Plato’s Republic would not come to mind for many as a major resource for left-wing political critique. His hostility to democracy, and his elitist insistence on the distinction between nobility and baseness, stand very much at odds with modern egalitarianism. Yet in the dialogue’s account of how one type of regime gives way to another, greed and the excessive desire for unnecessary pleasures are the primary factors in an ongoing process of spiritual disintegration that ultimately culminates in the emergence of the worst regime, tyranny. Indeed, it is hard not to think about the present political situation in the US when reading Socrates’s account of the decomposition of democracy into tyranny in Book VIII of the Republic.
The downfall of democracy is to be found in the strife and turmoil that arises from the following factors: (1) a thoroughgoing relativism, in which all aspirations and ways of life are considered equally valid; (2) the desire for freedom from any and all restrictions; (3) the prevalence of lives given over to unnecessary desires and pleasures. Although democracy receives the ambiguous praise of being the “fairest of the regimes,” meaning it is the most pleasing in a superficial sense, Socrates makes clear that the permissiveness of the regime, its refusal to consider some ways of life superior than others, undermines respect for the law and progressively weakens the government. This line of critique might have sounded deeply conformist and authoritarian during the 1960s, but in the present, when the fiercest attacks on government come from the political Right, it sounds a sobering note on behalf of the necessity of limits on human behavior, especially unrestrained consumerism, and on the need for citizens to overcome their self-centeredness and attend to the common good.
Excessive freedom coupled with weak government leads to the coming of tyranny: “the greatest and most savage slavery” springs forth from “the extreme of freedom” (564a). The failure to cultivate order in the soul, and the erosion of public forms of authority, leads to endemic strife. Tyranny then emerges as a solution to this impasse, in which the structures of authority that make possible peaceful resolution of differences have dissolved. When conflicts become irresolvable, the only method for dealing with them is to smother them.
One could add that a society dominated by sensual pleasures and useless desires tends to provoke a mounting sense of revulsion among its people, not least among those who partake of such enjoyments (for example, some of the 9-11 hijackers were spotted in strip clubs not long before the attacks). The idea of excessive freedom resulting in tyranny is usually associated with the passage from the Weimar Republic to Nazi Germany, a linkage that has typically been made by the Right. Indeed, Shadia Drury asserts that the neoconservative disciples of Leo Strauss view US politics largely through the lens of Weimar: the alliance between the lofty theorists of esotericism and the anti-intellectual religious Right is aimed at preventing a recurrence of the nihilism that paved the way for the rise of Hitler. But it is interesting to note that George Soros, in a book attempting to account for the factors behind the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, invokes the Weimar thesis for left liberal purposes. Clearly, any account of contemporary US politics will not get very far unless it examines, with honesty and dispassion, the force of such emotions as revulsion, self-disgust, and moral recrimination in American society.
The question remains as to how we in the US have arrived at such a predicament, and why large-scale policies to benefit the whole of society are so difficult to implement in the present. Why are there such formidable obstacles arrayed against a politics that seeks to serve the common good? In The Revolt of the Elites, Christopher Lasch notes that liberal democracy has lived off the “borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions” that predate the rise of liberalism . One might say that Weimar Germany ate through this capital rather rapidly. Although these traditions are not expressed exclusively in political terms, nevertheless they have exerted a vital influence in shaping the conceptions that people have of what is good and what ought to be common. It is our lot, on the other hand, to live in a more advanced phase of relativism, when the reservoir of these moral and religious traditions has largely dried up. The relativism that Socrates attributes to democracy has only become fully manifest in the US with the rise of postmodern individualism, whereby the libertarian spirit of the Sixties was found to be quite compatible with emergent forms of consumer capitalism. During the Great Depression, by contrast, such relativism was not a determining factor of political life.
Of course, the US was a far more racist society at that time, and more stratified by religion and ethnicity, with a narrow Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite on top. But another significant difference between then and now, in my view, is that during the 1930s, there was wide agreement among people of various backgrounds about what constituted the morally good life. If one were to have asked a black sharecropper in the South, a white ethnic factory worker, and a wealthy East Coast WASP about their conceptions of the moral life, one would have received answers that would have been more or less similar. Nowadays, it is taken for granted that there is a diversity of views regarding the good – ethics has become indistinguishable from a consumer choice.
Perhaps then the major constraining factor of political life is not racial and ethnic pluralism, but rather moral pluralism, in which disagreement or indifference to the question of what constitutes the good life exacerbates distrust and antagonism, and thereby discourages large-scale efforts to bring material improvement to the lives of one’s fellow citizens. Moral pluralism instead leads to a politics of depriving the other of his or her enjoyment, to put in Zizek’s terms. Jealousy of the other’s pleasures become a dominant factor of political life, and the major question then becomes that of the extent to which one is willing to hurt oneself in order to take from those one dislikes those things which they enjoy. There is a contradiction in the fact that moral pluralism constitutes a dominant ideology, but I’ll say more about this in a future post.
1. Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), p. 86.