Sunday, September 16, 2012

Restoring Balance

Solon: His 'throwing off of burdens' liberated the people

In this week Arctic sea ice retreated to the lowest extent ever recorded, meaning that the world, as seen from space, now looks significantly different to the world we inherited. The last time ice melted on this scale was 10,000 years ago and it left us with a nice balmy climate in which to develop our civilization. This time it’s a little different though, and climate scientists, who are generally alarmed by this sudden loss, reckon that the effect will be a 20 year hit of the effects of global warming all in one go.

Not that you would know it from reading the papers. Sea ice retreat? Yawn. That’s so 2010. More important is the shocking revelation that one of the more attractive member of Britain’s royal family is in possession of a pair of nipples. Oh my God! Said the breathless headline – cue hordes of slavering moralists who just want to have a peek so that they can assure themselves how abominable the whole thing is. Luckily, according to the Daily Telegraph, the royal couple are ‘bearing up well’, although it goes on to warn us that ‘nobody is safe’ any more in this day and age of long lens photography and the internet. Scary stuff.

But if you’re not reading The Guardian, who sent their veteran environmental reporter John Vidal to the Arctic with Greenpeace to report on the melting ice cap, you’d be lucky finding anything about major planetary boundaries being crossed buried beneath this week's pornfest (I don't mean Kate’s tits, I'm talking about the latest iPhone). Instead you are likely to be confronted with the seemingly endless analysis of the election in the US, with acres of newsprint about why such and such an occurrence is beneficial to the Romney campaign, while such and such an economic indicator is beneficial to the Obama one.

Now, I’m no expert on American politics – my general reaction is about the same as a Daily Mail reader confronted with an article on how we have kicked off the latest great extinction; I yawn and turn the page. As an outsider it always seems amazing that so much effort, money and coverage can be expended on something that will effectively lead to no change in anything of any import whatsoever. The two parties (and you’ll have to forgive me a small snigger whenever I hear the idea that there can only be two parties) trade electoral constituencies to ensure that every vote will be almost dead on 50/50 and are in hock to campaign money, political donations and lobbyist pressure to such an extent that the only way the whole system can be called democratic is only in that it isn’t a dictatorship and that, in theory, some wildcard could step out of the woodwork and win an election on a political platform of honesty. In theory, I said.

Well, that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon, and I suspect there will have to be some severe breakdown of business as usual before anything like that becomes possible. But given the gowing calamitous nature of our audacious attempt to sweep ecological damage and financial debt underneath an increasingly lumpy carpet, perhaps something new is needed.

When I say ‘new’ what I’m really thinking about is ‘old’. Our situation at present bears some remarkable similarities to the situation in Athens over two and a half thousand years ago.  It was a period, known as the Archaic, in which the aristocracy had all the money, and the common people had all the misery and suffering.  The latter just kept getting worse while the former just kept getting richer. Farmers everywehere were so in debt to the idle rich that the only thing they could do was mortgage their own bodies, and those of their families, in the hope that things would improve and they could pay off the debts. Things generally didn’t, meaning that the average corn growing farmer could look forward to his family being sold into slavery and himself being left to starve or live the life of a beggar.

But then, ominous noises were heard from abroad. ‘Abroad’, to the Athenians more often than not meant the other Greek states, most of which were in turmoil. Tyrants had taken over, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not, liberating a great mass of the state’s productive capital and improving the lot of the average person. Tyrants weren’t despots – the word just means someone who came to power in an unconstitutional manner. For most people, having a tyrant as a leader was far preferable to not having one. Tyrants redistributed the wealth, created grand monuments and public works (partly to give something to the unemployed to do and prevent them becoming agitators) and, usually, acted in the public interest.

The nobility of Athens cast worried glances at other states, fearing that the same could happen to them. They were already embroiled in civil war because the great mass of people, most of whom were farmers, had almost nothing to lose. Most of them were in debt so much that bankers had the legal right to sell the farmers’ families into slavery abroad, and most of them did. What’s more, the so-called hoplite middle classes, who were also warriors, probably only needed an injection of arms from some foreign tyrant and they could have stormed the citadel.

So instead of submitting to their own destruction the aristocrats did something far cleverer. They took a wise man named Solon and gave him sweeping powers to enact reforms, the like of which the ancient world had never seen.

One of the first things that Solon did was invent the radical concept of democracy. It wasn’t democracy as we would understand it today, and indeed only the rich were permitted to hold office, but for the first time having blue blood didn’t mean you would automatically assume power – and being born in a goat shed didn’t mean that one day you would not rule the state. 

