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How Democracies Are Reborn

By Fábio Augusto Morales, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina.


Morena dos olhos d'água, tire os seus olhos do mar Vem ver que a vida ainda vale o sorriso que eu tenho pra lhe dar

Descansa em meu pobre peito, que jamais enfrenta o mar Mas que tem abraço estreito, Morena, com jeito de lhe agradar (Chico Buarque, Morena dos olhos d'água, 1967)


[Water-eyed brunette, take your eyes off the sea

Come see that life is still worth the smile I have to give you

Rest on my poor chest that never sickens the sea

But who has narrow hug, brunette with a way to please you]


In March 2019, Jair Bolsonaro breaks the blue sky with a new torrent of absurdities: it is necessary, according to the president, to celebrate the "1964 revolution". If anyone, among outspoken supporters and moderate opponents, were still reluctant to attest to the Bolsonarist regime's aversion to democracy, the order for the Ministry of Defence to "duly commemorate" the coup (that established a 21-year-long illegal regime, marked by the practice of torture and persecution of opponents) clear things up. In this context, books with a title as eloquent as How Democracies Die become best sellers: the slow decomposition of democracy introduced in 1988 makes Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's study a grim paraphrase of our downfall.


Democracies die, no doubt; but democracies are reborn nonetheless. Ancient History records some cases of the rebirth of democracies, sometimes in a very detailed way. This is the case of the restoration of democracy in Athens in the year 403 BCE, reported by Xenophon in his Hellenics (work that continued, according to the author, Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War), in the Constitution of Athens, attributed to Aristotle, and in other sources that mention the episode more or less in passing. Let's see.


The restoration of democracy in 403 BCE meant the deposition of a regime that ruled the city after the final defeat in the Peloponnesian War at the battle of Egos Potamos in 405 BCE, when the Peloponnesian fleet, with Persian reinforcements, commanded by the Spartan Lysander, destroyed the Athenian navy. Taking the city, Lysander negotiated the surrender of Athens. One of the first measures was the demolition of the "Long Walls", a system of walls and fortifications that linked the city, Athens, to its main port, Piraeus, along 9 kilometres. The Long Walls allowed Athens to supply, during the Spartan occupation of its rural territory. By dominating the sea, Athens had access to wheat and other foods from the Mediterranean and Black Sea. This was no longer the case: without a fleet and without access to the port, Athens became a land-bound city, far from the sea. Another measure was the installation of a regime formed by Thirty citizens, which would have the task of reforming the constitution, appointing new occupants for public positions and selecting five thousand citizens who would form the new, restricted assembly. The arrangement would be the "ancestral constitution", associated with Solon's legislation, which predates the "exaggerations" of democracy: ostracism, payment to participate in the assembly and the courts, and, essentially, the sovereign character of the democratic assembly. Claiming that democracy was responsible for the tragedies of Athens - from the ill-fated expedition to Sicily to the execution of admirals who did not rescue the wounded - the group of "Thirty" advocated a return to oligarchy. Among the Thirty there were more moderate citizens, who defended a regime between oligarchy and democracy, like Teramenes, and more radical ones, who defended tyranny pure and simple, like Critias.


Speakers' platform on Pnyx Hill, site of the democratic assembly of Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE (Source: WikiCommons).

Thus was formed the government of the Thirty, which posterity would remember as the "Thirty Tyrants." At first, with the argument of eliminating the excesses of democracy, the Thirty persecuted the "sycophants", blackmailers who threaten to accuse and condemn citizens in court if they are not paid. However, in a short time the regime began to persecute those who were against the oligarchy, and even all those who had been honoured by the assembly. In search of income, the regime executed and confiscated the property of resident foreigners, metics, and anyone else who supposedly oppose the regime. Teramenes argued against the persecutions, turning himself into a target: soon he was executed by the regime. The author of the Constitution of Athens states:


"Having gained greater control over the city, they spared no citizen, but instead executed eminent people - whether by fortune, birth, or reputation - both concerned with suppressing their fears and desirous of plundering their property. Thus, in a short time, they liquidated no less than fifteen hundred people" (Constitution of Athens, 35.4).


The regime's violence fuelled the opposition; exiled citizens and metics formed a detachment at Megara, neighbouring Athens, and, led by Thrasybulus - who had led the sailors in resisting an earlier oligarchic coup - seized a stronghold in Attica. The group that started with a few dozen soldiers increased to the hundreds, and thus they managed to take the port of Piraeus. The Thirty, increasingly divided, asked for Spartan support; the advance of the Democrats, however, was unbeatable, and within a short time the Thirty were exiled to Eleusis and steps were taken to restore democracy. Among the measures was the amnesty of citizens who remained in the city during the regime, but who did not hold office. Me mnesikakein, "not remembering evils", became the motto of the amnesty. The regime would be restored, the ills would not be forgotten (being remembered every time one of the "leftover citizens" was brought to justice), the walls connecting the city to the port of Piraeus would be rebuilt, and, with rare interruptions during foreign occupations in the Hellenistic and Roman period, the assembly of citizens, regardless of income, would remain the sovereign organ of the regime.


How was Athenian democracy reborn in 403 BCE? The first impression is unmistakable: the divisions within the anti-democratic group fuelled the democratic opposition, which, by force, overthrew the oligarchic/tyrannical regime and restored democracy. However, if this impression is not wrong, it is possible to perceive a deeper level, and the Long Walls are a clue. Overthrowing the city's material link with the port meant cutting the spatial and social link with Athens’ Mediterranean networks, in which the Athenian fleet was protagonist. A fleet, namely, composed of hoplites but also of a multitude of paddlers and sailors to whom the sea was the basis for their material reproduction, whether through trade or the Athenian empire. The oligarchic coup of 404 BCE was a coup by a rural Athens against a maritime, imperial Athens. For in Athenian democracy, as the anonymous author (known as the Old Oligarch) would say in his Constitution of the Athenians, "helmsmen, bosuns, watchmen, and shipbuilders are the ones who bring strength to the city, more than the hoplites, the well-born and good men; this being the case, it seems fair to all to take part in the magistracy and each one to be able to speak his intentions if he wants to" ([Old Oligarch], Constitution of the Athenians, 2). Democracy was restored at the Long Walls;it won maritime Athens, which should be renewed without the empire.


Maritime Athens: two warships in full sail. (Attic vase of black figures, signed by Nicostenes, c. 520-510 BCE Paris, Louvre Museum).

Having said that, let us return to the Bolsonarist Brazil. The current dissensions of the government - divided between military of different ranks, ideological followers of Olavo de Carvalho of different branches, centrist politicians of different parties, neoliberals of different extractions and evangelicals of different denominations - may be signs of an erosion of the anti-democratic bloc, formed in the alliance between segments of the elites andbroad sets of the precariat (which does not consider democracy or social rights as fundamental factors in its reproduction). However, being the military power part of this bloc, it is worth asking: which class and which coalition of forces would be able to protect or, eventually, restore Brazilian democracy? Athens did not turn its back on the sea;that Brazil does not turn its back, we hope, to democracy.


Tags #democracy #coup #resistance #sailors #rowers #Athens #AncientGreece

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