art, culture, politics, democracy

Month: May, 2012

The Story of Democraczy: Chapter Five

Pericles:                            450 BC

Ephialtes:                           465 BC

Cleisthenes:                       500 BC

Solon:                               600 BC

Hammurabi:                    1,800 BC

Ur Nammu:                     2,000 BC

Gilgamesh:                       2,500 BC

Sumeria:                           5,300 BC

Lascaux:                         30,000 BC

Religious activity:            100,000 BC

Homo sapiens:                 130,000 BC

Homo erectus:              1,500,000 BC

Homo habilis:                2,500,000 BC

One of the most important matters to take from the Roman era, basically 600 to 25 BC, was that the period was, according to Marx, Hegel, and others the unofficial/official commencement of the paradigm of class struggle. Research indicates that the cohesion within certain classes, particularly the plebeians, was not uniform, but there appears to be certainty that people with wealth, property, and power (patricians) were intent on keeping, and expanding upon, what they controlled and were willing to use extremely devious, if not vicious, means to accomplish that end, including: sending poor people to war in order to encroach on and perhaps confiscate those plebeian’s then unoccupied lands.

As long as we retain the ability to think freedom, we have not been utterly dominated – if we were we would not have the perspective of freedom from which to express our ‘unfreedom”

                                                                         – paraphrase Žižek

This is not to say that this was the first time that there were excluded classes in a republican or democratic situation. In Greece, for example, most inhabitants were simply not labeled citizens and so could not participate in government. But Rome was the first noted time of open class rebellion. On the other hand, when the plebeians did obtain a modicum of authority, the wealthier members of their own class reverted to political self- interest rather than commit to the group’s common goals.


The difference here, and what makes this period significant, is that it marks, in history, perhaps the first public articulation of a group’s desire for equitability. It seems difficult to know what went on in the heads of excluded persons: non-citizens, women, slaves, etc. in Greece, or even Sumeria, but in Rome these peoples began to let it be known.


Theories of government and the traditional analyses of their mechanisms certainly don’t exhaust the field where power is exercised and where it functions. The question of power remains a total enigma.

– Michel Foucalt

Failed Plebeian

This idea of class struggle, which surfaces intermittently over the next 2,000 years begins here. But the emergence of this phenomenon also raises questions about the consistency of class. Given that people who have advantage will go to major lengths to maintain and even expand upon their position, it is now also evident that people on the not-have end of that difference may, ultimately, put forward effort toward negating some of the disparity. The large question is whether the prime motive for members of that group is equitable distribution, personal gain, or undefined desire.


The objective primarily at hand, increase in wealth – an economic goal – drives much socio-political theory. But classes are time based. At any particular moment the activation of a class is dependent on the perception of difference between one class and another.

Failed Patrician

In the United States 1950’s there seemed to be a possibility of less affluent classes, during a minor fit of fiscal partisanship, actually gaining ground in the redistribution of wealth. This may have been a misperception, but in any case it was short-lived. In the 1960’s and 70’s the struggle became not per se about wealth but more about power.

. . . . . a revolutionary community “without status, without life, without title, without name”                            

 – Jacques Derrida


It finally became too ludicrous to some that the political authority at the time could initiate yet another fanciful war – sending primarily one class to a struggle, meaning combat/war, based on a fearfully, or perhaps cunningly, conceived difference in ideology – similar to how plebeians were sent to war in order to take them away from the center of power. (The very same rationalization, by the way, that was used to engage in Iraq with no more than a whimper of opposition).

. . . . no class . . . . can be a member of itself; . . . a class of classes cannot be one of the classes which are its members; . . . . a name is not the thing named.

-Gregory Bateson

Failed Patrician

My friend Jim admonished me that this blog is not art. Though normally very articulate, in this case he has difficulty verbally (but not gesturally) expressing why it is not. The fact is that the world, life itself, is very much an immense irony – or, to paraphrase a speech style from the renowned Casey Stengel, life is an analogy for life.


All we have to do is look at life as if it is an infinitely continuous, implausible performance piece to see that. And what is art but a vehicle to bring that recognition to our attention?

The Story of Democraczy: Chapter Four

Hammurabi:                  1,800 BC

. . . the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers;so that the strong should not harm the weak . . .

Ur Nammu:                    2,000 BC

Gilgamesh:                      2,500 BC

Sumeria:                          5,300 BC

Lascaux:                        30,000 BC

Religious activity:          100,000 BC

Homo sapiens:               130,000 BC

Homo erectus:            1,500,000 BC

Homo habilis:              2,500,000 BC

Thus began an alternation of attempts to broaden and strengthen individual rights among the recurring dark periods that rendered such rights all but invisible – a cycle that continues to this day – as if democracy is only one in a continuing rotation of equal governing options – rather than the destination that we like to believe it is.

