Carles Companys – Universitat de Barcelona professor – 31/12/2019
We should hold a referendum. We should vote. It is the old populist mantra that few dare to refute for fear of being labeled anti-democratic, this insult so up-to-date. But confusing referenda with democracy shows a deep democratic lack of culture. “Let the people decide” is the resource of politicians who have already been chosen by the people but who have not been able to do their job: to make the best decisions. Referenda have never been a signal of democratic health, and they are a common weapon of dictators. Franco called two of them to launder two radically undemocratic laws. One of the main reasons for democracy is to prevent a caudillo or a 51% majority from changing the rules of play in their favor. This has made our democracy stable: requiring broad consensus on structural changes and avoiding referenda to solve too technical problems.
But there is an even worse idea than a referendum: an illegal referendum. I will tell the story of how an illegal vote struck the Greek democracy 2425 years ago. In 406 B.C. the fleet of Athens waged a battle against the Spartans on the Arginus Islands, against present-day Turkey. Between the combat and the climatic conditions, twenty of their ships were wrecked. The storm made it impossible for the survivors to succumb, and the 8 Athenian generals (strategists) had no choice but to take refuge in the same port as their enemy; that is to say, to face a final battle at the same time as they resigned to recover the bodies of their five thousand shipwrecks.
The battle was won, but the tragedy in Athens caused great pain among the families of the shipwrecks and a popular movement led by Calixeno who blamed the strategists for the abandonment. Although the competent body, the Council, judged that the decision had been prudent and excused them, it was only on the streets that those who demanded a re-trial by the Assembly were heard, despite knowing that this was contrary to the legality. Many members of the Assembly joined in this desire for parallel and immediate ‘justice’.
The grief over the loss of so many lives was so widespread in Athens that no one dared to condemn a second trial contrary to the law. Sorry, somebody. Although the council was made up of randomly elected citizens, Xenofont wrote down the rare historical chance that one of them turned out to be Socrates. He was the only one who upheld the legal trial and denied the Assembly’s jurisdiction to judge strategists, despite threats he could end up like them. It was useless.
The Assembly decreed the death penalty for all eight generals in a casting vote. Shortly after his execution, the Athenians realized that they had lost their eight best strategists and that no one could defend against Sparta. Calixeno and the other promoters of the assembly trial were then persecuted, but it was too late. Two years after the dramatic Athenian victory at Arginus, the city surrendered to the Spartans, its walls were demolished, and the Peloponnesian war came to an end. Athenian democracy succumbed to its own populism.
The events were so significant that they reached us in various ways, including Xenofont’s detailed account. Perhaps because of these events and their storytellers, in the West today we live in representative democracies and know that democracy is much more than voting. Except for our Calixenos (to which my pseudonym refers with little dissimulation), we almost all know that respect for the legality of voting must prevail, and that no democracy has the right to vote against the law. And that is why, when Podemos, the independence movement, or Vox want to impose a referendum on us, not on the basis of legality or a congressional decision, but on the basis of ‘popular feeling’, or alleged ‘fundamental rights’ we should remember this story from which our imperfect democracy emanates.
Our politicians should also remember that the populist Calixeno, who fled before being tried, ended up returning to Athens after an amnesty, but died of starvation, despised by his fellow citizens.