Athenian democracy was an effort to dislodge political power from the tangles of patronage. Athenians viewed dependence as virtual slavery, and created institutional structures to prevent indebtedness – real and symbolic. Many of these structures ensured rule by the demos in their various citizen assemblies.
But that did not, of course, mean the end of inequality. “The distribution of property in Athens was grossly unequal, even among the citizen body,” writes Paul Millett in an essay in PATRONAGE IN ANCIENT SOCIETY (Leicester-Nottingham Studies in Ancient Society, Volume 1) (37). To ensure that democracy would be functional, that the demos would be independent politically, they had to be made independent economically. And this mean redistribution:
Millett writes, “If Athens was unique in the intensity of the democracy and (possibly) in the low level of personal patronage, it also different sharply from other poleis in the size and frequency of transfers of cash to poor citizens.”
Aristotle thought that the Athenian system of “public pay” was one of the marks of advanced democratic governance. Is he right? Is redistribution of resources perhaps not a corruption of democracy but a prerequisite for it? The problem is not one of ancient history: If democracy requires redistribution and capitalism requires accumulation of private resources, is “democratic capitalism” a coherent concept? Or, we could ask: Can a political system that values equality thrive in an economy founded on debt?
Put it this way: Athenian democracy was able to demolish the corrupting webs of personal patronage by making the polis the universal patron and turning all citizens into clients of the state. If democracy has an internal pressure toward redistribution, and we don’t like redistribution, what is the alternative? Perhaps something more Roman or medieval, perhaps a system that includes zones of personal patronage or, perhaps, a system patterned by subsidiarity.