The imperfect society

In which Political System do today’s Citizens of the European Union live according to Plato’s Definition of Democracy and Oligarchy?

In the following it will be discussed whether the citizens of today’s European Union (EU) live in a democratic or oligarchic society according to Plato’s definition of these two terms. Additionally to Plato’s work Politeia (aka. The Republic) also current political events will be taken into consideration, like the publication of the Panama Papers1, the recently filed lawsuit against a German comedian who made fun of Turkey’s president2 and the Nuit Debout3 movement in France.

In book VIII of Politeia, titled “Imperfect Societies” Plato describes four political systems and their individuals: Timarchy (a form of military aristocracy), oligarchy, democracy and tyranny.

By Plato’s definition an aristocratic system, not based on inheritance but on expertise, would be a good form of government, because for him it meant that an intellectual class would rule. This might have something to do with the fact that Plato was an aristocrat himself. Oligarchy, the rule of few rich people who might not be well educated, is therefore worse than aristocracy. The motivation of oligarchs is not an ethical one, it is the selfish desire to make money. In a democratic system as pictured by Plato the majority of poor people takes over power, but since the low-class individuals are less educated and allegedly have less moral understanding, democracy is a system doomed to fail.

Despite Plato’s opinion on democracy, today it is a system many states and state unions try to establish or have already established and are now exporting to other countries. The question is whether the political systems that run under the brand of democracy are actually democratic or not. Plato’s Politeia describes a direct and practical democracy like the ancient Athenian voting system, not a complex and bureaucratic one like the current system of the EU with its central organ in Brussels. Certainly there are differences between democratic systems, too, but how certain is it that, according to Plato’s definition, the European Union is a democracy at all?

Nowadays the citizens of the EU do obviously not live in an aristocracy because their rulers are being elected, although usually not directly by the people. Also the EU’s citizens do not live in a tyranny since they are not ruled by one absolute leader on national or international basis. Instead, the power is divided between the European Parliament, the two different Councils, the Commission and the Court of Justice. But there are specific reasons why the EU could be considered an oligarchy instead of a democracy when Plato’s definition is applied and compared with current events in this political system. For example, there is still an upper class that separates itself from the rest of the people by the power of money and gains political influence through lobbyism.

Before we take a closer look at the chapter about imperfect societies to answer the question whether the EU is a democracy or not, it needs to be explained that – according to the platonic Socrates to be quoted here – democracy arises out of oligarchy and out of democracy tyranny arises. Therefore, any democratic system has the tendency to become a tyrannical regime.4 Plato’s Socrates uses the behavior of domestic animals as example to show that too much freedom will necessarily lead to anarchy. There will be “no master”5 and the people will “disregard all laws”6. But Plato did not only retrace the Athenian democratic system of his time to explain it in Politeia; he imagined a kind of democracy with values that modern democracies are now trying to achieve. Because in the dialogue Plato’s Socrates goes a step further and describes a democracy in which equality is not only theoretical: Slavery would be abolished and the sexes would be equal. This idea of full equality is considered an extreme; it was regarded a scandalous proposal in the 5th century BCE. The platonic Socrates even speaks of an “excess of liberty”7.

Next to all humans also “all pleasures are equal”8 which means that there is “no order or restraint in life”9. All these possibilities make the people and the government free but unsteady. This “extreme of liberty”10 will as “any extreme […] produce a violent reaction […]”11. A person who manages to become popular among the large working class in a democracy will have the power to commit crimes without being punished. This person will be able to exile or murder his enemies and to make him- or herself the absolute leader, only depended on his or her bodyguards and few trustworthy fellows.

