'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Monday, 22 August 2011

Tyranny? No thank you. Democracy, please. The century? Fifth century B.C.

Thucydides is a man ahead of his time, or perhaps there are just one or two themes in human existence and they keep playing out, over and over. Here is the chronicler:

In the "states that were governed by tyrants, the tyrant's first thought was always for himself, for his own personal safety, and for the greatness of his own family. Consequently security was the chief political principle in these governments, and no great action ever came out of them - nothing, in fact, that went beyond their immediate local interests."

Thucydides goes on:

"The Spartans put down tyranny in the rest of Greece, most of which had been governed by tyrants for much longer than Athens. From the time when the Dorians first settled in Sparta there had been a particularly long period of political disunity; yet the Spartan constitution goes back to a very early date, and the country has never been ruled by tyrants. For rather more than 400 years, dating from the end of the late war, they have the same system of government, and this has been not only a source of internal strength, but has enabled them to interfere in the affairs of other states."

(History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 1)

Although Qaddafi sponsored terrorism globally most of the Middle Eastern and Maghreb dictators did focus solely on internal repression, their ideology propagated the ruler as a national hero. Thucydides suggests that when the tyrant is removed, and equality restored, international antipathy can flourish. Which is an interesting idea. Democratice Peace Theory (esp. Doyle, 1983) suggests that democratic countries don't war with each other (statistics critiqued by eg Barkawi, 2004). But what if nascent democracies in the Maghreb instead of internal schism, civil war, decided to coagulate national identity by forming a rivarly with a neighbour?
So with this in mind, let me end with the last lines of David Cameron's speech today (full transcript)

There will undoubtedly be difficult days ahead. No transition is ever smooth or easy. But today the Arab spring is a step further away from oppression and dictatorship and a step closer to freedom and democracy. And the Libyan people are closer to their dream of a better future.

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