Plato predicted that democracies, by splintering the consensus that founds a civilization into atoms formed of individual wills, become so chaotic that at some point, tyranny is desired by the citizens and so comes to pass.
Every civilization has a life cycle, from birth to death, says Plato. At birth, it has the simplest form of rule, which is aristocracy, or a hereditary group of its morally best and smartest people. When they run down or are overthrown, in comes military rule. After that, it’s oligarchy, which roughly corresponds to a libertarian ideal — those who have money rule, like a Southern Plantation culture. But that gives way to democracy, he says:
The oligarch changes into the democrat in the following manner: — The youth who has had a miserly bringing up, gets a taste of the drone’s honey; he meets with wild companions, who introduce him to every new pleasure.
As soon as democracy comes about, Plato writes, there are numerous changes in the attitudes of the population that end up being a complete fracturing of the consensus that holds that society together. Instead of one set of values, rules, customs and goals, there are now as many as there are citizens. We call this process atomization.
And if any offer of alliance or parley of individual elders comes from home, the false spirits shut the gates of the castle and permit no one to enter,—there is a battle, and they gain the victory; and straightway making alliance with the desires, they banish modesty, which they call folly, and send temperance over the border. When the house has been swept and garnished, they dress up the exiled vices, and, crowning them with garlands, bring them back under new names. Insolence they call good breeding, anarchy freedom, waste magnificence, impudence courage. Such is the process by which the youth passes from the necessary pleasures to the unnecessary.
Plato is critiquing the psychology of the democratic man at this point. He describes something not unlike the Norse vision of Ragnarok or the Hindu vision of Kali-Yuga: an end times where trust is impossible, people are corrupt, everything is crass and gross and commercialized, and in this whoring all values have been inverted and replaced with an ethic of convenience that leads to long-term destruction.
Let us now inspect the individual democrat; and first, as in the case of the State, we will trace his antecedents…Necessary pleasures are those which are good, and which we cannot do without; unnecessary pleasures are those which do no good, and of which the desire might be eradicated by early training…the drone, as we called him, is the slave of these unnecessary pleasures and desires, whereas the miserly oligarch is subject only to the necessary.
The distinction he’s drawing here is between first-world and third-world behavior. First-world people can put off pleasure until after they’ve accomplished something; third world people are slaves to the short term, and to their pleasures, and so never build infrastructure, develop learning, etc. That sounds more un-PC than it is, because if you read Toynbee and Spengler you will see that third world states are basically failed attempts at first world states, and that the reason they seem exotic ethnically is because they are remnants of cosmopolitan mixed-race populations blurred into a monoculture.
Plato describes a neurosis we can observe in our current society:
After a while he divides his time impartially between them; and perhaps, when he gets older and the violence of passion has abated, he restores some of the exiles and lives in a sort of equilibrium, indulging first one pleasure and then another; and if reason comes and tells him that some pleasures are good and honourable, and others bad and vile, he shakes his head and says that he can make no distinction between them. Thus he lives in the fancy of the hour; sometimes he takes to drink, and then he turns abstainer; he practises in the gymnasium or he does nothing at all; then again he would be a philosopher or a politician; or again, he would be a warrior or a man of business; he is ‘Every thing by starts and nothing long.’
Ever notice how our time is choked by New Age-y pursuits? People are looking for that Next Big Thing, whether it’s Yoga or fire-walking or Acai berries or whatever; they want to find the one thing to give their lives meaning, because they’re adrift in the meaningless void of having no direction, no script, and no narrative to move them forward, because they’re in a time that has inverted all values.
Plato’s description of democracy is unflinching in its critique:
The manner of life in such a State is that of democrats; there is freedom and plainness of speech, and every man does what is right in his own eyes, and has his own way of life.
Hence arise the most various developments of character; the State is like a piece of embroidery of which the colours and figures are the manners of men, and there are many who, like women and children, prefer this variety to real beauty and excellence.
The State is not one but many, like a bazaar at which you can buy anything.
That’s his description of atomization: every person trying to do something different and special, thus there’s zero consensus.
The great charm is, that you may do as you like; you may govern if you like, let it alone if you like; go to war and make peace if you feel disposed, and all quite irrespective of anybody else.
In dysfunction, there is no accountability. That feels good until you see the consequences.
When you condemn men to death they remain alive all the same; a gentleman is desired to go into exile, and he stalks about the streets like a hero; and nobody sees him or cares for him. Observe, too, how grandly Democracy sets her foot upon all our fine theories of education, — how little she cares for the training of her statesmen! The only qualification which she demands is the profession of patriotism. Such is democracy; — a pleasing, lawless, various sort of government, distributing equality to equals and unequals alike.
