When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, The Washington Post put up on its masthead the words “Democracy dies in Darkness”. The Post was, of course, not the first to bemoan the decline of democracy, a mourning which is coupled with a nostalgic yearning for the democracy that once was.

The ideal for the Western democratic tradition is usually Athens in ancient Greece. In India, we cannot magically conjure up such a long history for democracy. Thus the Indian public intellectual ends up endorsing a short but succinct motto: back to the Constitution. The Constitution embodies the democratic ideals which we have failed to live up to in our political and social life. Democracy, as embodied in the ideals of the Constitution, must be defended.

This is a move common to all defenders of a liberal, open society. While our societies and polities might be riddled with unsurpassable contradictions, the democratic ideal itself is free of such failings. The dangerous idea that liberal democracy might carry within its very concept the contradictions that are supposedly external aberrations is never allowed to fully develop.

Introducing isonomia

What Kōjin Karatani in his book Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy discovers is that democracy is not simply the perfect ideal that we consistently fail to live up to. In fact, democracy is itself the degradation of a previous form of government, called isonomia. Democracy was born as a reaction to the collapse of the isonomic societies.

The problems that plague democratic states are not aberrations, but the culmination of the contradictions immanent in the very concept itself. Karatani does not simply critique the failings of liberal democracy, as many are wont to do. He actually offers a real alternative: isonomia. It remains an open question, however, whether isonomia is possible today.

It is quite common knowledge that the ancient Greeks, that society of enlightened philosophers, poets, and statesmen, built their democracies on the backs of slaves. That the American Founding Fathers did so too should not then be considered hypocrisy (as it usually is) but rather the norm that they quite religiously followed.

Nick Land, the philosopher of neo-reactionism, had in his youth made an interesting point. Contemporary liberal democracy functions on the basis of the dissociation of politics from economic relations: “The displacement of the political consequences of wage labour relations away from the metropolis is not an incidental feature of capital accumulation… It is rather the fundamental condition of capital as nothing other than an explicit aggression against the masses.”

The rule of equals

Thus the idea that a few will have democratic rights of property, suffrage, representation and free speech while the majority will be deprived of even their liberty is not an anti-democratic principle. It is rather the fundamental condition for the consistency of liberal democracy. As Land writes, there is not much of a difference between South Africa’s apartheid system of bantustans which provided it with cheap labour and America’s relationship with the Third World economies from whose sweatshops emerged its highly desired commodities. The absence of a contiguous national and territorial geography does not negate its character as founded on exploitation; a form of exploitation that functions by dissociating the political from the economic.

So when BR Ambedkar had famously declared “we are entering into an age of contradictions” he could have simply said “we are entering into democracy”. The contradictions he warned against are internal to the very concept of democracy. Karatani, one of the most important philosophers living today, attempts to elucidate this history of decay and decline. But what is isonomia, and how is it qualitatively different from democracy?

Karatani defines isonomia (literally “no-rule’”) as a system of governance that existed only for a few hundred years in Ionia, ancient Greece, about two hundred years before Plato. Isonomia simply means the rule of equals. Democracy was a pejorative term for isonomia, demeaning it as the rule of the illiterate and uncouth majority. In an isonomic society citizens were not just legally but also economically equal.

“In Ionia”, writes Karatani, “a landless person could simply migrate to a new city, instead of working on someone else’s land. Naturally, this left no room for great landowners to emerge. In that sense, we could say freedom gave rise to equality”.

Re-examining Greek philosophy

The Ionian cities or poleis were built on a poverty-less society. This was not a society without poverty, but one without sharp class distinctions. But as is obvious, this was a very fragile system. It depended on two factors, one internal and one external. Enough land was required to facilitate freedom of movement. And external aggression had to be non-existent.

In the history of the world, Karatani finds only a few examples of isonomic societies, and they were all founded by colonists settling a new land. The Ionian people are one instance. Other examples are the Vikings who founded the Icelandic Commonwealth in the 10th century CE, and the first colonisers of North America. None of these isonomic societies survived for long.

Ionia and the Icelandic Commonwealth were destroyed by external aggressors. The isonomic American townships, immortalised in the Westerns of John Wayne, disappeared when the American Revolution led to the foundation of a centralised state that subsumed the federation of towns.

Karatani’s emphasis is not primarily on isonomia but on writing a new history of Greek philosophy. The earliest Greek thinkers – Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, and Pythagoras – grew up in isonomic societies and lived through their crises and breakdown. Socrates, according to Karatani, was the last thinker of isonomia. In that he was betrayed by his disciple Plato, who conflated democracy as it existed in Athens with isonomia as it was in Ionia. Plato was very far removed from the first experiments in isonomia by Ionian philosophers like Thales and Pythagoras, and could only consider democracy as a problem to be surpassed by rule of the philosopher-king.

The pre-Socratics were all products of isonomic society. Theirs was a natural philosophy, based on one principle that differentiated it from Plato and Aristotle. For the Ionian natural philosophers, matter and motion were one. Going against Greek myth which believed that the gods were necessary to impart motion to matter, the Ionians thought that matter was self-moving. There was no hidden cause underlying its movement. This kind of thought did not need the god function. It was a philosophy of absolute immanence.

Is an isonomic society possible?

The Ionians differed vehemently on what the form of the ultimate matter was – some said it was water, some fire, some air, some the apeiron or boundless. However all of them thought that matter was self-moving. Aristotle’s concealment of the power of this natural philosophy had to wait thousands of years until a natural scientist called Charles Darwin invoked Ionian thought by denying evolution any teleology or final end. In doing this he found an admirer in Karl Marx, who dedicated his Das Kapital to Darwin, and revived in his own dialectical materialism the principles of Ionian natural philosophy.

Is it possible to bring about a truly isonomic society today? In a world where the idea of the territorial nation state is resurgent, and the immigrant a figure universally reviled, it seems like a futile task. Yet as Karatani writes, “Modern democracy attempts to combine, therefore, two conflicting things, freedom and equality. If one aims for freedom, inequalities arise. If one aims for equality, freedom is compromised. Liberal democracy cannot transcend this dilemma. It can only swing back and forth like a pendulum between the poles of libertarianism (neoliberalism) and social democracy (the welfare state).”

Isonomia bypasses this problem as it is a system where freedom and equality are not contradictory but complementary. Perhaps our public intellectuals need to pause their compulsive mourning for the demise of democracy and perhaps start thinking seriously about the possibility of isonomia.

Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy

Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy, Kōjin Karatani, Duke University Press.