Sunday, May 27, 2012

Welcome to Politics for Beginner!

Politics can be very intriguing, but it can also be very messy as well. To most people, politics is known not for their theories or inner workings, but how it affects our world in the past, present, and future. Political beliefs have played very important roles in history, serving as impetuses for many notable historical events that shape the world to be what it is today.

The purpose of this blog is simple: to explain the workings of political ideologies to those unfamiliar with them. Political ideologies are the essential of the political world, as they dictate the directions of the government. How do they do that? Political ideologies in essence are ideas on how things should be run in the world. They tell us what the world should look like, who should be in power, how money should be distributed, and sometimes even how people should interact with each other!

Throughout history, many ideologies have emerged and disappeared. Political ideologies emerge out of the environment surrounding them. Without the context, the beliefs could not surface. Condition of living is usually the main component for political ideologies to form, since the priority in life for us humans is a comfortable, purposeful life. Anyone can create a political ideology, but not all ideologies bloom into fruition. There are many examples in history showing how political ideologies have surfaced and did not work out. Take Nazism and Socialism as examples. The two stated ideologies were accepted by a considerable part of the population. However, they did not work out beneficially for the people and are finally discarded due to the problems they cause. This is not to say that Nazism or Socialism is complete evils, but they certainly have not helped the world become a better place.

The two ideologies we will talk today are well-known in the world today: Democracy and Conservatism. Most might think that these two ideologies will not mix well together, as one is the strong proponent of change and other the vehement opposition. But at the same time, conservatism has existed among democratic countries for decades without causing any major conflicts. So how have these two ideologies coexisted? To understand the relationship between these two, we must understand the history of both democracy and conservatism. How have the beliefs evolved over the years? What problems are they trying to solve? What are their similarities and perhaps, a common purpose?

Democracy: A Solution

Adolf Hitler (1889 - 1945)
Tyrants are common in history, be they kings or dictators. The system of absolute ruler was a rule in world history, where one person had absolute power over his/her subjects. The problem was, these leaders can easily abuse their powers, since there was no one with any power to stop them. Easy examples are Hitler and Stalin, both of whom became totalitarians (perhaps not in the case of Hitler) after their respective rises to power. But the leaders themselves were not the sole reason for tyranny, the governing systems had themselves to blame for being breeding grounds for tyrants as well. Julius Caesar, though perhaps not fully a tyrant, took advantage of the consul system (parliament-appointed two leaders with almost absolute power) to establish himself as the dictator. In these cases, the government structures had loopholes which allow ambitious men (and women) to rise to absolute power unchecked.

But tyrants were not the only problem in history. Oppressive rules could happen without the help of specific tyrants. Social and economical classes were another main element contributing to an oppressive rule. The most “noble” and rich people together formed the class of the elites, and held vast amount of land and power because of their wealth. And often time, the elites subjugated unwilling subjects using their unchecked power. The most classic cases occur during colonialism, where European immigrants exploited the newly discovered lands and oppressed the natives to their will (see: colonial North and South America). There were no specific tyrants, but those societies were clearly divided with the most bottom-ranked having little rights. For instance, the Native Americans under the Spanish rule had no rights at all, and the classes were divided by the trace of Spanish ancestry presented in blood (the pure Spaniards were the elites, followed by those with mixed Spanish-Native blood, and finally the Natives and the African slaves). In such societies, inequality abounded, and the fates of the societies rested in the hands of few rich people.

Democracy is meant to solve these types of problems. Ideally, democracy will give all people a say in their country’s governance. The people will have a say on who should be the leader, and what laws and regulations should be passed. With such power to the mass, no tyrants can emerge since no one would allow him to take the seat of power. However, with ever rising population, it becomes impractical for everyone to have their opinions heard, since there will be too many opinions. This leads to the birth of representation, where people elect regional representatives to be their voice in the government.

The Parliament of Great Britain
But more importantly, democracy allows check-and-balance system to be effective. Since democracy allows voices of dissention and evaluation by the people, the government can be structured so that every position of power is subjected to evaluation. Indeed, the people have the right of direct protest if a tyrant emerges. However, the check-and-balance system will prevent the creation of tyrants in the first place.  Check-and-balance makes sure that no one takes advantage of his/her positions within the government, and that he/she performs the job effectively. With a more effective and honest government, the people’s rights and interests can be served better, thus the society would improve.

