Human history, as it pertains to rulership (rulers and the ruled), is the story of conquest, legitimacy and illegitimacy. It is underscored with countless examples of tyrannical governments, regimes and personalities that rose to eminence through victory in war or the will of the people. Fast forward thousands of years, from the days of yore into the modern era, we find the will of the people or democracy as being the bottom-most and ideal structure for a successful society. Democracy is seen as the panacea for, and even a barrier against tyranny. However, is it really so? Politics in popular culture bespeak the devolution of democracy written about by Plato in The Republic; he helps elucidate the concerns of democracy, allowing us to comprehend how we ought to interpret the current global political climate.
In the Republic, aside from the other four types of government spoken about by Plato—aristocracy, timocracy [545a-550c], oligarchy, and tyranny—democracy is the most promoted and desired within our modern ethos. As one reads about democracy in Plato’s Republic, many parallels can be drawn to the current pop culture zeitgeist, particularly to that of American politics. Exploring the topic of democracy will be of particular interest to western readers because of the aforementioned reasons. Here, the reader will discover that Plato initially sees democracy as the great champion of personal freedoms and freedom as the ultimate good for any society, but soon devolves into something sinister.
Plato, in the Republic describes a society where democracy is the mode of polity. In this society the conventions of social stratification are challenged greatly—the poor or lower classes (the majority) are on par with, and at times, surpass the rich and aristocrats (the minority). There is equal representation and equal say; “the poor become winners” because they are free to live as they please, without the threat of coercion or reproof by the law or by upholders of the law. It is the will of the people that is the beauty of democracy, but on further exploration, it may appear to be or lead to anarchy. As Plato specifically explains that this democratic freedom is not true freedom, but, more importantly, a form of slavery. Surely, the lower classes enjoy several “freedoms” and their portion of society grows exponentially, but, as Plato puts it, they are still slaves to their desires—unnecessary desires—and these desires are hellbent on consumption, attaining wealth and reveling in carnal pleasures. This, in Plato’s view, is quite dangerous for it compels and carries the threat of the majority on the minority—the majority possess the means to dispossess the minority—in attempt to satiate base desires instead of nourishing the mind.
The previous description of “majority rule” and “the will of the people” can be seen in the modern context with regards to the prevailing and purveying socialist sentiments increasingly being expressed in popular culture. The will of the people has seen a rise to prominence of politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Following in the footsteps of Bernie Sanders, she promotes socialism or “democratic socialism”—the redistribution of wealth of the minority into the hands of the majority and the centralizing of government interventionism through voting. We see examples of these in the Republic which are regarded as inherent flaws within a democracy, for they, as Plato explains, bears the constant threat of the masses to only seek after what is “good” and beneficial for themselves and not all. It promotes socially sanctioned theft. Essentially, Plato portends that those ill-equipped to govern and run society achieve the means to do so simply by being the majority and having the most say and input. In a modern context, this translates to kowtowing to whatever is popular and socially sanctioned. This is especially the case in third-world nations where there is a high rate of mimesis.
Plato describes such a society as the Ship of Sate. In the Allegory of the Ship [488a-489c], he likens democracy to a ship and its crew, where the captain, the crew, the leader of the crew and a character called the ‘true navigator’ all represent the tug of war between political power and the general populace of a society. Plato describes the captain of the ship as being “…in height and strength surpassing all others on the ship, but a bit deaf and short-sighted, and similarly limited in seamanship” [488a/b]. The captain is an archetype symbolizing political authority and power with his physical dominance and presence and monopoly on violence, yet, susceptible to being mutinied and overthrown. We can think of any political leader in the modern world fitting this description—presidents, prime ministers and other politicians—who hold very significant positions in government and society, but their incumbency is contingent on the masses—people who vote them into and out of office. In today’s milieu, this dynamic holds true for any leader being subjected to the will of the people.
