Podcast  

Democracy Paradox: When Democracy Breaks Mini-Series

The Ash Center is pleased to announce the launch of a new podcast mini-series in cooperation with Democracy Paradox around the newly released When Democracy Breaks: Studies in Democratic Erosion and Collapse, from Ancient Athens to the Present Day.

A black and white image of fallen and crumbling pillars

The Ash Center is pleased to announce the launch of a new podcast mini-series in cooperation with Democracy Paradox around the newly released When Democracy Breaks: Studies in Democratic Erosion and Collapse, from Ancient Athens to the Present Day. Edited by Archon Fung, David Moss, and Odd Arne Westad, this new open access volume explores the history of democratic erosion through a series of historical case studies. Throughout the volume, the contributors show again and again that the written rules of democracy are insufficient to protect against tyranny. While each case of democratic decay is unique, the patterns that emerge shed much light on the continuing struggle to sustain modern democracies and to assess and respond to the threats they face.

Listen to Episode 1

Listen to Episode 2

 

Transcripts

Episode 1

When democracy breaks, does it disappear or does it recover? This is a question on the mind of many during this period of democratic recession. It’s also unclear whether there are any longterm effects. Does democratic breakdown leave scars or permanent wounds or does the experience lead to a more resilient democracy?

Today’s episode takes us back to the first well documented case of democratic breakdown. I talk to Josiah Ober and Federica Carugati about democracy in Ancient Athens. We reflect on the rise of democracy in Athens and the causes of its collapse. But what makes Athens remarkable is its recovery. It reestablished a more resilient form of democracy that lasted another 80 years. Its experience offers important lessons for today.

Josiah Ober is a Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University. He’s a returning guest on the podcast from an episode this past December. Federica Carugati is a Lecturer in History and Political Economy at King’s College London. They are the coauthors of the chapter “Democratic Collapse and Recovery in Ancient Athens (413-403 BCE)” in a new book called When Democracy Breaks: Studies in Democratic Erosion and Collapse, From Ancient Athens to the Present Day.

This is the first of four episodes on When Democracy Break. It features contributions from a number of the leading scholars on democracy. The book is available open access at tobinproject.org. A link is provided in the shownotes.

This episode is produced with the support of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School. The Ash Center produces remarkable work from some of the world’s most renowned scholars. You can learn more at ash.harvard.edu.

The podcast also has many sponsors including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Their Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program is a leading source of research and ideas about supporting democracy globally. You can learn more at ceip.org/programs/democracy.

The podcast is also sponsored by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, part of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. The Kellogg Institute was founded by Guillermo O’Donnell, one of the giants of democratic thought, more than 40 years ago. It continues to sponsor research on democracy and human development. Check them out at Kellogg.nd.edu. You’ll find a link in the show notes to their website. If you’re interested in becoming a sponsor of the podcast, please send me an email to jkempf@democracyparadox.com.

But for now… This is my conversation with Josiah Ober and Federica Carugati…

jmk

Josh Ober and Federica Carugati, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Josiah Ober

Thank you.

Federica Carugati

Thank you.

jmk

Well, Federica and Josh, I really love this chapter. I thought this was a really important chapter for the book because we spend so much time talking about democratic breakdown and democratic collapse within the modern world, within modern settings, but democracy is much older. It has existed in premodern settings, and I think it’s really important to be able to study those to get the full scope of what democracy is, what it means to have democracy, and reasons for it to break down. I think it gives us lessons for the modern era that we can gather from ancient sources, ancient episodes of democracy. So, I loved reading your chapter, it was called “Democratic Collapse and Recovery in Ancient Athens”, part of the When Democracy Breaks: Studies in Democratic Erosion and Collapse from Ancient Athens to the Present Day.

So, the big question that I always have in my mind when I think of Ancient Athens is that it’s really the first major episode that we see of democracy in the world that really feels documented. But I always think of it as something that’s fully formed. I think of it in terms of the era of Socrates and Pericles and Plato. I don’t normally think about its origin. Can you help us understand, not just its origin, but why Athens decided to become a democracy? Why did it adopt democracy in the first place?

Josiah Ober

We really have to go all the way back to the collapse of the Bronze Age civilization around 1100 BCE, because the Greek world didn’t always have anything that was at all like democracy. As we go back to the Bronze Age era, the Greek world looks like miniature versions of the great civilizations of the Middle East and Egypt: palace structure, centralized taxation systems and so on. But it’s gone by about 1000 BCE and, at that point, the structure of these centralized palace hierarchies also disappeared. Writing disappeared from the Greek world because it was being used as an administrative language. So, in that period, the Greek world entered into the possibility of doing something new.

We don’t know nearly as much as we’d like to know about the so-called Dark Age or Early Iron Age period from about 1000 to 750 BC when we get the emergence of writing once again, the Homeric epics and so on. But clearly something had happened such that the reemergence of order in the Greek world in these what become city states is not in the same way a centralized hierarchy all the way up to a king form of social order. It seems to be more open, at least in some parts of the Greek world, and that opens up the possibility for a really robust citizen centered form of government.

Athens takes that the furthest. It takes that chance of non-hierarchy to a form of highly institutionalized set of really worked out social norms of behavior that give us what you were talking about to sort of full-blown democracy in the age of Socrates, say, or Plato or Aristotle. But it was a long development up to that point, and it didn’t have to happen. It probably didn’t have to happen in Athens. A whole series of things had to develop out of that possibility of a non-hierarchical development.

Federica Carugati

I think the other bit to add is that democracy arises, from what we can tell, which is probably very limited, not from a bottom up contractual, people-led desire for equality and participation. It emerges, again, as far as we can tell, from elite dynamics which also makes Athens less of an outlier in terms of thinking about the emergence of democracy elsewhere and in other periods of time. So, it is a story of, in some respects, elite infighting and elite pacts that at some point turn towards a mobilization of the people.

Again, as far as the evidence takes us, this is led by a particular figure that emerges from the sources that anyone who has sort of taken classes in Greek history knows well and what we learn if we follow that account is that in some respects, perhaps because of the threat of a military opponent, perhaps for other reasons, perhaps because of economic reasons, perhaps because of other constraints, the process of elite infighting for the first time opens up the opportunity for the people to begin to claim some rights.

These are rights of political participation for the upper classes, gain, certainly not people-led. That is the early reforms associated with classes in particular open up the space for further reforms that make the democracy more and more robust. Again, we’re talking about Athens, of course, which is again where I think we see the evidence being more robust and leading us, of course, to write articles about it as opposed to other Greek poleis.

jmk

Now, Athens wasn’t the only democracy in the Greek world. There were other democracies that existed. Obviously, there’s other autocracies. Sparta is the most famous government that is more authoritarian. How did Athens differ from some of the other democracies that existed in the classical world? What made it unique? What made it special?

Josiah Ober

Athens is really big for a Greek city state. Now keep in mind, all city states are very small compared to modern nation states, but Athens is probably the largest of the Greek city states with a total population at its maximum of perhaps 300,000 people, total citizen body at a maximum 50,000. That’s adult male native citizens. So, this is really at an order of magnitude larger than most Greek city states, potentially two orders of magnitude larger than the smaller Greek city states. There are a few other big ones, like Syracuse, that eventually does become democratic, at least for a while. Argos, another democratic city state, is quite large, but not nearly as large as Athens. Athens also was an early mover in terms of military operations at sea and military operations at scale at sea.

