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May 15, 2015

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Looking back thousands of years to create politics for the future

From a very early age, some Chinese learn to develop a degree of cynicism towards politics, especially as a subject taught at school.

And political practice in a few areas does not afford us much cause for celebration either.

For well over two decades, during China’s heady growth, some had extolled money-making to such an extent that some officials came to view development as the overriding priority. When growth counts toward merits for promotion, some officials became too busy wooing investment to care about politics.

There was a price to pay, though.

A senior leader admitted recently that “once the political ecology has been polluted, it costs a lot to clean it up.”

In our singled-minded pursuit of prosperity, we grew estranged from the fountain of politics. In Chinese, politics — zhengzhi — simply means “correct governance,” stressing such qualities as loyalty, responsibility and honesty.

In the West, politics too used to be a living source of inspiration conceived of such principles as justice and virtue. Sadly, much of the politics practiced there today also suggests that it has long lost touch with its origins.

As written at the beginning of Melissa Lane’s “The Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter,” politics is a spectrum of the possibilities of power, which defines relations among humans and the purposes they pursue. At one end of the spectrum is the sheer exploitative domination.

Political involvement

Our estrangement from the origins of politics began long ago.

Rousseau issued a warning to the citizens of Geneva in 1764 that “Ancient peoples are no longer a model for modern ones; they are too alien to them in every respects ... Leave aside these great names that do not suit you.”

He explained further that “You are merchants, artisans, bourgeois, always occupied with their [sic] private interests, people for whom even liberty is only a means for acquiring without obstacle and for possessing in safety.”

He was suggesting that the kind of political involvement possible for Greek and Roman citizens entailed a degree of leisure denied to most of Geneva’s citizens at that time.

That does not imply that public policies should be dictated by bureaucrats or by specialized state apparatus.

Greeks and Romans did not conceive of politics as something esoteric, but rather as a pervasive and abiding concern for matters common to the whole community.

In Greece, citizens addressed what they called “ta politika” — matters of concern to a certain community — primarily in a “polis,” a particular kind of territory and settlement, combining an urban core, often walled, with a region of agricultural hinterland. It was a space in which the collective well-being could be defined, pursued and shared.

Thus, the book, in tracing politics to its origins, “can reveal a range of ancient and modern preoccupations, so that common ground can be traced and light shed on those areas where they differ.”

Often differences are only skin deep.

For example, while the Internet and social media play a big role in shaping public opinion today, this does not differ too much from the role played by rhetoric in Athens.

“Why did Greek citizens so prize the polis and the possibility of caring together for ta politica? They valued being respected as equals (as well as the possibility of being esteemed differentially as individuals), and they valued collective flourishing,” the book claims.

This activity protected themselves against domination, which could mean despoliation, enslavement or death.

“It is perhaps in their answer to how that the Greeks innovated most dramatically: by developing mechanisms of decision-making and accountability that allowed ta politika to be considered and determined collectively.”

The eight ideas cited in the book constitute the core of politics and can help us to envision what politics should be.

The author’s guiding principle is to choose ideas “that can be used to illuminate key aspects of ancient thought while also informing contemporary reflections.”

Of these, two ideas address what power might possibly achieve: justice and virtue, while six address how to organize extent to which varying kinds of control should be brought to bear upon these relations: constitution, democracy, citizenship, cosmopolitanism, republic and sovereignty. Each of these concepts enriches our understanding of what politics should be in different ways.

Fountain of ideas

“Pliteia,” often translated in English as “constitution,” for instance, is a means of preventing the poor from being exploited or even enslaved by the rich.

Examination of modern democracies suggest how they achieve, or could achieve, the ideas that they value most.

As Lane writes, “It proves that a political system can exist in which the richest citizens cannot use their wealth to dominate the poor or to accumulate a lasting and far-reaching power base in politics.”

Thus, it is profitable for us to drink from the fountain of ideas from thousands of years ago.

“The Romans balanced the role of the political elite (overlapping with the economic elite) against the role of ordinary Romans, whereas the Athenian democrats had enabled the poor to control and adjudicate, in crucial ways, the claims of the elite,” Lane observes.

That’s a contrast to the lack of resistance today to the nexus of organized wealth and power.

Similarly, in the globalized era, given wholesale environmental degradation — for all the appearances of increasing connectivity — initiatives to address climate change easily get obstructed.

People are reluctant to act because they feel they are sacrificing for something that might benefit others.

There is a need to examine the idea of cosmopolitanism, which refers to the entire universe (Kosmos) as a realm of citizens (politai), with a wide range of ethical and political implications, leading to related discussion about, among other things, human fellowship or the higher human ideal of friendship.

In this gilded age of globalization, we are also reminded of the exploitation of labor and the environment beyond national boundaries.

By engaging with the political ideas of the Greeks and Romans, we can equip and empower ourselves to identify some of the evils we have come to take for granted, and fight for change.


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