Panayiotis is telling me, “I want to start a new party, a party of oligarchs—but enlightened oligarchs.” It’s August and I’m sitting outside at a bar in Exarcheia, a part of Athens normally more renowned for anarchists than oligarchs. But I seem to have uncovered one—or one more, I should say, since he’s far from the only person who has expressed anti-democratic sentiments to me in the months following the Brexit vote. And, of course, I’m in Greece, a country where dissatisfaction with the decisions of elected governments has been high for a while.
Sophia looks a little worried, and says, “James works on democracy, you know …”
This essay appears in April’s Quadrant.
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I always find it interesting when someone openly expresses dissatisfaction with democracy, especially since such sentiments used to be so rare. Panayiotis admires Victor Davis Hanson, the American historian whose books trace Western military dominance back to the ancient Greeks. Among ancient authors he has a lot of time for Xenophon, who combined literary and military careers in a way that would have appealed to Hanson. And Panayiotis likes Plato too, of course—a doughty champion, then and now, for every critic of democracy. He is telling me how Plato wanted the virtuous to rule.
Despite my democratic views, it has always struck me that the argument for democracy is in some ways less obvious than the argument for rule by the strong, or the just, or the wise. So I have some sympathy for people who have a sincere belief in these possibilities. But I wonder aloud whether Hanson would support the Enlightened Oligarchs Party, since he believes that democracy was one of the factors that led to the West’s military supremacy. And I ask whether the Thirty, an oligarchic cabal that included Plato’s relative Critias, turned out to be as virtuous as had been hoped. (After executing around 1500 of Athens’s citizens, the Thirty Tyrants—as they became known—were eventually overthrown by democrats.)
Panayiotis has an answer to this question. “No,” he says. “This is exactly why I am in favour of enlightened oligarchy.”
By this point we have had a couple of drinks, and the conversation starts to slide to anarchists, refugees, Syria, and then, somehow, the existence (or not) of pink dolphins. I’m sceptical, but Sophia is insistent. One of them has been spotted recently in the Mississippi—or was it the Amazon?
On the way to the metro station we pass a bookshop, and the three of us stare at the display in the window. I fail to recognise a picture of Cornelius Castoriadis, perhaps the most impressive Greek intellectual of the century just past, a Marxist philosopher and psychoanalyst who lived most of his life in Paris. To make amends, I tell them about Karl Popper, who’s on the cover of one of the other books. He wrote The Open Society and its Enemies while in New Zealand, I tell them; it’s about how utopia is an enticing illusion, and politics is the craft of continual adjustments—adjustments in reaction to what isn’t working, to what people are dissatisfied with. Neither of them has heard of him.
When I get back home I pick up an old copy of the Selected Poems of Robert Graves. It’s been left in the Canadian Institute, where I’m staying, along with primers of modern Greek, Patrick Leigh Fermor travelogues, and long-outdated guidebooks to various parts of Greece. I’m reading a poem a night, and tonight it’s “The White Goddess”. Who is the white goddess? It’s unclear; what is clear is that the protagonists of Graves’s poem have given everything just to search for her,
Whom we desired above all things to know,
Sister of the mirage and echo.
The last thing I do before going to bed is to check my e-mail. There’s one from Sophia, and it has no message, just an attachment: a picture of a dolphin in a broad, dirty river somewhere. The skin is undeniably pink.
I’m here on a term of research leave after three years teaching in New Zealand (Classical Greek, Greek history, the odd honours course on Greek democracy). I’m back in Athens for a number of reasons: to get closer to the archaeological evidence (inscriptions, coins and so on) stacked in its museums’ basements; to refamiliarise myself with its layout; to meet other scholars. But mainly because it’s Athens. The modern city isn’t the ancient one, but every so often, among the concrete tower-blocks, you find traces of one of the world’s earliest democracies, the culture I’ve devoted my life to studying.
The first thing I do is go back to the Agora, the ancient city’s town square. I was a volunteer digger on the American-led excavations back in 2011, when I was still a postgrad. I haven’t been able to go back since, but now I have the chance to do another half-season, and I seize it with both hands. The work is as hard as I remember it, but I’m on hallowed ground. And it’s a chance to catch up with some old friends, and to get the inside scoop on what they’ve been digging up over the past few years.
