Friday, May 16, 2014

Politics: Part 1, A Vibrant Discussion of Terms by Michael DeVore (draft2)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that two politicians can argue on opposite sides while each sounds completely believable to the audience. Where science and logic seem to say that there is only one answer to a question (in reality, scientists are somewhat fickle and can change a bit in their answers over time), a politician can craft more than one answer even if those answers are adverse and conflicting in meaning. In fact, many people will hold opposing beliefs and do not even realize those beliefs clash in logic. That is my personal experience. The importance of a robust education system for the voting populace is plainly high in a democratic system.

We take for granted that the word “democratic” is a positive concept. In Greece, where the concept was born, this was not always the case. Indeed our U.S. founding fathers believed democracy had its limitations and were obviously suspicious about it. They handed down to us the ideal of a mixed constitution based on a clever mixture of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. This is because an enlightened monarch would logically be better than a murderous mob ruled democracy, for instance. And each form of government  has strengths and weaknesses. Ancient Greeks philosophers were much more interested in good government than in the form of government, I think. I have tried to follow this rule myself, but more than you would ever like to think, politics and other factors often trump what we think is the good in our jobs.

When I was educated in the cold war period following World War II, I remember the major emphasis being on the simplistic proposal that democracy was good and communism was bad. It made them seem direct opposites. Further, communism posed a severe threat to democracy. Every aspect of what we were taught of historical politics on up to contemporary politics revolved around this idea. Stalin and Brezhnev were made from the same bolt of cloth, although one was clearly a mass murderer. Obviously, many in America came to believe as part of their standard knowledge that communism was a massive threat to the American way of life. Yet, experience with the onset of the Great Depression showed clearly that democracy could lead to a corrupt society, and experience with the aftermath showed that some form of communism could easily gain popular support among the starving jobless people. Reforms that resembled the best hits of socialism were put into place and this political force of the disentitled that helped reforms by their shear numbers would not grow so strong in future failures of the economic system. The government now partially provided for what capitalism had no concern about. Fights still ensue about how much government should help those discarded from the economic system, but the creation of a giant political movement was certainly less likely with the compromises made. This compromise between varying economic systems is at the heart of our country now.

The problem with organizing an education system for the fairly exclusive purpose of fighting a cold war was that the actual workings of politics became lost. No other system except our own contained any ideas worth the time it took to teach them. Even the full understanding or our own system was hidden in a contrived idealistic notion of what it was. How politics worked was not taught but how politics should work in a romantic idealized system was taught. It is clear to me that magical thinking is not exclusively the invention of politicians but is more a product of our own recent history of education goals.

Ancient Greece and ancient Rome were responsible for an incredible array of basic ideas we use to describe political thought. Most of today’s issues which seem unique to us were present in one way or another in Ancient Greece.  The concepts of capitalism, communism and socialism are all concerned with refinements in economic aspects of the structure of society, rather than strictly of politics. They are more complex structures that have different meanings based on the variations of political and other factors that underpin them. Life is variable because people are variable. We can learn much from the earliest descriptions of politics and its terminology because the forces discovered really work behind the scenes in the more complicated structures we have built. So with the end of better understanding in mind, I would like to wander through an ungracious discussion of political terms. Sources here are either Wikipedia or dictionary entries.

Politics: “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.”

The addition of the “especially” is because we do not think of politics in much of a general sense. Politics is basically what we thought of as the subject of “government” in high school. However, we use the word to describe the petty wrangling of politicians but this is almost a degradation of the word. The word “politician” is pretty much a pejorative to most.

Politics: “ (from Greek: πολιτικός politikos, meaning ‘of, for, or relating to citizens’) is the practice and theory of influencing other people on a civic or individual level.” 

“Of, for, or relating to citizens” has a nice ring to it. “Politics and government” is generally the phrase used to incorporate the entire field because the word “politics” when used alone again suggests more sinister things. Yet, politics is how we form our government. Government is the result. I think both definitions are instructive in their limitations. It is obvious we place emphasis on a more specific meaning than the general art of governance or of creating organized societies in which we are all happy. *
Before the period of ancient Greece, there are no accounts of political ideas at all. And Greece really was productive in the field of political terms.

Monarchy:  (from Greek: monarchía) “ is a form of government in which sovereignty is actually or nominally embodied in a single individual.”

