Part of the American psyche likes to think that whatever the people at the top do to be successful must be good for everyone. This isn't always so. Getting rich can also lead to extraordinary abuses of power. Aristocratic tyranny might sound quaint, but nearly every generation of leaders have warned us of the dangers. From Madison to Jefferson, Lincoln and Eisenhower, in their own ways they told us that money power corrupts and that it could be the death of our republic.
Times of war are crucial moments for the survival of democracies. Giving up too much power to secretive leaders can end up doing more harm than the enemy. That's what happened to the first recorded democracy ever, in Ancient Athens. After flourishing for nearly 200 years, their democracy was taken over from within by its own most prominent civic leaders. Few of us know the story of Athens fall into tyranny and how eerily similar to our own current times. It is a potent reminder of how wartime fears can be used to con a free society into giving up everything.
(The dates of Athens democracy were roughly from the times of Solon in 600 BCE to the end of the Spartan war in 401 BCE. Athens was somewhat democratic until 346 BCE. )
Athenians saw themselves as invincible warriors for freedom when they went off to Syracuse in 413 BCE. They were shocked when victory did not come. The reasons for the war turned out to be a complete lie and the situation much more complex. In a stunning defeat, their entire Navy got trapped in the middle of a civil war and slaughtered. A few rich aristocratic families, the Tyrants, (as they were called) exploited this horrifying loss and convinced Athenians to change the constitution to give them power. Once in power, in the name of patriotism and security this small group of tyrants sold their people out to Sparta, looted the public treasury, and left Athens broke. The educated middle class was destroyed and over time the rule of kings returned.
Athenians made two big mistakes that we modern Americans can learn from. First, they believed that a decisive victory could restore their glory. … Second, they believed that the rich rulers who took power during wartime had the people's best interests at heart.
When Ancient Athenians voted to hand over the people's assembly to tyrants in 411 and 404 BCE, they had suffered many years of war with Sparta. A generation earlier, Athens had won a heroic war much like our WWII, against the brutal dictatorship of the Persians. They became a beacon for free thought across Greece and their army fought for other democratic city-states to establish themselves. It was said proudly of Athenians, "Of no man are they the slaves or subjects" (Aeschylus).
They built the Parthenon and fostered the first advanced system of courts where citizens were paid to be jurors. All the best poets, singers, and plays were from Athens and bohemians could travel Greece reciting Athenian writers for their fare. There were four words for "freedom of speech" in Ancient Greek, more than any other language. The city was known for being talkative, it was a cosmopolitan place where you could say and do what you wanted.
In this free climate there were also a few vocal philosophers that despised democracy and believed in authoritarian rule. Socrates was one of them. He once called the public assembly an audience of dunces and weaklings, and his followers openly promoted oligarchy. They believed only the very elite, "those who know" should be rulers, and many of them were directly involved in the overthrow of the democracy.
Certainly Athens was no utopian society. They did have the contradiction of slavery; although it was a form you could buy your way out of. Women played a large role in religion, yet they could not vote. Still, the ancient Greeks did believe in dignity for the common person and this sense of equity carried over into economics as well. Solon not only held the first elections, he also divided up the large aristocratic land holdings of the past and kept a check on monopoly. Over time though, as Athens power grew, this sense of social balance eroded.
When Athenians sent their fleet to Syracuse they had been fighting a long protracted war with Sparta and people were eager for some kind of heroic victory. Military generals advised against the plan. Still, the citizens seemed to be genuinely stirred by the idea (a lie) that they could once again come to the aid of a democracy asking for their help. They were told that their host would be able to pay for their ships. The truth was that both sides in the battle were actually somewhat democratic and the money was never there. More than anything it appears to have been a power struggle that merchants wanted to exploit to gain control of shipping routes.
After the loss of their entire fleet, the very real danger of more attacks from Sparta loomed over Athens. In this time of fear, Aristocrats argued that commoners had made a mess of the war. Supporters of tyranny started taking over allied city-states and overthrowing their democracies. In Athens they set up secret groups that plotted to overthrow the assembly, (known as Synomosiai, or conspiracies), and they started their own gangs of assassins. Prominent members of the opposition party began to disappear and as intimidation spread people became afraid to speak out.
