PLATO AND LIBERTY AND THE DECLINE OF DEMOCRACY
The Republic is one of the most famous philosophical works of all time, and arguably the cornerstone of western philosophical thought. In it Plato recounts a conversation between Socrates and some of his contemporaries in which he uses the Socratic method to defend justice as an ideal with inherent value. He argues against the stance that justice is an imposed convention, and an unnatural restraint on the innate desire of every man to accumulate as much as they can. In this defence of justice as a value unto itself, he lays out a series of allegories and metaphors (the most famous being that of the cave, the sun and the line) but the idea of liberty and its effect on society, which is illustrated through the allegory of “the five regimes.”
In his conception of the five regimes, Plato hopes to illustrate how the path of degeneration from an ideal/utopian city to a tyranny might take place, and the causes of said degeneration from one regime to the next. The regimes progress as follows. First is the kingship of aristocracy (the most just system according to Plato), which degenerates into a timocracy. The timocracy in turn devolves into an oligarchy, which is followed by a democracy. Finally at the very bottom of this ladder we have the descent of democracy into a state of tyranny (the least just and desirable system). There are a number of things that Plato attributes as causes of this degeneration (which will be covered in detail when looking more closely at the constitution of each of these five regimes) but one that Plato is particularly critical of is an excess of liberty;
“An excessive desire for liberty at the expense of everything else is what undermines democracy and leads to the demand for tyranny”
This may strike the modern reader (as it struck me) as a backwards idea considering that the basis of many laws and social norms within the modern western ideological framework, are based on the right to and pursuit of liberty. What may strike the reader even more is that Plato associates this excess of liberty as fundamental to the devolution of the ideal society into a tyranny and also asserts that democracy is the final step right before a full descent into tyranny according to his path of regime degeneration. This is completely out of step with the way in which we have conceived of political evolution in the West, at least for the past half a century. After the defeat of fascism and the collapse of global communism liberal democracy has been touted as the highest political, economic and social ideal; the logical conclusion to the ideological wars that have plagued us throughout history, guaranteeing liberty and rights to all. Francis Fukuyama, building on earlier ideas posited by thinkers such as Hegel and Kojeve famously outlined this mindset in his essay “The End of History?” which to this day remains one of the most famous and influential defenses of global liberal democratic principles. Referencing Hegel he writes;
“While there was considerable work to be done after 1806 — abolishing slavery and the slave trade, extending the franchise to workers, women, blacks, and other racial minorities, etc. — the basic principles of the liberal democratic state could not be improved upon (Fukuyama, 1989, p. 5)”
1806 is used here in reference to the Napoleonic defeat of the Prussian army at the battle of Jena and the “victory of the ideals of the French revolution and the imminent universalization of the state incorporating the principles of liberty and equality.” (Fukuyama pg. 5). The point is ultimately that while it may take a while to be fully realised globally, the ideas at the heart of liberal democracy represented what might be termed the endgame of politics. Liberal democracy with its emphasis on freedom and rights could not be further from the ideal society envisioned by Plato and with the success it has enjoyed in reduction of global poverty and the advancement of human rights, one may be (and many were especially in the heady days of post-war American global dominance) tempted to agree with Fukuyama and Hegel in their conception of a post-historic world.
It has been 75 years since the defeat of the Axis almost 30 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and western liberal stand at the top of the world as the dominant political system. But this is not the total victory envisioned by thinkers such as Fukuyama. The cracks in the facade are starting to get deeper and deeper. Freedom house opened the 2020 Freedom in the World report with the sentence “democracy and pluralism are under assault.” The graph below taken from the same report, emphasizes the degree to which this is occurring;
Democracy is widely considered as being in retreat and we are seeing a rise of new global powers such as China, whose systems of governance definitely have a marked authoritarian bent to them. Even in it’s homeland in the West, democracy seems to be running out of time. Nascent fascist and socialist movements are spreading like wildfire in western countries like the USA, many of whom naively believed these issues had been solved first when the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and when the wall came down in Berlin. The decline in democratic values illustrated above, seems to suggest that for many people liberal democracy does not have as strong an appeal as it previously did.
