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LA Review of Books: Democracy: The Best of the Worst? A Conversation with Paul Cartledge

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Cartledge, a Cambridge professor with a background in the classics, published Democracy: A Lifein 2016. Our reviewer, Roslyn Fuller, complimented his exhaustive historical treatment of the subject for its “scholarly, if readable, tone […] that […] uses a generous sprinkling of photos and maps to help bring its ancient subject matter to life.” Earlier this year, Professor Cartledge brought out a second edition of Democracy, including a newly written afterword that took account of major post-publication events: the 2017 French and British elections, the 2016 American presidential election, and the Brexit vote. Contributor Roslyn Fuller interviewed Professor Cartledge on his view of the current state of democracy, and the ensuing discussion reminded this editor of the words attributed to Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

ROSLYN FULLER: Professor Cartledge, you recently published a second edition of your book Democracy: A Life, about the long and varied history of democracy. What motivated you to write this book and to rewrite it now?

PAUL CARTLEDGE: Democracy — the ancient Greek word — is a compound of two words: demos and kratos. And kratos is unambiguous (power/strength/might/force) but the demos bit is ambiguous. It can mean “the people” as in “all the people,” that lovely sort of vague use which populists today appeal to, “the people, the British people, the Canadian people,” et cetera. But, alternatively, and this is where ancient Greece is particularly interesting (and it is why Marx was interested in the ancient Greeks), in a class sense it means “the masses,” that is, the poor majority of the citizens. One of the points of my book, and the lectures it is based on, is precisely how the word “democracy” means something totally different today.

Why is that? Why do we call all these systems “democracies” when they are different?

It is a historical accident. The Renaissance was really a Renaissance of recovering ancient Rome, not ancient Greece, along with the idea of republicanism. Republicanism had the word people — publicus is the adjective of populus — and res means “things.” In my own country [Great Britain], the regicide of the 1640s was carried out by people who knew they didn’t want a king, who knew they wanted some kind of republic, though they didn’t know what kind. And it is within this discourse of republicanism that the word democracy comes back in the very late 18th and beginning of the 19th century, and the key thing here is that it is now tamed, that is to say, it is no longer direct, as it was in ancient Greece.

Nonetheless, I get the sense in your writing that while you admire Athenian democracy, you’re also disappointed with the 2016 Brexit referendum [the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union], which was, of course, a popular, direct decision.

When I wrote the afterword to the book, which brought the story up to date after the general election in Britain in June 2017, the French election in 2017, and taking into account the presidential election in the States, and the Brexit referendum, I tried to reflect on how my subject within 12 to 15 months [of the publication of my book] had been transformed by four major democratic events. The elections were fairly normal, but what was different was Brexit. The normal procedures, where people are — or should be — held to account when they are elected, and are bound to formulate an idea or the consequences of their policies, weren’t there. Brexit was a free for all, no one produced a proper accounting for ordinary voters, there was a total lack of popular education, and people were frankly lying, knowing that they would never be held accountable if they did lie and were found out to have lied. One of the biggest lies was that a lot of the money that we currently pay to the EU would suddenly be redirected to our national health service. So broadly speaking referendums are not a good idea to solve problems that have been caused by the normal procedures of parliamentary and party political democracy.

Do you think that referenda and elections can exist simultaneously?

They can but they are unlikely to. They are contradictory. They are of a different order, a different nature, and a different history. What struck me about the Irish referendum [held in May 2018 to loosen legislation on abortion] is that it was deeply discussed, the actual notion received a deal of careful, as well as shrill, debate. There was a clear notion of the consequences of voting one way or another. One can think of Estonia, Iceland, Switzerland, a certain amount of direct democracy happens, so that the notion of a referendum is not alien. In my country, except for the Scottish referendum [on Independence in 2014] the last referendum was in the 1970s.

Coming back to accountability, something that comes through in your books is that in ancient democracies, individuals could be punished very harshly for their impact on policy if it was felt that it had turned out to be a bad policy or that they had intentionally given bad advice. People could also have their democratic privileges revoked under certain circumstances. Do you think those practices have any relevance to today, and if so what would it be?