This is where I first met Sophia. Sophia is trying to finish her PhD thesis in archaeology, but she also works long hours in an accountants’ office. She’s one of the lucky ones; the youth unemployment rate for Greece hovered around 50 per cent in 2016. She doesn’t have a long-term contract, and doesn’t get benefits or a pension plan; though she tells me she actually prefers this, since that way she gets out of paying certain taxes. She works about fifty hours a week and makes about 500 euros a month.
Sophia’s situation is, of course, a reflection of the financial crisis that has gripped the country since 2007. In the years since then, Greece’s GDP fell faster and for longer than in any other advanced economy; in the same period, the unemployment rate quadrupled. Greeks today are, on average, only about 75 per cent as wealthy as they were in 2007; their current level of wealth is no higher than it was around the turn of the millennium. There have been flashes of a recovery in the past couple of years, but it’s still unclear when the country will return to consistent growth. In the meantime, government debt is running at almost twice the country’s GDP.
It’s hard to say who exactly is to blame. The Greek crisis is, of course, in some ways a local strain of the global financial crisis, but the disease was more virulent here than anywhere else, so it seems reasonable to wonder whether its progress was furthered by local conditions. The idea that Greeks are just lazy doesn’t wash; OECD data suggests that Greeks in fact work longer hours than most other Europeans, an idea which is line with economic theory (people in less efficient economies tend to work more, not less), and confirms the impression I’ve got from meeting Greeks like Sophia.
A related idea, that Greeks don’t pay their taxes, may have something more to say for it. Again according to the OECD, total tax evasion in Greece amounts to about a quarter of its GDP, or around 20 billion euros each year. It’s hard to blame people at the low end of the income scale for trying to keep hold of the little money they have, but the problem is equally acute at the top end. One study concluded that tax evasion by self-employed professionals alone amounted to almost a third of the annual deficit. If you wander around posh areas of Athens like Kolonaki, you don’t get the impression that recent measures designed to make people pay their taxes have been very effective.
Although as time went on, I did start to pick up on these measures. Everyone in Athens seemed very keen, for example, to make sure I had a receipt, even when I was just buying a box of cherry juice from a roadside kiosk. The reason, I later found out, was a law passed in 2010 making receipts compulsory in all transactions, however minor—no receipt, and the customer doesn’t have to pay. The idea is to make sure that people pay the relevant taxes. This is also one of the reasons there’s still a limit of 400 euros on withdrawals from cash machines: card transactions always leave a record, and by limiting cash, the government can increase the number of times that people use their cards.
But tax evasion, on its own, isn’t enough to account for the depth of the economic hole in which Greece finds itself. To account for that, you have to look at the decisions that successive Greek governments have made. A crucial moment came on New Year’s Day, 2001, with the abandonment of the drachma and the adoption of a new currency, the euro. Being part of the same economic block as countries like Germany led to trade deficits in Greece, as the quantity of German goods flooding into Greece greatly exceeded Greek goods going the other way.
The result was a classic balance-of-payments crisis. The usual solution to a crisis of this sort is for a country to print more money, devaluing its currency and hence boosting exports. But Greece no longer had the power to do this, since it had given away monetary control to the European Central Bank.
The only other option was to borrow money, something the Greek government did with abandon, consistently running a deficit beyond the upper limit that had been agreed upon by Eurozone nations. And why not? Borrowing was cheap and easy. Greece had the euro, and with the economic might of Germany and the rest of the continent behind it, who would have bet against the euro? Nobody doubted, in those days, that in the unlikely event of a Greek default, Germany would bail Greece out. So that whatever happened, creditors could be confident of a return on their investment.