So, Athens became a major sea power fairly shortly after the consolidation of the democracy in the end of the 6th century BCE. With that sea power, Athens eventually after the Persian Wars, became an imperial power and was able to then bring a great number of other city states into its ambit and became very wealthy as a result. Control of the seas led to control of an empire. So, Athens became a democratic empire, which became a real center for Greeks from around the world. So, in all of these ways, Athens had certain features that other Greek democracies didn’t have.

jmk

But when we think of Athens compared to other Greek democracies, did the other democracies have the same type of institutions? Did the other Greek democracies copy what Athens was doing or were they influenced by each other? I mean, I can’t imagine that all of this is happening in a vacuum where each city state establishes institutions completely independent of each other. I would think that they’re probably borrowing different aspects from one another. Are there key differences in the actual institutional framework between them or are they very similar because they’re coming up with ideas together, borrowing ideas from each other?

Federica Carugati

So, we know a little about the process of diffusion, but we can’t really trace what’s going on. Still, we definitely see a process of diffusion in the sense that democracy becomes more popular as a form of government as the classical period rolls on. Nonetheless, we don’t have a window into the processes that enable the city states to borrow or to share expertise and information about governance. But we definitely see a sort of convergence towards a model and if you look at Eric Robinson’s book from 2011 on Democracy Beyond Athens, he clearly recognizes a model, a pattern, of Asian-Greek democracy that essentially revolves around the big four democratic institutions that we see emerging in Athens with popular courts, the popular assembly, usually an agenda setting council.

But then it is very difficult to tell within each institution what variation there might’ve been across city states. This is a tremendous loss because I think that the very history of Athens would benefit tremendously from knowing more about how other city states borrowed and adapted, or maybe developed different types of mechanisms that regulated the actual day to day governing in these institutions.

Josiah Ober

One example is the institution of ostracism at Athens, which seems to work pretty well for some time. It certainly doesn’t go off the rails, at least until the late fifth century. It works very differently at Syracuse where they have a similar institution, but they tweak it in ways that causes it to go off the rails very quickly. It becomes a destabilizing institution instead of a stabilizing institution. We can see these kinds of similarities and differences. Why did Syracuse adopt its form of ostracism? Because they learned it from Athens? Maybe, but we don’t know for sure. Why did they do it differently in terms of the details that caused it to ultimately go off the rails? We don’t know that either.

jmk

I guess I’m less interested in how the different democracies learn from each other thn in the bigger question of why Athenian democracy lasted so long, because I think it’s really remarkable how long Athenian democracy lasted, even with the interruptions that we’re going to get to in a moment. It has a remarkably long track record especially for a democracy that exists in the premodern era. So, can you give us a little bit of a better idea of what the institutions were that allowed for that stability for it to survive as long as it did?

Federica Carugati

Survival and stability are two somewhat different questions and I think there have been informed speculation, so to speak, about the survival of the fifth century democracy. This goes all the way back to Moses Finley’s idea that in some respects the stability and the survival of the fifth century democracy depended in large part on the empire that Josh was talking about earlier. So, in some respects, a level of economic prosperity that lifted all boats made, particularly those in Athens that may have preferred a different form of government, content with the status quo, so to speak, insofar as the survival of the fourth century democracy is concerned.

The striking thing is that the economic basis of the democracy changed dramatically if nothing else, because the empire is no longer in existence. So, the question of how, in fact, the democracy not only survives the collapse, but reconstructs itself on a fundamentally different economic basis is, I think, something else that the case of Athens can shed light on in terms of lessons that perhaps other cases don’t.

Josiah Ober

Part of the answer I think has got to be, as Federica says, the economic background. It’s essential, but there also is institutional design. The Athenians get some early institutions that either through luck or genius or some good tweaking in the early period turn out to be really quite robust and are used throughout the democratic period. Federica mentioned the courts, the assembly, the council, and the system of magistrates. Those stay pretty much the same. Substantial changes in the law and the use of law, and Frederica’s done fundamental work on that, but the procedure of the law courts themselves remain quite similar. So, they get some good institutions that they get used to. They learn how to use their institutions pretty well and they turn out to be pretty robust or at least worthy of reinstituting after they collapse.

The other question, and this is always a difficult one to put your finger on, but it’s the background culture of democracy, the norms of behavior, such that, around here, we ‘fill in the blank’, and at least some of that ‘fill in the blank’ was act as democratic citizens rather than move immediately to a civil war of mutual hatred and extermination. Now, that was a possibility. It flared up, but there seemed to have been at least some background cultural norm that was available to be reinstituted to pull Athens out of the collapse period.

jmk

So, Josh, I loved how you emphasize that Athens had very strong institutions that was able to hold its democracy together for such a long time. I think it’s a really important point to make early on in this conversation as we transition now to talk about some of the breakdowns that happened within Athenian democracy. Now you highlight two different episodes of democratic breakdown that both happened during the Peloponnesian War.

The reason why it’s key to remember that they did have strong institutions is that you guys bring up an insight that I did not recognize: the idea that there were institutional flaws within those institutions that no matter how strong they were, there were still some issues with the institutions that existed. I had always just thought that it was the stress of war that broke down Athenian democracy. That was the easy answer. Can you kind of talk a little bit about the episodes about how institutional flaws actually led to democratic breakdowns during the Peloponnesian War?

Federica Carugati

I think that the story we tried to tell in the chapter is somehow the following. At some point under the stress of war, things begin not to look as good as they used to and when we try to reconstruct the causes of that instability, the story of the collapse is relatively simple and we don’t need to get into Greek terms and extremely complicated dynamics to simply make the point that democracy collapses twice in the span of about six years. It is once reestablished essentially as it was before and the second time it gets reestablished with fundamental changes of the constitutional order. What those changes reveal, doing some work of reverse engineering, is what we have come to associate in the article as one of the fundamental flaws of its early democratic design.

Again, coming out of a period of elite infighting and needing to shore up the power of the people, the power of the actual demos against powerful economically and politically factions. The early democracy emerged as fundamentally guided by the assembly, an assembly in which people participate on a first come, first serve basis with relatively few constitutional constraints on what happens once the assembly ends. We see those decisions through the eyes of Thucydides in large part. We see that system of decision making coming under immense strain as the Peloponnesian War continues to rage. There are these moments in Thucydides where we see the assembly, of course, according to Thucydides, making increasingly bad decisions.

So, what we see as a fundamental institutional flaw is actually a lack of check on the assembly when and if subject to a particularly intense pressure to revise its decisions. Those institutions are simply absent early on. Throughout the fifth century, the assembly does not have a system to check itself. There is no other institution that can perform a checking and balancing function as we will call it today. So, as the war continues and Athens begins to suffer from significant demographic, economic challenges, it is not difficult for the elites to realize that this assembly that doesn’t have constitutional checks can decide several things about how to extract revenue from the elite. So, the social contract that has essentially shored up the decision-making process in times of prosperity begins to come under significant pressure.

As the economic basis of that particular type of institutional setup collapses, the elites begin to agitate ever more for constitutional change. That is in fact what we see in the sources with particular episodes that suggest that there is a fundamental faction in Athens that is very much interested in limiting the franchise in order to prevent that social contract from falling apart.

Josiah Ober

So, I think that really is the core issue, as she says, reverse engineering from the corrections that are made in the 4th century, which allows Athens to come back. We can really see that it was the fact that, for example, a very skilled orator could come before the assembly and convince them to do foolish things. Once the assembly had voted to do that foolish thing, that was it. That was Athenian law. That was carried out without any review.

