Articles CPP Newsletter Online V26.1

Perversions of Democracy by Wendy Hamblet

Hamblet, Wendy, “Perversions of Democracy and the Need for Global Federalism,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 26 (2006)

“Most people are bad judges in their own case.” Aristotle (Politics. 1280a15-16)

1. The Problem of Democracy

When one looks across the globe today, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the utopian fantasies that died with it, the least discerning observer is forced to admit that these ideological finales have failed to usher in the anticipated new age characterized by freedom from oppression, universal human rights, and the triumph of human dignity. It seems that democracy’s promises are failing as badly as communism’s had. In fact, given what John Stockwell has named “The War Against the Third World” that has been fought under the guise of the battle for democracy, and that has resulted in the brutal deaths of millions upon millions of third world peasants in response to their demand for these coveted goods (human rights, human dignity and freedom from oppression), one is tempted to suggest that democracy turns out to be as brutal—if more subtle—a tyrant as any communist dictatorship. What has gone amiss in the democratic dream that has led to this state of affairs where, in the very name of democracy, democratic leaders across the third world are deposed and replaced by bloody dictators, and their peasant supporters slaughtered when they seek to realize the rewards that democracy promises?

This paper considers where democracies have gone wrong between the utopian blueprint and the dark realities of its global realization. By attending to the warnings recorded in Aristotle’s account of democracy in the Politics, and considering the socio-economic realities of the first democracy in Athens, I shall consider whether democracies of the modern era have indeed been corrupted as true democracies by their agenda of a globalized capitalism, or whether the blueprint has always gone morally astray in its accounting for the needs of the demos it claimed to serve.

2.Aristotle On the Special Nature of the State

Aristotle traces the development of the state genealogically, and from the bottom up, so to speak. He begins with an account of the family, a human grouping that, formed by nature and bound by blood, seeks as its primary goal the continuation of life, the whole unit dedicated to the flourishing of each of the constituent parts. It is in the name of this goal that the family directs its attentions toward the accumulation of wealth. This material goal, according to Aristotle, remains the teleological framework within which come into being the earliest forms of societies; that is, early communities dedicate their energies toward the simple accumulation of wealth, promoting the welfare of the whole for the sake of securing life for each of the members.

Only when the threat of their extinction was less nagging, as penury gave way to wealth, did “states” proper come into being. For Aristotle, this material self-fulfillment marks the threshold of the evolved nature of the thing as it comes to serve a higher goal—the quest not for mere life but “the good life.” This emergence is not a simple enlargement of the task of material accumulation, not a mere collection of wealthy families, but, rather, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It becomes a new kind of thing—a state. The state now “truly come[s] into itself [by] becoming toward the best it can be.”

The “end of the thing,” the reason for its being, becomes its striving toward its own ideal form. Self-sufficiency is certainly tied up in this final goal, but the nature of the thing has so qualitatively evolved that it now mirrors the activity of the gods, seeking after a final and not a material goal. The evolution into statehood is proven in the fact that the reason for its being has become a good in itself and not a good for the sake of. That is, the thing to be preserved has become worthy of preserving by virtue of its becoming directed toward the good in itself rather than toward the “goods” that give life. Again, the whole proves to be greater than the sum of its parts.

A further ‘good” emerges with the coming to be of the state. Only within a state can a human being fulfill its peculiar excellence. States enable individuals to realize themselves as the rational and political animals that they, by nature, are. And this active seeking after excellence is the “just result” of states proper, according to Aristotle. One who lives outside the state therefore is not rightly said to be “human.” The alien is either a monster or a god, “a bad man or above humanity.”1 So the state is the setting within which humanity’s fullest good becomes possible, because, like the state, a person’s true telos is the seeking of excellence. “If [a person] has not excellence, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals.”2 The natural outcast, explains Aristotle, is a lover of war and may be compared to an isolated piece in the game of draughts.