Democracy as defined in Plato’s Politea and democracy today

“It’s a life which many men and women would envy, it contains patterns of so many constitutions and ways of life.”12 The main features of a democratic society are, according to Plato, great variety in constitutions and individual character, equality, rule of the (former) lowest class, freedom and lack of order. Plato points out several times in Politeia that democracy would lead to a total loss of control and therefore to anarchy. But the EU’s political system is under extreme observation as we know since 2013, when whistle-blower Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald made the deeds of the NSA and its Prism program public. The attraction of democracy as a system comes from its variety which Plato compares to colorful dresses. Democracy is convenient for the people because they are free to influence politics with their ideas and their work, but they can also stay out of it as long as they do not see any personal advantages. In poorly functioning democracies people are usually not interested in politics and do not participate in discussions or elections.

Oligarchy as defined in Plato’s Politeia and oligarchy today

According to Plato’s Socrates an oligarchy is a society in which wealth is admired and the rich are in control. Certainly we can say that in today’s society of the EU (and not only there) wealth is admired. Tabloids and television shows picture the lives of the rich and famous; advertisements show us how nice cars or clothes will boost our social status; poor people are usually excluded from society. Recent surveys like the Oxfam report13 prove that rich people are getting richer while poor people are getting poorer. Who is not born into an upper class family will usually not become part of the upper class in his or her whole life, because job positions are available for people with the right contacts. This makes social rising nearly impossible and does not help the economy. Or as Plato’s Socrates puts it:

“[…] If one chose ship’s captains on grounds of wealth, and never gave a poor man command, even if he was a better sailor -”

“You would have some pretty bad navigation.”

“And isn’t it true for any other form of authority?”14

Now that Plato’s definition of the different political systems is clear, three examples of current political events will be given, which all made the question arise whether the EU is actually a democratic system or an oligarchic system or a combination of those two forms of government.

I. The Panama Papers

Or the 2.6 terabyte proof that oligarchs can also rule within an alleged democracy

The Panama Papers are a collection of approximately 11.5 million confidential documents from the years 1977 to 2015 that were leaked from the Panamanian corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca. These documents give detailed information about more than 214,000 offshore companies, including the identities of company owners and investors. Mossack Fonseca engages in business activities that potentially violate sanctions, in addition to aiding and abetting tax evasion and money laundering. Shell companies enable their owners to cover up their business deals. The Süddeutsche Zeitung acquired those 2.6 terabytes of data from an anonymous whistleblower, making the leak the biggest that journalists had ever worked with. The source wanted neither financial compensation nor anything else in return, apart from a few security measures. “The data provides rare insights into a world that can only exist in the shadows. It proves how a global industry led by major banks, legal firms, and asset management companies secretly manages the estates of the world’s rich and famous […]”15

The leak shows that social security, affluence, prosperity and prestige do not depend on skills or hard work in case that someone posses resources and capital that bring revenues on the market. If someone is already wealthy, no diligence is needed anymore to increase the capital. There are no serious attempts yet to stop the oligarchs from hiding their money with the help of shell corporations. Instead, the European Union decided to interferee with investigations on money laundry and tax crimes. Employers should soon be allowed to “randomly declare any matter a business secret”, as the German Trade Union Federation (GTUF) wrote in a letter to EU representatives.16 Furthermore the GTUF stated that this would be a “step backwards in puncto legal certainty for Germany and Europe.”17 The European Union seems to support the owners of large companies that are important for the international market more than it supports its own tax laws. This observation does not fit to Plato’s definition of a democracy, but is more similar to an oligarchy in which wealth is admired and the rich are in control, influencing or inventing new laws. A sentence about oligarchy in Plato’s Politeia fits to this example concerning tax laws very well: “The men find ways to become extravagant, and for this reason pervert the law or disobey it […]”18

II. The Nuit Debout and other pro-democracy movements

Pro-democracy movements of activists who do not agree that they live in a democratic system

Greece has a long democratic tradition and some Greek politicians are still aware of it: After quitting his job as finance minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis decided to build up a new democratic movement in the European Union by the name of DiEM2519. Varoufakis said at the launch of the movement that “Europe will be democratized, or it will disintegrate, and it will do so quite fast.”20 According to Varoufakis the DiEM25 group wants to “lobby for more transparency in European decision-making”,21 for example live-streaming of council meetings. This idea is closer to the ancient Athenian concept of direct democracy because everyone can take part, only that in the modern world there are more people who could take part and they need an internet connection to do so.

