The beast of politics

Claims of corruption and unholy alliances swirl around our sunny country’s body politic like a thick fog, enveloping both the government and opposition with claims of their being beholden to big business interests. This is an eternal story, coming and going with different protagonists but with a familiar and predictable plot line. So perhaps it’s time to look at the nature of the beast of politics itself and decide whether to fly into self-righteous fury at the system’s corruption, or whether to accept this as inevitable and try to work it into our understanding of how our democracy functions and where dangers lurk. Politics is power and power is money. And vice versa. Whatever system of government we look at, from the most primitive to the most modern liberal democracy, this equation is the common denominator, albeit with some variations at certain times. (For example, in a strictly communist regime, «money» might appear as the luxurious homes, cars and other perks provided to the system’s apparatchiks without their having to stuff cash in their pockets and then go out and buy these things themselves.) The oldest politics that we know of are the relations between Homer’s heroes, who are roughly equal in status but differ according to physical and martial prowess. These aristocrats govern everyone else and they run their lives according to the laws and moral code they have inherited, aligning themselves to achieve the greatest possible advantage by helping their friends and harming their enemies. This was the distillation of untold eons of «political» activity and appears to be the bedrock of politics. By Aristotle’s time, the world known to the Greeks had accumulated a wealth of political systems, ranging from divinely sanctioned kings and royal castes to democracy. The Greeks themselves had experienced monarchy, tyranny (sole rule based on the power granted him by the people, as opposed to modern dictatorships), aristocracy in which a few nobles were seen to work for the general good (as long as this did not threaten them), the various forms of rule by the people known as democracy, and oligarchy, or rule by a few members of a community who are usually rich and usually wield power to their own advantage. Aristotle noted that, in the end, almost all governments are run by a small minority. The difference between an oligarchy and a democracy is that in an oligarchy those in charge wield power so as to openly benefit themselves, while in a democracy small groups compete with each other to gain the legitimacy provided by public support. In a democracy, in other words, those who have money will usually win more votes, even though their own is worth no more than that of their lowliest fellow citizen. Aristotle noted that political systems could combine different elements, such as oligarchy and democracy. More than 2,300 years later, we can still see the mechanics of power as he set them out. In Greece, as we never tire of saying, the end of the military dictatorship of 1967-74 (a combination of tyranny and oligarchy) brought about the abolition of the monarchy and ushered in the longest period of democracy the country has known. In theory, anyone can stand for election to local and national representative bodies. In practice, however, the fact that only major parties are given state funds, the domination of the news media by a handful of business and publishing interests, and the extravagant cost of waging an election campaign means that either those who seek our votes are independently wealthy or they are beholden to undisclosed patrons. As there are few millionaire patricians in our Parliament, most deputies are either people who represent constituencies in which they have proven their worth at the local level and thereby got themselves elected, or they are the product of backroom deals with the tycoons whose interests they can now be expected to serve. There is no way that the costs of a campaign for election to Parliament, which in some cases are said to reach a million euros, can be recouped during a four-year term in which deputies’ salaries are about 50,000 euros per annum. Bizarrely, the latest reform to the Constitution decrees that MPs should have no other job while in Parliament, thus barring successful professionals from being elected and pushing the system further into the hands of the oligarchy. So things are not likely to change any time soon. Anyone hoping to be elected will have to suck up to those who wield power in the main parties to put him or her in a position to be elected easily, or will have to make deals with the various wealthy interests who wield power behind the scenes without having to follow the rules or bear the burdens that the open display of political power would demand. We cannot say whether this is good or bad. It just is what it is. The problem is that the haphazard efforts at «reform» (usually in response to the latest displays of outrage at someone’s being caught with his fingers in the cookie jar) – like the ban on professionals in Parliament, a cap on election funds or ever more intricate measures aimed at preventing news media owners from doing business with the State – serve only to make the system accessible only to those with the means of overcoming such obstacles. The few exceptions prove the rule: An outsider might rise to power on a single cause (serving a certain group or exploiting some issue) but will only be able to stay there after forging an alliance with those who will benefit from this. Perhaps the only way to improve democracy would be to make the rich commit themselves openly to specific parties and politicians, so that voters could have a better idea of the currents of power. But that would eradicate the advantages of wielding power behind the scenes and shifting allegiances, so it is not likely to happen. The tangle of business and politics appears unavoidable, like a side effect of a medicine which could, in the end, end up harming, if not killing, the patient. Because, as so many have noted, for all its failings, democracy is the best system of government we have. Which brings us to the greatest nation and most vibrant democracy of our era – the United States of America – and the danger that this democracy would appear to face from too close a relationship between politics, power and money. In many ways the United States, with President Bush’s declaration that America will act pre-emptively and never allow any challenge to its supremacy, resembles Rome in the years that it acquired an empire. In the beginning, like the Americans, the citizens of the city of Rome had no imperial ambitions. It was only after finally defeating the strong military challenges of Carthage and the rebellious disorder of the Greeks (with the sack of Corinth) in 146 BC that Rome found itself with an empire. By the late republic, as Julius Caesar drove Rome toward what would soon be an empire run by an emperor, the empire was vital for the functioning of Rome’s domestic political system. The Roman constitution was a unique contraption of checks and balances aimed at keeping patricians and plebeians from dominating each other. Those who entered politics knew that they first had to establish a base of supporters in a patron-client relationship – at great cost – and to forge useful alliances with those who had the power to help them. Buying support was part of the system as politicians climbed the ladder of power on the cursus honorum, or «honors race,» toward the highest office, that of consul. A political career would cost a fortune, or several fortunes. So the system was designed to allow illustrious Romans to recoup their costs, giving them the lucrative governorship of a province when their year as consul ended. Rome needed its empire to fund its politics and to provide the cheap (or free) grain, slaves and other forms of wealth that kept the citizens supportive of their leaders. The imperial republic’s greatest beneficiaries, in other words, were the oligarchs, but their well-being depended on keeping the people happy and so they worked hard at it. Emperors had a more direct relationship with the people and with the sharing of the benefits and burdens of empire. Today the United States, for all its claims to the contrary, has embarked on an imperial adventure in Iraq. Even before Bush declared the war over, contracts were being handed out to companies close to officials in the US administration for the reconstruction of Iraq and the exploitation of its oil riches. The intervention, Bush says, is aimed at benefiting the Iraqi people and ridding the Americans of a threat of terrorism. This is all well and good. It is, of course, also helping certain people and companies near him to get richer, and cynics could construe this as helping those who helped him win the presidency and who will help him collect an unprecedented «war chest» of $200 million for his bid for re-election next year. In this, he has Roman precedent on his side. On the other hand, his ill-advised tax cuts for the rich, the US economy’s continuing woes and the fact that few of the tangible benefits of the imperial foray into Iraq will reach the majority of Americans would suggest that, in catering only to the oligarchy, Bush is ignoring the people, the basis of power in a democracy. This suggests two possibilities: Either America will shift away from democracy in favor of a less disguised oligarchy, or the people will shift away from Bush. The similar, though pettier, ailments in Greece’s current political system present the «cradle of democracy» with the same danger and the same options. In democracy, the choices and the challenges never end.