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Democracy and Republic

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Democracy and Republic
by Richard Girard

 “A democracy [is] the only pure republic, but impracticable beyond the limits of a town." —Thomas Jefferson letter to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1816. The Works of Thomas Jefferson, 1904 Memorial Edition volume 15, p. 65  

“What is most important for democracy is not that great fortunes should not exist, but that great fortunes should not remain in the same hands. In that way there are rich men, but they do not form a class.” —Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, Appendix 5, “Democracy” (1840).            

I am reminded of an apocryphal story I once heard about the Chinese philosopher Kung Fu-Tze (Confucius is the Latin version of his name), who was asked by one of his followers, “If you were Emperor, what would be your first act Master?”  Kung Fu-Tze thought for a moment and replied, “First, I would rectify the language.”            

Reading the June 29, 2007 OpEdNews.com article by “Simply Annoyed” titled “Republic V. Democracy,” finds me in full agreement with that ancient Chinese sage.            

“Rule by law or Mob rule,” was one of the first statements Annoyed made in his article.  Seeing this, I wrote a quick comment paraphrasing Jefferson's quote from above, and commenting that I am consistently amazed by the fear and loathing political conservatives have for the people's voice.  I was nearly out of time on the library's computer, so I left it at that.            

Over the course of the following weekend, I decided I needed to expound further upon the subject.            

First, let us consider the original meanings of both democracy and republic, which are nearly identical.  The word democracy comes from the Greek demokratia: demos, or people, and -kratia which means to govern (from kratos, strength or power).  The word republic comes from the Latin rêspْblica: rês, “thing” (or more broadly “the will”) + pْblica, the feminine of pْblicus, meaning “of the people.”  In both the Athenian Democracy and the later Roman Republic most laws were passed by popular assemblies.  These assemblies generally consisted of those citizens who were present in the pnyx or forum that day.  This has led many conservatives--including I suspect Simply Annoyed--to feel a great deal of discomfort with the "people's rule."  I suspect he subscribes to the widely held belief that the fall of both Athenian Democracy and the Roman Republic were caused by the ability of the “mob” to vote themselves bread and circuses.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The fall of both of these famous city-states traditional political systems were the direct result of the avarice of their wealthiest citizens.            

It is—first of all—important to remember one simple fact about both Athens and Rome: When they called up their citizen soldiers to defend or enhance the glory of their city-states, most of those soldiers were small land owners who traditionally equipped themselves out of their own purses, and were forced to leave their fields and flocks unattended while they were at war.  As the Athenian and Roman dominions grew, these citizen soldiers holdings might lie unattended for years while these citizens were at war.  If the Athenian hoplite or Roman legionary died, their families would often be left with no other choice than to sell their farm land (often times for back taxes) and move into the burgeoning slums of the cities.  The aristocrats bought these vacated lands at a fraction of their real value.            

In the case of Athens, the fall of their democracy arose not from giving welfare to the mob, but as a direct result of the Peloponnesian War.  This war arose when the Greek city state of Potidaea tried to extract itself (with the connivance of the city-state of Corinth) from the economic domination of Athens.  Athenian commercial interests pushed for both the origin and the continuance of this war for almost thirty years, alternately trying to improve on or maintain their economic dominance in the central Mediterranean, Aegean, Adriatic, and Euxine (or as we know it, Black) Seas.  They bankrupted Athens in the process.  Pro-aristocracy writers (who are the majority of both classical and modern historians) have falsely laid the blame for this defeat onto the Athenian poor, working and middle classes ever since.  These plutocratic apologists claim that the public assistance programs for the displaced widows and orphans of dead soldiers—as well as those for the returning soldiers who were disabled or dispossessed by the war—for the loss to Sparta and the fall of the Athenian political system and influence after the war.  Victors may write the histories after a war, but the surviving leaders responsible for that loss, make the excuses.            

For the Roman Republic it was even worse.  Rome won its wars to expand and maintain its commercial interests, beginning with the First Punic War.  This did not prevent the Roman plutocrats from blaming the poor, displaced farmers and their families who flooded Rome after her wars, for most of her internal problems.            

The first to see things differently was Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, descended on his mother's side from Scipio Africanus Major, the Roman general who had defeated Hannibal.  While returning from a war in Spain, Gracchus noted that hundreds of small farmsteads lay untended in Italy.  He was further taken aback by the thousands of former Roman, Latin, and Italian legionary/farm families who were crowding the urban slums of Rome and her allies.            

Upon closer examination, Tiberius Gracchus discovered that his fellow aristocrats had been buying up these farmsteads for a fraction of their value, and were busy converting them from the production of grain and other staples to luxuries such as wine, using slave labor.  In the process, Rome had a rapidly declining pool of manpower for its traditional, self-equipped, citizen legions, together with ever increasing numbers of urban poor.  Gracchus decided to do something about it.            

 Tiberius Gracchus was elected to the office of tribune of the plebs, an office which traditionally protected Rome's plebeians from abuse by Rome's aristocracy.  He proposed a series of land reform bills that would have settled many of the urban poor on Rome's public lands, helping to make them self-sufficient and relieving the strain on Rome's pool of potential soldiers.  These urban poor generally were not the lazy miscreants represented by so many aristocratic propagandists, but dispossessed people struggling to make ends meet, much like today's working poor in America.            

Tiberius Gracchus got his land reforms passed, but when he attempted to implement them, he discovered that many of Rome's public lands were being used by the aristocrats to supplement the lands they had “bought” from Rome's displaced small farmers.  When Gracchus ran for a second term as tribune—so he could carry through his program to recover these lands and carry out his reforms—the aristocrats hired gangs of thugs who murdered Tiberius Gracchus and many of his followers.              

The struggle between Rome's reactionaries (or o ptimates) and her reformers (or populares) continued for the next century.  Men such as Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger, and Marcus Tullius Cicero chose the side of the optimates, while Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (Tiberius' brother), Gaius Marius and Gaius Julius Caesar chose the side of the populares.  At the end of that century, Rome's republican government lay in ruins, and Caesar Augustus assumed the now dictatorial offices of Princeps and Imperator.  (For more on the struggle between the Rome's reactionaries and reformers, I would suggest reading Michael Parenti's The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Rome.)              

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Richard Girard is a polymath and autodidact whose greatest desire in life is to be his generations' Thomas Paine. He is an FDR Democrat, which probably puts him with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in the current political spectrum. His answer to (more...)

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