Unprecedented? What can contemporary America learn from ancient Athens?

Though the ongoing economic crisis and the response to it are often described as "unprecedented" by commentators, politicians and economists alike, many of these very same individuals can be found drawing conclusions on the best way forward based on analyses of its historical precedents such as the Great Depression or the Panic of 1873. Enlarging the scope of one's historical frame of reference, however, reveals precedents that reach back to ancient times. Consider, for instance, J.B. Bury's History of Ancient Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great, published in 1900. The Irish historian describes the state of Athenian and Attic society in the midst of the crises that precipitated the Solonic reforms and the eventual foundation of ancient Athenian democracy:
Every year the oppressiveness of the rich few and the impoverishment of the small farmer were increasing. Without capital, and obliged to borrow money, the small proprietors mortgaged their lands, which fell into the hands of capitalists, who lent money at ruinous interest. . . . Even in Attica the small peasant could not cope with the larger proprietor. Thus the little farms of Attica were covered with stones, on which the mortgage bonds were written; the large estates grew apace; the black earth, as Solon said, was enslaved.

The condition of the free laborers was even more deplorable. The sixth part of the produce, which was their wage, no longer sufficed, under the new economical conditions, to support life, and they were forced into borrowing from their masters. The interest was high, the laws of debt were ruthless, and the person of the borrower was the pledge of repayment and forfeited to the lender in the case of inability to pay. The result was that the class of free laborers was being gradually transformed into a class of slaves, whom their lords could sell when they chose.

Thus while the wealthy few were becoming wealthier and greedier, the small proprietors were becoming landless and the landless freemen were becoming slaves. And the evil was aggravated by unjust judgments, and the perversion of law in favor of the rich and powerful. The social disease seemed likely to culminate in a political revolution. (Emphasis added, Chapter 4, Section 4, ca. pp. 180-181.)
Sound familiar? Effectively, this is the basic template for so many reports and analyses of our current economic and financial crisis. In the Financial Times, Edward Luce describes the "Crisis of Middle-Class America":

The slow economic strangulation of . . . middle-class Americans started long before the Great Recession, which merely exacerbated the “personal recession” that ordinary Americans had been suffering for years. Dubbed “median wage stagnation” by economists, the annual incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of US families have been essentially flat since 1973 – having risen by only 10 per cent in real terms over the past 37 years. That means most Americans have been treading water for more than a generation. Over the same period the incomes of the top 1 per cent have tripled. In 1973, chief executives were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now the ­multiple is above 300.

The trend has only been getting stronger. Most economists see the Great Stagnation as a structural problem – meaning it is immune to the business cycle. In the last expansion, which started in January 2002 and ended in December 2007, the median US household income dropped by $2,000 – the first ever instance where most Americans were worse off at the end of a cycle than at the start. Worse is that the long era of stagnating incomes has been accompanied by something profoundly un-American: declining income mobility.

At the Business Insider, Michael Snyder argues in a similar vein that the American middle class is being "systematically wiped out," and provides numerous statistics to back up his argument. Some excerpts:

The 22 statistics detailed here prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the middle class is being systematically wiped out of existence in America. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer at a staggering rate. Once upon a time, the United States had the largest and most prosperous middle class in the history of the world, but now that is changing at a blinding pace . . .

• 83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.
• 66 percent of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans.
• Over 1.4 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009, which represented a 32 percent increase over 2008.
• Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.
• For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together.
• As of 2007, the bottom 80 percent of American households held about 7% of the liquid financial assets.
• The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.
Even the partisans of the Democratic and Republican parties and the ruling political class have begun to call for a radical response to this social, political and economic crisis. Commentators Christian and Robbins at Investors Business Daily wonder if "Washington's failures will lead to a second American revolution":

People are asking, "Is the government doing us more harm than good? Should we change what it does and the way it does it?" Pruning the power of government begins with the imperial presidency. Too many overreaching laws give the president too much discretion to make too many open-ended rules controlling too many aspects of our lives. There's no end to the harm an out-of-control president can do.
As is typical of mainstream corporate media commentators such as Christian and Robbins, they fail to properly diagnose the problem because they are incapable of liberating themselves from the ideology of the imperial presidency they claim to oppose:

Bill Clinton lowered the culture, moral tone and strength of the nation — and left America vulnerable to attack. When it came, George W. Bush stood up for America, albeit sometimes clumsily. Barack Obama, however, has pulled off the ultimate switcheroo: He's diminishing America from within — so far, successfully. . . .

Opinion polls suggest that in the November mid-term elections, voters will replace the present Democratic majority in Congress with opposition Republicans — but that will not necessarily stop Obama.

This is the precise mentality that sustains the imperial presidency. It fails to account for the most pernicious effects of the global warfare and corporate welfare state, which is beloved by Democrats and Republicans alike; and it turns a blind eye to the irresponsibility of American voters who continue to place their trust in an ethically degenerate, morally and intellectually bankrupt ruling political class. Laughably, these commentators even seem to believe that the Republican Party is part of the solution rather than one-half of the problem that is the tyranny of an oligarchical two-party state and duopoly system of government.

Faced with a similar crisis, the great statesmen of ancient Athens devoted themselves to constitutional reforms that would empower the people over and against a parasitic ruling class and political oligarchy whose power was built on the destruction and enslavement of their social and political "inferiors." The eventual result, of course, was the invention of Athenian democracy, a founding pillar of western civilization. And us? What shall we do? Freedom and independence today begins with freedom and independence from the tyranny of the Democratic and Republican parties, from the ruling political class, the two-party state and duopoly system of government.

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