There was really no way to stop a bad decision. There was no way to go back to revise that decision, except call another assembly, which required that same people or a lot of the same people, who had just chosen to do X, then two days later, choose to do not X. You start doing that too often and you have policy chaos. So, this really was a pretty serious flaw under the pressure of military conflict.

jmk

There’s a line in the book that, I think, brings this problem to light. You guys write, “The Athenian democracy in the fifth century BCE lacked the capacity to credibly commit itself to a future course of action. That is the assembly was unable to convince relevant agents that it would keep promises made via legislation.” I think that line really stresses the way that this issue about the assembly having just unchecked power really becomes a serious problem during a period of war where you need to be able to commit to actions and negotiate with agents outside of your city state. It needs to be able to tell them that we’re going to make a decision and that this decision is going to be able to stick.

Is that really one of the big reasons why the assembly’s unchecked power was such a problem during a time of war, particularly during the Peloponnesian War, where you’re facing off against Sparta and then the assembly isn’t just changing its mind, but it’s changed its mind in terms of potential negotiations with the foreign adversary?

Federica Carugati

One way to think about this is that the agent to which the credible commitment must be made are actually a number of different agents with very different incentives. In some respects, these are Athens allies. They need to be convinced that Athens will maintain its promises towards them in exchange for whatever number of ships and men and other resources it needs to continue fighting the war and to some extent protect them, because this is a coalition war. The second constituency is what I was mentioning earlier, which is the Athenian elites. So those who are bent towards oligarchy are somehow lost, but there is a large number of people who are still believing in democracy. We’ll also know that in a situation in which Athens has lost its sources of revenue, the assembly might well turn to them and expropriate in order to continue funding the war.

Then, of course, there is the Athenian populace that might think that in fact under this tremendous amount of pressure, maybe this particular system of government in which we all gather on a hill and try to figure out what’s best is not the most effective way of making decisions. The problem that the democracy begins to face once it loses the execution of a cultural and economic basis that maintains it as stable before is really that the credible commitment begins to collapse in the face of a bunch of actors that may have an interest in maintaining the structure, but also begin to see its cracks and the potential threat that comes through it.

Josiah Ober

So, you ultimately end up then with a credibility problem and that’s what you’ve got to solve if you’re ever going to pull out of this period of breakdown where Athen’s allies, Athenian elites, indeed, big parts of the demos itself doubt the capacity of the state to commit to any course of future action.

jmk

Why is this a problem unique to democracy? I can imagine somebody who’s a king, an autocrat, somebody who’s in charge that’s facing just increasing pressure from a war that realizes that they need to find new sources of income and decides to expropriate finances from the elites. I can imagine an autocrat deciding to change the terms which he came to power under and change laws because a war is ongoing. I can also imagine that as the war changes the calculus that’s going on in terms of your connection to your allies, that even a king, even an aristocracy might change its mind in terms of how it conducts its war in relation to its allies, in relation to its adversaries.

Why is this problem unique to a democracy, because in some ways I would think an assembly would make it less likely to change its mind since there’s so many people who have to change their mind as opposed to just one or a few people who would need to be convinced? In a monarchy just a single person might need to be convinced, but in a democracy, you need to convince large numbers of people in an assembly.

Josiah Ober

I think one way to answer that is the credibility of commitment is a general problem for all political regimes and indeed we see credible commitment problems cropping up all over the place in human history. You go back to the Magna Carta in the UK. There’s King John who’s got a credibility problem and he’s got to cut some kind of a deal with the barons and the ecclesiastical authorities. They try to create modes of credibility insurance. You take oaths. You swear to the higher authority.

But I think at least one way to think about this is it’s really not a uniquely democratic problem. But in this case, I think, especially because of the power of persuasion and the chance that in a given day, you would get an orator who was extraordinarily skilled… I mean, the orators are highly trained at this point. One of the things that terrorizes Plato and Aristotle later is the power of rhetoric. They become very good at what they’re doing. You can get orator X persuading the demos to do this on day one and then a different orator persuading the demos to do something else on day two.

The question is, does the demos have the kind of settled preferences that you can assume that a rational individual has, settled preferences to keep certain things in place because a new state of the world could be very much worse for the agent. Collective agents, potentially anyway, can have a harder time maintaining this coherence of ranked preferences over outcomes over time. It’s not an impossible problem to solve, but I think that’s one of the problems the Athenians face.

Federica Carugati

Yeah, I don’t have a lot to add besides just simply saying that the commitment problem is the fundamental problem of the stability of political regimes. The solutions that various types of democratic and various types of autocratic governments can mobilize are fundamentally different. I think that through Athens, we get a somewhat different version of the high taxation, high representation, low coercion equilibrium that we see, for example, coming out of the study of early modern representative versions of democracy. When we look at authoritarian regimes in history and today, the problem is somewhat similar, but the solutions are a range.

jmk

At the same time though, I do have to admit that my inclination is that in a democracy, you’re more likely to see dramatic change from one policy to the next because the whole idea of democracy is almost institutionalized change. It allows you to go from one idea to another as the populace changes its mind. We see that even in modern democracies, like in the United States, Barack Obama worked very hard to get a nuclear deal with Iran. Donald Trump gets elected. He gets rid of the nuclear deal with Iran. Joe Biden gets elected. He starts trying to work on a new one. Barack Obama tries to bring the United States into the Paris Climate Accord. Donald Trump pulls us out. Joe Biden brings us back in. We see those swings even in modern representative democracies that we have today.

So, my question isn’t about modern politics to you, but it would be whether democracies are just intrinsically vulnerable to those more dramatic swings in terms of policy shifts? When they see one thing not working, is it very likely for people to swing the other direction, especially under the persuasion of a highly skilled orator?

Josiah Ober

The one way to think about this is democracy’s strength is its capacity to change. Democracies are innovative in a way that typically autocracies are not. Autocracies get locked into deals between power brokers that are very hard to change. So, democracy, I think, does have an innovation advantage and we can see that it works out through the ways in which democracies have, at least throughout much of history, at least the history that we can study, been relatively wealthy. They’re able to take advantages of changes in circumstances. But that capacity to change under the wrong circumstances then becomes a weakness.

So, the ability to recognize a change in the state of the world as opposed to a king who’s always done things this way, knows how things are done, was raised to believe that the world is like this, says, absolutely not, we’re not going to do that. You get this capacity of a democratic community to see that the change has happened or to recognize the change has happened and to act accordingly. But, sometimes, under the stresses of the extremely high stakes stresses of war, you begin to get mistakes and this strength turns into really potentially a fatal weakness.

Federica Carugati

I guess I’m a little bit less optimistic than Josh. I think that looking broadly at how democracies have fared throughout history, it seems to me that a fair statement is that democracies are better designed for change, particularly change that is driven by fundamental shifts in culture, in preferences by a majority of the population. That is certainly something that democracies do better than autocracies. But I think that the actual state of democracies today makes this comparative advantage somewhat less, I don’t know, effective. This is a world of somewhat captured representative institutions in some respects and autocrats have a strong incentive to do some of the things that democracies have done well, for example, like achieve a high level of growth.

So, I think that this puts us in a somewhat different situation where the comparative advantage of democracy also needs to be accompanied by the correct culture and the correct constitutional or any institutional incentives to harness what I don’t think we see as often. The example that you started from just in the haphazard changes in the presidency of Donald Trump seems to me to be exactly the sort of bad example of a democracy’s ability to respond or to activate change in a way that I don’t know that I want the democracies that I live in to be able to do. But I certainly want a democracy that I live in to be able to respond to changes in people’s preferences more readily than perhaps autocracies do.

jmk

So, these breakdowns happened during the Peloponnesian War. It exposes some institutional flaws within Athenian democracy, but Athenian democracy survives intact during the Persian Wars. What’s the difference between the two? Why is it that Athenian democracy seems to thrive during those wars, but seems to break down during the Peloponnesian wars?