The more important question now becomes, where does Plato come in? The obvious answer would be that his model of the regimes can be used as a good comparative tool with regards to what the ancients considered an ideal society versus what we today think constitutes the same. However a side by side comparison will not be the focus of this piece. Instead I intend to focus specifically on Plato’s idea of liberty and the role it plays in ultimately ushering in tyranny. To do this I must determine what Plato truly means by liberty, how, if at all, this differs from our conception of the same today, and the implications of this on political degeneration. I will also pay attention to the other structure of the 5 regimes and the conditions Plato lays out for their political degeneration so as to elucidate if Plato is correct in his assessment that excess liberty necessarily leads to tyranny when removed from the metaphoric realm and put into practice.
THE FIVE REGIMES AND THE PLATONIC CONCEPTION OF LIBERTY
Before I answer the questions posed in the previous section it is necessary to give a brief treatment of Plato’s 5 regimes and the process of degeneration that according to Plato is inevitable to these regimes.
Plato gives us the idea of a perfect polis or city, divided into three social classes, the guardians (divided into the rulers and the auxiliaries) and the general populace or producers. Plato specifies that the guardian class must undergo rigorous physical and intellectual training with the purpose of inundating them with the right values and skills necessary for the protection of the polis. This training also differentiates the strongest, wisest and most capable of the guardian class, who are separated from the rest and these are slated to rule as philosopher kings, while the rest remain auxiliaries or soldiers. The guardian class is not allowed to own property, marry or accumulate wealth and their needs are provided to them by the general population, so that their focus is on just rule and not on personal gain (Plato, 2008, p. 271).
Plato’s ideal polis is really an allegory for the way in which he conceived that the soul should be laid out, with the three groups representing the three parts of the soul; reason represented by the philosopher kings, spiritedness by the auxiliaries and desire by the general population. Plato’s philosopher kings, as representatives of the reasoning part of the soul are therefore given custodianship of the other parts of the city/soul and rule according to reason. For this reason, Plato designated the kingship/ aristocracy as the utopian form of government. However, Plato says that inevitably this will change because the Philosopher Kings are still human and rely on their fallible sense of perception.
Eventually the aristocratic system will begin to degenerate as the wrong people manage to enter the class of rulers. These people will want to alter the laws to be able to accumulate private property and will come into conflict with the group who wish to preserve the old order. The subsequent compromise is a timocracy. Property in the polis will be divided by the rulers and the producing class will be forced into serfdom and the ruling class will then focus on guarding their wealth from the producing class. Money is important in a timocracy but honor is most highly valued. The timocratic man and the timocratic city is no longer governed by reason but instead by spirit.
However as the desire for wealth grows, the constitution will again shift, with governance being determined solely by the wealthy for the wealthy. The social division in the city starts to look less like the original dispensation laid out by Plato but instead one based purely on class; between rich and poor. Accumulation of wealth becomes the most important thing and the highest aspiration. The oligarchic man begins to be ruled by neither the reasoning or spirited part of his soul, but by the desiring one. Soon the city is governed by a small class of extremely wealthy people concentrated on continued wealth hoarding and ignore the majority of the population who are subjected to abject poverty. Eventually the poor will rise up and expel or execute the rich, and establish a constitution in which everyone is equal and free to do as they wish. The system has hence degenerated into a democracy, a system in which all have license to pursue their unnecessary desires such as material wealth and decadence, (which plato differentiates from necessary desires such as desire for food and shelter) (Plato, 2008, p. 377). The absolute license and freedom to pursue any desire leads to neglect in rule. The newly wealthy oligarchs within the system try to suppress the poor to protect their wealth and ultimately the poor revolt. The leader of this revolt becomes the tyrant. He kills any competent rulers within the city and makes constant war to secure his position. He pursues only his unnecessary desires and panders to the worst elements of society. The system has completely degenerated.
