Tom Hodgkinson: 'Boris ought to know his Plato'


It seems that Boris Johnson has firmly embedded himself on the side of the oligarchs over the Occupy London affair. With breathtaking lack of courtesy he has described the protesters as "hippies" and "crusties" and boasted at a bankers' lunch that the only way to deal with them was to cycle past them quickly. Yes, I'm aware that there is a bit of ribbing going on, and he is not entirely lacking in good humour. But his refusal even to think about this very intelligent protest is distressing and, in fact, simply stupid.

Mr Johnson's myopia is, though, perhaps natural, and if Boris knew his Plato, which he ought to, having been to Eton and everything, then he would recognise in the protests, riots and strikes that have marked this year a sign that the people ain't happy with the situation. He would also recognise himself as being a member of the short-sighted oligarchy – oligarchy meaning "control by a wealthy minority". Reading Plato's Republic, I was struck by the parallels with a typical cycle that he describes. In Platonic terms, it would seem that an oligarchy has taken over UK plc, and that this oligarchy has made too many loans, thereby pauperising the people, and now fails to see what is happening right beneath their noses: that the people are talking about revolution. The good news, though, is that a real democracy may be in store:

Plato writes that when the pursuit of riches remains unchecked, resentment breeds: "Doesn't oligarchy change into democracy in the following way, as a result of lack of restraint in the pursuit of its objective of getting as rich as possible?"

"Tell me how."

"Because the rulers, owing their power to wealth as they do, are unwilling to curtail by law the extravagance of the young, and prevent them squandering their money and ruining themselves; for it is by loans to such spendthrifts or by buying up their property that they hope to increase their own wealth and influence."

In our case, money has been lent too freely to people brought up on a diet of materialism and must-haves, promoted by the advertising industry.

"That's just what they want."

"It should then be clear that love of money and adequate self-discipline in its citizens... can't co-exist in any society; one or the other must be neglected."

"That's pretty clear."

"This neglect and encouragement of extravagance in an oligarchy often reduces to poverty men born for better things."

Today, millions of us have reined in our spending habits as a result of our previous extravagance. "Some of them are in debt, some disenfranchised, some both, and they settle down, armed with their stings, and with hatred in their hearts, to plot against those who have deprived them of their property and the rest of society, and to long for revolution. Meanwhile the money-makers, bent on their business, don't appear to notice them, but continue to inject their poisoned loans wherever they can find a victim, and to demand high rates of interest on the sum lent, with the result that the drones and beggars multiply."

This is the situation that will lead to social upheaval: "Democracy originates when the poor win, kill or exile their opponents, and give the rest equal rights and opportunities of office, appointment to office being as a rule by lot."

This is what the people want: a real democracy, government by the people, and not by a clique comprising top politicians and CEOs. In Ancient Athens, something close to this was achieved. It was a city state, a city nucleus surrounded by agricultural land. The population was around 200,000 to 300,000. Of these about 35,000 to 40,000 were adult free men and allowed a vote at weekly meetings. Various councils were set up to run different parts of the administration, and membership of these councils was decided by lot. You had to serve a few hours a week for one year, and no man was allowed to hold membership twice.

The democracy we have is therefore not a true democracy, as we only have the right to choose, every five years, between two slightly different oligarchical arrangements. In between we feel utterly powerless, which is why these protests have sprung up. They give people a voice. The striking thing about Occupy London is all the dialogue it has inspired: it has brought out the Ancient Athenian in all of us. Those Greeks just loved to debate. As part of this process of economic self-education, can I suggest that Plato's Republic be required reading for anyone who wishes to take an active part in the political process? Including Boris.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'