But democracy, for all its value, was not even one of his more radical measures. Far more jarring to the rich – which Solon makes clear in his poetry (yes, he was a poet!) were a scourge who would destroy the state if left unchecked – was the enactment of seisachtheia. This word translates as something like ‘the casting off of bonds’ and it meant that all of the debt which the nobility had been using to keep the everyday people in bondage and sell their families was forgiven. Furthermore, it became illegal to secure debt by using people's bodies as collateral. Understandably, this was hugely popular with the 99% and hugely unpopular with the 1% (to use a modern analogy).

But it wasn’t just a free ticket for the poor. Solon recognized that the huge socio-economic problems were not just caused by the greed of the rich. He understood that, fundamentally, Attica (the Athenian state) had overshot its resource base and could not feed itself. The thin soils only provided so much corn, meaning that famine was a constant threat (this was before the time when the role of soil fertilization was known). So along with seisachtheia, Solon insisted that farmers plant a new-fangled agricultural cash crop known as the olive tree. These basically look after themselves, do fine in the worst conditions imaginable and you can still plant grain around them, should you so desire. It would take half a century or more to see the fruits of this policy (and there were plenty who would not go along with it) but the export of olive oil from Attica proved to be a remarkably successful industry and is still going on today.

Along with this, Solon saw that idleness, unproductiveness and a lack of people looking after their parents in old age could all solved with the same solution: he made it compulsory for parents to ensure their children were educated in a trade. The trade had to be a useful one, such as tool making, carpentry or food production, and if you failed to comply then your children had every right to abandon you to your fate when you became old. This, like his other solutions, involved long term planning, but at a stroke many of the social problems which had beset Athenians were solved.

Finally, Solon repealed some of the draconian laws which had been put in place by, well, Draco only a few years earlier. The Draconian punishment for a transgression of the law was death. It didn’t matter if you had murdered a whole family or stolen a fig off someone else’s tree: death was still the punishment. Solon saw that such harsh punishments didn’t do Athenian society any good at all as many of the young men who should be contributing to the economy had been put to death for some minor infraction. 

Although the reforms were radical, or perhaps because of it, some people continued to be a plague on society which it would be better off without. A system was devised to do so whereby a large clay pot, known as an ostrakon, was smashed to pieces in front of a local crowd. The crowd then rushed forward and each person grabbed a shard, on which they scratched the name of the person they thought society would be better off without. It could be a loan shark, a dishonest tradesman or a particularly annoying celebrity - nobody was safe. The shards were then collected up and if anyone’s name stood out and appeared rather too often then that person was banished from the state. It’s where the word ostracised comes from, and it’s a particular fantasy of mine to imagine a modern version of it [But where would we banish social parasites to in this modern day? I’m thinking of an island somewhere, preferably with plenty of charismatic mega fauna remaining. It would have to be quite a large island to accommodate the numerous new arrivals …].

It took a while, but Athens thrived in the wake of Solon’s reforms, becoming the strongest economy of the Classical period and a centre for philosophy and art. At the time though, most of the reforms were unpopular, but Solon didn’t mind. In the short term most people were indeed worse off under his reforms. The nobles complained that they couldn't sell the farmers as slaves; the farmers complained that they had to plant olive trees, and everyone complained that they had to train their idle kids or be kicked out onto the streets. Solon, who said that with the power he had been given he could simply have become a tyrant and ruled Athens that way, knew that you had to break a few eggs to make an omelette, and he was wise enough to recognise that his measures would not make him any friends. He remained content though because, as he said, he saw himself as a mediator, trying to find a third way between the different competing strata of society that would lead to a betterment of Athenian society as a whole.

Crucially though, he realised that the system of exploitation and greed was unsustainable, and that if he didn’t change things the whole system would collapse. It’s tempting to draw a modern analogy. Could it be that in the debt-ridden US, where both parties want to protect ‘wealth creators’ while the productive capital of the entire system trickles away would be better off joining forces and pushing a wise poet to the fore?

Don’t bet on it. We’re likely to see hell freeze over before that happens. Or perhaps even the Arctic.


  1. Very interesting! In ancient Greece they had rhetorics. Today we have the mass media, a much stronger force used in order to deceive people.

    1. Yes, with mass media you can make things seem like they are a consensus opinion.

  2. You may be a Brit, but you've got a solid grasp of American politics! Frankly, regarding the latest "news" about the race for the presidency, your decision to yawn and turn the page is the only wise one, and your understanding that the result won't make one bit of difference is sound. Frankly, I've decided to tune the whole thing out and will not participate in the sham of those elections anymore. I don't want to give it my sanction by participating in it and neither of the candidates who have any chance of winning come anywhere close to what I believe in, so I'm sitting this one out (and probably future ones).