It wasn’t for another 1,200 years, around 600 BC, when Solon, in Athens, purportedly decided that governance could be participated in by most, but not all, economic classes of the Athenian population. That experiment lasted all of, perhaps, less than ten years before another tyrannical authority returned to rule.

It is necessary to consider, even though we are 2,600 years later, how broadly the term democracy appears, even now, to be used and how many variations, constructions, and misappropriations occur within this rubric. Thus, when we refer to attempts at democracy 4,000 or 2,600 or 2,000 years ago, as you all know, these are infantile, though exceptional, principles that are being scribed into sand that verges on the ocean surf.

One would like to think that there has been a continuing story line, an evolution, toward the principles and practice of a democratic sensibility, and perhaps underneath the historical account, there resides one. But amid the continual reinterpretation of political

rule, one continues to be uncertain. It is also possible to suggest that all of the best writing and reasoning supporting individual rights, as was ably debated in the Federalist Papers, and the historic legislation that followed, still does not describe the world that we experience in everyday praxis.

As Athenian democracy passed from Solon to Cleisthenes to Ephialtes to Pericles, one gets a sense that the issues were not only the rights and freedoms of individuals, but also their ability to hold their representatives accountable.

One hundred years later, after Solon, around 500 BC, Cleisthenes once again established and enhanced major egalitarian reforms within Athenian life, including the idea of ostracism, which destiny he may have also suffered.

Ostracon (Ballot) ca. 500BC

Ostracism is an enthralling idea. At that time it took a vote of 6,000 members to expel any citizen for 10 years. Usually that citizen was an unpopular politician or one who threatened the prevailing system.

Ephialtes increased the scrutiny of office holders and strengthened the judiciary. In appreciation of his efforts he was fairly quickly assassinated by those opposed to social accountability, and Pericles took office. This idea of accountability to the vast public lies at the heart of the democratic issue: the responsibility of governance to the broadest electorate – and, really, who gets to decide what that responsibility is?

The Story of Democraczy: Chapter Three

Hammurabi:             1,800 BC

Ur Nammu:              2,000 BC

Gilgamesh:               2,500 BC

Sumeria:                          5,300 BC

Lascaux:                        30,000 BC

Religious activity:          100,000 BC

Homo sapiens:               130,000 BC

Homo erectus:            1,500,000 BC

Homo habilis:              2,500,000 BC

Cune 2012

The Story of Democraczy: Chapter Two

Sumeria:                          5,300 BC

Lascaux:                        30,000 BC

Religious activity:          100,000 BC

Homo sapiens:               130,000 BC

Homo erectus:            1,500,000 BC

Homo habilis:              2,500,000 BC

30,000 plus/minus years ago, after 2,500,000 years of human development, give or take a half million or a million years or more, from homo habilis to homo sapiens sapiens, residents decorated the walls of their habitats with tales of their daily survival exploits. Those decorations are now considered examples of art, which decision today provides many with a bereaved pause when having to try to determine the difference between graffiti art and actual graffiti – or is all personal and/or political visual expression art?

There passed another 25,000 or 30,000 years between Lascaux and recorded evidence of the first possible, though unsubstantiated, glimmerings of the participation of citizens in their governance, around 2,500 to 2,000 BC. At some point prior to this humans had also developed the capacity for two acquired traits: desire (not lust, which I assume had existed quite a while before) and greed. As agrarian society developed the practitioners realized that it was important to store crops for consumption during times of ill weather or slow growth. This awareness engendered recognition of the necessity to determine just how much to hoard. Ultimately that determination became more subjective and differentiated.

Desire, on the other hand, according to Frances Fukuyama, was something that could never be fully satisfied. Desire requires the environment within which one has the “freedom” to pursue one’s goals, and, again according to F.F., democracy provides a virtual space within which that satisfaction may be sought.

The time of the Sumerians was probably a bit too early for people to be questioning how much voice is democratic voice, but it is a query that one must be cognizant of when considering the continuing and insatiate desire that leads to more individual participation in governance. And it is not too early to ask, as historians who have been studying these societies and the ones to follow have been asking, just what determines what kind of and how much participation is required to be able to state that a society is democratic versus, say, a participatory oligarchy?

At the beginning of Tomas Sedlacek’s The Economics of Good and Evil, the epic of Gilgamesh plays an important role. Gilgamesh, the fifth king of Uruk, ca. 2,500 BC, had a strong urge to build a wall around the city. He corralled his workers and required them to live at the work site, thus preventing them from visiting home or seeing their families. Sedlacek cites this as one of the first examples of worker plight – or labor valuation – as it is now termed.  One can only imagine the ripple effect such an action might have had as societies developed; where one group would see labor as a series of numbers and another group would see it as an issue of rights.