While Varoufakis worked on his campaign, a protest movement arose among young people in Paris and later about fifty other European cities: They are united in their certainty that no political party, no election and especially not the capitalistic society can assure them the access to education, jobs, housing or chances in life. They are students, trainees, unemployed, ecologists, squatters or homeless who are, as French newspapers like Le Monde put it, against an uninhabitable world. Under the name of Nuit Debout, which could be translated as “standing up at night” or “upright through the night” they gather for huge demonstrations since March 31, every evening, mostly on the Parisian Place de la République. They dance, sing and discuss until the early morning. Many newspapers have played this movement down as teenage riot or described it as a flash in the pan that will soon fade away. Despite this, the protesters have specific goals and demands like a fair reform of the employment- and labor legislation.22 The working class protesters are now getting prominent support by the EU’s left-wing politicians.

Plato saw the difference between his idea of philosophy kings, who he assumed possessed knowledge of the actual good, and tyrants, who rule how it pleases them and act illusionary, in the simple fact that in a good political regime the community is happy and in a tyrannical regime the community is unhappy. Using Plato’s argument one could say that if the current political system was actually good, the community would be content instead of complaining, protesting and rioting.

III. The EU-Turkey deal and the insulting Poem

or how a deliberately insulting poem showed the cracks in German democratic law.

On the 15th of April 2016 the German federal government gave permission to prosecute the journalist and comedian Jan Böhmermann.23 He is accused by the German state of defamation of government bodies and representatives of foreign states (paragraph 103 in the German code of law). Böhmermann had insulted Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his satirical television show Neo Magazin Royale. The television program is financed by the German state, and therefore its people. In a poem Jan Böhmermann called Erdoğan stupid, lousy, pedophile and zoophile, knowing that he was testing out the borders of satire as a reaction to Erdoğan’s complaints about other German comedians criticizing his undemocratic governance. Chancellor Angela Merkel decided that the prosecution of Böhmermann should be allowed because he clearly wanted to offend president Erdoğan, but she also stated that paragraph 103 must be abolished as soon as possible.24 The prosecution of entertainers and journalists is currently quite usual in Turkey, but rather unusual in today’s Germany. The planned abolition of paragraph 103 was a smart move by Merkel, but the mere existence of this law shows how undemocratic the young German democracy still is. To incriminate a comedian for insulting an (allied) statesman is a strategy that can be found in monarchies, oligarchies and tyrannies, but it is not suitable for a truly democratic system. By this law an insult, even in a clearly satirical context, can lead to five years in prison. This law is outdated, which is also what Merkel acknowledged when she explained her decision to abolish the law. Böhmermann might be sentenced to pay a fine, which he will probably refuse to pay. The whole insult-scandal became a state affair and was commented by nearly every member of the German intellectual elite such as writers, journalists and comedians. German-Turkish comedian and writer Serdar Somuncu was one of the few commentators who saw the direct connection between the EU’s refugee deal with Turkey25 and the sudden interest of chancellor Merkel in president Erdoğan’s personal problems with criticism. Somuncu said, in a talk show named after its host Anne Will26, that Erdoğan’s attempt to influence the EU’s political system is to be understood as an “intrusion of our fundamental rights”.

This example shows how basic democratic rights are weakened when a supposedly democratic state leader cooperates with a non-democratic state leader. Plato probably would have taken the comedians‘ side. There are at least three reasons to support this hypothesis: In Politeia Plato wants to give the power to the intellectual elite, in particular the philosophers. The German intellectual elite had Böhmermann’s back and publicly showed their support, from left-wing to right-wing ideology – one side demonizing Merkel’s decision, the other demonizing Erdoğan. Secondly, the refugee deal between the European Union and Turkey was a deal between European politicians while the citizens were not involved in this major decision at all.