However, this does not mean that democracy is a perfect ideology. Despite the check-and-balance system, corrupt can still run rampant if the evaluations are rigged. Bribes and deals can tempt human hearts and deviate the government from serving the people’s interests. Vote-buying is also a path to corruption within democratic government, since anyone with enough money will gain his/her way into the government, and almost always the vote-buyers are corrupt politicians. Worse, the system of representation, in spite of its practicality, means that the people have, once again, put their power in the hands of few politicians. Ideally, the people trust their representatives and the politicians will serve the people to the best of their abilities. But if the politicians look out for their own interests instead of the people, democratic government would be nothing more than a group of elites, abusing their power at the expense of the society.

Democracy Case Study: Athens

Athens was where the first democratic practice emerged in history, a millennium before any other occurrences. Democracy in Athens lasted about 200 years, and was held as one of the best practice in history. How had democracy managed to emerge in Athens? There are many records of the workings of Athenian democracy, including the governing system and the public assemblies. On the other hand, the available information on how Athenian democracy came to be is limited, since the democratic era was preceded by the Dark Age of Greece, when little historical evidence is found, if not at all. But with the little information we have, this was how the Athenian democracy came to be.

Around 700 B.C, the population of Athens was divided into two groups – the farmers and the landowners. This was quite similar to feudalism, where farmers paid their landowners with their products. But soon, the subsistence (produced just enough for food) farmers became unable to pay their debt the landowners. The debt bondage forced the farmers to become possessions, or slaves, of the landowners. And as Aristotle commented 200 years later, “the many became the slaves of the few”.

At that time, Athens was governed by the noble families, rotating and sharing power among them. Three leaders, the archons, were chosen by their fellow nobles to govern the city. The archons would serve ten years in office and then sit on the Areopagus (the parliament) for life. But the system was replaced about one century later, when a prominent citizen named Solon was asked by nobles to write up the new governing system for their city. Solon was not of any noble ancestry. However the nobles felt that Athens had fallen behind other wealthier cities and needed a change from the stagnant rule of the nobles. Solon divided the citizens of Athens into four classes – the wealthiest and the nobles (the pentacosiomedimni), two classes of those who own large properties (the hippies and the zeugitae), and finally, the common citizens (the thetes). The first three classes were allowed participation in the government, and the common citizens were allowed to sit in the citizens’ assembly, or ekklesia.

Every citizen of Athens was allowed to join the ekklesia, be they farmers, blacksmiths, or merchants. On the day of the assembly, which was every ten days, the Athenians would pause in their work and gather together in a vast amphitheater, large enough to contain thousands of citizens. In the front of the clearing sat the Council of 500, a group of citizen-elected leaders, while were also citizens themselves, who oversaw city operations and led the ekklesia. Before the ekklesia began, a sacrifice would be made to the gods, as the Greeks believed their democratic process to be a divine gift. After that, the ekklesia began. The topics of discussion had been prepared ahead of time by the Council of 500. And in the assembly, the members would express their opinions through discussions and debates. All members would be allowed turns to speak their minds, and the debates were often very passionately. While the conservations mostly remained respectful, they could occasionally get rowdy and chaotic. Then, to find the resolution to the discussion, all members of the ekklesia would vote either by hand-raising or dropping pebbles into designated boxes. The results would later be recorded in the city archives. The discussions would continue until all topics were talked about and resolutions found, then the ekklesia would conclude and the citizens returned home to resume their lives.
The Ekklesia

The ekklesia was without a doubt the symbol of Athenian democracy, seeing that it represented almost every ideal of the ideology. Freedom of speech and opinion was not only allowed, but rather encouraged among the members. The participation was much more opened than other assemblies during the era, as not only the higher-class could participate, but the lower class as well. Wealth and social status mattered little within the ekklesia. Furthermore, the ekklesia had perhaps the fairest voting procedure out of all democratic governments, even better than the parliaments of today. The ban on political parties meant that the voters would truly look out for his and only his interests, without outside pressure from his peers or leaders. In conclusion, the citizen assembly created an honest and fair atmosphere in which every citizen had a voice and the power to speak it, regardless of their positions within the societies. Within the assembly, they were all Athenians citizens seek to protect their rights and interests. The ekklesia also united the people together, seeing that they were involved in the city governance together, no matter who they were, or what job they held, and Athens was stronger for it.