Let us summarize the argument thus far: Now, the good of all things is that which preserves them, and, as we have seen with the family and early communities, their good exists in their striving for continuance. They seek mere life in the quest after material wealth, a good that is for the sake of. In the case of the state, with its higher goal of goodness in itself, material accumulation is left behind as its driving motivation and the state seeks after “the good life” (eudaimonia). Let us consider the meaning of this ancient Greek term in its fullest unfolding of nuance. Heraclitus had said: Ethos anthropoi daimon. The ethos of anthropos is daimon. To extrapolate, the fullest ethos (the most comely being-togetherness-of-all-beings) in its form peculiar to anthropoi (human beings) is given the special name of daimon. So, eudaimonia, the being-well-daimon’ed of anthropoi, is the most comely coming-togetherness of human beings within a cosmos of all beings coming together in a comely way—people living ethically.

Since the integral lawfulness of the cosmos is just, for Aristotle as for the Greeks in general, we may say that the family and the early human community deserve to be preserved precisely to the extent that they serve their rightful goals, the extent to which they take care of the vital needs of their member parts, the individuals and the families within their trust.3 Similarly, the state, with its higher function as its driving goal, deserves to be preserved to the extent that it seeks to realize the good toward which it strives, contained in the rich articulations of eudaimonia. So the state deserves to be preserved to the extent to which it promotes the being well-daimon’ed of its citizens, the extent to which it helps to bring about the “comely coming-togetherness” of its citizen parts as parts of a greater whole, their ethical fulfillment within the whole of all beings within the whole of the cosmos.

3.Aristotle on Democracy

Now, when Aristotle speaks of the kinds of states wherein human animals can best realize their goal of surpassing mere nature and fulfilling themselves as rational and political beings, he finds the defining characteristics of that state in the judicial and deliberative opportunities extended to its citizens. When Aristotle launches into a more profound treatment of the various forms of governments that might provide those necessary opportunities, he engages in a more exacting definition of states, differentiating between “true” forms of governance and those merely pretending to be so, according as they meet the requirements of justice. True forms of government, he explains, are those which govern with a view to the common interest, and “are constituted in accord with strict principles of justice [keeping to the goal of the good in itself]—but those that regard only the interest of the rulers [reverting to the mere good for the sake of] are all defective and perverted forms, for they are despotic, whereas a [true] state is a community of freemen [enjoying equal rights and privileges before the law, according as they merit].”4

A true state seeks “the good life” for all its constituents, and whether the number of rulers is one, few, or many, the degree to which the rulers serve the citizenry marks the degree of their verity as rulers and marks the degree of the verity of the state; whereas the degree to which the rulers serve the interests of themselves marks the degree to which the rulers are less legitimate and the degree to which the state is but a “perversion” of the ideal.5

Aristotle continues with his description of true states. Kingship is the best form of government where it is true, that is, where the king serves the good of his people. But where that system has become perverted, redirected from the interests of the ruled to the interests of the ruler, we call this perversion tyranny. Echoing Plato in the Republic and elsewhere, Aristotle affirms that the greater danger lies with the greater men, who are like the proverbial girl with the curl, when they are good they are very, very good, but when they are bad, they are horrid. So monarchy is the most risky form of true government, because its perversions are the most horrid, its governing resources being concentrated in a man of most powerful capacities.

Aristocracy is the next best form of government when it is realized in its truest form, because power is concentrated in the hands of the nobles (aristoi) who have the excellence (arête) of birth, rearing, education, soldierly training, and natural disposition to be counted upon to do the best for all out of the nobility of their natures. But, when the good men (aristoi) are replaced by simply the few men (oligoi) without regard for their merit but on account of their wealth, the aristocracy becomes perverted and falls into oligarchy. The oligarchy is not quite so dangerous as is the fallen monarchy simply because the men who rule are not aristoi but less capable men, so their capacities are less potent for evildoing as for good. And power being shared over a greater number of these less capable men, the moral fall of the state is not so extensive, the perversion not so abyssal.

