Democratia et Popularis

One of the more discussed topics among dissident Rightists is that of the institution known as democracy. Many are dead against it, pointing to the degeneration of society as an indication of its supposed destructiveness. Others would say that it is an inherently anti-Traditional institution, as it puts sovereignty in the hands of the people rather than that of the transcendent (i.e. God) usually manifested through the Monarch or Emperor. Discussions on such a topic could go on forever, but unfortunately the mainstream discourse on democracy is largely a mix between religious devotion to it or a cynical acceptance of it. After the Brexit referendum, there was a rather bizarre and surprising outpouring of criticism directed towards the democratic processes. These ranged from calls to restrict senior citizens from voting, to claims that the public should not be allowed to make such important decisions. Of course, the only reason the Left was critical of democracy in this case was because it didn’t go their way. Every other occasion when it has gone their way is usually followed with the typical democracy-worship. One could go on about the differences between a referendum and representative parliament elected by the populace (direct democracy vs. representative democracy), but the core principle is the same: political sovereignty is ultimately derived from the people, and the people are the ultimate decider when it comes to political decisions.

One the most famous critics of democracy was Plato, particularly after his dear friend Socrates was condemned to death via a majority vote. The late English scholar Desmond Lee gives an apt description of Plato’s view.1

First, that the people are bad judges in many political matters. The common man has no experience or expert knowledge of such things as foreign policy or economics, and to expect any sensible judgement from him on such matters is to expect the impossible. … The people’s judgement of their leaders is not always good, and they can’t be trusted to make the best choice. But quite apart from that, the popular leader, dependent as he is for his position (and perhaps his income) on popular favour, will constantly be tempted to retain that favour by the easiest possible means. He will play on the likes and dislikes, the weaknesses, and the foibles of the public, will never tell them an unpleasant truth or advocate a policy that might make them uncomfortable. … Sophist, salesman and popular politician are on a par, and the people care little who their leaders are “provided they profess themselves the people’s friends.” Popular leaders are as devoid of true knowledge as the people they lead. ~ Desmond Lee, The Republic, translator’s introduction

These criticisms sound remarkably similar to those usually directed at populists in our modern political arena, particularly Donald Trump. However, this charge could equally be leveled at nearly all politicians, particularly Barack Obama and his speeches of never-ending feel-good sophistry. Plato[1] also points out the trappings of liberty involved in democracy, and as such why it is so attractive to many:

Then in democracy … there’s no compulsion either to exercise authority if you capable of it, or to submit to authority if you won’t want to; you needn’t fight if there’s a war, or you can wage a private war in peacetime if you don’t like peace … he’ll (the democratic man) establish a kind of equality of pleasure, and will give the pleasure of the moment its turn of complete control until it is satisfied, and then move on to another so that none is underprivileged and that all have their fair share of encouragement. … There is no order or restraint in his life, and he reckons his way of living is pleasant, free and happy, and still sticks to it through thick and thin. ~ The Republic, Book 8

What Plato is ultimately saying is that the democratic way is one of disintegration and formal anarchy. Such is why Plato later says that tyranny rises out of democracy due to the public’s frantic longing for order after their society disintegrates too far. The parallels are especially apparent today.

Athenian democracy would not survive the Peloponnesian War and the hegemonic rise of the Macedonians, but across the Mediterranean a younger city-state was on the rise. Rome would give rise to one of the most famous manifestations of political organisation, that of the res publica, or what we call the “republic.” Polybius was one the early Greek historians to document the rise of the Roman republic to that of hegemonic dominance over the Mediterranean during the 2nd century BC, particularly the Punic Wars which would see the end of Carthage as a significant power. In book 6 of The Histories,2 Polybius describes the Roman constitution (unwritten and uncodified of course) through a Greek philosophical lens.

As for the Roman constitution, it had three elements, each of them possessing sovereign powers: and their respective share of power in the whole state had been regulated with such a scrupulous regard to equality and equilibrium, that no one could say for certain, not even a native, whether the constitution as a whole were an aristocracy or democracy or despotism. And no wonder: for if we confine our observation to the power of the Consuls we should be inclined to regard it as despotic; if on that of the Senate, as aristocratic; and if finally one looks at the power possessed by the people it would seem a clear case of a democracy. ~ The Histories, Book 6

In this sense, Polybius would formulate the notion of the mixed constitution, where each element (monarchy, aristocracy and democracy) would counteract each of their respective potential weaknesses as outlined by Plato (tyranny, oligarchy and ochlocracy). This idea would become influential among Enlightenment figures, especially the Founding Fathers of the United States.

The notion of a mixed and unwritten constitution can also be seen in the example of England, particularly after the English Civil Wars. The House of Commons is analogous to the plebeian Roman assemblies, the Consuls could be compared to the Sovereign. The House of Lords along with the Supreme Court could be compared to the Roman Senate. Such comparisons are scathing, but the unwritten nature of the English constitution is what makes such a nation particularly relevant. English law is based on precedent, and in a sense the Roman constitution was entirely based on precedent as well. Trying to fit Rome into a Greek framework is problematic, but it does give us a general idea of Rome’s distinctiveness. And Rome was by no means a secular society. All elections were sanctioned by the Gods, and religious traditions were upheld with absolute precision as all public roles were also sanctioned with religious significance. After Augustus, the role of Pontifex Maximus would eventually become synonymous with that of Imperator. This would carry on through to the Middle Ages as the Divine Right of Kings. Rome was Traditional in that sense, albeit the notion of res publica could be objectionable to some on the grounds that it implies sovereignty ultimately derives from the Roman people (which historians continues to debate about to this day).

Nevertheless, the system was far from perfect. Tiberius Gracchus would use his role as the Tribune of the Plebs to its full extent to enact sweeping land reforms, which upset the traditional order. The Senate soon realised that her influence could be bypassed entirely, allowing for Populāris rule. Gaius Marrius would later try similar reforms as consul, leading to a brutal response by the Optimate general and statesmen Lucius Cornelius Sulla who would dissolve the tribune of the plebs and allow for Senate supremacy, albeit under his dictatorial rule which involved many proscriptions. But it was his military reforms which would pave the way for the rise of Julius Caesar. As the Legions were now only bound to their commander rather than to Rome herself, Caesar would march on Rome just as Sulla did decades earlier. Caesar’s reforms and the consequent Senatorial reaction would change Rome forever. Augustus would attempt to remedy the divisions between the Senatorial elite and that of the plebs via strengthening his role as imperator, but the res publica would never be the same again.

Even within a highly mixed system such as Rome, the attraction of democracy and the temptation of populism manifested frequently. In that sense, it is impossible to separate democracy from populism. Rule of the many necessarily involves the rule of the popular, and therefore whenever you hear someone complaining about populism, remind them that what they are observing is merely democracy at work, in all her passionate glory and degenerate nihilism.

1. Plato., and H.D.P Lee, The Republic. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.

2. Polybius (1979). Walbank, Frank W.; Scott-Kilvert, Ian, eds. The Rise Of The Roman Empire.


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