Democracy 411 BC and today

By Nikos Konstandaras

There are moments when people’s faith in democracy is shaken. Just when everything was going well, when we felt sure of where we stood and were making plans, comes a crisis like a disease that falls upon all of us and changes everything. Relationships change. The way we see things is altered. We seek culprits. We seek security. We want to know where we are going and will follow those who claim to know. But our minds are clouded and we may make mistakes. Democracy is a living organism, it demands that all its parts help solve the problems that it faces. That is why what happens in Greece is important for Europe. That is why the first democracy serves as an invaluable guide.

Athenian democracy was based on the principle that the law is more important than those who administer it, and that all citizens are equal before it. There were, however, many instances in which citizens took terrible decisions – ranging from inhuman to self-destructive – under the influence of demagogues. Today we call the problem “populism.” Another threat came from groups of citizens who believed that they were more capable of governing than the Demos. These few – the oligarchs – wanted a return to a form of government that preceded democracy. In 411 BC, when a major Athenian military expedition against Sicily had ended in disaster, after 51 years of democracy, the Athenians, shaken and uncertain of their course, accepted an oligarchic regime without much fuss. They quickly repented and restored democracy in the following year. In 404, when they lost the war against Sparta, the Athenians were forced to accept an oligarchy again. One year later, democracy was restored. It lasted 80 years, until the Macedonian invasion. In those years, as the historian W.G. Forrest puts it, democracy provided “peaceful, moderate, efficient and popular government for the largest and most complex state in Greece.”

Today, we see a conflict where the widening inequality between rich and poor (people and states) is testing the limits of the democratic system. “Populists” want to punish the system that betrayed them by seeing it swept away. “Oligarchs” are ostensibly behind that system. With the crisis, the imposition of austerity (in order to save the system) has pushed many toward those promising easy solutions, such as a return to an idealized past. The populists’ influence, however, will most likely lead to reckless policies that can only result in further austerity, greater tension and instability. Then citizens will lose faith in themselves and may accept autocratic solutions.

History teaches us, however, that people who have tasted the benefits of democracy cannot accept another form of government for long. In this crisis, Greece is a scout in the search for a way that will lead to support for each troubled nation and support for Europe. Here, with Europe’s help, we must find a way out of the forest of austerity, populism and authoritarianism. Democracy is not a given. And without it there can be no Europe.