But the billions of euros that flowed into Greece as a result of borrowing were not invested as wisely as they might have been. Some money was sunk into infrastructure projects; anyone who has used the spotless and efficient Athens metro can attest to that. But much of it went into supporting some of the highest levels of state expenditure in Europe: government spending accounts for just over half of Greece’s GDP (the figure is about 47 per cent for New Zealand and 35 per cent for Australia). Greeks regularly complain about a bloated bureaucracy that provides sinecures to those with the connections to secure them. About one in four Greek jobs is in the public sector.
With a lot of money going out, and not a lot coming in (except in loans), it’s hardly surprising that something would eventually have to give. But Greece’s governors made things even worse for themselves by not being open about their problems until it was too late. Greek governments lied for years about the scale of their debt. The EU’s central statistics agency, Eurostat, tried for years to make them provide accurate figures. The matter finally came to a head in 2010, when the agency formally accused the Greek government of falsifying the country’s economic data.
By that stage, everything we have become so familiar with from intermittent news reports was in full swing: non-existent or negative “growth”; huge deficits and enormous debts; harsh cuts to government services; widespread unemployment; continuing tax evasion; and so on, with the immiseration of the Greek people as a direct result. And who did the people have to blame for their woes?
It’s tempting to answer “themselves”, or “the Germans”, but, in truth, much of the blame must lie elsewhere. The Germans did not force the Greeks into the euro, or compel them to run up huge debts. And the Greek people themselves did not choose these things either. Despite being the inventors of democracy, and despite the official name of Greece being “the Hellenic Democracy” (or “Republic”) these decisions were made not by the people but by a small number of politicians.
Granted, these politicians were elected as part of a representative system. But the system has limited responsiveness to the people’s will, and in a country with an entrenched political elite, elections rarely achieve much beyond replacing one set of technocrats with another. And how have these technocrats fared? Whether from the left or the right side of the political spectrum, Greece’s leadership has committed basic economic errors, failed to deal with the resulting problems, and then lied about it all to the world. Where are the enlightened oligarchs? If they are out there at all, they must be as rare as pink dolphins.
Once I’ve met my first research deadline, I head to the islands for a couple of weeks. I get a ferry to Serifos, where Perseus, so we’re told, turned King Polydectes and his courtiers to stone with the head of the gorgon Medusa. I’ve chosen the fast boat, some kind of hydrofoil, so you can’t go out on deck; instead you’re forced to watch endless repeats of Mr Bean or various nature programs (snakes eating other snakes and elephants copulating). When I step out of the ferry, though, I can see the old town of Serifos perched high and white at the top of a nearby crag. I find a hotel in the port town and make plans to walk up to the old town the next day.
I have dinner at one of the innumerable beach-side cafes. As I wait for my grilled octopus to come, I open the book I’ve brought with me: the post-war diaries of the poet and diplomat George Seferis. I had discovered Seferis on my very first trip to Greece, when I was 17. I had picked up his essays On the Greek Style in a tourist shop in Olympia and read them on my trip through the Peloponnese and on to Athens. I remember wandering up narrow streets to the Acropolis at night, with the lines he had quoted in his great essay on Eliot in my head:
What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
There is a section of the diaries—the happiest section—when Seferis is on an island too, the island of Hydra, writing his most celebrated poem, “The Thrush”. Alas, for most of the period the volume covers, he is doing his professional duty, first in Athens, and later in Ankara. He goes on a long trip down the Turkish coast, revisiting Izmir, the town where he grew up. Except that when Seferis grew up there it was still Smyrna, the busy port mentioned in Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, a poem that Seferis was obsessed by and which he translated into Greek.
The Greeks were turfed out of Smyrna in 1922, at the end of a short, sharp war between Greece and its former overlord, Turkey. Greeks had been living in Smyrna for millennia, including the previous five centuries or so of Ottoman rule. During the First World War, though, the British had encouraged the Greeks to join the allied side by holding out the promise of large sections of Turkish territory. At the end of the war, Greece’s political and military masters rushed to secure Smyrna and a considerable chunk of land around it. It was all in the service of the “Great Idea”—a vision of uniting all the Greek-speaking peoples in a single nation.