Josiah Ober

Part of it has got to be the amount of time. The Persian Wars are, relatively speaking, brief. There’s one big battle in 490 BCE, the Battle of Marathon. The Athenians win it for, once again, reasons we could go into that ends that phase. Ten years later, the Persian king invades Greece through the overland routes, and this time there’s no question Athens is going to be wiped out or brought into the Persian Empire under bad circumstances given the bad blood between the Persians and the Athenians before the war. So, it’s really at this point, either we hold together, Benjamin Franklin’s famous line, either we hang together or we hang separately.

The Athenians seem to take that challenge, use it as a way to bind themselves together, commit to a course of action. The great naval battle at Salamis is a big risk, big payoff, and the war is soon over. Another major battle and it’s done. The Peloponnesian War lasts 27 years. That is a long, grinding war. Athenians did, despite a nightmarish plague that wiped out at least a quarter of their population in the first stage of the war, quite well in the first 10 years of the war. They held together for a long time.

War begins again due to the Athenian invasion of Syracuse – one of these mistakes, clear in retrospect, but then it grinds on for another dozen years. It was such a long period of stress without a single moment of existential, if we don’t hold together at this moment, you can hear the thump of the Persian boots coming towards Athens and then it’s all over. So, I think that’s at least part of it. It was a stress test that lasted a remarkably long time.

jmk

So, was the breakdown of democracy during the two episodes that you highlight inevitable? Based on the institutional construction, was it necessary for democracy to break down? Was there a way for Athenians to reconstruct their democracy without resorting to a democratic breakdown or a democratic interlude in between?

Federica Carugati

What strikes me about that period is that democracy was not inevitable. I think that a lot of people are looking at the glory of a fifth century Athens and just expected democracy to be the result of those events. I think that there was absolutely no reason why we would expect the democracy to not only get reestablished in the aftermath of the second period of collapse, but to flourish again. That seemed to me to be extremely unlikely, therefore, worthy of attention. The first case is problematic in various respects, but it is a somewhat brief interruption of democracy.

The oligarchic regime really doesn’t seem to get their stuff together at any point, to commit or to fulfill any of the promises that they make to allies, internal and external. They lose battles. It’s just a complete disaster. So, in that respect, democracy makes itself a viable constitutional option in its aftermath, in part because all the oligarchs just do such a bad job at trying to restructure the constitution under a different basis. But that shouldn’t obfuscate, I think, the fact that as presented oligarchy was a very good idea. They had a plan. They knew where to get the money, namely Persia. They knew how to use the money, namely to reestablish the fleet that had been destroyed in Sicily. They wanted to do that by restricting the franchise. It made a lot of sense.

The restoration of democracy that ensues, maybe because the oligarchs did such a bad job and maybe because the breakdown is in fact so brief, is reestablished after the first collapse is very similar to the one that had collapsed before. There are reforms, but there is no indication of major constitutional change. The second breakdown coincides, of course, with the loss of the war. The regime is backed by Sparta. It is a very different story. I think that in some respects, we should be focusing in terms of trying to understand and appreciate the reasons for the recovery. That is certainly the moment where things really could have gone in a different way.

I think that what happens, again, based on the relatively limited fragmented, potentially biased sources that we reconstruct these episodes from, suggests that the oligarch seems unable to restructure the government on a solid basis. They promise things that they don’t follow through on, including extending the franchise to a larger body beyond the 30 tyrants. That’s how the second oligarchy regime is known. They seek the support of Sparta in a lot of their dealings with Athenian citizens, particularly the resistance that begins to get together. Sparta is essentially divided itself, so it fails to come to the aid of the tyrants, of the oligarchs.

So again, it is difficult to take the historians out of the context of telling you it’s complicated. But it was complicated and even with limited sources, it is obvious that the defeat of these regimes is not just something that you can attribute to fate or luck or doing a bad job. There are lots of forces that contribute to these events. But again, I think in both cases, the oligarchic sympathizers try to present oligarchy as a very viable constitutional alternative democracy, given the conditions that Athens is experiencing in these particular historical junctures. But those promises just simply don’t seem for a variety of reasons to pan out.

So, democracy is reestablished, but once again, the experience of oligarchy has fragmented the culture and destroyed the institutions. The Peloponnesian War has completely devastated the economic basis. The question of what democracy emerges after the 30 tyrants is actually a very real question that the Athenians must have asked themselves. The constitutional reforms that we see emerging from the evidence are a clear answer to some of the problems that have caused democratic fragility in the preceding decade.

jmk

What are the reforms? How is democracy different after the episode of the 30 tyrants than beforehand?

Federica Carugati

Yeah, so this is the story of reverse engineering that we were talking about earlier. I think that the major reform is to essentially create a procedure that makes the courts an institution for the revision of policy made in the assembly. You can call it a judicial review. You can call it bicameralism. This has been debated among ancient historians and political scientists. But what emerges in the aftermath is the possibility that the decisions made in the assembly get a second hearing by a body of citizens that is selected through very different structures than those that essentially regulate access in the assembly. That is, constitutionally speaking, it comes under the structure of judicial as opposed to legislative organization and institutions.

Basically, what happens is that through the procedure known as graphe paranomon, the decisions made in the assembly can be indicted as unconstitutional and can get a day in court. This procedure was available before, but it becomes a part of the constitutional structure in the aftermath of 403, in the aftermath of the 30 tyrants. This is the reform that emerges more clearly from the sources alongside a series of new laws that essentially regulate the background of that procedure and y that, I mean, the very meaning of unconstitutional. Of course, in a world in which reading and writing is not as widespread, in which there is no written constitution, the idea that you establish a procedure that says you can indict as unconstitutional some proposals, requires also that you explain to the citizenry what unconstitutional might mean. So, we see those procedures emerge.

Josiah Ober

All of this is possible because of a background or a recreated, reimagined commitment to the idea of law. The idea that we Athenians, law loving, law creating, law obeying people, now we can debate what the law should be and we can think about how to change it. The notion that the oligarchs had failed in some profound way because they did not respect law. They didn’t create, they didn’t maintain a lawfulness about their regime opened up the possibility for something of a consensus around lawfulness. Then the question is, what will we fill in? What does lawfulness mean in institutional terms?

jmk

The way that you’re portraying it, it comes across that the rebirth of democracy within Athens created a stronger, more resilient form of democracy going forward that allowed it to survive until Alexander’s conquests. But I can imagine some critics thinking that this is a less democratic form of democracy. That they were able to save democracy by making it somewhat of a diminished form of democracy. How did people in Athens at the time think of it? Did they think of it as a stronger, more resilient form of the democracy they already had or did they think of it as taking a step backwards away from a more extreme form of democracy?

Federica Carugati

So, let me just say, one thing before we get into a broader discussion of this very good question. I think that the democracy was stronger and more resilient only with the benefit of hindsight. I don’t think that anyone in Athens in 403 after passing this relatively minimal reform of a procedure already in existence, would have thought now the democracy is ironclad. I think that only with 2000 years of hindsight, we might be able to tell that if only because it actually lasts for another 80 years. But again, I don’t think that this was obvious to any Athenian at that time. I don’t think it was also obvious to them that the reforms had brought something much less democratic. Of course, it depends on how we define democracy and how they define democracy.

But the procedure of gathering and making decisions in a popular and participatory and inclusive way, of course, for adult males, remained in place. The courts were not manned by the elites. The courts, the places where this review of legislation took place, were not manned by different people. It was citizens selected by law as in other court cases. So, the popular form of participatory institution was not negated by the reforms and that leads me to think that there would have been a sense that democracy had been negated.

