered. The sentiment among the victorious allies was that Athens should be destroyed and her people sold into slavery. Sparta blocked such a drastic punishment, but did force the demolition of the Long Walls, the fortified walls which connected Athens with the Piraeus, the small peninsula which contained the port facilities for her shipping.

Sparta's decision to intervene on behalf of the Athenians did come with a price. She forced many democrats into exile and replaced the democratic government with an oligarchy, which ruled in the form of a semi-legislative body called the Thirty. The Thirty, in an effort to consolidate power, began a campaign of political terror. An internal security force, the Eleven, arrested members of the opposition and a number were executed. While the Thirty were able to eliminate many of their political opponents, they faced a growing threat from those who had been exiled. After a short, but violent, civil war, the Thirty were overthrown in September 403. Democracy appears to have been restored after 18 months. However, it was a democracy in name only. Socrates would be put to death by the Athenian government in 399. It was not the oligarchs, but leading democrats, such as Anytus, who were behind such dictatorial measures.

Athens was now represented by a democracy which came close to openly embracing dictatorship. But her economic and military power were no longer what they had been. In August 338 Philip of Macedon would defeat an Athenian force at Chaeronea. Philip would be murdered in 336, to be succeeded by his son Alexander, the future conqueror of Persia. Athens had been overtaken by events and overshadowed by far more powerful nations. She, along with her democracy, had become a thing of the past.

...or Rome?

Rome has a political connection to Athens, not so much because it was the successor to Athens' democratic tradition, but because both cultures have been described as "great civilizations."  Rome's greatness was related to the extent of her foreign conquests and her ability to survive for such a long time, while Athens claim to fame was more directly related to her political ideals. Rome's ability to survive was enough to secure immortality, in the eyes of history. Where Athens' claim to immortality rested on her achievement of the democratic ideal, Rome's greatness was her ability to maintain a far-flung empire while beating back a seemingly endless wave of barbarian invaders.  The success of Rome's armies over several centuries was hard to argue with. If Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," chronicled her failures, the final curtain nevertheless took a long time to fall.  She might be ridiculed for the excesses and eccentricities of her Emperors, or condemned for her debauchery, but she somehow survived. History was impressed by Rome's ability to project military power, from Britain to Mesopotamia to North Africa, even if her governments faced domestic unrest or fell short of the Athenian ideal. The success of Roman legions allowed Rome to indulge an occasional Nero or Caligula.

The sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455 A.D. was followed by Attila's invasion of Italy. Rome would survive both. What was reality and what was illusion? Was the reality the decline of Rome? or was the reality a political and military system which efficiently managed a vast empire? Rome's longevity turned her decline into something of a joke. Proof of her decline could be found in the anecdotal stories about her Emperors or the Roman plebs. Nero fiddled while Rome burned; the Christians were fed to the lions; and Roman crowds amused themselves in the Colosseum by watching gladiators butcher each other. If Rome's upper classes lived a life of leisure and drunkenly caroused at all-night parties, her armies were energetic and ruthless. Roman engineers constructed roads, aqueducts, and arenas, even as her armies annihilated tribes and peoples in their path. They would build Hadrian's Wall across northern England, (122 to 128 A.D.) and the bath house at Bath. They would construct roads at Lepis Magna and aqueducts at Carthage.

Rome's very longevity adds a certain mystique to her story, but tells little about her form of government or its history. Like the Parthenon and the pyramids, Roman ruins evoke images of past greatness. As with Athens, there is an air of mystery surrounding Rome. The glory of Rome seems, at times, almost indistinguishable from the renown of Athens. Despite the confusing similarity, Athens' greatness is based on her achievement of the democratic ideal, Rome's claim to immortality is related to the survival of an empire. The images associated with the Parthenon are those of ancient democratic debates. Roman ruins bring to mind legionnaires marching. If the greatness of Rome and the downfall of her Empire defy explanation, her descent into dictatorship can be chronicled.

Roman government was not patterned on the Athenian model of democracy. However, Rome did develop a representative form of government. What democracy there was could not cope with political unrest when it began to take a violent form after 133 B.C.. The military was often called in to restore order. With each cycle of unrest, the violence increased in tempo. When Tiberius Gracchus was murdered in 133, the total number of his followers killed was around 300. The death toll would increase to 3,000, with the death of his brother Gaius, in 121. Sulla, in 82, would massacre 18,000, and put 1,600 knights to death. The Second Triumvirate, on assuming power in 43 B.C., had 300 senators and 2,000 knights put to death. Octavian's defeat of Mark Antony at Actium, in 31 B.C., would bring Rome's political turmoil to an end. But stability came with a price. When Octavian took the title of Caesar Augustus in 27 B.C., he created a security force of 3,000 men, called the cohortes urbanae, and permanently assigned it to Rome.

The temptation to transform governmental ups and downs into personifications of  good and evil is not limited to Athens and Rome. If good and evil seem timeless, dictatorships, like democracies, can come to an end.  Hitler's "Thousand Year Reich" lasted less than 15 years.  The Soviet dictatorship lasted about 70 years. The rise and fall of empires, such as Rome, is so commonplace that the cycle has become an accepted fact of life in history. Whether the fate of empires can be equated with the rise and fall of democracy is an open question.

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