Equality and the Public Thing – Prerequisites of Democratic Society

The Citizen: Issue 2
September/October 2009

Author: Sally Richardson

The ancient Greeks, who gave us the idea of democratic government and the word for it, would be hard-pressed to recognise our version of it. Votes and equal rights for women – and slaves! Slaves? Do you mean that you have no slaves? So, who does all the work while the men are philosophising and being entertained by flute-girls at the symposium?

It is not entirely true that women enjoy equal rights in Western society, and the question of whether we have actually abolished slavery is at best debatable. One could easily make a case for the existence of at least wage-slavery in our society, not to mention the near or actual slavery that exists in many parts of Africa and Asia and our dependence on the products of their labour. But, the fact remains that society in ancient Athens was very far from what we would recognise as democratic.

Even so, it was the ancient Greek city states (particularly Athens) that started the democratic ball rolling. They initiated, codified, and developed the idea whereby a society that had progressed beyond the clan system could function with at least nominal equality for everyone who met the rules for citizenship, and our modern notions of democratic government still owe much to them.

Ancient Athens became a democracy in 508/507 BCE. All citizens could participate in the city’s assembly, which met regularly. However, the Athenians pioneered government by committees, which enabled the running of everyday administrative business. The Council of 500 was drawn by lot from the citizenry, which in 431 BCE is estimated to have numbered about 40,000 adult males, and was changed and rotated each year. Laws drawn up by the Council of 500 had to be voted on by the Assembly before they were passed.

Although we often think of ancient Greece as a stable, unchanging civilisation, in fact, it was in a state of constant flux and class struggle. Marx was right when he stated in The Communist Manifesto that history ‘is the history of class struggles.’ Ancient Greek history is no exception. Democratic Athens was the outcome of a power struggle between two aristocrats, Kleisthenes and Isagoras. Kleisthenes promised radical democratic reforms in return for the support of the people and defeated Isagoras, who relied on the support of Sparta, the rival city-state, which favoured a restoration of the old aristocracy.

The initial reforms were moderate, however, and Kleisthenes was ousted after an attempt to hand Athens over to Persian control. It was only then that the reforms were consolidated and extended. The Athenian democracy was unstable, however; the rich dominated at the expense of the lower orders of citizens, who expected something better from the system.

Perhaps we should ask just what democracy is, since all Western political systems now acknowledge democratic values as a good thing, however far short their practice falls. It really boils down to the idea that political power belongs to the people who live within a polity and that everyone should have a say in how society is run and governed. Power can only be exercised with the consent of the people. The rule of law, which provides protection from the arbitrary rule of despotism, is an essential, as is the accountability of those who wield power or hold office and the ability to remove them when necessary. At the very root of democracy is the concept of equality – everyone of equal value, having rights not privileges.

The ancient Greeks called it isonomia – equal rights and equality before the law. But, political equality counts for very little without at least some measure of economic equality. As the radical John Horne Tooke explained in 1794, the law, like the London tavern, is open to all, both rich and poor, ‘but they will give you a very sorry welcome, unless you come with money sufficient to pay for your entertainment.’

The word ‘democrat’ had once pretty much the same currency that ‘anarchist’ has now and was used pejoratively about those who threatened to overturn the established order. Before the principle of universal suffrage was gained, governments and ruling castes felt free to insult the masses – Edmund Burke was not forgiven for calling the voteless ‘the swinish multitude.’ Once the campaign for the suffrage was won, though, the swinish multitude could demand at least outward respect.

Many so-called ‘bourgeois’ revolutions, such as those in England in the seventeenth century and America and France in the eighteenth, were genuine efforts to establish political equality and freedom and form much of the basis for what is good in our political systems now. So, what has gone wrong to make so many people feel that they have no real say in how their country is run?

I would like to argue that the failure of so many states to live up to the democratic ideals they claim to uphold results from their lack of commitment to economic equality and their obsession with the private ownership of property. I apologise to readers in Ireland for the Anglo-centric bias of some of the discussion; writing on the other side of the Irish Sea, I am more immediately familiar with the current political situation in Britain. However, Britain and Ireland share much more than a climate, and what I write has, I believe, relevance in both countries.

France was ripe for revolution by 1789, when the Estates General assembled to deal with a bankrupt country. Increased wealth among the middle ranks of society and their discontent with an antiquated and rotten semi-feudal system that excluded them from political power combined with the intellectual movement that we call the Enlightenment to create a climate where radical change was possible. Pressure from below came from the so-called sans-culottes, who were mainly artisans, not, as is often thought, the very poor and destitute. The Enlightenment emphasis on scientific and moral reasoning helped provide an ideological framework for the new society.

Belfast’s situation was similar. The Irish had long chafed under their colonial masters, but rebellion had largely concentrated on restoring the dispossessed Catholic nobility, though sporadic low-level uprisings and outlawry were common. In the north-east, however, Ulster Custom had secured Protestant tenants a better deal from the landlords, raised them above subsistence level, and allowed them to accumulate spare cash, which they could invest in manufacturing. Cotton and linen took off and thrived.