Josiah Ober

The strongest argument that you could make that the post-war, fourth century democracy is not genuinely democratic, is what some political theorists have called the fugitive democracy theory. That is that as soon as there is any kind of institutionalization, as soon as you have any kind of constitutional organization, you’ve betrayed the essence of popular power. That, I think, is such a foolish standard, to be blunt, that the argument is irrefutable. In one sense if we define democracy as popular power without any constitutional form and anything that is not that is not democracy, then if that’s your definition, you can say that the fourth century was a sellout. Some theorists have said that. But I think they’ve just got the wrong end of the stick.

I think in some ways, it gives up on the very idea that democracy, like every form of government, must be able to provide basic security and basic welfare for an extensive population. If you can’t do that, then collective self-government is not going to be a very compelling argument to people who are living in fear and starvation.

jmk

Let’s bring it all together. Is that what the Athenian case teaches us then about democracy in our own age? Is that the lesson that we should take from both the collapse and rebirth of democracy within Athens?

Josiah Ober

So, you mean that we really do need a kind of constitutional order and the constitutional order does need to have respect for something that is the law that we agree to give to ourselves, the law that means that we don’t simply make new law every time we gather together as a group? Yes, I think that’s true. I think that democracy to really be a working operation in the long run does need some form of self-regulation just as I suppose that many human lives go much better when they have some form of self-regulation. When I’m able to moderate my own momentary whims in a way that allows me to have a more consistent set of behaviors over time, I may not get to do a few of the exciting things I had whimsically imagined I wanted to do, but I think my life is going to go better. I think in the same general sense an institutional system that has some constraints is likely to go better in the long run.

Federica Carugati

Yeah and I think that taking a step back to the actual substantive lessons that this case teaches us, for me, for example, I think that in some respects modern democracies have gotten the message. Beside the paroxcystic recent reactions, modern democracies, those that have lasted longer, those that have achieved the significant levels of well-being, which it is, in fact, an achievement of modern democracy, have gotten the message of constitutionalization and institutionalization. The theorists that think about democracy and rule of law have gotten that message as well. I think that what Athens gives us is a window. into the dynamics that can make that commitment actually fall through as we try to explain in the article. But also as a process of a collective commitment, not as a process of top down values.

Again, this is the optimistic view of the Athenian evidence. The pessimistic view of the Athenian evidence is, of course, that it took a civil war. Not that necessarily we need to end the podcast on this note, but I think that it is important to use this very peculiar case, in part because it is so well documented to reflect on the dynamics of the collapse and recovery. This is what we have, we have tried to do in this article.

jmk

Federica and Josh, thank you so much for joining me today. The article once again is “Democratic Collapse and Recovery in Ancient Athens.” Again, it’s part of the When Democracy Breaks book that just came out. Thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you so much for writing the chapter.

Josiah Ober

Thank you.

Federica Carugati

Thank you.

Episode 2

Most of us probably don’t think of Japan as having a democracy before the World War II. So, we don’t think of it as an example of democratic breakdown. But what I love to do on this podcast is to explore cases and situations that get overlooked. This week Louise Young paints a different picture of Japanese politics during the late 19th and early 20th century. She describes it as a democratizing nation. But the multiple crises of the 1930s change its direction. It suffers severe democratic erosion and ultimately a complete break from democratic governance.

Louise Young is a a social and cultural historian of modern Japan. She is a professor of history at the University of Wisonsin-Madison. She is the author of the chapter “The Breakdown of Democracy in 1930s Japan.” It is part of the volume When Democracy Breaks: Studies in Democratic Erosion and Collapse, From Ancient Athens to the Present Day.

This is the second of four episodes based on When Democracy Breaks.  It features contributions from a number of the leading scholars on democracy. It is available from Oxford University Press in hardcover, paperback, or open access download. There is a link to access the book in the show notes.

This episode is produced with the support of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School. The Ash Center produces remarkable work from some of the world’s most renowned scholars. You can learn more at ash.harvard.edu.

The podcast is also sponsored by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, part of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. The Kellogg Institute was founded by Guillermo O’Donnell, one of the giants of democratic thought, more than 40 years ago. It continues to sponsor research on democracy and human development. Check them out at Kellogg.nd.edu. You’ll find a link in the show notes to their website. If you’re interested in becoming a sponsor of the podcast, please send me an email to jkempf@democracyparadox.com.

But for now… This is my conversation with Louise Young…

jmk

Louise Young, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Louise Young

I’m happy to be here.

jmk

Well, Louise, I loved your chapter, “The Breakdown of Democracy in 1930s Japan.” It’s another one of the chapters from When Democracy Breaks: Studies in Democratic Erosion and Collapse. I found it really fascinating because I don’t necessarily think of Japan before the Second World War as being a democracy. I think of it as still being more of a traditional form of government and I’ll be honest, I have a hard time wrapping my head around how I would actually classify it. It’s not necessarily a military government. It’s not necessarily a monarchy anymore. But I’ve never really taken the leap to say this is actually a democracy. So why don’t we start there? Can you just explain why it is that we should think of Japan in that period before the 1930s as being a democracy of sorts? Why should we classify it as such?

Louise Young

That’s such an interesting question and just before I go to the answer there. I think that one of the reasons that it’s hard to think about Japan as a democracy before 1945 is because of the rebranding that happened after 1945 with the American occupation and the project of demilitarization and democratization as a high point in the success of American social engineering abroad. Japanese political figures after ‘45 also embraced that idea that this is a new Japan. We’re a democratic Japan. That was the old bad Japan. So that idea of a binary distinction between a post-war of democracy and a pre-war of militarism and authoritarianism is part of a self-serving narrative that, for a lot of reasons, has been circulated and endured.

So that being said, before 1945, we want to go back to the 19th century when there was the overthrow of the feudal regime, the Tokugawa regime in 1868. A new government comes in. The people that overthrew the feudal regime were dissidents in that regime. So, it was the samurai who were the old regime and now the samurai are the new regime. They inaugurated a wide-ranging set of reforms and a new state building. As part of that, they created in 1889, a constitutional democracy. They had a constitution. It had a diet, a bicameral parliamentary system. It was a system that was very limited. It was democratic in the sense that it was elected. It created the structure for a party system to emerge.

jmk

It sounds very similar to 19th century Britain. The way that it wasn’t really completely a democracy, but at the same time, it felt as though it was democratizing with the House of Commons, with parliament in general, but at the same time still having quite a bit of power concentrated within the king.

Louise Young

Absolutely. That’s really a great comparison. Actually, if you look across the 19th century, Japan wasn’t such an outlier in terms of this structure. There was a lot of concentration of power in the executive. These were constitutional monarchies, so there were kings, there were emperors. They had a lot of power. So that was certainly true of the Japanese system and over the decades, people organized and pressed to expand democratic access. This happened. So we got from when the constitution was inaugurated with the first election in 1890, one percent of the population could vote. Then in 1925, after a lot of activism, you had universal manhood suffrage, which allowed about, I don’t know, 25 percent or so of the population to vote. So, this is a pretty big expansion. This is democracy in action, I would say.

jmk

Why does Japan begin a process of democratization? You already mentioned that a lot of countries were undergoing democratization at that time, but most of those countries are what we think of as the West. They’re over in Europe. Japan’s on the other side of the world in Asia, and it definitely feels like an outlier for what’s happening in the rest of Asia. So why is Japan now pursuing this process of democratization when it feels like it should be so foreign to Japan during this time?

