Back to top

Column: Politics: a meditation -- PART I

[First published in the Rossland Telegraph]

I support the left, tho' I'm leanin'to the right
I support the left, tho' I'm leanin' to the right...

I’m a political man, and I practice what I preach.”    -- Cream, English rock band, Politician

Politicians won’t integrate into normal society. It’s no use trying to understand them. They are nomadic opportunists ...They will always be a big headache.”    -- Michael Leunig, Australian, in a cartoon

“Don't care what the governments say;  they're all bought and paid for anyway"  -- Neil Young, Canadian songwriter, Be the Rain

The personal is political

I write about politics, as one who has kept informed of the political scene in my homeland, federally, provincially, and locally, and who has been a member of a few parties over my lifetime, and has unsuccessfully contested municipal elections for mayor and councillor in Nelson. But my inclination to understand politics is, I admit, more academic than practical. I am an historian by profession, and political history has been my major focus, with social and cultural history close behind.

Two phrases about politics have always come to mind whenever I investigate a political topic. First, “Politics is the art of the possible.” An art is not a science, an artist is not a scientist, and the description of an academic discipline as “political science” has always seemed to me a pretentious oxymoron. Call it the study of politics, do not pretend it merits the noun “science.”

In the “art of the possible,” the operating realm changes with time, and possibility is not a fixed quantity. Culture changes, events alter public opinion, new learning transforms voter participation, and in politics, nothing that is a consensus today can be counted on as a permanent situation. A politician of the quality I would love to see, is a politician extremely sensitive to the way what is possible evolves, and can act decisively when a new possibility allows swift action.

The second aphorism about politics that is salient for my political thinking is a summary assertion by Aristotle: “The human being is a political animal.”

Yes a thousand times, yes. Where there are two humans, there are politics; it is part of the animal deep within, since before we were the species we are, homo sapiens, “knowing human.” A human infant is born into a profoundly political relationship with an adult, to a situation of absolute dependence. Parents and children are indeed political animals. When my daughter tried out a favourite phrase on me in her girlhood, I laughed -- and I thought furiously how to reply. “You’re not the boss over me!” I want to encourage her spirited independence. I want to tell her truth.

What I intend

We cannot escape politics. We may as well enjoy them and practice them with good grace and competence.

I intend to be discursive, not prescriptive, but I have strong opinions of politicians as we know them today, and about the quality of political capacity among the demos, the electorate in democracy; I estimate these being at a low point, lacking essential virtues I deem indispensable.

Most important to me is my political community, Canada, and its system, electoral democracy. History of course is my anchor for all my reflections on politics today.

Do we “get the politicians we deserve” ?

Earlier this year, I wrote in this column about the relationship between leaders and their constituents in democracy, opining that the electors are ultimately the origin of the kind of individuals who exercise power over them in government, in courts, in culture. A leader cannot be utterly free of the consent of the governed, though in totalitarian states, force can for a long time suppress popular dissent. It was my argument that even a leader like Hitler or Stalin would be unable to maintain their authority were they to lose passive mass compliance at the very least. People will rise up when a government is intolerable, and no amount of violence can at that point maintain the leadership’s power to command.

I am arguing that people are somewhat to be held responsible for the quality of their rulers, that they are bound to rise up if rulers are intolerable. However, popular violence is a very crude measure of whether leaders are reflections of the kind of people they rule. The brutality of leaders against rebels and dissenters can be so extreme that it is unreasonable and unjust to expect people to arise and overthrow a tyrant without some form of organization and preparation; spontaneous eruptions of anti-government violence are almost never successful in replacing one regime with a better one.

People conquered by alien government

Ancient Sparta, the warriors’ state par excellence, had a political constitution whose success at social engineering has never been surpassed in history so far as we know it. The Spartiate citizen was a man or woman shaped for one purpose, the honing of the skills of violence, and all to one purpose – so that the few thousand Spartans in their undistinguished polis (their city-state, which was a crude amalgamation of four villages) -- could rule over tens of thousands of helots, the indigenous inhabitants of the Pelops territory invaded and conquered by the Hellenes from the north.

Sparta provides us the supreme example of how a few can oppress many, but only at the cost of forcing the dominators into a shape that perverts human capacity for freedom. The Spartans were not free themselves, living as they did under such a social order. There was never a successful helot revolution, but there were many attempts. The helots, I would say, were not responsible for the sort of rulers they had, and that may be true in most instances where subjects are a conquered race.

The Celtic Irish, ruled by Anglo-Saxon conquerors from the sixteenth century onwards until the Republic of Ireland was established in the twentieth century, are another example of a people whose political masters were not rooted in the subject culture. An absolutely masterful work of history on this subject is Ireland’s English Question by P. J. O’Farrell. [see  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_question]

The Muslim Uighur people in Xinjiang province now oppressed by Chinese rule, are a modern example of the necessity for a people and their rulers to share a cultural and ethnic foundation. For this reason, I seriously doubt that the Euro-colonial nation-state we call Canada, where I find myself comfortable politically, might never be comfortable for the aboriginal or native population of this land. Reconciliation may in fact require some form of indigenous sovereignty as yet unimagined.