    Sure, America could use a benevolent tyrant, as you say. Thing is, the country is very likely to get a tyrant of one form or another, and he almost certainly won't be benevolent. When the sh*t hits the fan in the States, they'll probably wind up with some retired general (like a Powell or Schwarkpoft) and he'll probably continue to do the bidding of the elites who presently run the show. Yes, it would be nice to fantasize about some populist-minded general who comes from middle or working class roots thumbing his nose at the money men, but it's hard to see it happening.

    Frankly, America is like a runaway train at this point. It certainly can't be stopped or turned around by normal political means. It either runs out of gas or runs into something. Still, in addition to millions upon millions of lunkheads, the place is filled with a lot of good, creative, positive, independent-minded people and you can never write it off.

    As you noted in a recent post, deciding to hope is a good thing. Let's hope America and the Americans surprise us with some fantastic come-from-behind victory over the forces that are presently driving the country right down the drain.

    1. It'l be interesting to see which tyrant comes to the fore. Whoever it is it'll be someone who can unite the seething angry mobs on both the left and right wings, in my opinion.

      A retired general would seem to be the obvious choice ...

  3. The political situation and 'cure' you describe seems plausible and possible in our ever-shortening future. However, I sincerely doubt that any tyrant that may appear on the scene will be as reasonable and beneficent as Solon.

    By the way, re the politics of the U.S.; while it may appear that there are two major parties in opposition (along with a scattering of other parties of lesser significance), in truth the opposing ideologies are but opposite ends of a single entity wholly owned by the oligarchic 1%. How we arrived here is clear - we forgot to pay attention.

    1. I like Chomskey's quote (paraphrase) "The American public gets the chance to vote between the two wings of the business party."

  4. Excellent and eloquent post. Unfortunately I can't imagine a Solon emerging now, and even if he did I wonder if anyone would give his reforms a chance. And I'm sure the 1% would actively work to subvert them.

    Overall I wonder if the 1% has ever read a history book. My reading of history shows that when things get this bad everyone turns to violence. And there are lots and lots of guns in this country. If their owners ever figure out fags and illegals are not the cause of their problems, the 1% has a big problem.

    @Martin: I think you should be more generous. This month's Harper's has an excellent essay describing the futility of voting and wither "democracy". The repeal of the entire 20th century has been an ongoing, calculated and well-funded process for at least the last 30 years. Every check and balance has been compromised by the 1% with such subterfuge that it couldn't have been resisted.

    Interestingly, I've had "post-democratic" as my political belief on Facebook for some time and no one has questioned it. Most are caught up in the raging non-difference of the two main candidates. I've been voting Green or Socialist since W. If you're going to throw your vote away, might as well make it count!

    Derek -

    1. I'm puzzled by your entreaty for me to " more generous.", since I'm not clear what you were referring to. Anyhow, when I wrote that 'we forgot to pay attention' I was referring to that which has occurred politically and economically over the past 30+ years (per Harper's) right under our collective nose - and which we have collectively decided to ignore.

      I've been registered as 'Independent' for a number of years myself, until this year when I changed to the Pacific Green party - mainly to get the party on the ballot here in Oregon.

    2. Thanks Dex. You're right - Solon's reforms were generally long-term - especially the ones regarding olive cultivation (50-80 years). In fact, people rebelled against them and it took a later tyrant to resurrect them and enforce them with the threat of violence for them to actually work.

      I'd be very worried about the amount of guns. To a European it's quite frankly mind blowing that so many people are walking around with them. I'd be very worried if I was, say, a BMW driving fund manager living in a McMansion ...

  5. It's a direct analogy alright but one which will not be repeated, as you mentioned.
    You touched on the problem when you asked where would all the ostracised go? We've simply run out of room to manoeuvre.
    Athens, at that time, had options for trade with which to repair their economy. They did not have the massive failure of ecosystems, pollution and resource decline both local and global, to deal with, also.
    Assuming we could manage to do the right thing/s, it wouldn't make any difference.
    Enjoy the ride kids.

  6. Agree about where we're headed, about neither party being able to respond appropriately and about them being two sides of the business (as usual) party. But I still think it makes a difference whether a D or an R is President in the US. With a D in charge I think it is possible that the way down, at least for the next few years, will be somewhat less bumpy. And since making the path down less bumpy is about all we can do at this point, I still think it important to go vote for the one you think will be less damaging, less thrashy-abouty. And besides there's not much happening in the garden in November.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.