Saturday, April 03, 2010

Oligarchy, democracy, and conciliar government

Jonathan Jarrett read this earlier post, suggesting that he go to Phil Paine's site and read these posts, and did so. He left a comment here and Phil responded here as well. I thought this conversation good enough to promote all the comments. And here they are:

Jonathan Jarrett said:

I love both those posts, and I'd tell Phil so himself there but I see no room for comments. I do wonder whether, although I agree with his criticism of those historians who tend to see what they know should be in the evidence rather than what might be, Phil isn't guilty himself to an extent of seeing democracy wherever he looks. A social structure such as that he describes in the so-called 'super-towns' seems to me to be as readable as oligarchy as democracy, although I would admit that a community of 3-400 clan heads in an assembly would look quite a lot like an Athenian assembly... It's still really interesting though.

Another possible angle of the historians' perspective: a while back I saw something online, which indeed you may have linked here, about Inner Central Asia, Bukhara and that general (massive) neck of the woods, being a cradle of learning and urban civilisation for many centuries, something which was partly wiped out by the warfare of the Mongol Empire. That, too, reflected on the fact that few people nowadays can easily entertain the idea that there were huge cities there in what to us is the Middle Ages, largely because the area's subsequent history has been so much as the battleground for troops and troops of steppe warriors (I risk betraying much ignorance here). I wonder if the difficulty here isn't the apparent discontinuity with the present-day locations of power rather than the spectres of Athens and Ur. Though, contrariwise, Ur is hardly in a major power zone now. I just find it particularly hard to think my way into that Inner-Asia-high picture of the world, even though I grasp it intellectually, because it's so far off my mental world map of today, and I wonder if that is all educational or if some of it is modern political (or indeed growing up in the Cold War when anything in that area was beyond study).

Thinking in type here, sorry. The Cold War training might be the strongest idea there.

Phil Paine said...

My focus was not on whether the Tripolye towns were "democratic" or not, but on the assumption that they could not be called cities because they had no palaces or temples. It is the Russian archaeologists who excavated them that came to the conclusion that they were governed by some sort of assembly. This is jumping the gun. They are guessing entirely on the basis of the configuration of buildings. Similar building patterns in many cultures around the world are characterized by consiliar management of various kinds. It is not conclusive evidence that they were run by a council. Hence my remark "a consular system, if that was indeed how they were governed".

My point is that Anthony accepts this consiliar interpretation, and because he sees the sites as not showing evidence of aristocracy, he automatically degrades them from "city" status, despite their clear urban nature. The facile equation of urbanization with aristocratic or priestly rule is what I am challenging.

This is part of a long-established notion that conciliar institutions are "primitive" and automatically disappear in a fixed series of "evolutionary" stages of "progress" (presumably toward the sophisticated acme of Napoleon or Stalin). This is the notion that I've always objected to.

Consiliar institutions are widespread in every era and location of the world, usually co-existent and intertwined with aristocratic institutions --- not as exclusive alternative. The balance is constantly shifting between them (the history of Athens or the Iroquois Confederacy show this well), with occasionally one eclipsing the other. Sometimes they can cooperated (as in Novgorod), and at other times they conflict. Historians raised to equate civilization with aristocracy have been systematically blind to evidence of conciliar institutions.

Central Asian cities are a special interest of mine. The Central Asian cities are a perfect example of another sin I complained about, the "accident of sequence". As long as the Soviet Empire existed, and Central Asia remained a modern backwater, global historians showed little interest in the Central Asian cities, despite the fact that they were huge, prosperous and politically powerful for many centuries. Cities as big as anything in Europe, in their day, were routinely discussed as if they were minuscule oases on a caravan route. The paleodemographer Tertius Chandler,asserts that Merv (in Turkmenistan) was briefly the world's largest city in the 12th century. Yet this huge chunk of the Earth is known only vaguely to many people who consider themselves well-read in world history. A great philosopher such as Ibn Sina, for instance, has usually been discussed as if he lived in an abstract Islamic dimension, and not as somebody from Bokhara. But nobody would discourse on Peter Abelard without ever mentioning that he was French.

The Chinese government jams my e-mail, and attempted to take down my site, so I can't leave a comment function open (that's how they jam it), and I can no longer post an e-mail address online. Steve, however, can provide you with an alternative e-mail address if you contact him.

Phil Paine said...

A second thought (sorry, I tend to walk away from a comment and then think of something else to say while out for a bike ride). When one talks about "science" in the Middle Ages or the Ancient world, one doesn't have to constantly fend off objections that it wasn't like what they do now at CERN or CalTech. The differences and similarities between modern scientific practice and the activities of Archimedes and Roger Bacon that underly them are understood. It is still meaningful to talk about Archimedes as a scientist.

But when one brings up the practice of conciliar, or proto-democratic institutions, in ancient times, there is always a flurry of objections of the sort that this and that isn't "true" democracy. But that isn't the issue for someone making the points that I am making. I am concerned with accurately evaluating the historical role of conciliar governance (sometimes called "collective" or "egalitarian" governance, though these terms carry baggage I prefer to avoid). Conciliar governance often involves proto-democratic and sometimes unequivocably democratic procedures. These forms of decision-making by committee, consensus or voting compete with the powerful notion of aristocratic or autocratic rule. This is not a competition that has ever been fully resolved: right now, here in Canada, the Prime Minister is refusing to devulge documents on Canada's military activities in Afghanistan, even though Parliament, which is supposed to be supreme in these matters, has demanded it. A very ancient struggle is going on, one that is well known to students of constitutional history.

The evolutionary scheme absorbed by many historians, on purely theoretical grounds, dismisses conciliar institutions as primitive and irrelevant to civilization. It is this evolutionary scheme that I strenuously object to.

Athens has always been a thorn in the side of that scheme, because it doesn't fit into it at all. So the solution, for many, has been to wall off Athens, or all the Greek city states, into a separate category and to fend off any suggestion that it might not be unique. If Greek democracy is always portrayed as uniquely exceptional, some weird event outside of "normal" cultural patterns, then the a priori scheme of democracy being a negligible "primitive" stage of history can be preserved. If, however, processes similar to those that took place in Athens turn up elsewhere, in different times, places and cultures, then the whole castle of cards trembles and, I hope, can be made to fall.

The issue of Oligarchy is quite relevant to this. All settled communities are vulnerable to aristocratic rule, for the same reasons that all restaurants in big cities are vulnerable to mafia shakedowns. Anyone who has the military skills to kill peasants and burn crops, control trade routes, or extract protection payments is a formidable threat to conciliar self-rule. The majority of human communities have been saddled with some sort of aristocracy. Nevertheless, other forms of decision-making have survived, and occasionally have consolidated enough to keep aristocrats at bay. These are the building blocks of today's existing (and hopefully tomorrow's emerging) democratic polities.

Yes, most of the polities that I describe as "proto-democratic" or "conciliar" were, at best, oligarchies. Athens was best describable as an oligarchy most of the time. Even when the democratic component was on the ascendant, the aristocrats didn't go away... they spent all their time scheming to overthrow or subvert it. Even "modern" democracies face this problem. Anyone familiar with the history of the United States knows that for generations, states like Alabama and Mississippi may have been like Vermont and Wisconsin on paper, but in reality were crude oligarchies enlivened by lynch mobs. Yet that doesn't invalidate the United States as an object for the study of democracy, or eliminate the concept from its history.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

Wow, thankyou for the exhaustive reply, and sorry about the inadvertent straw-man. I shall keep the phrase `accident of sequence' by for the many parallels out there.

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