Social Conflict and the Spirit of Democracy

It has become in vogue to hear calls for civility and compromise in the midst of heightening polarization and conflictual rhetoric. We are told that “democracy” is at stake because of polarization. Anyone familiar with the history of political philosophy and the explosive spirit of democracy knows that this new narrative is deceiving and, frankly, a lie. First, democracy is not synonymous with liberty. Second, the spirit of democracy has been born through the fires of social conflict.

Democracy was not necessarily the innovation of the Greeks, though the story told often claims so. Democracy is also not equivalent with benevolence, tolerance, or compromise, as the contemporary narrative often goes. Ancient tribal peoples had a certain degree of democracy in their practices of going to war. The innovation of the Greeks, and the Romans, to the contribution of liberty, and, indirectly, to the contribution of a certain form of democracy rooted in this particular liberty, was through property ownership which permitted the free exercise of labor over land and with that free exercise of labor over land the free use of the fruits of labor. Man became the measure of his own labor and economic activity rather than be compelled by the collective tribe or the king to work.

Liberty comes from the Latin word Liber, who was the god of fertility and festivals. Liber’s fertility and festival-oriented nature implied grain and animal sacrifice—something only permitted to the land-owning class of Rome capable of providing their own grain, grapes, and livestock for the cultic festivities. Michael Oakeshott, being knowledgeable of the classics—unlike so many people today—correctly pointed out that ownership of property and the free association of economic activity that stems from ownership of property are the true pillars of a “free society.”

Tribal society lacked private ownership because the tribe was collective; the land belonged to the collective and was allotted to the members of the tribe to work during the arable season. It was only something that was temporary. Tribal democracy could be excessively totalitarian because the rule of the majority can obviously negatively impact the minority.

There is, however, a connection between liberty and democracy—as Cicero recounts in his De re publica—insofar that the breaking away from collective ownership also entailed the formation of distinct classes within a society. Whether we like to admit it or not, Marxism is not democratic; Marx condemned “democracy” as much in “On the Jewish Question” as a bastardized child of the Christian missionizing ethos and anthropology of the sovereign man. Nor is liberalism intrinsically democratic, though this has become the now pervasive ur-myth for liberal elites. Democracy, as we’ve come to understand it through the Greco-Roman inheritance, is entirely predicated on a classed, rather than classless, society, and the social conflict that classes bring in society.

In his magisterial History of Rome, Livy recounts how social conflict helped spur the development of democratic republicanism in Roman society, “Gaius Terentilius Harsa was a tribune of the plebs that year. Thinking that the absence of the consuls afforded a good opportunity for tribunitian agitation, he spent several days in haranguing the plebeians on the overbearing arrogance of the patricians. In particular he inveighed against the authority of the consuls as excessive and intolerable in a free commonwealth, for whilst in name it was less invidious, in reality it was almost more harsh and oppressive than that of the kings had been, for now, he said, they had two masters instead of one, with uncontrolled, unlimited powers, who, with nothing to curb their licence, directed all the threats and penalties of the laws against the plebeians.” The dispossession and oppression of the Plebeians, which included debt enslavement and confiscation of land, resulted in famine and uprising. The uprisings of the plebeians eventually had the effect of the codification of Roman Law in the Twelve Tablets of the Law and the birth of the republican model of democratic governance. From Livy we see that the increasement of liberty coincided with the democratization of Rome but that the engine of increased liberty and democratization was through the conflict of the plebeians and patricians.

The connection between liberty and democracy is, as Cicero said, through the “legal rights which are equal among those who live as fellow-citizens in the same state” (iura certe paria debent esse eorum inter se qui sunt cives in eadem re publica). The enfranchisement of citizens into equal legal standing is the spirit of the democratic ethos and the basis of the liberty which Cicero extols as being only found in a democratic society. We know from history, and from life today, that this is not the given state of nature or the preexistent nature of things.

Cicero, as well as Machiavelli, among others, are all keenly aware that tyranny and liberty can exist in any of the three forms of government traditionally understood: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Liberty may exist in any of these forms of governments. Tyranny can also arise in any of these forms of government. The great façade of modern political propaganda is to attempt to denote tyranny only with one form of government and associate liberty with only one form of government as well. Any student of the classics, of classic political philosophy, and political philosophy more generally, wouldn’t make such a mistake. But what Cicero and Machiavelli both agree on is how liberty is generally best achieved and manifested in democracies and how this more perfect liberty is the byproduct of intense social conflict.

Machiavelli is famous for writing The Prince, an admittedly now bastardized book that many people kind of read and think they understand Machiavelli in full. The great Florentine wrote much more than The Prince, and his more profound and deeper work of political theory is the Discourses on Livy. Taken together with The Prince, and his Art of War, Machiavelli’s fuller political philosophy comes into vision.

In the Discourses, Machiavelli gives an account of how the Roman state transitioned from a monarchy to a republic, then to a more perfect republic. The underlying theme of the Discourses is how conflict spurred democratization and, therefore, a more ideal republic through the centuries. Reflecting on the class conflict between the Plebeians and the Tribunes, the newly enfranchised small property owning farmer against the aristocratically owned villas, Machiavelli writes, “In this way, after many disorders, disturbances, and the danger of disagreements that arose between the plebeians and the nobility, the creation of the tribunes came about for the security of the plebeians, and these tribunes were established with such power and prestige that they could always thereafter act as intermediaries between the plebeians and the senate and could curb the insolence of the nobles.” Machiavelli goes on to say, “If these disturbances were the cause of the creation of the tribunes, they deserve the highest praise, because besides giving to the people its role in democratic administration, the tribunes were established as the guardians of Roman liberty.”