Given that even in Kallipolis (Greek for ‚the excellent city‘) the only natural war is the war against foreigners, Plato might have said that the defamation of foreign politicians is a normal, natural behavior, which is, of course, in a globalized society depended on international trade not as easy to say as in a comparably small democratic system like the ancient city-state of Athens.

Conclusion

Now that Plato’s definitions of democracy and oligarchy have been explained and compared to the status quo in the European Union using three specific examples: In which political system do the citizens of the EU live today? There are too many laws and political decisions that allow the flourishing of oligarchic behavior in individuals. The lack of transparent democracy supports the oligarchs of the EU in keeping and strengthening their idleness of luxury. Equality is not yet reached and the traits of an ‚extremely‘ free democracy are suppressed by surveillance. The intellectual elites have influence on politicians and citizens through the media, but they are not in charge and even threatened by undemocratic laws. Necessarily, democracy must develop out of oligarchy “as a result of lack of restraint in the pursuit […] of getting as rich as possible”.27 But the complicated metamorphose from oligarchy to democracy is not yet completed in the year 2016. The EU is in a difficult balance-act between both systems at the moment, trying to reach full democracy, but often taking steps back because of influential oligarchs‘ interests.

 

Main Sources/Literature
  • English version of Plato’s Politeia – The Republic, Penguin Classics 2007
  • Panama Papers collection by Süddeutsche Zeitung and https://panamapapers.icij.org/
  • Political Philosophy lecture notes
  • Newspaper articles: The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde
  • Webpage of Diem25 and information material from the Nuit Debout movement in Paris

 

Footnotes

1 https://panamapapers.icij.org/

2German comedian Jan Böhmermann must explain himself in court after insulting the Turkish president in his satire show Neo Magazin Royale.

3The Nuit Debout movement for democracy in France that started as protest against the reform of employment law. http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2016/04/01/nuitdebout-la-mobilisation-contre-le-projet-de-loi-travail-joue-les-prolongations_4893662_823448.html?xtmc=nuit_debout&xtcr=200 (Le Monde article) and https://nuitdebout.fr/ (official site)

4 Politeia, Book VIII, 562 a/b

5 563 d

6 See above (footnote 5)

7 564 a

8 561d

9 See above (footnote 8)

10 564 a

11 563 e

12 561e

13 https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2016-01-18/62-people-own-same-half-world-reveals-oxfam-davos-report Oxfam report, 1st paragraph

14Politeia, Book VIII, 551 c

15http://panamapapers.sueddeutsche.de/articles/56febff0a1bb8d3c3495adf4/ Quote taken from paragraph three.

16http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/europaeische-union-richtlinie-behindert-whistleblower-a-1086137.html

17 See above (footnote 16)

18Politeia, book VIII, Imperfect Societies, 550 d

19http://diem25.org Main website of the movement DiEM25

20http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/10/yanis-varoufakis-launches-pan-european-leftwing-movement-diem25 Quote taken from paragraph two.

21http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/10/yanis-varoufakis-launches-pan-european-leftwing-movement-diem25 Quote taken from paragraph two.

22 Flyers and manifests of Parisian protest-groups prove that the common claim of protest without objectives or purpose is not true. Most demonstrators clearly demand better conditions for the poor working class.

23http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/tv/jan-boehmermann-das-sind-die-fakten-der-staatsaffaere-a-1086571.html Der Spiegel, 15/04/2016 States affair Jan Boehmermann – the facts.

24https://www.tagesschau.de/eilmeldung/eilmeldung-1015.html Merkel wants to abolish paragraph 103 soon.

25http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/04/eu-turkey-deal-syrian-refugees-germany-istanbul-hanover The Guardian, 04/04/2016, article on the EU-Turkey deal, refugees are send from the EU to Turkey in planes.

26http://www.ardmediathek.de/tv/Anne-Will/Streit-um-Erdogan-Kritik-Kuscht-die-Bu/Das-Erste/Video?bcastId=328454&documentId=34611972 ARD, Anne Will show, guest Serdar Somuncu, minute 21:30 – 21:52

27Politeia, Book VIII, 555 b

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