But the ekklesia was not only the indicator of the Athenian democracy, as Council of 500 also stood for many democratic ideals. The Council of 500 was a group of citizen-elected leaders who managed and oversaw the city operations (as stated before). City operation included infrastructure, sanitation, festivals, etc. The council members also served as judges, juries, and civil/military leaders. With such power in their hands, the Council of 500 was surprisingly uncorrupted, Why? Because they were checked constantly! The council membership lasted only one year and the members’ performance were evaluated directly by the people after the term’s end. One citizen could also only serve two terms at most on the council. Both of this meant that the overly ambitious men would not get their hands on the seats of power.

Openness was truly a key to the effective Athenian government. Public matters and decisions were discussed in public forums, not behind private doors unlike governments’ today. Even in trials, every citizen had the right to face his accusers and be tried in public. The concept of transparency made the Athenian government much more than a group of leaders, but the opportunity for citizens to involve themselves in the affairs of their city.

The only point against the Athenian democracy lied with the definition of the word “citizen”. Women and slaves were not registered as citizens, thus had little rights in Athens. Universal suffrage (right to vote) is the final step toward a true democracy, where participation is opened to everyone in the society. Even in the system as transparent and open as Athens, a major portion of people were still excluded from the political meetings and their voices went unheard. Without complete representation, democracy could never be whole. However, the Athenians still had come further than most other civilizations would ever manage (with perhaps the exception of the U.S), and creating a right mix between democracy and transparency is a major achievement even today.
The Athenians believed democracy to be a gift from heaven. And undoubtedly, they had made the best use of it.

Conservatism: A Solution

Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797)
If it ain’t broken, why fix it? This maxim describes conservatism to perfection.  Often known as traditionalism, conservatism is another ideology that plays a crucial role in history. One of the most famous conservatives, Edmund Burke, spoke out passionately against the French Revolution. The British conservative’s opinion was a common one at the time, but a viewpoint deemed unacceptable to many seen as an opposition to natural rights and freedom. Conservatism has many negative connotations, including bigotry and oppression of freedom. However, conservatism is actually not about equality or freedom at all. Rather, it is about the necessity of change.
Unlike democracy which involves constant changes, conservatism seeks to guard the society against changes that deemed threatening to the culture. Despite the common opinion, conservatism does not oppose every change, but rather changes that would create instability. Preserving the status quo (also known as how things have always been) is crucial to conservatism, as tradition is held in high value by the conservatives. Why? The conservatives believe that tradition is an accumulation of human wisdom, thus following the tradition means following the best practice, the most effective way of living.

The conservatives perceive the liberal’s ideas of desirable change to be dangerous. While the liberals want change to free the people from oppressive authorities, the conservatives believe that proper authorities form the foundation of human societies (seeing that they had been working for a long time), and that liberal changes would bring destruction to the established morality and order. Chaos is the conservatives’ greatest fear, and must be prevented at all cost.

Joseph de Maistre (1753 - 1821)

In an ideal conservative world, everything will be in a nice order. Respect for tradition and authority will be the most fervent belief, and chaos would not be tolerated. This does not mean change is intolerable, however, as changes that bring humanity closer to traditional wisdom would certainly be appreciated. But there will not be too many changes, as upsetting the natural order is disastrous. Indeed, the world might be harmonious and orderly, but at the same time too little change is not healthy for humanity either. Without change, there cannot be progress. People cannot develop without evolving. There will be little inventions in the world ruled by conservatives, as innovation would bring drastic and chaotic change. Furthermore, history is not perfect, and the traditional wisdom is not infallible. Trying to preserve status quo can lead to us repeating historical mistakes over and over, since we would not believe that any alternative can be better.
Conservatism has surfaced many times in history, in various forms during different eras. It had existed in ancient Greece and Rome, the Dark Ages, the French Revolution, and even today. While its history might not be the most prominent, conservatism has been one of the most persistent ideologies of all. Conservatism’s rich heritage comes from a long period of accumulation, uncannily similar to its belief of traditional wisdom. Today conservatives learned and adapted from the past conservatives, keeping up with the quest to bring back the golden past. And in this blog, we will examine how conservatism co-exists with other ideologies, especially the one as change-addicted as democracy. We will go back once again to Athens.

Conservatism Case Study: the Greeks (Again!)

While Athens’ governance structure reflected the virtues of democracy, its cultural ideals and beliefs corresponded more with traditional values. Why had the Greeks placed great value in traditions? Perhaps it was because of the belief that tradition was a foundation to survival of the Greek Empire.