The war was a disaster. A reformed, revitalised Turkey, under its dynamic new leader Kemal Ataturk, swept the over-committed Greek forces away. Smyrna was captured in 1922; shortly afterwards, a fire destroyed much of the city, forcing many of its inhabitants to flee, never to return. They would not be the last to leave what had once been part of the Greek homeland. Under the terms of the Lausanne Convention, signed at the end of the war, all the Greeks who lived in Turkey had to leave, for good. Their numbers are estimated at one and a half million.
Modern Greeks refer to this event simply as “the Catastrophe”, and it has made its mark on the Athens subway map—the suburb of “New Smyrna” was built in the years following the disaster to accommodate the stream of refugees. It has made its mark on modern Greek culture, too. The rembetiko music that’s played to tourists all over Greece was strongly influenced by exiled musicians from Smyrna. Tourists who think the music sounds a little bit Eastern aren’t wrong—it regularly incorporates melodic sequences from classical Turkish music.
The young Seferis was part of the same diaspora that brought modern rembetiko to mainland Greece. His return to Turkey is a return not only to his youth, but to yet another chunk of time that has been added to the Greek past. He visits the abundant ruins of Greek civilisation in that area, obsessing over inscriptions. He revisits his family home, commenting bitterly on how different everything had become. Churches have become mosques. He complains that the new inhabitants don’t speak “a single Christian word”.
Seferis was educated at the Sorbonne, and served as a diplomat in the UK, the Middle East and South Africa, among other places. Model cosmopolitan though he was, Seferis always retained something of a blind spot about the Turks. It’s a blind spot that’s understandable in view of his personal history, and one that’s shared by many Greeks. As Seferis’s reactions suggest, this can have as much to do with religion as language, even among those who aren’t regular church-goers.
Everywhere you go on the islands you find churches. There are churches in the town squares, churches on top of the hills, and churches on promontories, staring lonelily out to sea. There are large, modern-looking churches with halls and playgrounds attached, and tiny rural chapels with little inside them but a few icons. I often wondered who maintained all these churches; once or twice I noticed black-robed, black-bearded priests driving pickups over the hills towards distant shrines. Almost all of the island churches are decked out in the national colours: a white that shimmers in the sun, and a blue that reflects the sea. Many of them fly the banner of the Greek Orthodox Church, a black double-headed eagle against a yellow background.
The Orthodox Church has long held a central place in Greece’s national life. Closely associated with the Byzantine emperors through the 1100 years of their reign, the Church helped preserve the national culture through the nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule that followed. Monks copied manuscripts in its great monasteries, like those of Mount Athos, a peninsula inhabited solely by monks (much to the chagrin of Sophia, who thinks this violates the rights of Greek women to freedom of movement). Priests taught basic literacy and arithmetic to children in the villages.
When the revolution came, the Church was deeply implicated. On the one hand, village priests often joined the revolt, and sometimes even participated in the fighting. On the other hand, senior bishops continued to fulfil the time-honoured roles as intermediaries with the Turks, writing letters to the faithful instructing them to lay down their arms.
Today the Church’s influence is waning, especially among the young, but it’s still a surprisingly large presence in a country as developed as Greece. Young people may not go to church, but when surveys ask Greeks about their religion, the percentage of people saying that they’re Orthodox rarely dips below 90 per cent. In some ways, this shouldn’t be unexpected: after all, the Orthodox Church is recognised in Greece’s constitution, if not as a state church, than as Greece’s “prevailing religion”. The country’s current prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, caused a stir when he insisted on swearing the oath of office on his name and conscience, rather than on the Bible. He was the first Greek prime minister to do so.
Nothing illustrates the prestige of the Church deep into the twentieth century better than the regency of the Archbishop of Athens at the end of the Second World War. As German troops pulled out of Greece, Archbishop Damaskinos, who had made his name as a staunch critic of the Nazi occupation (and a defender of Greece’s Jewry), was given the task of heading the country’s interim government. The interim government lasted until 1946, when the King of Greece, George II, was recalled, and normal civilian government could resume.