Whether you’re right or left, you have allegiance to the ideals of your state, and so you are patriotic — which is the only requirement. You do not have to actually engage in society at large. Just wave the flag, even if a flag of protest, and you’re accepted into the group.
How does democracy come about?
The sturdy pauper finds that in the hour of danger he is not despised; he sees the rich man puffing and panting, and draws the conclusion which he privately imparts to his companions,—‘that our people are not good for much;’ and as a sickly frame is made ill by a mere touch from without, or sometimes without external impulse is ready to fall to pieces of itself, so from the least cause, or with none at all, the city falls ill and fights a battle for life or death. And democracy comes into power when the poor are the victors, killing some and exiling some, and giving equal shares in the government to all the rest.
Sounds like the French and Russian revolutions, or the bloodless revolutions of 1968. Plato then sounds a note of warning about how democracy leads to the next stage, tyranny:
Tyranny springs from democracy much as democracy springs from oligarchy. Both arise from excess; the one from excess of wealth, the other from excess of freedom. ‘The great natural good of life,’ says the democrat, ‘is freedom.’ And this exclusive love of freedom and regardlessness of everything else, is the cause of the change from democracy to tyranny.
This is Plato’s description of what is going to come. It’s a subtle “meta-thesis”: that by focusing on freedom, and ignoring other vital parts of society, people encourage downfall. It’s like the farmer who thinks the vital thing is to get seed in the ground, and then is dismayed to find a conspiracy of details like drainage, pests, drought and other things not related to planting bring down his crop.
Plato then describes the mentality of late stage democracy — a demand for “freedom” bordering on anarchy:
The State demands the strong wine of freedom, and unless her rulers give her a plentiful draught, punishes and insults them; equality and fraternity of governors and governed is the approved principle. Anarchy is the law, not of the State only, but of private houses, and extends even to the animals.
Father and son, citizen and foreigner, teacher and pupil, old and young, are all on a level; fathers and teachers fear their sons and pupils, and the wisdom of the young man is a match for the elder, and the old imitate the jaunty manners of the young because they are afraid of being thought morose. Slaves are on a level with their masters and mistresses, and there is no difference between men and women.
At last the citizens become so sensitive that they cannot endure the yoke of laws, written or unwritten; they would have no man call himself their master.
This state of duality is completely neurotic: people are in a civilization, which requires collectivism, but they insist on anti-collectivism as their organizing principle. Even more, since their principle (freedom) sounds positive but really is a negative (freedom from x, y or z) they are prone to strike against those who do not support freedom as the absolute goal. Like most universals, or absolute and contextless demands, freedom obscures the need for other parts of a civilization, like a goal, order, learning, culture and so on. In fact, by the very nature of its negative inclination, “freedom” is opposed to ever having a goal.
Such is the glorious beginning of things out of which tyranny springs. ‘Glorious, indeed; but what is to follow?’ The ruin of oligarchy is the ruin of democracy; for there is a law of contraries; the excess of freedom passes into the excess of slavery, and the greater the freedom the greater the slavery.
You will remember that in the oligarchy were found two classes—rogues and paupers, whom we compared to drones with and without stings. These two classes are to the State what phlegm and bile are to the human body; and the State-physician, or legislator, must get rid of them, just as the bee-master keeps the drones out of the hive. Now in a democracy, too, there are drones, but they are more numerous and more dangerous than in the oligarchy; there they are inert and unpractised, here they are full of life and animation; and the keener sort speak and act, while the others buzz about the bema and prevent their opponents from being heard.
And there is another class in democratic States, of respectable, thriving individuals, who can be squeezed when the drones have need of their possessions; there is moreover a third class, who are the labourers and the artisans, and they make up the mass of the people. When the people meet, they are omnipotent, but they cannot be brought together unless they are attracted by a little honey; and the rich are made to supply the honey, of which the demagogues keep the greater part themselves, giving a taste only to the mob.
Plato introduces two psychological archetypes here and two social archetypes:
- Drones: clueless, perpetually impoverished people who cannot plan for the future and so squander whatever they have and then need a bailout. Trailer parks and urban ghettoes provide a modern example.
- Rogues: these are passive aggressive thieves, or wolves in sheep’s clothing, who act for their own selfish gain in every situation, and so wreck civilization by sewing distrust and socialized costs. Modern examples might include Bernard Madoff and Rod Blagojevich.
Plato thinks a healthy society will remove both rogues and drones, because drones through stupidity empower rogues with their greater numbers, and rogues through their single-mindedness victimize people with more ambitious, whole views of life. Too much of these people and a society collapses, as Jonathan Haidt explains.
What has happened is the laying of a foundation for class warfare. Let’s look at the two class distinctions:
- Bourgeoisie. Plato says “respectable, thriving individuals” and by this he means the middle class, conventionally called bourgeois because at this stage their entire morality is to earn money and buy their way out of social decay. If you’re reading this and understanding it, your parents probably belong to this group.
