CEWG Essay Competition: The Ideal puzzle – can we put back together our pieces?

Some months ago, the Civic Education Working Group launched a competition for essays with the title: “What does the ideal political system look like?”.  Participants had to submit an essay over their ideal political system and then organise an activity within their local. The working group chose one winner, how had the possibility to win an Interrail ticket, but the ECWG chose also two honorable mentions: What if YOUth could shape Europe? by Antonis Triantafyllakis (AEGEE-Cluj-Napoca) and The Ideal puzzle – can we put back together our pieces? by Roberto Meneghetti (AEGEE-Torino). 

29663874_10215824836483189_325248706_nThe Ideal puzzle – can we put back together our pieces?

Author: Roberto Meneghetti, AEGEE-Torino. 

Since the dawn of Mankind, the problem of establishing an ideal form of government has been debated. Nowadays, with a diffuse Crisis, both economic and ideological, of our system, the question seems more relevant than ever. However, are we sure that “ideal” means good in practice? And is there an “ideal” form of government that can be found out throughout these days? To answer these questions, or at least, give it a try, it is useful to have a pretty quick (and simplified) trip through some previous attempts that have been tried in the history of Europe in order to attain an ideal state of government.

We will see that any time has produced its own “ideal governments” depending on different values and ideas of society.

I. Monarchism (…-1700s)

One of the most ancient form of government in a large and organized society is Monarchy, where the rule is centered into the hands of one. There are many kinds of Monarchies with different kinds of relationship with the whole society. Here we are concentrating on the feudal/absolute monarchies, ruling out any democratic environment, but all of them share a legitimacy coming from dynastic and divine rights. Beside the divine justifications, we find justifications for this kind of government as the one system to solve all the problems.

Even Machiavelli (1) in the XVI century, who favours ultimately a republican model (especially during his late years), recurs to the necessity of a sovereign because it acts and adapts faster to the rapid changes of the times. Hobbes (2), one century later, says a King is necessary to ensure order and stability in an otherwise chaotic society. Machiavelli was living during the late Renaissance, in which Italy was scrambled by wars and internal conflicts and Hobbes was writing right in the aftermaths of the English Civil War.

In their societies in which instability, strict social divisions, war, slavery, colonialism were considered the norm, this kind of reasoning as well appeared more acceptable and became an ideal through which manage a troublesome situation.

II. Liberalism (1600-1700)

During these centuries, various upheavals change the shape of the European society: a larger and larger share of the population attains an higher living standard, becoming a new social class: it is the so-called “bourgeoise”. With a new society come along new values: the new ideals are of individual self-realization, personal rights and property protection, which are the issues that the rising new class is facing in the hostile Monarchic environment.

Locke (3) theorizes that the humans possesses some innate rights, such the one to life, to freedom, to health, to property, the so-called natural rights. We are in the XVII century, where England is a forerunner in granting new rights to this uprising social class as a rising constitutional monarchy.

In the XVIII century, during the Enlightenment, the liberal thought takes full form: Kant (4, 5) introduces the concepts of universal laws, respecting the natural rights: the ideal man, and therefore the State is the one respecting those terms. Montesquieu (6) formalizes the concept of division of the three powers, necessary for a democratic environment. It is a period of prosperity for Germany, under the “King Philosopher” Frederick II and France was still enjoying the fruits of the colonial dominance under Louis XIV, but after his rule the general wealth was crippled by war debts and this will lead to explosive consequences: all these values are incorporated into the French revolution which will be the ultimate demand of individual rights against the monarchy. Sadly this surge of freedom rapidly degenerates into a regime of Terror, culminating with the rise of the Napoleonic Empire.

III. Authoritarianism (1815-1950)

After the French Revolution, the shape of Europe has changed and monarchies have lost their “appeal”: Napoleon crushed the whole continent, and the traces of the revolutionary thinking have remained. These previous upheavials have made many thinkers change their mind about the role of the State, going far beyond divine legitimacy or simple utilitaristic thinking. During the Romantic age, Hegel (7) among the others theorises a new role of the State: the monarch become the actor w history and defends the national identity. This reflects a period of reactionary restauration in which exstensive national/colonial empire arise. The concept of People and will be re-elaborated by Marx (8): the people is not a Nation, but a Class, the working class. The ideals of liberalism (during this period we find this word for the first time) continue to co-exist in contrast with the previous views and in the mean time and the democratic processes become achieved by the end of the 1800s, with the Industrial Revolution bringing fundamental technological breakthrough. It is a period of hope and this is reflected in the wave of Positivism, the belief that technology can and will save mankind. The theories of Darwin, thought for the animal kingdom, start to be applied to human society: the ideal becomes a system where the strongest survive and evolve, the weakest deserve to be excluded from the path of history. Thinkers like Spencer (9) include these ideals even in the framework of Liberalism.

However the faith in technology will have a sad epilogue: the Great War: after this tragic event, technology shows all its deadly potential at the service of an, up to that point, ideal mankind. But the 1929 breaks also the ideal of liberalism: freedom of individual has brought to a major economic crisis. Liberalism doesn’t pass the test.