Greece’s first post-war prime minister, Panagiotis Kanellopoulos, was a Greek in the Seferis mould, a writer and academic who had studied in Munich and Heidelberg. His two brief periods as prime minister were to bookend the post-war constitutional monarchy. On April 21, 1967, a group of colonels seized control of Athens. Kanellopoulos was quickly deposed and taken into custody. King Constantine II (George’s grandson), initially sanctioned the putsch, only to organise an abortive counter-coup later the same year. But by that time the new regime—known to the Greeks as “The Dictatorship” had firmly entrenched itself.
How could such a thing have happened in a country with such a proud tradition of democracy? One of the reasons the Colonels seized power was because of a fear among Greek conservatives that the next election would lead to communists in the Greek government. Granted, the Greek Communist Party had already been banned, but the leading party going into the elections, the Centre Union, would in all likelihood need a coalition partner to form a government. Centre Union’s leader, George Papandreou, was seen by many on the Right as a left-wing firebrand keen to subvert Greece’s constitution. King Constantine had already dismissed him from his post once.
So the Colonels took power—after the US had made clear it wouldn’t stand in the way. Once in power, the junta suppressed civil liberties, engaged in widespread surveillance, and barked orders at Greeks over the radio. Thousands of “anarcho-communists”—anyone suspected of holding left-wing views—were rounded up. Around six thousand of them were imprisoned, sometimes on remote islands, and some three or four thousand were tortured. The regime lasted for seven long years, until a huge protest by students at the National Technical University of Athens exposed cracks in the internal unity of the junta. The final downfall of the regime—a regime of military experts that was supposed to make Greece great again—was their bungled attempt to annex Cyprus, which provoked a successful Turkish counter-invasion of much of the island.
During the long years of the Colonels’ rule, only a few dared to resist. That, of course, is perfectly understandable—nobody wants to be imprisoned or tortured, and the fear of the police state must have reached its chilling hand into every corner of Greek society. But resistance often comes from unexpected quarters. In 1969, George Seferis, as bourgeois and nationalistic a Greek as any, made a public statement—broadcast on the BBC World Service and printed in Greek newspapers—stating that “this anomaly must end”. Seferis died before he could see the end of the dictatorship. His funeral was attended by thousands, in defiance of the regime.
Open defiance of the Colonels was rare. And though fear of reprisal goes a long way towards explaining this, the Colonels also had their supporters. In many ways the regime was only the most dramatic flourishing of a strand in Greek culture that has been around since the Thirty Tyrants, if not before, and which, as the neo-Fascist Golden Dawn party makes clear, stubbornly refuses to disappear. The Greeks who supported the Colonels wanted what people have always wanted: prosperity, security, pride. And they were entranced by a vision of some superior being, a black-robed priest or a smartly-uniformed colonel, who would have the knowledge and the discipline to get all that for them. They were seeking a white goddess, and it nearly led them to their destruction.
Among the many Greeks who were affected by the Colonels’ crackdown on “anarcho-communists” were Sophia’s uncle and aunt. Her uncle, she tells me, was “quite high up” in the Communist Party and thus found himself often under pressure and sometimes on the run. During the time of the Colonels, Sophia’s uncle and aunt were exiled and found asylum in Romania, where they lived for several years. Later on, though, the aid that Sophia’s uncle had given from afar to the resistance to the Colonels paid dividends—literally so, in fact, because he was granted an especially generous state pension. He also managed to get his brother, Sophia’s father, a similar pension, despite his having done little to hamper the dictatorship.
Sophia is telling me all this in a café in Kolonaki. It’s now October, and just too cool to sit outside. I knew she was left-wing. Back in 2011, I had followed her to a protest in Syntagma Square, and said goodbye to her as she elbowed her way towards the front of the crowd. Now she’s telling me that she has always voted communist, and still does, even though she’s fallen out of love with the party. What about Syriza? “They said they would take us out of the EU, and didn’t.” It sounds like a complaint one of my English conservative friends would make.
I tell her how much I enjoyed reading Seferis’s diaries in the islands. She responds warmly, as most Greeks do when you show knowledge of a modern Greek writer. Then she says, “Of course, he was very right-wing.” I think I know what she means; she means he was the kind of man who wore hats and had a cane, who had a summer house for holidays, and grew comfortably obese in his retirement. Who was, in short, bourgeois. In fact, for her the term “very right-wing” is a pretty tame one; she has told me that everyone in the police and the army is “a fascist”.