- Working classes. These are called labourers and artisans, but nowadays we’d know them as people who work in factories, restaurants and with machines at semi-skilled jobs. This group is often confused with the drones because there is so much overlap between the two; one way to view it is that some of the working classes are drones because of their psychology, while all of the working classes end up labourers and artisans because it is the kind of work to which they are drawn.
So about that class war: the drones and rogues conspire to mobilize the working classes to demand free stuff from the government, a process called entitlement. It is this class war, coming up against the boundaries of a civilization that demands freedom but not order, that shapes the tyrant:
Their victims attempt to resist; they are driven mad by the stings of the drones, and so become downright oligarchs in self-defence. Then follow informations and convictions for treason. The people have some protector whom they nurse into greatness, and from this root the tree of tyranny springs.
The nature of the change is indicated in the old fable of the temple of Zeus Lycaeus, which tells how he who tastes human flesh mixed up with the flesh of other victims will turn into a wolf.
Even so the protector, who tastes human blood, and slays some and exiles others with or without law, who hints at abolition of debts and division of lands, must either perish or become a wolf—that is, a tyrant.
Class war drives the upper half of the middle classes — in modern terms, this is households clearing more than $140,000 a year — into a defensive position, at which point they start to be winner take all. A modern example is the bonuses on Wall Street that are most of each employee’s salary; they reward themselves handsomely because they know that without a half-million-dollar house, private schools for the kids, private medical plans and organic food, they’re going to get dragged down into the social morass of the drones.
During this class war, because the crowd comprised of drones and labourers, egged on by rogues (demagogues), will demand everything it can get, the bourgeois start to fight dirty. They start hiding money and hiding behind private security. It’s slowly dawning on them that the crowd of irresponsible people hates them for being responsible, and they’re going to do their best to take the fruits of that responsibility and throw out the responsible people if not outright kill, rape and maim them.
I call the bourgeois reacting to a class war second-stage oligarchs. They’re not like the oligarchy stage that precedes democracy, which I equate to something like the Mafia or Southern Plantation style living: although the big boss takes a lot, and may spread corruption in the “official” government, the official government is useless and the big boss gets stuff done and takes care of his people. In Sicily, the Mafia at least used to be a net positive; in the South, the planter social hierarchy kept everyone fed, which was not the case after the war (skipping for a moment other questions and concerns about the South’s political structure).
At that point, The People appoint themselves a guardian and protector who promises to bring equality — or revenge upon the rich, since they have something to lose where no one else does. Of course, the wealthier people don’t take this lying down, and so the protector is unable to protect himself, and asks for a private army:
Perhaps he is driven out, but he soon comes back from exile; and then if his enemies cannot get rid of him by lawful means, they plot his assassination.
Thereupon the friend of the people makes his well-known request to them for a body-guard, which they readily grant, thinking only of his danger and not of their own.
Now let the rich man make to himself wings, for he will never run away again if he does not do so then. And the Great Protector, having crushed all his rivals, stands proudly erect in the chariot of State, a full-blown tyrant.
In that final step, you have reached a Soviet/French Revolution style state. These in turn collapse because, since all of their goals like freedom are negative, they have no actual plan and end up dividing up the wealth and infighting while the country collapses around them.
However, since the tyrant already has the power… well, there’s not much chance of him or her being overthrown. In fact, The People have put him in power and for at least the first few decades find it hard to admit they’ve screwed up, which gives the tyrant a free ride to strengthen the centralized power of the state.
Modern people, who have the attention span of gnats and cannot think past a two-week period (paycheck to paycheck), imagine that a tyrannical state comes about because the state demands more power to accomplish the goals of the state. What is important about the knowledge Plato brings us is that it shows that tyranny comes about through the state being divided, so that its two parts can play good-cop/bad-cop much as the Democrats and Republicans, respectively, seem to in our media.
Are there any signs of aggressive protectors on the horizon?
James Hansen, a climate modeller with Nasa, told the Guardian today that corporate lobbying has undermined democratic attempts to curb carbon pollution. “The democratic process doesn’t quite seem to be working,” he said.
Speaking on the eve of joining a protest against the headquarters of power firm E.ON in Coventry, Hansen said: “The first action that people should take is to use the democratic process. What is frustrating people, me included, is that democratic action affects elections but what we get then from political leaders is greenwash.
“The democratic process is supposed to be one person one vote, but it turns out that money is talking louder than the votes. So, I’m not surprised that people are getting frustrated. I think that peaceful demonstration is not out of order, because we’re running out of time.”
This is just one such example. Other recent threats have included: Hitler-like dictators, racism, drugs, and Communism.