Louise Young

That is a great question. Like a lot of other non-Western states, these states enter into a global environment. They enter into the interstate system. In Asia in particular, all of the strong states that had a long history, Korea, China, Japan were under threat from Western imperialism and in particular, a kind of informal and economic imperialism where European powers came in and forced unequal treaties on all these powers. All of them underwent a process of self-strengthening to protect themselves against this external threat. There was a slogan that emerged, ‘Rich Country, Strong Military.’ The idea is we have to industrialize really quickly so that we can compete with the West on economic terms and develop a modern economy. We also have to build up our military. So, along with that, we have to start looking like a state that is recognizable in the international system.

This means we have to have a constitution. We have to have the rule of law. We have to have an educational system. We have to look like those guys so that they will recognize themselves in us. This was modernization in self-defense. As part of that, the leaders of the new government that took over in 1868 was a very small group of people, about 20. They were very young. They were all samurai or aristocrats. They looked out at the world and they saw they had to do this really quickly. There were disagreements between them and at one point the government basically split and the dissidents left. They became the beginnings of the party movement and the opposition from outside the government. They were the ones that started what was called the People’s Rights Movement in the 1870s and ‘80s.

They were the ones that pressured the government to create a national assembly and allow democratic input. But what they meant by democratic input was they didn’t think everybody should be part of that democracy. It was voice for them, voice for your responsible elites, voice for literate people, voice for the upper class. This was a vision of upper-class democracy, a limited democracy. That’s what emerges and there’s that pressure for upper class democracy. That is the beginnings of all of that, but that leaves out a lot of other people and as Japan industrializes, because that educational modernization goes forward as there’s huge in migration into the cities and the beginning of factory work, you get a more complicated society. Many more people are literate. There are all kinds of newspapers. The literate population is beginning to read the newspapers.

So, these twenty people can’t keep control of this thing anymore. That just becomes unworkable as a system. There’s these pressures both from within the old restoration generation, but also from outside to open up the system and to find mechanisms for resolving all kinds of social and political and economic problems that go along with industrialization and modernization and urbanization and all of that. Those are some of the things that I think become the pressures to build democratic institutions, norms, processes that actually feel, if you look at them, very familiar. It’s happening in Asia. It’s a very familiar story. If you know anything about French history or American history or British history, this is the story of working-class activism. This is the story of women’s suffrage. This is the story of peasant unions that are organizing for rights.

jmk

I agree with you. I’m seeing lots of different parallels, particularly with the United Kingdom, like we discussed before, with the fact that it seems to be a very slow and calculated process of democratization that is still spurred on by popular demands. That sounds like the story that we see in the United Kingdom as opposed to in France where it feels like it was always a little bit more haphazard with revolutions coming in and then counter revolutions. Japan’s feels, at this point, like it’s much slower, a bit more of a conservative process of democratization. What are the differences between democracy as it’s happening within Japan versus democracy that was happening in the West? Are there any key differences in terms of its democratization process or are we right to only focus on the similarities?

Louise Young

Oh, that’s a great question. You know, you’re right about France, especially when you think about the 19th century chronology, which is just a very dramatic and volatile sort of political timeline. In Japan, there was volatility there, but it was nothing on the same scale. So, I think you’re right that probably Britain makes a better parallel than France does. I guess one of the differences in Japan or how we can look at the particularity of the Japanese case. If we look at the story of nation state making in the late 19th century, you could be a lumper or a splitter. Everybody they’re all the same or actually, no, let’s focus on the differences.

So, if we’re going to be splitters, the differences are in the particularities of the way that the people that created the constitution attached it to the imperial institution. There’s this term, invented traditions, that historians use often to talk about nation building and the creation of nationalist mythologies in the late 19th century. If we think about the imperial institution and how the emperor becomes the centerpiece of the constitutional monarchy, that is a process that’s inventing and mythologizing anew the idea of the emperor, claiming it goes back to the sixth century or even before. The whole idea that the emperor is descended from the gods and it’s the descendant of the sun god. This kind of religious mythology that is embedded in the constitution and in the idea that the Japanese nation is vested in the figure of the emperor.

So, if you’re going to say something unique about Japan, it’s what Japanese historians call the emperor system ideology, which is invented along with this constitution making process in the late 19th century. It becomes important because the overthrow of the feudal government was called a restoration. It was called the restoration of the emperor. We’re going to get rid of this federation of local lords and we’re going to restore power to the emperor because he had power way back in time memorial.

Then this idea of restoration, of imperial restoration, becomes a resonant ideology that gets picked up, particularly on the right. People that are unhappy with the system, sort of democratic opposition, in the twenties then latches onto this idea that the system is all corrupt. We need to restore power in the figure of the emperor. That happens again in the Shōwa period in the 1930s. So, the relationship of the constitution to the emperor and imperial sovereignty, the identification of Japanese nationalism with the figure of the emperor, all of these things are something that’s particular to the Japanese story of democracy and it’s weaknesses perhaps.

jmk

It’s interesting because as you’re describing the emphasis on the emperor, I’m now seeing more parallels to Germany before World War One where they very much venerated the role of the Kaiser, the role of their monarch. But at the same time, were giving increasing power to its own parliament and politicians like Otto von Bismarck, who was not part of the monarchical line of succession. He didn’t have a formal role within the aristocracy per se, but had significant political power as more of just a traditional politician.

So, Japan’s got this interesting arc where it does have some similarities to Germany, which obviously had an incredibly difficult time transitioning to democracy. So, I can see how some of those early foundations that exist within its democracy end up leading to an eventual breakdown that allows it to ally with Germany and Italy that are fascist countries. Am I crazy in seeing that parallel?

Louise Young

Not at all. I mean, there’s reasons for them. When the Japanese, when this small group of, we call them oligarchs that ran the early new government in the 1870s and 80s took trips around the world, they studied the British system. They studied the German system. They studied the American constitution. They were like, which one works best for us? There were, of course, differences of opinion. Oh, we should get the British one. No, we should have the German constitution. So, there was a lot of real principled disagreement. It’s fascinating when you go back and read that stuff. But what ended up happening, the man who was the father of the Japanese constitution, this man, Ito Hirobumi, really was drawn to the German constitutional structure because he liked the idea of a strong executive.

Indeed, what is created in the constitution is the vesting of sovereign power in the emperor. He’s a proxy for the whole executive. The executive branch, the structure that Ito helped set up is called the transcendental cabinet system. That basically made the cabinet independent of the parliament and a true parliamentary system. The party that wins in the lower house, then elects the prime minister and then that prime minister selects his cabinet. But there was no mechanism for that. It was just the inner circle of advisors to the emperor who then elected the prime minister and then chose everybody around him. So, it was just a narrow group of people that just, ‘Oh, which one do you want this time? Well, I’ll be the economics minister.’ They just traded it all off and they would appoint each other. This is how it worked.

It was very much modeled on what they saw the German system to be. You know, one other point about the interesting comparisons to the German system, and I don’t know the history of German politics that well, but the problem with using the emperor in this way is they said the emperor is the sovereign and all power is vested in him. He’s the symbol of the nation and its purity and its goodness and value, pure value. But politics is sort of dirty. So, we can’t have the emperor get involved in the dirtiness of politics. His advisors do that stuff. But then the advisors are tempted to use the emperor when they can’t control people. They’re like, okay, well then the emperor should do a directive. Then they would get the emperor to do a directive. But people would go I’m not listening to that directive.

