• T C Boles
  • September 25 2020

All political roads lead to Rome - again

Not since Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake” have the peasants been so revolting. Western Capitalism's elites are bemused. Their rulers were so good to them! –Hillary Clinton called the ingrates a basket of deplorables; Bob Geldof flicked them a V sign; Tony Blair thinks the voters are too thick to understand the question- so says Quentin Letts on the cover of his brilliant satirically funny and excoriating book entitled “Patronising Bastards”.

We now are witnessing the break-up of the entrenched UK two party political system- what on earth is going on? Are there any lessons we may learn from the past given that history has an unerring knack of repeating itself?

One of the enduring political cultural legacies of the French Revolution was the adoption of the political terminology, and the concomitant division of politics, into ‘left’ and ‘right’. For nearly 200 years these concepts had value. But for some time now they have clearly been obsolete. Where, on the left-right spectrum, can you place a Chinese Communist State, strictly maintaining its political-ideological “communist” dominance, and simultaneously pursuing capitalist economics?

Instead we have reverted to a much older political division. One that goes all the way back to Classical Antiquity. Essentially it was the division between those who thought that most decisions in a society should be taken by well-educated elites and those who thought that they should be taken by the mass of citizenry. To use two words derived from ancient Greek, the former believed in oligarchy and the latter in democracy.

It was in Republican Rome that the struggle became most obvious and long-lasting. The Roman Republic had a very strange – or, at least, singular – Constitution, even by the standards of the time. It was no democracy. Most dayto- day power was vested in the elite- which was a meritocratic elite of wealth, open to citizens from any social background who managed to make themselves rich. The citizen body was not merely consulted – it made real and important decisions. While the votes of the poor counted for less than the votes of the rich, they still counted. Candidates for high office had to court both rich and poor voters. Late in the republic, domestic politics became dominated by the struggle between those who wished to maintain and even expand the powers of the elite, and those who wished to bring about political and socioeconomic reforms that would benefit and strengthen the mass of citizenry. The former called themselves the ‘Optimates’ – the ‘best men’ (modest, they were not!). The latter were known as the ‘Populares’, from ‘populus’ – the people. It is very important to understand that these were not political parties or movements. They can be best thought of as political philosophies. They were both loose alignments of people with similar political outlooks. The leaders of the ‘Populares’ were just as much members of the elite as their opponents. The ‘Optimates’ openly despised the common people, calling them ‘unwashed’, regarding them as dishonest, and a fickle mob, and looked down upon them. This did not automatically translate into callousness for some leading ‘Optimates’ supported policies that helped the poor. They also looked down on ‘Populares’ leaders as unscrupulous opportunists, seeking to manipulate and exploit the people for their own benefit.

It was this struggle that ultimately brought down the republic. The power of the ‘Optimates’ was broken, but, paradoxically, the result was not democracy but the creation of the Roman Empire and ultimately its downfall. Two thousand or so years later what is striking is that today we have members of elites openly attacking and denigrating ordinary people who are ordinary voters. This is most obvious in the West because it is in such sharp contrast to the traditions of established democracies. Some democracies have traditionally always had tough politics. American politics and Australian politics have long been dirty. But insulting and smearing opposing politicians is one thing; insulting and smearing “opposing” voters is quite another.

To denounce the people who had the temerity to vote for their opponents, or in favour of a policy that they oppose, to call them (or clearly imply they are) racists, misogynists, backward, deplorable, ignorant, and so on, means that the elite denouncers are no longer interested in democracy. They are no longer interested in winning over voters who are currently in the opposition camp and who might be wooed away at the next election. All democracies have soft supporters and all election victories require winning over both these and floating voters.

This is not to say that democracy has been insidiously overthrown by oligarchy, from within. But it is to say that there is a real danger of this

Self-righteously and smugly sneering and smearing all those who voted against a candidate or policy favoured by important elites - who are politically, socially, and culturally favoured - is also intended to delegitimise the views held by those voters, to prevent their views and (especially) their concerns being examined and debated. This is deeply antidemocratic. These elites think they can achieve their objectives in other ways - in some cases through courts - and in other through supranational organisations. Think of the misuse of NDAs and the egregious cases brought before the European Court of Justice.

This is not to say that democracy has been insidiously overthrown by oligarchy, from within. But it is to say that there is a real danger of this, and that democrats have a fight on their hands to maintain true democracy – in which the votes of all ordinary people can and do change things – and prevent the creation of façade democracy in which the decisions of the elites are what count, and voting changes nothing. A great concern is the inherent bias within much of the mainstream radio and television media we are daily subjected to in GB. Look at how some elites in the UK and especially in the EU are blatantly trying to thwart the implementation of the British people’s decision, in the 2016 referendum, to leave the European Union.

Quentin ends by warning that “these people who know best, these snooterati with their faux liberal ways are heading for oblivion. Their downfall is largely of their own making, their sybaritic excesses, their obsession with political correctness, dogma and self-styled holier than thou attitude will eventually turn political discourse upside down”. This threat is not restricted to western democracies although President Macron of France might be the first to fall under this movement driven by the gilets jaunes. But the modern self-styled ‘Optimates’ make the same mistakes as their ancient counterparts: in the end, they cannot prevail against the majority and fundamental reform or revolution will surely follow.