Moments like these are always slightly uncomofortable for me. I come from a family of army officers: both my grandfathers and my father served in the Canadian army, and my brother is now in the British army. My father and my brother would probably identify as conservatives, if of a fairly moderate sort. In Canada or Britain people are usually happy to withdraw the term “fascist” if I put up a bit of a protest. But as Sophia makes clear to me several times, she means it. She really thinks that the army and the police, two of the central institutions of the Greek state, are made up mostly, if not entirely, of actual fascists.
That this is far from crazy is something that only becomes clear to me over time. There were of course, fascists in Greece in the 1940s, in the form of Italian and German invaders. But though the answer of the Greek leader, Ioannis Metaxas, to Mussolini’s request to allow Italian troops to enter the country is commemorated every October 28 in Ochi (“No”) Day, it’s not often mentioned that Metaxas himself was a military ruler who had modelled his regime on Fascist Italy. Metaxas, unsurprisingly, came to power after King George II felt he needed to take swift action to avoid a communist takeover of the government.
The wartime resistance to the vicious Nazi occupation was led by the Left. The dangerous work of ousting German troops from Greece’s villages was done by the only people passionate enough to do it: communist fighters, who conducted a stubborn guerrilla compaign from mountain hideouts. When the Germans had gone, though, and Greece’s bourgeois leaders set about re-establishing a constitutional monarchy, there seemed no place for the communists in the new order. The result was that the Second World War was followed immediately by a bloody civil war that pitted a communist insurgency, supported by the Soviet Union, against the “official” government of Greece, supported by the US and Britain.
If the struggle against the German occupation had been led by passionate anti-fascists, the civil war was won by equally passionate anti-communists. The result was that the post-war Greek state was built around a security apparatus that saw opposition to communism as part of their raison d’être. The crackdown on left-wingers in the 1950s was in some ways a prelude to the harsher measures enacted under the Colonels. This was the new state that Seferis served as a diplomat. He served it not without attempts to reach out to socialists—his essay on Makriyannis is full of appeals to “the people”—but he served it nonetheless.
Was he wrong to do so? It would be too easy to believe that the communists who resisted the great evil of mid-century European fascism were blameless in every way. In fact, if their resistance was necessary, the way they went about it was needlessly brutal. Stathis Kalyvas, a Yale academic, has published detailed analyses, based on contemporary records, of the tit-for-tat killings that terrorised Greek villages during the German occupation and the civil war that followed. According to Kalyvas’s calculations, the entity that killed the most Greeks in this period was not the government, nor even the Nazis, but the communists. When I mention Kalyvas’s arguments to Sophia, she dismisses them out of hand. That kind of thing, she says, is obviously politically motivated.
Everyone looks at things from some perspective, and to that extent we’re all biased; that’s why it’s important to look carefully at arguments about what really happened. It’s there we can find some common ground, if we look hard enough. But that’s a time-consuming and difficult task, and it’s much easier, and much more enjoyable, to pretend that your side has all the answers and the other side is just deranged. If you want to see where things end up if we really start believing this, read Kalyvas’s description of the communist guerrillas who massacred their own countrymen to save them from the depredations of representative democracy.
Greece was spared the worst of that particular brand of madness, but other countries, of course, were not. One day Sophia and I walked by the National Technical University, whose students’ idealism and bravery had helped bring the tyrannical regime of the Colonels to an end. We saw dozens of students waving communist banners, discussing ideas, and handing out leaflets and books. A couple of items on the table before me caught my eye: books by Lenin, Mao, Stalin. We search, it would seem, for white goddesses, and it only leads us to devils. You would think that at least that we would learn from our mistakes.
