Andrej Litvinjenko is a 3L JD/MA student specializing in international law and economic policy. He holds a masters degree from Carleton University in political science. He earned a combined undergraduate degree from Nipissing University in political science and history.
How do you picture the perfect society? What are its foundational principles and objectives? Suppose there are two societies and I give you the choice of which to be born into. In the first, you may be born into quite a wealthy family. The system is designed to perpetuate existing wealth; neither you nor your children nor likely even theirs will know for want. However, there is a far greater chance you are born into a middle class or even destitute family. Some upward mobility is possible, but certain of your immutable characteristics are not conducive to the system’s design; you will always face greater adversity than others.
In the second society, you observe that, regardless of ethnicity, class, religion, education, sex, or ability, essential needs are provided for; liberty and opportunity are substantive and equitable. You observe being born into a wealthy family means little if you yourself are not disciplined and industrious. Although being born into a poorer family may mean relatively less material comforts, no freedom or choice will be denied to you provided that you exercise the willpower to seize it.
Which would you choose? Many of you, I assume, would opt for the second, more equitable society – as would I. For Rawls, justice was synonymous with fairness. He devised the above thought experiment to convey the natural preference we all have for what is fair: universal and quality education and healthcare, equality in opportunity, equity in ability, fairness in justice. For many of us, especially in the legal profession, this is the objective, the ideal, the Just Society.
However, economics, as it is, frustrates idealism. The human condition is one of scarcity. Even the fountain of youth cannot cure the sober, inescapable gravity of opportunity cost. To make any choice is to forgo all others for, at least, as long as the first choice persists. There is never enough time.
Liberty can never be absolute, even in the state of nature. Violence gains you short-term security but sacrifices reliable cooperation in the long-term. Humans are, by their nature, social animals being poorly suited for long-term survival in solitude. Our social skills enable us to trade autonomy for survival – the ultimate motivator. The greater the threat, the more liberty we are often willing to exchange for security. By this bargain, we manifest kinship – the most fundamental building block of society.
Kinship is both a gift and a curse. It enables us to cooperate and develop complex societies capable of specialization. And yet, in times of scarcity or uncertainty, they become easy scapegoats for one group to exclude, persecute, or eradicate the other. With apologies to Fox News, the left did not invent identity politics.
Kinship informs identity. Each person is capable of belonging to several groups: sex, religion, class, geography, ethnicity, vocation, politics, culture, historical experience, etc. Each group can, and often does, wield conflicting needs, desires, beliefs, and abilities. Suffice to say, each group often wields varying political power – the elite’s always being greatly disproportionate to their size.
Consider all the groups you likely identify with just as a law student: a certain faculty and geography of campus; common or civil law; a particular year; thematic interests (human rights, environment, business, etc); and your goals upon graduation (big shot Bay Street lawyer, legal scholar, civil rights champion).
It cannot be overstated, however, that despite our identity being heavily influenced by kinships, we remain, first and foremost, individuals. Each a universe unto him or herself, capable of rational thought and laden with interests and idiosyncrasies. Each vested with free will and possessing an inherent desire to live out their life according to how they believe is best. No one an island nor part of a monolith.
The daunting art of nation building distils common and coherent values from the wide-spectrum of interests held by both groups and individuals. Central to this architecture is the balancing of individual rights against collective rights. In the 21st century, this ratio heavily influences society’s tolerance and desire for redistribution. It is false to assume, however, that collectivism is synonymous with equity and the social welfare state. Collectivism can just as easily lead to fascism, communism, and other totalitarian regimes. If you take anything from these essays, remember this: it is not the balance of individual and collective rights that is of greatest significance, it is how that ratio is operationalized. The extent to which the state will exercise its monopoly on violence to coerce and limit what you think, what you say, and what you do.
A nation’s history is its DNA: a strong indicator of what is to come. How events impact the nation’s kinships evolves or devolves the society. A war can unite or divide; a boom enrich many or just a few. A controversial issue can progress or regress politics. Groups and individuals can experience and perceive the same event differently. What synthesizes, over time, fundamentally informs national values and preferences. Many historians like to credit specific individuals for great changes. Although surely such giants deserve admiration, or condemnation, the truth of the matter is that their accomplishments would not have manifested if the time for change was not already ripe amongst the greater body politic. The Hegelian spirit of history (“zeitgeist”) lies nascent in the nation until maturity, seizing a person or group and manifesting itself.
The title of this collection, Politeia & Demokratia, denotes the ancient Greek words “polity” and “democracy”. They are from Aristotle’s taxonomy of governments: rule of one, rule of few, rule of many. Each category had two alternatives, one just and one corrupt. Monarchy and tyranny. Aristocracy and oligarchy. Polity and democracy. Today, we regard democracy as the most just and effective form of government. To Aristotle, democracy was the tyranny of the majority, oppressing others into submission, making decisions on the basis of passion and imprudence. The polity was ruled by informed, prudent citizens. They governed themselves on the basis of present and future needs, of the few and of the many.
Our reverence for democracy should be tempered by humility and lessons from history. In ancient times, resisting Persian dominance, a crafty Ionian (Greek settler in what is now modern day Turkey) came before the Spartan King asking for military assistance. The Ionian lied to the king, alleging the Persian military was weak and poorly trained, and that the Empire’s wealth could be easily plundered. When asked how far away the Persian capital was, the Ionian conceded, “months”. The king turned him away. The Ionian next tried Athens. Knowing it a democracy, he ignored the legislators, appealing directly to the people, whipping them into a frenzy over promises of riches. Where the Ionian failed to convince a single man, he managed to convince 30,000. The Athenian excursion into Ionia was a disaster. Persia’s retribution was swift and nearly all Greek city-states were subjugated (Athens remained free). Certainly, this was not the last time a gifted orator would mislead a nation. Democracy’s fragility lies not in its processes or institutions, but in the character of its citizens.
The conduct of individuals and groups is a recurring theme in this collection and invites the reader to reflect on how their separate and collective actions are contributing to the health of our democracy and society.
A decade ago, the triumph of globalization seemed inevitable. Today, it lays besieged. From borders to bathrooms and jobs to jihad, Western society, particularly in Europe and our southern neighbour, seems increasingly fragmented and intolerant. Canada has weathered these tensions well. However, for the past few years, and intensifying since the election of President Donald Trump, events in the US seem to be spilling over, emboldening a counter-culture – or perhaps reviving a long-dormant one. Similar issues are creating similar divides. Attempts at critical discussion of serious issues are routinely met with allegations of the latest –ism or phobia. We would commit intellectual dishonesty if we did not recognize these allegations predominately flow from the political left. A classical liberal notion, free speech has found refuge amongst conservatism.
The concern of these short essays is to explore and reflect on the kind of zeitgeist Western society is cultivating. How have events over the past two decades shaped our politics – the relationships between our kinships? Is our society evolving towards greater justice and inclusion, or regressing into factionalism and isolation? My examination is focused through individual and collective rights in Canada and the United States of America.
The first of these essays, Born of Blood or Bargain, primes the stage for our larger discussion by reaching back several centuries and examining the contexts from and into which Canada and the US manifested. In particular, we observe important kinships and how each group’s values influenced the ultimate balancing of individual and collective rights. We then bring our gaze back to the present and reflect on whether this balance has changed and if so, how.
In closing, reflect on Aristotle’s taxonomy: when monarchy and aristocracy fall to corruption, only one or a few must be replaced in order to rejuvenate society and restore justice. When politeia falls to demokratia, the way back is much less clear. Where is our democracy now and on what path is it set? Which society do we want our children to be born into?