Can’t We Come Up with Something Better Than Liberal Democracy?

If Purdy does not have a very detailed plan, he has at least a plan for a plan. He wants to transform American life through mass participation in engaged and shared decision-making, of the sort presaged by Zuccotti Park. To get where we need to go, he argues forcefully for a reformed Supreme Court and a new Constitutional Convention every three decades, to rewrite the whole damn thing.

The familiar parts of Purdy’s polemic have familiar rejoinders. Occupy Wall Street was a marginal, not a mass, movement, never gaining popular support, and Sanders ran twice and lost twice. Purdy blames “market colonization” for the Supreme Court’s reactionary decision-making, but the Court’s most reactionary decisions have little to do with the desires of capitalism or, anyway, of capitalists: the Goldman Sachs crowd is fine with women’s autonomy, being significantly composed of liberal women, and would prefer fewer gun massacres. And though the struggle to maintain democratic institutions within a capitalist society has been intense, the struggle to maintain democratic institutions in anti-capitalist countries has been catastrophic. We do poorly, but the Chinese Communist Party does infinitely worse, even when it tilts toward some version of capitalism.

For that matter, would our democratic life really be improved by a new Constitutional Convention—to which Alex Jones’s followers, demanding to know where the U.F.O.s are being kept, are as likely to show up as Elizabeth Warren’s followers, demanding that corporations be made to pay their fair share of taxes? The U.S. Constitution, undemocratic though it is, is surely an additive to the problem, not the problem itself. Parliamentary systems, like Canada’s, have also been buffeted by populist and illiberal politics, while Brexit, a bit of rough-hewn majoritarian politics in a country without a written constitution, shows the dangers of relying on a one-night plebiscite.

Purdy’s basic political position seems to be that politics would be better if everyone shared his. Those of us who share his politics might agree, but perhaps with the proviso that the kind of sharing he is cheering for has more to do with the poetics of protest than with politics as generally understood. Politics, as he conceives it, is a way of getting all the people who agree with you to act in unison. This is a big part of democratic societies. Forming coalitions, assembling multitudes, encouraging action on urgent issues: these are all essential to a healthy country, even more than the business of filling in the circle next to a name you have just encountered for an office you know nothing about.

But the greatest service of politics isn’t to enable the mobilization of people who have the same views; it’s to enable people to live together when their views differ. Politics is a way of getting our ideas to brawl in place of our persons. Though democracy is practiced when people march on Washington and assemble in parks—when they feel that they have found a common voice—politics is practiced when the shouting turns to swapping. Politics was Disraeli getting one over on the nineteenth-century Liberal Party by leaping to electoral reform for the working classes, thereby trying to gain their confidence; politics was Mandela making a deal with de Klerk to respect the white minority in exchange for a peaceful transition to majority rule. Politics is Biden courting and coaxing Manchin (whose replacement would be incomparably farther to the right) to make a green deal so long as it was no longer colored green. The difficulty with the Athenian synecdoche is that getting the part to act as the whole presupposes an agreement among the whole. There is no such agreement. Trumpism and Obamaism are not two expressions of one will for collective action; they are radically incommensurable views about what’s needed.

Purdy’s faith in “collective rationality” as the spur to common action—his less mystical version of Rousseau’s general will—leaves him not entirely immune to what could be called the Munchkinland theory of politics. This is the belief that although the majority population of any place might be intimidated and silenced by an oppressive force—capitalism or special interests or the Church—they would, given the chance, sing ding-dong in unison and celebrate their liberation. They just need a house dropped on their witch.