In other words, it is rule by one. I like the Wikipedia definition here because it includes states which are “nominally” or not at all ruled by one but just want to be called a “monarchy.” They are monarchy in name only. In this definition we can see the seemingly serious hubris of political definitions. The phrase “politics is not an exact science” can be humorously considered here. A more specific word for monarchy is “autocracy” or  “a system of government in which a supreme power is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control (except perhaps for the implicit threat of coup d'état or mass insurrection).” Monarchy seems quaint in comparison.

However, not playing mind games, Monarchy = Autocracy. It is simply “rule by one person.” The word Dictatorship or dictator comes to mind which is defined as “a ruler with total power over a country, typically one who has obtained power by force.”  Yet, typically, the history of how one’s government came to be really is not considered in defining its structure. There are many who think the United States government is legitimate even though it came to power as a result of the use of force. We certainly do not have a different word for our particular system that takes into account its origins in force.

Tyranny in the days of ancient Greece meant the ruler came to power as a result of force, or somehow illegitimately outside of the rules of the constitution. In Greece he might be a nice guy knocking the bully aside. In America we should carefully consider how many foreign governments we put into power outside of normal constitutional processes. Today, we simply say tyranny means “cruel and oppressive government or rule.” The concept of “tyranny” has been turned into yet another mind game.  One man’s torture may be another man’s aggressive interrogation technique. One person’s heroic end to World War II may be another man’s nuclear atrocity.  One man’s “Sherman’s march,” is, well, you get the picture here. My knowledge is weak in oppression without cruelty, but indeed this idea existed in ancient Greece, and in the minds of American foreign policy decision makers. It could very well possibly describe America itself, assuming our patriots were oppressing those who wanted to be ruled by England’s government. I would think they were.

Oppression becomes a historical fact and really does not cease because those oppressed are assimilated, I would think. We can be snarkily thankful that the word “cruel” is added to the definition of a Tyranny so that we are not one. As I went through my personal research, I got the impression that we might think political terms are the chameleons we consider politicians to be.

Oligarchy: “(from Greek ὀλιγαρχία (oligarkhía); from ὀλίγος (olígos), meaning ‘few’, and ἄρχω (arkho), meaning ‘to rule or to command’) is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people could be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who typically pass their influence from one generation to the next, but inheritance is not a necessary condition for the application of this term.”

Again, I like the Wikipedia definition if only for the concept of a “power structure.” One could not call a Monarchy a power structure in any way I suppose. It makes more sense if two or more are acting together in creating a structure.

Oligarchy is basically “rule by the few.” From Wikipedia: “Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich, for which the exact term is Plutocracy. However, oligarchy is not always rule by the wealthy, as oligarchs can simply be a privileged group, and do not have to be connected by either wealth or by bloodlines - as in a monarchy.” 

The irony grows “richer.”  We separate the word Plutocracy from the word Oligarchy because rule of the few may not be rule of the wealthy, but of a “privileged group.” I suppose that makes sense to split that hair for one thing because we must decide which of the wealthy are more important than the others. We have two or more terms that mean more or less the same thing. I’m not sure either word has a positive connotation except to those in power.

However, there is a word for rule of the few with a positive connotation (at least historically.)

Aristocracy:  “(Greek ἀριστοκρατία aristokratía, from ἄριστος aristos ‘excellent,’ and κράτος kratos ‘power’) is a form of government in which power is in the hands of a small, privileged, ruling class. The term derives from the Greek aristokratia, meaning "rule of the best". At the time of the word's origins in Ancient Greece, it was conceived as rule by the best qualified citizens and was often contrasted favorably with monarchy, the rule of a single individual. In later times, aristocracy was usually seen as rule by a privileged group, the aristocratic class, and was contrasted with democracy.

The irony is well-heeled here as well. The definition includes “monarchy” and “democracy” but not the obvious “oligarchy” and calls this a “form of government” rather than a power structure. Of course “Wikipedia” is a democracy itself, but I have found is a fairly accurate one on a populist level.  

Excluding value judgments, so far we have:

(Rule of Few) Oligarchy / Plutocracy / Aristocracy    

(Rule of One) Monarchy / Autocracy / Dictatorship

Any of these may be a tyranny.

While we all know about “democracy,” you have to guess that terminology will be “equally” filled with irony, and it is, but I will pass on much of this easy wit for another time. Suffice it to say democracy is equally hard to pin down but generally it means rule of the many. In governmental systems, I doubt it has seldom meant rule of all of the people, as various exclusions may apply for voting privileges. It is in the fine print.