During the Dark Age of Greece, the time was dismal and people lived in constant fear of war and death. The golden time had passed and chaos now reigned. And to survive, the Greeks needed something to starve off their despair, a reminder that there was hope and everything would be better. Fortunately, the Greeks had some of the best poets during the time before the Dark Age, and it was the poets’ works that kept the hope alive.

Expression of ideologies can arrive in any format, be it words or writings or poems. And from historical evidence, it was the poems that were the most sophisticated and expressive form of writing, since they were written by the most sophisticated and knowledgeable scholars of the age. Hesiod was one of the said scholars, and it was his work that gave birth to conservatism and, to an extent, the Western culture.

Hesiod (Approx. 800 B.C.)
Hesiod’s Works and Days described a mythical Golden Age of the past, before the existence of arts, business, or properties, in a time where there was no evil and everyone lived in harmony. Hesiod divided the Golden Age into five different eras, with the earliest era (the Golden Age) as the best. In the Golden Age, people lived like gods in a world that produced food so abundantly that there was no need for agriculture. People lived free from pain and grief and did not age. And when they died, they simply went to sleep peacefully with ease. The following eras shown decreasing levels of happiness and stability. And the last era, the Iron Age, was described to be the world the Greeks were living in.

Hesiod’s work was indeed a mythical fairy tale. However it enforced people’s faith in tradition. Because of his tale, the Greeks believed in their heritage, and that the best way of life was to attempt to recreate the Golden Age. Trying to recreate the glorious past is one of the conservative goals, since conservatism believes in the wisdom of the past tradition. To resurrect the past, the Greeks must break themselves free of chaos and revive its ancient culture, an endeavor which it succeeded.

The renaissance of the Greek culture arrived at the end of the Dark Age. The next era of ancient Greece saw the development of various forms of arts and performances. The image of seven Muses dancing atop the Parnussus Mountain, the sculptures of the gods, the invention of theaters and performances exploring the lives of the people, and the original Olympic Games were just a few examples of revival. In addition, some of the most famous thinkers, such as Aristotle, emerged in this ear. The significant rise in its culture allowed the Greeks to leap over other nation to become the most sophisticated civilization of the time. The Greek’s ascendant to the world’s top culture allowed people to believe that they were reliving another Golden Age. The belief was not too far from the mark, as the Greek civilization was at its peak at the time, both in culture and war. It had defeated the mighty Persian Empire not long previous, and took control of the Mesopotemia region. The Greek’s journey to replicate its mythical past had been successful, and this achievement would fuel the idea of the glorious past and future conservatism.

Aristotle (384 - 322 B.C.)
But the Works and Days is not the only Greek contributor to conservatism, the thinker Aristotle also heavily influenced conservatism through his ideas of the government. Despite Athens’ successful democratic practice (see the case study for democracy), Aristotle believed in the benefits of the proper authority and having ruling elites. Aristotle believed that full democracy could easily turn into a tyranny of the majority (also known today as mob rule), and that the best government would be a mix between democracy and oligarchy (power maintained between ruling families). The fine balance would prevent the mob rule, while at the same time preserve the people’s voice. Aristotle believed that there is natural “laws” concerning distribution of things, such as a natural aristocracy where there is a natural and recurring distribution of power. Aristotle believed the natural laws to be ultimate and recurring, which means the laws would universally apply to every society, thus the people should follow them.

It is not difficult to see the connection between Aristotle’s natural aristocracy and the preservation of status quo. If proper authority (the ruling elites) is believed to be natural and recurring, it would not be useful or beneficial to disrupt the system. This belief corresponds with conservatism’s opinion on natural orders of things, and that changing such orders can be very dangerous, especially if the orders will be restore due to its recurring nature, since that means changes deviate from the natural orders would be wasteful and useless.

The Greek conservatism might not be as distinct as political parties. However, without the Greek’s belief in the glorious past and natural order, conservatism would not have had the foundation it has today. The Greek conservatism also shows that conservatism does not have to be the dominant ideology since it can coexist with other beliefs, even one as polar opposite as ever-changing democracy. This is because conservatism is about setting the goal to preserve the traditional and natural way, not how to achieve the goal. Therefore, using democratic process to achieve conservatism ideals is not only possible, but also perhaps the most effective route (having the consent is always better than forcing the population). The ability to coexist also implies that conservatism is not only a political ideology, since conflicting political beliefs will not be able to coexist. Conservatism is a cultural belief in a specific way of life. And as long as there is culture, there will always be people who seek to protect it against the changing world.