Like today's leaders that fawn over Arab royalty, elite Athenians openly admired the disciplined Spartan society that was based on a structure of "noble lords". They found a bond of aristocracy and hoped to be Sparta's proxies after the war. In secret they also plotted with Spartan generals to help them attack Athens. There was even a shady port deal that didn't go through. They were trying to build a harbor wall that would have helped Spartan ships invade.
Eventually the tyrants became so brazen that they brought armed guards with them to the public assembly of 5000 Athenian citizens for the final showdown. The guards snapped whips at the Athenian delegates as the vote was taken. In fear and under duress, the ancient democratic assembly voted themselves out of power for a wartime dictatorship.
Unfortunately for Athenians, these tyrants did not win the war with Sparta and it is doubtful that they ever wanted to. Instead of dealing with the real crisis of holding off the Spartan Army and getting food supplies into Athens, what they did was redistribute the whole of the Athenian treasury into their own hands. When that wasn't enough, they took their mercenary guards directly to major Athenian businesses and demanded cash.
This totalitarian mafia-like movement was led by well known leaders of Athens; friends of Socrates, (Criteas), relatives of Plato (Charmides), famous philosophers and businessmen who wanted to take the power of government out of the hands of the common man. Historians of the time period such as Thucydides commented on how shocked Athenians were by the behavior of these elites once they were in power, and by stature of the people who joined them, "There were among them, men whom one would never have expected to change over and favor oligarchy".
It was the so-called "best men" of Athens, inside the assembly, who brought the democracy down. They acted patriotic, wore nice robes, went to the best schools, and gave money to the temples of Athena. All as they used their positions of power to spy on and murder their opponents, steal with impunity, and plot the death of democracy.
Athenian resisters went into exile and did return to fight back. In a stunning victory in the streets, women and elder civilians came out to support them and ended the battle with the tyrants. A much weaker form of democracy was restored, but so much damage had been done that it didn't survive long. The tyrants had stolen so much money that the social structure of Athens changed and the middle class was gone. Over the next thirty years the nobility controlled a much smaller assembly. Without the base of an educated middle class, the strength of the opposition to dictatorship eroded, and the democratic dream of Athens faded into the old style of totalitarian kings.
What happened in Ancient Athens illustrates the danger of letting a small group of people take too much financial control of society through the government. In I.F. Stone's fascinating book The Trial of Socrates, he says, "In 411 and 404 democracy was not overthrown by popular revulsion, but a handful of conspirators. They had to use violence and deceit and to work hand in glove with the Spartan enemy because they had so little support at home". According to Thucydides the tyrants numbers were few, but people became afraid to speak out, fearing that the conspiracy was much larger than it was.
Our current society stands at a crossroads where we could chose to create new paths to environmentally sustainable prosperity, freedom, and security or let our collective wealth become so consolidated into a few elite hands that we no longer have any real voice. Under the Bush administration one might say we've seen the work of thieves masquerading as conservatives. Through their outrageous corruption and graft in government spending, tax cuts to the rich, and huge rises in corporate executive pay they've managed to transfer billions of dollars out of the middle class and into a few key industry leader's hands. Census statistics tell us that the average person has seen little gain in real wages in thirty years, while defense contactors and oil industry executives have enjoyed record profits since 9/11 .
We live at a time when the health of the planet and human survival depends on investing in new sources of non-carbon energy. For oils companies there's a huge incentive to block progress on alternatives. There may have been a past era when Americans sat back and let the grand industrialists lay the foundations of our financial system and direct our wars. Today, we need to make sure that they serve the broader interests of the public. Lets stop pretending that corporate leaders aren't already using the government to control the economy ("Free Trade" agreements often have over 9000 pages of special deals), and get more involved in the debate over who benefits from our money and our military.
In this process lets also re-embrace the value of integrating different points of views together in order to solve our problems. In doing so perhaps we can find the mutuality of respect for our neighbor again (red, green, pink, or blue), and reject the kind of unquestioning consolidation of power in a "king like" executive presidency that the Bush administration has pushed for. The stakes are high. The Ancient Greeks developed an incredible democratic culture but in the end their willingness to fight for freedom was twisted into a tool for the very elite. Let us be watchful for the secretive authoritarians that could be our own modern tyrants.
Mary Liz Thomson lives in North Hollywood, CA.