Ochlocracy, The Ancient Greek Concept That Explains Our World Today

Angry mob in Rome on Dec. 1
Angry mob in Rome on Dec. 1
Roger-Pol Droit


PARIS — Changes, disruptions, earthquakes ... We no longer know what word best describes the political events unfolding before our eyes. After former French president Nicolas Sarkozy lost in the conservative primaries, and current Socialist president François Hollande chose not to run, Matteo Renzi resigned as Italian prime minister, becoming the latest European leader to walk out the door. Add to that Britain's exit from the European Union, Donald Trump's victory in the U.S., and upcoming national elections in Germany, and you'll have an idea of just how much old landscapes are breaking apart.

These mutations reveal the volatility of voters, their exasperation and their lassitude. They show the growing influence of mood changes on political life to the detriment of rationality and long-term consequences. As a result, some fear that democracy is deteriorating under the pressure of populism. There's a word in ancient Greek to describe this phenomenon: ochlocracy. It's no longer used. And yet, it deserves to be brought back in fashion.

"Ochlos' refers to the mob in its chaotic, tumultuous, messy, unpredictable character, as opposed to "demos' the people. Democracy is the power of the people but it takes place within a legal framework people created for themselves. Decisions come from citizens who use logic to deliberate — they have to be educated and knowledgeable to have informed and reasonable opinions. On the other hand, when the crowd dominates, when public emotions reign, the system subsides.

Floating at the whim of popular fervency, carried away by the masses, democracy risks sinking from pressures. If that happens, if the crowd replaces the people, a different regime takes over. That regime is ochlocracy. This is what the ancient Greek historian Polybius theorized in book six of Histories, in which he attempted to sum up classic Greek political thought.

Few read Polybius nowadays. Yet he was, in his time, which was between 200 and 120 BC, a leading figure of Greek history. A general after Alexander's death, he was taken hostage by the Romans, before the statesman in him turned into a historian, diplomat and political theorist. Few texts have had as much importance over the centuries. His works profoundly influenced Cicero, but also Machiavelli and Rousseau, to name just a few important historical figures.

What we've mostly retained from Polybius, as the French philosopher Jean-Claude Milner reminds us in his most recent book Relire la révolution ("Rereading the revolution"), is his theory of a cyclical evolution of political regimes, according to which different political systems succeed one another, from monarchy to ochlocracy, as if the wheel of history spins indefinitely.

Let's leave aside this cyclical notion. Let's leave aside even the idea that the power of the mob corresponds to a distinct political regime. There's never been a clear and convincing example of what a real ochlocracy could be. But that by itself is not enough to rid ourselves of the question. It's this ancient idea that refers to the tensions that oppose, inside any democracy, the power by the people and the people itself. Demonstrations against decisions adopted in all democratic legality show that only too well.

There's an interminable debate about this question: Which is more legitimate? Is it the expression of anger, the crowds that demonstrate? Is it the representatives in parliaments and governments, the legislator and the executive? In other words, is democracy based on laws or might?

Without ever being entirely solved, this question is now transformed by social media, through the medium's immediacy and its viral nature. When we consider what's in store for Europe and other parts of the world in the foreseeable future, these debates will certainly continue. What distinguishes democracy and ochlocracy isn't a matter of academia. It's a question about the future.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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