The result was a vibrant economy and an educated middle class whose values were those of the Enlightenment. As they were mainly Presbyterians, they lacked political power; the Penal Laws, while not as repressive as those that applied to Catholics, nevertheless blocked their entry into the political system. Belfast was quick to take its cue from France and apply revolutionary principles to its own situation as a colony, which, unlike America, was close enough for British interference and control.

In the nineteenth century, political energies in Ireland were concentrated on Home Rule and the issue of land ownership. Marxists and other socialists recognised that Irish independence would not constitute a revolution in itself, although a break with the British Empire was a precondition. English socialist William Morris, a sympathetic and astute observer of Irish politics, wrote in Commonweal (the journal of the Socialist League) in 1886 that ‘Home Rule for Ireland is not of itself a revolutionary measure, but it will clear the ground for sowing the seed of Revolution.’

Michael Davitt’s preferred option, land nationalisation, made little headway against land reforms favouring what William Morris called ‘the dismal road of peasant-proprietorship,’ which was of little benefit to the urban poor or landless rural labourers. The problems that resulted were social as well as economic (read Patrick Kavanagh’s poem The Great Hunger), and their repercussions are still with us, foreseen by Morris, who wrote:

An improved landlordism founded on a wider basis and therefore consolidated; that would lead, it seems to me, to founding a nation fanatically attached to the rights of private property (so-called), narrow-minded, retrogressive, contentious, and – unhappy.

However, Ireland was not immune to the socialist and trade union agitation that was widespread all over Europe and North America and which coincided with growing demand for women’s rights. Many campaigners in the national movement focused attention on the poor in both town and countryside. The New Unionism, bringing into the movement the unskilled and female workers ignored by the old craft-based trade unions, understood that the unions could do more than protect their members: they could effect political change. The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union was founded in 1909. The men and women of no property were on the march.

Historians of Ireland’s revolutionary period from the Easter Rising to the Civil War have mostly concentrated on the national and military struggles. Important though these are, issues of class and labour need to be examined and understood. The working class were heavily involved to an extent not always acknowledged and did their best to promote their own interests against those of the bourgeoisie, while being ostensibly on the same side against the common enemy. Many leading revolutionaries were socialists (including, for reasons that need exploring, almost all the most prominent women), and the participation of trade unionists and establishment of soviets and co-operatives show the breadth and depth of progressive ideas fighting for a place in the Irish Republic.

It was a missed opportunity. Many factors conspired against it. Labour, or at any rate its leadership, failed to stake its claim sufficiently. The land question had never really gone away, and land agitation continued during the War of Independence, often involving Sinn Féin and the IRA at the grassroots, but frowned on and suppressed by the national leaders. The Democratic Programme, modest as it was, but which might have provided a direction for a fairer society to move in, was sidelined. Hysterical rumours that Ireland might succumb to Bolshevism never materialised. If only!

‘It was a middle-class revolution,’ wrote Marxist classicist George Thomson of the Athenian democracy. According to Thomson, Athenian democracy collapsed under its inequalities and internal contradictions, which caused it to degenerate into imperialism. The rich invested much of their money in slaves, who could then be hired out as a cheap labour force and thus undercut the wages of the poorer citizens, who often found themselves unemployed. Many became entirely dependent on handouts in return for citizens’ duties such as jury service. Sounds familiar? Perhaps we are not so different, with our high unemployment while manufacturing jobs are contracted out to poor countries where labour is cheap and underpaid immigrants keep our service industries going. (The solution is not, of course, the demonisation of foreigners; it is decent treatment of immigrants and fair trade.)

At the root of the problem is the frequent assumption that the ownership of property is a concomitant (a condition, even) of citizenship. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which the new French National Assembly drew up in 1789, included the ‘inviolable and sacred’ right to property.

However, the moderate French reformists’ commitment to property rights didn’t wash with everyone. The sans-culottes responded with a culture of inverted snobbery, where aristocratic attitudes and conspicuous consumption were regarded as suspect. The atrocities of the Reign of Terror owe a lot to the anger and indignation of working people at the bloated excesses of the rich. Politicians like Peter Mandelson who are ‘intensely relaxed about people being filthy rich’ should beware.

Gordon Brown has recently appointed former Cabinet minister Alan Milburn to head a commission on social mobility. Writing in The Guardian in 2003, Milburn expressed his concerns over what he saw as the low rate of home ownership in Britain at 68% and praised Ireland’s rate of 79%, while casting admiring glances at programmes in the United States that enable the poor to buy instead of rent. He criticised mortgage lenders for being ‘overly cautious’ in their dealing with lower income households and suggested selling off housing association stock to tenants.

Hold on a bit, Alan – let’s fast forward to 2009: sub-prime mortgages, negative equity, repossessions, one bank after another going down like dominoes and needing to be bailed out by public money to prevent the entire economy from going under.

The demand that we should all ‘aspire’ to property ownership has led not to a ‘property-owning democracy’ but to the reverse. Public utilities have been taken over by multinational corporations; the rich buy up the housing stock as second homes and buy-to-lets. Public housing is considered as something only for society’s failures and rejects. Public transport is inadequate because everyone is expected to own a car: Thatcher’s dictum that whenever she saw a man over thirty taking the bus she saw a failure in life found an unfortunate echo in many a heart.