We are again in a moment of confusion, upheavial, but now without strong monarchies, which have been mostly dissolved after the Great War. In this period new ideas arise: totalitarisms set their foot in the political scene, bringing the promise of a completely revolutionized society which, at the eyes of the, seem the ideal response to the weak and struggling liberal regimes. Nazifascist and Soviet dictatorships bring with themselves the ideas of Positivism in a new form: their ideal societies see a totally new kind of man, accurately crafted by the State, with precise requirements and qualities. This positivism yields its most nefarious product in the form of the concentration camps, where the scientific method and the ethics of maximum efficiency are put at the service of one of the darkest pages in the European history

IV. Social-democracy & Free-Market (1930-2000)

The crisis of the 1929 even though coming from the US, has struck heavily Europe. The liberal system, as we have seen, came into crisis. In those places where dictatorship didn’t become the new ideal, we witness anyway a shift in the ideal form of Government toward a more controlled one. The need of control emerges in a new way, which tries to get a compromise between the necessity of controlling an otherwise unstable system and on the other hand the protection of human rights and liberties. Keynes’ (10) theories about Welfare State and intervention in the economy are fundamental in this shift, that will change the ideal of State. After the Second World War, Europe is looking for peace and a new time of prosperity. The ideas of Keynes will be influential throughout this period of reconstruction and regrowth. In the ideal vision the State must no more simply grant the liberty of the individual. The ideal State is the so-called Welfare State, which grants to the individuals the right to realize their individual ambitions, by granting proper education and services and a suitable environment. This is a new concept of equality called “Equality of Autonomy”, as theorized by Sen(11).

In the meantime, there are many oppositions to this kind of reasoning: Friedmann (12) is one of the most prominent economist which supports a laisser-faire economy: one where the intervention of the State is minimal and finalized to the security issues. Reaganism and Thatcherism follow this path and lead to a gradual return to a non-interventionist view of the State.

Both this right and left-wing visions share the ideal of democratic representation as we know it and live into this framework. In this period of general prosperity, Fukuyama (13) prophetizes “the end of history” as conflict, with democracy as the permanent winner.

V. Ochlocracy v. Epistemocracy (2000-…)

In the recent times, also the form of democracy we have just outlined comes into crisis: socialdemocratic systems incur into debt crisis and free-market policies put the basis for the unregulated framework which will burst into the financial crisis of 2008. Both systems lost their credibility for their harsh consequences, leading to serious concerns about the democratic system as we know it. The consequence of this failures comes into the form a feeling of underrepresentation.

This feeling has originated movements bringing forward a new idea of democracy, exploiting the higher communicability given by the new recent technology: the direct democracy, which unlike the representative democracy which relies on elected representatives, gives to the common citizen a direct influence and decisional power into politics. Referenda and online voting/discussions have seen a great rise in recent times’ debates. European parties like Syriza, Podemos, Five Star Movement, the Pirate Party, advocated for the introduction of an edemocracy, based entirely on an online participation. Ultimately this need of “representing the voice of the people” has given birth to various movements, labled “populists” and a period in which referenda have been advocated as the ultimate resolutive tool, leading to events such as the Brexit and the Italian Governmental crisis of 2016.

One big critique to this ideal participated system is that giving so much decisional power into the hands of inexperienced individuals may lead to disastrous consequences, or as the ancient would call it with derogatory spirit, an “ochlocracy”: the government by the crowd. In this vision we insert the opposing school of thought, which as well criticizes the participation system of democracy, but at the opposite: it is too much. Thinkers like Taleb (14) and Brennan (15) have put forward a system in which only the competent people have the right to participate into the electoral process, it’s the so-called “epistemocracy”: the government by the culture. There are flaws in this thinking, too: beside the renouncement of the basic democratic values, it’s indeed really difficult to determine which is – and how to measure it – the optimal level of knowledge necessary to make a good voting decision.

One thing is for sure: the democratic system is facing once again a big upheaval and this will probably change it radically.

VI. Conclusion

We have seen many different systems, with many different ideals, which have significantly shaped our vision today. Many systems looked like reasonable because of the values of their time: slavery, colonialism, segregation, discrimination, the very use of violence were considered normal. The fear for the future made people change their mindset and their priorities. Nowadays the challenges are new and at the same time no different: in our period of crisis we must be really attentive to what our ideals are, as violence and intolerance are sadly returning to be tolerated and apologized, a process accelerated by the recent migrational crisis.

Ideal is then not a synonymous for good. At least, not necessarily. Therefore we have to think more than twice before stating that our system in our minds is the one which will solve all our problems. Democracy as we know it has many flaws, but has also granted us one of the longest periods of peace and prosperity in our history.

Do we really need to change it? Probably yes. But, do we really want to change it in a way that will run over our individual rights?

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15. Brennan, J 2006, Against Democracy, Princeton University Press