Then you have a crisis because the emperor’s voice is not being listened to. So, what the advisors that were acting in the name of the emperor quickly discovered, or not so quickly, it took them a while, is that they had to be very, very cautious about when they would bring the emperor out from behind his throne and deploy him for political purposes, to use that authority. It wasn’t all powerful sovereignty in reality, even though in theory, that’s the system that was set up.

jmk

We see similar issues right now in Thailand over the past few decades where they have a very strong monarch who is extremely popular. At least the former monarch was extremely popular, but the institution itself is still extremely popular as well. Different political actors lean on the monarchy to get their way. And one of the things that we’ve seen within Thailand is that its road to democracy is incredibly bumpy with multiple military coups and all kinds of things that are happening, partly because there’s so much emphasis on the institution of the monarchy. It’s a real stumbling block to them making a complete transition to democracy.

So, I can see how Japan’s having similar issues that it’s making steps towards democracy and it’s becoming increasingly more democratic. But it’s got some problems with the foundation. It’s political foundations that are there that start to create democratic breakdown when it starts to face different crises. So why don’t we kind of go there? I mean, the title of the article is the breakdown of democracy. Why does democracy begin to break down as we enter into the 1930s?

Louise Young

This is such a great question and it’s actually one of the big meta questions for Japanese historians. It is a topic that has attracted so much attention. My interpretation is that it wasn’t fated that Japan was going to take this turn. There were many doors open. I think that there was the triggering event which was what happened in the late 1920s and early 1930s. There was a global crisis. When you have a crisis, this was a systemic crisis, it was the economy, it was international security stuff, it was politics, it was what was happening in the empire, there was a famine, crop failures, just everything went wrong.

So, when you have a crisis like that, it’s a stress test. It’s a stress test for your democratic system. Universal manhood suffrage had just passed in 1925 and the first election under the new expanded electorate was 1928. This is a very new system. So, there was this stress test and what ended up happening is that the democratic system didn’t react very well to it. It became sort of paralyzed. All of those insiders, the insider politicians, which included the big businessmen, it included the landlords, it included the public intellectuals and the big journalists, it included the professoriate and the universities. These were all the sort of power elite and the upper class. They didn’t respond very well to it. They didn’t have good ideas.

So, the crisis just froze. The word that circulated everywhere in 1931 was Japan was in a deadlock. The thing that broke through that was what was happening in Japan’s sphere of influence in Manchuria, in China, Northern China. Some elements of the military staged this conspiracy. Basically, they said, we’re having problems here. We’ve got a local warlord that we can’t control anymore. We’re losing money all the time. Everything’s frozen. We can’t do what we want. We just want to get rid of them. So, they staged this conspiracy to get rid of them. They did. They basically got him assassinated and then they blamed other local Chinese forces on it. You use this as a pretext for an invasion. This is really the beginning of the Asia Pacific war in 1931 with the invasion of Manchuria.

This thing triggers a war fever at home and it turns out it was just enormously popular. So, under the cover of this war fever, elements in the political parties, elements in the business community, elements in the bureaucratic state within the cabinet and so on, they see an opportunity to just go along with and support this move as a way of getting out of the deadlock. In the process, elements of the military start asserting more and more power and everybody’s willing to basically go along with that because it seems fine for now. There’s a just incremental going along with what becomes a power grab by the military.

jmk

One of the things that I’ve found in talking to a lot of people about democratization is that it requires a significant amount of institutionalization. We have to really focus on building it and consolidating those institutions. The problem with that is that it’s incredibly boring. Democracy to a large degree is about building popular majorities and it’s difficult to build popular majorities around institutions, even when they’re meant to reflect the will of popular majorities. It’s just difficult to build those institutions. So, it feels like we oftentimes look for off ramps. We’re looking for off ramps that allow us to build popular majorities through shortcuts.

That sounds like what happened is that they were looking for a shortcut where they could both do something that was widely popular, had a large degree of popular support, but avoid the more difficult process of actually consolidating those institutions that they had really only recently built. You said that just in 1928, they had allowed for universal manhood suffrage. Well, democracy is still incredibly fragile, so they’re using elements of democracy in terms of pursuing popular majorities, but they’re pursuing it in ways that don’t necessarily enhance institutions that would further democracy in the future.

Louise Young

That’s such a good point. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but I think you really put your finger on it. I mean, they were really using a shortcut through demagogic sorts of mechanisms. The military had been quite unhappy across the teens and the twenties, because with the expansion of democracy, part of that had involved a turn against the army and a reduction of their budgets, reduction of divisions. They put some naval building on hold. They signed disarmament treaties. The Navy and the Army were very, very upset about all of this. So, this crisis became an opportunity for them to reclaim some of what they perceived as their lost power.

They used, quite effectively, part of the democratic toolkit. They start using the mass media to create these democratic spectacles, to reach out to constituencies, to create voluntary organizations and they were very effective. Then the military buildup helped Japan recover from the depression. Japan was the first of the industrialized countries to recover full employment from that devastating global depression in 1934. It was all because of this militarism, military buildup, and the invasion. So, all of that got smooshed together. Then ‘Wow, these guys know what they’re doing. They broke the deadlock.’

Then at the same time, everybody else, a lot of these sort of opportunistic politicians, as you say short circuiting, they just thought, ‘We’re not really in support of this, but let’s just ride this train for a little while and then when we want to get off, we can get off. We don’t need to be trying to expand our constituencies and get more votes that way. We’ll just increase our budget and our power within the government by harnessing ourselves or attaching ourselves to the success or the fate of the military.’

jmk

Your chapter really emphasizes that democracy’s decline happened over a period of time. It was much more similar to what we see happen in countries around the world today, where democracy is just eroding as we remove checks and balances from people who are in power particularly executives. But in your chapter, it’s the military who’s gaining increasing power and it’s removing from civilian leadership over time. Is there a moment when democracy completely breaks?

Because we see similar things happen in Italy where Mussolini comes to power, but there is a moment when we think of democracy breaking where we have the March on Rome. We see things in Germany, where Hitler is in power during the end of the Weimar Republic, but there’s a moment when we think of him as becoming the Fuhrer, as really breaking democracy within Germany. Is there a similar moment within Japan that democracy clearly breaks, or is it something that’s more difficult to really pinpoint?

Louise Young

Japan is always compared to Germany and Italy. It’s a bit of an outlier from those two cases exactly for the point that you make. There isn’t this moment. If there was going to be a moment, it would have been 1936 when there was a coup attempt when the young officers staged an uprising in Tokyo. They had Tokyo under martial law for several days. They expected the emperor to acknowledge it and there was going to be a restoration of the Shōwa emperor. That didn’t happen. The senior officers turned on them. The emperor was disgusted. They were court martialed and the leaders were executed. That was the end of this coup. But what did happen was there were different moments when things that had been norms of democratic rule….

In 1918, a new sort of expansion of Japanese democracy was the prime minister is going to be the head of a political party. That was established not as a constitutional change. It was a political norm. So, from 1918 through 1932, the prime minister was always the head of the ruling majority party and he got to decide and assemble his cabinet. That ended in 1932 because it was a national crisis and under the national crisis, everybody agreed we have to have full nation cabinets. This means that it has to be decided the old style before 1918. So, they went backwards. Then in 1936 there were more changes that enhanced the power of the military to dominate policymaking and the cabinet, which was where policy happened.

Then in 1937 and ‘38, the government started creating mechanisms to run the economy, to manage society, which was called the National Defense State. Borrowing Nazi style state policies, borrowing the five-year plans of the Soviets, they borrowed all of these different mechanisms and strategies, the toolkit of the authoritarian state, to manage different components of polity, society, and so on. But these things were put in place gradually. Then we get in 1940, the dissolution of the political party system itself. But even this, they created as part of this national defense state. The government created something called the Imperial Rule Assistance Association. This is a fascist single party that supports the imperial rule, the emperor.

