Multibrain: Republic, Democracy

Some brainiacs such as the philosopher Michel Serres (of “France decapitated”), make a big deal that France is a “Republic”, and the USA a “Democracy”. It’s the sort of mock sophisticated distinction that those who want to look intellectual embrace. Serres has taught in plutocratic universities of the USA, he should know better. Or, maybe, he knows better how to serve his masters than yours truly. The distinction is without merit.

First it blows up the differences between France and the USA. In truth, both Republics are much more similar to each other than they are, to any other regime in the world (including the United Kingdom).

Differently from Rome and Athens, the USA and France were born as entangled republics. Both Republics have recent imitators, namely dozens of modern states.

Second, the main difference between “Republic” and “Democracy”, as it happened 25 centuries ago, was just a matter of language and esthetics. The beauty of how the concept sounded in Greek did not translate in Latin (‘Populus-Imperium” has six syllables).

Athens called itself a “demokratia”, because demokratia was a Greek word. Greek spoke Greek, Romans spoke Latin.

Too Big For Debate Killed Respublica

Too Big For Debate Killed Respublica

But democracy was not exclusively a Greek concept. It was as strong, if not stronger, in Rome.

Indeed, the “rule of the People” is how human societies have always worked best (except during war): distributed intelligence, creating the super-brain effect, from the many brains debating. TheMultibrain effect. Whereas, indeed, I do not believe in the “Multiverse”, the human brain, and, even better, any human society, is a multiverse onto itself.

Democracy allows to tap in this multiverse of the multibrain. Democracy is a multiverse. For real.

So the Romans spoke Latin. They had two words for “power” in the sense of “rule”. “Potestas” for lower magistrates, Imperium” for higher magistrates (Consuls, Proconsuls, Praetors; “Censors”, although higher magistrates, did not have the “Imperium”).

It would have been all too long, thus awkward to make a single word with “populus”, “potestas”, and “imperium”. Thus the romans instead used the Thing Public (Res Publica). Later the Demos-Kratos of the Greeks, Latinized into “democracia”, was used.

But that does not mean the Romans did not practice democracy. They did. Real democracy, that is, direct democracy. In practice, there was little difference between direct democracy as practiced in Athens, and that practiced in Rome.

(But for the fact that Athenian democracy lasted two centuries, and the Roman one, around five. Also, even under the Principate founded by Augustus, many Republican functions kept on going, and it was not clear that the Republic had stopped, as the weird transition between Augustus and Tiberius amply demonstrated.)

The various Roman “Magistrates” were masters of diverse functions, and represented those functions. They implemented People Power, they did not displace it. They did not represent people, just functions.

Rome, or at least the Roman Republic, which lasted five centuries, ignored that oxymoron, “Representative Democracy”. SPQR, the Senate and People of Rome, lasted so long, precisely because the Romans refused to be represented in some theater, by professional liars. (For those who don’t know, oxymoron is Greek for “sharply stupid”.)

Athens’ democracy failed, because, as Demosthenes pointed out, the Greek city-states refused to make the tremendous war that was required to get rid of the fascist plutocrats from Macedonia. In the end the war came to them, and Antipater, one of Philippe’s senior generals, took Greece over thanks to enough torture and execution to terrorize the Greeks into submission (130 years later, the Roman Republic freed Greece, and the legions were then withdrawn).

If it was so good, why did Rome quit Direct Democracy?

I have argued that it was because of the rise of plutocracy. That’s entirely correct, but then the question occurs of what allowed this rise.

I have written detailed essays pointing the finger at the Second Punic War, the rise of the war profiteers, the death, or dilution of the really noble Patrician families’ spirit (whose ancestors had conducted the Roman Revolution in the Sixth Century BCE). I also pointed out to the fact that the Roman Republic became, thanks to that war, around 200 BCE, a global power.

All too many rich, powerful families were then able to do what is now called “inversion”. Namely rule from abroad (where Roman Law did not apply). So they escaped confiscating taxation that was meant, precisely, to decapitate the plutocratic effect.

But there was another pernicious effect of the vastness of the Roman Imperium.

Athens had met it already. In the Athenian Assembly (of the People), important decisions needed a high quorum. That meant distant farmers had to travel to Athens for a few days. That was expensive, so the Athenian Republic paid for distant farmers to come to vote.

The situation was much worse in Rome.

The Athenian City-States ruled Attica, which is about 100 kilometers long. The Athenian Imperium extended at some point to the Black Sea (to insure the wehat supply). Moreover, all Athenain dependencies could be quickly reached by boat.

Not so with Rome. Cities such as Numance (Numentia) sat in the middle of Northern Spain, weeks of travel from the sea.

Rome was physically incapable of maintaining communications fast enough to maintain direct democracy (in any case the old democratic set-up in Rome depended of the detailed status of citizens within “tribes”, and would have had to be severely modified just to extend to Italia).

Very slow communications was the deep down root killer of Roman direct democracy.

We don’t have this excuse. Not anymore.

Quite the opposite. Whereas Rome experienced a loss of opportunity as the empire extended, modern technology, the Internet, offers us the ability to do as the Romans did under the Republic: vote all the time, about anything.

We don’t need no stinking representatives. Freedom is a mouse click away.