Without social conflict, without the conflict of the various classes that made up the emergent Roman society, there would have been no movement to democracy.

Of course, one need not look to Rome or read the Discourses to get the same picture. One can go slightly further back to the Greeks, principally to Athens and its radical form of democracy. Solon, the great Athenian lawgiver, came from aristocratic lineage, but his wealth placed him among the emergent middle-class of small propertied owners, and his heart cried for the plight of the poor. The important step to democracy passed on by Solon, then, reflects—in himself—the very impetus of class and social conflict. Aristotle also reminds us of the pervasiveness of class conflict in Solon’s time in The Constitution of Athens, “the majority were the slaves of the few.” It was the pervasiveness of social conflict which helped lead to the rise of Solon and his reforms. Among his most notable reforms was the ending of debt bondage which freed many future small land-owning men from indentured servitude to aristocrats.

Another one of the great Athenian reformers who spurred the development of its radical democracy was Cleisthenes. Through the chances and fortunes of history, avoiding a Spartan overthrow which caused the Athenians to expel the Spartan invaders, Cleisthenes was free to engage in his reforms against the meddling of Sparta. Though an aristocrat, Cleisthenes’ reforms aimed at breaking the political power of aristocratic families of Athens. Rather than see the large landowning aristocratic families controlling Athenian political fortunes, Cleisthenes devolved power to the smaller demes—small villages centered on farms—which became the basis of the Athenian democracy of Western lure. (The demes were the true origin of Athenian democracy, rather than now oft-repeated other meaning of demes, demos, “the people.”) Having broken the concentrated power of the aristocrats in favor of the more numerous but less political potent small landowning farmer, the movement to democracy in Athens commenced in full force.

After Athens played the principal role in defeating the Persians in the Persian Wars, the Aegean and broader Mediterranean were open to Athenian commerce and grain exportation. This, coupled with the discovery of a silver mine, brought forth a great economic boom to the city which, in turned, sharpened the class divisions and distinctions in Athens. The rise of the demes, or demos, was through this newfound classism running through Athenian society which pitted social, economic, classes against each other. This necessitated political conflict between the aristocrats, small-propertied farmer centered in the deme, and the emergent commercial class of traders. This intense conflict led to greater and greater political enfranchisement leading to the democracy so fondly remembered by posterity.

We may also look to modernity for the reality of social conflict and the spirit of democracy. The three greatest episodes of modern democracy, imperfect as they were just like their Greek and Roman predecessors: the French Revolution, the Jacksonian Revolution, and the Civil Rights movement, are all remembered for as revolutions for good reasons. All were violent and predicated on class and social conflict.

Marx accurately described the French Revolution as a triumph of the bourgeoisie (he wasn’t particularly a fan of the revolution though it was an important step in the inevitable march of scientific socialism through History). The emergent bourgeoisie in France revolted against the aristocrats and clerics who dominated the society of the Ancien Régime. The emergent middle-class professionals and merchants, writers and petty bureaucrats, became the burning fuel of the revolution which shocked the old monarchies of Europe to their core. True, the French Revolution descended into tyranny and bloodshed, but so do many democratic outbreaks.

The Jacksonian Revolution, comparatively more peaceful than the preceding French Revolution, was undeniably predicated on social conflict. The White yeoman farmer, the small land-owning farmer during America’s infancy, was whipped up into a frenzy against allegations of economic and political corruption on the part of America’s Brahmin elites. Conflict between the established managerial class, men who were often of Puritan and early settler stock, were pitted against upstart and more recent settlers—often of Scotch-Irish background—and the furtherance of American democracy began. There were no calls for civility or compromise in the 1820s and 1830s.

The Civil Rights movement, of course, was a social—indeed, racial—conflict. Compromise and civility didn’t win the Civil Rights movement, though we like to tell ourselves of “peaceful protests” and “peaceful disobedience” to obscure the reality of murders, broken bones, and mass arrests. Cities burned. People were shot and lynched. Bodies were buried in swamps. Conflict eventually necessitated action and greater enfranchisement—inclusion into the “legal rights” which Cicero speaks of as the foundation for democratic liberty.

While it has become nauseating to hear the cries for compromise and tolerance, in the name of democracy, the history of democracy and democratization tells a different picture. Conflict, and sometimes violent conflict, is what drives democratization and serves as the spirit of democracy. These conflicts often arise from class conflict which manifest in broader social conflicts that drag in economic, legal, and political institutions and forces. Democracy, as we’ve outlined above and through our inheritance, is not the norm.

Paradoxically, the classless and egalitarian society marks the end of democracy. The aim of the democratic spirit, greater enfranchisement pushing to equality, as Cicero says, necessarily ends the very driving spirit which democracy is born and thrives in. Likewise, the harmless society—the conflict-free society—which is the true dream of liberal politics as I’ve written here, also marks the end of democracy.

We have forgotten that democracy is always a conflictual, strenuous, and sometimes bloody business. The comforts of welfare, consumerism, and warm beds, and the broad unanimity of the Cold War, produced a comfort consensus that we have now associated with “democracy” detached from the historical realities of democracy. The ironic reality is those who are positioning themselves as defenders of democracy through calls for civility and compromise are attempting to squash the revitalized spirit of democracy in the 21st century.

It is true that conflict doesn’t always lead to democracy. But the verdict of history is also clear, democracy has never arisen from civility and compromise. The danger and exhilaration of democracy is in not knowing what lay ahead. The comfort consensus distorts the reality of the nature of democracy and its moving spirit of conflict.


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