This leads Aristotle to posit a constitutional government as the best of true states and the best choice for all states because its risks are less ghastly. The constitutional government has greater numbers of good men to balance its true form, and, even if its trueness collapses, its perversion in democracy risks less than other forms of government, because its greater number of less capable men provides greater balance to the mischief of the whole by virtue of the diminished capacity for corruption in each of these lesser men. In fact, Aristotle improves the diagnosis when he adds the following clarification of their prospects in his concluding assessment of democracy: “For the many, of whom each individual is not a good man, when they meet together, may be better than the few good, if regarded not individually, but collectively.”6 Once again, the whole proves greater than the sum of its parts.

Aristotle then offers a genealogy that traces the evolution of the forms of states. In earliest times, good men were few, so cities made their benefactors kings. With time, more men of merit arose, forming a ruling class and together they desired a commonwealth, the good not wishing to be ruled by one, but to take their turns at rule. However, the ruling class fell into corruption, enriching themselves out of the public treasury (aristoi became degraded into oligoi). Thus did rule-of-the-best collapse into rule-of-the-wealthy. Love of gain and rivalries among the oligarchy diminished their number and left the few struggling for supremacy. Each, to strengthen his own position, turned to the masses for support, who, in time, turned upon their masters and established democracy.

This leads Aristotle to conclude that different types of people are best suited for different forms of government. Those who are capable of producing a race superior in the excellence of political rule are best fitted for a monarchy. Those who are ready to submit to being ruled as freemen by men whose excellence renders them fit for political command are best suited to aristocratic government. But for men among whom there exists a warlike multitude, constitutional government fits best. In any of these cases, when the form of government makes for a “true state,” the principle of reciprocity guides them. All shall have their equitable voice in state matters and their equitable turn at rule according as their merits qualify them. Merit is the measure of the justness of their rule. The excellent and not the wealthy must prevail if the best interests of the many are to be realized.7

4.The Collapse of Constitutional Government

Constitutional government is the best of alternatives for rule in states, because it is led by the best of the citizens and not by the merely wealthy. Meritocracy is necessary because the best will adhere to the laws and, where the laws are not held supreme, the constitution collapses. Aristotle states: “In all well-balanced governments, there is nothing which should be more jealously maintained than the spirit of obedience to the law, more especially in small matters, for transgression creeps in unsupervised and at last runs the state.”8 When intemperance creeps in and corrupts the rule of law, then, properly speaking, the state can no longer be named a state at all. “The law ought to be supreme over all—and only this should be considered a constitution.”9

Should the constitutional government become corrupted, Aristotle believes the resulting democracy will prove less dangerous than other corrupt forms of governments because, despite the aggregate incapacities of the many, the many together will improve the overall goodness of the whole. However, Aristotle warns that when the perversion of the constitutional government occurs, and democracy takes its place, extreme care must be taken, because the best may be replaced by the merely wealthy, and their “spirit of obedience to the law” is weak, and will easily be abandoned. When this happens, mediocre rulers become demagogues, wooing the multitudes with seductive words and flatteries, and persuading them not toward excellence, but enflaming their warlike features.

5.Questions about Modern Democracies

Aristotle is harsh indeed with his ominous forewarnings about the corruption of constitutions, but I believe that he has failed to foresee the most abyssal depths of corruption to which states can become degraded, depths demonstrated in the moral failure of modern capitalist democracies. To measure the success of modern democracies at achieving trueness of form, we must challenge them with the ancient questions about their forms and methods and motivating goals. Are they founded on the principles of justice—equality and freedom—for all their constituents? Do they, within their constituency, promote eudaimonia (the comely coming-togetherness of all human beings)? Do they support freedom and equality for all the beings that populate the earth? Do they govern with a view to the common interests or merely to the interests of the rulers? Does the principle of reciprocity between the free bring just measure to their decisions?

