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Two of the most informative political tracts one can ever expect to read share very similar names. I mention this simply because in these degreed, but uneducated days, if one happens to refer to Cicero’s “Republic,” one can reliably count on being “corrected” by someone insisting that it was not Cicero, but Plato who wrote it. But for all their similar appellations, there are distinct differences between “De re publica” and “Res publica” that are less the result of the distinction between practical Roman thought and philosophical Greek philosophy and more the difference between the experience of an accomplished politician and the utopianism of an academic without responsibility.
However, both works share the same recognition of the intrinsically flawed nature of the three primary forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. They also recognize the way these forms tend to degrade over time and transform into the others. Both Plato and Cicero are fundamentally skeptical about democracy, as Plato sees as the second-worst form of government leading eventually to demagogic tyranny as liberty devolves into license, whereas Cicero instead observes it as a prelude to aristocracy.
History indicates that both transitions have been observed, but that as a general rule, Cicero has the right of it. Of the great tyrannies of the 20th century, only the German one arose from democracy. The others came about through various forms of oligarchy. And the modern systems of limited representative democracy are far too historically short-lived to claim that they are the magic politically stable system that many believe them to be; Cicero points out that at only 400 years of age, it is still too soon to speak definitively of the Roman republic.
It would, however, be possible to do so before long. It is one of history’s ironies that Cicero lived to see the death of that republic only two years after finishing “De re publica,” and being murdered as an enemy of the state by the Second Triumvirate that preceded the republic’s decline into imperial monarchy.
For all that the American left feared the presidential dictates of the “unelected” George W. Bush and the American right still fears the authoritarian principles of the “ineligible” Barack Obama, what we can conclude from the historical evidence that supports the conclusions of Cicero rather than those of Plato is that what passes for Western democracy is not going to devolve into monarchy, but rather aristocratic oligarchy. And that is precisely what we have been witnessing for decades, a transformation that has become increasingly clear since the global financial crisis began in 2008.
Already the principle of equality before the law has been openly discarded. While it was never perfectly implemented throughout the course of American history, judges and politicians were always careful to honor it even in the breach and went to great lengths to hide even their most egregious violations of it beneath a veneer of plausibly contorted reasoning. Now, they no longer trouble themselves to do so, as the rights of artificial persons and other classes favored by the ruling aristocracy are permitted to violate the law with impunity, suffering no legal consequences even when they publicly admit to criminal law-breaking on a grand scale.
While the West has not yet reached the point where the neighborhood banker can claim his droit du seigneur on a woman’s wedding night, the unelected new administrations of Greece and Italy make it clear that the age of Western democracy is over and a new aristocratic age has begun. Just as the monarchies of Europe fell, one by one, before the 18th century’s democratic zeitgeist, the 21st century will likely be viewed as a time when the democracies of the West were replaced by aristocratic forms of government.
Despite the strictures placed upon it by the Founding Fathers in an attempt to prevent its following the usual course, democracy in America has not only reached its historical limits, it has already exceeded them. It is already too late to restore power to the people within or without the system and any attempt to do so will be no more successful than the attempts of Cicero, Casca, Cimber and Brutus to restore power to the Roman aristocracy after Caesar crossed the Rubicon.
This will likely strike those who have been indoctrinated to believe that democracy is freedom as a terrible thing, but those who are students of history will recall that aristocratic rule, for all its intrinsic injustice, was generally considered to be superior to monarchy and democracy alike. What those with a limited perspective view as progress is simply one more revolution of the societal wheel powered by the fallen nature of man.