Thursday, 10 May 2012

Greek Enlightening?

There is something so poignant yet with an irresistibly aesthetic in the fact that the seat of ancient Western philosophy is currently the seat of political and economic disruption in Europe.

So much of what we have today - the structure of society and politics and the words we use to discuss it - found origins in Greek philosophical scripture.

From Plato's Republic to Aristotle's Politics, Greek thinkers conceptualised and theorised the ideal structure of society and role of law more than two and a half thousand years ago. What would they have to say about what has happened in Greece, and what would their opinion be on the European Union?

Looking at Aristotle's Politics, it is important to highlight that the philosopher believed human kind by nature to be a social and thus political animal. He did not mean that everyone wished to be out canvassing for this party or that, or even sit on councils or governing panels. As a biologist Aristotle was keenly interested in categorising species and observing how they lived. He observed that mankind had a heightened moral code rarely seen in other species, which lended itself to the creation of a complex social context. As such, he determined that the Polis, or city structure, was engineered by man to enable the species to flourish or achieve Eudaimonia.

In order to make the Polis work, everyone, he believed, should be educated with an eye to the constitution. For Aristotle, being co-citizens was not merely about mutual cohabitation under the same set of laws, for this was a matter of justice alone. Instead being a citizen was about participartion in rule and political deliberation.

However this did not necessarily constitute what we term democracy today. For Aristotle, extreme democracy would lead ultimately to anarchy, a theory borrowed from Plato's Socratic works. Instead, Aristotle felt that the rule of law was structured upon socio-geographic properties. Different societies, depending upon topographic features and thus industry and agriculture, and cultural relativisms, prospered under different systems, from extreme democracy to oligarchy to monarchy. Being the philosopher who defined value in his Nicomachean Ethics under the system of the Golden Mean (where a balance must be sought between opposing factors, such as an equilibrium between cowardice and foolhardiness) he saw perfect governance as a balance between monarchism, oligarchy, democracy and other social structures.

However what was vital in this Pragmatic Utopianism is the underlying belief that political rule must be in the interest of the ruled, and as such, abide by a teleological sense of aiming ultimately for what can be deemed 'good'. In order to achieve this, Aristotle envisaged an upper limit to a macro-governance of around one hundred thousand people. Within this subframe resided other micro-governed units, all the way down to the family home where he saw the relationship between man and wife as somewhat political in its ideal operation.

So what would he make of the European Union, and what would he say about the current situation in Greece?

“Polity” for Aristotle is the word to indicate rule by the many in what he defines as the correct system of government. By contrast, he refers to rule by the many in a diverging and thus “erroneous” system as “democracy.” Polity is therefore midway between democracy and oligarchy. Critics would argue that what we are currently witnessing in Greece is bordering on oligarchical rule, or quasi-democratic governance, where stringent measures laid down by ruling factions such as the EU, IMF and European Central Bank or the Troika are not taking into consideration the will of the people.

Aristotle argued that mistreating the people would lead to the overthrow of the oligarchy and thus the establishment of democracy. Perhaps what we are seeing at the Greek ballot box is an increasing mistrust of the authorities that have governed Greece since the outbreak of financial crisis and will lead to a European Spring, where psephological rebellion will overturn the powers held by Brussels.

Interestingly however, Aristotle also argues that erroneous systems of government are necessarily subsequent and not prior to good systems of government. Using this model perhaps Aristotle would argue that as an original concept, the European Economic Community established more than 50 years ago was just in its aims and provided a valuable function. But the system of governance that has developed, as derived from a proper and sensible model, has become distorted by influential factors that disallow the right form of government to prosper. Aristotle might perhaps perceive the biggest influence and thus corruption of EU level politics to be the size of the multitude it governs.

In Aristotle's writings, a city-state must be populous enough to be self-sufficient, but too large a state cannot have an easy system of governance as it cannot be effectively managed, with inadequate representation of or communication with its subjects. However Aristotle does not distinguish between foreign born and original residents. What is important, he believes, is having an appropriate number to be able to forge participation across society.

As such Aristotle also sets great store by education, debate and social inclusion in discussions and inquiry on a governmental level. One would imagine he would perceive the EU as not only too far-reaching in its geographical expanse and ambition, but too opaque, and as a product of its vastness, incomprehensible to its population.

What might be suggest in order to divert crisis from Greek shores?

It is highly likely that he would be an advocate for Greece leaving the EU. He might even go as far as to purport restructuring the governance of Greece into smaller, devolved democratic provinces within which nuclear self-sufficiency could be achieved in order to restore the competitiveness of the economy.

Despite unwittingly scribing a number of concepts and political theories that have been embraced by Brussels, it is hard to imagine that Aristotle would support the structure of the EU as it is today. His belief that different systems of governance are appropriate for different topographical regions, each with their own set of idiomatic concerns, would likely make him a supporter of the nation state over and above supra national entities. He would almost certainly disapprove of Common Agricultural Policy!

Under Aristotelian predictions, the EU would be setting itself up for a fall.
Indeed, recent elections in both Greece and France have witnessed the public making it clear that they no longer have faith in their ruling parties. The question that has been raised as a result of the recent polls is whether or not the EU will heed the warning. The people have spoken - but will they be heard?

According to Aristotle, the greater number of people living in poverty creates a sizeable enough catalyst to act as a stimulus for change. Levied against the inertia of a ruling class who do not allow for the participation of the greatest possible number of citizens, the result is a clash out of which democracy (or perhaps using a different term, anarchy) will come to the fore.

We have witnessed this in the Arab Spring, despite the development in that particular context yet to draw to a final conclusion.

Perhaps we will witness it in southern European states?

One thing however would be interesting if The Republic and Politics became the text books for a European constitution. Under an Aristotelean or Platonic model of governance, Barosso and Van Rompuy may well be exiled abroad and likely replaced by the likes of Roger Scruton,  A.C. Grayling or even Stephen Hawking.  We could call this new system of rule EUdaemonia.

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