But basically, it just absorbed all the old political parties, which kept their vestigial shape and operated with much less power. But they were still there. So, in this sense, there was never really a sharp break. There was just erosion, hollowing out that circle of people that were decision makers, the advisors of the emperor, which in 1870 was about 20 people. Then it got bigger and bigger and bigger. Now it’s shrinking again. You get back to around 20 people. We sort of think democracy always gets better, the arc of progress. But it can go different ways and that’s sort of the Japan story.

jmk

The way that we’re describing this, the way that you’re describing this, it sounds very much driven by internal dynamics. It’s the internal political situation. It’s them looking for solutions to respond to political and economic crises that are happening within Japan. But when I’ve talked to international relations scholars that think through the causes of World War II. It’s always described as Japan reacting to external dynamics in terms of what drove its militarism and drove it into World War II. Do you think that it was mainly internal dynamics that drove the militarism or do you think that external dynamics did?

Louise Young

It did play a major part in terms of Japan’s political trajectory. But there is this story out there. It’s a very powerful historical narrative that Japan was backed into war. That here was little valiant Japan trying to succeed in a national environment that was very hostile to a nonwhite country and working really hard. It had assembled this empire and was successful and they were one of the great powers that were in World War I. Then the tides turned against them in the 1930s and they were being surrounded by this hostile international environment. In order to defend themselves for national survival, Japan had no choice but to engage in imperialism and self-defense. That is one interpretation. It also happens to be the interpretation that you get out of the documents produced by the imperial state.

It’s a self-serving narrative and it suggests that there was a binary choice. You either retreat or die. If Japan did not engage in the invasion of Manchuria or the China War or all of this expansionism that that was necessary for self-defense, ultimately, and it was a matter of national economic survival and so on. Well, I just think that that’s just drinking the Kool Aid that you’re given by the government leaders at the time. You have to look critically at it. They saw it that way. I think they absolutely saw the world that way. But that doesn’t mean that the world was that way. I think that Japan wanted to play in the big state game. They wanted to be up there. They want to be one of the big five. If you wanted to do that, yes, that was the choice, but I don’t know.

It’s counterfactual history. Was that where it had to go? I’m not sure that I agree with that. I guess to get back to your question, how much did the international environment shape the breakdown or trigger the breakdown in democracy? I think it was incredibly important, but that was because of the way critical leaders, opinion leaders, people that were in charge of managing information, not just propaganda, but the media, intellectuals, people that shaped perceptions saw it. So, they had an outsized influence in whipping up popular support, which let’s face it, the invasion of Manchuria was popular. The China incident in ‘37 was popular. There was a war fever. The war was popular before it was unpopular.

jmk

I think what you’re really trying to say is that the international environment doesn’t really have salience if political conditions weren’t ripe for Japan to go in that direction.

Louise Young

Yes, that’s, that’s exactly right. It has to be a combination. Everything is that way, but…

jmk

Yeah, exactly. So, let’s dive deeper into the idea of the breakdown, because there’s a fascinating line where you write, “If the Japanese case offers any lessons for the defense of democracy against an authoritarian slide, it is the risk of making Faustian bargains with anti-democratic agents.” This is a line that has so much relevance today. So, I’d like to get your insights into how you think we should actually deal with anti-democratic agents.

Louise Young

You know, I really struggle with this, actually, because one example of the Faustian bargain was there was a huge group of very well intentioned, progressive sinologists and intellectuals. They were very progressively inclined. They had a lot of sympathy for China. They were xenophiles. But they went over and they worked with the Guangdong army, the Japanese garrison army in Manchuria, to build the puppet state of Manchukuo. They worked for a big think tank over there that was attached to the South Manchurian Railway, which was the big moneymaker for Japan in Manchuria. They helped the project of imperialism and militarism in Manchuria. They had all kinds of reasons for it.

A lot of them said, ‘We’re doing the revolution from within.’ They said, ‘If we don’t collaborate with these militarists, they’ll be much worse. We can control them.’ In fact, the army people were also playing a dangerous game because they brought all these leftists that didn’t really believe in their project into the inner circles and gave them tons of power, because they needed their knowledge. They needed their research. They needed to have good numbers in order to carry this project out. So, they were each trying to use each other. In the end, I think that the officers got the benefit of this or they had the edge.

But you can also say that in a sense, some of the stuff that happened and the institutions that were built, the things that were created in Japanese occupied Manchuria, were intended to help to provide welfare for some of their subject people and so on. You can’t say that this is a black and white sort of thing. You can’t reduce it to evil and good. Progressivism had some mitigating impact. It did have a positive face. So how do you think about this? I think it’s a really complicated question.

jmk

It sounds like we think of them as Faustian bargains in hindsight, because we want these different actors to step up and defend democracy. But the reality is that the people that we look to as potential defenders of democracy had different priorities that they just did not care about democracy. They were focused on something else. In the case of the business community, it might have been their own personal self interest in terms of business. In terms of leftists, it might have been greater material benefit for the lower classes. But it doesn’t sound like there was really anybody out there who was fighting for democracy. It sounds like there were only agents fighting against democracy and those who had other priorities.

Louise Young

I think to a certain extent, that is true. There was a sense that fascism was taking over Japan, so there was a sense we need to protect against fascism. The Communist Party was stalwart in their opposition to Japanese imperialism. They held that position and they didn’t cave to it. But the other people, you know, some of them, I think you can say they should have spoken out more clearly. But you don’t hear much that we have this choice of defending democracy or not defending democracy. The stakes weren’t so clear until after the fact. This is one of the things, I guess I didn’t put in the article. But in a way, maybe part of the whole issue is in a fog.

There’s a fog of democratic breakdown where really you cannot see the actual impact of your choices or your actions until after the fact. There’s these decisions in real time and then the decisions afterwards really can look different and we can see what was a fateful decision and what wasn’t, but that might not be clear in real time.

jmk

Now Japan’s a little bit different because they’re undergoing a war. So, when we talk about the fog, we’re talking about a fog of war. But you’re making the case, I believe that you don’t know what the consequences, the full consequences of your actions are going to be. That you might think that by making some compromises that the consequences aren’t going to be so dramatic, but in hindsight we realize that sometimes they’re tragic mistakes. I guess what I’m asking here is the lesson for democracies today, particularly ones that are facing democratic erosion, the compromises, the agreements, the bargains that they’re making today, that they think are better for the long run or that they think are necessary for the short term could actually lead to those tragic consequences that accelerate or even bring about the breakdown of democracy?

Louise Young

Yeah, I think that’s true. On one the hand, you want to keep open lines of communication. You want to keep open the possibility of compromise and if we were looking at the Japanese case, one of the things that expanded democracy was the politics of compromise, bringing in new people that have to be compromised with. This expanded the ecosystem, the field and so it is important to keep the possibility of compromise open. But when it goes wrong is if one group just keeps giving in just to stay in that narrowing sphere of decision making or where the compromise happens.

I think that that was one of the things that happened in Japan, is that these Faustian bargains were not made, you know, I’ll give you this horse, you give me that horse. That’s a trade. This was an asymmetrical compromise. Whereas earlier, I do think they saw that they were building an institution rather than just keeping what they had.

jmk

Well, Louise Young, thank you so much for joining me today. The chapter, once again, is “The Breakdown of Democracy in 1930s Japan.” It’s part of the book, When Democracy Breaks: Studies in Democratic Erosion and Collapse from Ancient Athens to the Present Day. Thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you so much for writing the chapter.

Louise Young

Thank you. It was a fantastic discussion.

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