People and their political masters find equilibrium that matches their minds in mutual understanding, not necessarily living in harmony but at least in democratic mutual comprehension, but only when both are of the same ethnicity, history, and most importantly, culture. People require leaders who are not alienated or strange due to cultural incongruities or lack of empathy between ruler and ruled.

Violent Revolutions that produced government no better for the people

To me, history seems replete with examples of violent revolutions that result over the medium term in regimes no better than the ones they replace. Yet people will not desist from attempting violent revolution.

To illustrate that last statement, I will list the four great examples of modern history. First, France: in 1790, the French overthrew the absolutism of their king Louis XVI, only to be laid under the despotic authority of emperor Napoleon I in 1804.

Second, Russians rid themselves of their Tsar in 1917, only to be subjected to the worse horrors of the Bolshevik party-secretary Stalin and his police state by 1929.

Third, in1918 Germany was freed by a revolution from its Kaiser, only to find itself after several outbursts of violence under the boot of the Nazi Fuhrer Hitler in 1933.

And fourth, the Chinese were freed by a republican revolution from a two-millennia regime ruled by a single emperor in 1911, but were then crushed under the ruthless regimes of the invading Japanese, of the Chinese Kuomintang propped up by the USA, and finally of communist party Chairman Mao Zedong in 1949.

The peoples in these revolutionary events were culturally unprepared for democracy.

Latin America often witnessed revolution against the dictatorial authority of Spain’s monarchy, devolving backward to dictatorships under a president, emperor, or generalissimo. In Africa since decolonization, democratic forms have been perverted into brutal autocracies. Again, the short answer to “why?”, is the underdevelopment of the cultural foundation-stones for democratic government.

Real democracy is harder to organize, institutionalize, and socialize, than autocracy is; one-person rule is brutally simple. In actual fact, a dictator is not a singular ruler, but one who bases his power on a minority; the machinery of his rule depends on bureaucratic administration, military and police institutions, a corrupted legal system, controlled media and education, and the magnates of economics. Nazis, fascists, communists, all parties using totalitarian methods of repression of freedom, must have a minority of eager “true believers.”

Culture and public consciousness as primary political determinants

People are not born citizens possessed of full individual liberty, knowing their rights, exercising legal-constitutional control over their governors, laws, and institutions, sovereign within themselves. A free individual is not the human who lives in solitude, but one who knows how their liberty organically grows from social relations. Humans are political, and social. We need others for full humanity.

To be such a free individual person living in society is far more than politics. It is culture in its widest meaning. One must be nurtured in a family and society that educates and acculturates one for full independence, with a consciousness, a spirit, and a will to be free from others’ illegitimate control, and to not desire to control any other person’s freedom.

I know of no society hitherto existing that meets this ideal description. Ideal communities have been the subject of deeply-considered works from Plato’s Republic through More’s Utopia U. K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.

Where government is apparently at odds with what the governed truly desire, then the governed themselves must solve the contradiction. No force from outside has the right to impose standards from outside (nor to help a tyrant stay in power). It is in this sense that I postulate that the governed are ruled badly because the subject/ citizen/ victim population itself is not engaging in its own liberation. Harsh as this sounds, people are responsible for tolerating, or ignoring without resistance to, vicious rulers and oppressive governments and not, over time, ameliorating their own political condition. Consent can be inferred from silent compliance and unresisting passivity.

This is how I elaborate and validate the phrase, “people get the government they deserve.” If it seems I blame the Chinese, the Russians, Latin Americans, or North Koreans – or the people of the USA with their dysfunctional democracy  -- for miserable political, social, and legal condition, then so be it. A people’s history is the explanation for culture; culture explains why people govern themselves as they do.

Politics invariably have a broad, deep cultural context. So too, I am convinced, does the human phenomenon we call “character.” Politicians’ quality of character in a democracy reflects meaningfully the character of their electorate and constituency.

Homo Sapiens, an animal of base and complex political behaviour

At a fairly young age, in my teens, I became fascinated by books like African Genesis, The Naked Ape, Men in Groups, The Imperial Animal, and On Aggression. It was in the 1960’s that I was directed to these then-fashionable studies of human behaviour related to human origins and animal societies. I might have taken the path of anthropology or psychology to slake my thirst for understanding humans, but I chose history because it was narrative and I love a good story.

Ever since Charles Darwin, comparison of humans with primates like chimps, gorillas, and gibbons, has been a natural path of inquiry for study of politics at the base level of animal instinct and social stratification. We know that dominant males lead societies of apes and baboons, lions and horses. We all know what the phrase “pecking order” means thanks to the scientists who study bird society and transfer their models to human social class. And Karl Marx, the other great Charles of nineteenth-century England who gave us models for the study of humans, laid out a class-society theory that has never gone out of use for sociology and politics.

