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Exhuming Aristotle

Polity: Demystifying Democracy in Latin America and Beyond, by Joe Foweraker

In these times when popular protests rattle regimes around the world, when populist demagogues challenge stable democracies on every continent, this book merits reading far beyond the circle of Latin Americans and Latin Americanists. Joe Foweraker is well-known among scholars of Latin America, but here he makes an argument that applies to all modern democracies, including our own.

Aristotle is more cited than read outside philosophy and political theory classes these days, but Foweraker makes a good case for his relevance. In his typology of political regimes, Aristotle followed his mentor Plato in distinguishing three types of unjust regimes where the rulers seek their own interests rather than the common good: tyranny (rule by one person), oligarchy (rule by a few), and democracy (rule by the majority of the population). He also cited virtuous versions of each, where the rulers seek the common good rather than their own interests. The virtuous version of tyranny is monarchy; that of oligarchy is aristocracy. But what is the virtuous version of democracy? Aristotle suggests that democracy can be virtuous when it is tempered and balanced by oligarchy. This mixed regime is what Aristotle calls polity.

Foweraker seeks to exhume Aristotle’s concept to make sense of some stubborn realities of democracy in Latin America and elsewhere in the world.

Foweraker seeks to exhume Aristotle’s concept to make sense of some stubborn realities of democracy in Latin America and elsewhere in the world. We typically see the aspiration for democracy blocked or weakened by the continuing power of wealthy capitalists or landowners, or by the corruption of political leaders who enrich themselves rather than empowering the people. We see, in short, pathological democracies.

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Joe Foweraker

Joe Foweraker

But what if we instead see the persistence of antidemocratic power in democratic regimes as normal? An Aristotelian polity would be the scene of a constant struggle between the organized people and the organized oligarchy, sometimes tipping to one side, sometimes the other.

This is the history of modern democracy, beginning in the United States and England and spreading to other parts of the world, including Latin America. Everywhere, attempts to build democracy were resisted and frustrated by economic, social and political elites. Even when formally democratic, constitutional regimes were established, the powers of the democratic electorate were aways checked by the continuing power of the elites. Indeed, the very leaders of democratic movements inevitably became new members of the elites.

Modern democracy and modern capitalism are historical twins that share a commitment to the liberal ideal of a political order that allows individuals freely to seek the truth and to seek their interests. Democracy and capitalism are nonetheless in tension because democracy presumes equality while capitalism produces inequality. Foweraker’s polity model suggests that this tension is inherent to democracy. A complete victory of democracy would mean unchecked majority rule, which in practice would create the dictatorship of the leaders of the majority (consider contemporary Venezuela, for example). A complete victory of the oligarchs would mean, well, oligarchy. The ruling elite would have no need to worry about the majority. Short of these two extremes, there is polity.

Consider the current parlous state of democracy in the United States. We have the worst economic inequality in the last century undermining the premise of the equality of all citizens and giving disproportionate power to the richest 1 percent. We have a populist president supported by a devoted minority who is undermining the autonomy of political institutions he doesn’t control. While Trump certainly represents extreme anomaly in his crudeness and impulsiveness, the fact is that American democracy has always had some version of these challenges. Foweraker tells us that ours is not a pathological democracy, but rather the way real world democracy must be: a perpetual struggle with the oligarchs.

impeachment unavoidable

John Peeler