The perennial temptation of leftist politics is to suppose that opposition to its policies among the rank and file must be rooted in plutocratic manipulation, and therefore curable by the reassertion of the popular will. The evidence suggests, alas, that very often what looks like plutocratic manipulation really is the popular will. Many Munchkins like the witch, or at least work for the witch out of dislike for some other ascendant group of Munchkins. (Readers of the later L. Frank Baum books will recall that Munchkin Country is full of diverse and sometimes discordant groupings.) The awkward truth is that Thatcher and Reagan were free to give the plutocrats what they wanted because they were giving the people what they wanted: in one case, release from what had come to seem a stifling, union-heavy statist system; in the other, a spirit of national, call it tribal, self-affirmation. One can deplore these positions, but to deny that they were popular is to pretend that a two-decade Tory reign, in many ways not yet completed, and a forty-nine-state sweep in 1984 were mass delusions. Although pro-witch Munchkins may be called collaborators after their liberation, they persist in their ways, and resent their liberators quite as much as they ever feared the witch. “Of course, I never liked all those scary messages she wrote in the sky with her broom,” they whisper among themselves. “But at least she got things done. Look at this place now. The bricks are all turning yellow.”

Purdy’s vision of democracy would, of course, omit the bugs in the Athenian model: the misogyny, the slavery, the silver mines. But what if the original sin of the democratic vision lies right there—what if, by the time we got to Athens, democratic practice was already fallen and hopelessly corrupted, with the slaves and the silver mines and the imperialism inherent to the Athenian model? This is the hair-raising thesis advanced by the illustrious Japanese philosopher Kōjin Karatani. In his book “Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy,” Athenian democracy is exposed as a false idol. He does not see this from some Straussian point of view, in which Plato’s secret compact of liars is a better form of government than the rabble throwing stones at Socrates. On the contrary, he is a staunch egalitarian, who believes that democracy actually exemplifies the basic oppressive rhythm of “ruler and ruled.” His ideal is, instead, “isonomia,” the condition of a society in which equal speaks to equal as equal, with none ruled or ruling, and he believes that such an order existed around the Ionian Islands of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., before the rise of Athens.

If Purdy is susceptible to the Munchkinland theory of social change, Karatani is tempted by what might be called the Atlantis theory of political history. Once upon a time, there was a great, good place where life was beautiful, thought was free, and everyone was treated fairly. This good place was destroyed by some kind of earthquake—perhaps visited from outside, perhaps produced by an internal shaking of its own plates—and vanished into the sea, though memories of it remain. The Atlantis in question may be Plato’s original idealized island, or it may be the pre-patriarchal society of Europe, or the annual meeting of Viking peasants in nightless Iceland. In every case, there was once a better place than this one, and our path to renewal lies in renewing its tenets.

Karatani’s Atlantean view is plausibly detailed. The settlement around the Ionian Islands in the centuries after Homer (but before the imperial ascent of Athens) was marked by an escape from clan society; the islands welcomed immigrants of all kinds. Free of caste connections and tribal ties, the Ionians were able to engineer a new kind of equality. They didn’t become hunter-gatherers, but they “recuperated nomadism by the practice of foreign trade and manufacturing.” Like fourteenth-century Venice or seventeenth-century Amsterdam, Ionia was a place where there wasn’t much land to till, let alone a landed aristocracy to own and exploit the terrain and its tillers, and so people had to earn a living making and trading things. As a result, they were open in ways that mainland Greece was not.

A key point, in Karatani’s account, is that Ionian trade wasn’t captured by a state monopoly but conducted through networks of makers and traders. The earnings of trade, under those conditions, were more evenly distributed, and the freedom of movement put a limit on abusive political arrangements. “The reason class divisions multiplied under the money economy in Athens was that from the outset political power was held by a land-owning nobility,” he writes. “That kind of inequality, and ruler-ruled relation, did not arise in Ionia. That is to say, isonomia obtained. If in a given polis such inequality and ruler-ruled relation did arise, people could simply move to another place.”