Having understood earlier, that the city and its degeneration through the regimes is representative of the degeneration of the soul, we can then elucidate Plato’s idea of liberty and its importance. For plato, liberty is bad because it is freedom from reason, the highest virtue. As the soul degenerates it abandons reason and becomes more free to pursue what the spirited and desiring parts want. This is paralleled in the city as the move away from reason is characterised by a desire for more and more wealth that can be used to satisfy said unnecessary desires. Eventually this desire for wealth which is inspired by freedom from reason, becomes all consuming and the “free” man becomes a slave to his unnecessary desires and is unable to know the true peace that the pursuit of reason allows. In the sense that wealth is needed to finance the endless pursuit of one’s unnecessary desires, the liberty that Plato talks about has an economic element to it. It is the rejection of the ideal of reason, for material pleasure and subjugation to one’s material/temporal desires. It is easy to see when understood from this perspective why Plato views liberty in the way in which he does. It is not a high minded ideal for him but instead a liberty from the high minded ideal in favour of more base and profane desires
LIBERTY AND EQUALITY?
Having established the Platonic idea of liberty, can we reconcile this with the idea that the liberty and egalitarianism promoted under western liberal democratic systems leads to tyranny and social degeneration? To understand this we must understand what liberty is taken to mean within the context of western liberal democracy. Put simply, in the context of western democracy liberty is meant fundamentally in economic terms and the work of John Locke is very instructive in understanding why.
In his Second Treatise on Government he puts forth his theory on why states are formed. He places us in a hypothetical scenario called the state of nature in which all men have absolute license to do anything they please. They may extract anything they want from the public commons by applying their turning it into their property which they have exclusive right to, but because there is no security they must protect their property from others at all times. Therefore people will come together in a commonwealth that has established law, a known and indifferent judge and power to back the support legal sentences. as a means to protect their lives, liberties and estates (all of which Locke considers property). Once within a commonwealth an individual has “social liberty” which is the right to be under no legislative power but that is founded on the consent of the commonwealth and that functions for its benefit.
Locke’s conception of property outlined in is the foundation of classical liberalism. It is a defense of the ownership of private property which places the application of one’s labour as the basis of ownership. Locke’s commonwealth is even built around the idea that the most important function of the state is the protection of private property and advocates for a kind of “capitalist equality” in which every man is given the ability to take what they want from nature and make it their private property (the classic capitalist principle of “equality of opportunity”). This has been used to justify private
property and the Second Treatise of Government is the blueprint for every capitalist western liberal democracy.
If the primary objective of the state is to protect freedom and equality of every individual’s right to extract capital from nature and accumulate private property, then the commonwealths laws will necessarily reflect this promoting little to no regulation on economic activity. We can then see how liberty in the way we conceive of it, is primarily economic in it’s conception. It is the freedom to get rich without. Fukuyama notes this saying that the current system is the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism ” (Fukuyama, 1989, p. 3).
At first the western liberal democratic idea of liberty as the freedom to pursue the accumulation of wealth and property without impediment does not seem to line up with the more idealistic and immaterial conception of Platonic liberty as freedom from the responsibility of reason and the pursuit of unnecessary desire, but upon closer examination there is a fundamental similarity to them. Western liberal democracies in their modern sense have not followed the exact process of degeneration as laid out in The Republic, and should not be expected to. Plato’s perfect polis is more an allegory for the soul and how one should govern themselves through reason and not base desire than it is an actual blueprint for a real society. However liberal democracies have ultimately wound up in the same place because, like the oligarchic and democratic Platonic regimes they are founded on no guiding principle except the idea that the freedom to accumulate wealth without hindrance is sacred. The later stages of political degeneration reflect this. Once all are free to pursue their unnecessary desires, the accumulation of wealth becomes fundamental as it is the means to attaining these desires.
