The paradox of ancient Greek democracy is that the freedom and rights of citizens depended on the subjugation and exploitation of others. Recent events remind us that we might not have come as far from the flawed ancient model of democracy as we would like.
One of the biggest Canadian news stories to start 2018 was the Ontario minimum-wage hike to $14, up drastically from $11.60. The wage is set to go up to $15 beginning on Jan. 1, 2019.
While this pay increase was trumpeted by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals as an important step toward providing all Ontario residents with a liveable wage, many businesses, most notoriously Tim Horton’s, reacted to the news by threatening to cut worker benefits and hours.
In a column representative of the Canadian punditry’s response to public outrage at Tim Horton’s, Robyn Urback reminds us that, “of course businesses were going to act like businesses.” As Urback argues, and as many Canadians seem to accept, this is the system we’ve got, so we’d better learn to work within it, meaning — of course businesses were going to cut hours, pull back benefits and workers would suffer.
Democracy: Ancient and modern
As eminent historian and political scientist Josiah Ober points out, ancient Athenian democracy did not demonstrate the ideals of modern liberalism. Today’s liberal democracies — which enshrine certain rights such as free speech, individual autonomy and private property — are far different from the system in Athens, where collective self-governance was the highest principle.
The two systems, however, share one commonality that might prove instructive in our current context.
There was a nearly perfect inverse correlation between the degree of political freedom and equality for Athenian citizens and the rise of chattel slavery and imperial depredation. I increasingly wonder whether I could enjoy my own relatively comfortable lifestyle unless others were made to live more uncomfortably.
Freedom for some, slavery for others
The road to democracy in Athens began with the crisis of growing wealth disparity between rich and poor. The concentration of land, the primary source of wealth in the ancient world, in the hands of fewer and fewer meant that many Athenians had no choice but to lease and work the land of others.
If these poorer Athenians were unable to pay their debts, they and their family members could be taken by the rich as debt-slaves, trading their very bodies as collateral for their loans.
As debt-slavery spiralled out of control, it was the rich who worried that a violent uprising of the poor was inevitable. The rich thus appointed a law-giver named Solon in 594 BCE to draft a constitution that would alleviate tensions.
Solon’s most celebrated measure was the seisachtheia, or the “shaking off of burdens,” by which he partially redistributed land and outlawed debt-slavery. No longer could one Athenian own another. While full democracy would not develop for nearly a century, Solon’s constitution was a vital step towards equality among Athenian citizens.
The seisachtheia, however, was directly to blame for turning Athens into a true slave-holding society. Now that their fellow Athenians couldn’t be so readily exploited, the rich turned elsewhere for sources of cheap labour, predominantly non-Greeks who were imported to Athens as true chattel slaves.
Even moderately prosperous land-owners came to own slaves, and relied on them when Athens became fully democratic in 508. After all, if the Athenian citizen was to spend a day in the city participating in the running of the state, someone had to work the land. Freedom and equality for Athenians depended on the slavery of others.
A lavish democracy
The Athenian democracy became even more broadly based in the middle of the 400s, when the political privileges of the wealthy were almost wholly done away with through reforms associated with Pericles and his allies.
Some of the measures that ensured even the poorest Athenians could take part in running Athens included the payment of wages for serving on juries. The Athenians were proud of their democracy, and celebrated it in lavish style through a building program championed by Pericles that included the Parthenon and other spectacular structures that still sit atop the Acropolis.
The Parthenon and the broad democracy it hailed were expensive. Athens could only pay for such extravagances because it had grown into an imperial power, ruling much of the Aegean world by means of its navy, which was itself crewed by the very citizens who benefited most from things like jury-pay.
Pericles benefited from the empire too, since he was able to set himself up as the champion of the people and the builder of the Parthenon because of the money that poured in from Athens’ imperial subjects — all of whom were fellow Greeks.
Just as Solon’s laws against debt-slavery encouraged the rise of real slavery, the Golden Age of Periclean Athens was made possible by Athens’ imperial domination of dozens of Greek states.
Can we pay more for our coffee?
Which brings me to the Ontario minimum wage. Are we really unwilling to pay more for our coffee as we are on our way to our well-paid and comfortable jobs (as mine certainly is) in order to ensure that workers are paid a liveable wage?
Can we really not summon enough social and economic imagination to think that businesses, and the real human beings that are in charge of them, can’t be at least encouraged to, well, behave a little less like businesses? I don’t know.
If it’s not cheap coffee, it’s cheap goods made through cheap labour in foreign countries that greases our wheels and to which we turn a blind eye. We no longer have chattel slaves or actively rule an empire (though, in practice, there are many in the world to whom these semantic distinctions make little difference).
But our democratic way of life, which we tend to think of as the freedom to do and live as we please and have what we want, seems awfully dependent upon others not enjoying those things. I am made hopeful, however, that many, such as Christo Aivalis, a post-doctoral fellow in history at the University of Toronto, do have some suggestions for addressing the inequities of our system.
We could start, for example, by privileging demand-side instead of supply-side economics. We could recognize that “stability for working people is essential to robust economic spending.”
The legacy of the Classical world isn’t all bad. Despite his faults (and he had many), we could learn a great deal from Aristotle’s ideas. These include ideas such as: The state is natural (an idea that social contract theories largely reject); we humans are at our best when we come together to ensure the flourishing, the eudaimonia, of all of society’s members.
I for one will be doing a great deal of thinking to figure out how I can help those who currently work minimum-wage jobs to be better off. I will start by not letting businesses — or politicians — off the hook simply for acting as we expect them to.