Though our modern systems are all representative and theirs were all direct, there are nevertheless common features, and one of the common features is ideology. There are two fundamental principles — freedom and equality — that can be cashed out in different ways. In Athens, a decision made in the Assembly could be revisited in the Courts before a jury of ordinary Athenian citizens who are selected by lot. They are paid a small amount (because they are doing the job of a citizen on behalf of the city of Athens). That jury might consist of 500 people, all of whom have voted for the measure in Assembly. They go and hear the case again, the proposer of the measure has to defend his proposal, and the jury might decide against him, in favor of the prosecution, and therefore the policy which had previously been adopted by the Assembly is now rejected or modified. That is an extreme version of accountability.

There isn’t ever any final answer. The will of the people is subject to constant revisability, and I think that is admirable, although it is a potential recipe for instability. The majority was sometimes paper-thin and there was real anger by the slightly defeated side. There was a risk of potential disturbance, but they managed nevertheless. But you can’t just transfer that to today.

Is that linked to the negative way we view polarization and disagreement? Do we just have to get used to the fact that there is disagreement — that that is what democracy is?

With the greater degree of mobility that is now possible and to some extent desirable, there is a vastly greater heterogeneity of any population. This might be less true of Wyoming than the city of London, but you cannot any longer assume a great common basis of values, experience, notion of history, sense of identity. Therefore, division is much more plausible. On the other hand, I am one of those who think that one of the major polarizations that is common to Greece and to the modern world is on the basis of class: those who own property, vast amounts of it, and those who don’t. What we are seeing is an extreme polarization in terms of the ownership of capital and other forms of property which is not helping to get over the divide that people have on major issues.

You’ve talked about how, as a young man in the ’60s, it was a very exciting time for politics, but some people would have seen that period as chaotic and disturbing. Today, the comparison seems to be more to the 1930s, the time of the Weimar Republic. Are we living today in the 1930s, where everything is about to go downhill, and it seems that there are fewer and fewer people who want democracy, or are we living in the 1960s and everything is just a bit turbulent, but we’ll look back on it and say it was necessary for progress?

I think that World War II taught us a certain amount. We now know much more about the world as a whole via the internet and various means of disseminating information, so I think that we can’t possibly make the same mistakes in the same crude way that were made in the ’30s and ’40s because we’ve got all this information that will prevent us from doing so. I do think that the breakup of the Soviet Union brought about total realignment to the forces in Europe, which we in the West rather stupidly exploited. The expansion of the EU was bonkers in the way that people from totally alien experiences were expected to fit in with quite different institutional, financial, political, cultural structures. I think we are still playing a very bad game with what was the Soviet Union. I don’t think we are rushing headlong to ’30s totalitarian fascism, but there is very much an authoritarian trend, largely anti-Marxist, between the very, very rich at the top and the seriously poor at the bottom and that is generating all sorts of negativities, in particular, the sense that for very poor people anything must be better than what we have. They may well think that rather than trying to make what we have better let’s start again with a clean slate, and that is a really risky thing to do.

What is your opinion on the recent electoral success of so-called “populist” politicians, e.g., Donald Trump in the United States and Viktor Orbán in Hungary? Does democracy need to be “liberal democracy”?

I’m not myself totally enamored of “liberal” democracy — if by that is meant free (i.e., unfettered, deregulated) market capitalism at the expense and to the detriment of the poor and poorest citizens. On the other hand, I am without any qualification opposed to the regimes in Hungary and Poland, which not only break EU rules but have the cheek to use in self-satisfied self-defense the oxymoron “illiberal democracy,” which in practice means no true democracy at all.

Would you say it is possible that in the near future we could see rapid changes via elections and that could reverse some of those issues?

Well, it nearly happened. Had Bernie Sanders gotten the nomination for the Democratic Party as opposed to Hillary with all of her terrible connections, conceivably Sanders might have had a Congress that might have seen the need to rein in some of the extreme behavior of extremely wealthy Americans. Had Jeremy Corbyn not messed up as he did with the Brexit referendum, and had he maintained his head of steam, that could conceivably have begun some redistribution. So I don’t think it is impossible, but I do think the political classes are going to fight back. No one who has power cedes it easily.

What one thing do you want people to take away from your book?

Democracy, however you define it, is a tender plant and needs careful nourishing. Any form of democratic politics is better than other forms. I am democratic in a sentimental way as well as in a pragmatic way. Freedom and equality define who I am, and I would feel very unhappy if I was living in an undemocratic society.


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