Or, when democracies form into party systems to raise up leaders in and over their constitutional bodies, is it money that talks to charm the people into casting their votes? Do the people have the option to vote for this excellent person or that one? Are the millionaire-rulers they elect (when election results are counted fairly at all) the best men, the meritorious excellent people?

Aristotle warns of the rise of “dangerous demagogues” who will flatter the many and favor the interests of the needy, rather than embracing the interests of the whole citizenry. Certainly the flatteries of the masses might be seen in today’s world, with the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the “defenders of freedom and democracy” that so often fulfills itself in calls to war. But if the rulers of modern democracies were unduly favoring the needs of the needy, would there be millions of homeless littering the streets of the richest democracy of the world? Would the wealthy’s race to the top in this richest of nations be carving out a socio-economic abyss into which the middle class is plummeting at the rate of 1.3 million people a year (that is, would 600,000 more children per year be falling below the poverty line)? Far from the needs of the commoners taking undue precedence, have the leaders of capitalist democracies today reverted to the accumulation of their wealth and forgotten the sacred charge of the statesman?10

Or worse, when the oligoi, replacing the aristoi, serve global corporate interests (invested in weapons, oil, and drugs) instead of their constituents, is not the rule of law within the nation at risk? And when corporations are larger and richer than countries, is there not the risk that both national interests and commitments to international law will be sacrificed to profit? Without rule of law, Aristotle has asserted, the state is no longer a constitution; constitutional rights give way to coercion and the republic gives way to tyranny. Furthermore, following Aristotle’s logic here, a state that has been corrupted to the point where law is no longer supreme, is not, properly speaking, a “state” at all. States only come into being when their goal serves the higher end of excellence for its own sake rather than for the sake of its rulers.

For Aristotle, states are desirable, because they serve the higher purpose of providing an arena in which human beings fulfill their natures as rational and political animals and thus overcome their warlike savagery and their enslavement to the material. The democratic state, in theory, provides a setting in which its citizens take their rightful part in the judicial and deliberative acts that fulfill their humanity.11 Aristotle made no distinction between citizens of different times and different places. All people in all democracies deserve freedom within their states. Those who are put to rule the democracy must always be the best of available men, those who have proven their merit and served their country well, and who submit to its laws in all things. Then they will serve its citizens by ruling them nobly and justly.

6.Degraded Ideal or False Reality?

We could argue whether current capitalist democracies are truly democracies at all, or whether the state’s foundational ideals (of freedom and equality) have been eroded by the greedy interests of the wealthy class. We could argue whether modern capitalist democracies maintain kratein in the hands of the demos, or if they compose an oligarchy of the rich and unmeritorious. We could argue whether modern democracies have fallen prey to that “misuse from within” that signals immanent collapse. Indeed, since the good of all things is that which preserves them, we might argue whether modern capitalist states have enough good in them to be worth their being preserved.12 We could argue whether the “disproportion” in rights, responsibilities, and freedoms that capitalist democracies grant to differing citizens erodes the integrity of the structure and collapses its constitutional base, as Aristotle claims it does. We could argue whether, when corruption infects the power-nodes of a state, it is certain to seep down to the depths of the entire structure, infecting every man and woman, every family, every part that composes the whole, as many anthropologists claim.

We could argue whether modern capitalist democracies continue to promote that excellence in their constituents without which those citizens revert to unholy savages and monstrous lovers of war, isolated pieces in games of global draughts. We could argue whether, when a superpower becomes corrupt, since a superpower serves as the moral exemplar for lesser states, the tragedy will afflict the global moral well-being; whether the world is destined to the onslaught of a global corruption that will take centuries—and perhaps millennia—to heal. We could argue, if one democracy does not respect the democratically-elected leaders of another democracy, whether all democracy is dead. To return to the opening query of this paper, given “The War against the Third World” that has been fought under the guise of the battle for democracy and that has resulted in the deaths of millions of third world peasants, we might argue whether democracy turns out to be as brutal a tyrant as any communist dictatorship. We could argue any one of these questions.

