Matthew Simonton: American Oligarchy

SimontonThe 2016 election brought the burning issue of populism home to the United States. Donald Trump is, in many ways, part of a larger movement of populist politicians worldwide who have claimed to speak in the name of the “ordinary people.” (Marine Le Pen in France and Viktor Orbán in Hungary are other examples.) As with other populists, Trump’s presidency brings with it unsettling questions about illiberalism and ethno-nationalism. But in all the talk about “making American great again,” we are in danger of losing sight of a deeper problem, one which Trump will not change and in fact will likely exacerbate: the steady creep of oligarchy. The United States Constitution is enacted in the name of “We the People.” Abraham Lincoln famously described America’s political system in the Gettysburg Address as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Yet how much authority do ordinary citizens truly possess in today’s America? As the ancient Athenians would have put it, does the demos (people) in fact have kratos (power)?

Several indicators suggest that that power, if it ever was actually held by the people, is slipping away. Princeton University Press authors Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens have brought before our eyes hard truths about our “unequal democracy,” the fact that, too often, “affluence” brings “influence.” Gilens and the political scientist Benjamin I. Page demonstrated in an important article from 2014 that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens … have little or no independent influence.” Readers familiar with the findings of the economist Thomas Piketty have heard that the U.S. and other advanced capitalist economies are entering a new “Gilded Age” of wealth concentration. Can anything turn back inequality—what President Barack Obama called “the defining challenge of our time”—and the widening gap in political power and influence that comes with it?

The ancient Greeks had an answer to the problem of inequality, which they called demokratia. It is well known that Greek-style democracy was direct rather than representative, with citizens determining policy by majority vote in open-air assemblies. Yet democracy meant more than just meetings: political offices were distributed randomly, by lottery, on the assumption that every citizen was qualified (and in fact obligated) to participate in politics. Office-holders were also remunerated by the state, to ensure that poorer citizens who had to work for a living could still share in the constitution. Princeton author Josiah Ober has examined the ideology and practice of ancient democracy in multiple publications. In his latest work—similar in its conclusions to those of the ancient historian Alain Bresson—he has argued that democracies created fair rules and equal access to opportunity that secured citizen dignity and discouraged runaway economic inequality. Thus, as much as ancient democracies fall short of our contemporary standards (and they had grave faults in the areas of slave-holding and gender relations), they might constitute a model, however imperfect, for thinking about reducing both economic and political inequality.

On the other hand, many Greek city-states had a form of constitution based on diametrically opposed premises, and which encouraged opposite tendencies. This was oligarchia, the “rule of the few.” Ancient Greek oligarchs—members of the wealthy elite—most assuredly did not believe in citizen equality. Oligarchs thought that their greater wealth, which (by their lights, anyway) afforded them greater intelligence and virtue, made them uniquely qualified to rule. The non-elite, which then as today represented the poorer majority, had to be kept out of politics. (For a recent argument in favor of such an “oligarchy of the wise,” see Princeton author Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy.)

In my book Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History, I chart the rise of oligarchic thinking, showing that it emerged in conscious reaction to democracy, or the “power of the people.” Faced with the challenges democracy brought to their affluence and influence, oligarchs devised a new set of political institutions, which would ensure that the people could make no inroads into oligarchic privilege. This was not simply a matter of attaching property requirements to office-holding, although oligarchs certainly considered that essential. Oligarchies also stacked the judicial system in elites’ favor; sought to control the people’s speech, movement, and association; hoarded and manipulated information crucial to the city’s well-being; feathered their own nests with economic perquisites; and on occasion even resorted to extra-legal assassination to eliminate subversives. Oligarchies were, in short, authoritarian regimes. Engaging with contemporary scholarship in political science on authoritarianism, I show that ancient Greek oligarchies confronted the same basic problems that haunt modern authoritarians, and experimented with similar institutions for preserving their rule. In ways that have not been fully apparent until now, oligarchs and demos resemble today’s dictators and democrats.

As history shows us, inequality in one area (wealth) tends to convince elites that they have unequal abilities in another (politics). Yet in situations like that of Classical Greek oligarchy, when the wealthy obtain the unaccountable political power they desire, the result is not enlightened government but increased oppression. It would do citizens of modern democracies good to bear this in mind. In the United States, many are frustrated with politics, and with democracy in particular. Liberals worry about the supposed ignorance of the electorate. Conservatives want to restrict what majorities can legislate, especially in the area of economics. And the last election saw countless voters openly embrace a vision of America as headed by a billionaire strongman. In longing for a restriction on democracy, however—even if “only” meant for those with whom we disagree—we increase the likelihood of a more general oligarchic takeover. We play into oligarchs’ hands. If the Greek example is any indication, such short-term thinking would bode ill for the freedom of all citizens—and it would only make inequality worse.

Matthew Simonton is assistant professor of history in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University. He received his PhD in classics from Stanford University. He is the author of Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History.