Roslyn Fuller educates Andrew Sullivan

It used to be a mainstream, respectable occupation to theorize about the horrors of popular rule. Socrates and other Athenian aristocrats have been upfront about the fact that the average person should not be trusted with power. This clear-headedness and frankness has been maintained over many centuries. The water began to muddy as the aristocrats were being challenged by the up-and-coming bourgeoisie. Now there had to be some rational criteria explaining why it was not the aristocrats who should be holding power. Talk about natural aristocracy became fashionable, but outright rejection of democracy was still part of the mainstream discourse.

Then, in the 19th century, the term “democracy” was rehabilitated and the ideological water became so thick it was impossible to know where one was heading. In the middle of the 20th century Schumpeter and the elite theorists tried to clear the water by explicitly redefining the term not to refer to popular power after all but simply to a competition between elites for popular vote.

This moment of clarity passed when the 1970’s saw the ideological victory of the Civil Rights movement. At that point popular rule became the only defensible meaning of “democracy”, and since then theorists are in the unpleasant situation of having to reconcile an oligarchical practice with a democratic ideology.

This brief history is presented as an introduction to a recent exchange between Andrew Sullivan, a British author, editor, blogger, conservative political commentator, former editor of The New Republic, and the author or editor of six books, and prof. Roslyn Fuller, an Irish academic, legal expert, columnist, electoral candidate, author of the book Beasts and Gods, and an Equality-by-Lot contributor.

Sullivan has undertaken the thankless and futile job of attempting to revive the old doctrine about the horrors of popular rule, and Fuller has responded with an awesome barrage of historical and political facts, logical arguments and withering wit that would strip any opponent of their intellectual credibility. Fuller’s article is a pleasure to read from end to end. Here is an excerpt:

[I]t is a cliché among would-be elites to declare that Athenian democracy was an unruly form of government that could not possibly work, and Sullivan serves this one up yet again. But how does he know? Because one man — Plato — said so. […]

However, we don’t have to rely on what Plato speculated would eventually befall Athenian democracy, because we know what did happen in the democracy that really did exist in Plato’s time. Despite penning nearly 8,000 words on the topic, Sullivan preferred to take Plato’s speculation, as he didn’t have time to go into all the “wrinkles and eddies” of Athenian politics, so allow me to fill in the gaps. […]

Contrary to Sullivan’s assertions, the Athenian democrats were quite good at law enforcement, extremely pernickety about granting citizenship, prone to harshly punish wrongdoing of the high as well as the low, and fastidious in their religious observances.

[The elitist] oversimplistic view often leads to many seemingly irreconcilable contradictions, such as Sullivan’s concern about an alleged rise of fascism centering around Trump because of too much democracy, and seeking to buttress this argument with reference to Plato/Socrates who were two very committed proto-fascists. […]

One thing is certain: it was impossible for Athenian democracy to “slip” into tyranny, as Sullivan claims, because there were no offices to win and no institutions to take control of. There was no “president” of Athens; there were just a lot of ordinary citizens standing around together making decisions.

It is worth noting, by the way, that a transparent lack of credibility has not prevented the elitist ideology from dominating the intellectual field for millennia. The reason that Sullivan’s position is untenable is not that it is a-historic or that it generates a plethora of irreconcilable contradictions but that propounding it is not a winning electoral tactic. We are therefore doomed to keep being mired in intellectual mud until that point in which we are rid of the electoralist regime with its inherent conflict between ideology and practice, and have moved either to a democratic – i.e., sortition-based – system or to an overtly oligarchical system.

2 Responses

  1. It’s great to know there are such accomplished & articulate people on this site whom I sense are genuinely ready to help with advice and guidance when someone like me wants to kick-start my first proper local democracy event such as a G1000. The time is ripe but I fear we need to move with haste!

    As I understand it, G1000 advocates involving private businesses and public institutions including Government to help make [our] citizen-driven projects a reality by providing funding and logistics.
    Shortly before the EU Referendum I held a modest ‘Art & Democracy’ themed event in my local village arts centre which started with a 45 minute talk by a very informative Parliamentary Outreach officer explaining to a fairly green audience how laws are made. This followed with a tea break, then a few of us painting on a large canvas on the floor exploring ideas of freedom of expression. That was great fun.

    For my large scale ticketed event I’ll be organising funding to hire a large yurt which will host a G1000, a picnic banquet and some light evening entertainment. Any suggestions??
    I’d hope that Parliamentary Outreach would again accept an invitation. They’re the most useful point of contact in Parliament for a G1000 (in the UK), given their neutrality and willingness to encourage the public to be more involved in democracy.

    By the way, I’ll happily volunteer to help at an event hosted by Equality by Lot!


  2. […] non-responsive. Elites’ frustration with the electorate is manifesting itself in a revival of openly anti-democratic ideas. Van Reybrouck and others offer sortition as an alternative: an a democratic […]


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