Friday, June 20, 2008

An Inconvenient History of Democracy

In his latest piece for The Nation, Tom Hayden wants to introduce to a man he describes as "the New Dr. Strangelove:"

His name is David Kilcullen, an Australian academic and military veteran whom the Washington Post's Thomas Ricks once described as Gen. David Petraeus' "chief adviser" on the counterinsurgency doctrine underlying the surge in Iraq.

What makes this man a real-world embodiment of Stanley Kubrick's best-known fictitious creation? From Hayden's point of view, it all comes down to a

briefing given "in a private capacity" at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. It was an argument for appearing to get out of Iraq while staying in, expressed in the Kilkullen formula "Overt De-Escalation, Covert Disruption." Kilcullen argues that the American troop presence is so large that it's counter-productive, only inflaming Iraqi sensibilities. What is required is a combination of US combat troop withdrawals combined with "black" special operations to "hunt terrorists" plus "white" special operations forces training and embedded with the Iraqi security forces, turning tribes against tribes wherever possible. Covert warfare is the future: "over the long run, we need to go cheap, quiet, low-footprint." And, he might have added, off the television screen and front pages.

Here, then, is Hayden's assessment of both the man and his idea:

What Kilcullen means is a kind of deception-based warfare that is contradictory to democracy itself, with its instruments of critical media, congressional oversight, and public disclosure of the cost in blood, taxes and honor.

This is rhetoric guaranteed to stir righteous indignation in the hearts of (at least) those who bother to read Hayden's contributions to The Nation; but my own trivium-fed habits made be blink at least twice when I hit on that direct object construct, "contradictory to democracy itself." Just what, if anything, would that mean? Put another way, what is it in the historical tradition of democracy that is being contradicted?

When Jürgen Habermas decided to take a historical view of governance in the series of essays collected in English translation under the title Theory and Practice, he began with the "Politics" of Aristotle; but, to the extent that Aristotle theorized about what he observed, I suspect we might do better to begin with a broader historical perspective. I found one such perspective at the Web site Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy, which maintains a collection of articles edited by Christopher Blackwell. If we want to understand how Athenian democracy actually worked, a good place to start is with Blackwell's article, "Athenian Democracy: a brief overview" (listed on the Dēmos home page as "An Introduction to the Athenian Democracy"). The reason I feel this introductory piece is valuable is because it gives us a clear picture of who did (and therefore also who did not) participate in the Athenian democratic process.

First, Blackwell begins, as he should, with the semantics of that word "democracy:"

For the Athenians, “democracy” (demokratia, δημοκρατία ) gave Rule (kratos, κράτος ) to the Demos ( Δήμος ).

Thus, how Athenian democracy actually works depends on just who constituted that Δήμος. As Blackwell observes, this word has several different meanings, all of which are relevant. However, for purposes of this discussion, I would like to begin by focusing on the first definition he offers:

Demos is the Greek word for “village” or, as it is often translated, “deme.” The deme was the smallest administrative unit of the Athenian state, like a voting precinct or school district. Young men, who were 18 years old presented themselves to officials of their deme and, having proven that they were not slaves, that their parents were Athenian, and that they were 18 years old, were enrolled in the “Assembly List” (the pinax ekklesiastikos, πίναξ έκκλησιαστικός ) (see Dem. 44.35; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.1).

This tells us pretty much all we need to know about who was excluded from the process: all women, all males under the age of eighteen, all slaves, and all men whose parents were not Athenian. This raises an interesting question: Were those excluded from the process subject to its laws and judgments? After all, slaves were property; so it is probably the case that, in practice, a slave's owner was responsible for his/her behavior. (The operative analogy might be that, if a car runs over a man and kills him, the driver, not the car, is legally responsible for the homicide. Perhaps the best reason to see a production of William Shakespeare's Cymbeline is for the way this proposition is considered.) By similar reasoning, a woman was also property, first of her father and then of her husband; and children are also property of the father. That leaves the "adult foreigners." My guess (and it is no more than that) is that such a "foreigner" could only enter (or at least remain) in Athens under the "sponsorship" of an Athenian (just as Plato had been "sponsored" by Dion in Syracuse). Thus, it is likely that the "sponsor" would be responsible for the behavior of the "foreigner," just as the slave-owner was responsible for the behavior of the slave.

If my hypotheses are valid, then the foundation of Athenian democracy rests on a "language game" (right out of the playbook of Ludwig Wittgenstein) over the words "subject" (those who are entitled to take motivated actions legitimized by a framework of government in which they participate) and "object" (those whose actions are the responsibility of others). Consider, then, the hypothesis that the "Kilcullen formula" is one in which actions are taken beyond the scope of the responsibility of government. They could be the actions of foreigners (as in the model of the French Foreign Legion); or the model could subsume the introduction of a new class of slaves. Neither of those options would then be "contradictory to democracy itself," at least if we take classical Athens as our model! (Sorry, Tom!)

Yes, this borders on the outrageous (if it does not go over the line)! I probably would have dismissed it out of hand, had I not found myself returning all too frequently (most recently on Wednesday) to the proposition that the wealthiest institutions (perhaps public as well as private) are committing themselves to a War Against the Poor, whose ultimate goal is likely to be the creation of that new class of slaves! In other words, in trying to tease out a few subtle semantic details, I may have stumbled on the Mother of all Conspiracy Theories! As a rule I am not big on conspiracies; but, if Hayden's rhetoric may have been a bit sloppy about democracy, his argumentation over why we should be very afraid that someone like Kilcullen is "in the system" has a lot of convincing points. When we combine his rhetoric with a more historical view of the origins of democracy, we may well have even more reasons to be afraid. At the very least, it allows us to think about the War Against the Poor as more than a fight to "control all the marbles!"

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