However, before we argue whether modern capitalist democracies are preserving “true” democracy, we must decide whether democracies per se are worth preserving, whether the ideal form was ever realizable.13 I shall close my paper with the argument that democracy’s fundamental principles of freedom and equality for all were a ruse from the beginning. Just as Bush’s proud boasts that his country composes a “beacon of freedom and opportunity” for all offers little of concrete utility to the homeless, the poor, the deserted mothers and fatherless children who dwell on the margins of America’s prosperity; so democracy in its Athenian roots, so philosophically rich, so politically self-righteous, so ethically trumpeted throughout the ages, offered little to the hungry and destitute families who struggled under its realities.

I am suggesting that democracy’s founding blueprint was also its founding myth, a true Platonic utopia. Since it is the work of philosophy to think politics in truth, let us finally admit the empirical truth of the façade of equality and freedom that compose the founding principles upon which democracies have always been erected. In ancient Athens, as in modern democracies, equality was not equal distribution of goods; it was equal opportunity before the law. When Athens abolished debt slavery, a new concept arose—eleutheria (freedom). With the erasure of this fundamental wrong from the polis, poor citizens came to recognize their possession of a “quality” that, in theory, permitted their separation from the slave population: eleutheria. Though the poor still lived lives no better than slaves, their citizenship in the community of “freemen” was now inviolable. So everybody got a share of the common good of the democracy: the rich well-born had their excellence (arête) and honor (tim), the wealthy had their prosperity (ploûtos), and the people (demos) had their freedom (eleutheria). But where people do not have enough to eat, can we truly say they have freedom? Freedom that condemns them to the fields so they cannot exercise their rights of citizenship? Freedom that condemns them armour-less to the frontlines of battle where they are free to die for their polis? Freedom that condemns them to ridicule and humiliation, to hunger and disease, to ignorance and hopelessness?

Democracy was born upon a fundamental ruse. Where there is not some degree of economic freedom, some degree of equitable distribution of goods, freedom is the quality of those who have nothing but the liberty to go hungry and die, and to curse their children to the same fate. The homeless and the poverty-stricken in the rich West suffer from the same deception as the poor of the Third World, the same deception as the demos of the first superpower, the deception that, even without bread or warm clothing, shelter or health care, democracy grants freedom and equality for all.

Modern capitalist democracies have forgotten the wisdom of the ancients. They have disregarded the warnings of the great thinkers. Accumulation of wealth has eclipsed the quest for the good life (eudaimonia) and seeking after excellence. They have lost sight of the notion of the unity of the virtues, inscribed in the heavens as the assumption that humaneness is the supreme excellence, human beauty is its justice, courage is its temperance, wealth is its noble-minded generosity.

So the question is not whether democracies have gone wrong in the modern era, but how far wrong and at whose expense? The question is, to maintain the deception of demos kratos, what new myths must be spun, whose miseries concealed, what embarrassing questions silenced? Until the emptiness of democracy’s promises are brought to the fore of political discussions, young idealists will continue to enlist in foul-purposed military campaigns, dying to preserve this illusion; foreign leaders will be assassinated and their peasants slaughtered to maintain this fiction; and foreign countries will be “liberated” into this shameless lie by massive carpet bombing, barrages of radioactive artillery, and seizure of their rightful resources.

Aristotle insists that the state is worth preserving to the degree that its form remains pure and its leaders remain in service to the good of the whole. Aristotle is critical of the insistence found in Plato’s Republic that a harmonizing unity should be imposed upon the varied parts of the state, even at the expense of the happiness of the parts. Instead, Aristotle contends that although the final ends of the various men within the state are alike in realization of their full rational and political life, men remain utterly diverse in nature and in talent, and this is happily so. It is essential that their diversity and individual merit not be sacrificed to the ideal of a homogenizing unity. Thus Aristotle affirms an attractive liberal-democratic ideal when he states: “The nature of the state is plurality.”14 Unity is not merely impracticable; it is undesirable as an end. Since plurality is the nature of individual men, it is critical that its preservation be secured by the very nature of the state.

