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Snowden and Socrates

In our liberal democracy, the democracy needs fixing before we can turn our thoughts to whether the liberalism needs fixing as well. The NSA should at last be able to jolt us into recognizing this.

Peter Martin
23 October 2013

Snowden and Socrates are not that similar. The former is a thirty year old IT specialist turned whistleblower, the latter one of the most famous philosophers the world has known. Socrates was a martyr to his cause, accepting his death at the hands of the demos, whilst Snowden fled from the US justice system. Both were going against the grain of their State, but in very different ways. Yet, if Snowden’s America and Socrates’ Athens could meet, they could learn a lot from each other.

Snowden and Socrates are not that similar. The former is a thirty year old IT specialist turned whistleblower, the latter one of the most famous philosophers the world has known. Socrates was a martyr to his cause, accepting his death at the hands of the demos, whilst Snowden fled from the US justice system. Both were going against the grain of their State, but in very different ways. Yet, if Snowden’s America and Socrates’ Athens could meet, they could learn a lot from each other. If Athens had been capable of learning about our individual freedoms, Socrates would never have been killed, and if we could learn from the democracy that put Socrates to death we might never have been secretly spied on.

In 399 BC, five hundred and one Athenian jurors decided to put Socrates to death. The jury was working within the framework of a society governed by a direct democracy that allowed every male Athenian to be his own representative and thereby vote in the Athenian Assembly on every issue that took his fancy. Athens’ form of democracy has been cited repeatedly as an indirect cause of Socrates’ death because it sanctioned the unbridled sovereignty of the people over individual freedom. And so, it is perhaps surprising that, according to Plato, when Socrates’ friend Crito came to persuade Socrates to escape from prison and go into exile, Socrates was adamant that he should accept Athens’ death sentence. Even though Socrates was a contrarian individualist who did not care about the ‘opinion of the many’ and would ‘rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live’, he refused to escape because he thought the state would be destroyed if he acted against it. Logically, in a society that did not have a constitution which enshrines the freedoms of the individual there is not much else Socrates could have done, if he wished to stand by his society.

Where Socrates saw fit to accept the State’s wrong decision, Snowden has not. One might ask Snowden the question Socrates asked Crito two and a half thousand years ago: ‘can a state survive and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and overthrown by individuals?’ As Socrates argued, if every individual acted according to his own moral code, the state would disintegrate into anarchy. In the New York Times, David Brooks paints Snowden in the very same light: Snowden is symbolic of the loosening of social bands and the ‘atomization of society’. He is a libertarian, a Ron Paul supporter, who ‘betrayed the cause of open government,’ and – to top it all – was a bad neighbour in Hawaii.

Snowden%20Socrates%203.jpg

Edward Snowden. Wikimedia/Laura Poitras. Some rights reserved

Socrates - A Visionary Head. William Blake/Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Snowden might hold personal libertarian political beliefs, but that doesn’t make his actions libertarian. He is acting against a part of the state - the NSA - whose actions have not been democratically legitimated by us, the people. Our representatives in Congress did not know or were not allowed to tell us what our government was doing.

Representative democracy works as long as our representatives don’t forget to represent us. If Snowden had been rebelling against a truly representative government he would have been acting as a libertarian. But instead he was acting as a communitarian, disseminating his knowledge of this non-democratic activity to the people. I do not purport to consider here how far a government should erode our privacy in exchange for security. Before considering that question, we need to deal with the primary concern of making sure that that government’s erosion of our privacy is democratically legitimated rather than hidden from public view.

If, as has been argued, the NSA violated the 4th amendment, no amount of constitutional rights can ensure this won’t happen again, because we won’t know when the rights are being violated.  In our liberal democracy, the democracy needs fixing before we can turn our thoughts to whether the liberalism needs fixing as well. The NSA should at last be able to jolt us into recognizing this. To figure out what to do about losing control of our government, look to Socrates’ Athens.

The nineteenth century Swiss politician Benjamin Constant talked of the two different types of liberty, that of the ‘ancients’ and the ‘moderns’. The liberty of the ancients was a participatory liberty giving each citizen equal political rights to debate and vote on every issue in the Assembly. The liberty of the moderns is based on individual liberties, freedom of thought, and basic rights of person, property and the rule of law.

Ancient Athens could have been helped, and modern America can be helped, by more closely combining the two liberties. The critics of democratic Athens say that its democracy was too direct. However, if the Athenians could have incorporated the ‘liberty of the moderns’ into their society, they could have saved Socrates the gadfly whilst keeping their direct democracy.  The Athenians did not have the fortune of hindsight to be able to learn from our society, yet we have that fortune to learn from theirs. We might, unlike the Athenians, have a liberal tradition that allows for dissent, but the Athenians had a democratic tradition that was truly democratic, unlike ours.

We need to revamp our democratic model more in line with the liberty of the ancients to legitimate our government once more. Our representative democracy limits the people’s participation to term elections. We are distanced from decision making and therefore have little control over it. It is no wonder so many citizens feel apathetic toward the political process. And this apathy only leads to even less participation and a vicious cycle is set in motion.

Athens is a helpful model for us because its society embodied the  participatory democratic ethos which is so lacking in our own. Perhaps it’s impractical to think we’ll have an Athenian-like Assembly in our neighbourhood where we’ll all vote on the political issues that affect us every other Wednesday evening. However, watered-down versions of the Assembly have been in use for more than two centuries in the US in the form of town hall meetings, especially prevalent in New England. In the early twentieth century, the American Progressive Movement showed us a way to give the people more power within the framework of our representative system. The trio of initiative, referendum and recall was introduced, which gave political power to ordinary citizens. We have seen the continuation of that tradition today with referenda on such issues as gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana – but only half of the states allow referenda, and, among that half, referenda are used infrequently.

Using the paths already trodden by Athens in the 5th century BC and the US in the early twentieth century, we can strengthen the link between the government and the people today. If we can get control over our government once more, perhaps then the tricky role Edward Snowden played should no longer be necessary.

I’m not proposing any concrete plan to reform our government but rather a need to change our democratic mentality. What I wish to highlight is that, though some of us see the NSA as an affront to our liberties, we tend to overlook the more fundamental problem that must be solved first if we hope ever to stop the intrusion into our privacy – our lack of democracy.

The examples of how past societies had more direct links between their government and people can serve as helpful blueprints for our own. Socrates stood for the right of the individual to challenge and probe officials, to be able to go beyond the democratic consensus whilst still being deemed a legitimate citizen. We have learnt from his death: our society acknowledges the primacy of liberty. But we have only learnt half the lesson; we now need to learn from the democratic tradition that was in part responsible for putting Socrates to death. 

Unfortunately, the NSA seems to have been learning the wrong lessons. When Socrates said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living,’ perhaps the NSA thought that it should be doing all the examining. 

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