Peter Jones

Corbyn and the Old Oligarch

A fifth-century BC Athenian hostile to democracy could tell us a thing or two

With the Labour party reduced to a cult in honour of the vain and incompetent Jeremy Corbyn, the Tory party is currently ruling the roost. Perhaps the Old Oligarch, a fifth-century BC Athenian hostile to democracy — we do not know his real name — can help out.

The Old Oligarch’s fascinating pamphlet took the view that dêmokratia — Athens’ radical, citizen-centred direct democracy — was fine if you were poor, ignorant and worthless, but what sensible person would want to live in a city controlled by such people? Only the ‘best people’, he argued, ‘who are disciplined, obedient to the laws and have a strict regard for what is respectable’, could be relied upon to produce a secure, well-governed state.

But that was his point: the Athenian poor and worthless were not the best people, and therefore needed direct democracy to serve their own worthless interests. After all, they rowed the boats that controlled Athens’ maritime empire and brought the city its huge wealth, so it was entirely fitting that they should hold the main offices of state.

The power the common people wielded in assembly ensured that they could satisfy their own lawless needs, which would certainly not be the case if the best people held sway: the best would never allow ‘lunatics to become members of the Assembly’s steering committee, let alone speak in Assembly, or even attend it’.

True, the Old Oligarch agreed that the worthless were very happy for the rich to pay through property taxes for entertainments, religious festivals, temples and the general beautification of the city. But that simply ensured that the rich became poorer, and the poor richer.

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