Growing economic inequality is fueling controversy over what this disparity means for the world’s future. Twenty-five-hundred years ago, the Athenians, founders of the first large-scale democracy, were asking themselves similar questions. Does our common good require us to share wealth with one another? Is that the remedy for engaging the mass of nonelite citizens on whose communal spirit a democratic society depends?
Athens didn’t have a clear answer to these issues. But the public debate that took place in ancient Athens over what to do about inequity brought new voices into the conversation, showing how critical diverse perspectives are for addressing pressing challenges while preserving democratic governance.
The Athenians invented democratic government in the 500s B.C. In their direct democracy, male citizens gathered in assembly meetings of some 6,000 to decide public policy by majority vote. Under this system, Athens became rich through overseas international trade protected by its powerful navy, the largest in the Greek world.
This fleet required tens of thousands of nonelite citizens willing to risk their lives by rowing their warships to ram enemy vessels. A healthy population of nonelite Athenians, joined by immigrants and slaves, was also essential to provide day laborers to load, unload and transport the enormous quantities of goods flowing in and out of Athens’ thriving ports.
But then the Peloponnesian War at the end of the 400s — 27 years of expensive and bloody conflict with the Spartans ending in a disastrous surrender — drained Athens’s prosperity and population. Things got still worse for the Athenians in the following decade, when the super-rich Persian empire centered in Iran began to extend its power westward into the Athenians’ trading orbit.
Many of the rich in Athens were able to maintain at least a modicum of their well-financed lifestyles because they owned productive farms and hordes of coins that could keep them afloat even when trading ventures became more precarious. However, the great majority, who had little or no property and savings, lacked any such financial safety valve.
It was in this tense atmosphere that the playwright Aristophanes presented the comedy “Congresswomen,” a raucous and radical reimagining of how sharing wealth could transform Athenian society. Comedies with fantastic plots were popular entertainment in Athens. Financed with public funds and presented to audiences of 10,000 to 15,000 people, they frequently engaged contemporary political issues. In “Congresswomen,” Athenian women, who lacked voting rights, disguise themselves as men so they can sneak into a meeting of the legislative assembly and successfully vote in reform that puts women in charge.
This all-female government then installs a new economic policy to save Athens from its troubles, which women say — and this translation barely does justice to their outrage — “men caused by their political squabbling, blatant corruption, and running the government as if they were drunk out of their minds.” The women mandate total equality. Everything from money to sex is shared because sharing for the common good is what democracy needs.
The men are persuaded by visions of free meals and free sex, and everyone contributes their property to be distributed for everyone to share. In the end, however, the experiment perpetuates economic inequality because enslaved immigrants will be forced to do all the labor that provides the citizens’ delights.
There never was an actual proposal for economic communalism in Athens. But the play’s theme reflected the Athenians’ genuine worry about how economic inequality undermines social harmony.
As things continued to worsen for Athens, even the conservative political commentator and macho adventurer Xenophon advocated increased immigration and new investment in infrastructure, both to increase opportunities for trade and to boost the shared national income derived from mineral rights. Under Athenian law, profits derived from underground natural resources belonged to the population at large rather than to those who owned the land. The voters decided what to do with the money — they could either distribute it among themselves or use it to finance projects helping the community as a whole.
In fact, it was a decision to turn wealth into a project for the public good that had made Athens’s political and economic success possible. A century earlier, after the discovery of extensive veins of silver in Athens, the voters decided to use this huge windfall to finance the construction of a new fleet instead of taking individual shares of the cash.
This decision in favor of sharing for the common good not only helped the Athenians repulse Persian attacks (the “Persian Wars” of 490 to 479), it also made possible their rise to prominence and prosperity on an international scale.
Ultimately, however, the Athenians could not agree on productive ways to share national wealth in the decades following the production of “Congresswomen.” This political failure undermined their democratic experiment and contributed to the defeat by Philip II and Alexander the Great that ended Athens’s greatness.
The writers of the U.S. Constitution nevertheless remembered what they interpreted as the negative influence of “mob rule” at Athens, fearing that in a direct democracy, economic inequality would prompt the majority of poor voters to enact policies confiscating the wealth of the rich. Bluntly stating their belief in the inevitability of such a catastrophe in an Athenian-style system, John Adams and James Madison insisted on creating a representative government designed to prevent the many from destroying what these founders regarded as the sacredness of private property.
In U.S. democracy today, the most controversial proposals about economic inequality are the “wealth tax” plans of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren. Both look to the past. Ocasio-Cortez’s plan resurrects a marginal income tax rate like that prevailing in this country for decades in the 20th century. Warren’s plan also includes a legacy: a levy on the holdings of the rich that recalls a proposal made by Donald Trump 20 years ago.
Of course, neither Ocasio-Cortez nor Warren is proposing anything like the revolutionary plan created by Aristophanes’s congresswomen. But both fit the role played by women in “Congresswomen,” providing new voices and fresh perspectives on how to solve a growing problem. Their solutions also bring them in line with the Athenian women in the play by both preserving traditions and devising innovations, all meant to serve the common good — a social goal also advocated by the self-consciously masculine Xenophon.
The past so outrageously yet so desperately portrayed in “Congresswomen” seems not past at all. Neither is the fundamental message underlying that ancient fantasy: Listening to those who haven’t previously been listened to is one good way to begin figuring out how to make things better for everyone, a process that somehow needs to include sharing for the common good, as Aristophanes’s congresswomen insisted.