(Rule of Many) Democracy / Mob Rule [and other terms you have never heard of.]

Further, democracy can be direct or representative. In America we have the representative form… kind of, or possibly in theory.

When we talk about our own government it really blends into a concoction that makes me wonder whether we have any specific type of government at all.  We are definitely flexible.

Mixed government (mixed constitution) “is a form of government that integrates elements of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. In a mixed government, some issues (often defined in a constitution) are decided by the majority of the people, some other issues by few, and some other issues by a single person (also often defined in a constitution). The idea is commonly treated as an antecedent of separation of powers.”

This sounds so close to what we have, dreamy though the idea may be. The odd thing is that we delve even further into a trance with “separation of powers” that doesn’t sound like a type of government at all.

Separation of Powers is a model for the governance of a state (or who controls the state). The model was first developing in ancient Greece and Rome. Under this model, the state is divided into branches, each with separate and independent powers and areas of responsibility so that the powers of one branch are not in conflict with the powers associated with the other branches. The typical division of branches is into a legislature, an executive, and a judiciary. It can be contrasted with the fusion of powers in a parliamentary system where the executive and legislature (and sometimes parts of the judiciary) are unified.

If this sounds pretty familiar, it is.  We in the USA made this stuff up ourselves. And the powers of each branch are independent so as to avoid “conflict.” Of course, there is conflict. And, again, this is whole thing becomes unstable because this concept is so difficult to define specifically and is as slippery as a wet cat. Imagine just the concept of judicial review of the constitution. The constitution which trumps everything is interpreted by a privileged few judges, who made the decision themselves that they had an extra-constitutional right to interpret it. They may interpret the constitution in any way at all for the rest of their lives. This group is chosen, the time set by the chance of their infirmity or some other slippery political reason, by the Executive Branch, a President who is not elected by the popular vote. The definition of oligarchy clearly applies, but not plutocracy necessarily. The plutocracy part would come in if this small set of privileged judges were somehow influenced by the rich. At the moment in time, after the decisions that made large amounts of money legally equal to more government influence,  I do not see this Plutocracy idea much beyond a dead certainty.

The mixed constitution idea was very popular. In the theory of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, this concept could take the best aspects from the rule of one, the rule of a few, and the rule of many. Thus we have the various positive terms for each:  Aristocracy (the best), Monarchy (certainly not dictatorship), and Democracy (not mob rule.)

Call me naïve but I just do not see why we necessarily will have the best of each. Certainly we bring many talents to bear on the matter at hand. Then we place them in opposition to balance them. The problem appears to be when that opposition slows government to a dead standstill.

I will end this first part because frankly, as usual, I am tired of writing.

Let me end with an analogy that I have often thought of when it comes to politics: football. Oh, it is not your ordinary football analogy I promise you.

Players run willy nilly as they are vibrated by unseen forces. Each tended to move forward but the direction of the movement was difficult to imagine. Sometimes they locked arms and just spun. Mostly a big mass of people end up in immovable groups or in single positions where they do not move at all. Yes, our system is sort of the vibrating football game of political systems. 

I will go further into how the simpler concepts of Greek terms come in to play in our complicated system of flexibility.

* To me this is similar to the difference in psychology between “learning theory” and “behavior modification.” I feel it is important to understand the orca more than just what is necessary to train them for specific crowd pleasing results. I actually think the field of psychology has a lot of parallels with politics in today’s world. Today psychology less frequently asks the “why” behind things in favor of treatment and results. Drugs seem the answer to problems and, indeed, they work to a great extent. I took a lot of classes in psychology back when “behaviorism” was the preferred knowledge to gain. Drugs were not as effective then and were intimated by my professors to be inhumane, believe it or not. But regardless of whether drugs are used or not, modifying behavior was the ultimate goal of psychology even then. This goal has a “mad scientist” appeal to it and I pretty much found the subject ghastly enough to switch to computer science as a major. Further, it is interesting that many fields of science seem to eventually lead to some “practical” technology that outlives the knowledge. Psychology, computers, and physics all have their demons that lead to control of people, for instance. And so it seems to me does political “science.”  In physics, political science is the binding force between nuclear theory and the technology that results in weapons of mass destruction used to control people and governments.