Therefore, there must be established some principle whereby order can be maintained in the state without suppressing or erasing the prized individual merits of the members of that robust arena of difference. That principle Aristotle names the principle of reciprocity. Among freemen and equals, there must be equitable power. This maxim demands that governance of the whole must be shared in turn according to some order of succession. Justice again is confirmed: “It is just that they should all share in government.”15 This suggests a global fix for those nations whose capitalist economic structure has so perverted the foundational ideals of its political form. Just as in the individual nation the governing body (whatever its form) must ensure that the principle of reciprocity keeps the whole of things in a lively dynamism so that individual merit can blossom and special talent can freely unfold, so at the global level, what is needed is a governing body of oversight to ensure the principle of reciprocity reigns over relations among all nations.16

No human is an island. No nation a world. Common sense and ethics dictate that people must learn to share the planet in peaceful coexistence. A global federalism is needed to monitor the workings of that sharing and to keep rogue parts from upsetting the consonance that issues in the good of the whole.

Dr. Hamblet received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Pennsylvania State University in 2000. She is author of “The Sacred Monstrous: Reflections on Violence in Human Communities” (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2004), and the forthcoming, “Savage Constructions: A Theory of ’Rebounding’ Violences in Africa” (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi). Writes Hamblet, “I am interested in discovering how people who moralize against “evil” come to do harm to each other in good conscience (Holocaust and genocide studies, violence, human nature/nurture studies).”


1. Politics. 1253a3, c.f. 1253a27-28, 36-37, 1260b25-30.

2. 1253A36-37.

3. It should be noted that Plato employs the image of the shepherd as his metaphor for statesmanship. The statesman practices a higher form of governance than the mere politician, caring for his wards as shepherds for their sheep. The best states, like the world under the care of the god in the Statesman myth, before it is left to go its “natural way,” provides for all the needs of its members, and food is mentioned explicitly as one of the god’s gifts, freely supplied.

4. 1279A17-21.

5. 1279a17-21, 1281a1-2.

6. 1281A1-2.

7. 1288A14-16.

8. 1307B31-34.

9. 1292A30-33.

10. Aristotle names the middle class “the golden mean” of the state. When the erosion of this class is complete, will there be no force any longer to frustrate the excesses of the extremes (the neediest and the wealthiest)? Will constitutional rule exist no longer, as Aristotle claims?

11. Granted, democracy for Aristotle was not freedom for all, but freedom for the democracy’s freemen. Aristotle counted as “citizenry” (those who deserved the rights of freedom from oppression, full civil rights, and observance of their human dignity) the soldiering freemen of good birth, not slaves, women or other “disreputables” to whom no basic rights were due. In this, he was consonant with the founding fathers of the current superpower. Furthermore, equality was not equality of property but equal civil rights, a right to equal stature before the law, a right to equal voice as to its foreign policies and its decisions with regard to acts of war.

12. 1309a25-27, and 1309b23.

13. Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, Julie Rose, tr., (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

14. 1261a17.

15. 1261b1-3.

16. Benedict de Spinoza, in his Political Treatise, suggests that the state is worthy of preservation to the degree that its constituent parts are themselves most fully empowered. In a twist of Aristotle’s dictum, Spinoza claims that a whole is at its greatest power when each of its parts is permitted to unfold into its greatest power and fulfill its potentiality. No one part should overtake the rest (not even the sovereign, for Spinoza). The whole can be greater than the sum of the parts when the parts are fully self-empowered and coexist in their greatest harmony. See Hamblet, “The Disarming of Being: The Metaphysics of Benedict de Spinoza” in Prima Philosophia, (Cuxhaven and Dartford: Traude Junghans Verlag, January-March, 2001).


Aristotle. The Collected Works of Aristotle. Jonathan Barnes. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

Jacques Rancière. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Julie Rose, tr. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

By mopress

Writer, Editor, Social Democrat

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