In the west accumulation is seen as the highest good and so naturally governance and law making in these countries is slavishly geared towards protecting this “liberty.” And when a state has no core value except that it must protect the right to accumulate capital, then good governance falls to the wayside. Democracy slows to a crawl with regards to governing for the benefit of the majority because they do not control wealth and thus it would be unprofitably to do so. Even the social liberty that western democracies tout has largely been economically driven. Slavery for instance has been abolished in western liberal states an institution largely for moral reasons, but it is also true that it was established for economic purposes, a source of free labour for industrial production. Once this became less economically viable it was abolished and replaced by more profitable means of production but it is also important to understand that it would not have begun in the first place if it had not at some point held economic viability. A more modern example would be how many corporations have begun to pivot to openly supporting LGBT rights, not because of moral reasons, but because the newly emancipated LGBT community is a new and growing market, who can be sold products, a phenomenon that is starting to be termed corporate pride. It may seem cynical to say this but in a society based on economic liberty, expansion of rights to others will only happen if it is economically motivated
CONCLUSION: A TYRANNY OF CAPITAL
The social liberty that western democratic states point to is not the inherent nature of the system, but more a positive side effect that hides the true meaning of liberty in these systems, the absolute freedom to get rich. It may be cynical but because society in the west has no grounding principle except for economic expansion, then social change will happen as a secondary effect of this. But what we must now ask ourselves is whether this abundance of economic liberty will necessarily lead to tyranny? Given what we have elucidated that freedom is often thought about as what Jacob C. Miller termed the “right to consume,” which put simply is the freedom of every individual to accumulate wealth. However it is only the people who have accumulated large amounts of wealth who are actually free to consume as they wish while the remainder of the population must sell their labour in a hierarchical nature in order to pursue this “freedom.” The right to economic liberty becomes misconstrued with the right to things fundamental to human survival such as food and shelter. An excellent example of this has been the protests people have been fielding to government lockdowns and quarantines during the coronavirus pandemic. Many are protesting their right to buy and sell, to go out and participate in the market and to consume, the absence of which is reframed as an assault on liberty and fundamental rights.
This is why we see the cracks in western democracy begin to show. With western liberalism at its height with no ideological rivals like communism and fascism, the focus has shifted entirely to the expansion of capital. New markets have been opening up everywhere since the end of the cold war and will continue to do so as the developing world grows wealthier, and capital has responded to this by becoming more rapacious as it expands. Wealth is concentrated in a few states, and even within those states among only a few individuals. Inequality is the worst it has been in a very long time. Democracy is not going to be overthrown by tyranny per se because the tyranny of capital cannot be overthrown. It is not a group of wealthy individuals in Plato’s polis, but an ideal hard baked into the very fabric of western democracy. Plato was right. The freedom from any responsibility except the desire to pursue unnecessary needs, to pursue wealth, has led to tyranny not of one man, but of a system which does not prioritise the majority of people who live under it.
Freedom House. (2019, February 5). Democracy in retreat. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/democracy-retreat
Fukuyama, F. (n.d.). The End of History? National Interest, 16, 3–18. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24027184?seq=1
Lane, M. (2018). Placing Plato in the History of Liberty. History of European Ideas, 44(6), 702–718. https://doi.org/10.1080/01916599.2018.1513248
Locke, J. (2004). Second treatise of government. Barnes & Noble Publishing.
Menand, L. (2018, September 3). Francis Fukuyama postpones the end of history. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/03/francis-fukuyama-postpones-the-end-of-history
Miller, J. C. (2019). The “right to consume”? Re-thinking the dynamics of exclusion/inclusion in consumer society. Consumption Markets and Culture, 5(9), 568–581. https://doi.org/10.1080/10253866.2018.1562712
Ninian, A. (2020, June 12). Why Plato hated democracy. Medium. https://medium.com/the-philosophers-stone/why-plato-hated-democracy-3221e7dcd96e
Plato. (2008). Republic. OUP Oxford.
Repucci, S. (2020, February 5). A leaderless struggle for democracy. Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2020/leaderless-struggle-democracy
UN News. (2020, January 24). Rising inequality affecting more than two-thirds of the globe, but it’s not inevitable: New UN report. https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/01/1055681