The legend of the people and of the Proetheus

By Sener Akturk

It is true that many politicians and political scientists alike think of the people as a pool of political resources. A politician resorts to the people only when he/she is in need of political or economic power in the form of votes and/or fund raising. In this political elitist discourse, politically active and powerful people make up a magic Mount Olympus over and above their constituency. People dwell in the low plains of the land, not having any power over what’s going on in Mount Olympus and the demi-gods of Mount Olympus, the political elite, confer and delegate power on each other, converse and discuss issues of social and political concern, and make the decisions that will influence the lives of millions — or even billions (if you live in China or India) — of people. In this story, people are the passive and ineffectual object of political decisions, not their propeller. The propeller, the active decision-making, and the eternal power-holding sovereign are inhabitants of the Mount Olympus, a political elite.

There are many stories that many people of different political conviction have to tell about Mount Olympus and the dwellers of the lower lands. I will outline only three main stories, from which I believe the rest emanate.

The first story is the story of a happy and powerful few. In this story, the way in which the gods of Mount Olympus undertake political affairs is perfectly fine. The narrator, who calls himself a Socrates, an Aristotle, an Edmund Burke, a Catherine the Great, a Disraeli, or a “democrat with reservations,” maybe a Dixiecrat at different times, believes that the best outcome for the people will emerge through the conversation, discussion and creative tension that exists among the political elite. The people who are the subject of the policies that are decided upon through this conversation, however, are excluded from the very conversation through which their fate is determined. Sovereignty lies with Mount Olympus. A more skeptical advocate of this gloomy picture agrees that the picture is gloomy and unjust for the people but the skeptic-yet-advocate also asserts that even if you try to rectify the situation by delegating power to the people, the invisible hand and the ominous forces of nature will produce a Mount Olympus. In summary, political gods chill out in Mount Olympus, and the outcome of their chilling out is the best that the people can expect.

The second story is told by a group of discontented modern revolutionaries. The narrator calls himself an Oliver Cromwell, a George Washington, a Robespierre, a Lenin or a Trotsky, a Nasser or a Sukarno, and usually wears a military uniform, surrounded with bureaucrats and technocrats, as well as the people, some of whom are willing to support him, but most of whom pretend to do so. Their story originates from the ancient Greek story of Prometheus. In their story, a courageous and a self-righteous elite individual like Prometheus, or a group of elites like Jacobins, Bolsheviks or Free Officers, “steal” the torch of freedom, Equality, and justice from Mount Olympus and give it to the people. Implicit in this story is the assumption that the torch of freedom, equality and justice belongs to Mount Olympus originally and also, it is the self-righteousness, the self-generated power of a single elite individual that makes the process of “people’s liberation” possible. The people, who dwell in the low lands, are still the passive and the receiving object of a political action that is undertaken by an elite. The advocates of this story are the segments of the elite who are interested in social engineering. As their slogan suggests, they believe in doing “the right thing for the people and in spite of the people.” They don’t believe in democracy, because they think the people don’t have the iron-and-steel virtue to bring together the electoral power to change the world on their behalf. Some self-righteous military officer or a radical student should come up and “give them justice and equality.”

The third story is the legend of the people. The narrator in this case speaks for the popular chorus that he/she represents. He calls himself a Salvador Allende, a Jean-Paul Sartre, or an Andre Malraux. He believes in democracy and the free will of the masses. He also believes, as a matter of fact, that the power that really makes a difference in Mount Olympus has to originate from and come back to the people. In this case, a political man, who happens to be in the Mount Olympus of politics by virtue of his occupation, not of his socio-economic status, understands that the torch of freedom, equality, and justice has to be ignited by the people; there is no such torch in the Mount Olympus. So he descends to the people among which he feels himself a lot better than among the political gods of Mount Olympus. Through the coordinated effort, willingness, and cooperation of the people, he synthesizes the eternal light and fire to which all the people consent to, and together with the people, and he marches to Mount Olympus, wakes up the supposed gods of Mount Olympus from their pretentious dream, and tells them to start living and thinking like the folks, through the folks, for the folks. People, having written the constitution that they want to be governed through having passed the resolutions and dictated policies that they want to be implemented, go back to their dwelling places to sleep, only to come back up to Mount Olympus the next morning. This is the legend of the people. (Dedicated to the memory of Salvador Allende, a politician who believed in the double virtues of socialism and democracy and became the first democratically elected socialist-Marxist in the American continent amidst the deceptive atmosphere of the Cold War, only to be overthrown and assassinated by the CIA, just like the Mossadeq of Iran or Sukarno of Indonesia.)