Posted by: Chris | June 9, 2010

Plato, Illiberal Democracy, and the Mavi Marmara

I know the Lure has generally avoided doing something so base as discussing current events like the whole Mavi Marmara debacle, but I think the swathe of discussions that the attack kicked up have been revealing with respect to the capacity of popularly elected and supported governments for illiberal actions.  Andrew has been making a big deal about how thoroughly the Israeli public supports the IDF’s decisions (despite cries from some corners that the incident presages a descent toward fascism/despotism).  Relatedly, The Wall Street Journal has a great overview of the major shifts in Turkish politics, (the correlated flourishing democracy, Islamism, and anti-Americanism) that lurk behind the launching of the pro-Hamas flotilla.  Of course, we should not forget that Hamas itself rules Gaza by popular decree not military fiat and would legitimately control the West Bank as well if they had been forcibly removed.

The common assumption is that liberalism and democracy are co-dependant.  The world’s people all want liberal, peaceful, and benevolent governments, democracy gives voice to these assumedly universal desires and, these ideal governments flourish.  Any illiberal or anti-Western regimes must then be necessarily considered despotic, no matter the evidence (as Razib Khan aptly demonstrates with respect to Pakistan and hosts of anti-Zionists do with respect to Israel).  This dissonance seems to me to stem from what Geuss might call a Platonic worldview: that the ideal system of selecting governments harmonizes perfectly with the ideal approach to governing.*  Thus the approach to chosing rulers that is fairest to the ruled also produces the fairest rulers for both the domestic public and neighboring regimes.  Every liberal democrat gets their cake and eats it too.

That states have different goals that are often in conflict and put strain on their relationships has been the status quo understanding in international relations for many years.  I wonder why the Platonic ideals are more firmly planted in the realm of comparative politics (and why they have been leaking more and more into popular representations of IR).  Those interested in a more Thucydidean take on the Israeli situation in the wake of the Mari Marmara could do far worse than either Walter Russel Mead and Ross Douthat.

*Let’s put aside that Plato thought of neither liberalism nor democracy as ideal.



  1. Obviously the fact that a set of attitudes / background assumptions that rationalize liberalism also rationalize other theories of the State does not call into question the appropriateness of terming those attitudes the “Platonic worldview.” It might well be that what has been most influential about Plato’s thought is its attitude towards humanity’s general relationship to the world. That is: his optimism about our ability to know things, the usefulness of knowledge, and the harmony between what we want, what is good for each of us, and what is good for us all.

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