Those teen-aged interests in sociology, anthropology, and social psychology never left me. I continued to study them in university, and read in popular-literature studies on how humans generate political behaviour and how that compares with other species’ organization of power, leadership, dominance, and social order. The academic literature on the subject is, naturally, immense.

Most everyone knows the phrases “alpha male” and “type-A personality” -- for they are part of our pop culture learned from ethnology and psychology. They are simple concepts explaining individuals who strive to dominate others and achieve status, and we revert to these ideas easily. But the scholars who study these issues at depth have uncovered just how very, very complex human political behaviour is.

I have only made these observations in order to dismiss any deeper exploration of those scientific fields here. I will stick to academic history, which I have studied, and political lessons experience has presented to me, in news stories over my lifetime.

Some History: Nobility and Commons

A sovereign and a subject are clean different things.”  -- Charles I, English king [at his parliamentary treason trial; he was executed.]

Before there was history – the past we know from records kept by humans for humans – there was prehistory, the past we know only from evidence that is not found in the records deliberately kept by humans for themselves and posterity. Bones, stones, art, artifacts, architecture and sculpture, pottery, tools, and weapons, are the mute objects from which historians and paleo-historians attempt to understand humans before we wrote scripts. We can guess at what human politics were, before history began, only imperfectly from such materials as archaeology discovers, or as anthropologists can infer from actual societies.

It becomes clear that early in our past some individuals in a human community counted for more than others; their graves were much more elaborate. Humans originated the perennial, pernicious and persistent notion that some of us are born “noble” while the large mass of us are “commoners,” from an early time in the dim past. This is of course a profoundly political concept.

Nobles were better, superior by birth. They were the governing power and authority over numbers of other humans who always outnumbered the nobility. One noble above all became the big man, chief, pharaoh,tyrannos, king, pope, lugal, caliph, kha-khan, shah, emperor, consul, sultan, prince, emir, mikado, caesar, archon, shogun,etc. Politics of the nobility revolved around the monarchy’s licence to do whatever the leader desired, and the resistance to his will from his noble peers.

The politics of such aristocrat/commoner social orders always proceeded on two levels, one for the nobility and the few non-nobles who were recognized as peers, such as brahmins, priests or other religious authorities, and the other inferior level for the teeming masses, who were in no doubt of their subjugation to the nobility.

Most of human history ran on this track, with exceptional forays into democratic forms when the social unit was very small and the economic system quite primitive, i.e. pre-agricultural and pre-State societies. Small is indeed politically beautiful for homo sapiens, a point I shall emphasize at a later point in this essay.

More History: democracy in Athenian and Medieval contexts

The eccentric example of radically-democratic Athens in the Periclean age, which has fascinated Western minds for centuries and convinced Westerners of the innate superiority of our civilization, did not establish rule by the demos as our pattern from that time forward. We had to re-imagine it recently, i.e. in the last 400 years; the Italians, Dutch, English, Americans, and French, learned democracy slowly.

This process of developing democratic government in the West was very intermittent, complex, arduous, and by no means a linear progression from the time of Athenian democracy in the fifth century BCE. Athens’ empire itself did not maintain popular democracy after its loss of a horrendous war with Sparta’s alliance. Republican Rome deteriorated from a quasi-democracy into imperial absolutism in civil wars.

The barbarians who then ruined the Roman empire 500 years later in western Europe began their political evolution as Teutonic warrior-democrats – which meant the equality of male warriors and noble lords in assembly, without autocratic kings. The equality of warriors was a basic right, as it had been for Romans long before. Over centuries, the barbarian kingdoms were Christianized and transformed into national monarchies of “divine-right” kings in Spain, France, Italy and Germany, by the end of medieval times. Absolutism and autocracy allied with clerical power to erase democracy. That was one path of European politics, but luckily for us not the only path.

The Venetians, Florentines, English, Belgians, Dutch, Scandinavian, and Scots development of princely-parliamentary or republican-constitutional, representative electoral democracy was to prove a kind of model for reforming autocratic states at a later era; the French, Spanish, German, and Italian despotisms would not endure.

The cultural ideas to support democracy came from an amazing range of sources, from Germanic, Nordic, Celtic and feudal roots, from the theories of classical Greeks and Romans whose writings were revered by Western intellectuals of the middle ages, from the perspectives of Christian-church academics, and from the actual practices of people who lived in cities with commercial institutions to rule them or in church institutions like monasteries, convents, and episcopal administration. All of these sources of cultural practice and ideas underpinning democratic forms of government are necessary if not sufficient ingredients for our modern democracies.

Democracy, in short, had to be reinvented after the medieval era, by the intricate development of noble liberties, city-bourgeois agitation, peasant insurrections, and ecclesiastical institutions. Western democracy is indubitably a product of Western history, unique to itself, inimitable by other cultural paths. What I have just said in so few words is a very dense summary assertion of how history made the West.

Here ends Part I.