Monday, October 31, 2005

Opulent Wealth alongside Blissful Ignorance of the Capitalist Illusion

In a discussion of the future of the city they have just created, Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus turn to a discussion of the future of the city. In this city, Socrates claims, the current guardians that they have chosen will eventually have to choose new leaders, and it is in this choice that the evolution of the city will happen. As new guardians are chosen for the city, the fundamental nature of the city and its rulers will change, in an inevitable cycle of five regimes. The cycle includes five regimes beginning with aristocracy, the government of the noble and selfless guardians, turning into timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. This cycle is an inevitable and self-fulfilling prophecy, and to prove its validity we can apply it to the situation of the United States of America.
The United States is a city just like the republic outlined by the party-goers in Plato’s Republic; however, we cannot apply a cookie-cutter label to our governing system as defined by the five regimes, because elements from all five of these types of governments accurately apply to our own government. Additionally, our country goes through cycles, or fluctuations in different aspects of a citizen’s life and the country’s political system in which a different regime more effectively describes us at each particular time. In our current situation, the regime that most closely describes us is the system of oligarchic ruling, in which the desire for satisfying the necessary appetites through money is the motivation for our rulers.
Defining our country as one of Socrates’ oligarchies is not a radical or new statement: it has been widely recognized throughout the history of our nation that the role of wealth is a big one in our governing. When examining our rulers, we see that the great majority of these men all have similar backgrounds of inherited socioeconomic privilege that cause them to have the views and the policies that they institute. Society as a whole has come to recognize and enforce the idea that wealthy men make the best leaders. This is a primary characteristic of the oligarchy that Socrates describes: “Instead of men who love victory and honor, they finally become lovers of money-making and money; and they praise and admire the wealthy man and bring him to the ruling offices, while they dishonor the poor man.” (551a).
However, it is not just the corresponding leader of the oligarchy, who values money-making highly, who reinforces the governing system of oligarchy. It is the governed people, who, in an oligarchic system, have a value system based on money, not on virtue or honor. The consumerist and money-making culture that is pervasive in our society today is evidence of our being most closely related to an oligarchy: with the message that making money is the most important thing you can do in life, the citizens are trained to believe that those who possess the greatest accumulation of wealth, even if they didn’t earn it themselves, are the most successful people, and therefore the best leaders. As a society, we must strive to be aware of who we admire and praise as good leaders, because it is not always true that the wealthiest people make the best leaders, as is illustrated in this exchange between Socrates and Adeimantus including this reference to the ship of state: “… ‘if a man were to choose pilots of ships in that way, on the basis of property assessments- and wouldn’t entrust one to a poor man, even if he were a more skilled pilot-’ ‘they would make poor sailing,’ he said.”(551c)
One of the faults of the oligarchy that is mentioned by Socrates is the existence of a dual-natured city: on one face there is the city of wealthy leaders who highly value money and feel threatened by the poorer classes of society, and on the other face of the city there is the lower class of people who do not have a lot of money, and therefore no say in the governing of the city. The discontentment and hate that comes from the poor and is directed towards the wealthy establishment of government in the city can be a cause for much instability and problems for a successful ruling of the country. Additionally, the mistrust that the wealthy has of the poor, because they know that the poor are jealous of their position as governors and property owners, is a harmful force for the overall health of the nation. An example of this in the United States is the ever-widening wealth gap that shows the largest consolidation of wealth in the hands of certain individuals that has ever occurred in the history of our country, while the number of Americans that cannot pay for basic necessities expands every year. Situations such as union protesters becoming violent and murdering a factory owner, or a wealthy capitalist building into his large estate a complicated security system with guard dogs and armed guards show the existence of these two cities, and the forces that drive them.
In conclusion, the United States is most accurately described by Socrates’ five types of government and leader as an oligarchy. This is because of the high priority that we assign to money in terms of our culture, and in choosing our leaders. An election these days is simply a money contest: whichever candidate can personally spend or raise more money in order to convince the ruled classes to vote for him will win the position in public office that they desire. The poor have little to do in the whole process other than being persuaded to cast their vote one way or another, but nonetheless still for a wealthy candidate. Moving through this state in the history of our country, next we are scheduled to become a true democracy, which is not a pleasant place at all. In this democracy, the free will of the people will be exercised as everyone has complete “freedom” and even the skewered version of law and order that we now reap the benefits from in this country will shrivel up and cease to exist, leaving every citizen helpless and fending for themselves.

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