But apparently we can’t learn from our mistakes, or, at least, we haven’t learned how to learn from our mistakes yet. As Aldous Huxley suggested, maybe the most important thing we learn from history is that we aren’t very good at learning from history. Any history of enlightened oligarchy would seem to bear that out. Alongside Lenin, Mao and Stalin, we could place any number of godlike kings, holy men, noble lords, shrewd politicians and apparently incorruptible generalissimos who seemed to promise a new Golden Age but who ended up doing far more harm than good. And yet, again and again, like the seekers in Graves’s poem,
We forget cruelty and past betrayal,
Heedless of where the next bright bolt may fall.
In some ways, our delusion is understandable. We can trace the argument that Panayiotis put to me in a pub in 2016 back to Plato, who gave it perhaps its most powerful expression. For Plato, just as you would hire a specialist doctor to help you with your health, and a specialist financial adviser to help with your finances, it would make sense to hire a specialist in politics to handle the state you live in. But an ordinary politician wouldn’t do; since political matters are ultimately ethical ones, what you would really need is someone who had had the spiritual, moral and intellectual training to know what’s good for the community and to implement it. The spiritual and moral training would help clear up another problem that has recurred in world history: that once you give people great power, they tend not to remain very spiritual or moral for long.
Plato’s dream of philosopher-kings, like all dreams, had the useful feature of being out of the reach of reality. It didn’t matter how many times any particular ruler failed to live up to the ideal—even if they were some of Plato’s own charges, like Dionysius II and Dion of Syracuse—he could always claim that they just hadn’t quite cut it. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the ideal itself, of course. This is effectively what Panayiotis had told me in the bar—of course individual oligarchs have failed to prove themselves enlightened before, but that’s not an indictment of the ideal of enlightened oligarchy.
This line of thinking is similar to the argument you can hear from any student communist—that there’s no evidence that real communism won’t work, because it’s never been tried. There’s something tempting about this approach, since the reality of the Khmer Rouge, say, falls so far short of the ideals that many communists hold dear that it might seem inaccurate, if not insulting, to call that regime a communist one at all. And yet, the Khmer Rouge’s leaders were deeply convinced communists, and they clearly thought they were implementing a new, communist order. That’s replicated in virtually all of the states where dedicated—not to mention intelligent and well-intentioned—communists tried to jump-start their countries into a collectivist utopia. And in virtually all cases where they did so by undemocratic means, the result was not paradise but failure, often of a particularly bloody kind.
It still isn’t entirely clear why that was the case, but the experience should certainly have taught us one thing. If there’s an ideal that a lot of talented and devoted people repeatedly try to implement, and every time they do it fails badly, this might not be because individual revolutionaries were defective, but because there was something wrong—at the very least, impractical—with the ideal itself. This brings us back to enlightened oligarchy. It’s easy to say that Dionysius II wasn’t up to Plato’s teaching. But in the long, long search for enlightened rulers in world history, the fact that there have been so few that deserve the name surely says something.
As does the fact that we still haven’t abandoned the search. In fact, it’s arguable that the dream of finding someone to deal with our political problems for us is more common now than at any time since the Second World War. According to research compiled by the Harvard political scientist Yascha Mounk, support for popular rule is falling across a range of measures even in democratic countries. Only around 30 per cent of Americans born in the 1980s think it’s “essential to live in a democracy”, compared with more than two thirds of those born in the 1930s. And in a range of developed countries there’s been a decisive swing towards agreement with the proposition that “army rule would be a good way to run this country”.
There are any number of ways of explaining, or attempting to explain, this collapse in support for democracy in democratic countries. Some would link it to the rest of the world closing the gap in living standards with the West, and especially with under-employed blue-collar workers in the West. Personally, I think the current fall in popularity for popular rule just reflects an age-old truth. Oligarchy is tempting precisely because it’s so easy: just hand over your problems to a few enlightened statesmen, and you never have to worry about them again. What could possibly go wrong?
Democracy, on the other hand, is hard. The Indian philosopher Amartya Sen’s definition of democracy, as “government by discussion” makes it all sound so pleasant, as if we could solve all our problems by having a nice chat over ouzo. In fact, of course, the kind of discussion democracy forces us to engage in is often quite bruising. This aspect of democracy has been stressed by the German historian Egon Flaig, who characterises it as “a species of dissensual decision-making”. In other words, democracy is not about consensus, but about conflict.