For Karatani, working in a Marxian tradition, ideas tend to mirror the economic exigencies of their contexts, and he thinks that in Ionia they did. The line of philosophers who came of age around the islands, usually called the pre-Socratics, were notably unconcerned with hierarchy or with religious mysticism. They imagined the universe as governed by material, transactional exchanges. Thales, who lived in the Ionian city of Miletus and thought that everything was made of water, was making an essentially empirical attempt to understand the world without recourse to fate or divine supervision. (So, for Karatani, was Heraclitus, a century later, who thought everything was made of fire.) Karatani insists that the pre-Socratic physics is inseparable from an Ionian political ideology. Ionian physics posited an equilibrium of forces, not a hierarchy of them with a mystical overseer. Anaximander, Thales’ protégé, “introduced the principle of justice (or dikē) as the law governing the natural world.” The play of forces in the physical world, fluid and forever in exchange, mimicked and governed the forces in the social world. Isonomia was at the root of it all.

Isonomia in Ionia—it has the rhythm of a song lyric. One feels again the shape of a familiar and accurate historical meme: trading and manufacturing centers tend to be markedly more egalitarian than landholding ones. Democratic practices of one kind or another—though limited and oligarchic in Venice, bloodied by sporadic religious warfare in Holland—usually take root in such places, only to be trampled as power consolidates and an élite takes hold.

“You said it. I heard it. There’s no taking it back, Harold!”

Cartoon by David Sipress

Was Karatani’s Atlantis, that utopia of isonomia, actually anything like this? Early on, he cheerfully admits that “there are almost no historical or archaeological materials to give us an idea of what Ionian cities were really like.” But he suggests that we can argue by indirect evidence and by drawing “inferences in world history from cases that resemble Ionia.” These turn out to include medieval Iceland, also a refuge for exiles, with its famous Þingvellir, or meeting place, and pre-Revolutionary New England, settled by refugees as well, and marked by its isonomic townships and town meetings.

It is an odd way to argue history and has odd results. In Iceland, you can visit the Þingvellir, where the Viking democrats gathered—and the next thing you are shown is the drowning pool, where women were executed. The drowning pool came into use later, to be sure, but is part of a similar social inheritance. Rough justice, the sagas make plain, is as much an Icelandic tradition as shared goods are. And one has only to read Hawthorne to have a very different view of life in those New England townships, especially for people who did not quite fit the pattern.

Karatani’s historical approach—projecting his ideals upon an idealized past—has other confounding consequences. What are we to make, for instance, of his insistence that the poems of Homer, the bard of Ionia, are not aristocratic? In truth, the force of the occasional protests against aristocratic practices in Homer are moving because of their rarity, rather like the cries of the peasants in “King Lear.” “Blood will tell” is pretty much the motto on every inspired page. But Karatani needs Homer to be isonomic and will make him so. More practically, how did Ionians resolve the perpetual fact of political conflict? Perpetual secession seems to be the answer; when things get bad, simply go to another island. (The old liberal huff “I’m moving to Canada!” is more serious when “Canada” is just a rowboat ride away.) This is not always ridiculous advice—a series of successive secessions in New England is how we got Rhode Island—but it doesn’t seem like much of a plan for settled modern countries.

Greek islands before the rise of Athens, chilly and isolated medieval Iceland, the New England townships of the Colonial era: these sound like oddly sparse and remote spots to build a dream on. Perhaps all such dreams can be built only so. Reading Karatani’s account of ancient Ionia, one recalls the parallel dream of ancient Sparta, the militaristic state that so inspired authoritarians from Plato to Hitler. An isonomic Ionia is infinitely preferable to an authoritarian Sparta but seems of the same imaginative kind. We can’t build back better from a place that didn’t really exist. Certainly, from what little we do know, the Ionians seem not to have been egalitarian at all in the sense we mean and have gone far toward achieving—the aim of equality between the sexes, or among religious groups, or among ethnicities or sexualities. Yet the basic inquiry into the possibility of human relationships that Karatani undertakes is moving, even inspiring. Though he doesn’t cite them, his Ionians most resemble the classic anarchists, of the Mikhail Bakunin or Emma Goldman kind: repudiating all power relations, ruler to ruled, in a way that shames more timid liberal imaginations.

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