Patrice Ayme’


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8 Responses to “Multibrain: Republic, Democracy”

  1. Dominique Deux Says:

    There is no longer a Senate in Rome, but sewer plates are still engraved with “SPQR”.

    The very wording (Senatus populusQUE Romanus) (the Senate AND the People) tells us that the Senate was absolutely not meant to speak for, or stand for, the people. The Plebe’s Tribunes were not, either – unless they could ride on some rioting (and be punished for it, like the Gracchi) they really were shop stewards, their job to keep the plebe happy but not in charge.

    The lively debates on the forum were not meant to shape policy, but to allow various candidates to specific executive or religious postings to hawk their wares, with no bounds on demagoguery (except for sumptuary laws meant to forbid the lavish banquets plutocrats used to attract voters)..

    Thus the Roman Republic, although very much a Republic (ie with a strong sense of common ownership of the State) was in no way a democracy, and it was not merely a matter of using a Latin rather than a Greek name.

    Latter Republics in Europe (Venice, the Netherlands) made no pretense of being democratic either. The French and American Republics were the first ever to make democracy an explicit goal. Still striving.

    This being said… Michel Serres is a radio philosopher… amiable and hollow. Plays much on words and a very shallow smattering of science and culture.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Thanks for the comment, Dominique. I particularly liked the swipe at Serres. He taught philosophy at Stanford (a place I know all too well…).

      There were many phases in the Roman Republic. From my point of view there were clearly three periods, and one lethal interlude.

      Maybe I should develop this a bit in an essay… Although I mentioned it all before, in various essays.

      OK, here is the appetizer:
      1) The first phase of the republic was from inception until the Fabian laws, which were definitively anti-plutocratic. They capped wealth absolutely, a solution that I defend myself now.

      Before this, people power had grown enormously. The tribuni militum consulari potestate (“military tribunes with consular power”), up to 6 of them, basically from 444 BCE to 367 BCE, brought a reform allowing the Plebs to have Consuls.

      Notice also that the tribunes were NOT magistrates. So they could be elected more often than the theoretical 10 year eclipse of magistrates.

      (Plebian) Tribunes were “sacrosanct“, and could block any magistrate’s decision.

      The real truth about the evolution of democracy in Rome is complex, and very frightening, because we have two parallels now to what happened then, eerily in full swing.

      OK, more later…

  2. Chris Snuggs Says:

    Sounds a lot more “mock” than “sophisticated”. As in all other professions, there are the good and the useless, and no different with “philosophers”, and few of them can fix your plumbing or put up some shelves.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Martin Heidegger (!), the Nazi sometimes famous philosopher, himself pointed out that intelligence came from the hands, manual work. That’s part of what I talked about in the essay: if truth is what works, work is what allows to find truth.

      A lot of what passes for “philosophy” in recent decades is 100% mock, indeed.

  3. Chris Snuggs Says:

    “Democracy was not exclusively a Greek concept. It was as strong, if not stronger, in Rome.”

    Chris Snuggs The point is that it started in Greece, no?

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      This is the point that is implicitly, generally made. But it’s erroneous. Deeply erroneous, and this error impacts all debates on democracy, and, or, republic.

      Indeed, the Roman republic started in 510 BCE, roughly coincidental with the establishment of Athenian democracy by the Spartan (!) army. Now the Roman democratic phenomenon was completely independent of Greece.

      My point? The Roman Republic, overall, made democracy stronger and longer lasting than any Greek City State. It’s not paid enough respect. The Roman Senate lasted more than 13 centuries…

  4. EugenR Says:

    Democracy is a political system, with its roots in antic Greece an Rome, that was revived 1500 years latter first by the founding fathers of the United States, then unsuccessfully followed by the French, due to too zealous, too full of hate revolutionaries, who happened to take over the reins of the National Assembly, and manipulated them by terror. The real process of democratization in Europe (except in England) started probably after the 1848 revolution and as a consequence to it. This time it was not a revolutionary change, but rather slow process that took decades, and brought European governments at the eve of WWI to a statehood that gave legitimacy to certain liberal-democratic. This process came to its end after WWI, and at eve of WWII most of Europe, except of France, England, and Czechoslovakia, was governed by Fascistic- Communistic regimes. Only with the collapse of USSR, 22 years ago came this political disaster to its end, and now most of the world is managed with some kind of liberal-democratic regime.

    Why i summarize these well known historical facts, because unfortunately, if we count correctly, during 6000 years of human civilization and history, only in the last 20 years we can see emerging certain kind of liberal-democracy in most of the parts of the world. Also it has to be said, that in most of the countries, these democracies are rather fragile, far from to be liberal and humanistic and with limited capacity to cope with economic problems of the modern world, which are; more evenly distributed income and difficulty to solve long term problems exceeding the elected government term (environment).

    From all this i come to a conclusion, that democracy is not very efficient not only at times of war, as it was proven during WWII (WWII won USSR and as a result of it it imposed their totalitarian, terrorist regime upon half of Europe), but also to make strategic decisions if it comes to problems with long term consequences. More than that, the liberal- democratic governments are not very different from dictatorships, as to their capacity to accumulate deviation from balanced economic and political state, with rather evenly distributed wealth and political power (Plutocracy).

    Patrice, I hope you are right about the new technologies, that enable direct immediate communication among any number of citizens of world, connected to the internet, and it will help to initiate and create a new political system that will solve the problems of liberal democracies.

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