New Labour have styled themselves as the party of ‘aspiration.’ One might well ask what one is being asked to aspire to. Perhaps to be better educated, better informed, better able to contribute to the common good? Not a bit of it. Aspiration, according to the main political parties, means acquiring property, wealth, and status.

It results in a competitive society where people have to fight each other for access to basic necessities like housing and education. Even where these needs are met, the demand remains that you ‘better yourself’ with a bigger house, a second home, a more expensive car, private healthcare, or private education. Things are valued not for their intrinsic worth but for their value as status symbols.

It’s a self-defeating situation. The only way to maintain your status is to ‘aspire’ to the level above – however much you have, it is never enough.

The basic idea that the private sector is good and the public sector bad is one of the great nuisances of modern life. An efficiently-run public sector is fairer and more cost effective than private provision as far as health services, transport, and education are concerned. The fact is that the private sector has always needed periodic bailing out with public money, as we are all too well aware at the moment; the free market fanatics are only too quick to demand it.

Here, perhaps, is where republican values make their necessity felt. The Romans gave us the word for republic – res publica or ‘the public thing’ – and it reminds us that we are more than a collection of private individuals; in short, that there is such a thing as society. Citizenship involves a constant balancing act between the rights of individuals and their duties to society and other people. It needn’t be quite the conflict it sounds; these rights and duties, far from being irreconcilable, actually reinforce one other. As Thomas Paine pointed out in his Rights of Man:

A declaration of rights is, by reciprocity, a declaration of duties also. Whatever is my right as a man, is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee, as well as to possess.

The right to a fair trial provides an example: you may feel that someone deserves simply to be locked up and the key thrown away, but deny them a fair trial and you could, in other circumstances, find yourself denied one when you most need it. Everyone needs their private space, but we risk becoming an atomised society, where the private pushes out the public and where the rights of individuals (at least the rich and powerful ones) prevail over the common good. The lack of economic equality negates any theoretical democracy. The fact is that wealth buys power and access to those in power. Governments do the bidding of the rich.

In countries with a greater measure of economic equality, such as those in Scandinavia, the evidence points to people being physically and mentally healthier and more contented. Assured of their fair share of the nation’s wealth and their place in society, people can look upon one another as friends and comrades and not as rivals in a fight for resources and social position. Our status can then be determined by what we are, rather than what we own.

Ireland and Britain are low tax economies (yes, really!), where the rich in particular pay very little. Part of the problem is that tax is seen as a ‘burden,’ rather than as a contribution to the common good. Higher income taxes would not hurt if they resulted in good public services and a better quality of life for everyone. A minimum wage set at a realistic level would lift people out of poverty without any need for tax concessions or programmes targeted at the poor.

Of course, that kind of thing brings on accusations of those old chestnuts ‘class war’ and ‘the politics of envy.’ Class war I plead guilty to; the charge of envy needs to be rejected. Social mobility is not the answer to poverty. Social exclusion cannot be tackled by improved social mobility – it can only be solved by equality. Nothing less than the total abolition of the class system is good enough, and nothing less will allow democracy to function.

There is a need to rediscover the public spaces where we can co-operate and connect with one another and recognise our interdependence. Reclaiming the ethos of public service and a sense of civic pride would lead to a more cohesive, integrated society.

In spite of having the vote, people are disenfranchised when political parties are barely distinguishable from one another and are more concerned with placating the better-off and supporting the interests of big business than with social justice or fairness. The resulting low turnout in elections is not so much down to apathy as to a perception that, as the cynic would have it, if voting changed anything it would be abolished, and, anyway, whichever way you vote, the government always gets in.

Equality has its own virtues, and they can help to create a more wholesome society. Listen to George Orwell writing about his experiences fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War:

The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all.

The old Etonian found a society ‘where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking’ and found it exhilarating. ‘One had breathed the air of equality.’ And equality, he realised, brought out the best in people, brought out their innate decency, making them act less selfishly and behave better to one another.

Economic inequality distorts society and the democratic process, making the avenues to power vastly easier for the rich to access than for anyone else, especially the poorest. Not only are the rich over-represented in positions of power, but well-funded professional lobby groups also make sure their interests are heard at the highest levels. As a result, the poorest often withdraw from politics altogether. It seems that power is simply out of their grasp and that nobody wants to stand up for them. Detached from politics, lacking an understanding of the processes and ideologies involved, they are easy prey for extreme right-wing and fascist organisations that tap into their sense of injustice and unfairness by blaming the wrong people.

In a society where one’s stake in the political process is so closely tied to one’s stake in property, democracy cannot flourish. The result is a pseudo-democracy whose wheels are greased with money. It makes the system liable to corruption and shady dealing amongst those in power.

It is impossible for the voices of the have-nots to be heard in an arena literally owned by the haves. Free market capitalism is incapable of delivering equality or eliminating poverty and can only lead to a profoundly undemocratic society. The common good needs to reassert itself over the claims of private property. It is up to us to reclaim the res publica.

Copyright © The Citizen and the contributors, 2009