Hansen is speaking in code. Peaceful protests are legal and socially acceptable; he’s hinting to his fellow scientists and listeners that democratic process is not working and is not going to work. Why? Well, those second-stage oligarchs are tired of the drones massing together and making grabs for their wealth, so they’re doing their best to pollute and neutralize public opinion. In many ways, welfare lines next to fast food joints and liquor stores are the ultimate weapon of the second stage oligarchs; keep the drones stoned, fat and spaced out on television. Our country would probably run a lot better if we advertised incorrect voting dates on television.
It’s possible global warming is a power grab. It’s possible it’s not. Even more likely is that it’s both: one group is ready to grab power, and gets an opportunity that, by blowing it out of proportion or demanding unreasonable action, can be used to corner the populace into a state of revolt. The above statement by Hansen would be setting the stage; if we get some weird hurricanes or ice storms in summer that kill lots of people and make life inconvenient, the rogues are going to start bloviating about how it’s global warming and we need to overthrow the bourgeois.
Here’s another part of that hammer:
Growing world population will cause a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by 2030, the UK government chief scientist has warned.
Demand for food and energy will jump 50% by 2030 and for fresh water by 30%, as the population tops 8.3 billion, he told a conference in London.
Climate change will exacerbate matters in unpredictable ways, he added.
“My main concern is what will happen internationally, there will be food and water shortages,” he said.
It’s the resource wars, he’s saying. There’s not going to be enough water and food, and with our growth in the third world (the industrialized world has negative growth) there will be a Malthusian conflict between the number of people we have and the resources available to sustain them. This will bring about struggle, which will in turn bring about population bottleneck.
Example of struggle: 2,000,000,000 starving Asians charge into Eastern Europe looking for resources. 1,000,000,000 starving Africans surge into the Middle East. All of central and south America explodes up through the Yucatan Peninsula toward Texas. That kind of thing.
Common sense tells us, of course, that Malthus was right: Earth has a fixed output capacity that we can’t dicker with too much. Even more, common sense tells us that this same limited capacity causes us a pollution problem: if the Earth can process so much pollution, and we don’t know that number, at some point as we grow and dump even more in, we’ll reach that point and then excess pollution will pile up. This points back to our real environmental problem, which is overpopulation, specifically by those without any strategy toward a lasting, forward-moving civilization.
Common sense also tells us that there’s a secondary problem, which is that no scrap of earth is untouched by humanity. This means habitats are disrupted, divided by roads and fences, limiting the flexibility of animal populations and ecosystems. Even more foreboding is that since we have made an ethnic of convenience for ourselves, we don’t mind calling utilitarian consumerism “capitalism” and ignoring the fact that we’ve put a price tag on everything. The only thing that keeps a piece of ground from being developed and its trees cut down is that no human yet has the money to do it. Frightening, isn’t it? There are no brakes on the human growth cancer.
The European Environment Agency…released a report yesterday warning that Europe is “living beyond its means” when it comes to water use.
Increasing demand and prolonged periods of low rainfall and drought have helped reduce river flows, dry out wetlands, and lower lake and groundwater levels, the report says, predicting that “climate change will almost certainly exacerbate these adverse impacts in the future, with more frequent and severe droughts in Europe.”
Meanwhile, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said yesterday that by 2030, about half the world’s population — 3.9 billion people — could be living in water-stressed areas.
Here you see the wonderful paradox of democracy and consumerism, which both being utilitarianism have a common ancestor: we will ignore a problem for decades and then, by making it trendy because it empowers the have-nots to hate the haves for producing carbon, suddenly we can’t get away from it. It inundates us. Even if it doesn’t succeed because people cannot react to it, we are saturated in it, dripping guilt and foolish pretense.
Check this out:
“We are responsible,” Loïc Fauchon, president of the World Water Council, said during opening ceremonies Monday. “Responsible for the aggressions perpetrated against water, responsible for the current climate changes which come on top of the global changes, responsible for the tensions which reduce the availability of fresh water masses so indispensable to the survival of humanity.”
Drama! O rich drama!
Plato’s words ring true for us today: we are facing a corner. On one side is the damage we’ve done to our environment; on another, a burgeoning population, most of whom are irresponsible; on another, a political tendency to mobilize the irresponsible against the responsible for a power takeover the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
The origin of this, of course, is globalism. Where Plato wrote about Athens, we’re now writing about the world. Our drones may live in Africa, Asia and Latin America, but they have planes and rifles now, too. The pattern will occur in staggered loops: China will have its transition to tyranny, become a drone state, and then enforce tyranny on the bourgeois states, and so on.
We’re all in one society now. Our economies, politics and militaries are linked. When we fall, we fall together. Luckily, individuals and small groups will — as they did when Rome and Athens fell — sneak out and make their way to safer but less convenient places to live. More on that later this week.