Books

The Craziness of “-cracy”: A Literary Guide to Governments in 25 Books

The suffix “-cracy” comes to us from the medieval French word “cratie,” and it refers to a form of government or rule. Those who live in America have grown up pledging allegiance to “the democracy” represented by the flag, and may have assumed that the USA was a democracy.

But in the current political climate, words like “kakistocracy” (rule by the worst), “kleptocracy” (rule by thieves), “gerontocracy” (rule by old men), “albinocracy” (rule by white people) and “infantocracy” (rule by an infant) have come into parlance. Trying to get a handle on what a government is supposed to look like in the midst of the current “adhocracy” is difficult.

As an historian by training, whenever the present is mired in chaos, I remember that chaos is constant, and that some historical perspective is my friend. In this case, returning ad fontes — to some of the philosophical sources that have been used to structure government has provided me with a frame within which to view news analysis of the current discussions.

For the west, the Greek philosopher Aristotle examined politics most closely. In the east, the source of political thought was Confucius.

Confucius advocated for “meritocracy,” that is, rule by the best qualified. The purpose of government was to allow people to live their best moral lives. In China, those entering the government take a series of difficult tests in order to prove their merit to be a part of government.

Aristotle examined three fundamental forms of government: rule by the one, rule by the few, and rule by the many. He then examined the “positive” form of these governments: kingship, aristocracy, and polity. He then examined the “worst” forms of these three: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. In each instance, the good form could deteriorate into its worst form, so that a noble king might turn into a mad tyrant, while a successful polity (republic) could be taken over by the mob (democracy).

Here is a reading list that includes some of these fundamental texts. (This is nowhere near an exhaustive list.) Where possible, I have provided examples of each of these forms of government with commentary provided both by experts and novelists, who sometimes provide us with resonance in seeking to understand the past.