Monday, October 12, 2009

Athenian Ostracism, Pakistan, and Fledgling Democracies

I thought Columbus Day would be the perfect day to pursue my research agenda, but that was not to be. Though I hoped to spend the day continuing my study of the development of Athenian democracy, I was reminded by the blogosphere that ten years ago on this day Pervez Musharraf successfully led a coup ousting the democratic (for some definition of the term) government of Pakistan. I was quite young when the coup occurred but even then I was aware that the coup was only the latest in a series of oscillations between democracy and military rule in Pakistan. The repeated failure of democratic experiments in Pakistan is a subject near and dear to me, and so, unsurprisingly, in musing on this topic I'm afraid I left Pericles and his friends waiting.
My mind wandered, as it is often wont to do, to the more general problem of maintaining a fledgling democracy in an environment of at least partial hostility. Some of the other nations celebrating Columbus Day today (or, as the case may be, Día de la Raza, Día de la Resistencia Indígena, and Día de la Hispanidad) have had their own experiences with military coups and democratic collapse. Explanations abound. I found to my dismay today that the standard theories and prescriptions remain much as they were when last I saw them a few years ago.
And then I remembered the Greeks.
Athenian democracy emerged in an age far more hostile to the idea of democratic governance than today (indeed, almost any age you care to think of was more hostile toward democracy than today). The Greek world was organized into city-states and aristocratic rule was the norm. Outside of Greece, the situation was no better: almost every society they were aware of was ruled by some manner of autocrat. Much could be written about how the Ancient Athenians developed their democracy and how they defended it, with varying levels of success, from their hostile neighbors. What concerns me here is one of the peculiar legal processes by which they attempted to ensure that the domestic enemies of democracy could not menace the state: the ostracism.
Ostracism was a process by which the body politic of Athens (i.e., the male citizens) could, once a year, expel one of their number from the city. The ostracized individual would retain all rights of ownership in any property he had within the city, but would be required to leave for a period of ten years (the period could be shortened if the Athenian Assembly decided to allow it). Given the realities of communication and transportation at the time, the ostracized individual essentially ceased to exist for most every day purposes.
The Assembly could not simply ostracize people willy-nilly. Strict procedural requirements had to be met. A minimum of six thousand votes had to be cast, and the person receiving the plurality of votes was expelled. Six thousand votes may not seem like a lot, but getting six thousand citizens together at a time when there were between fifteen and sixty thousand Athenian citizens in all of Attica (i.e., including those living outside the city proper) was no mean feat. The ostracism only occurred once a year, and many years there weren't enough votes to ostracize anyone. If there were enough votes and you were the unlucky winner, you had ten days to get out of dodge. If you failed to heed an ostracism order or tried to sneak back early, death was the penalty.
The history and practice of ostracism contains many lessons for the modern crafters of democratic institutions and constitutions. Ostracism was used, at least in part, as a means to remove the enemies of democracy from the political scene. While none could prevent anti-democratic groups from forming, the Athenian Assembly could deprive such groups of their leaders. It was used for this purpose repeatedly, stripping Athens of leading citizens who supported past tyrants or were suspected of working toward the restoration of tyranny. As Donald Kagan of Yale points out, the sword of ostracism could be just as effective even if sheathed. The threat alone led many to cooperate.
The Athenians thus deftly took advantage of two realities of politics: first, that personal motivations shape a politicians political positions, and, second, that effective leadership multiplies the power of a group immensely. Think, for instance, of what would have happened had Hitler been ostracized. Even though the Nazis were voted into office, that occurred by a plurality of votes. But ostracism itself required only a plurality of the six thousand votes cast, allowing even those politicians with a great deal of popularity to be expelled. And they were.
Of course, the realities of power in the Greek age are quite different than Pakistan or any other nation today. An expulsion order then had the weight of the citizenry behind it, and even a powerful minority faction would face a daunting battle if they attempted resistance. The citizens, after all, were the soldiers. A modern military coup, however, relies on a relatively small group in whose hands force is concentrated. The citizens of Athens were thus empowered in a way physically different from the citizens of a modern state. Still, it is no trifling thing to declare war upon your populace.
The idea of ostracism is an interesting constitutional innovation born out of the desire to remove statesmen who would threaten the democratic underpinnings of the state. I will admit that the opportunity to establish such a relationship of democratic power over individual powerful men or women, is rare. But it does occur. In Athens, democracy was established and constitutional reforms were carried through after a tyrant was deposed. In that brief moment, the supporters of tyranny and oligarchy could not exercise the power necessary to prevent the introduction of ostracism, among other reforms. The consistent application of ostracism ensured that the traditionally powerful were kept off-balance and were not able to re-establish their dominance.
It is during these rare moments that the balance of power can be realigned. It is during these moments that fledgling democracies often fail. By simply attempting to institute a democracy, without properly accounting for and safeguarding against the realities of power, new democracies often do little more than ensure the oscillation continues. Only when the opportunity is properly seized, as it was in Athens, and the fundamental terms of the relationship of the formerly powerful to the formerly powerless are altered, can the oscillation change. Some oscillation will likely continue, but the central point can shift toward democracy, and the amplitude of the oscillation can be reduced, relocating the debate to one over how much democracy there should be rather than whether there should be a democracy.
Ostracism is but one example of a legal innovation designed to adjust the basic terms of constitutional debate in favor of something more democratic. In my experience, modern examples in the developing world are few and far between. Democracy doesn't just happen, and I don't trust that it will naturally develop over time. As uncouth as it may sound, we need to see more creative legal solutions shrewdly employed to exploit temporary power vacuums.
Any ideas?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Website Tracker