The crew members in the allegory, symbolize the uneasy, never satisfied and always complaining people within a democracy; constantly vying for control of the ship. This can be translated as suffrage and enfranchisement of the people to elect their leaders or, worse, those who may attempt to overthrow their governments through revolution and violent means. However, as Plato describes, the crew members (the people) know nothing about ship navigation and its requirements— “they say it can’t be taught and are ready to murder anyone who says it can” [488b]. In popular culture, these people represent many on all sides of the spectrum, who see themselves as a victim class—victims to the current circumstances brought on by the current leadership—or as some would call them, disapprovers. Most of the times, if not all of the time, their plights are self-induced, but they see their leader as responsible and seek to take action against him. They may also come in the form of rabble-rousers—extremists and local, homegrown terrorists who are beyond disgruntled with their leadership. Plato explains that the crew spends most of its time conspiring against the captain—to overthrow him—to grant themselves access to the “goods”. Fundamentally, the benefactors of overthrowing the captain can “…help themselves to what’s on board, and turn the voyage into the sort of drunken pleasure-cruise you would expect” [488c].
Plato illustrates the leader of the crew to be a politician who is crafty and versed in political rhetoric—enough to win over the affections of the crew members. Naturally, this is not restricted to only politicians but can also refer to sophists and those with lofty aspirations. They manipulate the minds of the crew members and force-feed a narrative that resonates with their base desires and inclinations. The leader of the crew, outside of his prowess in shrewdness and intimidation, possesses no real knowledge of navigation, but, is capable of supplanting the captain. In modern culture, he typifies “the man of the people” who fights for the rights and on behalf of the people. He is often praised by his supporters for his charisma and his ability to move and capture a crowd through his articulation. He is, and most of the time if not always proves to be, a demagogue. For example, Hugo Chavez, former president of Venezuela, and his successor Nicholas Maduro, fit this description quite well. Other semblances can be found within the likes of Karl Marx, Mao Tse Tung and other indelible personalities of the Bolshevik revolution such as Trotsky, Lenin, Genrikh Yagoda and Stalin. All of these “leaders of the crew” led their nations and countrymen down a destructive path and were instrumental in the deaths of millions; horrendous events such as the Holodomor tend to escape our memories. But perhaps the ultimate example often referenced, would be the rise of the Nazi party, under Adolf Hitler, which history has recorded as having led to a holocaust. The “leader of the crew” as depicted in Plato’s Allegory of the Ship forewarns of the rise of tyranny that democracy facilitates—the devolution of democratic societies to totalitarian regimes.
Lastly, Plato describes the “true navigator” as a loner who is not preoccupied with the goings-on aboard the ship. He sees no squabbles, hears no arguments and neither cares to deliberate on them. His preoccupations are steadfast, focusing on the navigation of the ship, so “he studies the sky, the stars the winds” to the extent of being the only man proficient. The other crew members, however, view him as a sky lark who knows nothing about anything—ridiculing him at every turn and paying no mind to his postulations—because he is not familiar with their bickering, gossiping and ship politics. As Plato puts it, he is, “a word-spinner and a star gazer, of no use to them at all.” [489a].
In the modern context, the “true navigator” is the philosopher or anyone who espouses philosophy to be of utmost importance. It also refers to he or she who does not conform to popular thought and conventions. This ranges from people who prefer to stay at home and read a book—studying and attempting to learn a new skill—instead of going out to bars and clubs and engaging in pickup dating and other forms of socially sanctioned pastimes—to those who are diligent in affecting an apolitical change within the current zeitgeist. In popular culture, they are often ridiculed and shamed for their awkwardness and their lack of convention, the way they speak and handle their affairs. Things they find engaging and interesting, the general populace finds repugnant and dull. He is constantly challenged by those of lesser intelligence in order to be brought down to their level. More importantly, today, the “true navigator” –the philosopher—is ignored and devalued in society. This holds true for the discipline they are most versed in—philosophy—which bears no significance as it ought to in academia.
Contrary to popular belief, democracy inevitably devolves into tyranny. Democracy is generally seen as the cure for tyranny, but as Plato demonstrates in his allegory, this is not the case. If we are to learn anything from Plato’s republic with regards to democracy, it is that it is always accompanied by chaos and necessitates tyranny.