Saturday, October 11, 2008

The origins of totalitarian democracy

In book VI of The Republic, Plato offers a fascinating sketch of how, in his view, democracy may give birth to tyranny. The discussion is much too long to quote in its entirety here; but here are some choice excerpts:
"When a democratic city athirst for liberty gets worthless butlers presiding over its wine, and has drunk too deep of liberty's heady draught, then, I think, if the rulers are not very obliging and won't provide plenty of liberty, it calls them blackguards and oligarchs and chastises them."

"So they do," said he.

"Yes," I went on, "and any who obey the rulers they trample in the dust as willing slaves and not worth a jot; and rulers who are like subjects, and subjects who are like rulers, come in for the votes of thanks and the honors, public and private...."


"Then it is likely," said I, "that democracy is precisely the constitution out of which tyranny comes; from extreme liberty, it seems, comes a slavery most complete and most cruel."


" ' People' will be the name of the [largest] class; all who are handiworkers and outside politics, without much property of their own. This is the largest and most sovereign class in democracy, when it combines."

"So it is," he said, "but it does not often care to combine unless it can get a bit of the honey."

"Well, it does get a bit from time to time," I said, "depending on the ability of the presidents, in taking the property away from those who have it and distributing it among the people, to keep most of it themselves."

"Yes, it gets a share to that extent," he said.

"So those whom they plunder have to defend themselves, I suppose, by speaking before the people and taking action in what way they can."

"Of course."

"And so they are accused by the other party of plotting against the people ...."

"... So the common people will always put up for itself some special protector, whom it supports and magnifies?"

"One thing is clear then," I said, "that when a tyrant appears, he grows simply and solely from a protectorship as the root."

"That is quite clear."

"Then what is the beginning of this change from protector to tyrant? ..."

"...When the Protector of the People finds a very obedient mob ... when he hints at abolition of debts and partition of estates -- surely for such a one the necessity is ordained that he must either perish at the hands of his enemies, or become a tyrant, and be a wolf instead of a man?"

"Such must be his fate of necessity," said he.

"That is the man then," said I, "who comes to lead a party against those who possess property."

"... those who get so far always hit on the tyrant's notorious plea -- they beg the people to give them a bodyguard, in order that the people's champion may be kept safe for themselves."


"Well, then," I said, "at first, in the early days, he greets everyone he meets with a broad smile; says he is no tyrant, and promises all sorts of things in private and in public, frees them from their debts and parcels out the land to the people and to those about him, pretends to be gracious and friendly to all the world."

(Plato, Republic, VIII, 562c-566e)

Of related interest
J.L. Talmon, Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (W.W. Norton, 1970) -- a fascinating study based on an examination of Rousseau's Social Contract.