Plato would have run a SuperPAC?

In The Republic, Plato warned of the dangers of unchecked democracy, in that it can open the door to chaos, tyrants and demagogues.

It is an apt warning in the midst of one of the muddiest campaign cycles in American history.

Plato’s caution was that democracy is vulnerable to the manipulation of those who care more for personal power than public good.

USA Today ran an op-ed this week arguing, nominally in the name of Plato’s Republic, that campaigns financed by small donors are bad for democracy because they encourage a turn to base demagoguery in order to bring in the big bucks. Of course, as Charlie Pierce points out, “Plato didn’t say fck-all about campaign finance.” Pierce nicely mocks the central argument of the op-ed, namely that the grassroots campaigns of Obama and Sanders lead directly to the media circus that is the Trump campaign (with or without small donors), but I want to add a few words about Plato.

I am not an expert on Plato or his political philosophy; in fact, one of my biases is that I dislike Plato. However, I do know something about politics in the ancient world. The editorialist is not wrong that Plato was not fond of democracy as a form of government, and he even provides a link to a website that has the citation to the Republic that, by and large, offers an accurate representation of the perils of democracy. Nor is Plato alone in this, with the cycle of constitutions (Monarchy-Oligarchy-Democracy-Monarchy) appearing in the work of Aristotle and elsewhere. It reaches a particularly full form in the start of Polybius’ Book 6, where he argues that there are six varieties of constitutions, each form having a higher and lower variation and the cycle going from one viable type and degenerating into a corrupted type. The solution for Polybius, anyway, is a mixed constitution that will be stable. Plato has a less practical solution to provide stability by reordering society.

The contention made in the editorial about SuperPACs is that the large donors can hold a candidate accountable for his or her actions—-going so far as to say that:

if a campaign is wasting money on frivolous expenses, they can object. If a candidate says something overly hateful or extreme, they can walk. They often serve as an executive board of sorts, challenging campaigns to act worthy of their investment.

Without explicitly saying so, the author offers SuperPAC donors as the Guardians of Plato’s city. He admits that this is not a popular argument, but it is blatantly in favor of oligarchy. If one were to take Plato’s utopian society where everyone is treated according to his or her capabilities and serves the proper purpose, including the absolute impeccability of the guardians this might be viable. As it stands, not so much.

The editorial is designed to be anti-Trump, arguing that there needs to be a check on demagoguery. Fine, though Trump certainly benefits from the bottom line of cable companies that give him oodles of free airtime, too. What this piece misses is the underlying assumptions of ancient political thought. The fact that Trump is not accountable to donors would have been considered one of his greatest strengths. Trump might be the best demagogue of the current crop and therefore resembles Cleon, supposedly the bloodiest man in Athens, but the problem elites had with Cleon was that he used public funds to effectively purchase the support of the masses, not the other way around. In a similar vein, the problem with oligarchs is that they create laws that support oligarchs and have a tendency to punish citizens who stand in their way. If one is to look to Plato, it may be appropriate to look a bit more widely. Plato came from a wealthy aristocratic family and his relative Critias was the most vicious of the Thirty Tyrants, the oligarchic board that ruled Athens in the immediate aftermath of the Peloponnesian War.

So would Plato have favored SuperPACs? Quite possibly, in all likelihood, but because they would have benefited him as a political being, not because they ensured high-minded election cycles,

Mephisto – Klaus Mann

…hidden in every real German isn’t there a little of Mephistopheles, a bit of the rascal and the ruffian? If we had nothing but the soul of Faust, what would become of us? It would be a pushover for our many enemies! No, no—-Mephisto, too, is a German national hero. But it’s better not to go around telling people that.

Hendrick (neé Heinz) Höfgen is an actor in Hamburg, a provincial star who dreams of stardom in Vienna or Berlin and lords over his local cast. He rebuffs the advances of “little” Angelika and Hedda, who has intimacy but no relationship, he torments the young National Socialist Miklas, and he perpetually puts off the opening of the “revolutionary theater” planned by his communist friend Otto. The year is 1930. The directors lament that Hendrick is overpaid, but he remains the star and they tolerate his moods and eccentricities. Hendrick draws his energy from his “dancing lessons” with Princess Tebab, his black Venus, and waits.

His patience pays off, his fame builds, and he manages to convince the daughter of a privy counsellor, his “good angel” to marry him. But things really take off when Hendrick excels in the part of Mephistopheles during a performance of Goethe’s Faust and catches the eye of the Prime Minister. (The person is Hermann Göring, but just like with Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler, the three prominent Nazis to appear in the book, Mann never mentions them by name, a point I will come back to below.) With this patronage, Hendrick rises to the top of society and is able to reject his past associations with revolutionary communism, his marriage to a political dissident of “questionable” lineage, and his African mistress—-even over the objections of the Propaganda Minister. However, while Mann portrays Hendrick as complicit because of his obsession with ascending the ranks as an actor, he also shows that Hendrick must still face the moral consequences of his actions; he is a consummate actor and hardly consistent, but seems to have had legitimate political sympathies and affections for people now deemed impure and thus with fame becomes ever more tortured.

Loosely based on the career of the author’s brother-in-law, Klaus Mann’s Mephisto is an interesting mixture of surreal beauty, insightful analysis of the rise of Nazi Germany, and rote polemic. It is not that Mann offers this as a hackneyed retrospective, since it was originally published in 1936, but many of the critiques have since become commonplace.

What Mann did particularly well in Mephisto was to give a panorama of the rise of the Nazi state and the subsequent fallout. For instance, both Hendrick’s friend Otto and his nemesis Hans Miklas come to unfortunate ends, Otto (twice) for dedicating himself to fighting against the Nazis and Miklas for being a true-believer betrayed by the system that still manages to reward Hendrick. Similarly, Mann accounts for the trajectories of Jewish actresses, dissident ex-wives, and deported mistresses to show how Hendrick’s rise and the system that enabled it affected those around him. I also appreciated the depiction of the top Nazi officials, who Mann described as demigods of the underworld who extended their benevolence to mortals.

In this portrayal, it is of little surprise that Hendrick so fully embodied Mephistopheles, who he characterized as “a tragic clown,” a “rascal,” who “knows mankind.” Hendrick is Mephisto. Mephisto is Hendrick. More independent than evil, ever ingratiating, and more than a little lucky. In this case, however, he is also torn by powers stronger than he, torn asunder by the very lack of willingness to stand for anything other than himself. This is not the banality of evil, but something in the same vicinity where personal ambitions of even a person with a conscience can cause him to betray almost everything in his life, whether he believes in those things or not.

I liked Mephisto, though not as much as Klaus’ father, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which was published more than ten years after this book. It has been too long since reading the latter to really compare the two, but perhaps if I reread it this summer I will have to think about this more deeply. That said, I am not in a hurry to jump into that project since I am once more feeling burnt-out on depictions of totalitarianism in Europe.

Next up: I am currently reading Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz and still working on The Struggle for Sea Power by Sam Willis.