Rethinking Democracy.


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Athens is the only ancient democracy of which we have considerable knowledge. We know enough of Sparta and Rome to draw useful comparisons, but these states were mixed regimes with only certain democratic aspects.

Benoist’s too-brief historical review passes hastily over the Solonian reforms, although these certainly had a democratic tendency. In earlier times, power had been monopolized by the Eupatridai (the ‘well-fathered’), an aristocracy typically holding large estates and breeding horses amid the rich bottomland of Attica. By the early sixth century BC, this class had reduced many of the smallholders of the hill country to debt-slavery. Receiving a commission to reform the laws so as to restore civil concord, Solon abolished debt-slavery and cancelled existing debts. This measure was called the seisachtheia, or shaking off of burdens. He also admitted the newly-free class of Yeomen farmers (Zeugetai, or yokefellows) to participation in the Assembly. For these reasons, Solon was often called the father of Athenian democracy. But the poorer, generally landless men known as Thetes continued to be excluded from politics.

Benoist dates Athenian Democracy to the reforms of Cleisthenes in 508 BC. Previous to that time, Athenian society consisted of four phylai, or tribes, which were subdivided into phratria (brotherhoods) and genē (clans). Athenian citizen rolls were based upon membership in phratria. Not surprisingly, civic loyalty to Athens often had to give way to the claims of kinship. This contributed to the establishment of a tyranny by the Peisistratid family while Solon was still alive.

After helping to overthrow the Peisistratids, Cleisthenes instituted a new system of enrolling citizens by place of residence, or deme, regardless of clan or tribe. The four tribes, indeed, were abolished and replaced with ten new groupings. Although still called phylai, they were henceforth composed of demes rather than families. Cleisthenes’ great object was to substitute specifically political or civic bonds for kinship bonds.

Each of the ten new ‘tribes’ was composed of three groups of demes, or districts: one from the plains, one from the hill country and one from the coast. The old eupatrid aristocracy was concentrated in the plains, the independent smallholders in the hills, and the coastal regions were mixed. So the reorganization forced not only different families but also different social classes to work together, forestalling the development of political factions around class interests. Cleisthenes called his system isonomia, or equality before the law, but it gradually became known as demokrateia. This term may originally have signified ‘rule by the demes’ as much as ‘rule by the people’ (the demos).

Forty-six years later a third and final major round of democratic reforms was carried out under the leadership of Ephialtes. Up to this time, much influence had been exerted by the Areopagus, a council of former office-holders somewhat analogous to the Roman Senate. The Areopagus had remained a stronghold of eupatrid power. Ephialtes transferred all its political prerogatives to the popular Assembly, leaving it a mere court with jurisdiction over murder and certain other capital crimes. He also opened participation in the Assembly to the Thetes. The resulting regime is often referred to as the radical democracy.

Ephialtes himself was assassinated by an aristocratic opponent within a year of carrying through his reforms, but they were consolidated by his successor Pericles. Within about fifteen years, the city’s aristocratic faction had virtually fallen apart. Athens continued to be governed democratically for over a hundred years, with two brief interruptions, until the Macedonian conquest of 338 BC. The popular assembly passed laws, made war and peace, appointed officials, and sometimes exercised judicial functions.

In 451 BC, ten years after the death of Ephialtes, a law was passed restricting Athenian citizenship to men born of an Athenian father and an Athenian mother. This restriction upon the number of citizens eligible to participate in Athenian politics may strike the modern reader as a quintessentially undemocratic measure, but it was seen by contemporaries as a natural consequence of democracy itself: the extension of political rights to ever-broader classes of the population seemed to them to call for a corresponding tightening of civic membership requirements.

The Athenians liked to consider themselves autochthonous: the original inhabitants of Attica, unmixed with foreign blood. As Athens prospered, however, it attracted merchants from all over Greece and beyond. Foreign traders and their families became known asmetoikoi, or dwellers-with, and came to form a large fraction of the resident population. Mixed marriages began to occur: a resident Thracian fathered the Athenian historian Thucydides. Such foreigners could own property and enjoyed civil rights such as use of the court system, but they had no political rights of any kind.

According to the notions currently approved for our use, such exclusion was a violation of these foreigners’ “human rights” and the most unconscionable “racism.” Yet there is no evidence that they ever protested their situation. Clearly, they felt that the advantages of living in Athens outweighed the loss of any political participation they might have enjoyed back home. If there were any malcontents among them, they were sent packing by the Athenians too quickly to leave traces in the historical record.

(Counter-Currents, October 14, 2011).

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