Conflict of this sort can be quite wearing, however much we may pretend otherwise. We’re too ready to think that someone disagreeing with our ideas is objecting to our whole worldview, or even our personality. Disagreements shouldn’t ruin friendships, but they often do. Politics is about the big questions of how we should be as societies, and what we should do. It’s natural that someone who holds deeply-held pacifist views would dislike someone who has deeply-held interventionist ones.
Placing that kind of thoroughgoing disagreement at the centre of our public lives—at the centre of the way we govern ourselves, even—is a challenging thing to do. Sustaining frank and meaningful debate in a way that nonetheless is civil and respectful is even harder. It’s so hard, in fact, that it’s almost understandable that we are constantly searching for that white goddess of perfect decision-making who will relieve of us of the burdens of disagreement. Almost understandable, because the horrors of human history should be enough to remind us that if civilised disagreement can be tiresome, the alternatives are far worse. Handing over power to unquestioned authorities has led, time and time again, not to flawless decision-making for the public good, but bloodshed and catastrophe.
Autocratic rulers often manage to project an image of unperturbed competence that squabbling democratic congresses seldom exude. This is because autocrats can coerce public debate in a way that democracies have committed not to. The result is that, curiously enough, autocratic rulers sometimes enjoy approval ratings far higher than those enjoyed by bodies that have actually been voted into power. Of course, those approval ratings have to be taken with a pinch of salt—as the Russian dissident Gary Kasparov has said about Vladimir Putin, with the army, the press, and the secret services all working to shore up the President’s reputation, it would be a scandal if his approval ratings were not consistently high. Still, the white goddess, for all her tawdry fakeness, has proven difficult to stain.
In my last month in Athens I co-taught a field trip for my university in New Zealand. Twenty-one young New Zealanders, many of whom had never been out of their native country, were suddenly confronted with the chaos and excitement of modern Athens. They arrived just in time for the visit of Barack Obama, who had chosen Athens, the cradle of democracy, as the site of one of his final speeches as President. As we walked to the National Museum on the first day we passed crowds of left-wing students shouting slogans like “Obama go home!” My students were confused. Why did the Greek students hate Obama? Wasn’t he on the Left too?
By that time I had moved into a hotel near the Acropolis. At night, after the day’s presentations were over, Sophia and I would stroll along the narrow streets of that part of Athens. Every so often we would come across a fragment of the democratic past—a peristyle building sunk deep into the earth; a tripod set up by a wealthy Athenian to commemorate his service to the democracy. One night, I finally remembered to ask her about a statue I’d walked past a hundred times. It looked like some kind of brigand or highwayman, and the first time I saw it I thought he looked Turkish, but I knew enough now to recognise that it was a klepht, one of the outlaws-turned-revolutionaries who fought the Greek War of Independence.
“I think that might be Kolokotronis,” said Sophia. “Or maybe Makriyannis.”
As soon as she said “Makriyannis” I remembered Seferis’s essay on him, the revolutionary general who had taught himself to write in order to record his experiences in his memoirs. Makriyannis thought of himself as fighting for Greece, but also for freedom and democracy; and as tarnished as the ideals may seem to us now, he risked his life for them. They were strong enough to survive to Seferis’s time, and to be of some use there; Seferis’s essay is actually a speech to Greek military officers during the Second World War, implicitly asking them to take on Makriyannis’s mantle and free their country from the latest regime of supposedly superior rulers.
But these ideals are also weak. Too weak to save Makriyannis, the war hero, from being sidelined by the new Greek state after the war. Too weak to save him from ignominy and penury in his old age. And too late to save his statue from obscurity. It stands in the middle of some low bushes, away from the streetlamps and turned at an awkward angle to the lovers and tourists walking by. Sophia and I pushed our way through to the statue, and I pushed some branches away from the inscription. It was Makriyannis, and I had obviously been the only one in a while to search for him.
James Kierstead is Senior Lecturer in Classics at Victoria University of Wellington.