When thereâ€™s a lot at stake. Photo by Mendis, I think.
I’ve been reading ‘Persian Fire‘, about Persia and ancient Greece. It has some very interesting things to say about democracy. In these days ‘democracy’ has been hailed as a panacea to all ils, but it doesn’t seem to be working very well. From what I read, democracy was – in those days – a very pragmatic decision, not especially idealistic. The Spartans (SPARTA!) adopted it so men would be equal and thus hold the line in battle. In Athens it was a political ploy by one noble to ensure stability. In the latter city there was, for generations, rotating factional strife. One family then another would amass some men, storm the acropolis and assume tyrannical power – for a time. Then the peace would be broken once again. Cleisthenes, one particular noble, found himself outmaneuvered by another noble and a Spartan King. His own forces decimated, he went to the people, and their rioting forced his enemies to flee. It was a pragmatic decision at the time, but he played it out in a very interesting way.
Cleisthenes knew that the city had been torn by factional strife again and again. More importantly, he understood that in itself democracy did nothing to alleviate this problem. It wasn’t a silver bullet, and he didn’t treat it like one.
Dynastic feuding, having brought Athens to the point of ruin, was simply too lethal to be tolerated any further – an analysis which even the dynasties themselves appeared reluctantly now to have accepted.
Yet how to neutralize them? Cleisthenes’ solution was both brilliantly simple and quite ferociously ambitious: to supress a citizen’s identification with family, neighborhood and local clan chief altogether.
What he did, ingeniously, was to literally redistrict and shuffle Athens. He sliced the land into ‘demes’, or districts. All citizens had to take their names from their demes, thus neutralizing the family thing. In exchange all had public free speech and could be elected to Athens to serve in the Assembly. But the shuffle went further. Three demes formed a ‘third’. Then, three thirds from different parts of the countryside would form a Tribe. So, he effectively randomized Athens and the surrounding country to form an individualistic society. And, for a long time, it worked.
In contrast, Persians like Cyrus and Darius would adopt and co-opt a nation’s factions and traditions to consolidate their own power.
The traditions that define a people, that they cling to, that they love, can also, if cunningly exploited by a conquerer, serve to enslave them. (pg 147)
Identity and Empire
Now, in what bits of Social Psych I remember, there are a lot of group effects – intensely magnified when the people know each other. In evolution, too, most cooperative behavior can be explained in terms of kin-selection (that is, taking care of your own). In larger numbers, however, kin selection can be destructive. If you protect your brother who’s a serial killer, that’s bad. If you give your family government jobs they’re not qualified for, also bad, and all destructive for everyone in the long-term. I even think that societal violence can be explained in terms of a similar effect, which I’ve called Critical Masshole.
Globally, also, stable democracies have emerged in countries where there is an infrastructure built by decent living standards, and some sort of social upheaval to ‘reshuffle’ the deck. America, for example, was a nation of immigrants and France had a considerable reshuffle with the Revolution. I think there may also be an effect whereby large numbers of people (India, Germany) serve to make the bond big enough that kin-selection and critical masshole kinda peter out.
Regardless of how it has worked out, functioning democracies do theoretically work on functionally equivalent individuals and not on ‘you know who my father is?’. This is, of course, an ideal, but some nations are closer to it than others.
In Sri Lanka, however, I think we are very far. The example isn’t good, we’ve been led by the Bandaranaike family almost since Independence, opposed by the Uncle Nephew Party and now succeeded by the Rajapakse Bros Circus. Whether its getting out of the cop shed or finding a restaurant, business is still very much done by social networks. Until you can break that learned network and ensure things like ‘human rights’ and ‘responsible government’ and even ‘customer service’ for everyone the benefits of democracy may not come.
So, what I may be saying is that democracy is not a silver bullet in itself. If people vote for their feudal lords or by race or faction you’ll get the same problems. I think that democracy needs a unit to operate on, and that unit is the individual. Sri Lanka is a nation of people still defined by their race, religion, school and family. Until we change ourselves, I don’t see how democracy is going to change us.