Commentary | The Threat of Ochlocracy and Democracy’s Ace

Commentary | The Threat of Ochlocracy and Democracy’s Ace

The Hague — Ochlocracy, from the Greek words Ochlos and Kratos, power of the masses, is a degenerative form of democracy. As the famous ancient Greek historian Polybius wrote, whereas people in democracies are lead by the most virtuous citizens, in ochlocracies the masses become prey and instruments of populist leaders and demagogues.

In the last decade, we witnessed many stable Western democracies degenerate into populist rancor and anti-establishment upheaval. Once shining examples of the rule of law, bastions of the liberal international order,  or symbols of hope for global democratization, they since become conflicted and chaotic ochlocracies. From Trump’s America to Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Salvini and Di Maio’s  conquest of Italy to the brutal Duterte regime in the Philippines, the unbridled Fidesz in Orban’s Hungary to the hostile AfD in Germany, populists are tearing into the fabric of democracy. 

Far-right populist parties across the world, in particular, are acquiring influence and power at alarming speeds — especially in countries dedicated to the principles of an open society. The transition from Renzi’s pro-European, Social Democratic Italy to the “yellow-green” government of the Five-Star Movement and Lega has been radical. The newly-elected populist government wasted no time in upending longstanding democratic institutions and throwing into doubt Italy’s most fundamental international commitments. 

By far the most disruptive has been Italy’s refusal to work within the confines of the EU budgetary process. On 15 October 2018, Rome presented the European Commission with an openly defiant budget proposal of European austerity measures and migration policy. Salvini’s attempts at grandstanding may have failed in the face of European budgetary unity, but by closing the ports and allowing ships full of migrants to sink in open waters (Salvini denied NGO ships carrying refugees access to Italian ports, forcing them to remain in the open sea for over 2 weeks) he’s able to stoke the political fire over migration and exacerbate European disunity. 

Similar things could be said about the situation in The United States, Brazil, France, Austria, and the U.K.  The United States’ retreat from The Paris Agreement on climate change, withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, trade wars with China, Europe, and other allies, rumors about leaving NATO, and the attempts to construct a wall on the border with Mexico, and subsequent government shutdown are all first-rate examples of the consequences of allowing a nation’s fears and worst instincts to materialize into ochlocratic rule. Worse, the age of information — vaunted as the great equalizer and agent of democracy — has now given rise to disinformation and fraudulent news outlets which at best put a heavily biased spin on the facts and at worst outright deny the reality and severity of these events.

The U.S.’ withdrawal from the world and zero-sum view of international relations is perilous to American democracy, national character and unity, and global security. Indeed, the perpetual state of crisis of democratic institutions across the world is both plainly manifest and hazardous to humanity’s collective future, considering the rapidity of the development of radical far-right ideologies, the rate the ‘infection’ has spread, and the destructive power now in the hands of its leaders.

The legacy of the financial crisis of 2008, numerous terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on European soil, and uncontrolled immigration are the root of far-right populist power across the Western world. Demagogues, taking advantage of the freedom of expression in free democracies, have succeeded in fomenting and canalizing the anger, the fears, and the resentment of the masses in Western societies. There are few greater bonds than common fear to unify people: enemies — or rather, scapegoats — have been identified in the form of immigrants, Muslims, and globalization which feed the narratives of far-right populists.

The measures that far-right populists propose to deal with these problems are radical, discriminatory, and fail to address the larger issue. Long term strategies and policies — austerity measures and longstanding commercial partnerships — are completely abandoned and turned upside down by short term measures. Temporary increases to public spending, engaging in negative-sum trade wars, and protectionist policies can guarantee partial benefits in the short run, but run the risk of significant destructive economic and foreign policy consequences in the long run.

The use of social media, the spread of the internet and of information — or more to the point, disinformation —  are versatile tools in the hands of populist leaders. Anyone, regardless of expertise or competency, can express their view on complex political and economic issues, migration issues or the budgetary proposal. Digital citizens naturally turn to the internet for explanations and demagogues are the first to give simple answers.

Few are willing to spend more than 10 minutes to understand the complex and intricate problems of the most sensitive issues or to seek clarity from experts or technocrats. The public seeks clarity and certainty on issues that are laced with nuance and uncertainty. Populists and ‘web pundits’ provide a simplicity that is as clear as it is deceptive. People seek comfort in hate and fear when confronted with the hard and complex reality of difficult issues is difficult to accept.

The Italian scenario is, in particular, an interesting case to examine in light of the power of disinformation and the use of scapegoats: immigration, the Euro, the European Union, and globalization are easy targets to blame for the high unemployment rate and the economic hardship of large bands of the population. Yet there is no mention that the “Bel Paese” policy which clearly and decisively contributed to creating an unsustainable economy long before the economic crisis took hold.

Unsustainable and irresponsible public spending in the seventies and eighties like the “baby retirement” policy — a legislative decree of 1973 through which people under certain conditions could retire after working for 15 years or less — laid the real groundwork for the staggering rise of public debt. The financial crisis of 2008 was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

There is scant mention of the role of the Mafia — a cancer that has been eroding Italy from the inside for decades — or of Rome’s poor administration of resources throughout the capital region and in the center-south of the country in Italy’s economic erosion. Nor does the public decry the effects of public servants’ negligence (the notorious “wise guys of the timecard” for example) or the high rate of tax evasion in our public debate.

Muslim immigrants, the Euro, and Brussels have become convenient scapegoats on which to pile our discontent and blame. We as a society have chosen to redirect our guilt and blame in the face of difficult issues instead of looking into the mirror and facing our own responsibility. 

It has become clear that the our collective willful ignorance and instinctual fear of immigration, terrorism, and economic downturn have brought us to our current democratic crisis. What is far less clear is how to resolve them. A top-down approach to a solution seems unlikely, especially under the leadership of incompetent and erratic leaders. For many, fear remains a powerful motivator to seek validation of their fears, an enemy to fight, and charismatic leadership to lead the charge. 

Yet are two forces greater than fear or charismatic leadership to unite people toward a common cause: Hope and Reconciliation. Our greatest hope for free and open societies we have lies in the people’s innate conscience, reason, and capacity for forgiveness; we have strayed from the course, but there is yet time to return to it.

As easy as it is to remain jaded and pessimistic about the inherent and underlying good nature of the people, it is, after all, where the power in a Democracy ultimately lies. Educating, trusting, and above all respecting the concerns of the people is the first step towards democratic reconciliation. There are already faint signs of change in the wind. In the United States, the Democrats have retaken the House of Representatives and are holding firm against the construction of the Wall with broad popular support. 

In Polybius’ Histories, he set forth the theory that Democracy, once corrupted, inevitably leads to Ochlocracy, the damage from which causes uprisings that lead to monarchy. Corrupted monarchy then leads to tyranny,  Tyranny to aristocracy, corrupted aristocracy to oligarchy, and eventually a return to Democracy. While Polybius’ theory is a generally accepted facet of political science, it does not have to be so.

It is only natural that a government by the people commit errors from time to time. It is also true that the strength of any Democracy is in the people’s ability to learn from their mistakes, to change their thinking, and to then realize that change in governance. It is the capacity of the people to learn and adapt that has always proven Democracy’s ace. Perhaps now more than ever, Democracy needs a course-correct.

Sebastiano Angeli

- International Scholar of European Affairs and National Security
- Twitter: @SebasAngeli
- LinkedIn: Sebastiano Angeli


All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.


Photo Credit:

  1. Bandiere MoVimento 5 Stelle by Mario Ciampichetti, Flickr
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