This past Thursday, Oct. 6, Josiah Ober, Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Professor in Honor of Constantine Mitsotakis and Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University, gave a lecture on political participation and civic dignity from ancient to modern times.
The focus of Ober’s work is on historical institutionalism and political theory, specifically the political thought and practice of the ancient Greek world and how it applies to contemporary politics and society. He is the author of numerous books, and he also works on the general theory of democracy, the study of the rational corporation, and useful knowledge in Greek political thought.
His attempt to define democracy was to separate it from liberalism as we know it in contemporary politics.
“The basic idea is that democracy is not just the same as liberal democracy,” Ober said. “Contemporary liberalism, the need to promote equality, to inherent human rights, to neutrality in respect to religion, to justice, basic democracy, the kind of democracy I am talking about, just is collective and limited self-government. Basic democracy is not liberal democracy because it’s not committed to autonomy, rights, neutrality, or justice; but on the other hand, it is non-majoritarian tyranny.”
Ober spoke to the link between democracy and liberalism.
“If you think that without liberalism, democracy simply becomes a vicious form of anti-liberalism, majority rule, that is not right,” Ober said. “Democracy without liberalism can be seen as a foundation for liberal democracy, [and] also could be the foundation for a non-autocratic religious state. It is possible to imagine that it is possible to live without autocracy while not embracing the features of contemporary liberalism. I want to argue that this is possible.”
Basic democracy, according to Ober, provides the foundation for a liberal democracy, and allows it to be stabilized. He went on to argue that a democracy without liberalism could be the foundation of a non-autocratic religious state, and then asked what he called a fundamental political question.
“How can a human community reliably secure the benefits of cooperation without being ruled by a master, without tyranny?” Ober asked. “The answer to that question is democracy, but we now have to unpack it.”
Ober explained that democracy is the way in which humans have adapted to live, but that in larger groups, cooperation is harder, which is why there must be rules and norms in order for its citizens to benefit from it.
“The root term of democratia can be broken up into two parts, demos and krotos,” Ober said. “The question is, what is the meaning, the original meaning of this compound? What do you really get? The answer was, by people who disliked democracy, by Athenian aristocrats, that that word was the unconstrained domination by a great number of poor people over the wealthy few. But that is not the original definition. They did not mean majoritarian tyranny when they made this word in the early fifth century B.C.E. And certainly not the way the word was meant to be interpreted by the people who liked democracy.”
Ober went on to examine the Greek cultural and historical context of democracy.
“Citizens, in the Greek world, are very constrained, limited, [and] pinched,” Ober said. “At the end of the fifth century, the Athenians realized that their system would work better if they put some brakes on it, and gave the power of the assembly to make basic fundamental rules that day-to-day policy could be tested against. The Athenians chose to put a limit on their own democratic authority. It was a concern for social equilibrium, essential for security and prosperity, that allowed for limits on the people’s power. In order to achieve baseline stability, we need to limit ourselves.”
Ober created a population called Demopolis.
“[To live in Demopolis,] they agree that they want to live together in a state, bounded area,” Ober said.
To live together in a basic state came to mean the following: security (not having to worry about livelihood), prosperity (the ability to pursue plans beyond subsistence), and non-tyranny (no fixed hierarchy within citizens).
Continuing with this thought experiment, Ober outlined the most basic rules of a democracy: participation, legislation, and entrenchment. These foundations could only exist if all citizens are educated and provided with welfare, have access to civic dignity and free speech, and common knowledge of the rules and limits are broadly known.
“If we’re not equal, those who have extra power have the ability to become the rulers,” Ober said. “There needs to be equality, not because we have agreed that people are of moral equals. We have agreed because we collectively don’t want a dictator. ”
Ober went on to explain that civic dignity can be infringed upon, but that it is up to each of us to protect it.
“Dignity constrains that scope of distributive justice between liberty and equality,” Ober said. “How much are we going to distribute the value of social cooperation? Libertarians seek to maximize freedom and egalitarians seek to maximize material quality. If we defend dignity, and seek to maintain it, too far either way will affect it negatively. And so we get a ‘zone of dignity’ that blocks out the two ends of the spectrum.”
After the talk was finished, to applause from the whole crowded room, professors in the Classics Department held a panel, taking questions from students and audience members.
“What could’ve been a political science paper about how a democracy doesn’t necessarily have to be liberal was turned into a very detailed talk, that’s what an interdisciplinary person is going to do, to bring different parts together,” Tom Hanes ’20 said. “It makes you wonder if we actually run our democracy based on liberal principles. Are we protected against demagogues? His argument was that those who voted would encourage those who didn’t to vote because they were against tyranny? Why would they be against having extra power since they were the ones who voted?”